Friday, December 15, 2017


The Dutch celebrate Santa Claus on December 5 - Sinterklaas Day. In recent years, this celebration has become problematic. An old custom has become controversial, namely the Zwarte Piet or “Black Pete” tradition:

The way the Dutch have celebrated Sinterklaas Day traditionally is by having him arrive by boat from Spain. I suppose this has something to do with the fact that the Netherlands were under Spanish rule until about 300 years ago.

What has made this custom problematic in the 21st century is that each year, Santa is accompanied by a bunch of helpers called “Black Petes.” These are supposed to be young black Moorish boys, perhaps formerly slaves. They are usually enacted by white people who splash on blackface. 

When I still lived in the Netherlands in the 1950s, these “black boys” carried with them a stick, a rod or a broom. The clear implication was that while good children would receive candy and presents, those who had been disobedient throughout the past year would get a thrashing meted out by one of the black Petes. So this bit of “folklore” was threatening to many children. While I was already too old to believe this nonsense, I remember one Christmas when the young (maybe 7-year old) daughter of one of our neighbors was screaming bloody murder as Santa and his helpers were approaching their house.

I doubt that the Dutch still observe this aspect of their Santa Claus celebration. However, the “Black Pete” tradition survives to this very day.

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This is puzzling. In many ways, the Dutch claim to be - and indeed ARE - among the world’s most progressive people. They have usually been in the forefront of the legalization of drugs, gay marriage, euthanasia, abortion, prostitution and a variety of other behaviors which many other societies still criminalize. They have been a haven of religious tolerance ever since the Huguenots and the Puritans sought refuge among them.

The Dutch are politically correct to an almost preposterous extent: Instead of referring to people of color with standard terms such as “black,” “minority” or “African-European,” some Dutchmen have suggested the term Andersgekleurde medemens. The literal translation for this hilarious expression is: “ Fellow Human being of another color.”

However, for some reason, a few/some/many (?) Dutchmen refuse to break with the weird Black Pete tradition. In the US, blackface performances, plays and attire of any sort have been taboo for a long time. Strangely, in the Netherlands, the custom refuses to die.

A couple of years back, Madeleine published an article about Black Petes on this blog (see The Gestapo of Political Correctness). In that essay, she noted some of the narrow-mindedness and illogic of extreme political correctness.

In recent years, the two sides have been at each other’s throat over the black Petes: There are progressive anti-Pete demonstrations by people whom some would call “liberal elites” vs. die-hard defenders of this old-fashioned Dutch tradition.

The conflict seems to be largely between traditional rural areas, and the diverse, cosmopolitan folks from large cities such as Amsterdam.(See Dutch Blackface). This is clearly reminiscent of the current polarization in the US: The urbane, bi-coastal culture vs. the rural South and Midwest.

This year (again) anti-black Pete protesters traveled by bus from Amsterdam to march and demonstrate in some small town in the Frisian part of Northern Holland. As a safeguard against violence, they were escorted by the police.

Meanwhile, the villagers had set up roadblocks.

Some of the demonstrators from Amsterdam were non-white. They claim to have received Facebook messages such as: "Get the fuck out of the Netherlands," "we white people will cheer when you’ve gone," and anonymous telephone calls from people calling them ‘monkey’ and other hateful things. 

To be sure, some of the Frisian villagers were welcoming, so apparently opinions are divided even there (just as in Alabama, thank God). But it’s interesting to note that racism is not limited to the United States, as some would have us believe.

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I have no idea how the proportions of racist and non-racist Dutchmen stack up. The pro- Black Pete people might be a dwindling minority, mostly a small rural segment of the country that lives increasingly in the past and is dying out. Or this could signify a resurgent nativism, as Geert Wilders’ popularity suggests (he is a Dutch version of Donald Trump, with ideas similar to the US President, but better command of language).

It is also possible that this tradition will evolve into a more benign form: I already mentioned that I doubt that today’s black Pete still shows up with a rod or a broom, threatening to beat up those kids who had been naughty during the year.

Similarly, I learned in a recent Skype conversation with a Dutch friend that the helpers whom Santa brings with him from Spain every December 5 increasingly paint their faces green, blue, purple, rainbow or something else...

This is a hopeful sign. Once again, the Dutch have the genius to diffuse a potentially explosive situation through humor and imagination.
© Tom Kando 2017;All Rights Reserved
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Thursday, December 7, 2017

Canoeing in the Adirondacks

by Madeleine Kando

Horseshoe Pond, New York

The weather today is a lot better than yesterday: sunny, no wind, blue sky with cute little white puffy clouds floating by. We wake up to the sound of loons calling each other over the misty pond. Loons are more like submarines than aquatic birds –only their dark black heads and striped necks stick out of the water, like periscopes. As soon as you think you can spy on them through your binoculars, swoosh! They have disappeared. Eons later they pop up somewhere else, playing a ‘catch me if you can’ game.

After a morning coffee (which we drip through our dishtowel since the outfitters forgot to pack us coffee filters), and after my husband Hans takes a dip in the probably freezing cold water, we go on a short canoe trip around 'our' pond.

Canoeing is like meditation: the sound of the water sloshing against the boat as the sun burns your shoulders and back and the reflection of the sun in the water, creating jewels on the rippling waves. The rhythmic motion of your arms on the oar.. You get the feeling that you could go on forever.

The next day

We wake up to the sound of loons again. Hans is making the coffee this time. As I look over the foggy pond, one lonely loon glides by. His nose in the air, he is inspecting his kingdom – glancing right and left, totally ignoring us as he majestically makes his way across the water.

That evening we take another short trip along the shores of Horseshoe pond. There is silence and peacefulness all around us. Not even our oars make a sound as they slide in and out of the water, making miniature whirlpools with each dip. The shores are strewn with beautiful dead trees, white and ghostlike, often creating strange and wonderful shapes due to their reflection in the water. Huge logs have become the home for new growth of blueberry bushes, extending far out into the pond. A rustle makes us look up the embankment and we stare right into the eyes of a deer with large ears and a puzzled look in his eyes.

As we row back to 'our' island we see another boat approach it from the other side. I am hoping that they are on their way to some other campsite, but they plop themselves right down onto 'our' turf, far enough so we don't see them from our tent. Even so, I am disappointed. The code of conduct is being violated. Don't they know you are supposed to ask the occupants of a site if you can set up your tent? And you only do that after you have canoed around for endless hours and cannot find any place to camp, when you are exhausted, ready to die a horrible death by drowning. Only THEN do you beg on your wet and dirty knees if you can please let them share your site.

That night, as I am falling asleep, I fantasize that a large wasp nest is hanging over the intruders' tent and that by remote control I can command the wasps to attack the noisy, insensitive strangers and make them flee to another campsite. Pack up your beer cans and fishing gear and loud voices and let US sensitive and nature-starved city folk enjoy our solitude.

We are getting ready for our journey back. I write and Hans is busy packing our gear. I love the canoeing experience, but I could do without the portages (or 'carries'). We do have a huge amount of stuff. Food, sleeping bags, tent, mattresses, clothes, pots and pans and whiskey up the wazoo, although we managed to finish most of it.

Whiskey is important when you go camping. When we arrived, we were tired, wet, totally inexperienced. We had three monstrously large bags, a cooler, oars and a canoe to carry and by the time we got to the campsite we weren't sure if this was a sane way to spend our vacation. That rainy night, as we were trying to figure out which rope goes through which loop, we felt we deserved a nightcap and slowly the camping experience acquired a more and more positive tint. Who cares if the tent is all crooked? Why worry about having all these matches and no way to ignite them, since the outfitters didn't pack us a matchbox? Yes, whisky keeps you warm and bears don't like it. I even made us dinner!! We filtered lake water and boiled it and I skillfully prepared our freeze-dried turkey with gravy dinner pouches. We had a great time.

We were sure that hungry bears would visit us, having been told not to keep any food in our tent, not even a stick of chewing gum. We hoisted our food bag high in a tree, inspected our pockets for candy wrappers and crawled into our complicated sleeping arrangement. Of course, it took me twenty minutes to prepare myself for the night: long johns, earplugs, pillow, socks, sweater.. And we waited for the bears. Nothing.. Only the cries of the loons calling each other. I finally fell asleep only to wake up in the middle of the night sweating like a pig. It took me another twenty minutes to take off everything I had on so I wouldn't fry to death.

And now, as we are paddling back to base camp, tanned, dirty, I feel ten years younger than three days ago. As we hop out of the canoe at the first carry, bare feet and all, we pass some fellow sixty-year olds who have paddled out for the day, to gather mushrooms. We walk passed them, Hans invisible under the canoe on his shoulders, me with one of the oversized bags on mine. I am so full of myself that I don't watch where I am going and stub my toe on a piece of wood. So that's why everybody wears those ugly looking waterproof sandals.

This is another beautiful sunny day. The lakes are full of canoes and kayaks. It is Labor Day weekend and it seems that the whole state of New York has come to enjoy the lakes. And the closer we get to base camp the more canoes there are. Sometimes it is hard to avoid crashes, since these poor day-trippers of course don't have our experience at steering their boat.

The last stretch to base camp and civilization is in sight now. I don't want to go home. I want to stay here forever. Amongst the loons and the dead trees, and the sun and the water... But then again, a good glass of red wine and a hot shower don't sound so bad either. leave comment here Read more...

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Tax Bill

by Madeleine Kando

I am not an expert on taxes, other than knowing that taxes, if structured right, come back to benefit the tax payer. Taxes pay for everything that is essential in a well-run society: roads, bridges, police, firefighters, schools and so on. If you lower taxes too much, you jeopardize these services and a society becomes dysfunctional. A few bananas at the top that have and control everything, and everybody else be damned.

We do not pay a lot of taxes compared to most OECD countries. Taxes accounts for about 26 percent of the United States’ GDP, placing the U.S. 31st out of 35 countries studied (See: General Government Revenue). In countries with the highest percentages, (Denmark, France, Belgium, Finland, Austria, Italy and Sweden), taxation accounts for more than 42 percent of GDP. The countries continue to improve their quality of life, because they pay more taxes. Their roads are better, their health care is better and cheaper, their educational system is better and cheaper. Among OECD countries, only Korea, Chile, Mexico, and Ireland collect less taxes than the United States as a percentage of GDP.

Here, we already have an anemic social safety net that leaves too many Americans without the basic needs to live a decent life. Our health care system is one of the worst of the OECD countries. Our infrastructure is appalling, our schools are underfunded and higher education is so expensive that many young people cannot afford it. Read more...

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Sleuths: European and American

We just saw the movie “Murder on the Orient Express.” I found it quite entertaining. The cast included Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer and other luminaries. It received curiously mediocre reviews, both by the audience (IMDb) and by “experts” So be it. To me, it was lovely. Maybe I am prejudiced because I remember fondly taking the Orient Express as a child.

So then, I began to think about the whole genre - crime-fiction, the whodunit, and its central character, the sleuth, the detective, the private eye, the guy who solves crimes and chases down criminals.

I grew up devouring detective novels in Europe. One of my favorites was Commissaire Maigret. He was the quintessentially European detective, created by Belgian author Georges Simenon, who published over one hundred novels featuring this character. Maigret was with the Paris Sureté, the French national police. Read more...

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Me and my Computer: Inseparable Forever

Yesterday, like every other morning, I turn on my desktop PC to start my daily routines - some requiring logging in, some not. For example, I have some bills to pay, and for that, I need to log in to “Pay Online.” Also, I have to write a short piece for a local magazine, so for that I need to open “Word.” So first, I click on “Pay Online.”

However, surprise: This morning, my computer reacts differently: Instead of opening “Pay Online,” I get a pop-up message saying: “You don’t have permission to access this folder.”

What’s going on? I’m not sure how to proceed, but since I also have an article to write, I decide to switch tasks. I’ll try online payments again later. Must be some glitch. So next, I click on “Word.” Same result, only worse: I get another pop-up message. It now says: “I just told you! You don’t have permission to access this folder!” Read more...

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Insanity of the Republican Party and the Individual Mandate

by Madeleine Kando

Republican lawmakers are now adding a ‘repeal of the individual mandate’ clause to their proposed tax bill. For those of you who don’t know what that is, the individual mandate says that every American taxpayer is required to have health insurance. Just like everyone has to have car insurance. If you don’t have health insurance you get a fine.

It is one of the legs of the so-called ‘three legged stool’ of Obamacare. It is ‘unpopular’ because healthy people are forced to spend money on insurance they think they don’t need.

By including the repeal clause in their tax bill, the republicans tell us that it can reduce the deficit by $318 billion. How can NOT paying a tax penalty reduce the deficit? Because if people are not mandated to buy insurance, less of them will apply for subsidies and special government funded programs. 13 million people will be without insurance, a big saving for the government. Read more...

Friday, November 10, 2017

Hurrah for Barbarians!

A fictional interview with James C. Scott, author of 'Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States' *

Madeleine Kando: Your book Against the Grain: a Deep History of the Earliest States’ contradicts everything that we take for granted about the ‘progress’ humankind has made, by moving from our ‘barbaric’ past as bands of  ‘hunters and gatherers’ to an agrarian society, which in turn resulted in the birth of ‘the State’.

James C. Scott: Yes, for most of our species’ history, we lived as hunter-gatherers. There were no farms, no fields to plow, no cows to milk or sheep to sheer, only small groups of humans that went out to hunt for the occasional boar or antelope and mostly gather berries and edible plants. Around 200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens appeared on the planet and only 5,000 years ago did farming communities develop. Think about it: if you lived to be a hundred years old, only the last 3 months of your life would be spent as an ‘agriculturalist’. The rest of your long long life, you would have spent in a loincloth, holding a bow and arrow, living with your extended relatives in a small village.** Read more...