A Wider Gaze

This post has been a long time in coming, but as is so often the case with writing I needed a good place to begin.  I got it in an email, oddly enough, about topics for a choral program we’re going to be launching— one of the most ambitious programs I have ever been involved in.  In trying to inspire us to think about topics we want to bring to composers we are hoping to engage to write music for our 50th anniversary concert, a list of ideas was sent around, and in that list is a visible rendering of the deepest cultural divides between the United States and the rest of the world that is somewhat or even mostly “capitalist” in nature.

When I moved to the Netherlands, people back in the United States wanted to hear about what is most different about the two cultures.  Part of the problem of answering such a question is that culture itself is so broad.  So the Dutch speak different languages, but Amsterdam is basically a bilingual city: Dutch and English.  Their musical traditions look very different to ours, but the Pop music in every store is American.  Their houses are smaller to conserve space, but their parks in the cities are enormous compared to American parks.  They dress only moderately differently than Americans do, except that they’d never be caught dead outside their home in something like sweatpants or yoga pants.  Five years ago no one wore shorts here, now it’s common to see women and men in the summer donning shorts.  One could go on forever about the ways the Netherlands and the US differ, but perhaps the largest difference I would have to name came in that email: the world-view of a Dutch person is nothing like the world-view of a US citizen.

The theme for our second concert (the overarching theme) in 2018 is “Looking Forwards” (and I’m translating all of that, of course, because the texts and ideas for this are all in Dutch because this is a Dutch choir).  Among the ideas we want to use for commissioning pieces are themes important to the adults of 2017/2018, and the issues they believe the world will have to face together in the next 50 years.  One of our team members drew these inspirations from Yuval Noah Harari’s famous book Homo Deus.

  • What will humanity’s agenda be now that hunger, disease, and war are no longer the perennial foes of our lives?
  • Will we be satisfied with our lives and what humanity has achieved while holding the ecological world in balance against what humankind needs to survive?
  • Or will we seek to overthrow Death in creating cyborg bodies that can be replaced or repaired as we age?
  • Or will we live under a giant net of interlocking intelligence systems that predict our every move from sunrise to sunset, and which, in so predicting, will forecast for us how we should think and feel about given things at given times? (I would make the argument that this is already largely a reality that will only solidify further in the next 50 years.)
  • Or will we seek biochemical solutions to unhappiness so that no human need ever suffer mentally again?

The central premise of Homo Deus is that humanity will exchange their meaningful lives for lives with power, but the search for that power (over death, unhappiness, or each other) comes at high prices and with little hope of success.

When I read this email from my colleague and then read yet another story on 45’s inability to cough up proof for his latest Twitterstorm, that was the moment I realized that Americans see the world from a fundamentally different point-of-view than a Dutch citizen.  Whereas the Dutch would never debate a woman’s decisions regarding her body or her decisions to have or not have children, this is not the case in the US.  Whereas the Dutch take for granted that the world is warming, the climate is altering, and humankind is the cause and, therefore, must also be the solution; in the United States we have members of Congress bringing snowballs into a session to remark that if the world were warming there would be no snow.  Whereas the Dutch are looking to the future, Americans are overly fond of a past that never existed.  “Make America Great Again” is such a deep signal of a pulsing enslavement to a nostalgia so divested from any historical reality that it cannot be ignored.  A human being campaigned and won on longing for a past that doesn’t exist.  Arguably, he won on several other fronts as well (Republicans who voted the party-line regardless of the candidate, gerrymandering, etc.), but that wouldn’t have been possible without a base of supporters to see him over the finish line of the primaries to become a candidate for the presidency.

And I have to wonder how many other countries in the world at this moment are more like the Netherlands or more like the United States?  Do more countries look backwards collectively into an invented history of great deeds and heroes;  or are they looking forwards into a coming reality— one which we all might join hands to shape?

The Dutch elections are approaching.  I have loved that the Dutch take their elections in a very different spirit to US elections.  The control of candidate funds, expenditures, campaigning etc. are far tighter in the Netherlands and so you do not find yourself drowning in political propaganda all day long.  I appreciate that very much.  However, I sense in the posts I do see and in the articles I read, that a collective, national soul-searching is at work here.  I get to vote for the first time as a citizen of the Netherlands.  At stake are principles the Dutch have long held dear alongside a growing fear of losing something essentially Dutch.  So I catch my colleagues, friends and neighbors throwing looks over their shoulders at a past sense of identity in a way that is much more introverted than the grotesquely nostalgic MAGA.  But I still have to wonder, as a cultural scholar, if this identity is not also a present imagination of a past reality?  Are my friends and colleagues, who so bravely turn their eyes to face the future on a regular basis, allowing their heads to be turned by a fiction being peddled by a real hate-monger?

If what Harari writes is accurate, war is exhaling its last gasping breaths, sickness no longer stalks our lives like a phantom with a vicious scythe, and famine (he makes a very compelling case about 2.1 billion humans being obese as opposed to 850 million suffering from malnutrition in 2014) is going the way of the dodo (and the polar bear).  In this scenario there are two clear options and the United States has a faction— a faction that seems to grow more loud and obnoxious with every passing day— who are going to try to live in the past that is receding behind all of humanity.  We have a president who wants to build up the army, but for a future without war.  We have a loud and vicious group of people who spread hatred against immigrants, but there was never a time in the history of the US (except for those blessed millennia when the Native Americans only had each other to contend with) without immigrant populations.  We have people who say that vaccines cause developmental problems.  Death causes severe development problems, but we can let that pass… In all seriousness, we have a group of people in the United States who stare backwards declaiming a glorious history they wish to return to which means they want to go on dealing with the problems of one hundred years ago… They talk war and death.  They defund education and healthcare, but depend on the minds and bodies of the middle and lower classes to make up their workforce!

Meanwhile much of the world has moved on.  The world examines issues of new vaccines for new diseases, boldly pursuing the ends of those diseases through medical advancement.  The world looks to the plastic in our oceans and demand solutions.  The world agrees to carbon taxes and reigniting industry in sustainable resources while the US strips away the protections of water sources, wildlife and air quality mandates.

It’s like watching Nero and his cronies laugh while putting the first match to the tinder they lined up at the base of your home.

The world-view of a European is a gaze that traces the world, its history, the effects of its politics, the paths leading into the future…

The world-view of an American is a gaze into their television or phone, searching for “information” about the pedantic story they’ve heard again and again, “war, tax cuts, tax increases, healthcare, restrictions on businesses, election cycle, war, tax cuts, tax increases, welfare, immigrant problems, election cycle, war, tax cuts, tax increases, education overhaul, abortion, election cycle, war, tax cuts, tax increases…”

How long can the American population be convinced to keep fighting about the solutions to yesterday’s problems while the world passes you by?



~ by Rebecca Erickson on March 8, 2017.

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