Dutch Parties Shrinking

by bicyclemark 2 Comments

I’m fascinated by associations, groups, unions, fanclubs… well maybe not fanclubs.  But if there is a group of people dedicated to something, and they have meetings and membership cards, I’m interested in learning about them.  And it is even more compelling if they’ve been around for awhile.

Here in the Netherlands, for example, It seems there has been a tradition of people being not only supporters of a political party, but actually card carrying members.  I realize this happens in many countries, but it is not often that I hear the numbers or that someone comes forward and says “Oh Im a card carrying member of the Sloth Party.”

Today I read about how membership numbers for political parties in the Netherlands is shrinking.  A very interesting, though not at all surprising, development.   As with every passing election voters grow tired of one party and turn to another, and then grow tired of that one and turn to yet another, or they go back to the previous one maybe.  And despite all their voting efforts, these parties continue to disappoint and generally do things that people don’t agree with.. even their own party members.  So why continue to be a member of a party that never seems to represent you and they said they would.

The numbers in the Netherlands are as follows:

  • Christian Democrats (party of the prime minister) – 69.200 members
  • Labor Party  – 59.327
  • Socialist PArty – 50.238
  • Liberal PArty – 36.832
  • United Christians – 27.683
  • Green Left – 21.901
  • Animal Party (yes!) – 6972

Note that I skipped a few parties because I don’t feel like describing them, though they would be located at the bottom of the list.  Furthermore the populist-far-right Freedom Party has no membership, yet you can bet plenty of people vote for them they would just prefer not to have any evidence linking their vote back to themselves.

In the end I think the way people think of elections has changed.  Instead of wanting to be a member of a party, and going to meetings and trying to influence party policies, it starts to resemble a menu in a restaurant… you choose what looks like it would be good. And if you dont like it, you spit it out, or choose something else next time.  Unfortunately there is no equivalent, besides leaving the country, of “going to another restaurant cause this one is bad”.  Then again like so many citizens, you could go on a hunger strike.

Fading Language, Losing Culture

by bicyclemark

I’m sitting in the Portuguese Consulate in Rotterdam today, for what is always an entertaining adventure. While there isn’t an enormous amount of Portuguese flocking to live and work in the Netherlands, there are still enough so that someone is inevitably standing in front of the little teller windows at the consulate trying to work out some complex paperwork issue. And of course, no matter what it involves, everyone winds up sitting around waiting for extended periods of time while things get processed.

My time is used by scanning the waiting room and piecing together the stories. That man has a newborn baby that needs its Portuguese papers, you can tell by how happy yet tired he is. This couple next to me is speaking in English, hers is Dutch accented and his is Brazilian accented; clearly a match made during some temporary situation where he was either studying or working in the Netherlands, now trying to find some citizenship loophole because of his Portuguese grandparents, hence the very long wait and the frustrated look.

The case that gets most of my attention is that of the father and his teenage son. Dressed up like any 16 year old emo boy, this one comes complete with studded belt and carefully messed hair. His father seems resigned to handling the details for his slacker son, going through each paper and filling in the info. Apparently his ID was stolen, now comes the painstaking task of proving who he is. But thats not the interesting part… what gets me is that his father is speaking only in Portuguese, as do most people who frequent the consulate. While the son, he keeps answering everything in Dutch. At some point the man behind the glass asks the father “doesn’t he speak Portuguese?” To which the father gives a tired answer, he can, he’s just lazy.

Oh how I remember that. In many ways I was looking in the mirror, only it is a different generation and we’re definitely not in the United States. The boy looked ashamed to be in this room with us. He also seemed like a fish out of water, constantly responding to Portuguese questions in Dutch. Again… the reminders of my own teenage years.

I turned to have a look at the bulletin board and try to stop focusing on this father and son. There I see information about the local Portuguese school. Further down, information about all the different levels of Portuguese language exams. As I read everything over, I realize — I’ve done all these things. I’ve taken all those exams and received the diplomas to prove it.

A feeling of relief and pride came over me. Looking back at the boy I thought to myself, maybe one day he’ll go back to speaking Portuguese. Maybe this is the natural cycle of how a culture lives on and the language of one’s heritage is passed on.

At that moment, I promised myself that if I one day have children here, I too will bring my slacker son or daughter to the teller window, and I’ll answer questions in Portuguese, while he-she will rebel and answer in Dutch….. and it will be ok.

Rotting American Image

by bicyclemark

During one of my very fun nights out on the town in Berlin my two new friends offerred to show me their favorite night spots. And as we walked town the now typical hipster street, we ran into a big crowd of people gathered around one guy who was struggling to be heard, telling some story like a tour guide.

“Oh this is so funny. Have you ever heard about these pub crawl just for Americans?”. my friend asked. Of course I had not. So she went on “Yeah they have this guide who brings alcohol in this backpack dispenser and everyone gets little shot glasses and it advertized for Americans to come get really drunk and maybe get laid.”

As I listened to these words I was already noticing all these details, looking at the obscenely loud crowd of college age kids in front of me. We walked around them like you walk by the scene of an accident. We joked about maybe trying to fit in and observe them up close. The joke didn’t last long and we got out of there in a hurry.

Hours later we hopped into a tram to get to the next destination. It was a typical Berlin tram on a wednesday night, not too full, lots of people sitting and the odd conversation here and there. Suddenly, as the next stop approached, there came this overwhelming sound of people. As if a stadium had let out after a championship game, there was a crowd outside and it was chanting and singing and yelling. And as the doors opened, they packed into the tram with a resounding roar, banging on the walls and stumbling over people in their seats.

YOu could hear the accents, you could hear their words, it was very painfully obvious that the American pub crawl crowd had invaded the tram. When they weren’t shouting conversation to their friends, they were busy leaning over passengers.. repeatedly apologizing for being drunk and for George Bush. I’ll never forget the look in the middle aged German couples faces, the look of disgust and pity, as college kid after college kid apologized for George Bush or even.. being American.

After two never ending stops, they piled out. The silence was deafening. Those who remained on the tram, I’m not exaggerating, gave a collective sigh and everyone looked at each other with this knowing look. To me it said “my god that was horrible.”

These events replayed in my head all evening. The college kids, the pubcrawl, the local people on the tram, the unbelievably loud communication, and of course.. the repeated apologies for what their country has done.

Say what you want about George Bush or even Congress, but these encounters remind me that there is something deeper going on. It is hard to break down what it is all about, but I definitely look to how people are being educated in the US, especially in college. To me college is the new high school, except that now you pay big money for you kids to basically attend a glorified high school with fewer rules.

Then you come back to the whole American image abroad thing. It is in shambles. And It won’t be cured by this congress or a new president. It will take a revolution in American culture that looks highly unlikely any time soon.

85% Voter Turnout

by bicyclemark

Greetings from an almost secret location in Belgium where I’ll be stationed for a few days. Coincidentally, just close enough to France so that everyone is this area is clinging to the French election results, and for the most part, pulling their hairs out in disappointment and frustration.

While it is hardly under-reported news, it is interesting, watching these elections in the global context. An old friend of mine in France once said, as much as his fellow citizens would never admit it, the French are very similar to Americans in many things. Every now and then, like in these elections, I think she was right.

He plays on fear. He threatens to be tough on immigrants and to cut taxes and benefits and whatever else he can cut. He goes on and on about national pride and what a great country it is. He could basically be a president candidate in the USA, but in fact, he is the new president of France, Nicholas Sarkozy. (or as I heard him referred to today, mini-bush)

As people learn the result of today’s election, you’ll hear lots of disgusted responses. “So embarrassing” people will say. Sounds familiar.

But unlike the US, where even if you bus people to the polls you can’t get a 50 percent turnout, reports from today say that turnout was at 85%! 85%! Now at first glance, that’s impressive. People can say, and they are, that it is a healthy sign for democracy because people are participating.

Then again, 85% voting for, with more than 50% of them choosing a pretty hardline conservative candidate also makes it hard for a country to deny who they are. At least in the US you can say “hey.. thats only half of the 40+% that vote who chose that bum, we’re not really like that”. In France, you can’t say that anymore. So if Sarko ends up rounding up all the immigrants and putting them in labor camps. Or joining the US military in its latest adventure to invade and bring democracy somewhere. It won’t be just a small percentage of crazies that took over the government. Nope… it’s a majority of the country that actually shares (at least some of) these values.

Once again, I don’t have a better idea yet, but western democracy is still overrated.