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Sexism by anti-sexist activists

Change doesn’t come easily.

7 March is International Women’s Day, activism against gender inequity is experiencing a ‘third wave’, supported by writers, scholars and civic organisations alike – and yet, old habits are hard to shake off, even by these feminists themselves. Old habits, such as belittling women by the way they are named.

Carpenter around 1875 (from Wikimedia Commons).

As I was reading a biography of the activist Edward Carpenter, written by eminent women’s historian Sheila Rowbotham, it struck me that she referred to the women in Carpenter’s life by their first names, while the men were called by their family names. (This is especially clear in the chapter ‘Love and Loss’.) For an online example, see Rowbotham’s earlier publication Hidden from History. 300 Years of Women’s Oppression and the Fight Against It.

In European culture, the use of first names traditionally implies intimacy, but also low status and a form of infantility or immaturity. First names are used for children, servants, nurses: Katie; Maud; Mary. Second names, on the other hand, have for a long time been reserved for people of power and authority, such as (male) politicians, authors, and teachers in secondary or higher education: Gladstone; Byron; Snyder.

(For a bitter laugh: google-image search ‘professor’ and then ‘teacher’.)

A romanticising painting of the Shelleys: William Powell Frith (1819-1909), ‘The Lover’s Seat: Shelley and Mary Godwin in Old St Pancras Churchyard’.

The distinction becomes abundantly clear in English literary history with the Shelleys, who were both famous writers. In most narratives about the Shelleys, Percy is ‘Shelley’ while Mary is ‘Mary’. It leads to such statements as ‘In mid-1816, Shelley and Mary made a second trip to Switzerland.’ (This one from Wikipedia, but exemplary of much academic writing as well.)

Another example, about contemporary writers: I use an appointment diary published by an international human-rights organisation, which contains poetry by political dissidents. Two Soviet poets from the 1980s are quoted: Irina Ratushinskaya and Nizametdin Akhmetov. She is ‘Irina’. He is ‘Akhmetov’.

Ratushinskaya, photographed by Mikhail Evstafiev. CC BY-SA 2.5.

Some women seem to be especially prone to being named in a way that places them at the bottom of the pecking order: these are immigrant women and women who have received less formal education.

Not too long ago, I was at a university conference about some of the work scholars in Britain are doing with local communities. Part of the aim was to show that such projects are a two-way street involving true collaboration between academics and people with other kinds of knowledge: knowledge from experience, or from family stories, for instance.

Unfortunately, these good intentions did not translate itself into the naming practices adopted by the (academic) presenters. The non-academic participants, mostly female and immigrant, were referred to by their first names, while the mostly indigenous/white scholars (also women in majority, in this case) were referred to by their family names.

Even scholars who make it their task to challenge racism and sexism have been immersed in a racist and sexist culture from a young age, and clearly even they find it difficult to shake of its influences.

No doubt I have been guilty of the same unfair practice over the course of my life. But once we start to notice how often it occurs, we can begin to be more careful about what we call people.

Michelle? Or Obama? (official White House portrait by Joyce N. Boghosian, 2009, from commons.wikimedia.org)

N.B. When I tried to locate the original source of this photo, the following message appeared on my screen:

Thank you for your interest in this subject. Stay tuned as we continue to update whitehouse.gov.

Sheila Rowbotham’s otherwise excellent biography is called Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (Verso, 2009).

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Dutch blacking-up about to change

In ‘Racism in blue‘, I referred to an article I was writing for The Conversation. Here it is (slightly changed):

After decades of activism, the scales are finally tipping for the figure of ‘Black Pete’ in Dutch winter celebrations. Within a few years’ time, opinion has shifted from an utter failure to understand anti-Pete protests, to attempts at change. But how did the Dutch manage to be blind to the offensiveness of this type for so long? Is Dutch culture perhaps more racist than its progressive reputation suggests?

To start with the last question: yes, Dutch society is suffused with racism – as is western culture generally. Yet it is one of the fundamental characteristics of racism that it is perpetrated mostly unawares. Most racism – ‘everyday racism’, in the words of researcher Philomena Essed – takes the shape of casual remarks and unconscious judgments. In the Netherlands, one of the forms this everyday racism has taken in the twentieth century is Black Pete: ‘Zwarte Piet’.

Black Pete is part and parcel of the feast of Saint Nicholas, the country’s largest annual celebration. It elicits more eager anticipation and mobilises more public and commercial institutions than King’s Day and Liberation Day put together. The festival peaks on 5 December but officially starts halfway November already, and it takes possession of the shops as early as late summer. It is primarily aimed at children, and the memories it inspires are among the fondest childhood memories many (pink people?) have.

Black Pete’s position in these celebrations has never been fixed, but in the last few decades he seems to have been fulfilling the role of mediator. During the festivities, which have moral overtones of reward and punishment, it is Pete who mediates between the anxious child and the Godlike figure of Saint Nicholas. Whereas the latter evokes a degree of fear, Pete is approachable and loveable. This explains part of the attachment many Dutch feel towards Pete.

nikmorriszwartepiet

Photo by Nik Morris, ‘Zwarte Piet bij de Bijenkorf, Amsterdam’, 2012 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Clearly, however, depicting Black Pete is no innocent business. The figure has a dual ancestry as both servant to and antagonist of the Saint.

In many parts of Europe, Nicholas is accompanied by an anti-Saint or devil, making sure that both reward and punishment remain on the minds of their audiences. Sometimes, this devil carries a chain as a sign of his final submission to the power of good.

The chain returns gruesomely in the more recent tradition, beginning in the nineteenth century, that portrays Pete as an African man in the service of a European saint. Although dark servants in the Netherlands were not technically enslaved, slavery did very much exist in the overseas territories of the Dutch empire. It is this history that most activists point to as being silenced by the uncritical acceptance of Pete in his existing shape.

This shape is of course that of the ‘Sambo’. Whereas nineteenth-century depictions of Pete still show a ‘neutral’ man of African descent, in the twentieth century Pete merged with the international Sambo caricature, including red lips, golden earrings, and silly behaviour. The endurance of this figure always comes as a shock to Americans or Brits who thought of the Netherlands as a fair and open country. Anti-racism activists in the Netherlands have made grateful use of this cultural disjunction between the anglophone and the germanic world (blacking up also occurs in countries such as Belgium, Germany and Austria) by confronting their compatriots with the judgment of international experts, or even the British vox pop.

This approach, coupled with demonstrations and judicial action, seems to be having effect. Although there have been protests since the 1960s, these were never picked up by mainstream media or in national politics on the scale we are seeing now. This year, an unprecedented number of Dutch intellectuals and celebrities spoke out against the stereotype; national politicians have taken a stance; and sellers of seasonal sweets and decorations have deemed it wise to change their marketing strategy.

So why has Pete been able to mask as innocent for so long? Apart from the associations with childhood and friendship mentioned above, at least two factors play a role. Lacking a civil rights movement like the one in the US, including subsequent educational reforms, the Dutch have not learnt to recognise the racist Sambo character.

But various academic studies have noted a second factor: the cherished Dutch self-image of being an open and fair society. A large part of the Dutch public as well as the political establishment, including initially prime minister Mark Rutte, has responded to the criticism with outright denial. They refuse to let their fond memories be tinged with the hateful epithet of racism. Anger at ‘accusations’ of racism has been running so high that riot police had to be on stand-by for this year’s opening of the festive season.

A final note on where this tradition may be going. Because much of the critique has been focusing on blackface in the narrowest sense, there is now a tendency to erase representations of Pete as a brown-skinned man altogether – so not just (belittling) representations by pink actors. In children’s books, for instance, Pete is increasingly pale, and a large Dutch internet company has even completely eliminated Pete from its adverts, now only showing the old white saint.

These steps run the danger of replacing a racism of ridicule by a racism of marginalisation. Surely, it is not Pete’s colour which is racist, but the servile and subhuman features of Nicholas’s ‘cheerful little help’ that existing depictions have associated with that colour for so long.

This winter in racist Europe, I encountered a popular representation of a dark-skinned man, not as a slave or servant, but as King.

dsc03973

Three Kings celebrations in Alcalá, Spain, January 2016 (photo by the author, CC BY-NC-SA).

More on the ancestry of Black Pete can be found in Allison Blakely’s standard work Blacks in the Dutch World: The Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society (Bloomington, 1993).

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Racism in blue

I was writing an article about the way the fictional character called ‘Black Pete’, part of Dutch winter festivities, is changing under pressure from anti-racism activists, and I came across a cartoon that illustrates the present challenges very well.

Briefly, Black Pete’s role is to assist Saint Nicholas on his annual visit to the children of the Netherlands and Belgium. Anyone who likes to know a little more about this character can find it in this earlier post.

zoetnetpietenIt is a good thing Black Pete is changing. The concern I have, however, is with the way he is changing.

The central problem with the character as he has been portrayed over the past hundred years, is the association of a particular group in society – in this case people with African roots – with a set of negatively valued characteristics – in this case: silliness, clumsiness, docility, and interchangeability. To explain this last point: hundreds of figures are all called ‘Pete’, and if one is absent, another simply takes his place.

The association that chains this group of people to this set of characteristics has been fabricated by European colonisers, European-American plantation owners, and similar ‘white’ groups around the world to help justify slavery, colonial exploitation, and paternalistic re-education. Obviously, this chain needed to be broken.

At the moment however, this oppressive chain is still personified in the figure of Pete. Yet many people are attached to Pete, and would like to keep him as part of their winter festivities. So the challenge is to create a new Pete – which may also entail creating a new Saint Nicholas – in which this racist chain is broken. Therefore, one of these two things needs to change: either Pete’s identity as someone with African roots, or Pete’s presentation as a silly, clumsy, docile and interchangeable person.

Most producers of Pete & Nicholas plays and images in the Netherlands so far, have been opting for the former: Pete has been growing increasingly pale.

Yet I think we should seriously consider the second option (this is what I argued in an article in Dutch newspaper Trouw).

I recently came across an image that supports my argument. The image forms part of a Flemish cartoon, popular in the Netherlands:

grammehuurlingracisme

from: Willy Vandersteen, De Gramme Huurling (1967-68)

In this cartoon, the main characters fly to Africa where they find a lazy, dirty, and bickering population with a defective grasp of language. At first, the locals try to cook the European heroes in their pots. But after liberating themselves, the Europeans build proper houses and schools for them, thereby risking their own lives. By the end of the story, the locals are grateful for their intervention. In other words: every racial stereotype present in Europe at the time is depicted, and apparently without irony. (Note that at the time of the cartoon, Belgium and the USA were saving what they could from their power and revenue in the Congo, where independence had been declared in 1960.)

But, you might say: the locals in this cartoon are not Black, they are blue! Yet does that remove the racism from this cartoon? Does removing the Black from Black Pete really solve the issue?

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Turkish women freer ‘than we believe’

Ethnic prejudice can lead to hilarious ironies.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the orientalist ideas of many Europeans (and European Americans, Australians, etc.), and specifically about the idea that the Islamic world is characterised by its oppression of women. In that post, I quoted an eighteenth-century English visitor to Turkey who experienced an ironic reversal of this oppression: she was the one who was being seen as oppressed by her Turkish hosts.

In this post, we move forward one century, to 1842 Constantinople, or Istanbul. In that year, the Austrian traveller Ida Pfeiffer made a remarkable solo journey to Jerusalem, one that she had to work hard to defend to worried compatriots at home. However, Pfeiffer herself was not devoid of prejudice. (And note that apart from religious contradictions, political conflict also played a role in Austrian preconceptions about the Near East: the Austrian and Ottoman empires had been waging war for centuries.) Let me illustrate this with the help of the following scene.

idapfeifferaquarel

Adolf Dauthage, Ida Pfeiffer, 1858 (portraying a later journey)

In Constantinople, Ida Pfeiffer pays a visit to a mosque where she hopes to see a show of whirling dervishes (still popular among tourists today!). Waiting for the ceremony to start, she whiles away the time in the mosque’s garden together with several hundred other, more local women.

The women are sitting in small groups, chatting and eating pastry and dried fruits. Here, as in other parts of her travel account, Pfeiffer is fascinated by the cultural practices of the veil. She notes that in this dedicated women’s court, all have removed their white veil because the space is inaccessible to men. But what really strikes Pfeiffer is that

with divine zest, the women [a]re smoking a pipe of tobacco, and on the side they are slurping from a bowl of black coffee.

In this same period, ‘respectable’ women in Christian Europe were not expected to indulge in these pleasures, even if they were not officially forbidden.

The abolitionist Ida Pfeiffer is also wary about the existence of slavery in the Near East. In the same mosque garden, Pfeiffer assesses the relation between the ‘ladies […], their children and their nurses, who are all negro-slaves.’ Yet she finds that

the fate of the slave in the house of a Muslim is far from being so oppressive, as we believe.

The ‘we’, of course, speaks to the orientalism of her imagined readers in Austria, Germany, and the rest of Christian Europe.

Sitting in the garden, she observes how well-dressed the enslaved nurses are. They

sit among the rest of the party and munch away bravely with the rest of them. Only the colour of the face distinguishes mistress from servant.

The point I want to make is not about the living conditions of enslaved women in nineteenth-century Turkey – there is hardly any telling from this text, and since all she bases herself on is ‘the colour of the face’, Pfeiffer might even be completely misinterpreting the situation. Rather, it is about the traveller’s eye.

Clearly, Ida Pfeiffer is sufficiently capable to allow her observations to override her prejudices, and sufficiently brave to publish these observations in a book at home. Not all travellers are good at these things, and certainly no one manages to keep them up all the time (this includes Pfeiffer). But in this case, Pfeiffer saw the irony of encountering a set of women – the ladies in the garden -, in a country suspected of doing nothing but harm to women, that was in some respects freer than she could ever be at home.

dauthagepfeifferfull

Pfeiffer’s skirt looks like she can lower it to hide her trousers when required.

Reise einer Wienerin in das Heilige Land can be read online. I have quoted from p. 28, with my own translation. A nineteenth-century English translation is available from the Gutenberg project.

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The hairy-women scale

Do you have hair on your face? Of course you do. All over your face. All over your body in fact. Hair is everywhere. In some places it is darker (terminal hair), and in others lighter (vellus), but there are few places on your body where it doesn’t grow, except if your skin or follicles are damaged.

And except in places where you have shaven, plucked, threaded, or burnt it off. After all, we do things to make ourselves look nice. But what’s nice? Part of the answer lies in what scientists have been telling us is nice, which is what this post is about.

The seemingly innocent activity of grooming gets less innocent when we expect everyone to do the same; when we start judging people because of their hair. It may sound silly to take such an insignificant part of a person and make it the basis of our judgment of them. But it happens all the time.

It all begins with making categories. Categories based on hair.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, European ethnographers went into the bush (!) looking for primitive people. They stripped these people naked, measured their every limb, and eventually their methods resulted in the following: the Ferriman-Gallwey score.

Ferriman and Gallwey scoring help (unknown clinical source, published on

A Ferriman-Gallwey scoring diagram (unknown clinical source, published on what-when-how.com/acp-medicine/hirsutism-part-1/)

The idea is that women’s body parts (not men’s) should be scored for terminal hair on a scale of 1 to 4. Adding up these scores tells a doctor whether a woman deviates from the standard. This is another representation:

Ferriman-Gallwey scale, modified by Hatch (1981). Published on medical-learning site http://www.e-sanitas.edu.co/Diplomados/endocrino/modulo_9/causas_hiperandrogenismo.html.

Ferriman-Gallwey scale, modified by Hatch (1981). Published on medical-learning site http://www.e-sanitas.edu.co/Diplomados/endocrino/modulo_9/causas_hiperandrogenismo.html

Black fur has crept over this ‘healthy female’ like an extraterrestrial species over Sigourney Weaver. Is it comical or disturbing?

The woman on the left, numbered ‘1’, displays only slight signs of being ‘too’ hairy.

The woman on the right is fully ‘abnormal’. She is a hirsute! (Not all parts of the body need to grade ‘4’ for this diagnosis.)

Scientists devising scales like this start out with the whole breadth of human variation (they have rightly seen that we are not all the same), but then they do two things:

  1. They put everyone in line so they seem to fit a single ‘scale’.
  2. They attach a judgment to this scale.

For the early ethnographers, people on the left end of this scale were civilised. People on the right-hand side: primitive. It was one of the many instruments Europeans had in assigning ‘races’ to people. (How about the 1922 article entitled ‘A Study of Facial Hair in the White and Negro Race’?)

But you have even more reasons to be nervous if your own hair patterns resemble a score ‘4’.

Ferriman and Gallwey were two medical doctors who took up these ethnographers’ ideas, and applied them to medicine. The Ferriman-Gallwey score is now the measure commonly used by doctors who want to assess whether a woman is not ‘too hairy’. (Other scales also exist.)

So: women with a low score: healthy, feminine women.

Women with a high score: sick, masculine women.

(It is true that certain hair-growth patterns can also be a side-effect of a health problem, but this does not need to be the case – and a lack of hair can as well. My point is that we are not dealing with a neutral diagnostic tool named ‘patterns of hair-growth’, but a morally charged classification of ‘hirsutism’ as a ‘disorder’. Ferriman and Gallwey themselves tended to the former, by the way, but they are commonly used in the latter, pathologising sense.)

Many women do in fact count as ‘hirsute’ according to these medical standards: 10, 30, even 50 % of participants in various studies, depending on how they were scored and what part of the world they were from.

I have already mentioned the racist implications of this scale. Yet it does not only simplify and moralise the differences that exist between people in different parts of the world. It also simplifies and moralises the differences between women and men. Women with hair-growth that in the European world is considered feminine, are ‘civilised’ but also ‘healthy’. Masculine women are ill. And if they don’t fix this ‘illness’, by shaving, or taking hormones, then they are inconsiderate, selfish, dirty – is the wider social opinion.

Take a look at the exaggeratedly feminine body in the second picture: no nose, broad hips, narrow waist, and a tiny mouth. (Is this perhaps how the doctors who write this medical textbook prefer to see women?) The use of such a feminine model makes her moustache and hairy legs extra freakish. She is like the bearded woman. These pictures have a rhetorical knack of juxtaposing two ‘opposites’, in order that the reader will instinctively feel this is ‘just wrong’. The first image does a more neutral job in this regard.

Calling hair on women masculine – and masculinity in women a problem – also happens in descriptions of the scoring system. The same educative website instructs the learner to compare a female patient’s hair-growth with that of the men they know (hardly an objective measure), and see whether it is ‘equivalent to an adult man’ (scoring 3 points) or even to ‘virile healthy adult men’ (4 points). What happened to sticking to commonly observable facts and identifying actual hair? Instead, writers jump to the conclusion that patients’ very identity, their femaleness, is at stake.

A moral judgment is also implicit in the many medical descriptions of hirsutism calling these women’s hair ‘excessive’.

A somewhat older study that went through the trouble of examining two thousand patients, is particularly naive about it own assumptions. It writes:

a disperse upper border of the pubic hair is only found in men and never in normal women.

In a sublime example of circular reasoning, healthy women are defined by being… ‘normal women’!

Later researchers sometimes acknowledge this problem – a little:

Determining what is an abnormal amount of terminal hair growth, and thus what is hirsutism, is difficult.

Ok: so because there is simply an enormous amount of human variation, we cannot tell what should count as abnormal. Still, these writers did not wonder whether the endeavour itself of ‘determining what is abnormal’ may therefore be flawed.

Again, there is this huge urge to put people into categories: either you are (self-contradictively) masculine and therefore primitive or ill; or you are feminine and therefore civilised and healthy.

Interviews with women show that they are up against a lot of hatred and disgust if they show to be ‘hairy’. This freakification of hair also gets formalised, for instance in the world of sports. The International Association of Athletics Federations has even used the Ferriman-Gallwey index to see if they might disqualify sportswomen from competing because of an assumed unfair advantage. Apparently, women with uncivilised amounts of hair are really men in disguise. (If they really try to fool us, why don’t they shave? For this example from sports: see the book cited below).

As medical doctors and their lay disciples continue to use grading systems such as Ferriman-Gallwey on their patients and subjects, and to diagnose them with the serious-sounding ‘disorder’ of ‘hirsutism’, they only perpetuate the idea that the hair scare is justified. They make life harder for the hairier woman, creating unnecessary anxieties and feelings of guilt. May I then be excused in deeming the following reassurance to patients a little hypocritical?

Usually, excess body hair is only a […] psychologic concern.

Thanks to Ellen Samuels for showing how hairy sexism is tied up with hairy racism, and both with ableism, in her book Fantasies of Identification (New York, 2014), chapter 9.

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China: 44640 minutes of fame

This is the third episode in a series on freedom and China. Previous posts were about the elegant carelessness I found in Chinese culture and about feeling safe: two causes of the sense of liberty I experienced while visiting the country for a month. I want to discuss a third factor here – one with less positive overtones.

Last time I spoke about anonymity. This time I’ll speak of celebrity.

The more billboards, adverts and shop-windows we saw on our journey, the clearer it became that a European look is a sign of beauty in China. A big proportion of the models promoting the clothes and jewellery, cars and real estate on sale, is of European lineage.

In other cases, I only thought they were European at first sight. On closer inspection, they had been made up to change, for instance, the shape of their eyes. Extra lines and glue create the impression of a ‘double eyelid’. Many East Asians even resort to plastic surgery to achieve this extra wrinkle. The same applies to other eye characteristics and to noses – which are supposedly prettier when they are bigger. Another technique, which we could study in detail in the sleeper trains we took, is to try make the skin whiter as well as ‘younger’ with (toxic) creams, electric devices, and old-fashioned slapping.

To a large extent, these beauty ideals show the influence of North American pop culture, and of the history of European colonialism. Some of it – such as the whiteness ideal – may also be a much older home-grown desire, based in class politics and the division between those who had to work (in the sun) and those with leisure. But a large part of this beauty ideal that we found in Chinese cities is clearly a form of racism that values a European appearance over an East Asian.

To me, these practices and desires were frankly horrid. And yet I cannot deny I benefited from them.

Throughout my stay in China, I was showered with a inordinate amount of attention. And so were my European-looking co-travellers. Some would no doubt give us attention because they were curious or sincerely interested or because they like to mock a foreign tourist. However, much of the attention we got was clearly positive and amounted to admiration. The blonder, the taller, and the bigger the nose, the better.

We posed for literally hundreds of photos; more than I have of ourselves. (I wonder what happened with them?) On one boat trip, an actual queue formed of people wanting to talk to us and take our photo. For our fellow tourists – our Chinese fellow tourists – we had become an attraction in our own right.

CelebrityinChina

We had become ‘iconic’ indeed. On the left: someone from our group. All the others in the photo: unacquainted tourists. Of course, by taking this picture, I placed myself in their company.

Shy boys and giggly girls would come up to me for a chat. At the conference, a boy confessed he was a ‘fan of both your work and you as a person’. One waitress took the trouble of asking her colleagues to write a note in English, with which she approached me after dinner. It said: can I have a photo of us together? And so on. Never in my life have I had so many girls tell me I’m beautiful. (Another thing Northwestern Europeans can learn from people in the rest in the world: how to be less skimpy in their compliments.)

There’s nothing like receiving compliments from strangers at any moment of the day, for boosting your confidence. And there’s nothing like confidence for making you smile and feel at ease. And, as one in our group remarked, the effect spirals upwards because the more you smile and feel at ease, the prettier you will be.

China’s European bias – who knows how long it is to last? – therefore added another layer to my sense of liberty there.

I had not expected to find something which I detest so deeply – privilege rooted in racism – leading me to feel so good.

True, part of the reason that large chunks of my journey made me laugh and smile, were precisely because I was aware of this ridiculous situation; because I had the feeling I had stepped into a period drama, set in the age of empire. Having grown up in the place I did, I had never encountered such ostentatious privileging in real life. The situation was overly familiar, but only from books and films, which made it almost fictional at times.

Have I now also got a taste of the dangerous attractions of real imperialism?

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Huizinga gets angry

Many feel we are living in times of crisis, and our civilisation is under threat. (Whose civilisation, by the way?) As is usual with these things, we are not the first people to have this feeling. Many – writers, priests, scholars, politicians – have voiced the same idea, in many different centuries.

The great historian Johan Huizinga was one of them. Even though he understood that the sense of a downfall was nothing new, he nevertheless thought things were fundamentally different in his day. In 1935, he published his book In the Shadow of Tomorrow (originally In de schaduwen van morgen. Een diagnose van het geestelijk lijden van onze tijd, but soon translated into English and many other languages). In it, he complained that

We are living in a possessed world. […]

almost everything which once seemed certain and sacred, has become unsteady: truth and humaneness, reason and right. […]

since recently, a mood of impending doom and the festering decay of civilisation has become general.

Johan Huizinga (unknown photographer), Fotocollectie Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst

Johan Huizinga (unknown photographer), Fotocollectie Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst

Clearly, historians are not immune to short-sightedness. Nor do they always know how to separate the important from the less important. One thing Huizinga was bothered by, was aesthetic innovation. Amongst many other things (dadaism!), he disliked cinema and the radio: for him, they could never be art but merely ‘a cheap mass product’, ‘trivial’, ‘fake’, ‘external’. Those who enjoyed them were the ‘passive’ consumers of the ‘shadow’ of something real.

drawing by Pepe Robles, CC BY-SA 4.0)

drawing by Pepe Robles, CC BY-SA 4.0

We have the benefit of hindsight of course, and for the same reason we can tell that it’s not all naivety we find in his book. For instance, Huizinga had a sharp eye for fashionable cliches. Just like about ten years ago, everything suddenly had to be ‘sustainable’ or green, in Huizinga’s day it was all about ‘life’, ‘blood’, ‘dynamic’, and, soon, he predicted, the word would be ‘existential’…

This critique by Huizinga, which in the first instance just uncovers a laughable habit, becomes more serious as he turns it into a political critique.

In the 1930s, European political discourse was suffused with the idea ‘don’t think: act’. Even if politics had never been particularly friendly anyway, strive and conquest had now become a sanctioned goal, bare and unexcused, beyond all judgement of good and evil. It was no longer considered the right thing to do, according to Huizinga, to fight against evil: it was now fine to fight against anything and anyone who was different from you – less powerful. War had become the normal state of being.

This ideology justified any act of violence, and announced the collapse of the fragile international peace that had reigned in Europe, at least, since the First World War, and the impending wolfing down of all societies by one military superpower. Obviously, Huizinga was thinking in the first place of the German state.

But Huizinga also turned to his fellow academics and researchers. In his book, he launches a sharp attack at those biological anthropologists who espoused racial theories. As he writes,

[This era] has become susceptible to a degree of nonsense, to which it had been immune for a long time.

Although clearly untenable, Huizinga explains, because these scientists assumed people to be completely determined by their birth and failed to take into account the influence of culture, racial theories nevertheless had an enormous popular appeal to Huizinga’s contemporaries, as he notices with disdain.

Jews and Germans are [both] exceptionally gifted in philosophy and in music […] This must be deemed to point to the strongly similar nature of the semitic and the germanic races. And so on, according to taste. The example is ridiculous, but not any sillier than the conclusions which are nowadays commonplace in wide circles of educated people.

To most of us nowadays all of this looks pretty obvious, but in the 1930s, reasoned racism was the order of the day (practical racism still is, of course). And, though even Huizinga did not completely escape racial thinking in his work, the following probably constituted the most important contribution he wanted to make with this book.

For he writes that even if someone ‘instinctively’ feels that certain people are different or less than they, it is their duty as ‘civilised human being’ to suppress this ‘animal-like’ thought. So quite the opposite from nurturing it with science and scholarship. The cultural crisis of the 1930s had to be averted by controlling these less-benign aspects of our nature. This was what ‘culture’ or ‘civilisation’ was all about: control. And Huizinga certainly accepted the consequences of his ideas, by clearly voicing his antifascist opinion in publications and university politics.

For Huizinga, going to the movies, racist science, and a score of other things that were completely different again, such as the supposed collapse of sexual morality, were all symptoms of the same cultural crisis. Perhaps we should be a little more discerning than Huizinga was in this matter, but equally brave.

Quotes are from pp. 1-2, 48-9, 57-9 and 68-79 of the Dutch edition (1963 reprint). Translations are mine.