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 Rhetoric Of Privilege Theory

Lately, I’ve been bumping into privilege theory a lot. The first reason for this is that some time ago, I decided that if I think men and women are equal, I should probably read up on feminist theory a bit. The second has to do with my previous post about Black Petes and my interest in the social unrest around what’s happening in Ferguson and other places, right now in the U.S. So, mainly, I’ve been bumping into male privilege and white privilege.

These theories posit that, as a male or a white person, you’re automatically better off as a member of our society than as a non-male or non-white. Also, being white and/or male, you (sub-)consciously perpetuate your better position. This is about as far as the academic theory goes, but it’s been caught up in a whole world of mind-bending antiracist/feminist rhetoric that in short accuses every white/male to be a miniature dictator, whilst simultaneously absolving them from that crime.

I’m not particularly impressed by male/white privilege theory, but even less so by the angry semi-intellectual rants around it. But, since I am a white male, you may regard that as oppression and tone policing. Go and have a blast.

To summarize my argument: white/male privilege is too easy an explanation for complex social dynamics. It’s too dull a knife to take apart our current society, even with the concept of intersectionality. Especially, the antiracist/feminist rhetoric of calling out the ‘oppressors’ calls out the wrong people, and largely ignores the true culprits.

The Theory Vs. The Rhetoric
Firstly, the idea of white privilege or male privilege does not come out of thin air. It’s not just angry black folk/females yelling this, simply because. On average, men earn more than women. Whites earn more than blacks. Blacks are incarcerated more often and for longer periods of time than whites for equal crimes. Women have good reasons to feel unsafe on the streets at night. There are very clear differences, and very real reasons to become politically active. However, this is also where the angry, activist rhetoric replaces the academic idea.

What the theory actually says is that, in equal cases, a white/male person will, on average, have more succes achieving their goals – such as getting hired for a job, or being believed by authorities – than a non-white/non-male person. Key words: equal cases, on average. This is true, as evidenced by a sea of statistics, and mountains of personal anecdotes. However, what the rhetoric says is: all whites/males oppress all non-whites/non-males.

After this remark, in whatever speech/piece of writing, it usually quickly boils down to placing blame on whites/males, all the while claiming to place no blame upon them because of various reasons.

The main excuse is that no white/male choses to be white/male, and as such, can’t be blamed for being so. They can only be blamed for being ignorant of their privileged status. Therefore, whites/males should be made “aware”, so that they can hopefully become “good white/male allies”. The weird paradox here is that, even if they are “aware”, a white/male cannot change their privileged position, because it is systemic and institutionalized. Therefore, the white/male, who presumably wants to be a good ally and strives for equal treatment of non-whites/non-males, is left with the knowledge of being in a better position, of oppressing those they wish to help, and of not being able to do anything against this.

If that doesn’t invoke guilt in any kind-hearted person, I don’t know what will. But since the only “crime” they can commit is ignorance, by now, they should be feeling… I don’t know? An enlightened calm? Nobody ever seems to address that.

In short, the antiracist/feminist rhetoric seeks to reinvent or reverse the – patriarchal – idea of the original sin as an eternal, inescapable verdict, only this time placing the blame on whites and males. “Yes, you are oppressing us all of the time and there’s nothing you can do. So go and be a good ally, and do what we tell you.” – Yes, many websites do feature some clickbait list named “7 Ways To Be A Good White/Male Ally” or something similar, with instructions.

Strangely, even though this rhetoric frequently refers to the problems as being institutionalized and systemic – which they are – calls for collective action are relatively rare or vague. Spreading awareness/guilt seems to be top priority, at the moment. Sadly, that awareness/guilt only ever reaches the ones who were interested in the topic in the first place, and never the ones who’re most actively perpetuating the white/male dominance. It’s preaching to the choir. Do we really think those who yell “nigger!” or cat-call women on the street would ever go to a antiracist/feminist blog to learn about the error of their ways?

The Shortcomings Of Privilege Theory And Intersectionality
Of course, there are antiracists/feminists who call for collective action. Right now in the U.S., we can see the enormous amount of collective action the PoC (Person of Color) community can commit to. There are intelligent people out there who actively move towards solutions, instead of just blogging about it. But the academic notion of white/male privilege theory has shortcomings, as well, whatever the good intentions are with which they’re used.

When Barack Obama became presidential candidate for the Democrats, instead of Hillary Clinton, did that mean male privilege weighed heavier than white privilege? Did that in turn mean Hillary only got to her position because of her husband, ex-president Bill Clinton? Does Angela Merkel’s repeated victory over male opponents mean it’s different in Germany? Should we even compare whites to blacks or males to females when they’re already so privileged that they’re national leaders or candidates? Why are white people dicriminated against in the Middle-East? Or in China? Why are men believed less often than women when they claim they are the victim of domestic violence?

In short, privilege theory is awfully focused on Western countries and culture, especially the U.S. It divides the world into two categories, those who are privileged and those who are not, along the general, uncaring lines of race or gender, thereby denying all the finer shadings of gray.

The ‘magic bullet’ inevitably fired at this critique is the concept of intersectionality. I say magic bullet because it ‘solves’ (read: distracts from) pretty much every argument you can have against privilege theory. The idea behind intersectionality is in effect a downplay of the rigid dichotomy that privilege theory offers, which in itself is telling. A rigid theory that needs to be downplayed in order to be useful is, in my eyes, a lacking theory.

Intersectionality refers to overlap of privileges or oppressions. A black woman has an overlap in her oppression by whites and her oppression by males. A white woman has an overlap in her privilege by skin color, and her oppression by sex. “White trash” men have white privilege and male privilege, but are oppressed because of their class. It basically says: you might be oppressed in some areas, but still privileged in others. It creates shades of grey by overlapping different scales of black and white, thereby creating the super-privileged – young, beautiful, high-educated, healthy, CEO, rich, able-bodied, protestant (in the U.S.), heterosexual white males – and the super-oppressed – old, ugly, uneducated, depressed, unemployed, poor, handicapped, atheist (in the U.S.), homosexual black females, and every combination in between.

It’s a response to white people saying “I grew up in a trailerpark and was unable to get any good education.” by stating “Well, at least you don’t get stopped by cops every 500 meters.” To men saying: “I was raped as a boy” by replying “Well, at least you get a higher wage.” To homosexuals fearing about getting beaten up on the streets by remarking “Image if you would have been a black homosexual.”

Yes, there’s a pretty fckin’ big chance that there’s someone in that 7 billion people world out there that has it worse than you. Does that make your struggle any less valid? Of course not, privilege theorists would say, but you have to aknowledge you have advantages. You have to be aware of the struggles of those (even) less privileged. Yes, you may be an unemployed one-legged muslim latino teenage mom, but at least you aren’t lesbian, right?

Of course. Awareness. Acknowledgment.

Dull Knives And Sharp Words
All in all, intersectionality softens the sharp edges of privilege theory somewhat, but it stills divided the world into ‘the oppressed’ and ‘the privileged’. However, the daily truth is, especially within the cultural boundaries that white/male privilege theory places itself in – namely, the West – that most of us are middle-class. Not only in wages, but in terms of oppression and privilege as well. Most of us aren’t particularly oppressed, or privileged.

Which is no to say there aren’t any privileged people – there are – or that there aren’t any oppressed people – there are, and there’s a lot more of them than privileged people, too. But with that being said, there are lots of people in the middle that aren’t very oppressing to anyone. In fact, there’s a pretty big chance, in the current neoliberal “companies have all the freedom, workers have none” environment, pretty much everyone is oppressed, except the CEO’s at the top of the food chain.

And that seems to me to be the more important issue here: that there are those who actively and knowingly oppress.

Why worry about John from Accounting earning $2.000/year more than his collegues Annie and Akim, because Annie and Akim didn’t feel confident enough to negotiate for five more minutes about their salary, when all of them, John, Annie and Akim, are being discouraged by their CEO Ted to join a labor union which could possible negotiate higher – and equal – salaries for all of them?

White privilege and male privilege are not phantoms. They are not illusions, and the problems of these fictional Annies and Akims can’t be waved away by saying: “Well, obviously, it their own fault. They should just try harder.” But is saying the Johns are to blame really the solution? That all males are to blame? Or all white people? Is placing guilt, disguised as awareness, on those few who are willing to help really the best idea we have?

Shouldn’t we all be angry at the Teds instead, those in charge who create or at least uphold the circumstances that oppress everone else, for their own gains? I think we should.

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.

Restarting StepYourMind

For a long, long, time, this blog was silent. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do with it. I figured I’d stick to traveling stories, but honestly, I don’t travel enough to keep a steady stream of updates going. And if I do travel, it often doesn’t come with very noteworthy events. So I’m going to leave that to those with a true travel lifestyle.

I did, however, still feel the urge to have a place to write essays, or just generally be able to express my thoughts on issues that have been bothering me as of late. As such, I decided I should stick with the “Thoughts” category of StepYourMind.

As for updates, I’m not going to promise anything. I’ll post whenever something comes up that I think is worthwhile to write about.

Hopefully, see you around!