Friday, 7 November 2014

Night of the UN

This Sunday – All Souls’ Day – the weather was lovely, so I cycled to Amsterdam and back, 70 km or so (including my clueless circling northwest of Central Station). During the ride I thought about a new painting of Christ’s Descent into Hell, more adapted to modern tastes, because I can’t think of any extant example. Instead of the medieval hall in which Christ is a serene presence (as if He owned the place!) in the midst of affrighted devils and astonished souls, Hell is a maze through which Christ is running joyfully and effortlessly, Adam and Eve and many souls behind Him, towards a broken gate beyond which light gleams. I’d love to see someone try this.

Wednesday I was in Amsterdam again. I went by train, which was better capable of finding Central Station. In the train I stood outside of the compartments, next to three teenage boys who were compulsively drinking beer (there was a six-pack on the floor) and talking. One of them was talking about the night he spent with a girl, who had gone to work in the morning and entrusted the room to him. While she was dressing he had taken a picture with his phone, which he promised to send to his friend via Snapchat. (I recall that this app shows pictures only for a few seconds…unless the other user has additional retentive software, of course.)

Later on they started talking about study. One of them was thinking about becoming a physiotherapist. A middle-aged lady spoke up and warned him against it: no jobs there. One of the teens, I believe the picture-snapper himself, remembered that he had talked to her before, and in what circumstances, and what she had said. He acted quite politely towards the woman. I marvelled at my strange compatriots.

In Amsterdam I walked to ‘De Rode Hoed’ (The Red Hat), where the Night of the UN was being held. Politics is not really one of my interests, but elections were being held for Dutch youth representatives at the UN: one general, the other focusing on sustainable development. Two candidates were vying for each position. An RA friend of mine, Soscha, was one of the sustainables. Therefore I went, skipping dinner, because Facebook had told me to be in time.

I arrived around 15 minutes after the beginning to a large queue that wound around the corner of the block. 450 people were allowed inside; after that, people could only get in when others left. The queue was still moving. I moved with it, until it stopped. I was close to the doors. Behind me more people had arrived; I think there were still some around the corner, where I had started.

Retrieving a small sci-fi paperback from my backpack, I resigned myself to waiting. The minutes went by; Soscha held her speech at the beginning of the evening. My eyes were reading and my ears were listening to a young man with an open, honest face and a beard. He was talking about Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), the servant of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas, aka the real Santa Claus) who comes to bring presents and candy on 5 December. To the puzzlement of our Belgian philosophy professor, many of the Dutch are now arguing that Zwarte Piet is racist, and the case has been brought to international venues (I think the UN). In retaliation, aggrieved traditional orangenecks have been wishing death and exile on the anti-Piet brigade. I marvel at my strange compatriots.

The open-faced young man was exhibiting empathy for the orangenecks. He was saying that no matter how much they should be disagreed with, their convictions were founded on experience and deeply held. Behind them were stories of grief, disappointment and hurt. Listening to those was more interesting than judging and countering their faulty arguments.

I marvelled with reverence.

Sometime after eight, Soscha came outside to smoke. She started talking to a few friends, including (I should have known) the honest young man, she saw me, showed surprise, gave me a hug. She told us she did not expect to win and had felt thoroughly uncomfortable campaigning. Her rival had assembled a team and canvassed, whereas she had only addressed her own networks. She had felt uncomfortable because, in telling people to vote for her, she had given her network only her side of the story and not her rival’s. This did not seem democratic to her. ‘Isn’t that how it usually works in democracy?’ I said. ‘Yeah,’ said the young man, ‘I’m anti-democratic in that sense.’ (Marvel on marvel.)

Soscha said she was allowed to take two people inside. Some of her connections, including the young man, were still waiting for others. That left me, and an unknown young lady who had said, ‘Hey, if you take me inside I’ll vote for you.’ And so I was led through the doors, feeling VIP.

On the ballot I saw that Soscha’s rival was an 18-year-old boy. I heard both of them made a good chance. The other position was contested by two people my age, a Mr. Abdullah and a boy with an ‘eij’ in his name; I figured he did not stand a chance. I considered voting for Abdullah on grounds of political correctness, then voting against him for the same reason. Conquering these temptations, I asked Soscha what to do. She said ‘eij’ was really behind; if I wanted to give him a better chance… So I voted for ‘eij’ on grounds of fairness.

I slipped into a hall where a debate on the Ukrainian situation was being held. The main editor of a major newspaper was there and some other experts, like a professor who denied that there was much support for the Russian separatist movement. One of them said that Putin was a disagreeable man; he had visited the Netherlands once, his plane had circled above Schiphol for a while because of mist, and his microphone had not worked in the conference room. At which he had asked (marvelling, I bet, at my strange compatriots), ‘Does nothing work in this country?’

A lady talked about people living in the neutral zone, who had left the Russian part of the Ukraine but had not been accepted into the Ukrainian part and could not go back, or vice versa. It was a growing problem, facilities had been built for them.

There were questions. A retired military officer asked one. Two people with the same surname. A man of non-Dutch origin who asked why they were only talking about the Ukraine and not about other problematic areas like Kurdistan. Someone else asked if they were not giving a rather one-sided anti-Russian presentation, to which the newspaper editor replied that the Russians were worse; to their state television, we were first and foremost ‘gay Europe’, a decadent and godless territory.

After the break I had wanted to go to a panel on IS, to be enlightened even further, but I ran into another familiar RA person, Gideon. We updated each other on ourselves. He was about done with his Master thesis on normative decision-making. He said people’s decisions were not usually based on reason, but it was interesting to see what they were based on.

At some point we were joined by Soscha and Lorenzo, an Italian who was very interested in sustainable development, not to protect the earth (as if we were separate from it) but to return to a more original sense of unity with nature. Friendship, delight and contemplation should take the place of consumerism; but sustainable development was often more focused on preserving consumerist possibilities through time. He and Gideon talked about socialist Latin American countries like Uruguay, who were doing the right things, thinking of setting up a South American Federation on the EU model, showing ‘counter-hegemonic’ tendencies (Gideon’s word). I was out of my depth here, so I just listened, wondering how other people managed to accumulate such a broad knowledge of international politics.

Soscha talked about her active life campaigning against fossil fuels. I asked, from curious ignorance, what was wrong with those. Much in every way. There seemed to be a threat that Shell would start drilling in Antarctica next year and do irreparable damage. (Maybe Socrates was right in Republic II and we should all go back to salt, acorns and figs. Our desires outstrip our needs.) There was mention of climate change deniers. ‘I think we should crucify those people,’ Gideon said. ‘Publicly,’ he added. Soscha agreed. I marvelled.

First something else became public: the voting results. We filed into the hall. Soscha was sure she had lost, but she did not mind; she could join an NGO and earn more money for less work. She just thought it was a pity that her rival probably wouldn’t put in the effort required.

When we were all seated, there was a careful orchestration of suspense, as the retiring representatives (one on Skype, one present) were asked a few questions before they could name their successors. Then the new representative for sustainable development was announced. It was Soscha. And she was stunned.

Gideon and I clapped, laughed and grinned broadly. ‘Now she has to work hard for less money,’ I said, and he laughed even more. Mr. Abdullah gained the position of Dutch youth representative; its prior occupant wore a headscarf.

We made our way up to the stage. Soscha was holding flowers, being congratulated, in tears. Gideon and I were happy. Then we both drank wine (I forgot my change, but Gideon brought it) and talked about Dutch priests-in-formation, the (de)merits of Christian mission in the past, and the Catholic vision of sexuality. We parted ways, agreeing to meet again soon.

Though I had missed dinner, I was not hungry, being full of the wine of pride and joy. I took the train from Amsterdam to Haarlem, praying the Office of Readings. There I had to wait for 27 minutes. Faced with the prospect of spending half an hour in a chilly station on a November night, I went to Burger King and ordered an X-tra Long Chili Cheese, proving to my own (dis?)satisfaction that I also was unable to distinguish needs from desires. On the plus side, the yellow stuff on the hamburgers may have been cheese.