The recent elections in the Netherlands ended with a surprising result - at least for many academics. How could this happen? And why, despite all our efforts, are people not seeing eye to eye with us on what is best for them? In his latest blogpost Martin de Jong has to blow off some steam, but not only targeted towards people who voted for Geert Wilders, but also us, the so-called elite.
The blond party pooper
‘35! 35! I cannot believe my own eyes!’, said Geert one fatal evening that many of us will remember for a long time. But he was underestimating his own success. His political party ended up with no less than 37 seats in Dutch Second Chamber of Parliament. A firm and undeniable quarter of the national vote. Nobody saw it coming. The world of reason shook its head in disbelief. I personally shed a few tears when my bi-national daughters compelled me to address their personal concerns as to what the outcome meant in practice to their future lives. French colleagues around me gave a soft smile of compassion and nodded: ‘It is alright, poor man, we will not blame you: we have his soulmate Marine Le Pen hiding behind the curtains ready to take power any moment. We know what you must be feeling now and will refrain from asking obnoxious questions.’ At any rate, celebrating Christmas 2023 feels different than before and proudly judging the ignorant from our moral high ground has become a little less comfortable than it was before.
Back to the moral stone age
The existence of us as a reasonable, responsible, and well-educated elite has been shaken to its very foundations. How could this happen? How can those others reject our incontrovertible scientific wisdom and fail to embrace our recipes for planetary survival and societal progress? In short, how can many such voters be so backward as to vote for peroxide in power and plunge the nation back into some moral stone age? Could this even be the return of a new Nazi era? We have empirical evidence on our side. Climate change is really happening and requires urgent action. Children of color systematically get worse school advice and affirmative action is necessary to close that nasty gap. Women leaders have repeatedly shown to have much higher levels of human empathy and avoid engaging in devastating and useless wars. Refugees are humans like us and deserve a warm shower and a clean towel upon arrival at Ter Apel, not cold, soaked grassland to sleep on for the night. We told them so many times, and we believed they had at last grasped our message. And now this! What on earth is wrong with these people?
Mind you, we are constantly giving countless valid examples of how progressive we are. Let us briefly recapitulate five of them just to be sure:
A friendly auditorium
We attend international academic conferences in other European cities and wherever we go we find the touting of inclusion and diversity. The atmosphere is extremely polite and civilized. Participants are kind and friendly and tolerant to each other. Rarely if ever is there any mentioning of rising political dissensus and dissatisfaction in society and luckily in the end there is always the hope that the natural environment can be saved and that it is still not yet too late if only we had taken action yesterday. Unfortunately, a vast majority of the participants drink water from plastic bottles and the only black person in the vast auditorium is the one sitting on the panel down below discussing the merits of diversity. What are we trying to tell ourselves? That we are leaders in ethnic diversity with lessons to tell the rest of humanity? That we are entitled to label our opponents as racists?
We occasionally read posts on LinkedIn claiming that ‘The future shall be female.’ Many women give likes and add excited comments that gender justice is coming. The number of male likes is distinctly lower, but not zero. An overly reflective soul inserts a statement that talent should prevail over gender in recruitment but gets booed to the margins.
A poorly informed external observer might have been surprised that no male academics protest against feminist labor policies that potentially put their own career paths in jeopardy. Do they simply agree with it? Are they afraid to express politically incorrect opinions as the Minister of Education assumes and fears?
A male professor next to me pays heed to the collage of photos on the wall in the main building with all female all white professors and murmurs in my ear: ‘Is this diversity?’. Luckily it is an irresponsible whisper nobody else can hear. We are leaders in gender equality and we know it. If only those simple working-class males also realized they should not be beating up their wives every day…
Not that long ago we witnessed the proud opening of our Erasmus campus rainbow path. Not that homosexuality, non-binariness, and other forms of identity deviation had ever been called into question in Rotterdam during the past decade, but it was delightful that a colorful main access walk explicitly demonstrated the institution’s adherence to this essential diversity principle and forced those inclined to more reticent attitudes on the matter to follow suit. It is a pity that the paint has grown a little smudgy over time, but let us repaint and reconfirm to everybody what the unambiguously correct course of ethical development is. While marching over it, some in their twenties confess that they must come to terms with the fact that they are ‘only’ straight and have nothing exciting to tell, while the much rarer non-binaries get all the social media attention. Luckily, we offer all the possible space for those who are special and have the courage to express it. We are leaders in gender diversity and regardless of faith we expect the rest of the world to share that same feeling and show that as openly as possible. Dare to be different!
Deadly language is silver, deadly action is gold
Every now and then military conflict breaks out. Academics feel sorry when democratic Ukraine is invaded by totalitarian Russia, but truly end up in shock when Hamas terrorists slaughter and kidnap residents of kibbutzim and party ravers in the Negev desert. Fortunately, we never distinguish or discriminate by race or religion and always emphasize moderation and peace in times of political conflict. We find phrases such as ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free’ by minority groups of color reprehensible because they invoke violence. We are firm defenders of the freedom of expression, but such inflammatory language is totally unacceptable and people expressing it risk losing their jobs. However, if the opposing government with well-trained soldiers whose skin color resembles our own in fact really implement such phrases as standard military and police action and does so with remarkable swiftness and effectiveness, we politely beg for restraint. Good job, European intelligentsia. We surely have a strong track record on ethnic equality! The application of double standards is a stranger to us, and our minorities know it. Not endorsing Israeli policies automatically turns anybody into an anti-Semite, does it not?
How young law-makers break the law
All of sudden they came. Many students and some teachers, to occupy our buildings demanding the end of fossil fuel in university policy and financial investment. The leadership shivered with fear and based on the assumption that professional demonstrators capable of imminent violence were on their way to the campus, they called the mobile police forces to drag them away in handcuffs. Realizing though that the not so law-abiding activists at Erasmus School of Law had scientific evidence and public opinion on their side they organized a round of democratic discussions among the ecologically initiated and eventually declared the state of environmental emergency. How representative these well-trained groups of the wider academic community were we will never know. And whether their overall ecological footprint per capita is systematically lower than that of the rest of the population is far from certain. For the time being, most of us still own cars and are regularly spotted at Schiphol airport to give talks abroad for the benefit of society.
Time for new proclaimers
Maybe it is understandable that we academics do not understand that the rest of the population does not understand us. After all, we are simply right, are we not? Maybe it can be justified that we feel revulsion at what the semi-legal far right social media channels have to say on fallen citizens cancelling their social contract with the government. We know this is legal nonsense, do we not?
It is uncanny, but the world has changed, and lately nothing seems to be in its right place anymore. The well-off (but not the very well-off) vote left and the underprivileged vote for the (far) right. Solving most serious societal problems nowadays in fact does require leadership from social democrats to close growing gaps in wealth and income in European societies. If they had developed decent and convincing discourses such as proclaiming high taxation levels for multi-national companies and the upper echelons of society paired with sufficient action to build housing for the bottom 70% of the electorate, they could have taken that role. No such thing happened, and they only recently awoke from their comfortable neo-liberal daydreaming. Addressing environmental concerns does justify green parties to promote dramatic reductions in fuel production and consumption and enact vigorous waste policies, but only few of them showed us the way by making personal lifestyle sacrifices.
Towards a more useful and respectful progressive discourse in 2024
Psychologists can tell us that people who set attractive examples themselves without downplaying the performance of others invite more admiration than those who relentlessly admonish less fervent others that they have it all wrong again. Moral conservatives or devoted religious believers disputing gender diversity and ethnic equality need to be countered, but before we can count on the former not to vote for Wilders and the latter to stand behind Timmermans, we first need to become conversant with the issues that drive their thoughts and choices, and what doubtful (to us) rhetoric exerts bad influence (in our eyes) on them. Genuine communication is the name of the game. We dislike the social media they use, the friends they make and the debates they have amongst themselves. But can we afford that? Can we really take the freedom to guess their basic needs for them in the policymaking process? Have we done enough to make them feel valued even if they have (no) degrees from vocational schools, fix our elevators, or shower our grandparents? To change them, we need to change. We need to do better next year to forestall our own political demise and end up losing control over our own social lives. That is no longer a luxury, it has become a practical imperative. Something to consider in our cozy family bubble under the Christmas tree (assuming we still think we should have one). Cheers!