Thursday 18 November 2004

Here lies ...

Greatest person competitions
It was with interesting amusement that we all witnessed the climax of the mockery of history shows that tries to extract from popular opinion the greatest personality of a nation.
When the BBC conducted this event in 2002, Winston Churchill [1] was voted the first, and then in 2003, Sir Isaac Newton [2] who was sixth in the previous year was voted the first.
What a difference a year makes, or some people have really done a biographical study of the contenders and begun thinking rather than following the media hype.
Mind you, the English seem to have a knack for inventing new shows that get copied by other institutions like the Weakest Link, Who wants to be a Millionaire and now this charade of greatest countrymen.
So the circus came to the Netherlands amidst a lot of noise, a murder, tensions between communities and the reminders of a very recent political event.
Striding past a villa in a village in the Veneto region of Italy, a slightly weathered tombstone bears a newly engraved message - Here lies the greatest Dutchman of them all. [3]
You would be forgiven for thinking it was Vincent van Gogh, the painter, who came tenth in the list, but he was buried in French; nor was it Anne Frank, the refugee Jewish diarist from the Nazi times whose nationality was contested during this event, she died in a concentration camp.
Nor was it Rembrandt van Rijn, another popular Dutch painter and engraver; William of Orange who at one time was King of England and considered the founder of the Dutch nation came second. Erasmus is someone you might have heard of and for football fans Johan Cruyff who came sixth.
All these people represent a very positive and recognisable image of the enterprising, tolerant, intelligent and innovative Dutch, just like Philips and the invention of compact discs.
More so, there are no populist politicians, but people who painstakingly went about their business and in the process were recognised for what they did, what they represented and who they are.
Pim who?
So, it was with utterly bewilderment that we received the information that Pim Fortuyn was voted the greatest Dutchman ever.
It is likely, that you do not know this man, but he has the unfortunate record of being the first political murder in the Netherlands in over 300 years. He was gunned down by an animal rights activist in May 2002 in the media park of the assembly of radio and television stations in a distant Amsterdam suburb.
In my previous blog, I made mention of him in relation to a more recent murder of a descendant to Vincent van Gogh and how his rise to prominence was as a result of challenging the unfriendly commentary of minority group Muslim clerics in Rotterdam.
However, in all that can be said about Pim Fortuyn [4], he was vocally on the political scene for less than a year, he had quite a number of personal achievements, he was quite eccentric and was not affected by his alternative lifestyle related to his sexual orientation.
However, he represented a seemingly popular view that no one would express regarding immigration, integration and Islam; however, those views earned him lots of votes.
The media in general compared his banter to that of fascists and extreme right-wing propaganda. His animosity to Europe was quite evident, and though he displayed a flair for exercising free speech, he was not an espousing of the Dutch values of tolerance and friendliness.
After his death, his party which was a tribute to egomania in that it was simply "Pim Fortuyn's List" came second in the elections, but fell into terminal decay that within 6 months they caused the government to fall and then lost most of their seats in the election that came there after.
However, the vote occurred in the light of the recent killing of Theo van Gogh who is mistakenly given the accolade of a champion of free speech. He was NOT.
In a twist of irony; Mr Pim Fortuyn who so spoke of Dutch values and expression, defending the history, culture and political soul of the Dutch to the very end, died in the Netherlands but was buried far away from what he was martyred in protecting - in a little village in the region of Veneto in Italy.
Just as the highest point in the Netherlands is the platform from which you view the "highest" natural point in the Netherlands [5], be not surprised if whilst on holiday next summer in Italy you wonder how you can across a piece of Holland, where the greatest Dutchman is laid to rest.
[3] Fortuyn buried after Dutch bid farewell
[5] Drielandenpunt - the highest point in the Netherlands

Thursday 11 November 2004

A Shocking Culture of Culture Shock

The Queue starts with Q
By happenstance one was found in a queue exiting a health club which was about to close for the day. The queue was about 30 deep and one was positioned around the 22nd.
Suddenly, someone determined to jump the queue through came along but I refused point blank that he pass by me, stating the fact that we were not all idiots destined to spend the whole day there and that each person had to take his turn in a civilised society.
For which I got a tirade of unspeakable abuse that was completely unwarranted, anyway, I did not budge one bit.
Unbeknownst to me, this was causing quite a lot of discomfort for some further along in the queue and I was advised to let the queue-jumper through since I had made my point.
I retorted and upbraided the speaker for condoning such anti-social attitudes and solicited support to condemn outright the queue-jumper's behaviour, thereby sending him back to the tail of the queue; to which a few nodded but none acted.
The culprit finally paid up after me and then went on to threaten me on the street for my effrontery, I deigned to call the police, but after a while the culprit walked away.
Gaining Understanding
For weeks I marvelled at the experience and the fact that no one felt it right to properly speak up against a wrong-doing and take action to enforce civility and social manners.
One relation of this experience then gave insight; in this society, it might be fine for people to speak up about an anti-social attitude but it is not customary to do so. When one does, just the mention of it should suffice, but no action should be taken to enforce the good. If the offender takes offence, you withdraw your challenge and let the misdemeanour through.
However, if you do still intend to enforce the good, you are labelled the trouble-maker for speaking up for civilised behaviour and then trying to enforce civilised behaviour.
This society believes in freedoms, freewill without let or hindrance and the freedom to exercise your rights which might impact on others, but they can bear the situation as long as they suffer with others.
Another area where this is exemplified is on the very narrow Amsterdam city roads where drivers can park their cars and unload their vehicles in the middle of the road regardless of the tail of traffic that builds up behind them.
In that setting, to hoot with the intention of hurrying up the driver who might be acting oblivious of others is considered uncivilised.
Then again, shoppers fall into all sorts of categories. In my case, I do all my research and get all my information before I leave home, armed with the details of what I want. If the shop allows self-service, I pick up the required goods and go straight to the counter.
Only that at the counter, I have someone completely opposite to me; they know nothing of what they want and use the tiller as their research, knowledge and detailing agent for their requirements.
Nothing wrong with that, but in the queue are "ready-to-pay" customers who have made up their minds and are already fed-up of the scenery. Just then, the tiller leaves the till to devote their whole time to the whims of a customer who might eventually not even purchase anything.
Dare I complain? Everyone seems to be happy with the fact that they are not being served.
This informs the sociology of the next point I am about to make.
What is the real defence of free speech?
Early last week a well known but unpopular and utterly virulent commentator and film maker was murdered on a main street in Amsterdam. That was bad enough, but the savagery of the attack which involved multiple shots and stabbings reminiscence of a type of sacrifice made it even more shocking.
Apparently, this man was killed by a mixed-race minority with extremist Islamic values. One of the stabbings which left the knife in place held a message decipherable as Arabic and a host of other expressions threatening the lives of other similarly expressive and very controversial personalities, whilst declaring an Islamic Jihad on the Netherlands.
I must get one thing straight right here - I DO NOT CONDONE VIOLENCE - against the person, against property, against a people or an ideology.
However, actions like these do not occur for that sake of a whim, there are genealogies, histories, circumstances and situations that bear witness to the manifestations that make front-page news. Unfortunately, that is lost in the sensationalism of the tabloidic approach to the coverage of news.
Pim Fortuyn
When Pim Fortuyn was murdered by an animal rights activist in the quest for protecting the vulnerable, many did not agree with some of his views, but the making of Pim Fortuyn was the unconscionable pulpit messages of a certain Imam in his home town of Rotterdam that condemned unequivocally the liberal Dutch culture, gays and a host of Dutch values.
Pim Fortuyn reacted and developed his message on the simple theme that evokes the right of a host to expect and demand courtesy of his guests; being able to lord it in his house without hindrance.
The Imam questioned that common sense view of host and guest where the Dutch were the hosts and the immigrants were the guests – that was enough to inflame any host. Pim Fortuyn embodied those host values.
However, to broaden his appeal the policies he adopted about Europe and his at times egotistical manner did not play down well with many who reported his views, but tacitly, the general populace warmed to those views.
Nine days before the elections, Pim Fortuyn was gunned down and a pall fell on the country, voters went out and gave a sympathy vote to a leaderless party with no ideology other than 'we are the hosts' and plunged the country into political turmoil that did not get resolved for over a year.
Another van Gogh
Now, Mr Theo van Gogh was cremated yesterday, but not until the whole saga behind his death had spun off some confusing thoughts about what really happened.
Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said "It is unacceptable if expressing your opinion would be the cause of this brutal murder". "On a day like this we are reminded of the murder of Fortuyn. We cannot resign ourselves to such a climate" he added.
Then another colleague says "He was a controversial figure and a champion of free speech"
This is my beef; Mr van Gogh who happens to be a relative of Vincent van Gogh, the famous painter was a very expressive and controversial figure who rubbed people up the very wrong way. He had already been sued by the Jewish community and was to appear in court soon for some of his intemperate views.
I do support the inalienable right to right speech and freedom of expression, but to use it as an instrument of reckless controversial propaganda that divides, alienates, castigates, berates, denigrates and condemns people and their views is gross irresponsibility and incites responses which might include violence.
Why is it that in a world of free speech and freedom of expression we have laws of libel, sedition, slander, defamation and probable incitation to violence?
All those are expressions of the rights that include free speech, but sanctions are imposed where that right is abused.
Mr Theo van Gogh might have unashamedly exercised his right to free speech, but he was no champion of the responsible use of the freedom of expression, rather he used the tool to unsympathetically attack minorities and their cultures with the view to de-culturalising them for wholesale assimilation in the Dutch society.
The fact is, if people belong to many cultures they represent all those cultures, portraying the good and bad of that whole setting.
The death of Mr van Gogh is both a result of the complacence of a society that allows people to offend with impunity on the basis of free speech and the hardening of society which is polarised on the cultural divide of value systems of the Dutch and their immigrant population.
Both ends of the spectrum are bad for this society and until people condemn rather than condone the psyche that allows people to ignore civility in the pursuit of self-interest, 2 political deaths in 2 years would represent the tip of a continental iceberg.
Meanwhile for now, one wonders who will rest in peace, the murdered or the Dutch - till another controversial firebrand snuffs away thier lives on the sacrificial altar of free speech. Even I am also caught on the horns of this dilemma.