zaterdag 27 oktober 2007


(Warning: this post is not much use for those who don't read Dutch).

I recently found some of my old poems while rummaging through my papers. I thought I had lost them all during a hard drive crash. As it is, quite a few are lost unless I re-remember them, but a few have been salvaged.

I started writing poems in my first year at university in the mistaken belief that writing poetry would help me get girls. I apologize to any girl I accosted at the time - most of them were pretty cool and polite about it, only occasionally advising me to get help. My poetry at that time was pretty mad. I read a lot of Heiner Mueller at the time and was impressed with his unforgiving, hammering use of language. And I tried to imitate that. The result was a very cacaphonous, heavy-metal kind of poetry. I think that it saved that from being too pathetic. Or at least, I like to think that. But aside from a few good metaphors which I may be able to salvage in the future, it was pretty bad.

During the year 2001-2002, I worked as a teacher of Dutch in Georgia (Republic of, that is). No television, no computer, no research literature, absolutely gorgeous surroundings, and the books I had access to was the Dutch literature collection from our library. It did my writing a lot of good: what I wrote at that time was a lot more subtle, with metre and rhyme. Occasionally overwrought, but some of it was quite good.

The following two verses were from a poem that was never finished, but perhaps they can stand on their own. I'm not that happy with the first one, but the second I quite like:

Ik hoor je voetstap in mijn hart,
en in mijn hoofd je ademtocht.
Je sluipt door mijn herinnering
- zachtjes, maar ik hoor je toch.

En voel voorjaar, onrust
en regen in de lucht.
In mijn oog verslagen ijs,
in mijn borst een zwaluwvlucht.

One of my favourites was a poem that just seemed to present itself in near-complete form. It's about surrender and sacrifice, and the feeling of loss and powerlessness in those left behind. The religious references are obvious, but were not intentional at the time. Writing it, I must not so much had Christ in mind, but the messianic figure from Dan Simmons' novel The Rise of Endymion.

Ik zie hoe je je beker leegt
en schoonveegt aan het tafelkleed.
Je zoent me vaarwel, en ketent me.

Ik weet hoe daarvoor de hemel zweeg,
slechts de wind die met de takken streed
je zacht zei: ”Nooit vergeet ik je.”

Je kalme stem breekt mijn verzet,
je woord doet mij een knevel om.
”Waar ik ook ga, ik ga alleen.”

Je breekt je lichaam, opent het.
Ik zie de bergen. Ze staren stom.
Ik wil hier weg, weet niet waarheen.

Reading my old stuff with a religious eye, I see references (both Biblical and mythological) brimming just about everywhere - the "you" most of my poems were directed to may have originally been a more or less specific girl, but ends up being much more than that. As I may have mentioned at some point, I'm not a very social person. I guess it takes something for me to develop an interest in another person, and being female definitely helps developing that interest. With few exceptions, most of my close friends have been female. I suppose that also my religious feelings have, at first, developed through female archetypes. But it's interesting to note how all of that was brimming under the surface, so to speak, before becoming obvious to myself.

The following pretty sharply outlines my problems in meeting "the other" (other people, God) - one of fear and longing, a tendency to retreat behind high walls I built around me and a desire to surrender and open up:

Spiegels en muren. Ik verberg mijn gezicht
in handen van steen en stenen van vlees
en dromen en as. Hun taak onverricht
keren duiven en raven van het glas van mijn geest.

En van het puin waarvan mijn geheugen is
bouw ik torens, waar ik met verzegelde mond
steeds jou, die mijzelf en een vreemdeling is
vermink en omhels en zoen en verwond.

Nu wordt het nacht. Ik zie je kamp in het veld,
je huid neemt de kleur van het verdwijnende licht,
en ik wens mijn muren geslecht, mijn vonnis geveld,
je hand en je adem op mijn ontsloten gezicht.

I have sometimes considered translating some of them into English. Particularly because I haven't lived in a Dutch-speaking environment for such a long time. But translating the best ones - the ones adhering most strictly to form, metre, etc. - is quite hopeless.

One that I can translate, because it's quite simple and very prosaic, is unusually bitter. The lovely double meaning in the "depends" is better in Dutch, however (dat hangt ervan af). Anyway, I must have been in a pretty dark mood at the time:

You lean on me
- I support you like
a rope supports a hanged one.

Like now you're swaying above the crowd,
with the birds and the big grey sky,
I'm the only friend you have.

And, dangling from the rope, you ask me:
"My rope, I love you dearly,
will you stay with me forevermore?"

And the rope answers:
"That depends, beloved,
which one of us breaks first."

Gay marriage, liberal consensus and the corruption of power

Currently, a reform of the Swedish marriage law seems underway, and the law seems to be set to be redefined as gender-neutral - that is, in principle inclusive of gay marriage. A coalition of Catholics, Evangelicals and Pentecostalists have set up a counter-campaign under the title of "Bevara Ă„ktenskapet" (preserve marriage). Among other things, the coalition has bought advertising in the Stockholm subway.

Response to the campaigning poster - which I, even though I travel the Stockholm subway almost daily, have not seen but which I understand depicts a little heart and the words "Father Mother Child" - has been astonishing. The union of subway drivers and personnel have complained about the offensive posters, as have the Left and Environmental Parties. Also, the RFSL, the Swedish foundation for the Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered, have been wondering out loud why such offensive, hateful and discriminating behaviour such as disagreement with them is even allowed. Unsurprisingly, supporters of tolerance and inclusiveness have taken to hacking the websites of the offending Catholics and Evangelicals and tearing the posters down. Perhaps that's why I didn't see any around.

I'm not surprised by the actions of the Swedish Left, which has very strong censorious tendencies. The Left has been in power for most of the past sixty years, and has gotten too used to representing social consensus - which, in Sweden, is still largely social-democratic with a very odd mixture of social liberalism and moral conservatism (the moral conservatism of the Left mainly directed at non-politically-correct expressions of sexuality). It tends to respond with rage to views that fall far outside its own. If Swedish politics is to develop into the same direction as Dutch, Belgian and French politics - where all icons have been torn to the ground and smashed - the liberal-left political consensus here in Sweden is living on borrowed time. Which is not wholly a good thing (political discourse in the Netherlands has its own set of problems).

I'm more disappointed in the stance of the RFSL. I really expected something better of them. Power, it seems, corrupts - even the best.

I'm not against gay marriage as such. I would tend to strongly oppose any inequalities between gay and straight partnerships - such as those dealing with inheritance, and even adoption. This said, legal redefinition of marriage is not something merely abstract, not something that happens in a political vacuum. The family is the primary social institution where the next generation of citizens is socialized - and the piecemeal dissolution of that institution over the past thirty years or so, with increasing divorce, one-parent families, the obsolescence of such family rituals as having dinner together at a table, and all that, may have bad consequences as well as good ones (such as the growing economic and social independence of women). And the issue of gay marriage is not independent of such concerns.

And I, for one, would like to listen to such concerns, and be able to make up my mind about them, without the unions, or the Left party, or the RFSL intervening to shield me from such views! The freedom of the Evangelicals and the Pentecostalists is my freedom as well. And, sadly, it seems the RFSL is its enemy.

My advice, however, for social conservatives and Christians opposed to gay marriage is this: withdraw. You're fighting a rearguard fight, to retain a legalistic remnant of a religious society which has long ago passed into oblivion. Let the state call "marriage" whatever it wish. Meanwhile, resacralize marriage in your own communities, in your own churches, and treat it as your faith tells you to. Be like the Christians under the Roman Empire, pay your taxes to the Emperor and go on building a society within a society. My advice would be the same to Christians not opposed to gay marriage, or to other religious and non-religious groups who regard marriage as something worth saving, whether it is for straight, gays, polygamous unions, etc.: do not fight for your religious or ethical footholds in secular society from the outside. Instead, work in the interstices of secular society, fight for your values from within.

woensdag 17 oktober 2007

Scientism and "antiscience"

Something struck me while casually surfing some of my favourite ScienceBlogs today. Namely a phrase by John Wilkings after defending the ridiculous decision to award Al Gore the nobel peace price:

Of course, the MSM is also spinning in their mental graves on account of the fact that there were supposedly nine errors in An Inconvenient Truth, according to a British judge. James Hrynyshyn at Island of Doubt shows that there were two and a half errors, and all were justified at the time of the making of the film. But don't expect that to stop the slathering pitbulls of antiscience...

There's an eerie echo of some of the less savoury versions of religions (or secular ersatz religions like Marxism) in that last phrase. Now, of course John Wilkings may have been engaging in humorous hyperbole here - but a quick googling of the term "antiscience" shows the attitude is alive and well. I posted about the use of the loaded term "denialism" before.

Chesterton at one point remarked something to the extent that when people stop believing in God, the problem is that they'll start believing in everything else. And in some ways "science" in the Scienceblogosphere is mutating precisely in some kind of surrogate religion. It's seen as a source of values, a guide to political action, and most importantly, a tribal epithet distinguishing allies from enemies (nefarious Republicans, suspiciously francophone intellectuals and the like).

One could make the provocative point that, rather than arguing whether religion can even co-exist with a scientific attitude, religious beliefs (of the classical rather than the fundamentalist variety) may actually be of great benefit to a working scientist as they force her to distinguish values and metaphysical beliefs from science as a method.

vrijdag 12 oktober 2007

Nobel peace prize

I know the Nobel peace prize has suffered a credibility problem ever since they handed it out to Henry Kissinger, but... Al Gore? Who's next, Bono Vox? Bob Geldof? Michael Jackson? Enough aging celebrities with a messiah complex out there.

The bitter irony is of course that Al Gore was vice-president in one of the more warlike U.S. administrations in recent decades - which presided over bombing Yugoslavia, blowing up a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, and the starvation embargo against Iraq, punctuated regularly by bombing raids. Whatever one can say about George Bush, at least he gave the Iraqis a chance to fight back (one which they have taken up enthusiastically).

Of course, this is all forgotten, as global warming and the war in Iraq are all too useful sticks to beat the Republicans with. The American liberal political memory is very short.

donderdag 11 oktober 2007

More on socialism and religion

Had a phone conversation with my father, where we discussed the points where Christianity and socialism touch. A very important one is of course the centrality of alienation in both Marxism and the Biblical narrative - especially the Creation account. Where the alienation of the worker from the product of his work is precisely that which Marxian socialism seeks to overcome, the Creation account magnificently describes the alienation between man and his natural surroundings, no longer a luscious garden but a field to be laboured upon, controlled and fought against:

Cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken.

(Gen. 3: 18/19).

But the big question is of course what went wrong between the Communist Manifesto and the Gulags. Ultimately, there were tendencies towards historicism - the notion of historical necessity, and the subordination of individuals and groups of individuals to historical necessity - right there from the start, even though Marx may have been much more subtle concerning questions of historical determinism on the one hand and mankind as the master of his own history on the other.

But I guess these tendencies came to the fore much more starkly when Lenin attempted to lead a socialist revolution in a country with a very small working class. Bolshevism of course endorsed an ideology of the Party as the vanguard of the working class - the working class being by itself only capable of attaining a broadly reformist, trade-unionist consciousness. So essentially the working class became a project for the Party rather than a needed corrective influence upon the Party. After the revolution, of course, Stalin undertook industrialization, collectivization and the creation of the Soviet proletariat (and rural proletariat as well) at breakneck speed and at the cost of millions of lives - the original Russian proletariat having died in the Civil War, absorbed by the growing Party bureaucracy or returned to the fields. Man, humanity, and human life became a project of the future to which present generations were subordinated to and sacrificed to; rather than a present and concrete ultimate in our ideologies.

Back when I lived in the Netherlands, I used to devour the texts of the East German playwright Heiner Mueller - the chronicler of the GDR, who started as a loyal socialist but became increasingly sceptical towards the end of his life without ever totally abandoning his ideals. One of Heiner Mueller's plays, Mauser, magnificently presents the question of "What is a human being?" The play itself reads like a comment/excerpt of Brecht's Die Massnahme. In Brecht's play, a group of agitators on a secret mission in Northern China decide that they should execute one of their own for the good of the collective. Mueller's Mauser is a dialogue between the Party, the firing platoon, and its victim, set perhaps during the Russian civil war. There is a certain merciless rhythm in the text - that of concrete stakes being rammed into the ground by cold and not at all benevolent machinery, and at the same time biblical turns of phrase (In Vitebsk as in other cities) are not hard to find.

Unfortunately, I haven't got the text right here, but I found an excerpt which I tried to translate below. There's no way this does justice to the text, but it might give you an idea:

Your assignment is not to kill men, but
enemies. For man is unknown.
We know, that killing is labour
but man is more than his labour.
Not until the revolution is finally victorious
in Vitebsk as in other cities
will we know what a man is.
For he is our labour, the unknown
behind the mask, the one buried in crap
his history, the real one behind the growths
the one living in the fossizilations,
because the revolution will tear down his mask,
will erase the growths, will cleanse the dried crap
from his history, from his image. The man, with
claw and tooth, bayonet and machine-gun,
rising from the chain of generations,
tearing his bloody umbilical cord
in the flash of the real beginning knowing himself
and others, each according to their difference.
Excavate, root and all, man out of man,
what matters is the example. Death means nothing.

maandag 8 oktober 2007

Hitchens on Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Hitchens is outraged at the Dutch government's decision to discontinue funding Ayaan Hirsi Ali's bodyguards while she is in the US, mentioning it in the same breath as the events at Srebrenica in 1995 and calling on readers of Slate to register their feelings with the Dutch ambassador.

I personally don't see why the Dutch state should pay for the security of the American Enterprise Institute's personnel. I don't give a damn about the American Enterprise Institute. It can go to the moon for all I care. I don't expect any constructive suggestion from it to deal with the issues the Netherlands - and Europe in general - are currently facing.

If Hirsi Ali had stuck to her guns in her political fight with immigration minister (now turned right-wing populist bulldozer) Verdonk, and stayed in the Netherlands and stayed in the parliament, she might have provided some intellectual content (not to mention dignity) to the secularist criticism of multiculturalism. Probably wishful thinking, to be sure. And we'll never know. Because Hirsi Ali didn't stick to her guns, didn't stay in parliament but went happily off to America. To work for the American Enterprise Institute or something. Kind of a disappointment, really. And the secularist, Islam-critical discourse in Dutch politics she might have contributed further to is now dominated by a conspicuously fascistoid variety of "secularism".

I recall when as schoolkids in the early to mid-nineties, we would organize demos against Neo-Nazism - which was then a menacing but very marginal phenomenon, mainly restricted to the former eastern part of Germany as well as maybe fifty idiot skinheads in the Netherlands. But what we then considered as discourse on the slippery slope to Nazism seems positively moderate now. With all kinds of degenerate would-be followers of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh out-doing each other in radicalism - going as far as to seriously propose banning the Quran and calling upon Muslims to tear it up to prove their loyalty. Enlightenment values, I guess. Oh, and becoming the second-biggest party in the gallups for it, too.

And this is the dominant political discourse in the Netherlands at the moment. This is what makes the headlines. Forgive me if I am a mite sceptical about the "ongoing attack on our civilization" Hitchens mentions. Let's say that I see it coming mainly from the other side.

As left-leaning youth growing up in the largely white, Christian and monocultural Dutch countryside, we were of course very naive about the very real problems that would eventually lead to the meteoric rise of Pim Fortuyn - and the troglodytes that now want to step in his footsteps. As an ideology, multiculturalism is dead. Our sovereignity has been taken over by a religiously and culturally faceless European Union which our political class doesn't dare ask our opinion about. We simply lack the ideological tools to found the co-existence of ethnically diverse groups in the Netherlands upon some kind of common national identity, national idea, etc. We never did - the previous co-existence of various religious factions in the Netherlands was mainly a "living alongside" one another. And we can't get back to that. So now we're headed to some kind of regressive conflict based mostly on skin colour.

I think we crossed a line when, in 2002, a social democrat politician in Amsterdam used the Dutch expression kutmarrokanen - which does not sound quite as bad in Dutch as the literal translation ("c*nt-moroccans") would suggest, but is not really nice either. Overnight, a racist slur became salonfähig, kind of trendy even, a sign you were not going to be silenced by those muslims threatening our civilization and their spineless Leftist fellow-travellers. Now think of how the second-generation of Moroccans, whose fathers cleaned your schools and picked your fruit and manned your factories, and who are caught between an old culture that is not theirs anymore and a new one that is distinctly unwelcoming, think of how they feel about that. And then tell me on how to get back to solving our problems in a sensible manner.

Fortunately we have Christopher Hitchens telling us what to do.

You know, I am getting slightly annoyed by British and American neocons, "Decent" Leftists and Not-so-decent Rightists telling us what to do. Especially because their own contribution to solving the conflict apparently consisted in bombing the crap of a poor country and then letting it slide into a murderous tribal civil war-cum-terrorist training ground. I mean, that really helped. The lack of political hindsight with people like Hitchens is so brazen as to be almost admirable. I mean, I would hardly dare touch a pen myself after such a blunder.

If Hirsi Ali is in America, working for the American Enterprise Institute, let the Americans pay for her security. If she is in the Netherlands, she can have a small army paid for by the state to protect her, as far as I am concerned. As can Geert Wilders. Or sensible ex-Muslims. Or non-sensible ex-Muslims. Or drawers of racist cartoons - their freedom of speech should be unconditionally protected. As should that of idiots who like to refer to Moroccans by the name of female genitalia, or those who find mirth in making those oh-so naughty and risque allegations concerning Mohammed and paedophilia. If not for a matter of principle, then for the practical truth that the country probably can't really deal with another political murder. But let's not make pretensions about defending our civilization or all that crap. That battle has been fought and lost, far as I am concerned.