sat 07 jan 2012 13:41:05 witte de withstraat
on the use of myth in politics, and consequences thereof
this morning i read a 60 page bachelor's thesis by a dutch student hoping to prove methodically that geert wilders' PVV is beyond a 'stage one' fascist movement, leaning in to 'stage 2' according to definitions of a guy named paxton. much of the proof was syllogistic; 'if what i said on page 5 is true, then by definition this equals that.' it's based too much on internal logic, and on the assumption of paxton's relevance. by the end it becomes a rather thin, repetitive academic exercise. not that it was uncalled for, but for me it's a distraction. wilders is a distraction.
the question whether wilders is technically a fascist bogs the discourse down; it's like arguing over whether a particular dance tune qualifies as trance or electronica.
wilders is chiefly a sock puppet meant to keep us distracted while the ruling powers quietly make their moves.
sure, plenty of the evil that nations (and would-be nations) do can qualify as fascistic, but the rest of their evil can't, and yet it's still evil.
professional politics is a bit like schoolyard popularism, in that myth becomes more valuable than truth. once you choose your loyalties and place your bets, it doesn't matter if the insults you hurl at your opponent are factual. what matters is if they can take hold in the group's imagination. is that kid literally a 'faggot' or a 'slut'? maybe, maybe not. what matters is not the veracity of the assertion, but your ability to marshall assent around it. that demonstrates power; your power to shepherd people's belief. by learning how to conjure an enemy, you can form a clan. whether the clan has any 'real' identity is immaterial: the transfer of power in the formation of the clan is the point of the formation.
this is why the demonization of 'islam' is so useful to wilders, and conversely, why demonization of 'the west' is so useful to, say, osama bin laden types. it pressures people to take sides falsely. for example, if i don't like islam, and wilders doesn't like islam, i may be pressured into thinking i'm on wilder's side, when i'm not. i have reasons for disliking all religions, including islam, and for disliking wilders. but opposing both islam and wilders is not supposed to be an option. the aim of this so-called 'populism' is to hijack the discourse and make us snap to grid. it tries to force us to align the issues for discussion into polarities that are not real.
the chief operant phantom in that unreality is the mythical association of a person's birthplace with his or her personality. the notion that one's behavior can be predicted from his or her nationality is patently erroneous, but nonetheless prevalent.
a simple anecdote of this mythologizing: my friend kaloyan meets a stranger at a party, who asks where he's from. 'bulgaria', he answers. 'oh! you're the skimmers!' the stranger jokes. he is referring to the arrest of some criminals who'd been 'skimming' bank card info from users of bank machines. those criminals were bulgarian. so in that guy's mind, bulgarian = skimmer.
that man probably didn't think he was being a racist, but he shows us precisely how racism works: through the belief that you know something about a person because of where they were born. similarly, people ask my polish friends where they came from, then assume they came here to be housekeepers and construction laborers. and if the person looks different from you, you don't even need to ask where they were born. my friend george can't win: he gets picked on by white people who think he's moluccan, and by moluccans who think he's not.
as we were discussing these things last night in my apartment, i brought up an example of an immigrant i would not prefer to live with: a violent man who comes to amsterdam to exploit women as sex slaves for profit. it is for his actions that i condemn him, not for his birthplace. but there are others who would more easily latch on to the idea that he is turkish, and try somehow to make his turkishness responsible for his malfeasance.
it is utterly irrational nonsense, all of it.
so why do we do it? partly because our minds are ill-trained in rational thinking, and partly because it's so reassuringly easy to do. falling back on popular generalizations is comfortable. acknowledging the truth is much harder, becauase the truth of human beings is very complex. therefore in professional politics, just as in schoolyard clan-building, the truth does not matter, because it must not be allowed matter.
the truth, however, does matter.
it so happens that within nominally islamic groups, behaviors are exhibited which i find egregious. also within nominally islamic groups, kindness and generosity are exhibited which would be seen as righteous behavior in any society, which in fact remind me of what christian societies were supposed to be like. in both cases, evil and righteous, people associate the behavior with the religion. but those bad and good behaviors are by no means exclusive to practitioners of that religion.
therefore: knowing someone is a muslim may help you assess their likelihood of eating pork: but it can never tell you if they will be bad or good. this unhandy fact is not helpful to the political rabble-rouser, but it is a fact.
crime statistics, even if they are factual, are also utterly useless in assessing the next person you meet. racists frequently point to how many criminal arrests and convictions are of 'colored' or 'foreign' people — forgetting that those people may be targeted for their foreignness. suppose it were indisputably proven that 100 percent of all convicted criminals in the netherlands were (for example) moroccan. that says nothing about what percentage of moroccans are criminal. so it tells me nothing useful about the next moroccan i meet. such a fact, if true, would only be useful in building fear of strangers, and amassing power for the chief of the clan.
the difficult fact is that you cannot know a person by knowing their nationality or ethnicity. you have to know them one by one. life is just that complicated. sorry.
the real crime that's being perpetrated on us all, is the imposition of national boundaries to restrict the free movement of human beings. the more comfortable a society is, the more relaxed it is about its 'nationalism'. but as the society feels threatened, it leans more toward sealing itself off with tougher border guards. in the extreme case, the boundary is militarized and actively defended against invasion, with weapons that kill.
my theoretical practice, as you know, is always to take the extreme example as the definition of the behavior. the ignorance of national borders is a sign of peace. the enforcement of national borders is an act of war.
the thought that struck me last night, however, was that the government's policy on foreigners is short-sighted. they and their supporters seem not to have realized that by discriminating against those foreigners they don't want (eg, bulgarians) they are alienating the ones they do want (eg, me). the more famous the netherlands becomes for being a racist state, the less people like me will want to live here and draw foreign capital into the country. in the end the racists may succeed in turning this country into a shy backwater, and then they'll have their nice white dutch paradise. but the world and its businesses will have forgotten that there ever was a netherlands.
it's ironic that their frantic efforts to preserve their cultural integrity will be the thing that destroys their culture. nobody in the netherlands is 'aboriginal', they all either came from somewhere, or are descended from people who came from somewhere. dutch culture was great because it was open, when it was open, and precisely to the extent that it was open. when the openness is abandoned, dutchness itself is doomed.