Black Piets, Burqa Bans, and Radical Populism in a Kakistocracy

KakistocracyHere is a fun word that you may have come across recently: Kakistocracy. Based on the Greek word kakistos (meaning “the worst”), kakistocracy is a system of governance run by the least qualified, most “deplorable” citizens that the State has to offer. Fair or not, this term has been used in conjunction with the Brexit (as a movement that was cajoled by UKIP) or the Trump presidency (that materialized – in part – with the supposed support of the empowered radical right wing).

Kakistocracy might be a good word to have handy in our collective word bank given that we may soon bear witness to Prime Minister Wilders, President Le Pen, the rise of AfD, and depending on how the Italian referendum goes and whether Prime Minister Renzi stays, a potential Italian exit from the EU (colloquially referred to as ItaLEAVE, which would be worth a chuckle, if only the consequences for it weren’t so dire).

As a migrant worker currently living in the Netherlands, I am particularly sensitive to the growing anti-foreigner rancor being emitted by some of these emerging populist movements. My personal concerns aside, however, there is something to be said about the radicalization of this populist wave, which is the sobering realization that there is a portion of the population – in every State – that is anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner, or just anti-anyone-that-isn’t-us.

Due in part to their existence, the minorities (that of different race, ethnicity, background, creed, or sexual preference/orientation) often see themselves as the disenfranchised and the vulnerable. However, the current populist wave appears to be merging the anti-foreigner rhetoric with the somewhat more legitimate anti-establishment view. The members of this amalgamated coalition now see themselves as the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, and the neglected. In other words, the current populist uproar has commandeered the mantra of the minorities, so in short, we are more divided, no one is happy about the status quo, and in the process, we are blaming one another for our problems.

Of course this is too simple of a generalization, but nevertheless, the radical populists and their beliefs – whether justifiable or not – is worthy of further scrutiny. The purpose of this piece is not necessarily to address their acrimony towards foreigners or their animus towards the establishment, but to understand why they have taken on the narrative of the disenfranchised and how we can proceed as a society moving forward.

One possible view to explain the emergence of the radical populists (that of the anti-immigrant or the anti-establishment flavor) is to conceptualize it as a reaction or a backlash to the “politically correct” grandstanding that many governments have taken over the previous decades: In other words, the politics of inclusion that aspired to include everyone by giving all an equal voice, has created a perception problem, especially for those who already had that voice in the first place. For those not in the so-called minority, further inclusion or additions to the population meant that there were more people taking from the collective pie, and as a result, the portions that they were (supposedly) entitled to reduced.

The veracity of this perception aside, the populist uproar can be partially explained as a reaction to agendas like “one united Europe” or the so-called single market that yearned to offer equal rights, equal access, and equal freedom to all, even to those outside of their territorial borders. While these are beautiful sentiments in theory, the execution or how the establishment went about implementing their measures, undeniably created some “losers” in the process. So while the establishment was occupied looking after the needs of those who were marginalized (i.e. the disenfranchised minorities or the refugees that escaped their war-torn homelands), there were those who felt that they were being neglected. The potential lesson here being that while the establishment must listen to minority voices and protect them, it cannot simply ignore the voice of the rest in the process.

In the Netherlands, for example, there are people that like the tradition of the Zwarte Piets. However, in our socially progressive, all-inclusive society of freedom and equality, proponents of Zwarte Piets are often castigated and labelled as insensitive racists. So while the progressives may claim victory for local officials and TV stations transforming Zwarte Piets in to Schoorsteen Piets (so no longer Black Piets, but now Chimney Piets), imposing this change to people who did not want to change has created a certain reactionary backlash or a counter-movement of sorts: The creation of Schoorsteen Piets has – in a way – further emboldened some of the so-called “racists,” who are now rebelling against the establishment of inclusivity and sensitivity. Politicians like Wilders and Trump are particularly cognizant of this growing frustration and use it to rally against the establishment in the name of the “neglected people.” While the more socially conscious among us may develop allergies against Wilders supporters – shaming them and calling them fools for believing in the lies and half-promises that Wilders spews – it is important for the socially conscious to realize that there is an underlying reason why some members of our society are drawn to these dubious figures.

As it stands, however, an observation could be made that the collective attempts for the Dutch to be more sensitive about the Zwarte Piet discussion is contributing, not only to the demise of the establishment and the politics of inclusivity, but to the further polarization and increased acrimony between people of different thoughts and beliefs. Amid the swirl of grievances and resentments, what we need now more than ever, is for the opponents of Zwarte Piets to resist the urge to simply villainize and dismiss the proponents of Zwarte Piets, but choose instead to engage with them in a more civil manner. Before addressing what this would actually entail, let us observe another example of how some voices can be suppressed, supposedly for the sake of greater societal good.

The burqa ban that is being introduced across many EU Member States is another politically charged, sensitive issue. The Dutch parliament, for example, recently approved the partial burqa ban in public places like schools, hospitals, government buildings, and on public transports. While the law has yet to be approved by the Senate, the vote was approved in the House by an overwhelming majority of 132 “yes” votes (out of 150 possible votes). In a move that Wilders noted as “a step in the right direction,” if the bill is passed by the Senate, those caught wearing any article of clothing that covers the face in public places will be subject to a fine of up to €405. (The law is somewhat unclear on whether there would be an exception for people choosing to wear a mask during their Carnival celebrations, but alas). There are those that are obviously angered and frustrated by the Dutch parliament’s attempt to restrict their religious freedoms. Now, as unlikely of a coupling as it may be, consider the possible alignment of interests between those that advocate for the preservation of the Zwarte Piets and those that protest the burqa ban. Is it possible that they share a commonality in being frustrated by the somewhat paternalistic imposition of certain views and beliefs that they disagree with, but must conform to nevertheless?

To be clear, the point of this piece is not to validate the practice of Zwarte Piets or to deny that a burqa ban serves any legitimate purpose; however, it is: 1) to illustrate that when governments impose their views about sensitive matters without engaging in a more meaningful dialogue with the public – however well-intentioned – the outcome can be messy and polarizing; and 2) to note that when people are forced to defend their beliefs or practices as a result of such impositions, we start pulling and tearing ourselves apart, entrenching ourselves further into our own views, and barricading ourselves from the enemy, who just until recently were our neighbors, our colleagues, and our friends. This makes it more difficult for people of differing views to communicate with one another without evoking bitterness and spite. This fragmented and divided environment is rife for charlatans, opportunists, and kakistocrats to take advantage of and to exploit the situation, as demonstrated by the likes of Wilders and Trump rising in prominence.

In the end, freedom and tolerance are double-edged swords. If we are to enable freedom of speech and assert that every vote and every opinion matters, then we must also brace for impact, because there are indeed people in our societies who do not want equal rights for all or pay the price for collective social progress. In light of this reality, we must bear in mind that change is often incremental and requires persistence and concessions from all sides. As elections and referendums that will alter the outcome of our collective future loom near across Europe, what we need now more than ever before is to stop with the villainization and the shunning of those that we vehemently disagree with, but rather, we must muster up the fortitude and the patience to engage with them respectfully. Our commonality lies in our limitations. We do not always have the right answers, so we must be more humble and open, but above all, be more kind and compassionate, even to those that refuse to do the same for us.

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