Lona Goudswaard

Feb 012018


Below the front page of my newspaper yesterday evening.  It might appear strange that Dutch media would pay so much attention to a yearly and mostly rather ceremonial event in American politics. Are the Dutch that much interested in it? The answer is short: no, they aren’t. But note the first header of the article, right below the picture (which tells a whole story on its own) in bright red letters. Over the course of the past year Guus Valk has started writing almost daily columns from Washington, which are midway between straight-forward reports and op-eds, analyzing the shenanigans of  American President Donald Trump and the Republican party which he represents. It is very clear to many Dutch that whatever Trump and the GOP get up to in (one of) the most powerful countries in the world it will have great repercussions for the rest of that world. So reading about Donald Trump is of great interest to many Dutch, who in general have always shown an interest in what is happening in the rest of the world. And most of the time it makes for bewildering and hilarious reading ; so yes, that too.


State of the Union shows unprecedented division

Trumps tone was unctuous and patriotic. But his message was as always ‘America First’.


In this article, Valk again gives more of an analysis of Trump’s State of the Union than a report on the contents, places the speech within the context of the current American political climate and picks up on certain passages which are of interest to his Dutch readers. The headlines make it clear: Valk wasn’t very much impressed, neither by Trump’s mild tone when reading the script, nor by its contents, and hints at the possible writers of the speech with his use of “unctuous” in the sub header. The White House had indicated beforehand that Donald Trump would use his first official State of the Union to unite America after a year of extreme polarization, but Valk wasn’t seeing any of it.

He continues with a description of how both parties in Congress reacted to Trump’s “unifying words”

In the Chamber of the House of Representatives, where Trump made his speech, it was visible how divided the political climate is. The Republican Congressmen, to left of Trump, have abandoned their aversion to Trump. They stood up as one man again and again to applaud the president. For the first time in the history of the State of the Union, there was prolonged scanting of: ‘USA! USA! USA!’ (emphasis mine)

The Democrats sat to the right of Trump: looking away, playing with their phone, disapprovingly shaking their heads. Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House, had instructed her group not to interrupt Trump’s speech. But the hissing , growling an booing became increasingly loud especially when Trump spoke about immigration.

Valk then goes on to explain Trump’s need to reconcile both parties on ‘Dreamers’ to avoid a new closure of the government on February 8 but with the strict conditions he linked to the deal and the way he put it, it seems Trump has blown his chance:

At least as important was rhetoric, which was reminiscent of the way he depicted immigrants as criminals during his campaign. ‘For decades, open borders have ensured that drugs and gangs flew into our most vulnerable communities.‘ He also said, ‘Americans are dreamers too.’ (emphasis mine)

By summing up all the conservative results he achieved in the past year, Trump was the president as Republicans wanted him: An ordinary Republican president

No tweets, no Russia research, no war against the intelligence services and the FBI. That explained the dozens of standing ovations.

But Valk notes that Trump came up with remarkably few plans, even though a State of the Union is meant to do so. Even now, in a president’s best-prepared speech, Trump remained close to the alarmist tone that made him great, but he couldn’t deliver new plans and new inspiration to a Republican Party which is heading for a possible big defeat in the midterm elections in November.

Valk then ends with a remarkable observation:

Trump said the most interesting and most polarizing words just before he left the room. The speech was over, Trump walked to the exit, shaking hands. A Republican Congressman, Jeff Duncan, accosted him and said, ‘Just release the memo.’ A TV camera recorded the conversation.

Duncan was referring to a memo that here that has an explosive status in Washington. A Republican, Devin Nunes, is said to demonstrate in that memo that the FBI is biased against Trump. The Republicans want to release the memo, but that will almost certainly lead to a total escalation of the conflict between Trump and the FBI, and that between Democrats and Republicans. It will also endanger Robert Mueller’s Russia research.

The person who now has to decide on releasing the note is Trump himself. He has received the document and must now make a decision. He already anticipated  on that to Congressman Duncan. He said, ‘Do not worry, hundred percent.’ When he was off-script, Trump showed what his conciliatory tone was worth this evening.

Guus Valk obviously wasn’t fooled by Trump’s State of the Union, to him it was just another one of this showman’s many campaign speeches and I think many Dutch will agree with him and can’t wait for the next chapter to unfold. “New Republican Weapon: Memo” is the headline of today’s article on Trump, or rather in the parallel series : RUSSIA INVESTIGATION US

Cross-linked with Care-2 here

Oct 052017


The Las Vegas shooting this week has given rise to many discussions on gun control (again), mainly on the left side of the field, while the right side either pushes for more guns for self-defense or maintains that it is too early to talk about it and without respect for those who were killed or wounded and their families and friends (again). This isn’t the first shooting that led me to write an ‘As Seen From Afar’ about gun control, and by now there’s little left to add. All arguments have been brought to the table and have been rehashed over and over, but nothing changes. Only the number of victims increases with each mayor shooting, something I personally think was the main motivation of Stephen Paddock: to go down in history as the man who single-handedly shot and killed or wounded the most people.

Having addressed the subject in at least two earlier articles, I thought it might be interesting to show how opinion in another country is increasingly influenced by recent American events and especially by its current politics. The following article is my translation of a column in my Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, by Frits Abrahams who writes a daily column about his observations in everyday Dutch life. Sometimes these columns are funny, now and again they are very serious, every now and then about politics, occasionally about sports, always with a keen eye for the human element and lately more often about America. Like many of us in The Netherlands, Frits can’t make heads or tails of America’s thing with guns:

Again the irony of it all. Three days before the slaughter in Las Vegas by a deranged shooter, our valued country singer Douwe Bob appeared in the peaceful ‘Ilse’s Veranda’, a  television program by Dutch country singer Ilse de Lange. Douwe [had made an item because] he was fond of outlaws and the weapons that went with it.

A resident of Nashville was heard to say that in cities of this size every week someone was shot and killed, and that he himself kept at least twenty weapons at home. Wasn’t it time to have a ban on that? ‘Not really,’ he smiled, ‘the weapon is not the perpetrator’.

After that Douwe visited Charlie Haffner, the owner of America’s oldest shooting range. Don’t you  want to shoot, Douwe? Yes, please! He shot at a shooting disc on which a bear was drawn. ‘Right between the eyes!‘ whooped Douwe. ‘Everyone can appreciate a good Winchester,’ Charlie said as if he was talking about an exquisite type of wine.

Douwe had to admit that ‘it’s also double, you know’. How? ‘I know what weapons do, Charlie is a fantastic guy, but on the other hand he’s a redneck, he just went crazy.’ Rednecks once were hardworking, rebellious white laborers in rural areas, but today they are mostly associated with macho behavior, racism and violence. Whether they all are going crazy, I do not know, but at the very least they love to show how tough they are. They are mostly men, as well as most of the mass shooters. They also love country music very much, just like me.

Stephen Paddock, the mass murderer in Las Vegas, does not have the background of an authentic redneck, as he apparently has become rich in real estate. But he loved weapons and country music; again it’s ironic: he was a country fan who killed other country fans. And Paddock, like Douwe Bob’s trigger-happy Charlie, must have gone crazy. A whole lot crazier even.

But the strangest form of irony to me is that America has become so scared of violence that it actually evokes this kind of violence. ‘This is the price we pay for freedom,’ said Billy O’Reilly, the ultra-right ex-anchorman of Fox News. ‘The Second Amendment clearly states that Americans have the right to protect themselves. Including crazy people.’

So to protect himself, O’Reilly hands out weapons to madmen, who can then shoot him out of their hotel room when he dances a little to Johnny Cash’s music. Now who has been going crazy here exactly?

I no longer can wrap my head around it and that’s why I understand the consternation of the comic US talk show hosts, who realized that they should suspend their irony for a while. ‘You want to be a change-oriented president and do everything different in Washington?’, Stephen Colbert called out to Trump. ‘Prove it! Do it! I mean it! You want to make America great again? Do what the last two presidents were unable to do. Come up with judicious weapons legislation, the vast majority of the American people want it too.

‘To do nothing is cowardice,’ said Colbert, ‘to do something requires courage.’ In fact, Colbert and his colleagues are asking for moral leadership here. If comics do that, there really has to be something going on.

This article was published in NRC Handelsblad on Wednesday, October 4, 2017, page 20

Cross-posted at C2NN here

Jul 192017


Last Saturday, Australian Justine Damond (40) called 911 to alert the Minneapolis police to a possible (sexual) assault in an alley near her home. When she approached the squad car of the two attending police officers in her pajamas, she was shot in the abdomen and killed by one of the officers.

Many questions remain around the fatal shooting as neither officer had turned on his body cameras until after the shooting, nor had the squad car camera been activated, and the officer responsible for the fatal shot(s?) has not spoken with investigators of the incident yet. His partner told investigators that Ms. Damond approached the driver’s side window of the squad car immediately after he, the driver, had been startled by a loud sound near their squad car. His partner next to him in the passenger seat fired his weapon, hitting Ms. Damond through the open driver’s side window, according to his statement.

I’ve left out the names and any further background information on the two police officers, because this particular article isn’t about pointing the finger at individual officers, but to delve a little deeper into police killings in America from an Australia and Dutch point of view.

Her stepson Zach Damond, 22 understandably has an emotional point of view on what happened:

“I’m so done with all this violence, it’s so much bullshit.

“America sucks, these cops need to be trained differently and I need to move out of here.”

It is a view shared by many Australians, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull who gave an interview Wednesday to Australia’s “Today” show, shortly before the release of details from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s preliminary investigation and who voiced the outrage of many Australians:

“How can a woman out in the street in her pajamas seeking assistance from police be shot like that? It is a shocking killing.”

The Australian outrage is driven by the extremeness of the police response to a 911 call, and most of by all how common it is. As the NYT points out in a cover story Ms. Damond was one of more than 500 people shot and killed by the police in the United States this year; in fact she was one of the 547 killed to this day. Of course Australia and The Netherlands have much smaller populations than the US ( about 23 million, 17 million and 326 million respectively), but even so the difference in numbers of people killed by police is shocking.

In Australia 105 people were recorded killed by police action from 1989 – 2011, an average of a little less than 5 people per year over 22 year period. And these figures are to be trusted because reporting all incidents is obligatory, unlike the US where even fatal incidents need not be reported to a central authority.

Dutch police officers had to use their firearm 158 times last year. These included 70 warning shots and 61 cases of ‘serious fire’, including shots that struck. Those that struck weren’t necessarily on people, some were for instance fired to keep an aggressive dog from charging or put a hurt runaway cow out of its misery. In all, only 33 shooting incidents in which police officers were involved were investigated, a standard procedure into the use of service weapons when injuries or deaths are reported. Over the last 10 years Dutch police officers were responsible for an average of 3 deaths every year.

Australian media may be right when they headline “This wouldn’t have happened here”, a departure from their usual coverage of America’s frequent mass shootings which is often framed in cynicism and where “another day, another shooting in America” is a common refrain on newscasts.

Like their American colleagues Australian police officers have been given pepper spray and Tasers to help them resolve possible dangerous situations; the Dutch officers have started using Tazers in a trial this year. But the main difference between the approaches of the police forces in the different countries lies in the training polices officers get. Most American officers now receive training in assessing threats and de-escalate potentially violent situations, but the focus still lies on expecting the worst, on self-preservation and on staying “on top” or “ahead”, and that most often means using force, a lot of force. In a country where there are more guns than people, and where admittedly officers’ deepest fear is being shot, that usually also means responding with guns.

In Australia – and in the EU, I believe – police forces have a different approach:

“Here in Australia, we wouldn’t do as much officer survival training. We would have an equal amount of focus on sociology, psychology and awareness of human behavior.” (Vince Hurley, criminologist at Macquarie University in Sydney)

Given the very low number of people killed there, this is an approach that seems to work in both Australia and Holland. But to be fair, neither of these countries has its police officers working every day in fear of their lives because of the great love of guns deeply embedded within America’s culture. Holding “the right to bear arms” so dear to their hearts, American police officers and citizens are both caught up in a suffocating embrace, spiraling down to the bottom together. No matter how much psychological awareness training these officers get, if they’re scared out of their wits going to a call, they’ll shoot first and assess later, as Justine Damond had to learn in such a terrible way.

Cross-liked with care2

Mar 172017


In this more personal As Seen From Afar I’d like to put the perspective upside-down and try to explain the results of this week’s election to those who have followed it from afar, worried that the Dutch might end up with ‘another Trump’ by voting for populist Geert Wilders of the Party voor de Vrijheid (PVV), lit. Party for the Freedom.

First of all, let me explain why it was very unlikely the Dutch would end up with a second Trump, and to do so I have to delve into the history and rules of our election system a bit, so bear with me for a moment.

One major difference between the American and the Dutch system is that officially our head of state is our King so we do not elect a President as head of state; our head of government is the Prime Minister, or Premier, who also isn’t directly elected. We have a parliament, which consists of two chambers and of which the Second Chamber, or Lower House, is the basis for a government. It has 150 seats, which are filled through elections using a party-list proportional representation: all votes are equal and every vote counts as one.

So far,  so good, as we say. After the elections, usually the leader of the party that “wins” the election, i.e. most seats in the 2nd Chamber, also gets to have a go at forming a government. If he (until now it has always been a ‘he’) succeeds, that person becomes the Premier, the head of government. Of course the Premier has little or no power/authority compared to an American president: no presidential decrees. Appointing ministers in the Premier’s cabinet is usually a complex game between his party and others.

You may have noticed I used a lot of ‘usually’ and quotes, and that brings me to the second reason why Wilders could not have become the Dutch Trump. As described above, the 2nd Chamber has 150 seats, to be filled by all the fractions that get enough votes to fill one or more seats. But here’s the rub: this year there were 28 parties to choose from and of those 13 made it into the 2nd Chamber. This means that seats are scattered among parties and a majority government can only be formed by forming a coalition, as usual.

2 3 do 16 mrt. 2017 NRC Handelsblad NRC Digitale editie

2 3 do 16 mrt. 2017 NRC Handelsblad NRC Digitale editie

The graphic above has Dutch text, but I’ve added it to give you an idea of how elections have developed in the Netherlands from 1959 onwards and to illustrate why the Dutch were not as alarmed about the prospect of a Premier Wilders. The top graph represents all fractions and their seats in the past three elections, the red-barred graph on the left the number of fractions since ’59 and the one below the minimal number of fractions needed to form a coalition since then.

Foreign reports on the issue often portrayed the election as a fight between the Geert Wilders and the Premier at the time, Mark Rutte (VVD), where in fact is was Wilders against 27 other parties. With our tradition of coalition governments not one Dutchman expected a Canadian Trudeau-effect of a majority win, not even Wilders himself I should think. He could of course have become the largest party, and before the campaigns started that seemed a reasonable possibility. But it’s effects were further countered by all major parties promising to decline to form a coalition government with the PVV, denying Wilders the possibility of ever becoming a Premier.

2015-03-17 22:40:37 DEN HAAG – VV-fraction leader Geert Wilders (L) en Premier Mark Rutte after a debate

Trump’s election success in November 2016, which undoubtedly greatly influenced Wilders’ polling numbers, pushing him beyond that of Mark Rutte’s VVD, had made Wilders very cocky, crowning himself Premier even before the election campaigns were anywhere in sight. He adopted a lot of Trump’s rhetoric and communicated a lot through tweets and bullied some of the press. But as Trump’s star started to fade when he took office this year, so did Wilders’.

Wilders was responsible for most of his own decline. During the campaigns he was conspicuous by his absence; he didn’t join in the debates where more parties were present except for the last  debate between Rutte and himself only, he did few rallies – perhaps cautious because his earlier conviction for insulting a group of people and enticement to discriminate, and he had little contact with his base, which he could partly attribute to failing security measures. He was asked to release his party program, like all other parties do, but could offer no more than one sheet of paper with a few bullet points and a few [to be filled in later]s, but no plans whatsoever and ending with a damning “etcetera“. By election time Wilder’s polling numbers had come down already, and even though our own media tried to whip up a bit more tension by referring to the “forgotten voters”, Trump and Brexit, that never resulted in the anxiety felt across our borders.

So, with a poll attendance of over 80% – no, the Dutch have not all turned away from politics – Rutte’s VVD has lost seats but has come out on top with 33 seats, and Wilders has won 5 seats but hasn’t matched his peak of 2010 of 24 seats with only 20 now. Rutte is expected to form a new government, Rutte III, together with numbers three and four.

So is all well now in The Netherlands? In my opinion, not really. While populist Wilders may seem to be slowly on his way out, quite a few new right-wing populist have taken his place by way of Denk (3 seats, popular among Turkish-Dutch), Forum van Thierry Baudet (2 seats, popular among Alt-Right), and 50Plus has doubled in size (4 seats, popular among the elderly). Labour has been annihilated, while the CDA, a Christian coalition, had chosen to aggressively fill the nationalistic and anti-Islam shoes that Wilders had failed to fill in debates and thus has managed to resurface and to become the third-largest party after Rutte’s VVD and Wilders’ PVV. Rutte’s party is called a liberal party in Europe, which is not to be confused with American liberals; the VVD sits firmly on the right of the political spectrum and has been responsible for the austerity that nearly bled us dry in the past. In all likelihood the new government will consist of right wing VVD and CDA and centrum party D66 with an additional small party to obtain a majority, which will be a further shift to the right, while at the same time it has to govern with an unruly opposition of a diversity of Social Democrats and populist parties.

Feb 042017

Two weeks ago Dutch late night show presenter Arjen Lubach looked back on the week and made note of Donald Trump’s the inauguration speech. Especially Trump’s often  repeated “From this day forward it’s going to be only America first” made a big impression on comedian Arjen. He understood that the Dutch would be better off if they stayed on friendly terms with president Trump and to that end had made a video to introduce the Netherlands in a way the American president could relate to,  and perhaps be persuaded by to make The Netherlands second in his deliberations.

This video went viral within days, especially in Europe, but it has also crossed the Atlantic and has been also shared on C2NN. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can do so in the following subtitled clip from Arjen Lubach’s show.

The video made such an impact that Jan Böhmermann, who has a very similar late night show on German television made a video in which Germany introduces itself to Trump and askes to be considered second. But Böhmermann has taken things one step further. As he explains”, al great late night TV shows across the world are linked by a network of red telephones, which never have been used before, but now are used to ask the shows in every European country to make an introduction of their own country to Trump and air it in the coming weeks. So far 9 more countries, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Lithuania, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Estonia and Iceland, have said they will join in and the video’s that have been aired so far have been gathered at a site called everysecondcounts.eu which has “Come to EU. It’s huge. It’s the greatest EU in the world!” as it’s subtitle. It’s a the site is easy to use and clickable even with small hands.

The following is a clip of Böhmermann’s show in which he introduces the concept of introductory video’s for Trump. Germany’s video contribution starts at the 1:47 mark and lasts up to 4:52.

I can’t embed all of the You Tube videos here, so I’ll just give you the shortest ones made by Belgium and Switserland, but if you have time this weekend I can certainly recommend Lithuania’s and Portugal’s contributions.

For me a very strong asset of all these videos is that none of the makers have shied away from pointing out some (very) unpleasant aspects of their own society, either in history or presently, and mocking them by turning them into “selling points” to Trump.

Böhmermann stresses at the end of his show that Trump should be proud: “When the whole world stands up to make fun of you, president Trump, you have achieved something that is truly great”. He certainly has a point there; until now it has been virtually impossible to unite European countries on any issue, but the first two weeks of Trump’s presidency has done the impossible, at least where comedy is concerned. However there are also encouraging signs within the EU, which needs to find a new footing and some new form of unity as quickly as possible and stand on its own two feet. So thank you for that, America.


Cross-posted at http://www.care2.com/news/member/211280220/4034796