Too tired for optimism


Never before did I watch a political debate in the middle of the night. Never before did I watch news channel Politiek24 sitting on my toilet. And never before was I so gloomy about politics.

Perhaps you’ve heard something about it. Our outgoing prime minister denied something and said, Nixon-style, “I’m not a crook.” He truly wasn’t telling a lie, he just couldn’t remember. During the thirteen-hour debate that followed, 342 details about the conversation turned up, but no active memories of parliamentarian Pieter Omtzigt. It’s as if a student plagiarizes two paragraphs in an essay, but claims not to remember having done so.

Partly thanks to Sigrid ‘New Leadership’ Kaag and ‘Time to WOP some ass’ Hoekstra, Rutte didn’t have to resign, and he might still be able to form a fourth cabinet. That may be good news to people who enjoy reading one of my more cynical columns, but we as a nation and TU/e won’t profit from this.

The previous Rutte-led cabinets - as well as those led by his predecessor Balkenende, in fact - were a kind of polder version of Ronald Reagan. Claiming that you want to save money by privatizing, after which you hunt for fraud cases (childcare allowance affair), which affects ethnic minorities and minimum wage earners disproportionally hard, while you reduce the tax burden for the wealthy.

The latter was done mostly by facilitating tax evasion for large companies: the Netherlands is in fourth place in the Tax Justice Network ranking of tax havens, after a number of islands where they don’t serve bitterballen. The number of homeless people and welfare recipients, however, has increased – and you’re not allowed to give someone a bag of groceries as a gift. And millennials who don’t own a house are still blamed for buying too many avocados.

A fourth Rutte-led cabinet is good news for those who have nothing to complain about. Fine for people who drive through the Kleine Berg in Eindhoven in their fancy car to wave to their shamelessly rich friends on the terraces outside. Fine for people with a positive home equity and with no feeling in their fingertips. And great for foreign investors.

Until recently, I quoted the Calvinist saying ‘act normal, that’s crazy enough’ whenever I wanted to describe the Dutch national character to non-Dutch natives, but that seems outmoded. When the government screws those with the lowest incomes year after year but continues to earn votes, you can’t say that most Dutch people are upset by other people’s wealth, they may even be impressed by it. Or as Rutte puts it: “COOL!”

The problem we suffer from now, is that those who are in a privileged position can make mistakes and be forgiven for it – or that they can at least pay the penalty. Although Rutte said during the debate that to make mistakes is human, it seems to have become a privilege for administrators. People who made small mistakes on their childcare benefit application were immediately accused of being a fraud. The government seems to reserve its trust exclusively for itself.

It may seem like a bit of a leap, but the Rutte policy also seeps through the way in which we have to work at TU/e. Our university staff is becoming increasingly dependent on various grants, but it seems that this is a privilege only if you’re a well-known professor: the Matthew effect of the liberal policy whereby those who are strongest get richer. The basic amount allocated to higher education is getting smaller and smaller, and financing is a privilege – for which we can’t submit a proper application since we don’t have time for it. As a result, the risk of making a mistake increases, which at our university doesn’t translate into a financial debt, but into a time debt: working overtime until you do get tenure.

Perhaps I’ve written columns that were more optimistic, but I’m too tired for that now. For years, people in Dutch higher education have had to work too hard, and now that corona has become part of our lives, we’re no longer running a marathon but a knock-out race. It’s time for a cultural shift and for something different. It seems unlikely to me that Rutte is the man who can accomplish this after eleven years, and that he will be able to restore confidence in politics. And I also don’t see him implementing the changes in education we so desperately need.

Alright, I still keep a little bit of faith, because sometimes it snows in April – and it came down hard this week.

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