Why Politically 'Decent' Germany Loves Devilish House Of Cards

"There are two kinds of pain"
"There are two kinds of pain"
Ulf Poschardt

BERLIN — Frank Underwood is a cult figure to those besotted by politics. The House of Cards protagonist is willing to walk over dead bodies to achieve absolute power. As the third season begins, we are obliged to ask ourselves why Germans have such a deep love for this American villain played by Kevin Spacey.

The trauma caused by the most minor political scandals shows just how thoroughly decent Germans are. Helmut Kohl, one of the leading statesmen of the 20th century, retired from politics amid a rather tame donation scandal. As German Green Party politician Claudia Roth says, German politicians value decency, and that's exactly why they love and have become such loyal fans of this cult series about the heights of political indecency.

House of Cards, whose third season started in Germany last week, analyzes and holds up a mirror to politics and its democratic workings. It does it in such a way that even insiders are fascinated and inspired by it, although fortunately not necessarily inspired to follow its example.

Murder, lies and intrigue

The storyline follows the unstoppable rise to power of the Democratic Party's ambitious congressional leader. And it's packed full of murder, lies, intrigue, manipulation, blackmail and kidnapping. Democratic Party leader Frank Underwood, the inscrutable series protagonist, personifies Machiavellian methods to become the most virtuoso power player of them all.

Washington's political apparatus, at the center of the last remaining world power, is his instrument, and he knows how to play it. He collects the strengths and weaknesses of his enemies and friends like other people collect books, all to advance his own cause.

His will is simply monstrous to behold. Underwood is unbelievably efficient — while others talk, he acts. Where others hesitate, he pounces. When others only start to think, he has already solved the problem to his own satisfaction.

Alpha male's absolute solitude

Underwood fights his way up from the bottom of the heap with hard work, shrewdness and ruthlessness. He marries a beautiful woman of high standing drawn by his erotic aura of the alpha male. She is the last confidante of the man who otherwise lives in absolute solitude.

As an interesting aside, actor Kevin Spacey is actually a good friend of the Clintons. The genius writer of the series, Beau Willimon, worked for Democratic Party election campaigns even as a teenager, Hillary Clinton's included. He later served a stint for the Estonian government in Tallinn before deciding to follow his dreams of becoming a writer.

Willimon's script for the film drama The Ides of March was filled with disillusioned observations of politicians who stand for the good, the true and the beautiful. And it is because of that disappointment, Underwood is a Democrat and not a caricature of a Tea Party clown or a Bush acolyte.

Spacey revealed in an interview that insiders told him House of Cards was 99% accurate. The inaccurately portrayed 1% is the supposed efficiency of the U.S. Congress, which is only added to drive the narrative forward. Underwood is interested only in results, not in the immoral means to reach them. He doesn't spare himself or others, may they be friend or enemy or spouse.

Nearly everything about him seems radical. He discovers people and their talents and drops them as soon as they disappoint him or lose their value.

Echoing the world's traumas

The national and international stage of power is presented in a cool and elegant light in this series. Caustic punch lines, not sentiment, are the order of the day. The success of Underwood's fictional character, with legions of fans, may also be an echo of the world's traumas in the early 21st century — Islamist terror, Russia's alienation from the rest of the world, the failure of nation building, the global financial crisis, and signs of fatigue among the West's democracies.

It's against this backdrop that the cruel, mentally disturbed Underwood appears to be the silver lining on the horizon rather than a side effect of decadence. He is virile enough to disentangle the most complex incompatibilities of dialogue through brutality or intrigue. Underwood loves democracy, America, social mobility and the dynamics of human nature. He wants to create a better America but despises those who are too naïve or sentimental in their approach. He very nearly sacrifices everything for this one true, but broken, love.

The trailers for the third season, shared by thousands of fans, have made followers of the series nervous because they seem to imply that Underwood may lose Claire, the love of his life. At the end of the second season, something comes to life in Claire that Underwood has long since lost: a conscience. It is looking dark for Underwood indeed.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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