And Now the Dutch

Growing up in a household where everyone my parents knew were either “pink” or “red” (born to a non-Catholic family in the 1950s and named “Joseph”?), I knew only good things about the Dutch. Those illusions were somewhat dashed when Wendy Donniger, David Tracy, and I travelled to Amsterdam in 2005 to participate in a colloquium covering the recent spate of far-right murders targeting left-wing political figures, subsequently published as Wrestling with God and with Evil. A colleague and I decided on a whim to travel to the suburbs, to a pub, and explore how the rest of the Netherlands spent their time. It was then that I learned that “black santa” was not limited to Christmas. Mid-March and the bartender was in full “black-face” and wig, mocking before his all-white audience behaviors that he imagined common to Africans. I was astonished. And so I was not at all surprised to hear Lauren Frayer’s report this evening on All Things Considered.

According to Ms Frayer, right-wing neo-fascist politics is on the rise — yes, even in the Netherlands, which reinforces the conclusions I drew at the colloquium that the neo-fascist movement there, like our native born full-blown fascism, should not be ascribed to vestigial traces of barbarism. To the contrary, fascism is and has always been on the cutting edge of history, because history despises the body, all bodies, but most especially its own.

Bodies are, after all, embedded, circumscribed, and limited. They bear on their surface evidence of their limitation. Bodies open their mouths and speak the present, not the universal, the timely, not the eternal. And, so, we learned to hate bodies, to discipline them, seek their destruction, rise above them, to transcend them.

Attention to and care for bodies is what the Dutch learned how to do in the 1930s and 1940s, learned because of a natural confluence of native Reformed and naturalized Communist sensibilities. In both ideologies, “world” was believed to make a difference. If the “world” elsewhere was collapsing, the Dutch understood how care for bodies could change the world. And it did.

What I experienced in Amsterdam’s suburbs in 2005 was mocking disregard for bodies. That was twelve years ago. Evidently the contagion has spread.

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