The Netherlands from the perspective of a very popular bookstore owner
Back in April, when the festivities for the new Dutch King Willem Alexander were arranged, the National Committee for the Inauguration (in The Netherlands, Kings and Queens are crowned in an Inauguration ceremony) opened the registry for a “Book of Dreams”. In this registry, every person living in The Netherlands could send their dreams and aspirations for the future of the Kingdom. The Committee then compiled the “best” dreams (what they picked and who got picked would be topic for another post and it’s kind of besides the point here) and then those dreams were printed in a book, The Book of Dreams (Droomboek in Dutch). This book was made available free of charge for every household in The Netherlands (there seems to be a shortage now, as they only printed one million and there seems to be more demand). In order to get a copy, people had to get a coupon that was available through several newspapers, post offices, etc. Then, they had to take that coupon to their local bookstore and redeem it free of charge.
Now, a very popular bookstore owner writes about her experience with the customers redeeming their coupons at her store. This bookstore owner, Monique Burger is a very well known media personality here in The Netherlands, where she has regular spots in one of the best known TV shows in the country talking about books and literature. And of course, the customers redeeming the coupons for the free books couldn’t be more upsetting to her. From her post (original in Dutch, translation mine):
Thursday morning when I opened the shop, there was already a long line of people outside the door. A delightful sight. This is what you really want as a bookstore owner! […]
But I am scared. Not of the greediness with which these people “claim” their free book, but of their poverty. Unshaven, unwashed, unkempt, fat, saggy, lame, with rotten teeth, smelly, with walking aids and devices that I’ve never seen before in my life, rough, rude, barely talking: sometimes just throwing the coupon at me – even if I’m dealing with other customers, totally devoid of any sense of social relationships or rules of conduct.
I do not even blame them. This is real poverty, as I’ve never actually seen it. This is outside my experience: in Bos en Lommer [ed note: where her shop is located] there are no homeless in the street, there is no overt alcoholism, there are no junkies and no whores – these are the excesses of the city, which of course is much more attractive due to the large number of tourists- that usually steal perfectly edible food that is thrown away. And the poorest people sit inside, apparently. Or they rush by Dirk van den Broek, or Lidl [ed note: two budget supermarket chains].
What I also realize is that these customers never understand our debit card only policy in the store [ed note: debit card only policy means no cash is accepted]. A few of them literally told me this (angrily). Then I suddenly remember the old shop, Omta, where I’ve certainly seen them, usually buying just a loose envelope or a Bic pen but never a book.
Understandably, this piece, which was posted in what is arguably the most read literary blog in the country, has sparked outrage in the comments section. The classism, the open disdain for the poor, the hateful language used to describe a large sector of society, all of these are meeting a strong reaction. However, because this is The Netherlands and because this is a Dutch media personality with a lot of traction, I also expect a very specific response: tonight, when she has her regular TV appearance, Monique Burger will most likely claim that this was just satire. It was meant to be taken as humor. Of course she doesn’t view the poors in such a bad light. Of course she understands and of course she was just joking. However, for satire to be satire it needs to be placed in context and, above all, it needs to be funny. If she chooses the “satire excuse”, it will only be so as to elude any sense of responsibility for her pathetically worded opinions.
In the meantime, racist populists like Geert Wilders will have yet another item in their archive so that when voting time comes, they have a reminder of what the intellectual class in The Netherlands really thinks of the working class and the poor. And to be honest, who can blame him when this is what they really think.
ETA: And she has a response in the comments section. Of course she doesn’t think badly of the poors, she merely tried to convey how terrible poverty is. And there are poors that make do with very little and she has a lot of respect for them, she intended the piece to be taken differently etc… you know, the usual, just backpedalling hard.
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