donderdag 23 juni 2016

Poverty of ideas


Already for a long time they were very annoying, those short fuses, the abuse in digital space, and the violence on the streets. But those fuses are so repulsively short now that everyone seems to get bothered by them.

With some benevolence one could derive this from the commotion surrounding the resurgent debate on racism and integration. In it nuanced positions seem hardly to exist anymore, and little is needed to be reproached for being a ‘dirty racist’ or a ‘cancer Negro’ or ‘goat fucker’.

I recognize myself in the sigh of writer Sana Valiulina as she cries out: why is interaction so mediocre in our society? And the echo of this lamentation from the Brussels teacher Bruno Derbaix: why is it so difficult to talk about ideas? He arrives at this question by his reflection on the attack in Zaventem which involved one of his pupils. “My pupil Najim Laachraoui was not a bad boy. As a teenager he dreamed of a society that would appreciate Islam”.

Prior to his sigh Derbaix asked the following questions.

To Najim: why did you exchange your ideal of a peaceful ‘perfect religion’ for savagery and destruction?

To ourselves: why did we for nearly forty years allow Wahabism to become so dominant in the mosques, bookstores, the neighborhoods. Why didn’t we realize how dangerous that was for the well-meaning Muslims?

To our educators: why didn’t we give more resonance and resources to the forces that strove after change in education?

To our Muslim intellectuals: why didn’t they make more efforts to give room to that other Islam on the Internet, in the mosques and in the public space?

And then comes the – in my eyes – fundamental question: “Why is it so difficult in this society to talk about ideas? Why is there in the schools, in neighborhoods, in the universities so little space to exchange ideas, to confront our differences with each other, to conduct a dialogue. How did we let create a world where there is so little discussion about religion except in terms of stereotypes and templates?”

Or do I mix now two entirely different issues in an unduly way: the verbal violence which Valiulina is talking about and the really physical violence of Derbaix? One could  say: these are indeed completely different things.

But I’m not so sure about that. I think it is at least remarkable that Valiulina and Derbaix from the different angles of verbal violence on the one hand and physical violence on the other, arrive at the same fundamental question: why are many conversations so flat, whence the inability of our society to talk about ideas? That’s no coincidence.

Valiulina herself attempts to reply to her question, and she lays the blame for the observed inability with neoliberalism. Her reasoning is as follows. Neoliberalism focuses on rationality and on the creation of as much wealth as possible. As long as you  strive for that, you are ok – according to that ideology. You do not have to worry any longer about moral issues or the irrational side of life. Surrender to the system is all you need, and above all: don’t make things more complicated than they are.

Surrender to the system thus implies: don’t ask big questions anymore. And in return be rewarded through the attractions of our affluent society, like endless consumption opportunities, social media, festivals and trips to the other side of the world. Material abundance instead of wealth of ideas.

But, says Valiulina, the deepest human questions come from man’s dark, irrational side. Which require elaboration and ideas, but indeed they are ignored by neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has nothing to do with art, literature and psychoanalysis – as we can notice in recent years in the Netherlands – and that explains the defective opportunities to talk about emotions and irrational motives. They go underground and express themselves in the primitiveness of nationalism, fundamentalism and racism.

With this statement Valiulina does have a point, I think. But the trouble goes back further than the rise of neoliberalism around 1980. I remember already from before - from my student days – that I disliked the fact that good conversations could take place only late at night and after some alcohol. Ie conversations in which ideas could flow, the entire reality could be addressed and not just a superficial part of it.

Apparently it’s been much longer that in our society, behind the facade of economic and civic life, a completely separate parallel world lies hidden in which more complex – and often obscure – motives dominate. We knew this already from the stories of SS officers who conducted big horrors during daytime, and during evenings and weekends were so charmingly busy with their family and children. Some of it is to be found in the pattern Minister Asscher saw behind the abuse on the internet – he could just click through to the cozy family snapshots of the abusers.

Valiulina points to the existence of those dark parallel world, and she says that we do not only not know how to cope with it – such appears from the abuse and violence. We also prefer to flee in consumption, festivals and trips.

We will yet have to get used to it: talking about the things that really matter. And then also discuss them in a sensible way.

Also see Parrhèsia

woensdag 15 juni 2016

A fresh glance


Sometimes you need outsiders to remind you of who you are, or to see old familiar things in just a bit sharper way.

However, some outsiders are more effective in this than others. When it comes to Europe, and to a ‘European identity’, the Argentine Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis, recently posed the question: “Europe, what happened to you?”.  On the occasion of his receiving the Charlemagne Prize, the Pope suggested that Europe can be summed up as in essence a champion of humanism, freedom and charity. Thus, Europe would manifest itself at its best in the aesthetic idyll of lovely Madonnas and crystalline baroque music.

Fortunately, the pope added that most of all he ‘dreams’ of this idyll. It must be, because apart from the fact that Europe currently is conspicuously drifting between human rights and pragmatic politics, European history already centuries earlier shows a lot of mutual fighting and murderous treatment of slaves and immigrant populations. So much so that recently the newspaper wondered in an opinion article whether asylum seekers know what kind of murderous continent they are entering.

So I don’t think of Bergoglio’s presentation of Europe as adequate. More striking I find a viewpoint of the Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter, who relates baroque music in a surprising way to violence. About seventeenth-century Europe, when the two went together, he says: “Everything in Baroque music was focused on perfection and harmony. But the same nations that were so engaged in that beauty, elsewhere in the world without scruples slaughtered whole tribes. That was perfectly acceptable. Baroque music highlights the hypocrisy of Western high culture. I’m afraid that disease will for some time still be with us”.

To be able to phrase it this way, you need to have a fresh glance.

Also see (Un)purity

maandag 13 juni 2016

The tragedy of a well ordered country


The murder of nurse Linda van der Giesen could possibly have been prevented.

Already for a while Van der Giesen was threatened by her ex-husband. She invoked the police several times. The police understood the danger, and could have come into action but did not because the police protocols required building a dossier first. Without that the police’s case could be rejected by the Prosecuter and the Court. So, in this case, the protocols prevented adequate and timely action.

The problem at hand here can be summarized as follows: sometimes our thoroughly regulated society prevents us to do the right thing in a given situation. For example, to say no to energy wasting nonsensical actions that the rules dictate; or to indeed  just perform that single sensible action, even though it is against the rules.

In our orderly country the creation of more rules is often the standard response to the finding of something wrong. Such is currently on the agenda after the discovery of fraud in the Amsterdam city council. In response, all sorts of rules and controls are now being built into the work of the council. While decades of experience with this kind of rules  indicate that it is a waste of money and energy. To the frustration of many employees.

What doés work, and what actually is most desirable, is that employees would act attentively and adequately, whether it be policeofficers or Amsterdam civil servants. But by enforced compliance with rules that effect is reached only marginally. For that something completely different is required than rules.

In the police organization there is a beginning of awareness to this. Leon Kuijs, chairman of the Police College, puts it as follows. “Police officers are now taught to take responsibility for what they have done, but there comes a time – and it will not take long – that we will be accountable for what we did nót do. As, for example: you could have known this or that, because you should know everything. Why did not you see it?”

Hiding behind rules will be a lot harder then, and that seems like a good thing.