Impressions of Myanmar: Yangon

This is the third week of my stay in Myanmar. Next week will be the last of my current trip. By now, I feel I’ve gotten over some of my initial culture shock. So here are some of my impressions of Yangon (or Rangoon), the city where I’ve spend the majority of my time so far.

Myanmar is still very much under the control of the military, despite the steps taken towards a more democratic government over the last two decades. In Yangon however, this doesn’t affect daily life. The city is stable and people go about their business mostly unhindered. There are occassional power outages, especially when it rains. There is a lot of traffic on the roads, and it will easily take you 30 or 60 minutes to go anywhere in the city, especially during rush hour. There’s scarcely any police or military on the streets, and nothing ever happens. Even car accidents, despite everyone’s apparent lack of commitment to the traffic rules, are rare (probably because everyone is driving so slowly all the time).

Houses and buildings in Myanmar are very clean. I suppose this is because everyone takes their shoes off indoors. Everybody is walking barefoot all the time, even in fancy offices (though some people use ‘indoor slippers’). Personally, I find this a great pleasure. Shoes suck, especially if you have to wear them while sitting at a desk while you’re not going anywhere, except maybe the coffee machine. I also find most places are furbished quite sorberly, though whether this is because of cultural taste or economic situation I don’t know.

Outdoors in Yangon, you’ll want shoes. Or at least sandals or slippers. The roads and streets are covered in filth and red blobs of spit. The red spit comes from the nut of the beetle root. Many people chew it because it wakes you up and induces a sense of euphoria, like doing a snort of cocaine with your double espresso. You can’t swallow it and that is why people spit it out. The red coloring of the nut makes it that the streets are covered in red, and you frequently see taxi drivers open their car door to avoid drooling over them. Next to spitting, throwing your junk on the streets also seems pretty normal. There are rusty cans, plastic bags, and decomposing organic matter everywhere. Because it’s so warm and humid, it can smell very, very bad near garbage piles, which are usually just stacked on a sidewalk somewhere.

The bigger streets and densely populated neighborhoods are real concrete jungles, grey and dusty and full of people. Away from those streets, Yangon can actually be quite green, with many trees sticking out from gardens and undeveloped plots, providing much appreciated shade. There are some parks strewn far and between in the city, some surrounding the lakes that are within the city limits. These parks are not always well maintained (especially the footbridges over the water conjure scenes from Indiana Jones), but they are still very nice to visit. They are oases of calm and quiet away from the bustling streets. Also, in Myanmar culture, it’s apparently not socially accepted to show much romantic affection in public, except in the public parks. So in the shade of every tree, there is usually a young couple sitting, sometimes with an umbrella for added privacy. Umbrellas are a very popular way to block out the sun as well. Sunglasses are rare.

The people here are quite friendly, and not at all pushy. Street vendors and shopkeepers leave you alone, mostly, but are very happy to help as soon as you start talking to them. This seems generally true of all people here, except maybe of taxi drivers, who will honk at you if you’re walking on the streets to see if you want a ride. As there are many taxi’s everywhere, this means you get honked at all the time. Also, restaurant staff has a habit of standing right next to you when you’re looking at the menu. I’m very bad at that stuff, so the first few times I just hurried up and ordered something and hoped for the best. This has gotten a little better over time.

White people are still a relative novelty here, especially outside of the (more touristic) city center. Next to being white, I’m also quite tall, and I’ve had several people try and sneak pictures of me (they failed at sneaking, they succeeded at taking pictures) as I was walking past. There are many Chinese, Thai and Singaporese, but black people and latino’s seem to be almost unheard of.

I’m staying in a neighborhood that is mostly populated by the Karen, an ethnic minority different from the Burmese ethnic majority in this city. The Karen in Yangon are mostly Catholic christian, though the Karen in Karen State (in the east of Myanmar, bordering Thailand) are mainly Buddhist. Many people I’ve met sing in church choirs, and the Karen seem fond of singing anyway. Every now and then, someone at the office just breaks out into song. Sometimes, others join in, and there’s a sort of spontaneous, impromtu office sing-a-long. So far, telling people who ask that I have no religion seems to not be any problem. Instead, I get interesting question like: “So what happens when you die?” (Me: “Nothing. You just die.”) or “Why do you think there is no God?” (Me: “I just don’t feel there is. Why do you think there is a God?”). And that was that, and everybody was very respectful. Good talk.

Food here seems to be mostly rice. Rice, and noodle soup. The Burmese cuisine seems to involve a lot of barbequeing. Karen cuisine has a bit more fresh vegetables and fish. Indian and Thai are also quite popular, and there are many restaurants offering Indian curries and spicy Thai dishes. There is Chinese, but it seems to be fried snacks, mostly. Western food like pasta or burgers is non-existent outside of fancier restaurants. Traditional Myanmar dinner consists of giving everybody a big plate of rice, and then putting all sorts of dishes in the middle of the table to share amongst everyone and mix with the rice. Often, everybody has a bowl of soup on the side. Simple green tea is traditionally free with every meal.

All in all, after a first few days of thinking “what have I gotten myself into now?”, Yangon and it’s weird, friendly chaos has started to grow on me. The hospitality of the guesthouse where I’m staying, of the organization where I’m volunteering, and of my friend who is already living here, were a great help in that regard. It will be strange to come back to the Netherlands in a little over two weeks.

On The Dutch Elections

This post is for all my foreign friends, who were told that the Dutch elections have stopped the imminent tidal wave of right-wing populism. Long story short: it was not. If anything, populism won the Dutch election, even if Geert Wilders came in behind Mark Rutte. Here’s why.

Dutch elections are not about winning
Before I start this post, it’s important to address this common misconception. Because of our proportional representation system, each party gets an amount of seats on the Second Chamber (Tweede Kamer, our House of Representatives) equal to their share of votes in the election. There is no winner-takes-all game being played, and there were 28 parties participating in these elections, with 13 of them making it into the Chamber, half of them with less than 10 seats.

Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) won the most seats in this election, coming in at 33. That’s 33 out of 150 seats total. So, Mark Rutte may have “won”, he still only got slightly more than 20% of all votes. 80% of Dutch people voted for someone else. And yes, you still need a 76 seat majority to get pretty much anything done in Parlement. With the new allocation of seats, the VVD will have to form a coalition with at least three other parties to get that majority.

So, Dutch elections are about being able to participate in a coalition, not winning per se. Even if you don’t win, you can still govern. We’ve had parties with 10 seats or less participating in government, because they were able to form a majority coalition with bigger parties. And even if you win, you’ll still need help from the other parties to form a government.

Geert Wilders’ party grew
The Freedom Party (PVV), whose blond-haired figurehead we all know, held 15 seats last term. This term, it’s 20. So the right-wing populists actually saw their share of seats grow by 30%. In contract, the VVD, now at 33 seats, had 41 last term. So they may still be the biggest party, they’re actually losing ground, and the PVV is gaining. However, pretty much all of the bigger parties have declared they are not going to join a coalition with the PVV in it, so it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll be part of the government anytime soon.

Then, the populist metamorphosis
But, even if they are bigger than last term, if nobody wants to rule with them, doesn’t that mean that populism has been stopped? Well, it would have, if not for the fact that the VVD has become more populist itself, in order to compete with the PVV for the voters it obviously appeals to. Not only the VVD, but the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), the third biggest party these elections with 19 seats, has become increasingly more populist as well.

Both parties have adopted the PVV’s anti-immigration stance, with the VVD going as far as saying refugees from outside the EU are no longer welcome. Although the VVD hasn’t said anything nearly as radical as the PVV’s plan to “close all mosques”, they have made a huge campaigning point in saying inhabitants of the Netherlands should just “act normal” and “behave themselves”. Of course, they never specified what “normal behavior” is or entails, other than making some rather broad remarks about throwing your garbage in the bin instead of throwing it on the streets. Throughout their campaigns, both the VVD and the CDA were appealing to some vague collection of Dutch norms and values everybody was supposed to instinctively understand. Or at least, every “true Dutch” person would know what they meant. The CDA even proposed that Dutch schoolchildren had to learn to sing the Dutch national anthem, a completely ridiculous song about the war against Spain several hundreds of years ago.

All in all, the VVD, PVV, and CDA together account for some 72 populist seats in the Dutch parliament. That is almost half, almost a majority. For once, I actually hope that the campaign rhetoric was just that, rhetoric, and that the VVD and the CDA will revert back to their ideological ways now that election season is over. But quite frankly, I don’t think so. It won them a lot of votes, and I don’t think they’re going to abandon the nationalist stance they’ve taken. So, if anything, these elections, the right-wing populists won. Not by winning seats, but by hijacking the mainstream.

Also, the Progressive Left lost
Lastly, despite the explosive growth of the GreenLeft party from 4 to 14 seats, this doesn’t come anywhere near the growth of the populists. The center-left Labour Party (PvdA) crashed and burned from 38 to 9 seats. Of those 29 seats, 10 went to GreenLeft, 3 went to the radical left Animal Rights Party (PvdD), and 7 went to the progressive Democrats 66 (D66). The Dutch left hoped the other 9 would land with the Socialist Party (SP) or possibly the left-leaning Christian Union (CU). But no. The SP actually went from 15 to 14 seats, and the CU remained stable at 5 seats. So those 9 seats (plus that one seat from the SP) dissapeared from the Progressive Left and found themselves distributed elsewhere, in right-wing or conservative country.

The silver lining
What remains of the Dutch Left looks towards Jesse Klaver, the face of GreenLeft and the “Dutch Trudeau” according to some news outlets, to save the progressive movement. They are practically begging him to keep building that movement and no matter what, to not get into a coalition with the “poisonous” VVD. It seems pretty certain the progressive D66 party will be joining the coalition, and people seem to think that they should handle to progressive part of this next government, and that GreenLeft can come back next elections, possibly together with the PvdD, with even more seats.

And this could well be possible. Polls among young voters, aged 18-24, show that if it were up to just them, the GreenLeft party and D66 would have won a lot more votes. As usual, it’s young people who bring the potential for change, and I hope they’ll hold on to these ideals for the next elections.

On Real News vs. Fake News

Lots of people have been writing about this, but then again, lots of people write about lots of stuff I also write about. I guess I’m not so much trying to make a meaningful contribution to the debate, but rather get my opinion out there and possibly hear some other critical opinions about it and maybe learn something.

As a disclaimer, let me just say I scarcely watch any news, although I occasionally read news, almost exclusively online. News, to me, is the day-to-day reporting of happenings around the world. Stocks go up, down, presidents are elected, the warmest summer of the century has been recorded (for the third year in a row now). Mainly the small blurps of 300 to 1,000 words that basically say: this is happening now in Germany; this is happening now in your town; etc. There’s not much background info, there’s not often any investigation into how or why things happened, there’s not usually any critique. So, when I talk about ‘news’, I don’t really include opinion pieces or even most investigative journalism (as often investigations take time and these articles aren’t published until months after something happened, or started happening).

So, with that rough definition in place, let’s find the distinction between news (or ‘real news’) and ‘fake news’. It seems easy enough: real news is true, whereas fake news is false. The fake news thing started when clickbait websites started disguising their list-style articles as actual news – you’d usually find out you’d been deceived when the second point to “7 Scientific Facts Why Mountain Air Isn’t Actually Good For You” was “High Altitude Chemtrails” or the like. Easy enough.

But fake news started getting more complex over time, and by now a significant number of people are sufficiently angry and/or confused that they reject the ‘mainstream media’ (or the ‘elite media’) and have moved to partisan fringe-websites for their news consumption. Because at least those are honest about their bias and agenda, or something. This exodus from the ‘mainstream’ is weird because left-wing people find the so-called mainstream to be leaning to the right, while those on the political right usually find the mainstream media is run entirely by leftist liberals (and has been for decades). So unless these mainstream media outlets have separate websites and channels and papers for different groups, it seems reasonable that they’re still rather centrist in their reporting. So what going on?

We come back to our easy statement, that the real news is characterized by being true. This leads us straight to a question which has been debated ever since the first philosophers: what is Truth? Bypassing millenia of philosophical argument, most people commenting on the ‘fake news’ issue go for the simple definition. Truth = Facts. And mostly everyone seems to agree on this.

So, if it’s so easy, how is this still a thing? Because, apparently, not all facts are equal. In the end, this issue seems to come down to trust, rather than truth.

Some facts we’re sure of: I’m a dude. My neighbour has blond hair. Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands. But other facts are not so certain. People evacuated from Aleppo in Syria? I wouldn’t know, but if that’s what the ICRC says. Global Warming? Well, 98% of scientists say so, but I barely understand climate science. The economy is up? Apparently, but it’s just a bunch of small percentages in a newspaper article, and I didn’t take economics in high school.

So in the end, you’re making a choice. Do I trust the International Red Cross? Do I trust a 98% majority of climate scientists? Do I trust this newspaper?

These are relevant questions. And a lot of the discussion about fake news stems from a lot of people answering ‘no’ to these questions. They no longer trust their own governments, they no longer trust scientists, they no longer trust ‘the mainstream media’. This is usually where the name-calling begins. These sources are ‘biased’, or ‘puppets’, or ‘pushing their own leftist/right-wing/corporate agenda’.

I’m usually all for sceptism and criticism, but I think these are dangerous roads. When you no longer trust any formerly credible sources, you either believe nothing at all and become a cynic nihilist, or you fully embrace your confirmation bias and only believe those stories whose points you already felt were true anyway. Or possibly both. What’s worse, you’ve now opened yourself to manipulation by outside sources, who can use your confirmation bias for their benefit. As a redditor by screen name of Deggit explained it, summarizing the ‘fake news’ bigger picture issue:

The tl;dr […] is that modern propaganda works by getting you to believe nothing. It’s like lowering the defenses of your immune system. If they can get you to believe that all the news is propaganda, then all of a sudden propaganda from foreign-controlled state media or sourceless loony toon rants from domestic kooks, are all on an equal playing field with real investigative journalism. If everything is fake, your news consumption is just a dietary choice. And it’s different messages for different audiences – carefully tailored. To one audience they say all news is fake, to those who are on their way to conversion they say “Trust only these sources.” To those who might be open to skepticism, they just say “Hey isn’t it troubling that the media is a business?”

The full reddit post is here, and it’s worthwhile to read it, and several of the comments. The articles it links too as well, though they make for a much longer read. Here are two interesting excerpts:

There also remains a residual, 20th-century belief that Russian propaganda can be countered by delivering “real information” to audiences. But Russian TV doesn’t try to prove “the truth.” And what good is giving “the truth” to an audience that has been emotionally spun by the Kremlin not to believe it? Inside Russia today, there is plenty of access to alternative information online, and ethnic Russians outside the country have plenty of “reliable” sources, but their emotional allegiance is to Kremlin broadcasters.


Freedom of information and the First Amendment are sacrosanct in Western culture […] But what if a player uses freedom of information to sow disinformation. Not to inform or persuade—but as a weapon?

The first excerpt connects with Deggit’s comment that “If everything is fake, your news consumption is just a dietary choice.” The second one states there actually is something going on: an information war, and you are a potential target.

Such notions seem scary when Russia is the enemy, but these things happen much closer to home as well. Some politicians have resorted to systematically calling their opponents ‘blind to the truth’ or even outright ‘liars’. They’re actively creating an atmosphere where the electorate no longer knows what is fact and what is not, simultaneously promising that if their voters just stick with them, they will always tell the(ir) truth. Trump is doing this in the U.S., Geert Wilders is doing it in the Netherlands. I’m sure other politicians are doing it around the globe.

I’m not sure if this is new at all. Probably, leaders have been doing this throughout history. But today, with over 3,5 billion internet users, social media networks, and a huge global industry for PR and marketing, the absolute scale of it is unprecedented. Propaganda-gone-viral can potentially reach nearly half of the world’s population within days.

So, what now? To me, it seems obvious that fake news is a problem. I can’t speak for you but I have serious issues with being a target for propaganda machines both domestic and abroad. But I don’t know the answer, if there even is one. Separating the real from the fake is not something you can do from behind your laptop in those 5 minutes you’re taking a coffee break from your work.

What I try to do is: stay sceptical, and stay away from the news, without losing track of it. What I mean by the latter is that I read very little news for a reason. There’s so much happening around the world, and so much of it is barely of any consequence, that following all the news drown you in a great droning cacaphony of noise, which will not improve your life anything whatsoever. However, not following the news is just a way of sticking your head in the sand, and though anyone may have their reasons to do so, I’d remind you of that famed quote by John Stuart Mill: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” Now, how can you do anything if you don’t even know what’s going on?

So, the middle road, I think, lies exactly in those things that I don’t really consider to be news: investigative journalism, and sometimes opinion pieces. I read investigative journalism pieces (sometimes referred to as ‘longreads’, as these articles are often 3,000 words or more, but a ‘longread’ is not necessarily a piece of investigative journalism, i.e. they can also be essays) and also a fair amount of opinion pieces. Both are nice because they act as something of a filter from the droning noise of ‘all news’. The opinion pieces can be a bit of a coin toss, because some critics get really worked up over minor issues, especially columnists who’re being paid to write down their opinion every single day of the week, but when a journalist is willing to spend weeks or even months to find out more about an issue, you can be pretty sure it’s worthwhile.

I figure that reading a few well-sourced longreads and opinion pieces per month will tell you more about the world and what’s happening in it than diving into the great stream of news noise every day. And for whatever news is left that you still wish to read, there are fake-news spotting guides online.

Lastly, I guess we do need to have some amount of trust. Every news outlet is biased, although some are more biased than others. Pick one or two outlets near the center, whose bias you know (and probably agree with), and follow those. Because in the end, the bias is also pleasant, and good. If you care about the environment, you’re better off with a news outlet that also thinks that’s an important issue. If you care about the economy, reading the Financial Times makes more sense than Sports Weekly. Find a good source where you can trust that the bias is not so bad that their journalists will twist or hide facts just to get their own point across.

In the end, objective unbiased news doesn’t exist. But if news outlets are independent and their sourcing is good, then usually their news is independent and good, too. That’s what matters.

Why We Must Not Be Afraid

The murders in France have everybody talking right now. They are all over our mass media.  The outrage is enormous. And rightly so, because these were horrible actions. I’m glad to have already seen beautiful and hopeful pictures of demonstrations, showing support for the individual victims, for the French newspaper CharlieHebdo, and especially, support for our freedom of speech.

There are thousands of policemen looking for the perpetrators right now. I hope they’ll be caught, and that they’ll be judged after a proper trial. Especially that, after a proper trial. To make sure we punish the right people, and not the innocent. Because that is one of the great things in our society – a fair justice system, that offers citizens a chance to defend themselves.

It’s those latter parts I want to write about today. Freedom of speech and fair justice. Or actually I want to talk more broadly, about all the civil and political freedoms and rights we have in our (modern, western) society, such as our right to privacy, our freedom of religion and freedom to assembly. In short, I fear we might lose them.

Politicians are up in arms, sending out tweets and speeches, condemning this cowardly attack. But whilst this is enough for now, people are already asking questions: “How are we going to make sure this doesn’t happen again?” People are afraid. People are angry. People – voters – will want to see politicians taking action.

In a few days, the dust will have settled. With some bad luck, we will see the first proposals. More budget for the secret services. More budget for the police. More camera surveillance. More surveillance of muslims. More pat-downs of colored people. More suspicion of every non-hipster with a beard.

We’ve been seeing this since 9/11. In the name of protecting our free society, we’ve been handing over basic freedoms to our governments, hoping that somehow, this will protect us. It hasn’t, and it has only served to diminish that which we’ve tried and claimed so hard to protect: our freedoms.

I’m going to make a comparison which will sound preposterous, and maybe it’s too soon, but please, bear with me.

The Freedom To Have A Car Accident
Statistically, in western countries, you’re far more likely to ever die from a car accident than from a terrorist attack, or even plain homicide. The number of deaths our societies put up with because of cars is enormous, but yet, nobody is proposing to abolish cars. Why not?

Because cars are super useful. I’d estimate that around 70% of all people transport themselves from their homes to their work by car. Cars – and more specifically, trucks – move huge quantities of people and cargo, especially to places that can’t be reached by boat or plane, or even by train. If we didn’t have cars, our economies would experience a major setback. We could probably manage without them, but it’d be a drag.

In short, we consider car accidents to be an acceptable loss compared to the great advantages that come with being able to have a car.

However harsh it sounds, 11 people murdered doesn’t even approach the number of car deaths we have each year, yet our basic civil rights are more important than any car. It is, so to speak, a loss we have to accept – up to a certain point, of course.

I don’t want to say that we should put up with any murderous fanatic. Just like we work to prevent car accidents, we should work our best to prevent any form of mass murder, whether it is done by religious extremists, violent political activists, or just rampaging psychopaths. But in a society where citizens have the freedom to walk to streets without being frisked by a police officer on every corner, where citizens have the freedom to distribute music, writings, and opinions among their friends and even among strangers, you leave room for error. And we need to accept this.

You Can’t Stop Every Asshole With A Gun
There’s another way, of course. We could continue down the path we’ve set on in 2001, sacrificing freedoms for tiny scraps of security and “the greater good”. In effect, we could choose to become China, where all citizens are heavily monitored, the government knows all or at least attempts to, and dissidents, whether they are (potentially) violent or not, are dealt with swiftly and often silently. This is an option, and it would work fine, seeing as how China is still doing fine.

But I wouldn’t want to live in such a society. I’m far more willing to take the small possibility of three lunatics shooting up my workplace than to have no freedom in said workplace, to not be able to express divergent opinions, or to not have to be frisked every time I walk the streets at the newly instated checkpoint around the corner.

And even in China, these things happen. In the end, there was no realistic way we could’ve stopped Volkert van der G. shooting politician Pim Fortuyn, or Anders Breivik shooting two hundred children, killing sixty-nine of them. Lone lunatics simply can’t be found in time.

This is harsh, because in the 21st century, a lone lunatic – or a group of three – has access to AK-47s, homebrew bombs, and other weaponry that is highly effective at killing. People with modern weaponry can do a lot of damage, because our species has specialised in killing itself ever since we first picked up sticks and stones.

And not only that. We’d do well to remember that our current mass media is largely commercial. They exist to make a profit, or at least earn enough of an income to keep running, and they do so by having as much viewers as possible. Our news is sensationalistic, and it wants you to keep on watching – in horror, if you must. Whereas nobody is reporting that in fact, society as a whole is still functioning perfectly, despite the deaths of innocents people, however spectacular and scary they might be.

Freedom Isn’t Free
In conclusion, what we need to realise is that no terrorist group, no lone lunatic, no murderer in general, has the means to change our society. But politicians do, and politicians are influenced by us, the voters. If we choose to be afraid, to take action, we will lose. We will lose because we will start endless wars, aptly apparent in the imminent bankruptcy of the U.S. due to the Iraqi war. We will lose because we will start thought policing ourselves, as we’ve seen not only in the extreme case of the PRISM program, but also in common police forces using drones to surveillance urban areas, and an increase in phone taps. We will lose because we’re giving up exactly those basic freedoms a religious fanatic is attacking.

Our freedom does come at a price, but it shouldn’t be thousands of soldiers dying on foreign ground, nor should it be the demolition of our justice system. There is nothing gained by the unlawful expulsion of innocent people who happen to belong to the same religion as the perpetrators – in the case of Islam, that would mean 20% of the world’s population is guilty-by-religion. It means nothing to protect “our values” if by protecting them we lose them.

In short, the price of freedom is an occasional lunatic. But remember, we can take them. We’re surviving cars after all, and they’re far more deadly than any terrorist.

On The Solutions To Black Pete

So we have this tradition in The Netherlands. All Dutch readers know. By now, since it has been in global news, lots of foreign peple know, too. It comes down to Saint Nicolas – “Sinterklaas” in common parlance – visiting The Netherlands, or more specifically, its children, and giving them presents. He comes by boat around the 15th of November, and leaves again on the 6th of December, which is supposedly his birthday. Sinterklaas has a horse, Amerigo, and helpers, the Petes.

The problem boils down to Sinterklaas being an old, rich, white guy, and the Petes being black – hence the name Black Pete. They’re not just black, but they’re stereotypically black. And not modern-American stereotypical, but slavery-style stereotypical. Petes are painted very black, have bright red lips, big gold earrings, and 17th century costumes – not coincedentally the period of the Dutch Golden Age, in which slave trade was a big source of income for the country. Opponents say the Black Petes remind of colonnial white superiority and black inferiority, and as such, it’s racist and should be changed.

I’m not going into the debate whether the festival of Sinterklaas is racist or not. It’s been all over the news, and many a debate was held on Facebook, and many a death threat was posed on Twitter. Suffice to say, I think it’s racist, and I think with all the public hysteria over the subject, it’s impossible that Sinterklaas – or especially, the Black Petes – will remain the way they are now. The media and the corporations are going to look for ways to keep Sinterklaas advertisement a thing without losing customers, and the organizers of Sinterklaas activities will want to find a common solution.

The Solutions
Let me start out by saying that I love Sinterklaas, and think it’s the best time of the year to be a kid. There’s candy, there’s presents, there’s singing and fun activities. There’s anticipation and there’s a feeling of mystery around it all. Whatever the solution is going to be, these things musn’t change. If anything, we must make them better.

So, onwards then. There are basically two commonly named solutions: Rainbow Petes and Ash Petes, with most people seeming to have a preference for the former. There are also people who suppose to just cancel the whole thing, as “all the fun has been sucked out of it”, but I think they’re just weary of the debate. When the dust settles, I think they’d be happy to see Sinterklaas is still very much a hugely enjoyable festivity.

In short, Rainbow Petes are no longer black, but they are all the colors of the rainbow. Blue, green, yellow, orange, red, you name it. Ash Petes are no longer face-painted, but instead have wipes and spots of ash on their face, which they get from “climbing up and down chimneys”, which is how they bring the presents to the little children. As said, most people who want to see change prefer the Rainbow Petes, I suppose because they have pretty colors.

I’m against Rainbow Petes, and pro Ash Petes.

Rainbow Petes don’t solve the problem of Pete being an image of slavery. Just because they are no longer painted in realistic skin color, changes nothing about the fact that they are no longer representating slaves. It’s just that now no particular minority claims personal hurt.

As a thought experiment: what if there was a tribe of people somewhere who were blue? Or green? The whole debate would suddenly apply again. None of the actual issues with slavery have been resolved, it’s just that it isn’t black slavery anymore.

In fact, some aspects of slavery hit me even harder with the Rainbow Petes. At least with Black Petes, they referred to human beings, namely the black community. With Rainbow Petes, their humanity is stripped from them. No human actually is bright green, or bright yellow. There is actually a blue human, due to his excessive drinking of silver nitrate, but I don’t think that applies here. So the Rainbow Petes look like humans, but they aren’t exactly human.

To be clear: during the time of slavery, we used to think black people looked like humans, but weren’t really humans. Not as human as white folks were, in any case. There’s a reason they were commonly referred to as “apes”.

Combine this with the fact that Petes don’t commonly have a name. They’re just named “Waypointer Pete”, “Presents Pete”, “Candy Pete”, “Assistent Pete” or likewise. The standard form is “[job] Pete”. They being referred to by their function, not their name, like machines.

So we have a not-entirely-human being, being called by his function. That’s a human robot. That’s a slave. He might not be black, but he’s still a slave.

What’s Better About Ash Petes, Then?
Frankly, only the first part of the “human robot” story is solved by the Ash Pete. But I think that’s a huge step, and the most important one, because the second part is taking care of itself, as I’ll argue in the next section of this post.

Foremost, the Ash Pete doesn’t deny skin color. It’s immediatly clear whether a Pete is white, black, asian, middle-eastern, or whatever. Pete remains a human being, like Black Pete, but now without stereotyping a particular ethnic group. Pete may still be a fool, a joker, slightly dumb, but it is clear that it is a white person being a fool, a joker, slightly dumb. Or an asian, or moroccan, or whatever person.

What Ash Pete does, is to no longer place the stereotypical joke that is being Pete on an ethnicity, but rather, on a job. Ash Pete symbolically says: I’m a fool, and a joker, but that’s a part of being Sinterklaas’ helper, rather than a part of being black or in some other (colorful) way, sub-human.

Some people might say that the Petes will become more recognizable without their excessive paint, but I think this is a good thing. If the little children can clearly see that the older children from school are Petes, what will they think? That everything is a farce? Or that they, when they are old enough, will also be able to become Petes and help Sinterklaas? If I remember my reverence for Sinterklaas at that age correctly, I think I would have been thrilled to find out that I, too, could become a Pete and help Sinterklaas. Instead of making Pete an exotic, outlandish and thus inaccessible figure, it’d become a voluntary position, a job of honor, that every kid could have when he or she is old enough.

But Pete Would Still Only Be His Job…
Yes, this is the second part of being a slave. Having no humanity is one, only having your job is two. But as I said, I think this problem is, much more than the first, attending to itself. Over the years, children’s programs and activities in the streets and in the neighbourhoods have shown a Black Pete that is increasingly on equal footing with Sinterklaas. They contradict him, give him advice, occasionally don’t listen to him, and are generally more vocal. Sinterklaas at the same time has become more foolish. He’s nowadays more the stereotypical kind, but forgetful old man. He makes mistakes, and he’s less busy with bossing the Petes around.

One of the best developments I’ve seen is that the Petes now sometimes have names. They’re Spanish names – because Sinterklaas supposedly comes from Spain – but they’re names nonetheless. Sinterklaas’ helpers might be named Pedro, Esmeralda, Alfonso, Juan, etc. Suddenly, their functional name – “Waypointer Pete”, “Candy Pete” –  becomes a real function. “Pete” now becomes a synonym for “Manager”. I really hope this trend becomes more widespread, and that the Petes will become actual persons, with actual names and actual feelings, and more than just their job.

I’m not entirely finished yet. What has largely been absent from the whole national discussion is the role of Sinterklaas himself. Ironically, it’s only the pro-Black Pete camp that sneers: “Oh sure, and then Sinterklaas will become black, right?” Well, actually, that’d be a great idea. I mean, the actual Saint Nicolas was Turkish/Greek, so a slightly more colored guy would even be more historically accurate.

Of course, we’re talking about a children’s festival here. We don’t want historical accuracy. We want fun and joy for everyone. So to be clear: I’m not saying Sinterklaas should now always be black. But I am saying, that if we open up the Petes to every skin color, how great would it be to do the same for Sinterklaas? Then, the festivity would truly be for everyone. Children of all colors could feel joy when Sinterklaas and not-racially profiled Ash Petes come into the country. Slightly older children of all colors could feel the joy of being a Pete and getting to act childishly for a few weeks per year, while making smaller children happy. And adults of all colors could choose to be Sinterklaas, making the children happy with gifts and amusing little talks on whether they were good enough or not.

The solution to this is I think very simple and already in existence. Parents already tell their children that Sinterklaas has assistents, the so called “hulpsinterklazen”, who travel the country because he can’t be everywhere all of the time. Why would’t these assistent Sinterklaases sometimes be of different skin color?

I think that if you’d ask a child to describe Sinterklaas, they’d mention his bright red robe, his long white beard, his big red bishop’s hat and his golden curled staff. They’d say he’s really old, and maybe that he’s bit weird and funny. But I think very few kids would ever mention Sinterklaas is explicitly “white”. As long as all the other symbols are present, I think that children would accept a black or asian Sinterklaas immediatly, probably without even thinking about it, especially if they know he’s an assistent, and not the Sinterklaas they saw on TV.

Hell, to be honest, I think children would event accept female “hulpsinterklazen”, complete with beard and everything. That would be hilarious, both for children and adults. When asked why they have a beard, the “noble old ladies” could always say that it comes with being Sinterklaas’ assistent, just as the ash and the clothing and the silly behaviour comes with being a Pete.

In Conclusion
I fear the upcoming media debate, but I was glad to read that there were Ash Petes during Sinterklaas’ arrival in Amsterdam. I hope that this would become a more commonplace solution. The Rainbow Petes are a step in the right direction, but I feel that, since there’s such great resistance at wanting to change the Sinterklaas festival, maybe we should try to do it right immediatly the first time, instead of having to have this awful discussion again in ten or twenty years. Sinterklaas is an amazing feast, with the potential to be fun for all children and all adults. Let’s try to make it that way.