“Further conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavouring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavour and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. This is that human freedom, which all boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact, that men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined.” -Spinoza
The first step in wisdom is to know the things themselves; this notion consists in having a true idea of the objects; objects are distinguished and known by classifying them methodically and giving them appropriate names. -Carl Linnaeus
As I type this, on Sunday 21st of November 2021, Covid related riots are erupting all over The Netherlands. It started on Friday night in Rotterdam where police shot people sending three to hospital. Then on Saturday night riots extended to other cities. These were protests against Covid-19 related rules (distancing, use of masks, vaccinations etc etc). This past week The Netherlands has reached a record in the number of infections and yet, there is a large group of people that are violently against any form of measure to prevent Covid infections. Even though the figures are the largest since the pandemic started and even though children are being denied treatment in hospitals due to the shortage of beds and available services.
Still the violence erupts. there is something ominous in the way that the crowd advances, the crowd takes over, the crowd protests. what are they protesting?
I think of the long term effects of genocide on perpetrators. There is little known on the intergenerational effect of committing genocide. In places like The Netherlands, stubborn deniers of settler colonial genocides, there are even less studies or research available about the long term effects of this violence. Yet, I cannot help but wonder about the effects of multiple genocides and ecocides perpetrated across centuries and the effect that this must have had on the formation of a national identity.
In White Innocence, Gloria Wekker quotes Philomena Essed and Isabel Hoving in what they call “entitlement racism”: “Entitlement racism is a sign of the times we live in, where it is believed that you should be able to express yourself publicly in whatever way you feel like. Freedom of expression, though an individual right, is quintessentially a relational phenomenon”. I stay for a while with this notion of freedom as a relational phenomenon not only in relation to freedom of speech but freedom in general. What does it mean to be free when the freedom being invoked has potentially deadly consequences for others? And specifically, in a country that built its national identity on the “freedom to occupy spaces” as a result of obliterating the populations of such spaces, what does it mean to protest measures of care for the lives of others?
When national identity is forged on genocide and ecocide as part of colonial rule, it is not entirely shocking that the discarded carcasses of wild animals would suddenly start appearing in urban settings serving as a metaphorical backdrop to the anti Covid protests. The dead wild animal, as an unexpected apparition serves as a reminder of the foundational moment of national character.
“Never start a paragraph with with “I”; it’s puerile, it’s bad writing”. I remember those words from a teacher but then wonder: where else would I start from? The first intentional thing I wrote, unprompted, not part of a school assignment and just out of a personal sense of urgency, was a poem. I was eight years old. Still can recite the first stanza: I remember my childhood, it was beautiful (Yo recuerdo mi infancia, era muy bonita). Ever since, I’ve been tied to this subjective first person narrator, even when I did my best to disguise it behind facts and data.
When the pandemic hit, I was trying to recover from very severe illness that left me permanently disabled. Spent countless days and nights in emergency rooms, went through so many tests and lab works that I no longer felt I had a body. “This”, I called it, “this thing”. I remember the time I ate an overwhelmingly large dose of azurescens mushrooms and, in almost complete darkness, I looked at my feet and my hands and saw claws like those of an alien from a 50’s movie. I was not alarmed or in panic, I just simply came to the conclusion that this body wasn’t mine, that I was something else entirely. Now, years later, I would revive the same sense of alienation from my body every day. This arm that they prick with needless is not mine. These legs that can no longer sustain me are someone else’s. This pain that consumes me every single day is just happening to someone that is not me. The Dutch medical system has a funny way of dealing with these things: every symptom, no matter how big or overwhelming, is to be “waited out”, eventually it will either recede or become so unbearable that something will have to be done. “Wait and see” they repeat. From March 2020, this dreaded Calvninist approach to healthcare would become the national response to another deadly disease. My body, individually neglected or, alternatively prodded, connected to cables and machines, was now a mirror of the body collective.
This sense of inevitability, of predestination has been the hallmark of the response to the pandemic. “Waiting and seeing” when you are seriously ill acquires a kaleidoscopic character, exploding into multiple directions of meaning: wait and see if it’s worth to spend healthcare money on this, wait and see if destiny has a cure for you, wait and see if your immune system fights back, wait and see if “nature” just takes it course. “Wait and see” as the embodiment of a theology that exonerates any apathy or budget cutting measure “because we are just in god’s hands anyway”.
I read Francis Beer and Robert Hariman who called the virus “not just an epidemiological disruption but also an epistemological crisis” and I remember Marcella Althaus-Reid’s Indecent Theology:
every theology implies a conscious or unconscious sexual and political praxis, based on reflections and actions developed from certain accepted codifications. These are theo/social codifications which configure epistemologies, visions of life and the mystical projections which relate human experience to the sacred
Who deserves to be saved? Who has already lived a completed life? Whose life is livable anyway? Those questions are implicitly enunciated every time a new measure is announced. While there is obviously no contemporary footprint for the management of a pandemic of these dimensions, there is certainly an epistemological one that informs how much value is assigned to the preservation of each life. An Empire that was founded on a template of genocides and occupation will not suddenly develop tenderness and a preoccupation for human suffering. Instead, the Empire shows its bureaucratic teeth at every turn. Back and forth with measures and counter measures that contradict whatever was said or done the day before. “Saving face” (on the face of the March elections) becomes much more important than “saving living and breathing faces” from premature death.
A 2017 profile of Hugo de Jonge, Dutch Minister of Health and the primary figure in the national response to Covid-19, highlights his origin as the son of a Dutch Reformed Church preacher and his deeply conservative Christian roots. When discussing his new portfolio which includes medical and ethical issues, the profiler describes him as someone “who does not know cruelty” and “someone who understand how religious people think” because he is one of them. I am, again, drawn to Marcella Althaus-Reid’s comments about the “theo/social codifications which configure epistemologies” while trying to understand the (in)action of the Dutch government, the lack of sense of urgency, the lack of desperation. The months of “waiting and seeing”.
In 2020 thirty students and five teachers at the Spinoza Lyceum in Amsterdam tested positive for Covid-19. The news reveal that some of the parents knew their children had corona and still sent them to school. Little viral weapons deployed on the unsuspecting to free the parents of their daily obligations for a few hours. I think of some of the things I’ve written about the often touted “Think of our children” invocation in regards to how “children” are used as a device to protect the yearly conveyor belt of racism in The Netherlands. “The children” as a sort of cultural technology of perpetuation (through the guise of futurity) of racism, sexism, etc. “The child” becomes the political actor through which we are expected to resist change in order to protect “tradition”. Once again (and I was already trying to articulate this back in 2018), we are ambushed by the sentimental trap (at least a priori, once you scratch beneath the surface of sentimentality, it is just another aspect of white supremacist cruelty) because there will always be “children to protect” in this future of perennial racism. The child as the unending innocent in need of protection. I return to Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (emphasis mine):
the Child has come to embody for us the telos of the social order and come to be seen as the one for whom that order is held in perpetual trust. […]
we are no more able to conceive of a politics without a fantasy of the future than we are able to conceive of a future without the figure of the Child. That figural Child alone embodies the citizen as an ideal, entitled to claim full rights to its future share in the nation’s good, though always at the cost of limiting the rights “real” citizens are allowed. For the social order exists to preserve for this universalized subject, this fantasmatic Child, a notional freedom more highly valued than the actuality of freedom itself, which might, after all, put at risk the Child to whom such a freedom falls due.
I read on the website of the Spinoza Lyceum that children follow an education based on “Dalton Principles” and they are taught personal responsibility and freedom. The school claims to offer students “a safe learning environment” and employees “a safe working environment”.
“Freedom, cooperation, self reliance”, the Dalton education principles
Again, to recall Edelman, the child performs the cultural labor of social reproduction: freedom is “taught” as a value, as if the mere concept was absolute and removed from history or as if freedom wasn’t in itself an artefact that denotes certain behaviors and traits valued by this specific culture. The universalising trick thinly disguised as “education”. Little viral time bombs will suffocate you with a breeze of fresh freedom.
The director of the school insists that “he does not blame them, and does not want them to carry the gravity of the situation on their shoulders”. In April 2019, during a debate about how to repatriate children born to Dutch parents in Syria, Dutch media seemed to view non white children under a very different light though, regaling us headlines such as “Isis children are ticking time bombs”. It seems that some children are entirely responsible for the actions of their parents while others “should not carry the gravity of the situation on their shoulders”. Futurity, but only for one type of future.
“Women for freedom” is a loose Dutch collective of well…. women. They are against the anti Covid-19 rules. They organise demos and protests, “butt naked swims”0 (where, they are quick to clarify, “men are also welcome”), they claim to be “pro freedom” to “choose”. A veneer of feminist rhetoric exposes the hyper individual nature of their ideology: “Freedom equals the possibility to choose whether to keep distance or not, whether to wear a face mask or not, whether to be vaccinated or not”. Like white women have done since the inception of the Empire, they are entitled to choose for everyone. The preservation of their freedom becomes a political program: they choose not to wear a mask so that you are free to get the virus from them.
We contend with a country that has mainstreamed a conception of freedom as merely an absence of obstacles or interference of any kind; people who have mistaken their personhood with the free market (if the free market is allowed to run rampant so should they). Neoliberal, white feminism with its emphasis on “choice” and “leaning in” gave them the vocabulary to promote social darwinism under the guise of women’s empowerment. This conception of freedom eschews any notions of collective freedom or community wide rights. Everything is reduced to a single unit of individual actions. Back in 2017, when writing about the ethics of community surveillance, I said “Privacy is currently thought as the exclusive realm of the individual and not as a communal right deserving of protection”. Covid-19 has exposed the ways in which not just privacy but freedom itself has been reduced to the same individualistic approach. There is no collective responsibility for the lives of others. Capitalism demands that any sense of community is shattered and replaced by demographic data of individuals who can then be freed from the constrains of mutual obligations.
While the “women for freedom” staunchly defend their right to circulate in these heavily restricted conditions, their freedom comes at the expense of the precarious workers that make the backbone of the economy: store employees, delivery people, educators of all levels who are not employed but kept on freelance basis with no legal protections in case of long sick leaves, cleaners etc etc. I, once again, refer to my research from 2017 on “alt feminism” and the kind of politics the right wing were promoting: “Perhaps, one of the failures of mainstream white feminism in it’s constant promotion of corporate careers is that it never saw the threat of globalized precarity for what it’s worth: a model that left white women in search of a new ideological home where in lieu of social policies that protect them from their fears of falling through the cracks of an exclusionary system, they can feel “protected” by the ever present blanket of white supremacy”. The same blanket of white supremacy comes back, repurposed to promote an unhinged version of unrestricted capitalism. In a perfect storm of neoliberal banality, one of the leaders of this movement is also a mindfulness coach and teaches assorted new age philosophies with a strong emphasis on self reliance and “self compassion” (whatever that means in this universe where all meaning has collapsed to give way to definitions that are only evident to the in crowd).
‘Elderly people pay too little and receive too much’, was the 2017 headline of Intermediair, the house organ of corporate Netherlands. “The young pay too much pension for the elderly”, said another headline a couple of years before. In September 2019, a major national newspaper ran a piece under the title “The elderly have too much of a say about a world in which they will only live for a short time”. For a few years already, the current ruling coalition in The Netherlands has been trying to enshrine the notion of “completed lives” as an extension of euthanasia law. To, once again quote myself, this time from a 2016 essay: the government commissioned a study to explore “the feasibility of adjusting the current euthanasia law to include ageing or elderly patients with no physical or psychiatric symptoms who simply wished to die due to considerations that their lives were “completed”.
Right wing politician (and friend to Jean Marie Le Pen) Thierry Baudet insists that the rules against Covid-19 must be immediately stopped while simultaneously warns about “the homeopathic dilution of the Dutch people” due to the prevalent waves of immigration. In his ideological framework, “the good old Dutch” (which of course he means “white”) people are in a constant danger of disappearing, overwhelmed by masses of non white people who are taking over the country. If within white supremacy “the child” is a mechanism to ensure the survival of one specific kind of future, ancestry is something intangible and relegated to a distant, immaterial past, worthwhile as long as it is white and can serve as proof of national identity. The preservation of ancestry is reserved for the preservation of specific traits that are more of a fictionalised past than the concrete, immediate care required for the elderly, that is, ancestors that are still alive. Ancestry is an asset in so far as it is useful to preserve privilege and it doesn’t cost money or effort. Individual elderly can die so that the fiction of collective ancestry can be used as yet another cultural and political artefact. Whereas ancestry, as an abstraction, is treated as a collective asset, to be deployed in legislation and through the enforcement of very strict racial and ethnic divisions, old age, just like disability or sickness, is nothing more than a cost.
Dutch media personality Marianne Zwagerman, put this contradiction into words highlighting how little value living and breathing ancestry carries when, referring to victims of Covid-19, she said that “The dead wood was cut, perhaps a few months earlier than without the virus”. And she asked “Should everyone who is still in the prime of their life sacrifice everything for that?”. Like Baudet, Zwagerman has been a champion of whiteness, throughout her stint as media director of two Telegraaf Media Groep properties: GeenStijl and PowNed. In both outlets, the notion of white ancestry under constant threat of extinction has fuelled endless headlines and opinion pieces. Again, we must insist: ancestry as an abstract, rather than a dynamic historical process where the elderly and the vulnerable are treated as living legacy.
It is interesting to observe that while freedom is conceived as a purely individual asset, not applicable to communities or groups of individuals, old age renders ancestry as a collective, not something that needs to be preserved or cherished through each old person. The old, just like the sick or people with disabilities, are demographic blobs rather than individual human lives to be protected.
I continue my struggles with cliche avoidance. Not because I believe I am terribly original but because I hate the prospect of boring anyone. Also because I am actually very lazy. Why bother writing anything if someone else has already said the same things? In fact, I would prefer if someone else said the things I believe in so that I could spend my time doing other stuff, devoted to activities that do not consume me. So I struggle trying to figure out if stating that capitalism has intervened on our subjectivities in ways that transcend the merely mercantile would be a cliche, something so obvious that it does not bear repeating. Corporate capitalism has entrenched in us that we should be “good team players”. Unemployment (and even the prospect of homelessness) hinge on this demand to be good team players etc. This has effectively overwritten any expectation of being good community members. The corporate team has entirely replaced the notion of immediate community and, in fact, being a good corporate team player can be at odds with being a good community member (think how being a good team member at a company like AirBnB, advancing the interests of the corporation actually results in decimated communities and lack of affordable housing for example).
With the Covid riots, what is under dispute is not freedom but the kind of freedom that should be upheld: freedom to live or freedom to produce under the logic of capitalism. When these two interpretations of freedom collide, the logic of capitalism is made to prevail through violence. This becomes even more evident in the perception of care as a form of forced feminisation. The patriarchal order will sacrifice its own children, if need be, in order to maintain the existing structures of power. The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, is not merely neglecting his duties of care. He is, in fact, exemplifying another trait of this foundational national identity: true men do not care who lives or dies, true men do whatever it takes to keep the engines of the capitalist order well oiled. When Sylvana Simons confronted Rutte with the number of dead that his administration produced, his response was anger and extreme irritation followed by a complete refusal to take any kind of responsibility for the situation. We are expected to treat the mass casualties as abstractions rather than people with names, histories, affections and communities. So far, there has been no moment of collective mourning for the dead, not in the government press conferences nor in the form of a memorial.
This loose collection of vignettes does not have an ending. It lacks closure, it lacks perspective, it lacks the benefit of long term vision. I have been working on some version of these texts for the last eighteen months. I expect I will continue doing so for the foreseeable future. For as long as the freedom to live is under dispute I will continue reflecting on the failures of the Dutch State to uphold the often touted “sanctity of life” (fat irony coming from a coalition government that claims to uphold Christian values).
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