The Home Country

Saturday Bong Fever?

Originally uploaded by sixty69niner

It’s not like I come from a relatively unknown country with a neutral reputation like Latvia. If you say you’re from Holland, the obvious reaction is ‘Amsterdam!’, which means – depending on the speaker – Marco van Basten, prostitution or marijuana.

Fans of AC Milan absolutely love Van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, the trio club owner Silvio Berlusconi bought in the late eighties, and they won’t stop telling you how they admire especially Van Basten. During the last European Championships, when he was the Dutch team manager, the woman from the butcher shop with her rosary and her little prayer book practically embraced me each time the Dutch did well.

In Cosenza we’ve had the strangest of conversations during lunch. Imagine this: I am eating my lagana e ceci (a local beans and pasta dish) in one of the better restaurants of the city when the manager strikes up a conversation with us. Upon hearing that I’m from Holland, he starts to talk about his trip to Amsterdam and how he tried – in vain – to find the red light district. Absolutely without a trace of shame, and while I dig into my beans I am imagining some poor prostitute with this overweight, balding and ageing guy – damn it, I am eating! Must we discuss this?

And the marijuana, well, everybody knows that. Young people will tell you proudly that they went to The Bulldog, a strictly-for-tourists megacoffeeshop, but one must never forget that marijuana is highly illegal here. I have yet to present my Dutch ID card to an Italian policeman and to be honest, I dread the moment. When they think ‘Amsterdam’ it’s not going to be a talk about football or prostitutes – it may well be a thorough search. Especially when they find the lighter I picked up yesterday in a hurry, without noticing what’s pictured on it. Jah Spirit – Smoking Music? I’m looking at months of investigations, at the very least…

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Freedom Will Destroy Them

A sad omen of these times is that, in the past week, I have read about three cases of censorship. First, there was the dire threat of five years prison for Italian comedian Sabina Guzzanti – after she had made a joke about the Pope: In 20 years Ratzinger will be dead and will end up in hell, tormented by queer demons – not passive ones, but very active ones. A 1929 law was quoted – one that has since been amended. It took the justice minister himself to decide to drop the case, but the threat was made.

Then, on Saturday, Muslim radicals attempted to firebomb the UK publisher of a controversial book about Muhammad’s child bride Aisha. Publication of the book by American author Sherry Jones was halted in the US – a move described by Salman Rushdie as censorship by fear. A (non-Musim) US professor of Middle Eastern studies deemed an advance copy softcore pornography, which apparently prompted a flurry of activity in the radical Islamic world. It’s a good thing that the London publisher seems determined to go ahead anyway.

This morning, The Guardian published an editorial by writer Philip Pullman, whose book Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the US) is high on the list of books being challenged in US libraries. Reason: religious viewpoint. He makes light of it, pointing out that cases of censorship always help book sales, and I guess that’s correct. I discovered Salman Rushdie – now one of my favourite authors – because of the controversy over The Satanic Verses, which broke just as I started studying Arabic. For what it’s worth, it has brought him new readers. And it has brought Islam scores of fresh critics.

Religious people seem to believe that the notion of holiness transcends their religion, and that all of us have to be respectful of everything they feel is connected to their god or gods. And no matter how liberal a society has become, they will forever try to unliberalize it, to unliberalize us – in other words, to take away our freedom, whether we believe in their gods or not. It’s not enough for them to tell their kids never to read Rushdie or Pullman. It’s not enough for them to forbid their families to have abortions. It’s not enough for them to preach to the congregation that naturist beaches are a thing of the devil. Hell no, every single non-believer has to be force-fed their petty little rules and regulations as well.

I have no idea why. Maybe they think we will see the wisdom of their ways once we’re put into that straightjacket, and then we’d convert – converting others is one of the goals of any religion. Maybe they think they will rot in hell just for having lived among the non-believers. But most likely, it’s fear. Fear of freedom, fear of being tempted by the devil and giving in, and therefore all temptations must be wiped off of the face of the earth. We are made to suffer for their weaknesses. Freedom will destroy them and they know it.

My basic objection to religion, concludes Pullman, is not that it isn’t true; I like plenty of things that aren’t true. It’s that religion grants its adherents malign, intoxicating and morally corrosive sensations. Destroying intellectual freedom is always evil, but only religion makes doing evil feel quite so good.

He nails it squarely on the head. Banning books and movies, starting wars, bombing hotels, forcing people to have the baby of their rapist, indoctrinating tiny kids (Prussian Blue is just a nasty variety of a perfectly accepted religious practice), it’s all good when it’s for God. Right?

CNN – How The Mighty Have Fallen

I used to study journalism in the early nineties (Sante was my teacher back then). And although we learned that objective journalism does not really exist, we learned also that one is expected to at least try to be objective. What you learn next, not at school but in real life, is that most journalists don’t really try too hard. All of us have our opinions, all of us have our likes and dislikes. And that’s fine as long as things don’t get out of hand, and they do sometimes.

In those days Holland was introduced to a new phenomenon: the world-wide, round-the-clock news coverage of CNN International. I loved it, I was addicted to it, I would stay up much too late to catch Larry King Live (starting 3 AM Central European Time) and I was introduced to a host of world class reporters like Christiane Amanpour. It was fast, it was therefore mostly superficial, and it was American, no matter how much they tried to avoid that in Atlanta. But it was immediate, it was everywhere, it had everyone, and although it wasn’t exactly the BBC, it did have it’s merits.

Surprise surprise today, when after a year without CNN I saw this video via the Guardian US election site.

How in the world did that go on air? It’s a very thinly veiled jab at the McCain campaign’s reluctance to put their much-heralded veep candidate up on the stage and it has the level you would expect from a less-than-mediocre blogger who’s had a bit too much to drink. Not only is the anchorwoman, Campbell Brown, trapping herself by claiming out of the blue that the press is kept away from Palin because she is a woman – thereby committing the sexism she accuses the McCain people of – but she knows damn well (I should hope) that the issue with Palin is not her being a woman at all, but probably her inexperience with rooms full of reporters or with international issues, or the fact that she’s a bit of an unguided missile, or all of the above.

Do they really think people are that stupid? I am not a McCain supporter at all and I see right through this badly scripted bit of junk. And it does not make me happy, it does not make me want to go out there and cry Sexist! at John McCain. But sure enough, some pick it up and spread it around happily, as if everything is good as long as it’s coming from your side.

Yes it’s good to call upon the McCain campaign to put Palin up there in the spotlight, but why be so clumsy about it? Why this lame attempt at luring back the women who reportedly flocked to the McCain campaign once Saint Sarah of Wasilla was nominated? Why not make the fact that she’s kept from the press itself the issue, instead of wrapping it in a half-assed sexism claim?

Maybe it’s good that we don’t get CNN here on the Edge of Europe. It’s definitely not what it used to be.

Titles

Moving to Italy meant moving from the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the Repubblica Italiana, but with that change came an unexpected twist: whereas the Netherlands is a most informal country, despite the fact that it’s head of state is Beatrix, by the Grace of God Queen of the Netherlands, Princess of Orange-Nassau, etc. etc. etc., Italy is a very formal nation, even though the head of state is a humble, ageing former Communist partizan from Naples, Giorgio Napolitano.

Of course, his title is the highest achievable one: Presidente della Repubblica. But that doesn’t stop other people from using the grand title Presidente at all – any chairman can (and will) be referred to as such. And so, when my loving girl comes home from work talking about the visit from the Presidente in her office, I am left to guess: was Napolitano there? Was it the Presidente della Camera dei deputati – the leader of the House of Representatives, Gianfranco Fini? Was it the Presidente del Senato – the leader of the Senate, Renato Schifani? Was it the Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri – the leader of the Council of Ministers, Silvio Berlusconi? Or was it the president of the company?

Titles are everything in Italian life. Berlusconi never got a university degree, but he was once honoured by the state and is often referred to as Il Cavaliere – he is a knight in the Order of Labour. During the elections he used a song in which he was called Presidente: Presidente siamo con te / Menomale che Silvio c’รจ (President, we are with you / It’s good that there’s Silvio). Presidente in this song refers to the chairmanship of his party. Smart move.

In daily life as well people may refer to you by your title – if you have one. My girlfriend was called ingegnere by her greengrocer from the moment he learned that she had an engineering degree. She will never ask to be called thus – it was his choice to do so. Drama series on TV are full of people called dottore or professoressa; usually it’s the ‘lower class’ characters talking to those higher up in life. I can’t think of the word professoressa without hearing it in Roman or Neapolitan dialect (popular cities as backdrop for TV fiction) – which makes it sound like brufesseresse.

Frankly it strikes me as grovelling. Kissing up to those in higher positions in the hope of getting something back for your troubles. Probably unconsciously by now, but still. And that’s what this country is about, that’s at the heart of this deeply corrupted system. All strata of society know this and all try to gain the most advantage from it. The dignitary will use the weight of his function as an instrument of power and the commoner will grovel in the hope to be looked upon favourably. For in the end it’s not who you are which is important here, but who you know.

Sick And Tired Of It

A children’s tale

A mother and her young boy are gathering mushrooms in the Dutch forest. The boy finds some poisonous
ones. The mother explains that there are good mushrooms and poisonous ones, and, as they go home, says:
Look, Frans, human beings in this world are like the mushrooms in the forest. There are good mushrooms and there are good people. There are poisonous, bad mushrooms and there are bad people. And we have to be on our guard against bad people just as we have against poisonous mushrooms. Do you understand that?
Yes, mother, Frans replies. I understand that in dealing with bad people trouble may arise, just as when one eats a poisonous mushroom. One may even die!

And do you know, too, who these bad men are, these poisonous mushrooms of mankind? the mother continued. Frans slaps his chest in pride: Of course I know, mother! They are the Muslims! Our teacher has often told us about them.
The mother praises her boy for his intelligence, and goes on to explain the different kinds of poisonous Muslims: the Muslim tradesman, the imam, the halal butcher, the Muslim lawyer, the converted Muslim, and so on. However they disguise themselves, or however friendly they try to be, affirming a thousand times their good intentions to us, one must not believe them. Muslims they are and Muslims they remain. For our people they are poison.
Like the poisonous mushroom! says Frans.
Yes, my child! Just as a single poisonous mushrooms can kill a whole family, so a solitary Muslim can destroy a whole village, a whole city, even an entire people.
Frans has understood.
Tell me, mother, do all non-Muslims know that the Muslim is as dangerous as a poisonous mushroom?
Mother shakes her head.
Unfortunately not, my child. There are millions of non-Muslims who do not yet know the Muslims. So we have to enlighten people and warn them against the Muslims. Our young people, too, must be warned. Our boys and girls must learn to know the Muslim. They must learn that the Muslim is the most dangerous poison mushroom in existence. Just as poisonous mushrooms spring up everywhere, so the Muslim is found in every country in the world. Just as poisonous mushrooms often lead to the most dreadful calamity, so the Muslim is the cause of misery and distress, illness and death.

-o-

This story continues. It shows, among other things, how the halal butcher is cruel to animals. It shows how there are lots of direct insults to non-Muslims in the Koran. It shows how Muslim tradesmen are always trying to rip you off. It shows how disloyal they are to the country they live in and how they are only loyal to the Koran and their faith.

I didn’t write the story. It was written around 1938 by Ernst Hiemer and published by Sturmer Verlag in Germany under the title Der Giftpilz – The Poisonous Mushroom. Of course the book originally warned of the danger of the Jews, for it was a Nazi children’s book.

So why did I change it? For the past years, the Dutch and indeed the larger European society has seen an explosion of publications directed against Muslims. I’ve seen deliberate misquotations from the Koran, I’ve seen laments about how halal butchers are cruel to animals, I’ve heard about taqqiya – the supposed practice of Muslims to “hide their true intentions” (from the story above: However they disguise themselves, or however friendly they try to be, affirming a thousand times their good intentions to us, one must not believe them) and I’ve heard about how they are not loyal to Holland but to the Koran and their home countries. I’ve heard time and time again that we must be warned against this grave danger. Indeed, the Muslims are taking over the world. In the words of Dutch extreme right-wing politician Geert Wilders:

Do we want to live in a country of which the population will be one third, half or even in majority Muslim? Most people will say ‘No, that would no longer be my Holland!’ Those people do not hate Muslims, they are not xenophobic, not Fascist. Thet simply want to stand up for their own culture. They do not want their neighbourhood to change colour or religion. They also do not wish to see their country and government dominated by Muslims. And I should not be allowed to say that? What is wrong with it?

What’s wrong with it is that Muslims make up about six percent of the Dutch population – they couldn’t dominate country and government even if they were united, which they are not at all, and they wanted to. What’s wrong with it is that it plays on the unjust – if understandable – fears of the people. What’s wrong with it, is that it is the Poisonous Mushroom all over again.

And I want the press to start asking the hard questions to those Fascist thugs in suits instead of parading them around for the sake of ratings. Call them for what they are, don’t mince words, off with the kid gloves. For years we’ve been calling all kinds of people Fascists, now’s your chance to do it for once with all the justification you need.

Flocking To Modern Art

I used to love modern art. I used to fancy myself being an artist and thought about going to the fine arts academy after highschool. But nothing gets more tiring than modern art, really. Half of it is simply made for the shock effect, because shock effects create major publicity. Marcel Duchamp commented on the modern art/marketing scene with his signed urinal in 1917, that’s 89 years ago, and yet characters like Jeff Koons still thought they could “usher in banality” in 1988. Just about 71 years late, mate. And nowadays we have Damien Hirst doing it all over again. Shock! Horror! Animals in formaldehyde!

With Hirst continually dumping animals in formaldehyde one could easily think that he is a one-trick pony. But then again so is Christo. He started off by wrapping a chair and has since gone on to wrap landmarks like the Pont Neuf in Paris in cloth. And Jeff Koons is forever stuck in his banality theme – don’t these people have any new ideas?

And that’s my point. Art, in my opinion, is all about a new way of looking at things. And the greatest artists show a remarkable development in their work: studying Piet Mondriaan for example, one can easily see how Broadway Boogie-Woogie came into being. The Dutch artist never stopped abstrahizing the world around him until he entered the world of pure composition. There was a newness about Mondriaan’s work almost every step of the way, and even this, his last, work is taking yet another turn – back to the figurative world of a Manhattan street plan full of yellow cabs, or so it seems.

I know the pundits will tell me that I do not understand Hirst or Koons or Christo. But what is there to understand? It’s all as flat as a dime as we say in Holland – what depth is there in a tank of formaldehyde with a sheep, entitled Away From The Flock? Even the title shows a complete lack of imagination. And yet thousands of books are written about this art, the writers of which have scrambled to come up with some deep sounding meaning to it all. For fear of placing themselves outside of the art scene, where noone ever admits to not understanding any object presented to them as art, critics and gallery dwellers all marvel at what is, for all intents and purposes, a preserved sheep. And the newness of that is restricted to the rather dry conclusion that noone’s ever done it before. Which is, judged by the sheer idiocy of it, hardly surprising.

Hirst could have dumped a whole flock of sheep in formaldehyde and called it The Art Scene. But then probably they’d all think he didn’t mean them.

(Post inspired by Sante Brun’s [Dutch language] blog, who brought news of “an American gentleman with glasses who uttered incomprehensible gibberish” about a calf in formaldehyde – which he sold for about ten million euros.)

Will Those Brits Ever Learn?

Better to admit straightaway that I am not much of a cook at all, and that there is no such thing as a Dutch cuisine worth mentioning. But then again I do not pretend to know much about food and then again, the Dutch are not struggling with a reputation for terrible food like the British are. Sure, we only cook ‘taters, veggies and meat, and our snacks are all deep-fried, artery-clogging bits of slaughterhouse leftovers, but it’s tasteless at worst – not inedible as per the UK.

It doesn’t help, then, that the cooking boom in the UK leads to articles in the Guardian – not your ordinary fish wrapper I might ad – about something they call parmesan from budget supermarkets like the German chain Lidl. Pray tell me that you are not talking about Parmigiano? Amidst the antipasti from Iraklidis (let me guess – prosciutto crudo with yoghurt?), what can one expect?

Anyway, writer Ian Jack gets his bits of parmesan – excuse me, Lidl calls this parmigiano reggiano on their site (the name Parmigiano-Reggiano is protected in the EU, reserved for cheese made in the proper way and in the proper region) – from various discounts and goes home to conduct some blind tasting. “What was parmesan anyway, but a condiment grated on spaghetti”, the writer asks himself, hopefully tongue-in-cheek: Parmigiano is considered one of the finest cheeses in the world.

And lo and behold, one of the cheeses is considered too chewy. Right. You can just picture the family sitting together, gobbling up chunks of parmesan. You can just picture them laying on the parmesan “condiment” in heaps or, God forbid, slices on top of their macaroni (we’ll stick to maccheroni here, thank you very much). To create that nice, rubbery, gluey, chewy effect of molten cheese the Italian kitchen is famous for all over the world – outside Italy.

Ian, if you’re reading this: please, write something about Princess Anne or the Earl of Wessex. Or try out different brands of milk in your tea. And if it has to have that Italian flavour, stick to articles about the England team manager. And I’ll promise I won’t write about cricket, or the Commonwealth, or swan upping, okay?