The Art of Forgiveness and Friendship

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I would like to start this journey with a quote by Ritu Ghadourey about forgiving others for hurtful actions: A broken friendship that is mended through forgiveness can be even stronger than it once was. 

As I entered the US for the first time since 2015, I noticed right away how deeply divided the country was (and still is)- more so than when Barack Obama was president. The first impression of this was how the media was involving itself. Once toted as the main source of information to allow us to think about the events, talk about it and even take action, America’s media today  is making the decisions for us, without even allowing us to think of the reasons for the actions taken by President Trump, his members of the Oval Office and the special investigations councillor Robert Mueller, who is trying to dig dirt and undermine the president. With each character coming on screen to muckrake on both sides, one has to wonder if this is just another Hollywood film that is screaming to be booed and jeered. And with each repetitive claim by the president that there was no collusion between him and Russian president Vladimir Putin, how many times will he say it (even when jumping up and down on the trampoline) until we all figure out that he’s indeed a liar and a crook.

We do know however, that despite my detestation of watching Trump and all his cronies on TV while having breakfast, we do have one variant that is working against us: With each action committed on both sides of the aisle, regardless of hate crimes, bashing media outlets, making false statements and the like, we are hurting ourselves and others, to a point where we may never talk to our neighbors, friends and family members ever again. Our belief in the media is deceiving ouselves and not allowing us time to think about the issues at hand.  And our actions towards others is making it difficult for us to come to terms with the people we hurt the most.

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Inspite of this however, I learned most recently that even the most painful actions done onto others can be forgiven, if one is willing to reach out and ask for it. In some cases, it can forge friendships that are better than the last one. I have a couple examples which show that forgiveness can be sought and new friendships created.

A few months ago, a friend of mine from Arizona, named Calvin, was approached by a former high school classmate named Jared after a 20+ year absence. Both of them were playing American football at a high school in Tucson; yet Calvin, who was too skinny to play lineman, was bullied by Jared and several other players, who were three times his size and thought he was gay.  One day, Jared had the cheek to pee in Calvin’s sports locker. Upset that he was being treated unfairly and was not getting enough support by the coaches, Calvin quit the team and eventually changed schools, where he ran in cross country and excelled in fine arts in Casa Grande, graduating with honors and eventually moving onto college at the University of Minnesota and later into teaching in Osnabrück in Germany.  We met while I was an exchange student and we shared some stories of our time playing football in high school. We both hated the sport as we were “bench-warmers,” which was equally as degrading as being bullied. Jared reached out to him one day in May after Calvin wrote of his experiences of being bullied on facebook, in response to an increase of cyberbullying at his former high school in Tucson. Jared was principal there and had to sit a person, who was robbing others of lunch money down, and tell him what he did to Calvin. He looked him up and reconnected. Then after reading his article posted on facebook, Jared wrote a long letter of apology to Calvin explaining that his lack of self-confidence was the catalyst to doing what he did to him. In response to the letter, Calvin forgave him, explaining that what was done was wrong but it’s nothing compared to what is going on in the present. 

In the present means the days of social networking, cyberbullying, grooming, happy-slapping and the like. Let’s put it this way, as much as I was bullied in high school 25 years ago, I was thankful that the internet did not exist in its present-day form. Otherwise, …….

Calvin’s suggestion to Jared was the same as offering a good starting point: “Together, we can set examples for other kids to understand that what is being done to others, even online, is wrong and not tolerated.”  In other words, the willingness to make peace and work together to ensure that no one else gets bullied  were two giant steps to forging a good friendship and they have since been on good terms. 

Yet sometimes people can hurt each other to a point where they basically break off all ties, even if one was unaware of the actions committed. Sometimes such actions can be the result of the “My way is the highway” mentality. Others have to do with cultural and personal differences between the two people. Normally when ties are cut like that, then it is too late and even impossible to make amends.

That is unless one of them reaches out to ask for peace. This happened to another friend in Kiel, a while back and to this day, he’s figuring out the reason why and finding ways to reforge a friendship with this girl. Her name was Karin and she and Nick were attending college in Berlin in 2014. She was a very nice girl, as Nick described her- a deeply devoted Christian, kind but had that magic that got Nick interested. They had been working together on a project when they suddenly “butted heads” during a dance at one of the assembly halls.  How this happened was not explained but attempts to reconcile even online failed, and they broke off all contact after the project was finished, but not before havig hurt each other verbally, resulting in after-effects that were lasting for months after the break-off. Nick was moving on with his life when Karin suddenly re-appeared on his facebook page, offering peace to him. In response, Nick replied that under the conditions that we’d meet and talk about it would that be considered. Two hours of deep conversations brought forth forgiveness and establishing the building blocks for a restart, despite them having partners and full-time jobs.  Yet this example came with a lot of strings attached, which was the fact that she was not ready to be friends just yet; she needed time as the healer though they are still communcating to this day but not on facebook. Nick is hoping that it will happen someday as it would give them a chance to chat online about their jobs and families and just be friends. Let’s hope that their road to friendship is a smooth one there.

But looking at both examples, one has to ask ourselves how much damage has the United States done to its people and ts allies. The country has alienated its long-time allies of Europe and Canada and embraced Russia, Saudi Arabia and North Korea, although with the third example one can agree with re-establishing ties with Kim to a certain degree. The US has alienated its own people while our president is watching families and friends fight over politics, like it was a wrestling match. And even the media outlets are equally bad with each one having their own “Mean” Gene Okerlund and their sets of wrestlers trash-talking to the audience. No wonder why we have a combination of George Orwell’s 1984 and the Spanish Civil War all at once, when American society is conditioned to think one way or another. To sum up the situation, we’re living in a society where the media has control of the lives of Americans, and Americans can choose who to befriend and who to dump, based on which political alliance they are in, thus polarizing ourselves, our friends, family members and our neighboring countries. A sad devlopment and one that could destroy the fabric of democracy should the trend continue.

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Stern Magazine

Yet inspite of all this, I have learned to separate politics from friendships and family to avoid any inner-strife. But most importantly, to forgive others for their mistakes. Yet it will be a difficult drive to make amends with the  people we hurt the most. While some allies like Canada and Great Britain will be ready to forgive right away,  others like France and Germany will be even more difficult because of the damage inflicted already. But the most difficult will be the ability to trust each other and be willing to work together. That includes rebuilding the trust between the government, the media and the people. I guess it is similar to the example with Karin and Nick. If one person offers peace then it is because the other has the characteristics that is liked (and blessed in Christian terms) and that the person wants to reforge a better relationship than before so that they can work out the bigger problems they are facing. And we have more than enough to go around.

After the third day of listening to politics at a hotel in Pittsburgh, I decided to tune it out because it was a waste of time and energy. I decided that if people want to know more about our situation in Europe in comparison with the US that we would be truthful about it, but ensure that we are not enforcing our opinions onto them but to get them to understand the situation from a neutral person’s point of view.  At the same time, however, I’m taking an advice that was based on the stories that I just presented with Jared and Calvin on one end, but also with Nick and Karin on the other. If we hurt the ones that care for us, regardless of difference and opinion, we apologize and forgive. Forgiveness is free and can forge better friendships than in the past.  And this is what is needed in this day and age as we have bigger issues to handle and little time left to get them done.

And with that comes a pair of quotes to end this topic on how to reforge a friendship through forgiveness:

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Forgiveness is the best form of love. It takes a strong person to say sorry, yet it takes a stronger person to forgive. 

 

Fl Fi USA

 

 

Disclaimer: While these two examples are true stories, for the purpose of protecting their identities, the names of the people mentioned as well as the places where the stories took place have been altered. 

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Wir Schaffen Das: How the Christian Democrats Have Made German History

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A couple years ago, I had a political discussion with another expatriate residing in Germany about Angela Merkel’s willingness to open the gates of Germany to refugees fleeing the regions of Syria, Iraq and North Africa- areas that were decimated by war- just so they can start a new life in a different place, where they can be peaceful and not have to worry about war. A couple days ago, after having posted my preview of the German elections, where Angela Merkel is making a quest to run for her fourth term (and break Helmut Kohl’s record in the process), that same person asked me if her policies of allowing refugees into Germany have done the country good or not, especially with the social and cultural problems that they may have, which were his reasons for opposing opening the gates. We all remember her comments in an interview with Anne Will that has carried a lot of weight around Berlin:

and this in addition to her persuasion of her counterparts to not be afraid of the refugees but to help them…..

But in order to answer that person’s questions, I’m going to take the Taylor Mali approach and give it to him with a little history- not about her or the refugees, but about her party, the Christian Democrats and their slogan “Wir schaffen es!”

Since the creation of the Bundesrepublik in 1949, the CDU has had a chancellor ruling Germany for 48 of the 68 years of its existence. Of which, if we count Merkel in the mix, three different politicians have ruled the country for 42 of the 48 years!  Before Merkel, the previous CDU chancellors had been the late Helmut Kohl, who ruled from 1982 until his defeat in the hands of Gerhardt Schroeder in 1998. The first chancellor of Germany, Konrad Adenauer, ruled what was then West Germany from 1949 until his resignation in 1963. He died four years later at the age of 91, having won the Award for eldest statesman to ever govern a country.  The secret to the successes of the CDU under these three people had been until now made their promises of “Wir schaffen das!” (translated bluntly as We Can Do This) realized through calculated risk-taking, realizing the consequences of these actions and providing a buffer zone between external factors on one hand and Berlin and the rest of the country on the other. It is like the game of chess- the situation is presented on the chessboard, and it is up to the politicians to take the risk that will produce the maximum result to their favor, while figuring in the possible consequences that could happen. Of course any foolhardy move could be fatal, as we are seeing with many far-right politicians in eastern Europe, Turkey, North Korea, the UK and even the US. But each chancellor has had their longest chess game during their time in office; each of which has its own theme. Let’s have a look at each legend’s ability of making it work and bringing Germany to fame.

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Konrad Adenauer (1949-1963) Photo courtesy of the German Archives (Bundesarchiv)

“Wir schaffen das allein!”

When Adenauer took office on 15 September 1949, Germany was still in recovery mode after having been in shambles because of World War II and was all alone with the European countries and the US all hesitant in building any relations with the country. Furthermore, Germany was already split between the democratic western half that had been occupied by the Americans, British and French and the eastern half that was controlled by the Soviets. While Germany was considered a chessboard between communism and democracy, Adenauer began to redevelop the country economically, thus making it the economic miracle and later the powerhouse of western Europe with one of the lowest unemployment rates in history (averaging around 2%). The population got jobs and could spend money on new items, including the TV and modern furniture. His policies were based on liberalism and thus showed Germany’s willingness to ally with the US, Britain and other western countries, thus making the country’s integration into the United Nations, NATO and the European Economic Community easier to achieve. His mentality of “Wir schaffen das allein” (we will do it alone) had to do with the fact that Germany’s metamorphisis from a state in shambles to an economic miracle with a modernized socio-economic infrastructure and westernized institutions with policies that are based on conservatism and no experimenting with anything that is new and foreign. Even the elections of 1957, which he won his third term in office, his campaign slogan of “No Experiments!” won overwhelming support because of three factors that led Adenauer to win the hearts and minds of the German population: 1. The reestablishment of relations with neighboring France which used to be the country’s archenemy. With that came the reintegration of the Saarland and the recognition of minorities on both sides of the border. 2. Despite having zero interest in reuniting with East Germany or even having contact with the communist regimes, Adenauer made  agreements with the Soviets to release as many as 10,000 Germans who were prisoners of war, so that they could return home.  That combined with encouraging immigration from parts of the Middle East and Asia to fill in the gaps left behind by the fallen soldiers contributed to Germany’s success as a country as a norm. And thirdly, the people followed Adenauer’s policies because they enabled them to restart their lives again and not allow for external influences and military conflicts to rule and ruin their lives again. If it meant integrating people from outside willing to work in the country- making them open-minded- make it so.  Adenauer’s idea was in order to make the country a powerhouse again, it must work to restore its identity while mending ties with and reassuring other countries that it is different than the Germany under Hitler: It was not power-greedy but a democratic country willing to cooperate for similar causes. Anything that is fattening or potentially risky- anything that does not match Adenauer’s vision of Germany- was simply left behind. This was the reason why Adenauer went with his slogan West Germany first, then we’ll talk about the East. His hard-line policies against Communism combined with his willingness to grow together with other countries made him the most influential politician of modern German history.

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Helmut Kohl (1982- 1998)           Archiv für Christlich-Demokratische Politik (ACDP)

“Wir Schaffen das Miteinander:”

If there was one description that would best fit Helmut Kohl, the chancellor who came into power after the fall of Helmut Schmidt in 1982, it would be that he was the Face of Europe, not just a Unified Germany but simply a Unified Europe. While Kohl was perceived as folksy in terms of his appearance and manner, his ability to be eye-to-eye and down-to-earth with many of his international constituents made him more of an international celebrity than that of his German counterparts in Bonn, which was the federal capital during his 16 years in office. It also helped him in terms of working together with his international colleagues for two of the most important goals on his agenda: To end the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union and to reunify West Germany with its eastern counterpart.  While the former was beginning to unfold from within, thanks to the revolutions in the east that toppled the Communist leaders and quickened with the Fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November, 1989, the latter Kohl proceeded to do through cooperation with Soviet leader Mikail Gorbachev, US President George Bush Sr., British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterand. Despite the hesitation that was expressed by Mitterand and the rejection that was made clearly by Margaret Thatcher, Kohl’s actions in reuniting Germany within a year between the Fall of the Wall and the date of 3 October, 1990 (which we still celebrate this date today) received full support and cooperation from Gorbachev and Bush Sr. for several reasons:

  1. Kohl acknowledged that he had no intention of expanding his country to include the Suedetenland in western Czech Repubic and areas in Poland that  had once belonged to Germany before 1945. This Oder-Neisse Agreement confirmed the eastern border and resulted in good relations with the two eastern neighbors.
  2. Kohl agreed that Germany would be a full participant in NATO and the European Economic Community (later the European Union) just like it was when it was West Germany. Furthermore, it would maintain strong economic and political ties with ist allies and be ready to play a larger role on the international stage.
  3. Kohl provided start-up funding and financial support for the former eastern states. With much of the industries in ruins, Kohl presented a program to encourage business development, modernization of the infrastructure, educational support and further education training for the unemployed and reform the retirement system- all with the purpose of bring it up to the level of the western half.  This process has been long and painful, but it has been working to the advantage of People in the East; especially the younger generations born right before the Fall of the Wall.
  4. With a reunified Germany, Gorbachev and Bush Sr. agreed that having a Cold War no longer made sense. Gorbachev wanted the eastern countries to go their own way, and Bush provided those who were trapped behind the Iron Curtain with an opportunity to have a better life without the political connections and influence from the state security police. All they needed was someone in Germany with the same point of view and they found that in Kohl.

The German Reunification and the concessions needed to make that a reality came with criticism from within the German Population and his own Party, the CDU, claiming that the process went too fast and that many displaced Germans from the east were unable to reclaim their regions back. Furthermore, the recession of  1995 as a result of the cost for Reunification resulted in the rise of unemployment. Yet when looking back at this, Kohl looked for the people who were willing to go through with the plan of reunification, taking all the risks that are involved and cementing the Germany that we know today. With that in mind, the idea of “Wir Das Miteinander ,” became “Wir Schaffen Das Zusammen” over time, for whatever the crises, Germany was able to pull through with the support of its people, the CDU and its allies from outside.

Helmut Kohl was given a European send-off at the time of his death on 16th June, 2017 at the age of 87. The procession, which was on 1 July, took place in Strausborg and Speyer, where he was interred.

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Angela Merkel (2005-present)  Photo by Armin Linnartz

“Wir Schaffen Das:”

It is very difficult to describe this theme with Angela Merkel without having to overlap on her counterpart’s slogan, but perhaps it doesn’t need a preposition to describe how she has overcomed her challenges as Chancellor and key player in the CDU. Merkel was presented with three challenges that reshaped her party, Germany and the population during her 12 years in Office. First was keeping Europe together and the Americans happy, something that for Germany as a central power in the EU it could be done by pulling on the leash of the members- in writing. Yet in the praxis, especially in the past 3-4 years, some member countries have tried to go their own way, especially in terms of the refugee policy and the deficits of some countries. The next was satisfying the Americans and finding common ground to carry out the policies that affect both countries and the rest of the world. This depended solely on who was in the Oval Office, and while she has isolated Donald Trump because of his erratic behavior (just like the other countries who have followed suit), her relations with George Bush Jr. was lukewarm at best but with Barack Obama, it was a dream team. 🙂 From an American expatriate’s point of view, Merkel achieved a lot with the right people in Washington, which has been received as a blessing, especially when it comes to the environment and the conflicts out in the Middle East, which has been ongoing for seven years now.  And while we are on the theme with environment, there is the refugee crisis and her handling of it, which makes it the third and most important point. The logic behind her policy of “Wir schaffen das” was quite simple: regions in the north and east needed workers and experienced professions because of the younger people moving to cities in the western and southern parts. The population balance in Germany has been very unequal since 1990 with the population in the north and east getting older, despite attempts to modernize the region. With this decline came the brain drain and the best way to end it is to fill in the gap with people wishing to live and work in Germany, even if it was for a limited time until they were able to return home. Learning from Adenauer’s success in bringing in immigrants and integrating them and Kohl’s success in restructuring the eastern half of the country, Merkel sent them to the regions where work was waiting for them, along with a better life. This has been met with partial success mainly because of the lack of forthcoming to accept them among residents in regions who are older, inflexible and lack the basic knowledge needed to get to know and even help them. This is one of the reasons for the creation of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), one of the main challengers that Merkel has faced and will be dealing with for years to come. However, if asked for why immigration has been successful in Germany, I can look at personal success stories of families who have taken German classes to get by, young people getting training at companies to learn a profession and even refugee children getting along with school children. Granted one doesn’t need to be best friends, but by having a peaceful co-existence and helping out when needed is something that Merkel had in mind, which has been a success if one subtracts the likes of the far-right.

Summary:

Taking a look at the three politicians in summary, one can see how Germany has been shaped. It is a country whose population has been taught to be calculated risk-takers, while at the same time, be open to not only people from different cultures and backgrounds, but also to the changes that are taking shape and affecting the Bundesrepublik. The idea of “Wir Schaffen Das,” regardless of form and circumstances has something to do with the will to try something new but doing it with insurance. That means the risks will be taken under one’s own conditions and with the assurance of a Plan B if all else fails. Many of the policies carried out by the CDU had been tried and true, learning from the successes of the forefathers and implementing them adaptedly to the situation. Germany has learned to adapt to the situation by looking at the options carefully, calculating the risks and benefits and carrying it out with some insurance protection.  Adenauer knew the risks of forming relations with other countries and rebuilding Germany and ensured that Germany wanted to be part of the international theater, by accepting the conditions imposed, bringing home the prisoners of war and encouraging immigration to repopulate the country.  Kohl knew the risks of German reunification and came up with a comprehensive plan to satisfy its neighbors and the population, especially in the East.  Merkel knew the risks of integrating the refugees and the opposition from both within the EU and its own country. Still she found ways for immigration to work in a convincing way.  Whenever there were the risks, they were calculated and carried out in an attempt to create a balance that satisfies everyone.

And this has made it difficult for candidates, like Martin Schulz (SPD), Christian Lindner (FDP), Frauke Petry (AfD) and others to overcome the German Iron Lady and the rock which has become the CDU.

Thanks to this notion of “Wir Schaffen Das,” Germany has become what it is- a nation that loves calculated risks, just as much as the people who live there- which includes the refugees, expats and other immigrants. There is still a lot of challenges ahead, but should Merkel win term number 4, it will most likely be due to the success of her in general, her party, and the forefathers who helped shape Germany to what it is today. If Merkel breaks Kohl’s record for longetivity as chancellor, then her theme will most likely be “Wir haben das geschafft.”

Better have that sherry and champaign ready for  Merkel’s fifth term on 26 September, 2021. 😉

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In School in Germany: Is President Obama too American?

Frage für das Forum:  Is President Barack Obama too American or too International?

Two years left until he finishes his second and final term as President of the United States and soon, we will be looking at the legacy of President Barack Obama. Once loved by many Americans and Europeans alike because he was a symbol of hope in the midst of the second worst economic crisis in the history of the US, he is now a target of criticism from the same people who voted him into office.

Here’s a latest example which will provide room for discussion at home over the Fourth of July weekend and latest when social studies teachers talk about his legacy in the classroom:

During the final exam at the Gymnasium where I’m doing my practical training, also known as the Abitur Exam, as it is the key exam needed for entrance to college, one of the students took part in the oral portion of the exam (consisting of both written and oral parts) in the subject of English, and was asked about how she thought of Barack Obama and his presidency. After mentioning the positive aspects, such as health care, employment programs and stricter environmental policies, the negative aspect she pointed out was the fact that Obama was too “American” because of his support of the NSA activities- Spygate- which has damaged relations between the country and Europe.

Too American?  And on the US side, he is considered too much of a socialists, something that is common even on the international scale, if we look at some of the countries that have socialist-like governments, like France, Greece, etc.

In the past five years, President Obama has tried to bring the US and Europe closer together, which includes trade policies, adopting health care and environmental policies, and the like. This has made many Americans feel that he is too international and demand that the US return to the policy of Exceptionalism- every man for himself, no matter the circumstances. Yet from the European perspective, American is trying to exert its influence on the European front, which goes beyond the NSA-Spygate scandal. One of the hottest issues at the moment is the American’s attempts of importing genetically modified foods, which is banned by the EU and rejected by Europeans who have been used to eating organic foods. In other words, the Europeans do not mind what America does as long as they are not forced to do what they want them to do.

This leads to the question worth considering and even talking about: Is President Obama a true American or an Internationalist? Or even better if one wants to criticize his policies and the effects on US-European relations: Is Obama too American or too European, and what are your reasons? Speaking from an expatriate’s point of view, there are enough arguments supporting both criticisms although Obama should keep focusing on the policies at home, as they are still in need of being addressed. This includes the policies involving education, environment, food, and even health care, for the policies passed so far still need some improvement.

But seriously, if you want to judge his legacy and criticize him, which side would you take? Is he too American or too European? Maybe he is just a one-man show? What do you think?  Think about this and consider this question for your next meeting or even social studies class. You’ll be amazed at the different opinions you’ll get.

The Flensburg Files and sister column The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles would like to wish the Americans both at home and abroad a Happy Fourth of July. Enjoy the fireworks and the celebrations honoring the declaration of independence and the creation of a new nation, which took 13 years of blood, toil and tears to make.

We have our man for the job! Now let’s get to work! Thoughts on the US Elections

A replica of his office when he was president located at the Truman Presidential Library. Photo taken in August 2011

What does it take to become the President of the United States? And what does it take to ensure that the man you voted for is elected to office?

These are the questions I’ve been asking myself ever since watching the elections this morning at 4:00am in the comforts of home in central Germany. After voting by mail a few weeks ago, watching the TV debates and then the climax of President Obama taking the swing state of Ohio and with that the elections, all I can do is breathe a sigh of relief and say that it’s finally over. We have the right man for the job. We chose one who will continue his path of patching up ties with our neighbors, fixing a series of systems that are broken down and in dire need of reforms (health care, Medicare, education, social system, just to name a few), and providing Americans and people abroad with a sense of hope in the form of job growth and trade, improving the environment and saving what is left of our cultural and historical heritage, and providing peace and good will both within America and to the rest of the world.

The 2012 elections will go down as the most expensive in modern history, but it will go down as the most vulgar and in the end, the most unpopular among the people both in the States and around the world. Hundreds of billions of dollars were spent to overwhelm the public with ad campaigns, slamming each candidate and providing promises that were empty, miscalculated, and irrelevant to the real problems we are facing. Even the debates between Obama and Romney and between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan depicted a professional wrestling match with each person throwing barbs and flies toward each other. Comparing that to a real wrestling match with the likes of Sara Del Ray and Awesome Kong, they were anything but entertaining.  While Main Street was being plastered with the campaign signs on every building and Rush (fatso) Limbaugh engulfing the radiowaves, it made us feel that we were being forced to vote against our will, when in all reality, we just wanted the facts: Who will handle the issues that affects us? Who will take us out of the worst crisis since the Great Depression? And most importantly, who will make the United States the world superpower like it should- setting examples for our European, African and Asian counterparts to follow?

The decision today marked a turning point. We#ve turned away from the billions of dollars spent on the campaign (almost all of it came out of our own pockets), all the vulgar language that alienated many people regardless of background, and the issues that have cut families into pieces and destroyed friendships and voted for someone who really will get the job done- one who started the process and will finish the job by the time he leaves in four years. We found someone with a great track record, despite the shortcomings, and especially one who is honest and patient, and willing to work with the people on the many issues that we have yet to settle.

The lists of tasks to be completed may be a mile (or 2km) long but if there is one piece of advice to give to the president it’s this: Aim high and let the Heavens take care of the rest.

The Flensburg Files and its sister column, the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles would like to congratulate President Barack Obama on his victory and wish him the best of luck in the next four years. No matter how different our views may be, we are right behind you all the way to the end. Let’s hope the opposition will do the same.

Did Sandy push the presidential elections back? I hope so.

There is a proverb that I want to start this column on: It is about disaster. When disaster strikes, people chip in to help. When politicians help, disaster strikes again. Therefore, people go first over politics.

No one really thought that we would have a storm that was as similar as the one seen in a Hollywood film, such as “The Day After Tomorrow,” filmed in 2004 and depicts a fictitious scene where the northern hemisphere of the world witnesses another Ice Age, as a result of a combination of a super hurricane, snowstorm and cold fronts. The storm closest to what was filmed was Hurricane Katrina, which turned New Orleans into a bowl of stew and the coastal areas into a scene resembling Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.  Superstorm Sandy may not have matched the storm in the film, but the combination of a hurricane from the south, a snowstorm from the west and the Arctic front from the north bore down on the eastern seaboard, dropping 3-4 feet of snow in the mountains, producing record-breaking waves in New York City that flooded most of the city, and turning many coastal areas into islands of destroyed houses surrounded by water.  While 31 people in North America were killed by this storm (as of this entry) the storm will surely set records in terms of economic losses, while at the same time, it will take months for people to return to normal.

The disaster caused many delays and postponements throughout the area. Wall Street was closed for two consecutive days, the first since 1888, even though the terrorist attacks on 11 September, 2001 resulted in the closure of Wall Street for four days. And while New York City is still preparing its city marathon, one should ask if it is appropriate to delay the presidential elections, scheduled for 6 November but coming up fast. Insane and absurd? Not quite so. Other countries throughout the world have witnessed elections that were delayed by months, more because of political reasons than because of a weather disaster like this.  Tunisia delayed their first democratic presidential elections since the fall of their dictator in the Arab Spring of 2011. The elections were held in October last year instead of July due to concerns with developing the political system and parties. Iraqi elections were delayed due laws being debated in 2009. Nigerian elections were delayed by two days last year due to lack of organization. In the United States, there has never been a delay in elections for any reason. Yet it is possible that the president could use his executive powers to enforce that measure, but only in disasters of catastrophic proportions, such as a nuclear war.

Given the degree of disaster Sandy provided to the people in the northeast, it would be unlikely that such a delay would take place. The area is densely populated, people could go to the polls by foot and the polls are more accessible than in rural areas. Yet eight million people are still without power, and as mentioned in an article provided by sister column, the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles, the infrastructure is crippled thanks to downed trees and power lines on train tracks and streets, bridges washed away by flooding and areas that are still underwater. The two presidential candidates have delayed their campaigning, although they have traded jabs at how the federal government should be involved in disaster relief. Many Americans are not too keen to vote right now, for if they are not directly affected by the disaster, they know many people who are affected and are finding ways to help them. President Obama and other politicians have announced that public safety goes first before the elections. Public safety not only includes getting people to safety, but it also means helping them rebuild, no matter how long it takes for the job to be done, so that there is a functioning, coherent and safe community.  While the people affected by the storm are digging their way out of the rubble, other Americans living outside the disaster area are still undecided about who to vote for, for there are many issues at stake, from environmental policies, to education; health care to infrastructure- you name it, they are there, and there has not been much effort on the part of both Obama and Romney to address these themes and make the promises that will satisfy the Americans and others abroad.

While we have never been in any nuclear war (and will most unlikely have one), the disaster we see in the pictures, caused by the Superstorm can be compared to any town being destroyed through war. Many people are not ready to vote as they are putting their lives back together. And there are so many loopholes open that could result in the elections going wrong, as we saw in 2000 between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Therefore, if I was Barack Obama, I would strongly consider delaying the elections by up to two months to allow people a chance to pick up the pieces first before going to the polls. It will buy the president and Mitt Romney time to do any last minute campaigning to win the final votes. And lastly, it will buy us more time to consider the issues that will tip our vote in favor of one or another.  A January election and an inauguration in March will be most unprecedented, but it makes sense, given the situation America is in right now. To proceed as scheduled on 6 November, next Tuesday, given the current circumstances would be inappropriate and it could cost Obama the presidency if he stays the course.

Information about Superstorm Sandy and ways to donate can be found here through the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles:

http://thebridgehunter.areavoices.com/2012/10/31/bridgehunter-chronicles-supports-the-victims-of-superstorm-sandy/

Education should be encouraged, not denied

Painting by an unknown artist. Taken at a gallery in Geneva Switzerland in September 2006

8:10 on a Wednesday morning in a lecture hall, waiting for the first class of the day to start. It is one of the introductory classes which provides students studying English with an insight to literature in Britain, Canada and the USA. Hundreds stream into the lecture wishing to take the exam and be done with it and have it checked off the list of classes to visit as part of the requirements for their studies- for those pursuing their teaching degree, it is of utmost importance to pass the course for failing it could delay their finish time by up to a semester. Many students take this class for their interest, their curiosity, knowing the likes of Shakespeare, Faulkner, London and the like, although the readings of Mellville, Fitzgerald and Miller are awaiting them. The numbers are getting bigger as the lecture hall is filled to the brim, and many students have to stand along the aisles in order to listen to a German professor trying her best with Canadian English, and this despite the fact that students only have to pay a small tuition fee per semester in order to attend college. These are the students of a university in Germany, all wanting a Bachelor’s, Master’s and a Teaching (in German, Lehramt) degree, all wanting a job in the future, as linguists, researchers and professors and English teacher, just to name a few.

At about that time across the Atlantic Ocean, a classroom of 30 students is halfway full, some students trickle in half-tired from working the night before. The professor teaching the class, American Literature in the Depression Era, looking at the works written by John Steinbeck, Langston Highes, Ernest Hemmingway and John Dos Passos is displeased with the fact that half of the 15 students in a class where 30 students are needed, could not complete the homework assignment in time, one of three essays- a requirement to pass the course, along with the final examination. Many of these students cannot concentrate because they are worried about the debts they have accrued during their studies, either individually or through their parents. Some are thinking about transferring to a smaller college, where tuition is lower than the $20,000 they have to pay at this university- per semester! All of them do not know what to do with their lives after their studies, as they have not done any internships nor collected practical experience, as they should have done. The exception to the rule is if you are pursuing a degree as a teacher, then you need three months of experience before you can become a licensed teacher, but even then, the requirements to obtain a license varies from state to state. These are the students of a university in the United States of America, getting four-year degree in something, but not knowing what to do next.

Education is the key to a successful life. One needs all the theoretical skills and practical experience required by each institution in order for them to get a proper job with high pay and benefits. The most important goal is to have a permanent career without having to change careers. Yet, many professions have died off in the past 10 years, compensated by others requiring more precise experience- out with the manufacturing but in with information technology and green technology, out with jobs in the industries that produce the pollutants that had harmed the environment for decades, but in with the demand for teachers to teach math, languages and humanities, as the understanding of society is lacking and many people want to understand more about it and embrace whatever culture is there. Yet, have the politicians paid attention? And why are universities are jacking the prices up for education, especially in the United States?

In Germany, we tried to copy the education model in the US by introducing the 500 Euro per semester tuition as early as 2000. Fair? By US standards it is, and after talking about tuition with other foreign exchange students during my Master’s studies at the University of Jena, many claim that the tuition is nothing compared to paying 10 times as much in countries, like Spain, Portugal, England, France and Switzerland. It was split down the middle among the students, with the majority having their way with eliminating in all but two states in Germany (Lower Saxony, Bavaria), as well as the city-states of Hamburg and Bremen. The rest of the states have either semester fees not exceeding 200 Euros or have allowed students to go to the university for free. The reason: education is an opportunity for all and the state and federal government has the obligation to finance the education system. Has it degraded the quality of education at the universities? No. In fact, we have up-to-date technology that has helped us learn faster and more efficiently. We have younger teachers who are available to help students in need, despite the majority being freelancers. And the students have taken the responsibility of completing their studies themselves without having any external influence.

There is a wish that the US would do the same. In the past 15 years, tuition at all universities and colleges has skyrocketed by up to 300% on average. At my alma mater, Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, for example, the total cost for the whole year is over $40,000, two and a half times as high as the amount I paid my freshman year 16 years ago! No matter which college a person goes to, tuition has gone through the roof. While financing includes tuition, housing, and other expenses on campus, it is very steep for one whose family is struggling to make ends meet especially in hard economic times. Protests broke out in large cities including those in California in 2009-10 demanding more equality for education and an easing of tuition fees to allow students to attend. And for those who attended college but was unable to find a job, the trend of going into bankruptcy has rocketed. The latest report indicated that the Class of 2010 had the highest student loan rate ever and that the rate of student loan defaults after two years also reached an all time high of 9.1%- double of what it was 10 years ago! In Germany, the rate is extremely low, thanks to the Barfög, a German student loan program where students can apply for during their studies and can pay only 50% of the amount back five years after the completion of their studies. Don’t the Americans wish to have something like that in the country? Certainly, but…..

One has to look at what the two presidential candidates have to offer on this topic, which despite Romney’s push for eliminating unions and favoring teachers and Obama’s push for reforming the education system on the elementary level (meaning K-12 grade schools), has ended in zero efforts. While it was a relief that the topic of education has been introduced during the last debate, neither Obama nor Romney has presented a basic concept for reforming the education system from the bottom up. This does not mean the K-12 education system but also the university system where tuition can be regulated, together with student loans, while at the same time, everyone would have an opportunity to attend college and either get a degree for their dream job or retrain themselves for a new profession. And while the President signed the Health Care and Student Loan Act in 2010, which provided an increase in certain grants, it still has not helped the situation that the students and college graduates have been in. And while the quality of education in academia in America could use some improvement to allow students to think and decide for themselves on their future career after college, the aforementioned aspect is of paramount of importance, as students would like to focus more on their studies instead of on their jobs to pay their students loans.

This definitely includes allowing them to do internships and study abroad in foreign countries, which the number of American students going to other countries for a semester is a fraction of their German and even European counterparts, who average two internships and at least one semester abroad during their 3-4 years at a university. During my time of my Master’s studies five years ago, I did four internships, one of which was for three months in Geneva, Switzerland, at an international organization. In order for the US to compete on the global scale, we need to veer away from testing students in schools based on their math and reading/ writing skills and focus on opportunities for them to succeed in the future, allowing them to gain the experience needed for them to compete on an international scale and not on the scale of just North America.

With two weeks away, the stakes are high for both Obama and Romney to win over the voters. The winner of the elections on 6 November will have to try harder to encourage students to go to college and not only obtain their degree, but allow them to explore society and see what they can do about the problems we have, to its benefit. It will not be done through increased tuition, and perhaps the Barfög program provided here in Germany will encourage students to find an orderly job so that they can pay off their debt with more time than with only six months after graduation. It will not be done through testing their competencies in schools but more towards interactive learning and a wider variety of humanity classes, including foreign languages, which is needed more than ever. Just a somber fact: an average European speaks four languages. The average American: one, if they can master it fluently.

I would like to end this critique with an anecdote by Ben Franklin which reads the following: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”  I have always been a believer of Pestalozzi who encouraged involvement of his children through practical learning, claiming that the basic education can keep them from becoming the beast of society. Can you imagine what would happen to a person who is denied an education because of money and other circumstances that put them at a disadvantage? While we have not seen that problem and Germany still remains one of the economic engines of Europe and the world, the US is infested with monsters, who were denied the basic need and will to learn. These are the people who need the help in order to succeed, for they will be the one who will bring up the next generation. I hope the two candidates keep this in mind as they campaign to win the votes needed to win and in the end, be sworn into office on 20 January, 2013.

 

 

Education

Round Lake, Minnesota: An example of where the job growth should be

All photos taken in August 2011

When you hear of creating jobs, what comes to mind? A better living for yourself and your family? Having enough money to travel to the places you want to? Paying down or even paying off your debts? What about economic growth for the region you are living in? All of these factors are foremost on our minds, especially since we are still living in the midst of a slow economic recovery caused by the collapse of Wall Street that started at the end of 2007 and accelerated in 2008, reaching rock bottom by the beginning of 2009.

But when I think of job growth, I think of Round Lake, Minnesota and the Sather’s Candy Company. Created by John Sather in 1936, the company produced roasted nuts and other candies, but was primarily a rebagging business- buying ship loads of candies, cookies and the like in bulk loads, and rebagging them to be sold in stores throughout the midwest. It was the primary innovator of the pegboard, where small-packaged candy could be hung in rows and large amounts. It created a trucking company to ship these goods to the stores throughout southern Minnesota and beyond, one of the largest in the region. And an outlet store was added in the 1960s, allowing children to stop there to buy their favorite candy, whether it was a package of gum balls, jelley beans, marshmallow corn, or the like.  The company operated as a single entity for 60 years, before changing hands three times- first being bought by Favorite Brands in 1996, which was later bought by Nabisco in 1999, which later folded into the Kraft conglomerate by Philip-Morris a year later. Together with Farley’s incorporated, Sathers was spun off to create its own company Farley and Sather’s in 2002. With its headquarters in Round Lake, one would think that the company would keep its home in a place where it was first created, and that people would be accustomed to.

The former Sather’s Outlet Store on Main Street

But then, 2010 came and with that, Black January. One evening, at the end of the second shift, all packaging personnel were summoned to a town hall style meeting- to receive the bad news. All packaging and trucking services would be relocated to Chatanooga, Tennessee, and the Round Lake plant was going to downsize. The moment people received the news, they cried. Most of them were 5-10 years away from retirement, have made a home in Round Lake for 30 years, and allowed their children to grow up, going to school in Round Lake and neighboring Worthington. There was some confusion as to what would happen with their careers, for many came out of high school and into the company, hoping to make a living there, and contribute to their community. The lights were going out and there was no exit to be found…..

One year later, I visited the Sather’s company for the first time in two years. I never worked there, but my father (now 58 years of age) worked there for nearly 15 years, as a robotics technician in the packaging department. He was one of many who received that dreadful pink slip in January 2010, but not before showing me and my wife and daughter the facility during our visit in the summer of 2009. Everything was bustling with activity as the people were busying themselves with packaging, having a great time. The working conditions were great. People made friends and invited them to a beer at the local pub or to a dinner at their houses a couple blocks away.  Everyone was in good spirits, as if nothing was ever going to be in the way.

Parking lot with overgrowth, one of the signs of a dying company.

But not this day. upon entering the company, one can see its deserted and even desolate state. Once filled with cars 24/7, the parking lot was being run over by overgrowth- weeds and vegetation. Machines that were bought brand new a few years earlier were waiting to be hauled to their final destination- a recycling center in Worthington to be sold for scrap metal. The loading docks are empty, even though there was talk of renting the space out to another local trucking business willing to establish its base.  The paint on the building was the same as in year’s past, but it was showing its wear and tear; its dreariness. While the Sather’s headquarters was still in operation, only a skeleton of the crew remained with no one around to talk to, finding out what has become of the company and of Round Lake. But perhaps one does not need an explanation for Main Street represented a ghost town. The outlet store closed down the same time the layoffs took place, but other businesses suffered as well. The only healthy business one can find in the town of 450 people was a gas station, the only bar in town and the grain elevator. Surprisingly the people still reside in town, for the nearest town with the employment opportunities, Worthington, with over 11,000 inhabitants, was only five miles away- a 10-15 minute commute pending on job and weather. Without that life support, Round Lake would have ceased to exist within a matter of a year of the layoffs.

Packaging machines waiting to be scrapped
The handful of business that still survive in Round Lake

How does this story fit the real picture of the job situation. Realistically, it is one that was in the making for the years leading up to the collapse of the US economy, taking every other country into the worst recession since the 1929 crash. Years of wrecklessness and uneven growth (starting in 2002) combined with lack of regulations resulted in an economy that took off like a runaway bus with no breaks, stopping eventually into a wall without a clue as to finding a way to at least slow it down or find a nice landing cushion.  The increased unemployment resulted in companies finding optimal ways of saving money, even at the expense of people who have worked there for many years.  While we have found constructive ways to retrain those affected by the layoffs, through educational programs at colleges and universities or through on-the-job training at another company, we still have not paid attention to the real job growth. More jobs are being developed in big cities than those in rural areas like Round Lake, while at the same time, we have fewer small businesses and too many large corporations willing to buy up all the assets of other businesses and relocate them to their headquarters, as a way of micromanaging them. End result: emigration to bigger cities where crime and pollution are rampant, while rural areas are dying off, with only a handful of young people left to salvage what is left of the population.

While Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been campaigning to promise more jobs, the reality to the situation is that neither one can get it done without changing the way we think about jobs and establishing businesses. While Obama implores patience (and he is right about that, as unemployment has broken the psychological 8% barrier and is sitting at 7.9%, a first in four years), what happens if the patience of many unemployed persons come to an end and decide to uproot everything and move elsewhere? Voting for Romney will not be the answer either. He promises 12 million new jobs by 2016 if elected, but for whom. Definitely not the 47% of Americans he wrote off because they are dependent on social welfare. They also want to work and do not want to be unemployed forever. And taking jobs from other countries to establish them in the States will not do, for the people there are suffering just as much (think of the European debt crisis and how it is affecting even the richer EU states).

Vacant space in the docking section: waiting for someone to fill it in and start a business.

So what is the plan? One should consider visiting the rural areas and talking to the people. Visit small towns like Round Lake and ask them not what one can do for the community but what the community was like in the past. While many people claim to not have enough knowledge of history, it definitely serves as a tool, as a way of looking back at the good times of the past and seeing if the past can be implemented into the present to jumpstart the communities for the future. One should look at ways to encourage businesses to develop in local communities. It goes beyond rebuilding business districts as many have done already. That is only changing the facade. What is needed is the redevelopment of the small hometown feeling where people have a simple job, a simple family and a simple life, fostering growth and encouraging children to grow up locally and have families of their own, helping others in need, and ensuring the businesses that start in small towns, stay there. The need for unity and pride is large but when we have it, we can prosper. Jobs will take care of themselves and unemployment will go down further. In the end, with the change in mentality and by not taking the promises of either candidate, we will see many small communities, like Round Lake prosper again. The empty parking lot of Sather’s will be full again with a new business taking over, which will generate local revenue for the businesses along Main Street. Through our own actions, we ourselves can make a difference.

I would like to finish my column with an interesting conversation I had a few weeks ago, which went along the lines of where we would want to live in a few years. Like many of us (and my wife and I are one of them), a big city life for the rest of our lives is not our cup of tea. If there is a place to live, then in a small community surrounded by lots of green where each of us had a simple job and not one in a corporation located in a big city. There is a big difference when you live in a big city and work for a big company in comparison to living in a rural community and working in a small business or teaching in a small school. It goes beyond the landscape (concrete versus green) and what is available for services. It also goes beyond the metality of the people both at work as well as on the street. It is our own personal feeling towards the two. Some are inclined to live in a city, others are inclined to live in a rural area. After visiting Round Lake, I know which one I would prefer if the opportunity opens up….