Can the World Cup save Holland? by mattsteinglass
July 4, 2010, 4:53 am
Filed under: Netherlands, Sports

Short answer: No. Longer answer: Our taxi driver at the Amsterdam train station on Thursday was of uncertain nationality. He seemed to be originally Turkish or Kurdish, but described himself as Belgian from Wallonia, and switched from speaking Dutch with us to speaking French as though it were a gesture of intimacy, as though we were switching into his native language; but he spoke with an accent, and when he got a call on his mobile phone, he had a short conversation with a friend in what sounded like either Arabic or Kurdish. My wife thought he might be a Kurdish refugee, and there was something in his manner that seemed that way. Anyway, the conversation touched on soccer and the upcoming Brazil match, and he said: “Wij gaan winnen dit jaar. Zij spelen niet goed, maar zij spelen efficient.” We’re going to win this year. They’re not playing well, but they’re playing efficiently. He meant the Dutch team. And it was clearly a way of asserting his permanent membership in Dutch society, in much the way that sport serves to cement the American-ness of first-generation immigrants in the US.

I watched the match at the community-center pub in Tuincentrum Holland’s Glorie, across the road from the friend’s houseboat where we’re staying. A tuincentrum is a community garden, and their presence is a icon and artifact of Dutch egalitarian socialist urban planning in the period before the neo-liberal turn of the 1990s. They’re close in to urban areas, and the plots are large enough to construct a little shed, so apartment dwellers can have some garden space in a separate location. Holland’s Glorie has a playground, a soccer field, and a little shop and community center with a pub, and they were showing the match on a large screen in the pub. At the end of the first half, with Holland down 1-0 and playing lethargically, people had a characteristically sour Dutch self-critical attitude. I didn’t manage to film the ecstatic reaction when the Dutch scored their goals, but here’s how it looked as the match drew to a close.

[youtubevid id=”mshtYLGVIcA”]

Down on the River Amstel where we’re staying, people were stripping naked, climbing onto other people’s houseboats and jumping into the river.

Today in his blog at the NRC Handelsblad, Steven de Jong asks: “Can the World Cup fix our banged-up country?” Since the last time the Netherlands reached the quarterfinals in 1998, de Jong writes, the country has seen crisis after crisis, with the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, the constantly collapsing and reforming Christian Democratic governments of the past decade, and so forth. He cites sportscolumnist Auke Kok‘s linking of conservative politics to conservative soccer in mid-June: “A few weeks after the electoral victory of [far-right politician] Geert Wilders [who didn’t actually win but scored unprecedentedly well], Orange is playing a game that stands miles apart from the progressive bravura with which whole generations grew up.” He refers to historian Coos Huijsen’s book “The Myth of Orange” and the argument that abstract concepts such as democracy and freedom are insufficient to form a polity, that soccer supplies the “emotional dimension that gives sense and meaning to membership in a society.”

What de Jong doesn’t specifically address is the ethnic-religious tension that has driven Dutch politics over the past decade, and whether the success of the national soccer team can do anything on that score. My sense is that this is unlikely, but I would be curious to know more about how strongly ethnic Moroccans and Turks, apart from my taxi driver, are rooting for Holland to win. I don’t know how important this is, but one of the ways in which sport has classically served as an integration machine is by promoting ethnic-minority stars (think Zinovine Zidane in France, or in the US Michael Jordan or for that matter Joe DiMaggio); and the Dutch team is strikingly white. In the previous generation of Dutch greats, the teams that won the European Championship in the late ’80s, you had the half-Surinamese star Ruud Gullit. Today the top two strikers are Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder.

All of this is a bit tongue in cheek; sports don’t really have much influence on politics, and for the moment politics in the Netherlands is preoccupied more with budget deficits than with racial or religious issues. But I do share a bit of Aude Kok’s concern that a victory for Orange at this moment will be felt as a victory for a very conservative, nostalgic, “autochtoon” vision of Orange that Dutch society really needs to move beyond.


Netherlands returns to sanity, prepares to elect moderate Jewish guy by mattsteinglass
April 18, 2010, 10:48 pm
Filed under: Judaism, Netherlands, Uncategorized

I’m extremely excited that the Netherlands is returning to form and preparing to elect yet another middle-of-the-road, unexciting, comforting, responsible fatherly mediator figure as Prime Minister. For a while there it really looked possible that they would give in to the temptations of Islamophobic whack-job-dom and elect Geert Wilders’s far-right pro-ignorance PVV. But a new Maurice de Hond poll has Labor in the top slot with 33 seats– the first time that’s happened since I moved to the Netherlands in 1999 — and PVV fading to fourth place at 20 seats, behind the free-market center-right Liberals and the Christian Democrats. Labor leader Job Cohen’s profile is much more like that of Wim Kok, the Labor centrist whose “purple” left-right coalitions with the Liberals dominated Dutch politics in the 1990s, than that of Wouter Bos, the younger somewhat flashy good-looking fella who stepped down as Labor leader two months ago. Cohen, who has been Mayor of Amsterdam since approximately forever, is also renowned for having fostered unusually good interfaith relations and kept the peace between Muslims and Christians despite the potential flash-point of the Theo van Gogh murder and the constant provocations of Wilders.

Tangentially, Cohen would also be one of a very small number of Jewish prime ministers of countries other than Israel. Currently, Czech premier Jan Fischer is Jewish. But going further back, I can’t think of any other Jewish PMs until you get to Pierre Mendes France, who was French PM from 1952-55. But of course the PM was and remains a secondary role in France, and Mendes France was subordinate to President Charles de Gaulle. Back in the ’30s when the PM really was the leader of the government, the French had Leon Blum. Then in an earlier era you have New Zealand PM Julius Vogel and so forth. Surely there must be more recent ones, though; anybody?

Dutch politics: a distant mirror by mattsteinglass
March 12, 2010, 11:28 pm
Filed under: Netherlands

Wouter Bos, the handsome 46-year-old leader of the Labor Party, announced abruptly and rather shockingly yesterday that he’s stepping down as party leader and Minister of Finance to spend more time with his wife and 3 young children. The top job in Labor will apparently go to 62-year-old Job Cohen, longtime mayor of Amsterdam, who commands wide respect and affection for keeping the peace in a difficult city, but doesn’t have quite the charisma or dynamism of Bos. The Dutch paper NRC Handelsblad has a readers’ discussion going. Here’s what one fairly representative voice had to say:

Cohen is een prima opvolger. We hebben weer een politicus nodig die een vaderlijk overwicht heeft… De boel bij elkaar houden lijkt me een urgent streven de komende tijd. Hij laat zich niet gek maken.

(Cohen is a great successor. We need a politician with fatherly authority… Holding things together seems to me to be an urgent priority at this point. He doesn’t let anything drive him crazy.)

And here’s a different kind of representative voice:

Een slapjanus die te laf is om crimineel allochtoon tuig eindelijk eens keihard aan te pakken en liever een kop thee met hen drinkt is wel het laatste waar Nederland behoefte aan heeft. Nee, zo’n man mag geen premier worden, gesubsidieerd welzijnswerker is een geschiktere baan voor meneer Cohen want praten kan hij als geen ander.

(A weakling who’s too cowardly to finally take hard action against the criminal foreigners and would rather drink a cup of tea with them is the last thing the Netherlands needs. No, that kind of man can’t be a premier, a better job for him would be as a subsidized social worker, because he can talk like nobody else.)

You can hear the echoes here of American politics.

Sad times for the Netherlands by mattsteinglass
March 6, 2010, 1:24 am
Filed under: Conservatism, Netherlands

Geert Wilders held a press conference in London yesterday. Among other things, he called the Prophet Mohammed “a barbarian, a mass-murderer and a pedophile.” As the Volkskrant describes the scene, the international press fell silent. Mr Wilders then referred to Turkish premier Erdogan as a “total freak”. On a perhaps slightly less objectionable note, he said his priority as prime minister, should he receive that post, would be to halt “mass immigration” from Muslim countries.

Ten years ago, when I was living in the Netherlands, the far-right party of Jorg Haidar joined the Austrian governing coalition, and all over Holland, mainstream Dutch called for the country to be boycotted. Times sure do change.

The Beavis-ization of the contemporary right by mattsteinglass
February 22, 2010, 12:13 pm
Filed under: Conservatism, Netherlands

So I’m reading through Geert Wilders’s contribution to the February 18 Dutch cabinet debate over the Afghanistan mission that eventually led to the fall of the Dutch cabinet, and here’s what he has to say:

Nederland heeft zelden zo’n zooitje ongeregeld bij elkaar gezien. CDA en PvdA vechten elkaar publiekelijk de tent uit en wantrouwen elkaar tot op het bot. De gezichten van minister Bos en minister Verhagen op tv spreken boekdelen. Ze kunnen elkaars bloed wel drinken. Hun gezichten tonen afschuw en achterdocht. Heel Nederland ziet het. Heel Nederland ruikt het. En weer heeft de premier geen enkele regie, hij ziet nu ook al zijn vierde kabinet uit elkaar spatten. Hij is totaal machteloos. Balkenende staat er bij en kijkt ernaar.

Quick, crappy/inaccurate translation: “Seldom has the Netherlands seen such a disorganized mess. The Christian Democrats and Labor are throwing each other out of the tent in public, and mistrust each other to the bone. The faces of Minister Bos and Minister Verhagen on TV speak volumes. They could drink each others’ blood. All Holland can see it. All Holland can smell it. And again the PM has no leadership whatsoever, he can see his fourth cabinet coming apart. He’s completely powerless. Balkenende just stands there watching.”

What’s striking here is that this little passage has absolutely no policy content. (Trust me, the rest of his speech was pretty much the same.) This is entirely a description of politics as reality TV show; rather than thinking of himself as a political figure with a role to play in government, Wilders casts himself as the grumpy viewer looking on in and critiquing. He’s playing Beavis and Butthead to the actual business of governance. He has, in fact, nothing sensible of his own to say; he sticks to snide commentary on the spectacle of politics, and tries to avoid any coherent policy statements that might tie him to a position long enough for someone to point out how idiotic and unworkable it is. When he finally lays out his position on Afghanistan, it’s this: “For the PVV it’s simple: Out of Uruzgan, out of Afghanistan. Of course the Taliban must be fought, but no more, to the extent we were doing so, by the Netherlands. Our country has done more than enough. We’ve had it.”

This is it? Somebody has to fight the Taliban, but not us? Is this an adult speaking?

I think there’s something broadly familiar in this stance that resonates with the way similar political figures in other countries cast themselves. (Think of Sarah Palin yammering about Washington elites, then tossing out three-word platitudes. Drill, baby, drill!) Somehow these politicians are able to fashion themselves as avatars of the grumpy ignoramuses watching the spectacle of politics at home on their TV sets, cussing and cracking stupid jokes at the screen; they incarnate a stupid knowingness about politics, just as Beavis and Butthead incarnated a stupid knowingness about music.

At one level you could applaud this all as a masterful gesture of detournement on the part of a population too long treated as idiots by a manipulative political system. You want to treat us as idiots? We’ll give you idiots! The problem, however, is that they are, in fact, giving us idiots, and while this made for arguably amusing early-90s TV, it’s kind of screwing up the world.

My final supporting plank for this argument relies on a visual point that has been made by others, but not, I believe, anywhere near often enough:


Dutch: not as untranslatable as they say by mattsteinglass
January 14, 2010, 4:31 am
Filed under: Netherlands

The Felicia Lee NY Times review of what looks like a pretty great Flemish teen-theater production notes that “Once and for All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen” is “not its original, untranslatable Dutch title”. Checking the theater company’s website, the original Dutch title appears to be “Pubers bestaan niet”, which unless I’m missing a pun translates pretty easily as “Teenagers don’t exist”. (There’s a little slippage between “pubers” and “teenagers”, which could also be translated “tieners”, but not too much.)

The theater company’s name, “Ontroerend Goed”, is based on a hard-to-translate pun, so perhaps that’s what Lee meant to refer to. (The company itself makes a good stab at it with “Feel Estate”.) In general though I think claims that things are “untranslatable” should be taken with a grain of salt. There’s an incentive for both producers and reviewers to exaggerate these sorts of things as part of an exoticist cultural sales job.

The gradual elimination of the public option by mattsteinglass
November 23, 2009, 5:30 am
Filed under: Health, Netherlands, Politics

As Robert Reich details, the slow elimination of the public option as any part of health care reform is a demonstration of the complete dominance the private health insurance industry has retained over the process. What this means is that essentially creating more or less universal coverage in the US is going to mean putting another 30 million Americans on private health insurance, and having the taxpayers pay their premiums. In theory, later down the road, now that the government is picking up the tab for everyone’s health care, we could start forcing private sector reforms to bring down costs. That’s what happens in, say, the Netherlands, with its all-private universal health insurance system. But the problem is that the process of health sector reform has conclusively demonstrated that private industry has so much power in the American political system that it’s beginning to seem implausible that Congress could ever vote to force cost reductions on any private industry, the health industry included.

Ultimately, one should start to hit a point where taxpayers refuse to subsidize private industry any more. To date, this point has been put off by deficit spending. At some point, however, it’s going to become impossible to do that anymore: some years down the line, government borrowing needs will become so astronomical that they will start to force bond yields up again and crowd out private investment. At that point, business interests will start to balk. Then the government will be faced with a choice: raise taxes, or cut services. What will happen at that point?

Taxes on the politically powerful wealthy will not be raised sufficiently to meet the government’s debt needs. Rather, taxes will be raised on, and services will be cut for, the politically powerless. That means the poor. The poor will pay higher taxes and receive less medical care and worse education. The government will eliminate infrastructure investment. That’s how America works. It’s a two-class society, where class divides are reinforced and exacerbated by the control of the wealthy over the political system.

I’m married to a Dutch woman, so I have the option of moving to the Netherlands, a far more egalitarian society with a government that, up to this point at least, has largely proven itself up to the task of facing the country’s major social and political problems. (We’ll see what happens if Geert Wilders wins the next elections.) In some ways, I would prefer to live in America. And I could in fact prosper in America: I’m a skilled professional from the upper sector of America’s class distribution, so I could take advantage of my background to make a lot more money than I could in the Netherlands, and not have to kick much back in taxes to provide a social infrastructure or educational opportunity for the poor. America’s political system would allow me, as a member of the elite, to siphon off more of the country’s wealth. I’m pretty sure I could live well in America. But that’s because of the extent to which American society has become corrupt and exploitative, and joining up with a project like that is in many ways pretty unattractive.