When people all over the world think of an old white guy with a big white beard, they think of Santa Claus. That doesn’t go for everyone, though: in the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands), there is “Sinterklaas”, a very similar tradition that is celebrated in early December. One difference that has become rather vital in recent years is that Sinterklaas isn’t assisted by elves, but instead, by “Black Pete.” Depending on your point of view, these Black Petes are either helpers whose face has become black from the soot of chimneys, or they’re black slaves in the service of Sinterklaas, a difference in opinion that has truly reached boiling point throughout all of the Netherlands, actually inciting violence as well as blatant racism. But the discussion itself isn’t what’s interesting. What’s interesting is what it says about politics.
The discussion comes down to two possible points of view: either people feel like the entire tradition is racist and should be changed/done away with, or they believe it is not racist, that people are making a fuss over nothing, and that there are many traditions elsewhere that are much worse. This makes it a very sensitive topic, because it pits feelings of discrimination against an age-old tradition, which are both topics that can incite some of the strongest feelings possible. Particularly, it incites emotion: tradition and childhood are emotion, and discrimination is emotion.
Politics, on the other hand, is rationality, or at least in its ideal form. So, what’s the rational view of the debate? What do the politicians say? Well, nothing, really…
Despite the fact that everyone in the country has an opinion on the issue, despite the fact that it has been making headlines for years and that especially this year, the discussion began months in advance of the actual celebration, politicians don’t dare to take a stance on the issue. Dutch president Mark Rutte, at one point, tried to very carefully state something in favour of the tradition, and that immediately caused such a backlash that no politician other than the radical ones would be willing to risk sharing their opinion. After all, we live in a democracy, and in this case, that means that no matter what you say, you’ll be creating a whole lot of enemies while barely creating any supporters.
While on the one hand this shows one of the most fundamental flaws in representative democracy, paradoxically enough, at the same time it also shows the absolute necessity for a democratic system to be representative, rather than being a direct democracy. After all, one thing is clear: the people cannot come to a solution. They have been trying for years, but all the debate has led to is a whole lot of anger and extreme radicalisation. People have become more racist as well as anti-racist, and they have become even more fierce in their opinions. The point of negotiation is long gone: while a few years ago many of the current pro-Black Pete supporters might have been okay with some alterations, principles have now taken over. People who are neutral have become rare, instead creating even more disparity, basically dividing the entire country into two well-defined groups.
In short, our greatest criticism of our governments, namely their ability/vulnerability to compromise, has turned out to in fact be their greatest strength. We hate politicians who compromise, who don’t stand by their point of view. Every election we time and time again look for that politician who won’t back down, who will stand by their principles, and every time they fail us. But here is why: because they have to. Because it’s the best for everyone when they do.
We don’t need strong politicians. Strong politicians in the way we imagine and desire them would make democracy impossible in the same way as a solution to the Black Pete discussion in the Netherlands has become impossible. What we need instead are politicians who are able to compromise, who are willing to let go of something they promised to their voters if it means being able to reach consensus. What we need, in the words of the typical critic of politicians, are “lying and spineless” politicians, because only then can a democracy actually exist. Without them, that democracy would be reduced to indecisive chaos and a complete failure to come to any meaningful decisions.
Don’t forget to rate/share/like this post, and if you have any thoughts of your own, please do leave them in the comments! And if you’re new here? Feel free to like the Facebook page for regular updates, or try having a look at the list of most popular posts!
More on related topics by Dean Richards: