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 now mix up 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.

dinsdag 31 mei 2016


To recall what anti-Semitism and Holocaust may mean for Jews is not easy. Such we could experience once more during the last few weeks after comments by Ken Livingstone (“Hitler was a Zionist”), the fuss around Abou Jahjah and unhappy reactions from Leon de Winter.

Who in my opinion sets a good tone, is the historian Auke Kok. Probably that has to do with the absence of any stereotyping of Jews which he presents in his columns. While in commemoration texts quite often there is a reverent kind of whispering about the victims; and where with Leon de Winter it always turns into good guys versus bad guys – with predictably Jews in the role of first – ; there Kok  just paints real-life people.

Thus he wrote on the occasion of the commemoration of the Amsterdam Februarystrike of 1941 about the fighting culture in poor Jewish neighborhoods in the twenties and thirties. There were Jewish “boxers, weightlifters and wrestlers: street boys who formed gangs in the war. With everything that was hard and sharp they beated on the WA. Because, also when it comes to Jews, not all of them were – or are – sweethearts, really”.

And on the occasion of May 4, Liberation Day, he presented Han Hollander. Hollander was since the thirties a nationally known football commentator, who in 1936 had enthusiastically reported on the Olympic Games in Berlin for the Dutch radio. In return he had received an expression of thanks, signed by the Fuehrer himself , that at Hollander’s home hung on the wall and on the basis of which he imagined to be protected against transport. Until he and his wife were arrested in July 1942 and killed in Sobibor.

Auke Kok reduces victims to the correct human proportions. Jews were and are ni ange ni bête. They are just people with all the habits and bad habits that come with it.

And indeed, also such people simply want to live in a safe country.

Also see Countries without borders

zaterdag 28 mei 2016

Comfortably against the grain

Consultant Ben Tiggelaar is known for his successful training sessions under the name ‘MBA in a Day’. At the same time I know him as the author of provocative management critical columns in NRC. In it he shows himself comfortably against the grain.

Thus,  for example, he criticizes the fashionable emphasis on learning. That easily becomes a policy thing, he says, imposed by supervisors who are not really interested. Of them Tiggelaar says: “Do not misunderstand me, I am in favour of learning and development. But I am against impossible plans that you invent, and I must run”.

And when he reads a passage like this: “Employees in functiongroup 3 must with respect to the competence ‘situational awareness’ be at ‘expert level’”, he knows for sure: he would never again be employed. Tiggelaar actually wants not to have to do with managers any longer.

In reading his columns I sometimes wonder why Tiggelaar presents his training under the aegis of MBA. Indeed, does ‘Master of Business Administration’ not represent all those things he shoots in a refreshingly decisive way? Such as: an overemphasis on control via  budgets, financial planning and HR tools. Or, by extension, a unhealthily strong division between leaders and performers.

Tiggelaar,  I think,  fully agrees with Henry Mintzberg who in Managers, not MBA’s says about MBA’s that “too many of them are trapped in a regime of rational tunnel-thinking, schematic planning and calculating management”. Tiggelaar: “Many managers do more harm than good, they are the worst cause of stress. People do not quit jobs, they quit bosses”.

So why then this MBA advert for his trainings?

It could very well be of course that Tiggelaar puts that in his ads because the predicate MBA - rightly or not - has a strong reputation. I do not believe that the successful completion of the training day produces any title, but mentioning ‘MBA’ may act as bait. Mintzberg confirms that a scientific label, such as an MBA degree, is highly regarded in management circles.

But perhaps Tiggelaar, by the use of the term MBA, intended to for once give it a critical interpretation and to direct the managers’ attention to the absurdity of much  management rhetoric.

Given the brave waywardness of his columns I choose for this last explanation.

woensdag 18 mei 2016

Right he is

Against all cynicism the philosopher Jurriaan Rood emphasizes that our Western society is indeed based on strong principles. In reaction to pessimistic sounds about political and social polarization, he states: “The biggest mistake is to think that we are a groundless, aimless society. Western society has very clear principles – we have grossly neglected them in recent decades, but we should exhibit them with more consciousness and pride: the separation of church and state, the monopoly of the state on violence and tolerance of dissent”.

To this he adds, going against the usual glorification of ‘Judeo-Christian values’: “Note that in these matters it is not the Judeo-Christian culture against Islam or something. Neither in the Christian nor in the Jewish culture tolerance was an important value”.

Right he is. Traditional Christian intolerance toward non-Christians is well known enough and I leave it out of consideration here. Jewish intolerance is perhaps less in the front of the mind, but there’s certainly been. Especially against dissent in the own Jewish circle, such as against Uriel da Costa and Baruch Spinoza.

Nevertheless, with regard to the latter intolerance a side remark is in place. Because if one, within the Jewish tradition, did not put into question the foundations (as did Da Costa and Spinoza), there was a lot room for maneuver. Then you could have a dissenting opinion which was at odds with that of authoritative rabbis and still be  mentioned in the Talmud. Then a sometimes dizzying variety of opinions was allowed, for which you may also use the word ‘tolerance’.

Especially when you compare it with the handling of losers of the internal Christian debates, such as found place at the councils of Nicea and Constantinople. They were just written out of history.

Also see Collectivity and Individual

woensdag 4 mei 2016

Naivety was quite common those days

In the fifties of the last century the World Health Organization used the following definition of health: ‘Health is a state of total physical and mental well-being’.

The word ‘total’ in this definition is significant: apparently the ideal of a complete absence of any defect was held high, and the tendency was towards the formulation of absolute requirements and duties when it comes to the protection of health. If to that the faith is linked that all that is realizable, on the scale of the whole world, then that definition gets a little naive.

But such were the times. The horrors of the Second World War were still fresh in memory, and the ubiquitous reaction was: ‘The world must become a better place’. People started to reconstruct their lives, with a strong faith in science and technology and with an amazing optimism about progress. Thereby the leading elite, and therefore the authors of the declaration, was still largely recruited from the Eurocentric upper classes, who from their privileged position were inclined already to think according to strictly rational Kantian patterns and in terms of an undisturbed course of life.

Nowadays health authorities start from the somewhat more manageable concept of ‘positive health’: ie the ability to adapt. With this in mind, you can still be healthy with a chronic disease.

The aforementioned characteristics of the declaration on health, ie the universality of the definition and the totality of the concomitant protection, are also reflected in the declarations of human rights stemming from the same period. As in the UN Refugee Convention of 1951. It states inter alia that anyone who fears violence and persecution can count on protection in another country. By the word ‘anyone’, according to many current interpreters of that Convention, the drafters indeed meant: everyone on earth. And from the wording of such a universal right might very well speak the same naivety as from the idea of overall health.

Because if it comes to the point, according to the Convention, you are obliged to offer the entire population of a region at war the right to asylum. Even if the rest of the world does not participate. Even if would happen what Henri Beunders describes, that the region in war does not include ‘only’ 20 million Syrians, but also 6 to 7 million Eritreans, and another half a billion Africans if the situation explodes in Egypt, Libya and Nigeria.

The latter is not at all inconceivable, but the Convention does not allow to think about the practical managability of the situation we would then arrive at. The absolute terms of the Convention suggest that it really does not matter whether something is conceivable or inconceivable. That’s the way the Convention argues, with Kant and the fifties at its side.

Personally, I am not so sure about that. Theoretically I am, of course, but I mean in practical terms. Because unmanageable situations tend to create their own kinds of socio-political disasters.

Also see Values as natural phenomena and The whole world - or just a small part?