Category Archives: Society

The Road and the Landscape (2), or: Can Green Be Right?

Flakkee, Zuid-Holland © Lodewijk Muns 2016

Q. What is the first thing you would do once you are free to go outside?
A. I think I would take my own car which I haven’t been able to use for a very long time and would take a ride all by myself and enjoy it.
A child interviewing PVV party leader Geert Wilders, who has been living under close protection for twelve years. Jeugdjournaal (Kids News), Dutch NOS television, 3 March 2017

This is a man who watches the landscape from the road. Freedom equals driving a car. Unsurprisingly, a vehicle tax reduction of 50% is the crowning point nr. 11 of his one-page election ‘programme‘.

The position of this man’s Freedom Party (PVV) in the political spectrum is clear (even though its basic neoliberal austerity is sweetened with welfare goodies). Islam should be banned; the Netherlands should leave the EU; and human-induced climate change is a hoax.

If there seems to be a consistency between these principles, it is largely an effect of habituation. In fact, there is no logical contradiction between concerns about the rise of islamic militancy and oppression, about the social and environmental effects of immigration and overpopulation, and about global warming. One may be consistently anti-islamic and anti-fossil.

How green can the right be?

‘Green-right’ is a small niche that in the Netherlands has for some time been filled by fringe parties, unable to overcome the electoral threshold (Groen-Rechts, Partij voor Milieu en Recht, both defunct; Groen Liberale Partij, Nederland Duurzaam, and the cutely named Partij Bonte Koe or Spotted Cow Party). A few dropouts have found an unlikely refuge in Wilders’ PVV. It is a pale shade of green. Pro animal welfare, pro open landscapes, but anti wind energy — which counts as landscape ‘pollution’.

Undeniably, a nostalgic regret for disappearing landscapes may be one of the causes of feeling ‘green’. But though this nostalgia may easily take a nationalist tinge, it is totally at odds with the PVV’s fiercely automobilistic fossil freedom ideology.

A more prominent, but wishful liberal ‘green’ initiative (trusting the market to clean things up) has died as ingloriously in the Netherlands as it has in the UK. There is a fundamental contradiction between environmentalism and capitalism/(neo-)liberalism. Green politics calls for radical changes in production and consumption patterns. Which in turn call for government initiative.

But with an election outcome that favours a coalition encompassing the leftist green and the moderate right it has become an urgent question how far the right can be pulled toward the green side.

Elections, Muddleheadedness and Music

stemming  /’stɛmɪŋ/ (nom. fem.) 1. voting, vote; ballot; 2. ♪ tuning; 3. frame of mind; …

One good thing about the Dutch electoral system is that its low threshold allows so many parties to enter parliament, that absolute majorities are unlikely to arise. Maybe this mechanism has just protected us (the Dutch) from being governed by the nationalist ultraright.

Another effect of the system is that for any crackpot idea you may find a party to represent it, and sometimes several. Take, for example, basic income (a form of social security dispensed to all citizens unconditionally). To be sure, I don’t think this is a crackpot idea. There are strong arguments in its favour, and four parties in parliament at least encourage experiments (PvdA, D66, GroenLinks, Partij voor de Dieren).

And exactly because it should be taken seriously it is a pity that two fringe parties (which failed to win a seat) have made it their nr. 1 priority: the Basic Income Party (Basisinkomenpartij) and the Freethinkers’ Party (Vrijzinnige Partij, VP). “Free thinking”, I’m afraid, is a euphemism for muddleheadedness. Witness the curious paragraph on music in their election programme.

Much of the the trouble and strife in the world, according to the freethinkers, is due to the fact that musicians tune to a “fundamental” (grondtoon) of 440 Hz. This tuning “provokes discord and agression”. If only musicians would attune to a “natural” 432, harmony would spread through society.

The mistakenly so-called “fundamental” is, evidently, the conventional pitch standard (or “concert pitch”), fixed by reference to the A written in the treble clef. Now, the idea that this somewhat arbitrarily established standard is “unnatural” (and therefore unhealthy) is not new. Tracing its origins will send you spiralling down into a netherworld of superstition, pseudoscience, number mysticism and conspiracy theories. Which I disrespectfully decline.

If this proposal deserves to be mentioned at all, ever so briefly, it is because in the press coverage absurdity was raised to the superlative. In a somewhat ironic reportage, De Volkskrant, a leading newspaper, defined the so-called “fundamental” as “the lowest pitch produced by a vibrating source, such as a musical instrument.” (A mistake for which the journal’s editor may be to blame, who evidently relied on Wikipedia). As a result, the Dutch government was called upon to lower the range of musical instruments (to 432 Hz!), preferably in a European collaborative framework.

The fact that this garbled version of a muddleheaded idea has spread across the internet shows the helpless ignorance of the average citizen when faced with even the most basic concepts of music. Fixing the basics (De basis op orde) was the Freethinkers’ Party’s election slogan. Let’s fix the basics of education — giving their due to both music and critical thought.

The Road Seen from the Landscape, and the Landscape Seen from the Road

The landscape, seen from the road:
traversed, fleetingly observed in passing through
a twodimensional screen
suspended along the line of forward motion.

The road, seen from the landscape:
an obstacle that breaks a whole into disconnected pieces
a broad and colourless track of solidified speed
overflowing with noise and gas exhaust.

The road, seen from the road:
something to leave behind.

The landscape, seen from the landscape:
something to be in.

Can sanity be expected from the man
who watches the world day by day
from behind the glass of his limousine?

Waking up into a Nightmare

On with life, under the scary prospect of an unscrupulous and dick driven sociopath ruling the USA.

How to stem the rising tide of populism? — is now the concern of all of us who worry about the global repercussions. All of us who don’t include ourselves among those targeted by “populism” — which is, etymologically, “the people”. An uncomfortable singular that separates an ill-defined group from a plural (people) that includes me, you, and everybody else.

In Dutch there is the old-fashioned gepeupel. Denigrating like the Latin synonyms of populus: vulgus, plebs. Words that are obviously politically incorrect. Though it is hard to find a better coverall for everything DT says and does than “vulgar”.

It automatically stamps us (his adversaries) as “elite”. A vast elite, not defined by wealth and only weakly by higher education. Most worrying about DT’s rise to power is that it has made all basic virtues elitist: love and respect for truth, for science, for rational thought and logic, for nature, cultural diversity, you name it. By consequence, all the dirty behaviour of which he is so proud (“being smart”) has become a kind of anti-virtue, rather than simply vice.

Eager to trade one political class of “liars” for another, whose lies are much dirtier, “the people” are in for a disappointment. It’s hard to package that message nicely — the message that voting for this Führer or another is stupid. But maybe this is not the time to package the message nicely. Maybe we should just call it stupid, and say it loud.

But equally important are good tunes. Listen to the inane repertoire programmed for HC’s campaign: I can’t imagine it has done her much good.

Whose mine?

The first instance of this peculiar abuse I encoutered was a beginner’s piano book. Not the one from which I myself learned the notes and keys – decently titled First Piano Book (Het eerste pianoboek, by Jan Bouws). Its abusive competitor was My First Piano Book (Mijn eerste pianoboek), by somebody calling himself Folk Dean.

Whose book is Folk’s? Folk’s, of course. Not mine or yours.

Despite, or thanks to its irritating title Folk’s (actually Theo’s) book seems to have been a commercial success. Its pronominal abuse (My first …) may have been fashionable on the pedogogical market when it first came out in 1957. But it truly boomed after Windows 95 put My Computer onto your desktop. Nowadays there is hardly a commercial or public website which does not have a corner reserved for you not called yours but mine. It feels both idiotic and intrusive – them using my word for what’s supposed to belong to me.

If you say I and I say I
you mean you, but I mean me.

Indexicals – those words that change meaning depending on who’s using them, or where, or when – are sophisticated and disconcerting. They subvert the desire, instinctive and infantile, for a stable relation between word and object.

And that’s maybe the main reason why this abuse of the possessive pronoun is so annoying – it addresses me (and you) as an infantile kind of person, a halfwit without powers of generalisation, a toddler for whom all mine is mine, as mother can only mean one mother: its own, not anybody’s female parent.

It even reaches down into my private parts (and yours). Chilling.
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The Monkey Corpus

 

I shouldn’t have published this. You will see why.

“Borges’ fantasy – our reality” is one of the slogans used by the new Silicon Valley corporation, Monkey Corpus. More ambitious than Google, which simply strips existing libraries for its global digital collection, Monkey Corpus has started to build something like Borges’ “total library” by unleashing its computing powers in a “creative” way. Like the army of monkey-typists which – given all eternity – can’t fail to hammer out a Hamlet, Tom Sawyer or next year’s NYT bestseller list, Monkey Corpus’s text engines (which the company calls “monkeys”) are racing against all the world’s authors and text writers to produce whatever they might produce before they’ve had a chance to come up with it.

The company is aware, of course, that eternity is not at its disposal (or at least, does not provide an economically realistic time frame). But its monkeys are smart, and the texts they produce are not random but structured by complex algorithms derived from all kinds of human texts, from Twitter messages to academic articles.

These texts are rarely as substantial as a complete novel or even a short story. The online Monkey Text Corpus contains merely such bits and pieces as may have enough substance to enjoy copyright protection. For this is the company’s aim – to secure the rights of whatever might be published before it has been published.

Copyright is legal quicksand, but under pressure of the aggressive policies of Monkey Corpus this quicksand is quickly stabilizing. “Rationalizing copyright in a world without authors”, is the slogan heading the Monkey Corpus website.

Of course it has been said copyright protection should serve to encourage creativity, and that the company is abusing this protection. The official answer is that forced competition can only stimulate human creativity. In the end however it matters little to the company whether anything is created by humans for humans, or purely mechanically for profit (as long as the money flows their way).

In order to avoid copyright claims, any author will have to check the online Monkey Text Corpus. So I pasted this text I’ve just written into its search engine. 80% plagiarized, it tells me. I suspect the monkey calls its own whatever you feed it.