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Riots, curfew, Rutte, ozone, poetry and a whale: an Easter banquet

IT WASN’T ALL POLITICS but the coronavirus, curfew, rioting and re-election of prime minister Mark Rutte to helm his fourth coalition big themes covered by 2nd Opinion in the first quarter of 2021.

Another was the relationship of humankind to planet Earth, a concern which dominated the work of atmospheric scientist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, a self-described “boy from de Pijp” in Amsterdam who died in January aged 87. It surfaced again in the shape of an absent whale, stranded 500 years ago in Zeeland, and vividly revived in British writer Philip Hoare’s latest book Albrecht and the Whale.

Dutch judges wanted their say too, in deciding who is accountable for failure to curb global heating: the Supreme Court in the Hague has made precedent for the world, but the majority VVD has drafted plans to stop that.

And in the wake of President Joe Biden’s inauguration in Washington DC, a racially charged row erupted in the Netherlands over who should translate US youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman’s verses into Dutch. The answer: not Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, the first Dutch author to win the International Booker prize - one of the my very first posts here, who resigned from the job.

For this Easter week only, I’ve unlocked all these posts - six of the best - in the online archive. They’re free to read via the links below until April 9.

After that, the locks click shut again - except for subscribers, who can browse the entire archive including art and short films at any time.

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Rioters test a new kind of racial cooperation

On Saturday January 23rd, riots broke out in more than 10 cities across the Netherlands after youths protesting against the first curfew since the Second World War set fire to a mobile coronavirus testing centre in the fishing village of Usk, north of Amsterdam. The next day, scheduled demonstrations against the curfew in Amsterdam and Eindhoven turned violent.

In A separate development, I teased out a comparison with the so-called “rainbow nation” of post-apartheid South Africa where I spent formative years as a foreign correspondent. Officials in the Netherlands were quick to dismiss the unrest as attention-seeking, opportunistic and criminal. But that also denied the riots any larger significance.

Skirmishes with the police and looting spread to Utrecht and Rotterdam, then to smaller towns. In Rotterdam, police chief Fred Westerbeke said 60 rioters were arrested and 10 police officers injured. Parool reported a ‘suction effect’ - aanzuigende werking - as images spread through social media and online.

The following nights, 240 protesters were arrested as crowds threw fireworks and golf balls at police. Riot squads on horseback deployed tear gas and water cannon. In parliament, opposition leader Gert Wilders urged ministers to deploy the army before the violence became “half a civil war” - voordat dit geweld een halve burgeroorlog wordt.

Finding meaning in the random lawlessness of these events requires a better ideal for society, some higher standard as reference. In principle if not in practice, even a harsh critic can ask: what are the hoodlums trying to say? Perhaps then, other interpretations become possible.

Wilders noticed youths of Moroccan and Turkish descent among the crowds. His hyperbole was a coded way of saying that the rioters appeared diverse, at least in skin colour. But at the most superficial level, the spectacle of attacks on corona-testing centres, looted supermarkets and burnt-out cars, stood as a public rebuke to the national self-image.

Lawlessness is both a real and a symbolic rejection of competence, compromise, orderly progress. Which led me to think again about post-apartheid South Africa. There, everyone learned fast that the comforting illusion of the rainbow - a metaphor for harmonious racial diversity - is an inadequate balm for old wounds.

In the Netherlands, such concerns are more likely to be perceived as weakness and liberal hand-wringing. All too visibly, Dutch society is not what most people believed it was before the pandemic. New models for inter-racial cooperation are urgently needed - but where to find them?

It’s too easy to dismiss the opportunistic teenage rioters as merely hooligans - a kind of societal sub-species previously confined to post-match violence between football fans. At the same time, racism in Dutch society (and law enforcement) is so deeply engrained that many (white) people appear barely to notice it at all.

South Africa today, 27 years after the end of apartheid, does offer one example of inter-racial cooperation. One sector of the economy is characterised by rapid integration at home and abroad, by public-private partnership and energetic opportunism. This diverse group navigates the disruptions of a globalised economy with agility.

Who are they? Read the full article: A separate development

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Paul Crutzen’s scary adventure

The most influential Dutchman that you’ve never heard of might just be Paul Crutzen. The first atmospheric scientist to theorise the possibility (subsequently proved) of a hole in the ozone layer, he also warned of ‘nuclear winter’ and coined the term ‘Anthropocene’ to describe our epoch when human activity changed the course of the natural world. 

In Gentle Dutch genius whose work entered the language, I reported on the life of a self-described “boy from de Pijp” in Amsterdam. After wartime schooling interrupted by the hongerwinter of 1946, Crutzen joined the Amsterdam municipality where he worked for four years as a bridge-builder in the planning department. 

In 1958, he moved with his Finnish wife Terttu Soininen to Sweden where (despite having no experience of computer programming) he successfully applied for a job as a programmer in the meteorology department of the institution which became Stockholm university.

Crutzen attended lectures alongside his day job, studying at home during the evenings. By 1973, when he obtained his doctorate in theoretical meteorology, he was a pioneer in the field of stratospheric chemistry. “The experiences of the early 1970s had made it utterly clear to me that human activities had grown so much that they could compete and interfere with natural processes,” he said in his Nobel lecture.

Crutzen believed his ideas had sown the seeds for a thaw in the Cold War

Crutzen’s early breakthrough was to demonstrate that the atmospheric balance of naturally occurring nitrous oxide and ozone could be altered by exposure to man-made chemicals. That hole was subsequently discovered above Antarctica in 1985 by a team of three scientists from the British Antarctic Survey, prompting an unprecedented agreement between world leaders on the 1987 Montreal Protocol to phase out the use of CFCs in aerosol cans for products such as hairspray and deodorant. 

During celebrations of his Nobel prize in Mainz, home to Germany’s Max Planck Institute, Crutzen was driven through the city in an open carriage - rondgereden in een open rijtuig. Even then, he refused champagne in protest against French nuclear testing - weigerde hij champagne te schenken uit protest tegen de Franse kernproeven.  

In 1982, Crutzen co-authored an article with John Ricks, subtitled Twilight at Noon, as part of a series, Nuclear War: The Aftermath, later published as a book. Crutzen and Ricks predicted that soot and dust from a nuclear firestorm could shroud countries in smog, reducing the intensity of sunlight and causing crop failure. 

The prospect of a dangerous global winter - een gevaarlijke wereldwijde winter, seized the public and scientific imagination. As the Pentagon and the Kremlin edged towards detente and nuclear non-proliferation pacts, Crutzen believed his ideas sowed the seeds for the thaw between Superpowers - legde volgens hem de kiem voor de dooi tussen de grootmachten.

The story of the origin of the term Anthropocene, Crutzen’s third and epoch-defining contribution to the language of climate breakdown, is too good to summarise here. Crutzen coined the phrase during a moment of frustration at an academic meeting in Mexico, not long after his 66th birthday. For the whole story, read the article.

Anthropocene - het Antropoceen - describes an epoch in which humans’ impact on the Earth rivalled that of nature. In Parool, Jaap Seidell and Jutka Halberstadt described the significance of a single term capturing the undeniable influence of humans on the atmosphere, climate, biodiversity and the soil -- verwijst naar de onmiskenbare invloed van de mens op de atmosfeer, het klimaat, de biodiversiteit en de bodem. 

His influence “proves that it is possible to do science at the very highest level, while also attending to the moral, political, and cultural ramifications of your work,” Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes told the Associated Press. 

Read the article: Gentle Dutch genius whose work entered the language

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Dutch courts set standard for climate breakdown

The Netherlands is among Europe’s worst polluters and Dutch authorities have been reluctant to regulate carbon emissions - but recent evidence suggested that judges may be losing patience.

A case brought by the environmental organisation Milieudefensie accused Shell of actions which make it impossible for the Paris deal - het Parijse Klimaatakkoord - to succeed. In Revolutionary Supreme Court for the world, guest columnist Douwe de Lange reviewed the separation of powers between government and judiciary.

Five years after a Dutch court found the government guilty of failing to meet its commitments under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, judges must decide whether to impose a similar burden of responsibility on oil giant Royal Dutch Shell. 

Urgenta made headlines across the world, as Dutch courts imposed a legal obligation on governments to do more to curb global heating

In an action co-filed by 17,000 Dutch citizens, Milieudefensie has asked the judiciary to require Shell to abandon plans to increase its production of fossil fuels and switch to ‘a green corporate path’ - een groene bedrijfskoers te eisen, reported Frank Straver in Trouw.

A verdict against Shell would establish another milestone - mijlpaal - in climate litigation, Professor Elbert de Jong from Utrecht University told NPO’s Een Vandaag current affairs programme.

Responding, Shell’s lawyers argued that Dutch courts are the wrong forum to adjudicate on the global societal problem of climate change. Nor, the company said, should judges be allowed to rule on the business strategy of a private company.

Shell’s defence relied heavily - Shells verdediging leunt zwaar - on a report commissioned from the University of Groningen economist Machiel Mulder. It found that restricting output of oil and gas from one producer does not reduce global emissions. Mulder and colleagues cite examples from Iran after the 1978 revolution, and Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion of 1990, when the shortfall in oil production was quickly made up by other countries.

The case follows a historic verdict in 2019, when the Supreme Court upheld a 2015 decision in the lower courts that failure to meet climate goals constituted a human rights violation. Deciding against the Dutch state in an action brought by Urgenda foundation, a non-governmental organisation, the judiciary ordered the government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 per cent by 2020.

Plaintiffs in the Milieudefensie case, which opened in December, say Shell’s plans violate its duty of care and threaten human rights by knowingly undermining the Paris Climate Agreement goal to limit global heating. For the prosecution, environmental lawyer Roger Cox QC accused the oil and gas major of violating the European Convention on Human Rights: specifically, the right to life (article 2) and the right to family life (article 8).

The case will test a key principle of Dutch jurisprudence known as the so-called ‘cellar hatch’ judgment - het zogenoemde kelderluikarrest. Although no Dutch law exists to require cellar hatches to be kept closed - hoewel er geen Nederlandse wet bestaat die verplicht om kelderluiken te sluiten, substantial precedent exists to require citizens to act to prevent avoidable dangers.

Read the full article: Revolutionary Supreme Court for the world

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Not woke enough

Amanda Gorman is the 22 year-old national youth poet laureate of the United States, who moved her global audience to tears with a performance of her poem The Hill We Climb at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. A sensation on the steps of the White House, she was promptly offered a modelling contract by international agency IMG Models.

Poet and novelist Marike Lucas Rijneveld, 29, is the first Dutch winner of the International Booker Prize for their debut novel, The Discomfort of Evening. Rijneveld, who identifies as non-binary (they/them), seemed an obvious recruit to translate Gorman’s poetry into Dutch, but they had barely started before abandoning their commission from Amsterdam publisher Meulenhoff. 

In Lost in Translation, I framed this controversy as a new Dutch chapter in the global culture wars. In a country where nuanced discussion of racial politics remains achingly difficult, the divergent expectations for Gorman’s translator struck me as an index of mostly inarticulate sensibilities. 

For Janice Deul in Volkskrant, Rijneveld was an “incomprehensible choice” - een onbegrijpelijke keuze - to translate Gorman. The episode confirmed an old pattern of denying opportunities to Black talent, especially women. Rijneveld, who is white and non-binary, had “no experience in this field”. An opportunity was missed - een gemiste kans - to hire an “unapologetically Black” spoken word artist.

Responding to hostile reactions on social media and in the press, Rijneveld tweeted:

‘I am shocked by the uproar around my involvement in the dissemination of Amanda Gorman’s message, and I understand people who feel hurt by the choice of Meulenhoff to ask me. I had happily devoted myself to translating Amanda’s work, seeing it as the greatest task to keep her strength, tone and style. However, I realise that I am in a position to think and feel that way, where many are not’ — Rijneveld

In Parool, columnist and theatre director Johan Fretz argued for an Afro-Dutch performer to do the job. Gorman “emphatically positions herself as someone with a natural awareness of her place in the ongoing struggle of Black America,” he wrote. Her poems emerged from “consciousness, rooted in personal history, experiential expertise and knowledge, which she unmistakably shares with black poets overseas.”

If this sounds like identity politics, that’s because it is. But not, I’d suggest, in a bad way. Time and again, Fretz wrote, “valid criticism” - steekhoudende kritiek - from people of colour is dismissed as identiteitspolitiek. This term is deployed lazily, often as a reproach or implying stigma. Much like the pejorative ‘wokeness’ - woke-gedeug, literally “woke guts”. 

)Fretz didn’t make a more explicit reference to Black Consciousness, the transatlantic pan-Africanist movement that arose from anti-colonial struggles. But his argument for Gorman’s significance rests squarely on the same concepts of Black identity, drawing on a deep heritage in the work of a host of Black African, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-American intellectuals.

To many of them, the idea of Black Consciousness often represented a transitional phase. It was an imperative for anti-colonial struggles, a journey as much as a destination. Franz Fanon, for example, viewed nationalism as a necessary step to equal stature for Black arts in universal culture. Meanwhile, publisher Meulenhoff said it would re-assign the work of translating Gorman’s poetry to a committee - an unconventional approach to capturing the singular idiom of a poet’s voice.

In Volkskrant, Paulien Cornelisse summed up ‘Meulenhoffgate’ with an oft-quoted line from the late US poet laureate Robert Frost: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation”. Which sounded better in English, she added generously. 

Read the full article: Lost in Translation

Curfew 2.0: opposition untangles legal 'spaghetti'

In the morning of February 16, Judge SJ Hoekstra-van Vliet, a preliminary relief judge in the Hague, decided in favour of a claim by protest group Vereniging Viruswaarheid, Virus Truth. The curfew - avondklok - was unlawful, and was ifted with immediate effect. 

Not unnecessary, but illegal. The circumstances of the pandemic did not satisfy the criteria for “urgent and extraordinary circumstances” set out in the 1996 Extraordinary Powers of Civil Authority Act - Wet buitengewone bevoegdheden burgerlijk gezag (Wbbbg), according to the lower court. 

In Parliament rallies for Curfew 2.0I surveyed the curious spectacle of critical voices in parliament trying - simultaneously - to land a punch while offering a supportive arm to the beleaguered interim cabinet.

By 4pm that day, government lawyers were back in court to lodge an appeal against the decision that imposing a curfew under the Wbbbg was a misuse of legislation intended for acute emergencies. The appeal court provisionally suspended the morning’s judgement. The 9pm curfew was reinstated by 8.30pm - just in time to go home.

In parliament, opposition parties faced a tough juggling act to sound critical and supportive at the same time. Most agreed that the unlawful verdict was the culmination in a series of blunders by the cabinet, but lined up to vote in favour of measures to ensure the curfew could remain in place.

Socialist Party MP Maarten Hijink said the outgoing cabinet had been doing its very best in recent weeks to lose support: “Het kabinet doet de laatste weken erg haar best om draagvlak te verspelen”. PvdA MP Attje Kuiken concurred that the government’s actions had damaged confidence, but the opposition groupings remained loyal.

Maarten Groothuizen, leader of the D66 in parliament, calledthe situation 'a legal spaghetti' - noemt de situatie ‘een juridische spaghetti’. Prime minister Mark Rutte’s recent experience of the rule of law was like that of a man falling into a ‘cauldron’: “Een minister die beweert in een ketel met rechtsstatelijkheid te zijn gevallen,he said. 

Rutte previously argued for the “indirect” effects of a curfew. Taking drastic measures made people aware of the seriousness of the situation, improving compliance with other regulations - doordringen hoe ernstig de situatie is, zodat zij zich aan de andere maatregelen houden. 

In the event, Curfew 2.0 didn’t materialise. Parliament’s show of loyalty was surplus to requirements. After a few days, the appeal hearing overturned the decision of the lower court and reinstated the curfew. But a thorny problem remained: with no end-date in prospect, explaining the rationale for a curfew is both more important and harder to do.

In Trouw, psychologist Kees van den Bos was discouraged by the lack of a clearly formulated goal - een helder geformuleerd doel. Unless the purpose of the measures were clearly defined, imposing severe restrictions was a recipe for gloom and resentment.

Read the full article: Parliament rallies for Curfew 2.0

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A man of flexible opinion

In the Netherlands, either it’s hunky dory: a stable, well-run, rather boring success - gidsland, literally ‘guide country’ - and an example for Europe. Or, depending on your point of view, the wheels are coming off in Dutch politics: the parties are so fragmented that serial coalition governments are incapable of reform, while a self-serving nostalgia hides bureaucratic inertia and urgent social problems. 

With apologies to David Bowie, my theme for a retrospective on the convictions of prime minister Mark Rutte came from a line in a song by the late, great rock icon. In Comedian, chameleon, pianist, prime minister, I surveyed both sides of the argument, and suggested that each can make a credible claim. 

In the Financial Times magazine, columnist Simon Kuper argued for the optimists in Lessons from the Netherlands in staying in power. Kuper, who grew up here, cited the good fortune of a small population with high wages, decent welfare, short working hours, long holidays, and the best pensions in Europe after Denmark (according to Mercer, a consulting firm). 

The opposing camp was more worried. Caroline de Gruyter, Europe correspondent for NRC, argued in Foreign Policy that the biggest problems in the Netherlands are the same as in the United States. For all their superficial differences, “Dutch - like Americans and other Europeans - want a government that works. What they have is a system that’s stuck”.

For De Gruyter, both countries suffer from ‘kludgeocracy’ - a political system that is unequal to the task of reforming itself. This is the obstacle facing President Joe Biden’s new administration in the US, where the public realm often feels irrelevant to the needs of the population. Ditto in the Netherlands, where even the resignation of the entire cabinet on January 15 heralded a return to business as usual - as I wrote here in Rutte’s bloodless finale

Which view you find most credible is likely to depend on your appreciation - or lack thereof - of two factors: one general, one specific. The general factor is your respect for Dutch political culture in its broadest sense. The specific factor is your opinion of Mark Rutte in particular, a politician distinguished by his longevity and a tendency to “flexible” opinions: de flexibele opiniemaker, as the Volkskrant put it.

Read the full article: Comedian, chameleon, pianist, prime minister

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Europe is a whale

Philip Hoare, winner of the BBC Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, is an author, aesthete, punk, swimmer for all seasons, and a man obsessed with whales. In Follow the whale: an encounter with Philip Hoare, the British writer describes visiting Zeeland in the footsteps of the renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer for his new book, Albert and the Whale.

“The story is that he came to Zeeland after making a trip to Brussels to petition the Roman emperor Charles V for a higher stipend, a kind of state pension for artists,” said Hoare. Dürer had left Nuremberg, a power centre in Europe, to flee from the plague. While waiting for a response from Charles V, he heard about a whale stranded in Zeeland. 

Whales have stranded on the beaches of the Netherlands for centuries, for geological and cosmological reasons. In all the famous paintings of stranded whales, observed Hoare, people are running away: “If I think of these other Dutch beaches - at Beverwijk, for example, or Scheveningen near the Hague - where whales have stranded, these places feel dangerous”. 

The relationship of humans to the whale is not sentimentalised. The Dutch really started commercial whaling in Europe. Herman Melville, who wrote Moby-Dick, was half-Dutch.

“The whales are always sperm whales; males, generally. When they strand, their organs extrude. These animals already are a phallic shape. Then they have these disgorged organs, symbols of potency. It’s really evident in Dutch culture, and in how the whale was commemorated by artists. These are the images that end up on Delft china, co-opted into the domestic economy.” 

Dürer thought that if he saw a whale, he would make a sensational drawing: he was already famous for his ‘Rhinocerus’, a drawing which was reprinted again and again in eight editions. So he went looking for the whale, accompanied by his gang of mediaeval lords. They were drunk most of the time. They gambled and took all kinds of medicinal drugs.

In Zeeland, a huge storm picked up just as they were nearing Middelburg. “I always think of Shakespeare’s Tempest,” said Hoare. “The Bard could not have known about Dürer in Zeeland, but Shakespeare certainly would have seen Dürer’s most successful prints. Perhaps there are traces of Dürer in his plays.”

To Hoare, the importance of Dürer is very much about Europe. Dürer forged a European aesthetic. He was the first artist to harness the printing press, which was a form of mass media, the means to achieve this huge power through art. The sense of Europe is powered by images made by humans, often anthropogenic images. This sensibility for me is very modern and very European. 

Read the full article: Follow the whale: an encounter with Philip Hoare

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The boy-girl standard for new Dutch writing

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (pronoun: they/them) is the first Dutch novelist to win the International Booker prize, after some gevoeligheidsflauwekul - “sensitivity nonsense” - over the English translation.

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