A head with the back half dissolving on a pink and brown background.

A Europe With Two Faces

In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas traditionally gives presents to children on the eve of 6th December. Along for the ride: his black helpers, who are the cause of a cultural dispute that raises more fundamental questions on behalf of other European countries.

No folklore character has stirred a Dutch national debate as fiery as Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), the coloured servant of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas). Every year he is a source of controversy, but in 2014 he was the object of genuine societal and political turmoil. Let us first describe this ‘invented tradition’ that has split Dutch society. Then, we’ll draw a broader picture and shed some light on the way Europe nowadays deals with its cultural heritage and outside influences on it.

What is the Dutch discussion about Zwarte Piet all about? The Dutch celebrate the birthday of Sinterklaas on its eve, the 5th of December. According to tradition, every year in the month of November Sinterklaas arrives from his hideout in Spain by steamboat. He is accompanied by a bunch of helpers called Black Peter, all dressed in Renaissance garb, with black faces, afro curls, earrings, and bright-red lipstick. In the days leading to the big celebration, Sinterklaas rides above the rooftops, which one of the Black Peters will climb down.

If a child has been good, Black Peter will put a little present in the shoe the child has placed near the chimney (or central heating, in these modern times). The little ones receive bigger presents, usually accompanied by a poem, on the eve of the Saint’s birthday.

Sinterklaas is the namesake of Santa Claus, who is toned down from the original and sports no religious signs and coloured helpers. In December, Dutch kids are in for a treat: most families welcome the more commercialised ‘Ho Ho Ho’ character as well, but usually leave out the fiction that he is the giver of presents. In contrast, even the Dutch television news presents Sinterklaas’ actions as if the holy philanthropist exists for real. The travesty is taken much further than in Belgium, for example, whose Sinterklaas is for children only and politically much less sensitive.

Songs about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are old-fashioned. In the mid-1800s the current tradition took its present form, greatly influenced by a book by former teacher Jan Schenkman, who came up with a blackamoor servant to the Saint. The current practice for children is to sing: ‘Sinterklaasje, enter with your servant’, and ‘Although I am black as soot, I mean well’. Not very politically correct, one might argue.

It's a Tradition

Hardly anybody (yet?) has taken exception to the fact Sinterklaas is a white male with ostentatious religious symbols – he wears a bishop’s attire, complete with mitre and staff. The appearance of Zwarte Piet, however, has aroused its share of controversy.

Although i am as black as soot, I mean well.

‘Zwarte Piet is racism’, read a placard by a protester in 2013 when Sinterklaas came into town, upon which he was promptly arrested and, shortly after, released with apologies. In 2014, the discussion exploded and the Netherlands split into two camps: one saying the tradition must be altered to make it more politically correct, the other saying that it must be preserved as it is: ‘It’s not political, it’s just a celebration for kids’, people say, or more conservatively: ‘It’s a tradition!’

The English comedian Russell Brand has called it a ‘colonial hangover’. That sounds very near the mark, since the publication of Jan Schenkman’s book coincided with the heyday of Dutch colonialism. It was only 10 years before slavery was finally abolished in Suriname, then a Dutch colony. But, as with real hangovers, some suffer with them more than others. The Surinam and Antillean communities are generally in favour of adapting Zwarte Piet, as are many progressive Dutch ‘aboriginals’ from the big cities, whereas people in the provinces generally want to keep the tradition as it is. We find ourselves caught between a rock and a hard place.

The solutions offered to solve the dilemma – rainbow Zwarte Pieten, and the like – all feel awkwardly artificial. Society is full of rituals and traditions that can trace their origins back to a disreputable past; simply purging them only makes us forget, rather than deal with this past. Yet the traditionalist camp’s arguments are not very appealing either. They sound conservative, even xenophobic and populist. Some people go as far as to reproach the reformist camp saying: ‘You want to steal away our childhood!’

This latter remark is as absurd as it is interesting. How on earth can people feel the evolution of a tradition is a violation of their memories?

The Progression of Time

It seems the Dutch populace has become like the double-faced Roman god Janus, with one face looking behind and one looking forward. Janus is the god of innovation and transitions, as well as of war and peace. After all, any conflict invariably leads to a new situation in the future and never to a full restoration of the past. Such is the nature of the progression of time, and seen in that light, the conservatives have bad luck. All traditions, no matter how old, are firmly embedded in their present-day interpretation and social realities.

The signs of the times have even left their mark on Zwarte Piet over the last decades. From a fearsome character whose task it was to birch naughty children or to put them in a burlap sack and take them back to Spain, he has evolved into a playful character that slightly undermines Sinterklaas’ authority and that children can easily relate to and identify with.

All traditions, no matter how old, are firmly embedded in their present-day interpretation and social realities.

For the first time, the discussion about the so-called racism of Zwarte Piet has gone truly viral. Modern technology has multiplied the resonance of the arguments, both in favour of and against the traditional model. Thousands of Twitter users have made their voices heard. Online petitions, in both directions, have attracted a huge following. Everybody claims to know what the celebration is all about; it seems everyone has their own private version that happens to be the only feasible model for the celebration. Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are no longer a shared ritual, but everybody’s personal property.

In this sense, the work of Walter Benjamin comes to mind. In his brilliant essay entitled “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction”, he describes how modern techniques of reproduction remove the aura of the work of art, since authenticity is no longer a crucial factor. The work of art is “pried from its shell”: uniqueness and permanence make way for transitoriness and reproducibility.

Neither Sinterklaas nor Zwarte Piet are works of art – they are traditions. However, it is interesting to look at Benjamin’s insights at a time when reproducibility is the hallmark of any cultural expression.

Even more so than in Benjamin’s time, asking for an original makes no sense at all. No photograph has an original negative anymore; authenticity is what any beholder may see in any of the various versions existing on any media. In present-day terms: artistic expressions are becoming mass-customized, like a striking photograph that goes viral as hundreds of social media addicts add their particular humorous caption. Walter Benjamin displayed true foresight back in the crisis-ridden Thirties when he said: “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable.” He maintained therefore, that given the irrelevance of the authenticity of the work of art, the link between art and tradition was broken. We would like to go further: nowadays, since no model handed down from the top of any social hierarchy can vouch for the integrity of the underlying tradition, the very tradition itself becomes a fluid concept, which anyone can claim and change. We would like to quote a key passage of Benjamin’s essay:

“The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable.” Walter Benjamin

“The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions, it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements. Their most powerful agent is the film. Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage.’

Renewal of Mankind

We are just emerging from another crisis, some eighty years later, and we’re seeing another renewal of mankind. At least three developments have gained momentum as never before.

  • First, technological advancement has changed the social fabric of our society. The speed and number of the connections between us all mean that the links between any number of people are being built and broken at the speed of light. Flexible communication and cooperation is a second nature of digital natives, the lucky ones who have been born into a world where the internet and social media were already in place.
  • Secondly, partly as a result of the former development, traditional social structures are on the brink of being shattered. Traditional, hierarchical modes of organization are giving way to flexibility and ad-hoc arrangements that can be adapted on the fly to suit emerging circumstances. Middle-managers and policy makers are tending to suffer the consequences, becoming increasingly irrelevant as horizontally organized facilitators and do-it-yourself social initiators take over.
  • Thirdly and importantly, place is becoming increasingly irrelevant. The world is a globalized marketplace and even the toughest borders are increasingly permeable. Mass immigration is a reality of the present day, as it is a must for the future.

Seen in this light, Walter Benjamin’s words can be interpreted slightly differently. What he dubbed “the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage” may well be interpreted differently as ‘destruction’. Cultural heritage is liquefied rather than liquidated: it becomes a truly fluid concept. Having lost the aura of authenticity, cultural heritage only has significance in the eye of its many beholders, that is to say, in myriad social realities.

Liquid Modernity

The philosopher Zygmunt Bauman comes to mind, the originator of the term liquid modernity. Bauman does not believe in postmodernity as a radical break from the past, but rather stresses the continuity: liquidity as an addition to existing modern relations. In light of the metaphor he uses, this seems rather odd, as the physical phase transition from a solid to a liquid is rather abrupt. Add heat to a solid and at a certain, well-defined point, the whole fabric of the substance is suddenly changed beyond recognition. The particles in a solid substance can only escape from their strict order with much force, whereas they are free to move around in a liquid.

We have described this process in relation to the meaning of Europe. The image of a fortress with clearly defined structures to defend and support it now has little relevance. Rather, Europe is a scalable concept for all to customize to their own use. As we said then:

Europe is at the same time a political structure, an artistic continent and home to a wide variety of people – a truly fluid concept.

We now want to take this a little further. We think the only successful way forward for Europe is to embrace liquidity and not try to fight against it. We will highlight three risks, but end with an opportunity.

First of all, we must beware of cultural entropy, where all unique traditions succumb to political correctness and find a common denominator that everyone can live with. If Europe were a cocktail, it should be served shaken, nor stirred. But it should be more like a B52 with its different layers of Kahlua, Baileys and Grand Marnier than a Long Island Iced Tea with its component parts firmly shaken beyond recognition.

Not all traditions should follow the example of the Parisian Moulin Rouge, which has turned itself from a seedy, maverick place for non-conformist artists and social libertines to a middle-of-the road tourist trap for the ageing bourgeoisie.

Especially on the edges of our continent, many such traditions still persist and new ones are coming in with the influx of immigrants. We should covet them, and where necessary give them the benefit of the doubt, recognizing that there is no such thing as ‘European culture’, but that many personal traditions are as much a reality as an opportunity.

A second and related risk is the politicisation of our heritage. Walter Benjamin noted that: “The instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.”

The Nazi and Communist regimes’ perspective on art in Benjamin’s day are illuminating: indeed, art became a tool of the body politic, changing at the whim of whoever was in power. In other words, it is a bad idea to completely sever the link between artistic expression and the tradition and ritual that it is based on.

We could broaden this statement to include tradition itself: allowing a tradition to become entirely self-supporting, makes it an object that any political endeavour can claim, adapt and enslave. Europe, a travesty of a national state without any of the recognisable emblems, is at risk of suffering the most. Everybody shapes Europe in their own image, and there is no original, no authentic source, to prove them wrong.

The only successful way forward for Europe is to embrace liquidity and not try to fight against it.

This leads us to call for a complement to the trend, the logical counterpart of the liquefaction of society that allows cultural heritage to remain a binding force in our social fabric: the re-embedding of traditions and culture.

What would the pan-European Zwarte Piet be like? He would, no doubt, dissolve into thin air. No amalgam of traditions around a child-friendly martyr will ever amount to anything as much fun (albeit politically incorrect) as the frolicking blackamoor assistant to Sinterklaas.

However, we must view the origins of the character in light of current realities and an understanding of our past. This tradition, which the majority of the Dutch are unwilling to give up, should be clearly annotated. Those who want the story to be told in a different, adapted version should obviously be able to do so – I am confident that children won’t mind if Zwarte Piet suddenly turns multicoloured, just like society itself has done in the last decades.

Both movements can be understood as the re-embedding of a tradition, with one foot in a better understanding of the past, and with the other in a future that we want to confront together. Reconciling both is the most difficult task of any transition – it takes at least a saint to do this, and maybe even a god such as Janus.

Alas, alas – in 2014, Europe had to say goodbye to its oldest claim to tradition, namely that it is the cradle of art. Excavations in Asia demonstrate that it wasn’t Europe that saw the first human artefacts. The silhouette of a hand on a cave wall in Sulawesi was already discovered more than half a century ago, but could only recently be accurately dated. It has been found to be 40,000 years old, almost 3,000 years older than the cave art in El Castillo in Spain, which previously held the claim to be the oldest.

A Celebration for Adults

With this realisation in mind, no tradition is safe from reinterpretation. What used to be ‘ours’ may originally turn out to be ‘theirs’. The influx of new people and new ideas may therefore turn out not to be so new after all, but a continuation and acceleration of a millennia-old process. To some it might be scary, to others enriching, but it is never easy.

As Zygmunt Bauman puts it: “Only a thin line separates enrichment from a loss of cultural identity; for cohabitation between autochthons and allochthons to be prevented from eroding cultural heritages, it therefore needs to be based on respecting the principles underlying the European ‘social contract’... The point is, by both sides”. And that social contract – not the least of European traditions – must be re-evaluated and re-embedded in current political and social realities itself.

We would like to conclude with an invented tradition that has emerged in the last decade in the Netherlands. It gained momentum when the thrifty and rigid era of reconstruction after World War II gave way to a wealthier and individualised society. In a liquid society, the opportunities for this tradition are at their height, allowing people to continually redefine themselves with regard to others.

I refer to the Sinterklaas celebration for adults, which has, much to our liking, become very fashionable. In a group of family or friends, everyone draws a lot with the name of another person from the group on it. He or she then buys a usually small present for that person and thinks of something original. Some groups choose to make a surprise (pronounced the French way), an original way to wrap the present, usually referring to character traits or hobbies of the recipient.

More importantly, the present or surprise comes with a personalised poem in the name of Sinterklaas (and sometimes Zwarte Piet as well). This poem may confront the recipient with some of their shortcomings or missteps in the past year: personal criticism from an anonymous source that the recipient is forced to read aloud during the celebration. The mockery and teasing are a source of great fun, although they are sometimes hard to swallow for the addressee.

One face [of Europe] looking respectfully at the past and the other optimistically towards the future.

Not surprisingly, this invented tradition is very popular among foreigners in the Netherlands who are keen to understand something about our frankness. We recommend it to all of Europe – it suits a mature but changing, two-faced Europe, with one face looking respectfully at the past and the other optimistically towards the future.

About the Authors
Rindert de Groot
Entrepreneur, Presenter and Storyteller

Rindert de Groot is an entrepreneur, presenter and storyteller. He founded Empowerplant, whose textual and visual productions focus on international cooperation, sustainable culture and the knowledge society. He is also a partner and researcher at Studio Zeitgeist, where he focusses on leadership, entrepreneurship and education in the liquid society. In addition, de Groot is a member of the Worldconnectors Round Table, a high-level think tank for Dutch international affairs.

Farid Tabarki
Zeitgeist and Trend Researcher

Farid Tabarki is a zeitgeist and trend researcher. As the founder of Studio Zeitgeist, he focuses on changes in society and the economy. Radical transparency, radical decentralisation and the liquid society are among the concepts he writes and speaks about. He has a column in the Dutch daily newspaper "Financieele Dagblad", he was trend researcher of the year 2012-2013 and was on the Volkskrant list of the most influential Dutch people since 2013, as the only one under 40 years old.

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