Double Consciousness and ​ Foreigners…Lost in Translation

Prime Minister Netherlands Foreigners

On 23rd January, the Dutch centre-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte wrote an open letter which was widely published in the national press. The Netherlands is considered by many to be one of the most tolerant countries in the European Union. An everyday example of this is the way Dutch television always inserts subtitles in non-Dutch films and television programmes, and even news items. It seems strange, however, that the Dutch have a specific word to describe foreign immigrants like myself. They use the word “allochtoon” which sounds more like a way of describing bacteria or cell cultures rather than human beings. Be that as it may, that is what they call us.

“There is something wrong with our land.” – Mark Rutte

Prime Minister Netherlands
Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of The Netherlands

The fact that something is wrong in society is not only true of the Netherlands, but can also be said of other countries such as the UK, France and the US. The results of the UK referendum on the EU and the US presidential election reflect a truly deep malfunction in our present-day Western societies. These malfunctions have not only an economic basis but from a moral point of view, we are presently at a loss. Our so-called “democratic era” is, in fact, governed by popular individualism and narcissistic demagogy carried out by present-day politicians.

“Sometimes it seems as though nobody acts normally anymore.” – Mark Rutte

What does Rutte mean by “normal”? Does it mean “according to the rules” or “not quite OK in your mind”, if you know what I mean. If normality signifies the capacity to comply with housekeeping rules, then the Dutch PM should set these rules out in his party’s forthcoming manifesto, so that foreigners like myself (and Dutch people too, for that matter) know how to behave in the Netherlands, come next March. Non-compliance with these rules should be punished and the government should have the means to enforce the regulations. Street vigils should ensure that no wastepaper is dropped or dog excrement left behind on the pavement, and should impose fines if necessary. If Rutte doesn’t want to intervene and prefers leaving it to responsible citizens to clean up the country for him, he runs the risk of witnessing the formation of vigilante groups at every street corner.

If normality refers to an individual’s state of mind, then this can be addressed from day 1 of his or her life. For the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, “existence precedes essence”. This basically means that any individual “is what he does”, and not the other way around. A simple example would be that of a spoon whose only goal in life, when made, is to function as a spoon. Humans, on the other hand, can define themselves by the choices they make and the way that they act these choices out. There exists a dynamic interaction between every individual and his environment, and within his environment he is able to act freely. Change the environment, and you have the capability to change the nature of the man.

But how can one change man’s nature? We could start by teaching philosophy and ethics to schoolchildren. France is one of the few countries to include philosophy in the graduation exam (baccalaureate). Unfortunately this comes far too late and should have begun way back in primary school.

“If you categorically reject our land, I’d rather you leave.” – Mark Rutte

Now, there was I, thinking that Mark Rutte was getting all ethical, reigniting John Major’s “back to basics” ideology in the 90’s. How wrong could I be? This is the real Rutte, the political Rutte. This letter has all the acrid smell associated with xenophobia and discrimination. This is Rutte’s attempt to close the gap on the extreme-right-wing PVV leader Geert Wilders, the man with the golden locks. Mark Rutte is the latest member of the exclusive “elite demagogues club”. The real problem is not so much what these politicians say, but how anonymous people can interpret their views and eventually act them out.

For the American human rights activist and academic William du Bois, author of “The Souls of Black Folk” in 1903, the Afro-Americans had what he described as a “double-consciousness”. This state of mind comprises a deep rooted cultural dichotomy that includes dissimilar and competing thoughts, strides and ideals. All of these mental conflicts are permanently present and together make up a permanent form of a potentially harmful consciousness.

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, the senses of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of the others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in an amused contempt and pity.” – W.E.B. du Bois, 1903

There will always be a divide based on skin colour, religious beliefs and country of origin. The fate of foreign migrants seems to be forever sealed. Or is it? The only hope is that we all come together in a liberal-multicultural society, freely admit our mistakes and shortcomings, and work together for a better future.

I’m lucky. My double-consciousness doesn’t seem to cause me problems because I have no internal or external cultural conflicts. But I do speak Dutch with an accent, and make small mistakes when I write. I’m trying to constantly improve my Dutch but I still very much prefer speaking and reading in English or French. I do love the Netherlands however, and Rutte is right when he says that “we have an exceedingly marvellous land”. As a migrant I must adapt the best I can to the way of life in this land. But my original cultural dichotomy is also exceedingly marvellous, and one thing is certain; it cannot and must not be translated.

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