19thNov2017

Weekend-supplement ethnotyping

Newspaper headlines are increasingly taking the "why" form: "Why such-and-such is so-and-so". Threadbare as it is becoming by now (and patently serving as "clickbait"), it makes good journalistic sense: it raises a topic and at the same time promises an explanation. Two recent contributions to the Dutch Volkskrant show its questionable side in using the form  "Why such and such a cultural group behaves in this or that manner".  

The one that prompted this blog entry was Natalie Hanssen’s piece "This is why Danes are so happy: Be normal", with the sub-header "Don’t ever think that you are better than the others or that you amount to something special" (Dit is waarom de Denen zo gelukkig zijn: vooral normaal doen / Denk in godsnaam niet dat je beter bent dan een ander of überhaupt iets voorstelt); posted 17 November; online here). It adds its mite to the hygge hype by presenting the timeworn Danish cultural meme of Janteloven or “the law of Jante” [a fictionalized small town made famous in a 1933 book]. Not exactly a staggering new discovery - the wikipedia article on the topic has versions in 30 languages; nor so very Danish after all – the Dutch have their “doe maar gewoon” convention, and any small-town mentality will look askance at pretentious neighbours; but hey, don’t be a grouch, it’s good enough, apparently, for some diverting weekend reading.

Ditto for an article that same week: “This is why South Limburg is such a fertile field for populism”, with the repetitive sub-headline: “Writer and presenter Marcia Luyten finds in her native South Limburg the perfect conditions for the emergence of populism”. (Dit is waarom Zuid-Limburg een vruchtbare akker voor populisme is / Schrijver en presentator Marcia Luyten vindt in haar geboortestreek Zuid-Limburg de perfecte omstandigheden voor het ontstaan van populisme); 18 November, online here.). Same syntax in the title (“this is why...”), same intellectual laziness in the argument. Luyten re-hashes a set of tourist-brochure tidbits about the area (Catholic, decayed mining industry, sense of marginalization within the Dutch state) and offers this as a plausible psychological determination to explain populism in the area. With some intellectual pretensions by a repeatedly dropping the name of Tocqueville, who is helpfully glossed as being a "French philosopher". Why thank you Marcia, I guess that means you've got it right.

Invoking received wisdom rather than presenting freshly-gained insights; recycling pre-war local-colour-anecdotes dressed up as sociology; aiming to divert with anecdotes rather than to challenge appearances: such articles, though well-intentioned, evince precisely that intellectual complacency and laziness which is the hallmark of cultural stereotyping. And the crux lies in that "why" word: the shallow, unjustified pretense that we can explain social behaviour by relating it to cultural clichés.

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Popcorn epics, modern nationalism

Roel Reiné is a filmmaker with a penchant for heroic-historical action movies with heavy overlays of special effects. His popular action movie Michiel de Ruyter (2015; distributed internationally under the English title Admiral) already contained a remarkably anachronistic, flag-waving speech extolling the character and greatness of the Dutch nation (online here). In interviews, Roelé testifies to his appreciation of patriotic flag-saluting ceremonial in the USA. He would like to see a similar ethos in his native Netherlands, and is candid about this as the motivation for the bombastic flag-waving in Michiel de Ruyter.

Roelé, again teamed up with producer Klaas de Jong, has now turned his attention to an earlier hero: The Frisian King Redbad (†719), known for his resistance against Christianization and Frankish hegemony. Advance notices (the film is due out this month) indicate that this is, again, an unabashedly nationalistic production and that its script (again by Alex van Galen) involves a similar mixture of anachronistic distortions of historical fact and manipulative xenophobic ethnotyping.
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02ndApr2018

The neoliberal genome of the Dutch nation

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was interviewed by Mehreen Khan in the Financial Times, (“Dutch leader ready to be EU champion on free trade", (FT, 27-03-2018, p. 7), as part of his publicity campaign to position himself as the go-to free-market Conservative Liberal after Brexit. He went on record as saying that "The Netherlands, since the 16th century, has always been trying to maintain the balance between the great powers - France, Germany, and the UK" and that free trade is "part of the Dutch DNA".

Whatever the Free-trade DNA (has this taken over from the equally fabled Dutch moralism and tolerance?), Rutte, who has studied history, should know that he is off by at least a century with his 16th-cetury flourish. it is arguably wrong to date a balance-of-power policy to the pre-1670. But ethnotyping is just that: bad history dressed up as a timeless national characteristic.

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