Cultural Diplomacy

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When Public Diplomacy Is a Bad Joke: The importance of in-groups and out-groups to the successful use of humor by diplomats


Secretary of State John Kerry jokes with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta | State House, Nairobi | August 22, 2016 | Photo credit: U.S. Department of State


Derision is a complicated thing. At its most sophomoric, derision is little more than blowing raspberries on the playground – good for a laugh at someone’s expense but without much of a point. When given proper thought and execution, though, derision can deliver persuasive satire or charming self-deprecation, both of which bond audience and humorist closer together.

While diplomats use humor regularly to engage foreign audiences, often with successful results, there is little study of its use as a public diplomacy tool. Unfortunately, there is no formal understanding of the strategic use of humor when engaging foreign audiences. As a result, we see some nightmares when humor is poorly applied. When a diplomat’s joke bombs, the risk of real bombs is greater than when a new stand-up chokes at Comedy Works. It’s like Bono pleading with the UN to send a CVE-comedy task-force to Syria – we seem to know that there’s something there, but we just can’t quite grasp how to harness it.

Let’s talk about the failures of derision in public diplomacy. The most glaring example is “Think Again, Turn Away,” a counter-terrorism effort so poorly conceived that even our own comedians mocked it. In 2013, the Global Engagement Center from the U.S. Department of State launched the video “Think Again, Turn Away” on YouTube, intending to reach the same young audience that ISIS targeted online for recruitment. It wasn’t long before people realized that the snark-filled, sardonic PSA was utterly tone-deaf.



The team that produced “Think Again, Turn Away” undoubtedly understands the situation in ISIS-occupied territories better than most. They just don’t know comedy.

For every joke, there is an in-group and an out-group. These groups may be defined as those who get the joke and those who don’t, or along the classic laughing with/laughing at split. Derision especially lends itself to this split, more so than other comedic styles. Creating distinct in-groups and out-groups can reinforce or undermine existing narratives, depending on how those groups are framed.

Think of it this way: Everyone has a story in their head that tells them who they are. That’s our identity narrative. We have stories about our place in that world. We call those system narratives. In every narrative, there is a protagonist (the in-group) and an antagonist (the out-group). Generally, people like to be the protagonists of their own stories. We make this happen by aligning our identity narratives and system narratives in such a way that we belong to the in-group throughout. So, if we hear a different narrative, perhaps in the form of a joke, that recasts us as members of the out-group, we will reject that narrative. Not only that, we’ll likely cast whoever shared that narrative as a member of the out-group in our own narratives.


Here is a narrative map for a typical ISIS recruit, based on research on ISIS target messaging:

  Identity Narrative System Narrative
ISIS Recruit Young, over-educated & underemployed, an outsider (perceived or actual) of mainstream society, destined to and/or worthy of greatness Living in a society that is hostile towards identity, unjust, limited opportunities to advance; the West is keeping true believers down, only the caliphate is righteous

“Think Again, Turn Away” tries to undermine the “righteous caliphate” narrative by using sarcasm to cast ISIS in the out-group. However, the video fails to draw the potential recruits into its in-group. Therefore, it’s mockery only reinforces the theme of separation between recruits and the West present in both narrative levels.


So, if we hear a different narrative, perhaps in the form of a joke, that recasts us as members of the out-group, we will reject that narrative. Not only that, we’ll likely cast whoever shared that narrative as a member of the out-group in our own narratives.

Understanding the dynamics of in-groups and out-groups isn’t just good comedy – it’s good communication. Philip Seib says that successful communication is always audience based and ties into the narratives of that audience’s socio-political context. Obviously, “Think Again, Turn Away” is not audience based. Rather than embrace its target audience, clearly marking themselves as being “on the same team,” or both part of the in-group, the narrator mocks the ideological society that said audience expressed interest in joining. That is why the video targets its specified audience, after all. By mocking the group with which the audience has already identified, even superficially, it casts both in the out-group, cementing the audience’s allegiance to the butt of the joke.

One might have done less damage trying to sincerely persuade potential recruits to join ISIS. John Oliver points out that the State Department is “banking a lot on any potential militants understanding that [“Think Again, Turn Away”] is sarcasm,” the implication being that the intended audience won’t get the joke. Alternatively, the audience might understand the joke, but doesn’t find it the least bit funny. Either way, the video reinforces extremist messaging by squarely casting the audience in the out-group.

Whether or not potential recruits have the capacity or inclination to “appreciate” the video’s try at sarcasm, humans respond to humor cognitively and emotionally.  No one likes being mocked; it makes us feel bad. You learned this blowing raspberries on the playground. When the audience you are trying to reach is also the butt of your joke, you have missed the point.


The views expressed here are the author’s only and do no necessarily represent those of George Washington University.

Best ‘American’ Film: How America Lacks International Perspective with its Movies and Awards Shows

Movies are a very impactful and influential tool towards gaining a perspective of a culture, situation, norm, and/or environment, which is why PAOs acknowledge films as a legitimate form of cultural diplomacy. An American watching a movie taking place in Pakistan will notice norms that differ greatly from American culture, as would a Pakistani watching a film taking place in America. And through that simplistic cultural exchange, each viewer would have a better understanding of the other country. As Rhonda Zaharna mentions in her article The Cultural Awakening in Public Diplomacy, culture determines values, and movies represent culture.

So with this emphasis on movies and their impact, it’s hard to determine which film would be considered an all-encompassing “Best” film in the world. Film festivals that take place in Europe such as the Berlin International Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, and the Venice Film Festival allow movies from all over the world to win the deserving “Best” film, actor, etc. category. The U.S., however, has only one category devoted to international films (Best Foreign Language Film) in their only film award show: The Academy Awards, or “Oscars”. The lack of international focus in film entries is representative of America’s overall lack of international perspective and interest in comparison to Europe’s.

In his article You Talkin’ to Me?, Begleiter states that Americans express an ignorance of the world by being ill informed about international politics and events, while not even caring enough to learn about them. He sees this lack of perspective as a lack of freedom, even though we pride ourselves on being the ‘freest country in the world.’

oscars website photo

Oscars website presentation: Best (American) Film carrying more weight than Best Foreign Language Film

The U.S.’s nationalism is even represented on the Oscars website by presenting the Best Film, Actor/Actress, and Animated Film awards (all American-directed and starred, in addition to being spoken in English with no subtitles) at the top with large photos of each winner, while presenting every other category in small boxes below. In terms of placement, the Best Foreign Language Film award is given the same amount of importance as the Best Sound Editing award.

In the European film festivals, on the other hand, that is not the case. For this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, the first three most prominent awards were given to people of completely different countries. The film festival also makes a point to award movies on categories such as the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize, a feature film that opens new perspectives. The Golden Bear for Best Film is the most notable award a film can receive, and the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize is right below that in terms of importance.

berlin film festival photo

From left to right: The Golden Bear for Best Film: Fuocoammare (Italy); Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize: Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis (Philippines/Singapore); Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize: Smrt u Sarajevu/Mort a Sarajevo (France/Bosnia and Herzegovina)

This festival makes a conscious decision to establish the importance of exposing oneself to new perspectives by specifically rewarding movies that make an obvious effort to do so.

In order to overcome our inherent ethnocentric bias, some embassies consciously make an effort to put on events that combine differing cultures. For example, the Embassies of the Czech Republic and the United States of America created a film festival specifically targeting the exchanging of American and Czech cultures by exposing those from Nicosia and Cyprus to American films but directed by Czech director Milos Forman. It was called the Milos Forman Film Festival and through the combined Embassy efforts, the Czechs were able to be exposed to American culture, while still feeling prideful in their own culture since Forman is from the Czech Republic and, and, subconsciously added Czech cultural references within these American films.

milos forman film festival photo

Milos Forman Film Festival poster posted on the United States Embassy of Nicosia and Cyprus website

Since movies are such an impactful way to develop a better understanding of a culture different than your own, this type of film festival can be organized in the States as well. French, Japanese, Syrian, Hungarian, etc. embassies in the United States can create film festivals that are directed by people of those descent and represent the cultures of those from those foreign countries as well. There can also be an implementation of film festivals that represent American directors who live abroad and create abroad films in order to create a potential incentive or connection for American audiences to attend these film festivals. One example can be creating a film festival that highlights the work of French director Roman Polanski. Even though he was born in Paris, he has made movies in Poland, Britain, France, and the U.S., marking him the epitome of the quintessential international filmmaker. By hosting a Roman Polanski Film Festival in the states with the Polish, French, and British embassies involved, all four countries can experience and appreciate one another’s cultures, while giving American audiences an incentive to come since Polanski has made popular films in the states as well.

Through this cultural program, American audiences will become more informed about the culture that was represented in the movie he or she saw. And by becoming more informed about a culture, it will allow Americans to not only be less ill-informed, but also more inclined to learn more about said foreign country, it’s politics, international relations, and other foreign countries alike. By acknowledging these different cultures and learning that both your culture and another culture can coexist, it will allow you (American readers specifically) to base future decisions on this knowledge that people, places, and things can be different, and that’s okay.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. 

The Power of Film

Owen Suskind, son of Ron Suskind, at age 12. Credit: Suskind family via

Owen Suskind, son of Ron Suskind, at age 12. Credit: Suskind family via

The power of film is as unimaginable as the characters within the movies. As an under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs I tried to talk about film diplomacy but only now, reading Ron Suskind’s article in the NY Times do I truly begin to understand it.

It is a personal essay about his autistic son but it is much more than just a personal story—it is a public call about how we approach those with disabilities and how the movies can be so much more than entertaining.

Ironically, while on public diplomacy missions I tried to address the issue of disabilities as part of the American value of inclusiveness and reaching out to those with physical and cognitive disabilities. But I did not understand the linkage between film and those with disabilities until this article which opens the window onto the human mind, human emotion and how through film and books we change the human being.

I urge my TakeFive readers to read every word of this piece. Try not to cry. Or do.

Culinary Diplomacy: Power to Unite or Divide

Culinary diplomacy can help soften areas of high political tension. Credit:

Culinary diplomacy can help soften areas of high political tension. Credit:

Cultural diplomacy is a source of uniting or dividing people. The White House decision NOT to participate in the Sochi Paralympic games for athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities is a reflection of the crisis in Ukraine which has divided cultures and now cuts American participation off.

The Ukraine situation is a cultural breakdown between ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Tartars and other groups who struggle with cultural issues like language and history. Sports can be a part of positive diplomacy but is also a way to signal dissent with another country as is the case here. Cultural diplomacy – be it sports or other forms of so-called “soft power” is influential.

Recently I wrote about a form of cultural diplomacy known as culinary diplomacy where food is the source of bridging cultures.Taught and promoted at the Berlin-based Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, food diplomacy is taking off in the United States as well, in part due to an initiative started by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the Chef Corps which uses the power of chefs to teach slow cooking, agriculture, the business aspects of food, etc.

From Iran to Africa, from Haiti to Korea, from Ukraine to Uganda—food and sports are ways to motivate people: hopefully in a positive direction.

A Tribute to Shirley Temple Black, the Ultimate Public Diplomat

Editor’s note: Shirley Temple, famed former child actress, died this past Monday.

I met Shirley Temple when she was Ambassador to Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s at the embassy in Prague. She was charming, warm, and engaging—the perfect public diplomat. I was there on a delegation of women journalists and we stood in awe of the Ambassador’s grace and sparkle. She was the perfect host.

In this October 1990 image, U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia Shirley Temple Black speaks with Maj. Carolyn May. (Source: SSgt. David Nolan/

In this October 1990 image, U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia Shirley Temple Black speaks with Maj. Carolyn May. (Source: SSgt. David Nolan/

Shirley Temple Black’s career speaks to the inherent power of cultural diplomacy to move people in positive ways. As perhaps the biggest child movie star in history, she made magic with her dance and voice—and her talent echoed around the world as did her powerful films which made America look vibrant and culturally robust. In many ways she made America into the great “fairy tale” it could be—a nation beckoning others with its openness and warmth.

The innate connection of film and politics grew closer as Hollywood’s Ronald Reagan, who appeared with Shirley Temple in the 1947 film, “That Hagen Girl” became president and later Shirley Temple Black would become an Ambassador.

Shirley Temple Black will be missed. Her 8 ½ decades of successes live on.

Nuts! A Missed PD Opportunity!

Released on January 17, the film is about a squirrel on a mission to break and enter a nut store for the winter. Credit: Redrover Co., Ltd. (2013)

Released on January 17, the film is about a squirrel on a mission to break and enter a nut store for the winter. Credit: Redrover Co., Ltd. (2013)

I took my kids this weekend to see the latest blockbuster animated film, The Nut Job. It wasn’t until the film ended, however, and an animated Psy appeared to lead the cartoon cast in a Gangnam-style dance routine alongside the rolling credits that I realized that there was major Korean support for the movie.

In fact, the South Korean government provided substantial financial support for the joint Korean-Canadian production that featured the voices of Will Arnett, Liam Neeson, and Katherine Heigl and ultimately cost over $40 million to produce. According to news reports, moreover, this is one of a series of several films that the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism has supported from a fund of that is expected to grow to over $21 million for 2014 alone.

Few would question the influence of film as a medium of soft power, particularly as exemplified by Hollywood, Bollywood, and many other countries. Public diplomacy, moreover, makes frequent and explicit use of film as a tool of cultural diplomacy to promote mutual understanding and cross-cultural collaboration. Having already demonstrated the international reach and positive impact of its own cultural offerings in other areas, especially pop music, it seems only logical for South Korea to venture into international filmmaking…

Which is why I am a little puzzled by The Nut Job. The film is set in a nondescript American town in the recent past, the characters are voiced by major Hollywood actors, and the plot consists of a squirrel that tries to pull off a bank-style robbery of a nut shop. There was nothing about the film that was even remotely Korean at all and I missed the Korean connection altogether (although in retrospect there was a scene in which the music to “Gangnam Style” featured briefly). Psy’s cameo didn’t come until after the film had ended and the credits were rolling.

The film was mildly entertaining and the credits were amusing to watch, but I fail to see how this does much to leverage Korean soft power or advance Korean public diplomacy, despite the not-inconsiderable official Korean investment.

In my humble opinion, Korea would do well, instead, to choose its future film projects with an eye towards vehicles that feature Korean actors, settings, narratives, or themes. We all love Psy, and he could certainly help market other Korean cultural products, but his cameo was largely wasted in The Nut Job, a film I will remember only as a major missed Korean public diplomacy opportunity.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the U.S. government. The author is a State Department officer specializing in public diplomacy, currently detailed to the IPDGC to teach and work on various Institute projects.

UNESCO and the US: Politics and Culture at the Water’s Edge

UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France. Source: Reuters via

UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France. Source: Reuters via

Earlier this month, the U.S. lost its voting rights in UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, after failing to pay its dues for the past two years following Palestine’s membership to the General Assembly. The move has been widely regarded by diplomats and experts as “undermining America’s ability to exercise its influence in countries around the globe” as well as UNESCO’s ability to pay the bills: the U.S. contributed approximately 22% of the agency’s $70-million-a-year budget.

More than anything, this is a major blow to U.S. public diplomacy. In addition to losing its say in the world’s preeminent cultural body, the image and soft power of the U.S. have also been diminished. Other consequences we can expect:

1. Delays in approving American historical sites to the World Heritage list. Two sites – one in Louisiana, one in Texas – were currently undergoing review when the deadline passed. Given recent events, their admission can expect delays. In the meantime, the thousand or so jobs that were anticipated with the designation of a World Heritage title remain in limbo.

2. Increased room for China’s growing soft power. In May, Hao Ping, the former Chinese Vice-Minister of Education, was elected president of UNESCO’s general conference, providing an invaluable opportunity for China to expand its own soft power prowess, especially now without the U.S. in the picture.

3. Decline and/or stall in programming. In addition to cultural programs, UNESCO runs hundreds of initiatives in education, science, and communication through field offices in every region in the world. Even with emergency funding, it is obvious these programs will suffer personnel lay-offs and funding cuts.

It is worth noting that the U.S. has always had a somewhat tenuous relationship with UNESCO. In 2002, it rejoined the UN agency after an 18-year hiatus over “a difference in vision.” And in spite of President Obama’s iteration to commit to UNESCO’s goals, the U.S. essentially has its hands tied due to laws enacted in 1994 by Congress that prevent it from contributing funds to any UN organization that recognizes Palestinian statehood.

Whatever the reason, the cultural legacy of the U.S., particularly as a founding member of UNESCO, now hangs in the balance. The last thing it needs after a year of public image disasters (Syria, Edward Snowden, NSA phone tapping, to name a few) is to have politics get in the way of something that was meant to facilitate diplomacy without it.

Public Diplomacy on the Front Lines of U.S. Foreign Policy

Kamran (actor Najebullah Sadiq) is the hardened but principled veteran police officer on Eagle Four, an Afghan TV show that its creators hope will have a positive effect on Afghans' attitudes toward the real police. Credit: Tolo TV/ Wakil Kohsar

Kamran (actor Najebullah Sadiq) is the hardened but principled veteran police officer on Eagle Four, an Afghan TV show that its creators hope will have a positive effect on Afghans’ attitudes toward the real police. Credit: Tolo TV/ Wakil Kohsar

Advocates of official U.S. public diplomacy have long defended the value of its programs and argued for resources to do even more.  But what exactly could be accomplished with such resources if they were, indeed, available?

In fact, we may already have an answer to that question, albeit in the context of a single country at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy—Afghanistan.  Even as the United States has invested considerable resources in its military presence and development programs, so, too, has it devoted additional resources to a public diplomacy “surge” in support of overall U.S. goals in that country.

Public diplomacy programs in Afghanistan deploy the tried-and-true models that we employ all around the world, including: educational, youth, and professional exchange programs; English language programs; establishment of American Spaces; and, cultural exchange and preservation.  The U.S. Embassy in Kabul also deploys additional public diplomacy resources to support non-traditional programs leveraging public diplomacy expertise, technological innovation, and local partners to further advance key U.S. interests in that critical country.

Noah Berlatsky’s thoughtful recent piece in the Atlantic reviews a new documentary film about Afghan Tolo TV and touches on a few of those public diplomacy efforts.  As one of the major Afghan media groups, Tolo TV is also a major partner for U.S. public diplomacy efforts and programs seeking to engage, inform, and influence Afghan public opinion.  Berlatsky notes U.S. Embassy support for Eagle Four, for example, “a high-quality-production action drama” about the Afghan national police force. He also highlights the U.S. objective in supporting the production “to demonstrate that those police forces are courageous, honest, and trustworthy.”

The establishment of security and stability in Afghanistan—one of the most important U.S. foreign policy goals worldwide today—will obviously depend on the capacity of Afghan security forces and, more importantly, the trust the people place in those forces.   Eagle Four, by reaching a mass Afghan audience and profiling real Afghan police officers helping Afghans, is a perfect example of how innovative public diplomacy practitioners, provided with sufficient resources, advances key foreign policy goals.

Berlatsky raises valid points, of course, about whether such a dramatic depiction of the police force might unduly raise public expectations, but we could also be arguing about the value of producing a stale, realistic documentary that reaches and engages only a tiny fraction of Eagle Four‘s considerable viewership.  I would argue that programs like Eagle Four take a risk, but that such risks are appropriate especially in places of conflict where the pay-offs can be so essential to advancing  U.S. national security objectives.

Another key objective of Eagle Four and similar programs in Afghanistan is to promote the development and capacity of the Afghan media sector itself.  The success of Tolo TV, as noted in the Atlantic article, as well as the availability of a multiplicity of television and radio stations, newspapers and magazines—in a country which not too long ago had only one state broadcaster—is a testament to the success of those efforts. Just as we hope that the Afghan security services will ensure long-term stability, so, too, do we believe that Afghan independent media will promote long-term democracy and government accountability in Afghanistan.

Eagle Four is, of course, just one of many such public diplomacy programs that partner with Afghan media, universities, civil society, women’s groups, and many others.  Keen observers and veteran public diplomacy experts will note that some of these programs go well beyond the role of traditional public diplomacy in simply “telling America’s story” but are the proof of what can be accomplished with additional public diplomacy resources.  The innovative U.S. public diplomacy programs in Afghanistan seek to positively engage, inform, and influence the Afghan public and in so doing to help maintain stability, promote democracy, and advance key U.S. foreign policy goals.

Note: Previous articles about Eagle Four were published in the New York Times and on NPR.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the U.S. government. The author is a State Department officer specializing in public diplomacy, currently detailed to the IPDGC to teach and work on various Institute projects.

Why Public Diplomacy Should Be (Even More) Local

São Paulo is the ninth largest city in the world and the largest in South America. Photo credit: KLM

São Paulo is the ninth largest city in the world and the largest in South America. Photo credit: KLM

Last week, Rodrigo Tavares wrote in Foreign Affairs about Brazil’s recent involvement in paradiplomacy, or subnational foreign relations, by establishing formal bilateral relations between São Paulo and the UK. According to the article, the U.S. established a similar agreement with the world’s ninth largest city this past March – the first time that the State Department has forged direct relations with a subnational government in the southern hemisphere.

This comes as no surprise to anyone who has witnessed Brazil’s rise over the past 20 years, both economically and in diplomatic prowess: the country is slated to host two of the world’s longest-running sports events, the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and Summer Olympic Games in 2016. For the UK, US and other nations, establishing a presence in Brazil’s largest cities, especially outside the capital, makes sense from a practical and public diplomacy perspective.

As a Korean American born and raised in Atlanta, I rarely noticed the South Korean government’s presence until the Korean population boomed after the 1996 Summer Olympics. Since then, the Korean consulate has become increasingly active in establishing Korean business and cultural centers out in the suburbs of the metro area where not only the highest concentration of Korean businesses are situated, but gaining influence in municipal trade associations and organizations.

Although building foreign communities abroad isn’t the goal of consulates and bilateral agreements, it certainly doesn’t hurt public diplomacy efforts. According to Tavares, Singapore recently opened an embassy in Brasília, the capital, but noted that the “diplomatic hub in the country is really in São Paulo.” By concentrating trade and other activities in the places where the people live – not just where they conduct official business – countries are maximizing their influence potential at the most accessible level.

Does this dilute the importance of consulates, which were conceivably formed to address paradiplomacy issues within a country? Probably not. But per Tavares, “With the strengthening of local power, the world’s major cities, states, and provinces have adopted international policies previously reserved for national governments and mustered resources to ensure the protection of their interests abroad.”

Policy Makes History Present (Or, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” – Faulkner)

This is the fourth in a series of posts on life, culture, and politics in the U.S. and E.U. by Robert Entman, who spent 2012 as a Humboldt Research Prize Scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin. Read more posts here.

Naturally Berlin, Madrid and Paris have more history than any US city. It’s not fair to compare them to DC, Philadelphia, New York or Boston, our most history-conscious cities. Still, the reverence for the old expresses itself in public life and policymaking in Europe.

Policy provides more resources for preservation of historical memory while also supporting modern culture. Two examples:

1. Wine
The integration of wine into typically more relaxed and lengthier meals, offers one illustration of Europeans’ ability to live in closer continuity with the past. And like so many other things, the production of wine is heavily regulated, in part because of Europeans’ insistence on honoring that continuity.

Example: In 1395, Duke Philip the Bold issued regulations governing wine quality in Burgundy. It might strike Americans as oppressive, but winemakers in, say, Puligny Montrachet with rare exceptions must specialize in the chardonnay grape, and must follow many detailed government mandates on how the grapes must be handled to be certified as genuine Puligny. The French know that this grape reaches its apogee in the soil and microclimates of the Burgundy region, where vineyards go back at least to the fourth century AD. When you drink a bottle of Puligny you know you will get a chardonnay that to some degree reflects its particular terroir now as it did back when knights and dukes ran things.

Small differences in the way the three cities typically present wine in restaurants further express historical and cultural differences. In Berlin and generally in Germany, wine lists are heavy on German wines; this limits choices of reds since white riesling is the grape that makes the best wines in the cold climate there. If you order a glass of wine, it will come with an etched line marking 10 or 12 ml, and waiters pour to that precise line. Never saw a glass with a line in Spain or France.

One historical quirk of Berlin: when you go out to eat you essentially have to pay for bottled water. Nobody drinks tap water. Supposedly Berliners got used to drinking bottled water after WWII when the infrastructure was in ruins and tap water was dangerous. Some might see this as an example of hidebound Europeans sticking with a dumb and expensive tradition for no good reason. Most restaurants have a deal with one or another brand of bottled water; presumably the water sales add significantly to profit margins. Given the generally reasonable cost of the food, that seemed fair to me.

In Paris on the other hand, asking for tap water is typical, and they usually bring it to the table in a decanter or bottle. On restaurant wine lists and in wine stores too, the French focus is on lesser French chateaux and off-year vintages, presumably because these establishments can’t compete with the astronomical costs of the most famous Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, for which prices are set on an international market. These days, for instance, even a young bottle of Chateau Lafite can set you back over $1,000 at the store. Thank globalization.  A little bit of historical continuity is lost to all but the wealthiest French folks and tourists.

2. Memorialization
Reminders of the Nazi past are omnipresent in Berlin. As one among many examples, there are small brass stumbling blocks throughout Berlin. Slightly raised from other cobblestones, they are designed to ever-so-slightly trip pedestrians, who then look down and can see the name, dates and fate of a Jew who once lived or had a business at the building where they’re standing.

Consider also the striking Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Memorial is located in the heart of the new Berlin, bordering the American embassy and the Tiergarten (Berlin’s Central Park), near the Brandenburg Gate. So Berliners will frequently see it, register it if only unconsciously and thus potentially think about its meaning. The location and design of the Memorial engendered decades of public debate and controversy, a process that itself exemplified healthy democracy. Although much smaller than the Holocaust museums in DC and Jerusalem, I found the museum that’s integrated into the Memorial as thought-provoking and powerful.


Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

Compare what the Germans have done to ensure accurate and persistent memories of their past misdeeds with US actions to commemorate and keep alive memories of the US’s own holocausts involving Native Americans and African Americans, not to Vietnam and Indochina.  As far as I know, there is no public reminder in DC that might cause a typical citizen to reflect on how the American government’s policies and, arguably, war crimes in Vietnam caused untold and indefensible suffering there, not just among Americans. Our Vietnam War memorial is a great and justly popular tourist site, but it focuses memories only on our losses.

Reims Cathedral son et lumiere show (not as kitschy as expected, actually helps you see and understand the extraordinary craftsmanship). This is the cathedral where French kings came to be coronated.

Reims Cathedral son et lumiere show (not as kitschy as expected, actually helps you see and understand the extraordinary craftsmanship). This is the cathedral where French kings came to be coronated.

Yet, policies that make history a daily presence for citizens—including the bad or horrific history, not just the glories like France’s wine—might just make for a better future.

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