Fighting Christmas traditions

Christmas is more than two weeks away but the holiday spirit is already in full swing in cities across Europe. From London to Vienna, the streets are decorated with twinkly lights, shoppers are drinking mulled wine — and in one country, actors in blackface are taking part in a controversial annual pageant.

The celebration of the feast day of Saint Nicholas on Dec. 5, known as Sinterklaas, is the biggest children’s holiday in the Netherlands, one that can even overshadow Christmas. Key among the festivities is a character from from Jan Schenkman’s 1848 children’s book, Saint Nicholas and his Servant — a minstrel-like helper called Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete.

In the days leading up to Sinterklaas, actors playing Saint Nicholas visit towns and cities throughout the Netherlands accompanied by revelers in black face, dressed in servants’ costumes, complete with enlarged red lips and wooly wigs. Although the imagery harks back to a time of overt racism, the holiday is so popular in the Netherlands that annual sales of all Sinterklaas merchandise – including candy, figurines, t-shirts and other products touting images of Black Pete – can reach 515 million euros.

This is particularly problematic as the Netherlands becomes more multi-cultural. People of color, many from former Dutch colonies like Suriname, Morocco and Indonesia, account for a fifth of the country’s population.

Now, just as the Black Lives Matter movement is protesting symbols of inequality in the U.S., activists are challenging the Black Pete tradition with community events, documentaries, and non-violent demonstrations at the annual parades. In 2011, the resistance to Black Pete entered the mainstream when the police violently arrested artists Quinsy Gario and Jerry Afriyie, who are both of African descent, for wearing t-shirts that read ‘Black Pete is Racism’ during a Sinterklaas parade in the Western city of Dordrecht.

Two years later, Gario and others filed a lawsuit against the city of Amsterdam for facilitating activities with racist elements by handing out permits and grants for the annual Sinterklaas parade. Five hundred people showed up to the hearing. “The city council was flabbergasted,” says Gario, who was born in a former Dutch colony in the Caribbean before moving to the Netherlands. The local council sided with them and voted to ban the annual parade in 2013, but their verdict was overturned by the Dutch high court.

Though the protests against Black Pete are non-violent, they have garnered fierce antagonism from authorities struggling with the conflicting demands of the Dutch traditionalists and the activists. At a demonstration in the city of Gouda last year police arrested more than 80 protesters. Anti- Black Pete activists have received death threats, and Gario says he has been advised to get private security because of the vitriol directed at him.

Over the years, Amsterdam’s city officials have suggested changing certain elements of the tradition, such as using different colors other than black face, or doing away with the gold hoop earrings, symbols traditionally associated with slavery (the Netherlands was among the last to abolish the practice in 1863). Some traditionalists have argued the black face is not Pete’s skin, but soot from the chimney he slides down on.

But many see these concessions as inadequate. “They came with a solution of ‘colored Pete’ or ‘chimney Pete’, but ‘chimney Pete’ is an excuse to use black paint,” says Mitchell Esajas, 27, founding member of activist group Kick Out Zwarte Piet. “And ‘colored Pete’ is the racist colonialist symbolism of people of color helping this white rational man.”

One solution, he says, is to replace Black Pete with non-human helpers like Elves or Smurfs. Fellow activist Afriyie, who was arrested in 2011, now holds an alternative children’s Christmastime festival, free of Black Pete.

However the tradition of Black Pete still has support at the highest level of the government. When a report by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) said Black Pete was a vestige of slavery and called on the Dutch government to work on getting rid of negative racial stereotypes this year, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte dismissed the recommendation that the figure be changed. “Black Pete, that already says it, he’s black,” he said. “We can’t change much about that.”

The Dutch people seem to agree. A 2013 poll shows that a majority of people in the Netherlands still want Black Pete: 91% said the tradition should not be changed to suit the tastes of a minority and 81% were opposed to changing Pete into another color.

Even so, activists have some reasons to be optimistic. Dutch schools in Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht are phasing out Black Pete from their Sinterklaas celebrations. And after years of silence from the political class, Dutch Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher took part in a debate touching on the future of Black Pete in August.

Asscher, also minister for social affairs and employment, said in August the country must eventually reinvent the character in a way that respect both those offended by the figure and those who want to preserve a decades-old custom. “Changing an old tradition takes time,” he said.


Are Americans dumb?

Glad you asked. I grew up in the States, and have lived here in Europe for the past 14 years, so I think I might be able to answer your question.

First of all, we must talk about GDP: the US clearly does not hold first place. That honor goes to Luxembourg, where I live. The US ranks 10th in the world. Furthermore, it’s not too hard to have the highest GDP in the world when you print the world’s reserve currency. This has more to do with winning WWII than it does with the average IQ of the nation.

Now, here are some reasons:

– In the US, more than half the population (depending on the poll) rejects evolutionary theory in favor of the explanation offered by whatever religious group they happen to belong to. This number is higher by far than in any other industrialized nation. Likewise, climate change is still discussed as if the reality of it is an open question.

– Most high school students can barely be called that, as they spend most of their energies socializing, attending pep rallies and sporting events, selecting the most qualified candidates for student government, and hanging out of their phones. Every college-bound European student, by contrast, must necessarily complete a BAC, which a rigorous program that is equivalent to about two years of college in the US. School has no other function than to educate.

– In Europe, it is acceptable to have a conversation about some aspect of philosophy, art, or history at a keg party. In the US, raising such a topic is more likely to elicit blank stares and derision.

– Americans seem obsessed with making money. This might go some way to explaining the “highest GDP” claim, and it also explains the general lack of sophistication among Americans regarding non-lucrative subjects such as math, history, arts, culture… etc. In the US, the question of how this or that education will lead to more money is raised constantly. I suspect it won’t be long before the subjects above are simply cut from high school curricula.

– Every European nation (save a few such as Luxembourg) is embarrassed to consider itself to be the worst at languages. By this they mean that they have difficulty expressing complex ideas in a foreign language. In the US, speaking only English (and just barely even that) is considered a point of pride.

– The US seems like a cultural wasteland to Europeans, who are used to thousand-year-old cities, museums of art and history, and cultural events in the streets. When Europeans visit the US, they tend to ignore the cities (save New York) in favor of that natural splendor of Yosemite or the Grand Canyon.

– The images projected by American brands overseas are generally devoid of any intellectual aspiration. Disney, Coke, McDonald’s, most Hollywood movies, much of pop music… all of them seem to cater to the lowest common denominator.

– Europeans value careful deliberation and subtlety in thinking. Americans are perceived as being slow to think and quick to act.

– Americans are seen as loud and proud. They can be obnoxious, and have a bizarre tendency to claim to be “the best country in the world” (viz. this question). Also, they tend to dress like slobs.

– A vast majority of Americans (about 80%) have never traveled beyond their borders, and many don’t seem to care to.

– The virulent religosity that is pervasive in society. Europeans think it’s weird the way we write “In God we Trust” on our money… and now, on police vehicles.

– The flagrant nationalism and frequent assertions of being “the best”, which strikes Europeans as conceited and undignified.

– The food, which is perceived as utterly unsophisticated, if not total junk. This may largely be due to the fact that international brands like McDonalds and Pizza Hut are the only exposure many Europeans have to American dining habits, but I think there is some truth to it.

– Guns. While I will reserve my opinion on this topic, I can say that most Europeans unequivocally see no purpose in allowing citizens to carry guns. They see the US as a gun-crazed, violent place where gangs and deranged highschoolers shoot at random people for fun. Huh, blame Hollywood, I suppose.

Yes, I’ve been tremendously unfair, and I know it. Stupidity is about evenly distributed in the world, and to be sure, we have our share here, too. To be fair, one could easily make an equally long list of American perceptions of European stupidity.
But Americans have their own special brand of it.


History is unexpected, sometimes

In June 1941, war broke out between Finland and the USSR. The Finns called this conflict “the Continuation War” because it was their attempt to regain territory lost to the Soviet Union in the earlier Winter War.

Among the soldiers fighting against the Soviet Union were Finnish Jews. That’s not a big deal yet. But here comes the amazing part.

The Finns launched this war in careful coordination with Nazi Germany’s attack on the USSR.

So you had a situation where Jewish soldiers and German soldiers were fighting in the same battle on the same side against the same enemy.

The German government subsequently issued an Iron Cross medal to a Finnish soldier for gallantry in his role in evacuating wounded Finnish and German troops. The recipient of this award was Jewish.

You can’t make this stuff up.


Helsinki’s plan to make cars obsolete

Helsinki, Finland, has proposed a strikingly ambitious mobility on demand system that presents the logical extension of current innovations in passenger travel. The city plans to create a subscriber service that would let users choose from, and pay for, a range of transportation options through their smartphones. The options will include conventional public transit, carsharing, bikesharing, ferries, and an on-demand minibus service that the city’s transit authority launched in 2013.
The major innovation that makes this work will be an integrated payment system. This part of the scheme may prove the most complicated to implement, but it is the final piece of the puzzle that makes this scheme truly transformative. No longer forced to choose between the on-demand capability of private car ownership versus the eco-friendliness of shared transit, Helsinki residents will be able to easily get where they want to go, when they want to get there, without needing a car.
I’ve been using the phrase mobility as a service for this phenomenon, but it looks like the mobile phone companies may have claimed that moniker already. Whatever the name, the concept is the transportation version of other businesses that are moving from selling a product to selling the service or utility the consumer wants from that product. Planned obsolescence no longer makes good business sense, and consumers can benefit from constant improvements in technology. This is most common in information technology (in cloud computing and storage, for instance), but it’s also happening in the energy sector – especially for clean technologies like solar, where leasing programs offer a way to overcome the upfront price premium barrier.
Share, Don’t Buy
Globally, carsharing membership has grown around 28% since 2010, with Europe as the leader in this sector. Navigant Research’s report, Carsharing Programs, forecasts that global carsharing members will surpass 12 million in 2020. The rise of on-demand ride services, such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, are also transforming the way city dwellers use taxi services. Taking on the highly regulated taxi business, these companies face considerable opposition, but at this point, it will be hard to put the genie back into the bottle. Bikesharing and even scooter share services are also spreading. Today’s young urban dwellers expect to be able to use an array of transportation options to suit an array of needs, at the touch of an app.
Helsinki’s program has the potential to tie into other transportation innovations, such as the rise of electric vehicles (EVs) – more carsharing programs are deploying EVs as a selling point for their service – and autonomous vehicle technology. Wireless charging would also support schemes like Helsinki’s by ensuring that shared EVs are recharging when parked, rather than relying on the driver to remember to plug in.
Faced with dwindling demand in mature markets like North America and Western Europe, automakers are exploring a range of new services to offset lower demand and to gain a competitive edge. Farsighted companies will look to begin selling mobility as well as vehicles, changing transportation as much as the IT and energy sectors have changed.