Letter from Benelux

Fenster writes:

As I wrote here, I am in Ghent for a week, with a stop first in Amsterdam and with a side trip across the border to Germany.

Nothing against the homeland but when I travel I prefer the company of the locals, not so much because they are preferable to Americans but because for me one of the joys of travel is that slightly heady, unbalanced feeling you get when, to paraphrase the old sage Noah Cross, you may think you know what is going on but you don’t.


And in that regard this trip has not disappointed.  I have my six students to coach and attend to but other than that it is Europeans all the way: students and faculty from several universities across the continent–Belgium, Sweden, Germany, Austria and Poland.

It’s a undertaking underwritten by Erasmus+, a ‘programme’ for education and training of the European Commission, with the goal being cross-national and cross-cultural understanding and learning.  The formal learning is on a matter of policy (in this case public and private debt) but the intensive interaction of students and faculty provides plenty of opportunity for ex parte cultural exchange as well.

It is alleged that where the students are concerned, holed up in a hostel downtown, this may involve special types of ex parte communications.  Me, I stayed in a private apartment through Airbnb.  None of my cultural exchanges were held at that site and all were entirely appropriate, though rewarding nonetheless.

So when faculty got outside the boundaries of the formal program what did they discuss?

One word: Trump.

Two words, actually.  Trump and migrants, in roughly that order.

While there is no question but that the migrant crisis is the main question of the day within Europe, the presence of these curious creatures, the Americans, brought the question of Trump quickly and forcefully to the surface.

They all detest The Donald, of course, and would detest him even more if they thought he had any real chance of the presidency.  All were unanimous that of course, natuurlijk, Na sicher, oczywiście  “Hillary will win in November . . .

(pause, then nervously)

. . . .das ist nicht richtig?”  Isn’t that correct?

I said I wouldn’t bet against Hillary but advised them strongly against counting The Donald out.

For sure I was not going to make an outright prediction.  I mean we in America are ourselves hugely conflicted over what it’s all about, with the rise of Trump ascribed variously to the appeal of reality TV, P.T. Barnum and Archie Bunker; and the rise of Trumpism (a different but related phenomenon) to the past omissions of the Republicans, the past sins of the Democrats, excess political correctness, the authoritarian personality, the revealed racism of mainstream America, xenophobia, failed neocon foreign policy, the loss of blue collar jobs and various other causative factors.  Indeed, as of today there are two new entries into the causative sweepstakes: that Trump results from a delayed reaction to the 2008 meltdown and/or that Trump results from Obama’s divisiveness.  Success has many fathers for sure, even when the son is a bastard that Dad would prefer to disown.

So until we can figure out what is happening I am loath to  put on my pundit hat for the Europeans.

But I will say this: if we are wallowing in alternative explanations–most or all of which likely have some purchase–the Europeans are fairly single-minded about it.  When you get past the surface expressions of general distaste what you find is an instinctive aversion to nationalism, and to the fact that he stirs popular passions.   And the Europeans can’t abide that, can’t stomach it.  In fact they fear it viscerally.

Nationalism.  We visited a World War I museum in Ypres, near the French border.  It is a powerful museum, and uses all manner of interactive tools, historical explanation and objects to get across the terrible meat grinder quality of that hideous conflict.  The visitor is reminded at the outset of the tour that the reason the conflagration started so quickly when the fuse was lit in Sarajevo was the excess nationalism to be found across the continent in the Belle Epoque.  It is as though the main moral lesson the museum is aiming to convey is less the futility of war than the dangers of the nationalism that led to it.  It is a lesson that Europe has in its bones.

So for my European friends Trump represents the kind of thinking that plunged Europe into chaos for almost half of the 20th century.  That is not to be scoffed at.

Still, I pointed out to a faculty member from Sweden that the neoconservative crowd that brought the world the Iraq War was adamant in its opposition to Trump, with some threatening to jump ship to Hillary.  And that if Europe desired stability in Syria to reduce the flow of refugees the better bet might be Trump.  I got cross-eyed looks on that one.  Trump is the barbarian, no?

Popular Passions.  Or take the visit of several of us to a soccer match across the border near Düsseldorf.  The section reserved for the away team, Frankfurt, was walled off from the rest of the stadium seating by six foot high plexiglass walls topped with another few feet of fencing.  Inside the pen, Frankfurt fans hooted and hollered and waved their large flags, one of which carried an image of Malcolm MacDowell as ultra-violent goon Alex in Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange.  “Bad, very bad” was the verdict of the Austrian professor to this kind of thing.  It is just not good to let the passions run too wild as they can get out of hand.  Trump is the barbarian, no?

So I figured: sure, liberal academics would not get Trump.  They don’t in the United States either.  But what of the rabble themselves?  The night of the soccer game I returned to my Ghent neighborhood, far enough from the medieval downtown to include workaday Belgians, to visit a bar I had seen on the corner.

I sat down to order a jenever–the local gin, quite different from juniper scented English gin–but my fractured Dutch immediately gave me away.  Was I English?, the bartender asked (this is the only part of the world I have visited where people guess you are English first, rather than American).  No, I responded, I am American.

Bingo.  We were on to Trump.  After a few minutes we were joined by a burly local brandishing a cell phone on which he had been watching Trump on YouTube.  “Troomp!  Troomp!” he exclaimed, pointing to the tiny image on the screen of Troomp giving an address to a large crowd.

This guy looked a little like Christopher Hitchens, and he had Hitch’s glee in a brawling bar conversation, though he lacked the master’s precision with English.  He made it clear though, in English fractured by bad translation and beer, that while fascinated by Trump he was intent on looking down on him as a crude and inferior being.

As he ducked and weaved recounting his views concerning Troomp, we wandered from American politics to European current events, and touched on the question of migration and the Muslim population in Europe.

“Brussels is hell!”, he blurted out.  “Hell on earth!”  He recently had a knife held to his throat by a band of Muslims in the wrong kind of neighborhood in Brussels, and had to call the police to get him out of a tough spot.  Neither had he any tolerance for the French-speaking EU bureaucrats he had to deal with in Brussels: they will bend over backwards for you if you speak Arabic, and will be pleased to converse in French or English, but Dutch?  They have no desire to deal with you in Dutch.

I reminded my friend that the overall tone of his conversation was not unlike that taken by supporters of Trump in the United States.  He didn’t like that.  “Troomp?  Troomp?  No no no no no!”

Steve Sailer wrote fondly recently of Freud’s concept of projection, and how it provided a useful way of thinking about the current dust-up between Trump and his more active detractors at home.  The same insight applies in Europe, too, I think.  I strongly suspect that Europeans–both educated liberals as well as men on the street–project their own ambivalence about their own migrant problem onto Americans, and onto Trump.

For the Europeans I talked with were nothing if not ambivalent about the migrant problem.

On the surface the usual liberal pieties apply.  An elderly Dutch woman I know well started a conversation on this topic by observing that a few hundred thousand Muslims in a population of 17 million was not all that bad.  And that Geert Wilders was irresponsible in some of his pronouncements.  But then let this person keep talking, honestly and from the heart, and soon you come round to a somewhat different view.  Assimilation is hard.  They do not want to learn the language.  They do not want to adopt our ways.  Too many, too fast, too hard to keep up.

I had variations on this conversation time and time again, with an initial expression of solidarity and sympathy fairly quickly giving way to anxiety.  And mind you: this anxiety only concerns the problem of the current migrants!   When I extended the conversation from this point to discuss the problem of continued migration, this year and the next and the next, my interlocutors universally hardened.  No, of course it must be stopped, and stopped now.  We cannot go further.  They seemed to be saying that handling the moral and ethical problems of the current migrants was more than enough for their consciences, thank you.  More we cannot do. We will not be able to process the migrants, or our own feelings.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
This entry was posted in Personal reflections, Politics and Economics, Travel and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Letter from Benelux

  1. That last paragraph… Who cares what they think? They’ve given their owners a blank check.

    The decision has been made. It’s over. It’s done. Europe was lovely. I’ll miss it, if I live long enough.

    I don’t understand why this has to be. A local Maine politician came to my door today and in our conversation I mentioned that Africa is a big place; it’s not clear to me why we need to bring it here. Why is that our highest priority? He looked at me with pity and compassion in his kindly face. Of course I don’t understand; but still, it must be. We have no choice. He didn’t know why. He just knew that it’s a life-or-death imperative to populate Maine with Somalis, and if Mainers don’t like it, so much the worse for them.

    I wanted to deck the dumb sonofabitch and taco the wheels on his stupid bicycle. But that wouldn’t change anything.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. drexciya says:

    The anti-Trump sentiment is mostly fed by the leftist media in the Netherlands. We’re suffering from politically correct, stupid media and a lot of people still lap it up like the pets they are. You’ll get a totally different view of things, when looking at other news sources; the framing of news makes a lot of difference. In spite of that, we do have Geert Wilders, who hasn’t got such a big ego, but he’s a bit of a shock jock as well and a number of topics are very familiar; immigration, economics, political correctness and trade.

    But just like with Trump, he can’t do anything right, in the eyes of the politically correct or the leftist media. Also people who support him are mostly depicted as stupid or white trash (PVV tokkies in Dutch). Arguments are superfluous, because the establishment knows what’s good for you. So there isn’t much of a difference when it comes down to it.

    The politicians are failing to do their job or are actively trying to mess up our society and that causes a backlash. The question is of course whether that can be contained or not. I very much fear that some more awful things will have to occur before we can throw them out.

    The problem I have with Wilders, is that he won’t be able to achieve much, but I might even vote for him if the other parties don’t change their stance on immigration.


    • Fenster says:

      Thanks for this note from the area in question. It seems generally in keeping with my observations. Yet while I believe strongly in the idea of just talking to people if you want to know what is going on I am painfully aware of the limitations: self-selection of audience, preference falsification, small sample size, etc. So I wonder what you think of my notion that surface gentility is mandated but is being eroded from the underneath by circumstances?

      In your view, do you see the decent burghers having second thoughts, or was that just my imagination, or the luck of who I happened to be talking with? Further, how deep does the gentility go? My bar mate seemed willing to express tough thoughts but he did so only after stepping out on the street for a cigarette (no butts in the bar till 11 PM) and even then he seemed ambivalent, not wanting to see the connection between his own thoughts and Trump. Is there a full-throated undercurrent that I missed, or is the continent still largely in thrall, at least on the surface, to the pieties?


      • drexciya says:

        The thing is, that mostly the lower-educated people are “free” to express their real feelings out in the open. Other people have too much at stake, since the blowback of showing your true feelings is still significant. Especially if you work in the government, you don’t want to get burned by this.

        But underneath it all, there’s quite an undercurrent, and if you check a blog like geenstijl.nl, which openly vents it’s criticism of the EU and immigration politics, you see that it’s pretty significant. Given the recent failings of the state, concerning terrorism, this will only get bigger.

        Things will really have exploded if no one would feel ashamed for voting PVV, despite the constant media pressure.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. peterike says:

    Very interesting report.

    Boy, as Americans we certainly swim in a sea of lies that are fed to us 24×7, yet somehow it doesn’t even come close to the level of brain washing that goes on in Europe. It’s truly astounding how an entire continent has been convinced to actively, willingly, even eagerly participate in their own destruction.

    The Euro’s thoughts on Trump are predictable enough. They swallowed every lie they were told about Bush, and then Obama. I’m sure the view they get of Hillary is the amazing, brave woman fighting the patriarchy and evil corporations, rather than the psychotic, blood thirsty, verging-into-dementia utterly corrupt grifter that she really is.

    Most Western Europeans are terrified to question authority or right-thinking. Nationalist parties that should be getting 95% of the vote are getting 10 or 15%. I really don’t think that as bad as things get there, it will EVER get bad enough for the mass of Europeans to break out of their current mind sets.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. JV says:

    “They seemed to be saying that the moral and ethical problems of handling the current migrants was more than enough for their consciences, thank you. More we cannot do. We will not be able to process the migrants, or our own feelings.”

    I think that’s a valid argument, one that I share. I do believe the West in general bares some responsibility due to a century or so of really bad foreign policy in the Middle East to take in a portion of these migrants. But I also believe that there’s a limit, and it’s been reached in Europe, in my opinion. Maybe overreached. Europe is not so great at assimilating non-Western immigrants, so yeah, enough already.

    Trump, though. Come on. His candidacy is interesting from a sociological perspective, and some of the issues he’s surfacing are legitimate (I’m thinking trade, mostly). But he’s stoking anger, fear, resentment, scapegoating, bigotry, etc. That’s not what a good leader does. To support him at this point is almost nihilistic. He would do real damage, I think.


    • Fenster says:

      He’s a bull in a china shop for sure and I suppose your thoughts on his candidacy may depend on what you think of whether the china should be smashed up or not. There are some things about the current order that I think should be well and truly smashed–I am thinking most aspects of political correctness–and if he is going to play the role of Destroyer of Worlds there I am all for it. But will he only do damage to my desired targets or is he seriously out of control? I might like my Destroyer to be hired a la carte. But if he is going to be an all round Destroyer in Chief anything goes.

      Plus who is to tell if he would actually target my preferred targets? He has been described as a straight talker but honestly if you read what he actually says it can be well nigh impossible to tell what he really thinks or what he would really do. I take it he will oppose PC but he is no fan of free speech so who is to say where he would come down if the whim strikes? Perhaps he will want to “make a deal” with the PC police and suddenly there will be no end to how wonderful they really are–really great guys!

      I think his particular genius–a business genius–is that he saw the opportunity to buy low (neglected voters without voice) and sell high. That he mobilized a section of the population I have a lot of sympathy for has been a public service and, I hope, a wake up call for both parties. So there’s a lot of Trumpism that I like. I don’t know if that will translate to a vote for the guy.


    • peterike says:

      “But he’s stoking anger, fear, resentment, scapegoating, bigotry, etc. That’s not what a good leader does. To support him at this point is almost nihilistic. He would do real damage, I think.”

      That is a near perfect description of, essentially, every Democrat in office from Obama on down. Only the target of their “anger, fear, resentment” is white people, men in particular. Sure, it would be nice to combat this with reasoned discourse, but we are way, way, way beyond that point.

      So we can keep in power the crowd that wants to destroy MY people, or we can roll the dice on the only guy with even a tiny hope of stopping the trainwreck. This is the easiest election choice I’ve seen in my life. And I WANT Trump to destroy the current system, because it’s utterly corrupt.


  5. JV says:

    “That is a near perfect description of, essentially, every Democrat in office from Obama on down. Only the target of their “anger, fear, resentment” is white people, men in particular.”

    As a white guy, I don’t feel this at all. I agree that PC thought has sprung up again on college campuses, like it did in the early 90s. But as gov’t policy, how so?


    • CMB says:

      “As a white guy, I don’t feel this at all”

      After eight years of “You Didn’t Build This” Obama, you don’t “feel” it? Nothing?

      You’re so fucking hateable. Rome is burning and yet you look around and say, “Come on guys, PC is goofy, but let’s be reasonable.” Die.


      • Fenster says:

        I’ll leave this comment be for now but inside voice here, please. I recognize this is the year for anger and even that it can be productive but there are a lot of venues for saying things like “die” and this is not one.


      • JV says:

        Obama’s “you didn’t build this” quote requires context. He meant there’s a whole system in place, created by us through our government, that allows for things like small businesses to operate alongside large corporations. Things like anti-trust laws, patent laws, intellectual property laws, the interstate highway system. This graphic explains it pretty well:

        And yeah, I don’t feel like I’m under attack as a white guy. I’m fully aware of the increasingly diverse nature of our population, and the challenges that can bring, but also the benefits. I’m not in favor of unlimited immigration, but I’m also not in favor of shutting down the borders. Doesn’t have to be a choice of two extremes. Sorry you’re bitter about it.


  6. Fenster says:

    drexciya: My question to you is this–if the undercurrent is real, if people feel things they are not permitted to speak, and if voting is private why aren’t anti-immigrant parties doing better? People made a big deal of the recent German federal elections but the new hard party brought in less than 15% Yes, this is a big deal since the party was new and it was up from zero.. But a lot of people are still voting the same old way. Is it that they, like we, are addicted to voting for the big parties they have tended to support, even if they no longer agree with the policies? That support for immigration is still quite strong, despite the public dust up? Or that people are afraid of their impulses and even in private follow the party line out of sense of virtue?


    • drexciya says:

      Germany is a bit more complicated, as it’s a number of states with different elections. So there’s some local politics playing a role as well. Also Germans tend to be relatively conservative, and won’t change their voting habits that easily. In spite of that, the recent elections were a big win for AfD (Alternative for Germany).
      In my opinion the problem is, that “new” parties really have a hard time attracting proper politicians and building a good working infrastructure. In The Netherlands, even on a local level, people from the PVV are harassed and threatened. It’s hard to get enough candidates to fill all positions because of that. You cannot really build a proper movement that way as well.
      What’s partially the fault of the PVV itself, and also something that is used by the other parties in The Netherlands, is simply using the cordon sanitaire method; excluding the party you don’t like when forming a coalition. This leads to people thinking that said party cannot achieve anything and they’re a lost vote.
      The media play the biggest role in shaping the people, and they still get away with quite a lot of support for the mainstream parties. In the most recent Dutch Election, we saw initial forecasts with a big win for the SP (former communist party turned socialist), but after an all-out media offensive, most left voters went back to the PvdA (sort of Dutch Labour party). It was pretty crass; vote VVD to not get PvdA in the cabinet, and vice versa, and end up with both of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Notes on “Occupied” | Uncouth Reflections

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