Saturday, May 26, 2007

Maxima and minima

The Oranges (bit out of focus) - no halos, no levitation

The Maxima and the Minima

Three royal events took place around the end of April. The Dutch crown prince Willem Alexander turned 40 on April 27th and was celebrated with a special, soft focus profile and much speculation about his readiness to accede to the throne. On the 30th, Queen’s Day was celebrated. Beatrix was actually born on January 31st but because of the unpredictable weather on that date, her party is held on the birthday of her mum, the previous queen Juliana. Then, a veritable army of media descended on Leiden to cover the illness of the newborn princess Ariane.

I didn’t bother with either the profile or the festivities. Apart from spending most of the holiday weekend like a wilted lettuce on the sofa, fighting off a tenacious flu with meningitis-like symptoms, I tend to steer clear of the kind of organized jollity that’s only enjoyable if you have lots of euros to spend on trinkets and knick-knacks and like being surrounded by hordes of drunks getting off on music that at best is an assault on the eardrums. Even in the isolation of my sofa, I could not shut out the racket.

I have qualms about royalty. More precisely, I have misgivings about any form of privilege and any notion of hereditary or otherwise unearnt power, let alone the abuse thereof. It’s an excellent idea in my book to reform the British House of Lords, to do away once and for all with the anachronism of inherited political clout. Nevertheless, I have enormous respect for an institution that despite its own vested interests manages to bring considered and often outspokenly left-wing balance to British affairs. But that’s by the by. The principle of it is wrong. As is the fact that the American actress Jamie Lee Curtis gets a say over British subjects by virtue of marrying a Lord. I also strongly question the idea of blind loyalty, whether to a Monarch, a fictitious line around an area of land called a country or a football team. And I detest with all my heart the celebrity hype that turns us, without whose unflinching adoration there would be no stars and no royalty, into mere sheep. Sheep with wallets, of course.

I’m the first to admit that my stance on the British Royal Family is ambiguous. I don’t mind them all that much. They’re an institution made up of human beings that I like to think do more good than harm. They seem compassionate and clued-up. Charles, if nothing else, is always good for a hefty debate. He’s a man on a mission of organic farming, high quality architecture, standards in education. He puts his money where his mouth is. Diana started out as a kind of Barbie in my view but became a full-blooded woman when she publicly shook the hand of an Aids victim at a time when very little was known about the transmission of HIV. Since fire destroyed much of Windsor Castle in 1992, Elizabeth has been paying tax, has limited the number of royals kept by the taxpayer to herself, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen Mother (now deceased), has opened some of her homes to the public to generate funds for the restoration of Windsor and has given up various ‘treats’ like the Royal Yacht Britannia. Most importantly, the British monarch has been subject to the authority of Parliament since the late 17th century. Which is not to say that nothing is ever quietly whispered into the PM’s ear but formally, at least, the king or queen has no say in the affairs of the state.

The Dutch Royal Family is a different kettle of fish. The Dutch constitution of 1848 may define all citizens as equal but the monarch is not a citizen. Au contraire! The king can do no wrong. And if he or she does anyway, by the standards of our mere mortals, the sovereign is immune from prosecution. It is an offence punishable by up to 5 years imprisonment to insult the monarch – a privilege called lese majesty or, in Dutch, majesteitsschennis. Prime Minister Balkenende actually invoked this law as recently as 2003 when he felt that the makers of a satirical programme called Egoland had displayed insufficient decency in their treatment of the Royal Family who, he said, could not defend themselves. Imagine Spitting Image being read the Riot Act!

The Queen is the Head of State in the strictest sense of the word and has enormous political power, not in the least whether or not to appoint a PM or install a democratically elected government, for example. Which right she has been known to exert during her reign. The crown prince, nicknamed Prins Pils after his exploits during his student days in Leiden, once expressed that ‘the role of the monarchy may be discussed, of course. But if you’re looking for a figurehead to cut ribbons, you’re talking to the wrong person’.

A little history is in order. The Low Countries were Burgundian-Habsburg property up until 1500 something when Charles V of Habsburg (Charles I of Spain) inherited them along with the Spanish possessions. In 1556, the lands passed to Philip II, the very same who sent the armada against England in 1588. Meanwhile, the reformation was in full swing. The German and lutheran William, Count of Nassau and Prince of Orange who was also ‘stadtholder’ of the counties of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht, headed and funded an uprising against the Spanish. The initial issue may have been taxation and the practices of the Inquisition but gradually, it became an eighty year war for religious freedom and independence. As early as 1581, the States General renounced the Spanish king and in 1588, the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands was proclaimed. Power rested officially with the States General but nearly everything was owned by the Oranges and they called the shots. The war ended in 1648 with the Treaty of Westfalia. William had been killed early on and had been succeded first by his son Maurits, then by his younger son Frederik Hendrik. They continued to be stadtholders who bore the title of Prince. Oddly, they viewed their ruling position in the Republic as hereditary. Several uprisings against them by true republicans were squashed.

Napoleon transformed The Netherlands into the Batavian Republic, in 1795. Stadhouder William V fled to England. In 1806, Napoleon proclaimed Holland a kingdom and installed his brother Louis on the throne. After the Battle of Waterloo and Napoleon’s final defeat, in 1815, the territory became the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. William VI became King William I. As a monarchy, therefore, the Netherlands are a younger nation than the United States. There have been three kings, predictably named William I, II and III and three queens, Wilhelmina, Juliana and Beatrix. None of these have a direct blood line to the original William of Orange-Nassau or, it is sometimes rumoured, to any royal blood at all.

The Oranges may be above the law, their behaviour is far from suprahuman. The most embarrassing Dutch scandal of the last half a century is the Lockheed Affair, in which German Bernhard, member of the Nazi party turned Prince of the Netherlands, spouse of Queen Juliana and Inspector General of the Dutch Armed Forces, was found to have asked for and been given ‘commission’ to the tune of $ 1.1 million from the US aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Corporation. Only so he’d choose their fighter planes rather than someone else’s. He wasn’t prosecuted, of course. Founding member of the World Wildlife Fund, he kept a private army in Africa to deal with poachers of big game. But the gamekeeper mercenaries turned poacher themselves
and, worse, are implicated in maintaining apartheid in South Africa. More recent upheaval to the Family has involved the marriages of the crown prince to the daughter of an Argentinian junta minister and of his brother to Mabel, whose juicy past has nothing in common with The King and I and everything with The Godfather.

After the Lockheed Scandal, Bernhard was deposed from his position as Inspector General of the Dutch Armed Forces. Though banned from wearing uniform in 1976, he flouted the ban at the funeral of Lord Mountbatten in 1979. He was buried in full uniform, in military style

Beatrix has an allowance of a cool 4 million smackeroonies, Willem Alexander of 977,000 and Maxima of 863,000. Keeping them in the style to which they are accustomed involves the tidy sum of nearly 100 million of taxpayers’ money. The Oranges don’t pay tax, not even inheritance tax. Though Forbes put their personal wealth at 2.4 billion, Prince Bernhard called this figure “bullshit” and suggested it was more like ‘only’ 250 million.

It is argued that the Queen needs a personal fortune to be able to be truly independent. Ironically, the House of Orange-Nassau to which we owe all manner of innate allegiance is a symbol of our freedom. To me, being born a subject of another person and being made to pay tithes is nothing short of modern day feudalism.

But back to the third royal story, that of the illness of the little princess. In late 2005, the new Health Care Act was debated in Parliament. The left wing parties had calculated that the lowest incomes (called Minima) would be hit hardest by the new law. Prime Minister Balkenende felt that the government had been kind to the minima in recent years and that it was about time they tightened their belts, too. Last week, the Central Bureau for Statistics revealed that a quarter of a million adults – mostly poor Dutch and expats – and some 40,000 children are uninsured. If caught, they will be fined.

At a guess, the newborn princess has the same bug I’ve been fighting off. And while I cannot afford a dose of antibiotic, let alone luxury care like the mammogram I need because my mum has breast cancer, I don’t care about the political power of the Oranges. I couldn’t care less about their privileges or their personal wealth. What I want to know is this – have Willem Alexander and Maxima, with a joint allowance of 150 times that of us Minima, taken out health insurance and if not, will they be fined?

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

April 4th, 2007 – A nation in self-imposed chains

Today’s story of new measures to curtail the freedom of movement of undesirables, banning them from particular places and requiring them to report to the police even though they’ve committed no crime, has made my hair stand on end. Quite apart from any infringement of human rights and civil liberties, my gripe is that I don’t recollect any debate on the subject. Being somewhat of a news junkie, I watch and read whatever I happen upon while BBC World Service is on as background noise but this one either escaped my attention or wasn't brought to it. I suspect the latter.

Free and open debate is one of the most important measures of a democratic society. But what do you do with a people who accept whatever laws are imposed without so much as blinking? With a media operated almost exclusively – to use my favourite metaphor – by the alphas and betas in this Brave New Land (Havo/VWO graduates) that are themselves programmed not to question, not to criticize and to be a mouth piece of celebrities and politicians without being the eyes and ears of the public? What self-respecting public media anywhere else in the world would consider the endless repetitions of the same news broadcasts and text screens to be anything remotely resembling journalistic output? Not to mention a product in keeping with the vast sum of taxpayers’ money spent on it?

The measures announced today come as self-evidently as the requirement to carry ID. While Brits have opposed this vehemently for many years now, successfully arguing their right to go about their business peacefully, in Holland it was never even up for debate. The powers that be said ID cards serve to counter terrorism and to catch illegals so everyone complies. Blindfold. Brilliant idea, let's all do it. Talking to a Dutch student doing an MA in political science (of all subjects) recently, he said ‘you’re right. I never even thought about the implications. He continued ‘but the government is elected democratically and has the people’s mandate to do as it sees fit’. What if ... you can fill in the blank as you please but let me make some suggestions ... it saw fit to go to war against Iran and the other rogue states now? ... it saw fit to install cctv in every home? ... it saw fit to tax the air we breathe?

It gets worse. So entrenched is the mindset that the government know best and that the law must be obeyed that anyone applying a little … creativity, shall we say, in his or her compliance is termed antisocial. Not carrying ID by way of taking a personal stance for your rights is antisocial, as is trying to get away with a parking ticket or painting your window frames any colour other than dark brown or green. Voicing my notion that a dynamic society needs a degree of civil disobedience, of protest, of people pushing their luck and testing the law to its limits, I only ever get ‘there are official channels for doing so’ coupled with a dark frown. There goes the innovation the Dutch so urgently need for surely the two are inseparable? Acceptance of the status quo precludes any desire for change, any ability to think outside the box and any need to make things better.

Another questionable measure was introduced not too long ago in a new Leiden Police Order. It is now a fineable offence to chalk on the pavement. Children cannot play hopscotch without breaking the law. So when the intelligence services estimate the threat to Holland to consist of something like 100 to 200 people having thoughts “that are not completely coherent with the rule of law”, maybe they’re referring to children’s antisocial need to play outside?

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

March 20th, 2007 - Campaign for Plain Dutch

I cannot help but once again compare what I know best – the UK – with Holland, that I know second best. This is kind of a weird thing to say for me because Holland is supposed to be home. But having been away for 23 years, I no longer know how things work here, where to get information or assistance and how to negotiate the system to get things done. I seem to have lost the appropriate body language and mannerisms and beyond a doubt have shed all desire to comply with the tedium of celebrating a Dutch birthday. I am now an immigrant in my own country, with the UK as my reference point.
Back to language. In 1979, the UK Campaign for Plain English was set up with the aim of eradicating gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information. Everyone should have access to clear and concise information, says the website The Campaign has even helped develop a software programme to be let loose on websites and to check their content against approved plain usage. I have some qualms about this campaign. Though forcing the government, lawyers, doctors and other notorious authors of balderdash to produce texts that a child can understand undeniably is a worthy cause, I feel substantial linguistic impoverishment to be inherent in describing words of Latin or Greek origin as pompous, banning words like ‘quasi’ altogether and replacing archaic words like ‘bestow’ with modern ones like ‘give, award’. The beauty of English is that you can communicate perfectly well with a vocabulary of only 2000 words. But you can do it so much better with two hundred thousand. A thesaurus may list ‘to receive’ as synonymous with ‘to get’ and they may mostly be interchangeable yet each also has a specific kind of weighting or ‘feel’ for specific usage. The English language now counts about a million words, including scientific, medical and technical ones.

Dutch is a different kettle of fish. With a total vocabulary of 100,000 words, including some Jiddish, Surinam, Indonesian and Belgian neologisms, it is nevertheless perfectly adequate to express whatever you wish to communicate. Over the last four decades or so, however, the ruling elite of politicians, managers and journalists has begun to bolster its stronghold by using un-Dutch words that are felt to lend an air of grandeur and breeding, whereas actually, they betray not just an inability to use the Dutch language to the full but also a lack of acceptance that you have to practise as you preach. So, while you may learn that Dutch for ‘to think of’ is bedenken, in the higher echelons you will hear concipiëren. For ‘in this case’ you may acquire in dit geval but hear a journalist use in casu. ‘To ponder’ is overdenken but somehow it’s posh to be contemplatief. Then there’s entertainment instead of amusement; separeren instead of scheiden; feedback instead of commentaar or terugkoppeling and so forth. In writing, that may not present such a problem to those of us whose first language is English or French but hearing it pronounced out of a Dutch mouth with the seemingly unavoidable flat vowels and sharp consonants (coffee pads sounds like coffee pets; feedback like feetbick; I’m going to bed like Uhm coing to bet), it is.

The real issue here is that immigrants are expected to learn Dutch but that the very people who impose that requirement don’t do anything by way of example. The same applies, I feel, to this notion of a mythical Dutch culture or identity. The Dutch have handed over lock stock and barrel their borders, currency, legislation and what limited cuisine they might be proud of (even something as important as their food supply) to Europe but mention immigrants and any idea of internationalism goes out the window. In any event, what foreigner's ear drums can stand Dutch music, schlager or smartlap?
12th March, 2007 - Prejudice

Though my daughter and I both speak fluent Dutch, we habitually communicate in English. This gives rise to all kinds of awkward moments, as I’m sure every expat experiences sooner or later. Some people will simply speak Dutch to you and insist that you understand them. Most expats won’t, of course, but even if you do, there doesn’t seem to be an appropriate moment to admit to it. This language barrier question recently came to a head when I’d treated myself to an Independent at Schiphol and, comfortably installed in a train compartment with my paper, a middle-aged Dutch woman sat opposite me. Without a moment’s hesitation she began to tap on the outside page. I responded by lowering the paper and raising my eyebrows. She asked ‘how long you are in Holland’? Truthfully, I told her three years now. ‘You must read Dutch newspapers’ she said. I shrugged my shoulders and told her I didn’t want to. Visibly in a huff, she told me ‘you are the foreigner we don’t want over here’. She collected her belongings and went to sit somewhere else. My jaw dropped. It would never in a million years occur to me or anyone I know to even stop to think about someone’s choice of reading matter. Having spent nearly two decades in a British city with more than half its population speaking one of six Indian languages, it’s only natural that people read in the language they’re most comfortable with. And that they keep up to date with what’s happening ‘at home’. That’s quite apart from the argument that Dutch papers provide very little news, still less of it foreign. When the train arrived at my stop, I made a point of using the exit near where the woman was now sitting. As I passed her seat, I said in Dutch ‘and I’m sure your rudeness is not welcome anywhere else either’. I felt better for having put her in her place but the incident itself left a nasty taste. She might have asked before venting her prejudice.
March 9th, 2007 - The row continues

In tonight’s Nova, the flagship of Dutch current affairs, the dual nationality row continued. As always, I’m dumbfounded by the shortsightedness and ill-thought through statements of the guests on these programmes. It wouldn’t be so bad, could produce some lively debate even, if anyone else got a word in but the audience on these talk shows pretty much serves as an applause machine. Tonight’s clanger, for me, was Ms. Heleen Dupuis, soon to be Conservative senator in the Upper House. ‘It’s alright for citizens from within the EU to have two passports’ she stated ‘but not if you come from outside the territory’. Thinking through this point of view, you can only find it untenable. Suppose this became law, Americans, Australians, Swiss, South-Africans and Latins could not have dual nationality in The Netherlands whereas Poles, Bulgarians and Rumenians could. But Turks and Moroccans definitely could not. Translated from current Dutch thinking, Ms. Dupuis can only have meant ‘it’s ok if you’re a Christian but if you’re a Moslem, you have to renounce all that you were and become 100% Dutch to allay our suspicions ’. If anyone has a different translation, please feel free to add it to the debate.

It seems to me that there is an essential failure to understand what it means to live outside of not only your own culture but also of your familiar belief system. Your roots, your world view, your very identity are determined by your background. Moving to a different country where all is strange and unknown, you hang on to your innate values for dear life, at least until you’ve found your feet and can begin to accept that there may be another way of doing things, for better or worse. I have come across Dutch colonies in Brazil, Nicaragua, the US, the Dominican Republic and not a single one of its members would have any other lunch than cheese sandwiches. Very few have fully mastered the language of their new homeland. Without a doubt, very few would give up their Dutch nationality – just in case. That little book represents who you are as well and to give it up would be tantamount to giving up your parents. Or would it? Please comment.
March 8th, 2007 - Dual nationality row in Dutch parliament

On the same night that in Britain, frontbench Tory MP Patrick Mercer was forced to resign from the House of Commons over his comments on race issues in the Armed Forces, here in The Netherlands an emergency debate was held in parliament over an uglier kind of race-related question.
Far right wing MP Geert Wilders is demanding that two of his colleagues renounce their second nationality. The controversial former Minister for Immigration Rita Verdonck, who was at the centre of the row over withdrawing Dutch nationality from former Somali-born MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali, called upon all Dutch citizens in possession of a second passport to emphasize their loyalty to the Netherlands by giving up their other nationality.
Mr. Wilders and his Party For Freedom, an offshoot of the party of murdered politician Pim Fortuyn, won no less than nine seats in the 150 seat Lower House last November, pretty much on the single issue of ‘how do you solve a problem like the Moslems’. The seats gained by the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) included one for Turkish-born MP Nebahat Albayrak, State Secretary for Justice in the new government. The Turkish constitution apparently contains a clause to the effect that Turkish citizen owe exclusive allegiance to the State of Turkey till their dying day, which according to Mr. Wilders is irreconcilable with Albayrak’s role as a Dutch government official.
The emergency debate was held in the Lower House at the joint instigation of the Party For Freedom and the Dutch Conservatives (VVD). The occasion was the appointment of another Labour MP, Khadija Arib, a Moroccan national, to a Moroccan High Commission for Human Rights. The Commission has been established by King Mohammed VI with the aim of safeguarding the rights of some three million Moroccans abroad and strengthening their ties with the fatherland. Ms. Arib is a human rights lawyer with twenty years of outstanding service in the field. During the debate, Mr. Wilders latched on to comments made by Ms. Arib on the current affairs programme Netwerk. She had claimed to have ‘no loyalty towards either Morocco or the Netherlands, only to her principles’, and had further stated to hang on to her Moroccan nationality so that ‘in the event Mr. Wilders comes to power, I still have somewhere to go’. This, according to Mr. Wilders, constituted anti-Dutch sentiment unbefitting an MP. The somewhat milder VVD representatives stated that Ms. Arib’s intended position, even if only advisory, would send the wrong message to the immigrants in Holland.
International law on the subject of nationality states quite clearly that work in the field of human rights does not constitute disloyalty to one’s country as it serves a higher goal.
Both Green and Labour MPs called Mr. Wilders a bigot and his comments and insinuations scandalous. A Dutch MP who had held a high-ranking position in Taiwan was not up for debate, so why pick on the Moslem colleagues? Ms. Arib was visibly shaken by the attack on her person and integrity. Though Wilders was outnumbered by far and termed ‘a lone crusader’, public support for Wilders has soared in the polls.

I for one am now totally confused. For at least the last four years, Dutch immigration policy has consisted of returning people to their homelands, whether forcibly - by deportation - or more gently - by encouraging them to leave and supplying them with microfinance to start up a business back home. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but how can someone return to somewhere he no longer belongs because he has given up his citizenship of that country? So what message might the VVD have been talking about, one wonders? It can’t be that immigrants have no business maintaining ties with their fatherland because getting rid of them was their idea! Or is the message that immigrants have no human rights in Holland? Maybe part of the policy of ‘encouraging’ them to leave?

I’m on Arib’s side. Glad to have somewhere else to go, I mean, should things get worse. I’d rather be in a place where you get sacked for stirring up xenophobic sentiment than in one where you get elected for the same thing. And am I the only one reminded of the Baron von Münchhausen by Mr. Wilders appearance and hanging on to an illusion of Dutch identity that, if it ever existed, has been handed over lock stock and barrel to Europe? If he wasn’t such a dangerous demagogue, he’d be hilarious.