People always assume that my move from Germany to Texas was the greatest culture shock ever. Actually it wasn't. The most severe culture shock I ever experienced was going from a Franciscan prep school to a public university. The two schools were in walking distance from each other, yet I might as well have moved to another planet.
Follow me below the fold to find out why (and what all this has to do with electing more and better Democrats).
On my first day at the University of Osnabrueck, all the freshmen assembled in the main building, a former archbishop's palace, and listened to speeches from the Student Government (German abbreviation AStA) representatives. Politics was a big deal at my new school; in fact, all the official political parties had chapters. There were also homegrown parties vying for our votes. What they all had in common was that they represented the extreme fringe of whatever movement they stood for. No matter which end of the spectrum they came from, they were all of the "Whoa Nelly," "whackadoodle," or "WTF???" variety.
During my freshman year, the two most powerful AStA parties were Lysistrata and RCDS (Ring of Christian Democratic Students, as in "CDU goes to college"). The two groups were diametrically opposed to each other and tooks turns winning the elections. What they had in common was that one could recognize their members from miles away.
Lysistrata, in power at the time, represented radical feminism. The name, of course, was taken from the Greek comedy heroine who persuaded her fellow female citizens to refuse to sleep with their husbands until the war ended. The Lysistrata members had basically vowed to have nothing to do with men until world peace was achieved. The only function they allotted to men was as sperm donors (I don't know what they did if the baby turned out to be a boy; I didn't dare to ask).
Lysistrata members were easily recognizable by their purple overalls, Danish duck shoes, and stringy hair. To me, they looked as if it was Halloween and they were dressed up as a conservative's stereotype of a feminist. The student leader who was speaking to us about the need to overthrow a capitalist and patriarchal society sounded hoarse and angry. As I found out later, outside their political activities, Lysistrata sponsored women-only dance parties, and the members who weren't atheists belonged to a homemade variety of neo-paganism (again, no men allowed).
Up to that point I had considered myself a feminist; in fact, the kindly monks at my old school had found my leftist views somewhat troubling. Lysistrata, however, was not for me. I definitely liked men, and I thought Jesus was cool. Sorry, ladies.
The RCDS group was the exact opposite. Their political views were in line with Republicans of the Bush senior era. The party was definitely male dominated, and most of them looked quite nerdy. One could recognize them right away by their buttoned-all-the-way-up shirts and 70s-inspired corduroy and polyester pants. Most of them majored in either computer science or Catholic theology. I had definitely nothing in common with them.
I ended up staying out of political activism entirely after I realized that most AStA people took forever to graduate. As a voter, I chose the Young Socialists because they were the most moderate of the bunch.
One of the issues "the rest of us" would have liked to see discussed was the overcrowded dining hall. We had an award winning chef and government-subsidized prices, so the dining hall was quite popular. The worst day to go was Thursday. Classes met once a week, and for some reason, all the interesting classes were offered on Thursday mornings. On Thursdays at noon, the place resembled a madhouse.
Forget about sitting with your friends -- the objective was to find a place to sit at all -- nothing worse than standing there with a full tray and no place to go. One Thursday I plopped myself down at a table that was full of law students and ended opposite a young man who looked vaguely familiar.
When he introduced himself as "Christian," I remembered who he was. A classmate from prep school was active in the CDU youth organization, in which Christian Wulff was a leader. Even then, it was obvious he was getting his law degree mainly to become a professional politician. By the way, even though he is six years older, he graduated only two years ahead of me. He pretty much looked the way then he does now, only younger and nerdier. As a law student, though, he dressed somewhat snazzier than most of his RCDS buddies. One of my friends referred to him as "Conservative Ken."
I would be lying if I said that we had a profound political discussion that day. Instead we talked about soy wieners. While he was attacking a toilet lid-sized schnitzel (our lunch lady always served the men more generously than the women), I had the vegetarian option that day: lentil soup with orange, rubbery soy weenies in it.
Christian W. asked what they tasted like, and I answered that they had the consistency of a garden hose. We then discussed the shortcomings of fake meat (which has come a long way since the 1980s) while he demolished his schnitzel. No, we didn't become friends. We didn't even cross paths again. This was the extent of my contact with the future president of Germany.
Of course, since he was the only celebrity I ever went to school with, I followed his career, even though I never once voted for him. He ran against Gerhard Schroeder for governor of Lower Saxony and lost but defeated Schroeder's successor the next time around. Then this year he became president, and during his election, I sat glued to the live stream on my laptop.
The office of president in Germany is mostly ceremonial and often considered the reward for a distinguished life in public service. An unwritten rule discourages presidents from further political activity after their presidency. Wulff's candidacy came as a surprise since he is 51 years old, rather younger than his predecessors, and many had expected him to run for chancellor (the office with the real power) one day.
His election didn't go smoothly. Even though his party, the CDU is in power, it lasted until the third round, when a plurality is enough. Ironically, he won with the help of The Left, a relatively new party where many former Lysistrata members found an ideological home. The SPD had nominated Joachim Gauck, an East German civil rights activist, who is much more popular with the general public than Christian Wulff. The Left, however, thought he was too moderate. Furthermore, they were offended that the SPD had not consulted them about their choice. So instead of supporting Gauck, they nominated their own candidate, journalist Lukrezia Jochimsen.
After two rounds of voting and the dropping out of Jochimsen, Gauck had a real chance to win. However, electors from The Left announced that they would abstain from voting unless the SPD nominated another candidate with their consent. A journalist interviewing a Left elector pointed out that then, and only then, Christian Wulff, the candidate that neither the Left nor the SPD wanted, would win. The elector:
So be it then.
As I shouted "purity troll" at my laptop screen, the third round commenced, the Left abstained, and Christian Wulff won. So instead of having the German equivalent of Vaclav Havel or Desmond Tutu (Gauck is a retired Lutheran pastor) as president, we've got Conservative Ken. Compared to modern-day Republicans, he is rather moderate, and he was certainly not the worst governor Lower Saxony ever had, but he does not seem to be destined for true greatness. He is the stereotypical professional politician. Furthermore, after eighteen years of marriage, he traded in his college sweetheart for a younger model and now "represents the modern blended family." His election once again sparked a discussion whether the president should be elected directly by the people.
If back in 1984 I had told the purple overall-clad speaker on my first day of school, that one day her future party would help Christian Wulff become president of Germany, she would have declared me insane. However, alas, that's what happened.
So don't be a Lysistrata. This November, don't cut off your nose to spite your face. Vote for the candidate who is best suited for or least damaging to the office for which he or she runs. Don't abstain. GOTV.