Finding a Way Out of the Polder

“It was after the end of
the world… To lie on
our backs looking
into the dark was all
there was worth

—       Nathaniel Mackey, “Eye on the Scarecrow” from Splay Anthem.

These past few months I have been busy doing everything except blogging. One could say I have been purposefully shying away from it, in the main, because I felt—and still feel—like writing fuck everything ad infinitum. An urge that I have, somehow, managed to curb when writing for ‘official’ publications and panels. My engagement with the intellectual work of theorists grouped under the label ‘Afro-Pessimism’ made me realize that the only possible response is fuck everything, starting with the nation-state. The nation-state is so deeply fucked that we might not be able to rehabilitate it, at all. If recuperation (making things better) is our political goal, then we might be setting ourselves up for an impossible task.

Over the past months, I’ve been told, several times, in purportedly leftist spaces, that my work is “too radical,” or even more bewildering: “too political.” What does it mean to be too political? What constitutes the ‘too’? The ‘too’, which is almost accusatory, is as curious as it is significant, and says much about what is considered ‘constructive politics’, and what is not. The diagnosis ‘too political’ implies that a certain kind of politics, or criticality, is expected—perhaps, even desired—however, I am overdoing it by desiring, in the words of Aimé Césaire, “The only thing in the world worth beginning // The End of the World, of course.” My demand is, by its very nature, in a relation of excess vis-à-vis the political, and, therefore, unreasonable both in terms of meaningfulness and practicality. To fundamentally question the legitimacy of established ways is seen as not only an assault on ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, but also a subversive act against the nation itself.

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“O my brethren! I have told/ Most bitter truth, but without bitterness.” — Samuel Coleridge

In Affective Economies Sara Ahmed tells us that “emotions play a crucial role in the ‘surfacing’ of individual and collective bodies through the way in which emotions circulate between bodies and signs.” We are conditioned to relate to one another in specific ways, and it is through emotions and the specific ways in which we are conditioned to feel about others that societal norms and the very boundaries and surfaces of bodies take shape. We are taught to fear the stranger, and it is through our fear of the stranger, who has, as Ahmed notes in Strange Encounters, “already come too close” that the stranger emerges. Strangers, then, aren’t those whom we haven’t met, “but those who are, in their very proximity, already recognised as not belonging, as being out of place.” The circulation of emotions and our affective encounters speak of the intimate life of power. It is no wonder that sentiment and affective attachments were and are at the centre of governing projects. Dutch colonial governing projects gained their political coherence through “the management of [such] affective states, in assessing appropriate sentiments and in fashioning techniques of affective control.” (Ann Stoler, Affective States)

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On the Strange Case of “Work” without Workers

“It is not that I have no past. Rather, it continually fragments on the terrible and vivid ephemera of now.” — Samuel R. Delany, Dahlgren

Ineke Phaf-Rheinberger warns us in The ‘Air of Liberty’: Narratives of the South Atlantic Past that “[I]t’s not enough to condemn [this] slave trade as having been a crime; the details of its afterlife, the cultural heritage it left in its wake, have to be understood as a contemporary dilemma, an open wound.” And yet there is scant critical analysis in the Netherlands of slavery’s afterlife. In general, Dutch attitudes are very much in line with contemporary neo-liberal discourse that “treats the present,” as Issa Shivzi observes in The Struggle for Democracy, “as if the present has had no history.” This uncoupling of the present and the past is actively done and maintained as an aspect of power.

We need to make visible these obscured, deliberate modes of violence and place the present in relation with history. As I will argue, a critical engagement with the afterlife of slavery forces us to re-think concepts like freedom, progress, work, production, exploitation, freedom, as well as contemporary conceptualizations of race, gender, sexuality, ability and class. Prior to emancipation White Dutch politicians imposed their vision of “freedom” and their circumscribed definition of autonomy on Black folks in the Dutch Caribbean. The attempts of the Dutch state to control and prescribe the comings and goings, desires, and behaviour of “freed slaves” have left lasting marks on the ways we imagine freedom and what constitutes work.

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The War on Welfare

Welfare has always been a hotly debated topic. However, lately the discourse on “welfare” has taken an especially nasty turn and can be considered a full out attack on “bijstandsmoeders,” i.e. welfare mothers. Academic Zihni Özdil has written a critical piece on the “war on welfare mothers,”  in which he highlights the invalidity of the arguments being made.

In this piece I argue that the current mode of attack trades on racist stereotypes of Black women. Racist ideas about black sexuality are regularly being deployed to organize society and used to lubricate the cutting of public spending, or in pleas for tighter immigration control. What is often buried in public discussions, whether on welfare or immigration, is race. Race is often what gets buried.

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Social Responsibility and Participatory Labour

Despite our provisory inclusion in the conceptualization of “We,” ethnic minority citizens are, nevertheless, earnestly entreated to participate fully in fostering interconnectedness with our fellow Autochtoon citizens—with the aim to reinforce the optimism and strength of the Netherlands. Optimism is the operative word for a coalition navigating uncertain times, trying to keep its head above water and solve problems, all the while “building bridges.” It’s unsurprising, then, that the VVD-PvdA coalition has made the expansion of public participation (“participatiebevordering”) its number one priority. In times of crises, so it goes, “we” all have to pull our weight.

The main purport of public participation is that communities have to become more resilient and self-supporting. And a decentralization of power will make that easier. Civil society, in short, should replace government as a driving force in the management of public affairs. Back in 2009 David Cameron so carefully lamented, without a drop of irony, that “today the state is ever-present: either doing it for you, or telling you how to do it, or making sure you’re doing it their way.” Cameron mused that the “alternative to big government is the big society. We need to use the state to remake society.” Government, in this case, refers, to quote Thomas Osborne and Nikolas Rose, to “that plane of thinking and acting concerned with the authoritative regulation of conduct towards particular objectives.”

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The Politics of Media Coverage

There are certainly better things to talk about than the shenanigans of Dutch journalists. However, the past week has seen a couple of disputes, involving several “high-profile” Dutch journalists, play out over questions of taste, decency, and ethics. At the centre of these disputes lie issues of masculinity, femininity, Otherness and the cult of personality. If anything, these arguments exposed the systems of power that are easily overlooked.

What had sparked off the discussion was a column written by Naema Tahir for the programme Buitenhof. In her piece Tahir makes a compelling argument for barring certain journalists from the Binnenhof – the inner sanctum of masculinity. She refers to “reporters,” like Rutger Castricum and Danny Ghosen of PowNews, whose journalistic style is best described as punking. Of course, enfant indécent Rutger Castricum did not take too kindly to Naema Tahir’s words. He and a camera man showed up unannounced at Tahir’s home where Andreas Kinneging, Naema Tahir’s husband, allegedly manhandled Castricum. Both Rutger Castricum and Danny Ghosen specialize in ambush journalism and manufactured conflict. Theirs is a world in which rules of moral and social etiquette do not apply. These dudes are notorious for taking their PowNews ambush technique, a mixture of rhetorical violence, humiliation, shaming and “humour,” to exasperating lengths in order to get footage of their favourite quarry (i.e. politicians) getting flustered in front of the camera. To the amusement of many Rutger Castricum showed that when the shoe is on the other foot the grand punker himself has trouble maintaining his poise.

Pownews does not offer any substantial insights in the general run of things in their reporting, nor do they differ much in style and content from De Telegraaf, Elsevier or, say, the Volkskrant. Most Dutch media outlets nowadays cater to the most mean-spirited and voyeuristic of human instincts: the desire to witness the suffering and humiliation endured by others. “Humilitainment,” the tendency for viewers to be attracted to spectacular mortification, is often presented as investigative journalism.

Yet, there are some who perceive a difference between those outlets and the rest of the civilized world. Jeroen Pauw and Paul Witteman – the self-appointed wardens of the civilized world – invited both Tahir and Kinneging to discuss Tahir’s column and the scrap between Kinneging and Castricum. At the table was also sat the confrontational Jos Heymans of RTL Nieuws who challenged Tahir’s and Kinneging’s defense of the curtailment of the freedom of a certain kind of press with a dogged viciousness. Apparently, journalists are not required to reflect on their journalistic practices, nor on whether there’s room for improvement in what they do and how they go about doing it. The current journalistic convention does not necessitate moral scruples; one can speculate, say or do anything – be it true, false or annoying – in order to achieve one’s goals, or elicit a reaction, without being held accountable.

In the bustle to obtain a scoop, Dutch journalists, like Jos Heymans, seem to forget that the influence of Dutch media on public conversations (the sphere of consensus) is considerable. The politics of media coverage cannot be ignored. Jay Rosen writes,

“[That] journalists affirm and enforce the sphere of consensus, consign ideas and actors to the sphere of deviance, and decide when the shift is made from one to another— none of this is in their official job description. You won’t find it taught in J-school, either. It’s an intrinsic part of what they do, but not a natural part of how they think or talk about their job. Which means they often do it badly. Their “sphere placement” decisions can be arbitrary, automatic, inflected with fear, or excessively narrow-minded. Worse than that, these decisions are often invisible to the people making them, and so we cannot argue with those people. It’s like trying to complain to your kid’s teacher about the values the child is learning in school when the teacher insists that the school does not teach values.”

Instead of considering the ramifications of the current (?) trend of media outlets failing to reach the highest of editorial (not to mention ethical) standards the conversation in Pauw & Witteman spun around the concept freedom of the press – a conversation which itself is closely tied to the stilted “freedom of speech” debate.

What is lacking in both the “freedom of speech” debate and the current debate over press regulation and press ethics is a critical attention to social and moral accountability. Journalists need to be held accountable for their role in the creation of noxious ethical norms and for the intrusive journalistic practices that ratify said norms. Apparently, it escapes the likes of Heymans that uncritical presentations – by the media – of rhetorical violence not only facilitate the normalization of rhetorical violence they also, over time, license its presence and use. This normalization has led some journalists to praise the sclerotic, amoral attitudes of Geert Wilders and Pim Fortuyn, and use their sang-froid as a benchmark for other politicians.

Geert Wilders has spent a considerable amount of time crafting an image of a tough, stoic manly politician, at the expense of the supposedly inept (and symbolically feminized) Job Cohen, through the derision of expressions of empathy and worry. Wilders taunts and heckles his opponents until triumph is declared, usually by the media, over his “enemies.” He has made bullying, which is simply a means to affirm masculinity norms of toughness, dominance, and control, a valid and accepted device in political rhetoric. Cohen’s inadequacies were systematically played up by Rutger Castricum and company whilst his competencies were played down. In the end Job Cohen came to represent a crisis of leadership, i.e. masculinity. All the while the Dutch media lapped it up; losing popularity, it seems, had never been so popular.

The cult of personality, which unreasonably ascribes great importance of charisma and delivery to the performance of political leaders, operates as a major controlling discourse in politics, and society as a whole, whether folks are discussing Geert Wilders, Job Cohen, Nebahat Albayrak, or a contestant in The Voice of Holland.

What’s dangerous is the fact that most, if not all, Dutch commentators turn a blind eye to the rhetoric of violence, that is inherent in the act of looking, when engaging in critical discussions of media coverage. As Junot Diaz explains,

“The act of looking is a very violent act. You’re saying, I’m gonna map my shit over you—but to see is to actually receive information, to be engaged. And I think what happened to me was that I was always being taught to look, but one day I started to see. And it was because a lot of women in my life were refusing just to be looked at, to be this passive figure. That taught me that you can’t be a human without seeing.”

Pauw and Witteman, who suffer from the familiar problem of how best to differentiate the public interest from what interests the public, subjected Nebahat Albayrak to the violent act of “looking without seeing.” The gaze of both men was caked with a layer of sexism, racism, and objectification— their comments focused solely on Albayrak’s heritage and gender rather than her professional accomplishments. Pauw’s and Witteman’s interactions with Albayrak centred on taunting, mocking, and “a rhetorical shoving around” – their non-verbal cues, eye-rolling, sighing, and showing disinterest, only added insult to injury.

As the many derogatory comments of Pauw and Witteman show it is not only on the Internet that a woman’s opinion is like a miniskirt. The entire country was atwitter after the episode aired – as though what had transpired was exceptional – and the ensuing commentaries on Albayrak’s performance exposed rampant racism and sexism. Racism, sexism and objectification are always at play in gendered and racialized social interactions. Nebahat Albayrak was attacked because she was a woman and a non-Western Allochtoon; race, age, class and gender concurrently shape without fail the expectations of how certain men and certain women should behave, and the manner in which certain men and certain women are perceived and treated.

We live in a society in which folks of various ages, ethnicities and social classes are treated differently. However, whenever you express this blatant fact White Autochtoon Dutch folk look at you like you’re possessed. Those same White Autochtoon Dutch folks are also quick to deny that the image of a woman of colour evokes preconceptions of sexual, racial/ethnic difference or that pop culture in the  Netherlands still advances stereotypical notions of a woman’s proper role in society. Prejudice, of course, is not at all of consequence in the civilized, humane, open and informal Netherlands; equally, race is not a necessary category of inquiry, nor is the social framework of ideas about appropriate modes of behaviour for women and men.

At any rate, Femke Halsema, who was also present, did a failed attempt to come to Albayrak’s defense by expressing her “admiration” and highlighting the “vicarious pride” she experienced because Nebahat Albayrak had come so far and achieved so much despite her humble origins. And with that White Autochtoon Dutch femininity took centre stage yet again. The modicum of respect I had for Halsema vanished right there and then. What the hell did Femke Halsema think she’d achieve by claiming she vicariously experienced Albayrak’s success? Halsema’s so-called support attributed Albayrak the main task of being the poster child, through an imposed (since it’s Femke Halsema’s account) biographical narrative that mapped the transition from some “sketchy Allochtoonness” to a “composite successful Dutchness,” which was, in effect, spectral. In the eyes of Jeroen Pauw and Paul Witteman Albayrak’s miraculous, against-the-odds transformative narrative was irrelevant. The only thing that truly mattered was her Otherness – both as a woman and as a non-Western Allochtoon. Yet again, Halsema failed to grasp that in a racist and sexist (let’s not mince words here) society seemingly neutral concepts like “success” and “failure” are not only politicized, they are also racialized. Anyhow, Halsema only ended up singing back-up vocals to Jeroen Pauw’s and Paul Witteman’s sexist and racist invective.

The role of power – of systemic inequalities such as racism, sexism, and classism – and the politics of emotion – what Halsema employed – have to be taken into account in all conversations, from personal interactions to societal debates, involving immigrants. Systems of power and the politics of emotion are central and ever present elements in all social interactions. The discourses in society at large, politics and the language of the politics of emotion are simultaneously affecting media coverage and perception. Case in point: the PVV’s orchestration of public emotion, or the campaign surrounding Mauro.

After the programme, in which she had asserted her White Autochtoon Dutch femininity, Femke Halsema tweeted,

“Er waait een nerveuze testosteronwind: Van Nieuwkerk, Mulder, Pauw, Castricum, Kinneging. Ik vermaak me wel.”

(There blows a twittery wind of testosteron: Van Nieuwkerk, Mulder, Pauw, Castricum, Kinneging. I’m pleasantly amused.)

However, contrary to Femke Halsema’s assertion this posturing is a bit more than just male bravado. What has been largely overlooked in analyses, such as those on the Volkskrant website, is the influence of celebrity culture, or the “cult of personality,” which is not only the result of “vote-for-me” programmes like Big Brother, So You Think You Can Dance, but also of social media. Most people nowadays have this idea that anyone and everyone should be accessible, entertaining, and witty. Politicians need media training and have to create a “personality brand” in order to appear likeable.

Many critics of Albayrak’s performance suggested she should’ve assumed an attitude of good-humoured patience, and uttered softly and politely, of course, as befits a non-Western Allochtoon woman, a perfunctory word of displeasure. As soon as women assert themselves they’re painted as shrews and harpies.

I thought she stood her ground well, and if I were a member of the PVDA I’d vote for her.