What a historic day! Big, bonecrushing hugs from all of us here at CH headquarters to everyone else on planet earth who is rejoicing at the departure of the Bush administration. There will never be a better time to post the following human rights essay and interview that our staffer Jeff Wengrofsky (aka Agent Double Oh No) has been working on for months. At Coilhouse, we’re glad to supply subject matter ranging from the utterly frivolous to the deeply involved and intense. This piece goes in the latter category. We’re honored to provide a forum for Jeff’s in-depth, thought-provoking conversation with human rights activists Suzette Brunkhorst and Ronald Eissens. We hope that their story and struggle will move some of you as much as it has moved us. ~Mer
“Human institutions appear to be the obvious and obtrusive causes of
much mischief to mankind; yet in reality, they are light and superficial
…in comparison with those deeper seated causes of impurity
that…render turbid the whole stream of human life.“
- Thomas Malthus (1798)
As membership is constitutive for a society, its conditions are routinely, if not essentially, contested. More than any other society, America has wrestled with two competing notions of membership: one based on exclusion (class until 1824, race formally until 1870 and practically until 1965, and gender until 1920) and another based on inclusion and rooted in the Declaration of Independence’s influential clause: “all…are created equal.” This quarrel over defining principles was apparent even in the drafting of the Declaration. Thomas Jefferson’s original document, later altered in a compromise, called for the abolition of slavery. Jefferson himself was in love and sired children with Sally Hemings, an African-American who was the half-sister of his wife and his slave. And so, America was born in original sin under a star of some perversion with an ever-present element of redemption. Even today, America blinks like a giant, Masonic hologram, simultaneously symbolizing and embodying our greatest hope and, in the Bush years, our greatest disappointment.
In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois declared “the color line” to be the defining issue of the 20th Century. The election of Barack Hussein Obama Jr. opens up the question as to whether the United States has begun the new century by transcending racial exclusion. Surely the America of 1903 looks little like the America of today: African-Americans are no longer its largest ethnic minority, its citizenry includes significant numbers of people who do not fit into the black-white axis, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts rendered discrimination illegal 43 years ago, Affirmative Action dates back to J.F.K., intermarriage is not unusual, Martin Luther King’s birthday is a national holiday, racial bigotry has long since fallen into disrepute in the sciences and is not tolerated in polite conversation, and even the Bush Administration had African-Americans in its cabinet. On the other hand, police departments are often charged with brutality and “stop and frisk” policies that target black youth, African-Americans continue to be overrepresented among our nation’s most impoverished and undereducated and imprisoned, and African-Americans are the victim of more hate crime than any other group in the United States.
Certainly it is very unusual for the people of any society to select a member of a minority (however understood) to its highest office and, perhaps, this event is even more profound in a country whose entire history can be understood as a long and troubled march toward the fulfillment of its inclusive promise. Can 300 years of racial difference be transcended by legislation or election? Will Americans whose biographies are not like Obama’s accept his leadership in a time of economic and ecological crisis? With the election of Obama, is the United States once again poised to provide moral leadership (as it surely did in 1776)? Is international moral leadership possible? It seems as though history itself has opened and the full range of human potential – the good, the bad, and the ugly – are all equally likely.
What is “racism”? Are all bigotries a form of racism? Is racism conceptually distinct from other forms of ethnic chauvinism? The major genocides of the past century were, aside from the Nazi extermination of the Jews, not understood in racial terms: the Turkish-Armenian genocide (1915-18), the Turkish-Greek genocide (1914-23), Stalin’s liquidation of the Kulaks (1932-33), the Japanese-Chinese genocide in Nanking (1937-38), the Nigerian-Biafran genocide (1966-1970), the Pakistani-Bangladeshi genocide (1971), the Tutsi-Hutu genocide in Burundi (1972), Pol Pot’s Cambodian purges (1975-79), the Hutu-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda (1994), and the Serb-Bosnian genocide (1992-95).
Where do these cleavages, these notions of belonging and otherness, come from? They are found in various forms in every human society. Sadly, our closest kin in the animal world also share this trait. Wars among chimpanzees and between apes have been noted by biologists since 1970. Are hatreds naturally rooted in “selfish genes”? If so, do we need unrealizable principles to inform our behavior and ground social criticism?
Is cosmopolitanism – the idea that one can be a “citizen of the world” – possible? Aren’t we always already embedded in cultural conversations, genetic inheritances, and political communities? Does anyone have arms long enough to embrace humanity as a whole? What do we do with those who return our embrace with bullets and bombs? Is cosmopolitanism an unrealistic retreat from the world as it actually is? Is cosmopolitanism a rhetorical strategy of the weak to keep the strong from winning?
Suzette Brunkhorst and Ronald Eissens.
On Thanksgiving, an American holiday whose lore bespeaks inclusion and exclusion, I sat down to discuss hate, race, and the limits of freedom in Holland, often considered among the freest places in this world, and on the internet, a transnational network, with Suzette Brunkhorst and Ronald Eissens, the Directors of the Magenta Foundation. In their own words, “Magenta is a foundation that aims to combat racism and other forms of discrimination primarily on and through the Internet.” They have organized many high profile events in the name of inclusion and understanding, and have presented reports on bigotry before the United Nations and the O.S.C.E. Undeterred in the face of many death threats, they are cosmopolitan heroes. Sadly, just one day after this interview, Suzette was diagnosed with cancer and has since gone into chemotherapy. On this day, full of hope, let’s wish her a fast and painless recovery.
(Jeff’s full interview with Suzette Brunkhorst and Ronald Eissens appears after the jump.)
Before you ask what this all has to do with “alternative culture,” the purported bailiwick of our beloved Coilhouse, you should know that Magenta has connections of distinction. In the 1970s, Suzette was a staff writer for the first magazine run entirely by young people, a longtime employee of Amsterdam’s Milky Way, the first Dutch female DJ, and a principal organizer in the international women’s movement. At the time, Ronald was a punk rocker whose mohawk could’ve made Wattie Buchan blush with envy.
Coilhouse: What is your business in America and can I see your papers?
Suzette Bronkhorst: We spent a week in Washington, DC for an annual conference of a network of organizations that fight “cyberhate.” Then we came to New York because we love New York and we had some people to meet regarding U.N. business.
Why are you called “Magenta”? Are you fans of Rocky Horror? What is your mission?
SB: It has nothing to do with Rocky Horror! We started in 1992 with a demonstration after some horrible incidents in Germany with migrants and we started calling media. They asked us who we were, so we needed a name. I’d worked for Aloha, an underground music magazine in Holland – the first magazine by young people for young people – in 1972, though they started in the early 1960s.
Since it was pre-computers, color divisions were made by hand and the last one was the color magenta, since it provides depth to colors, making them recognizable. [Furthermore], Magenta is a color made of many colors, although many colors have this problem. [Besides], it seemed like a good name. Our mission is to combat racism, antisemitism, and all forms of discrimination, and, since 1994, primarily through and on the internet. We have a complaints bureau. When people see some material that they think is illegal by Dutch legislation, they send a complaint to us. If we think that it is illegal, we send the person who posted it a message.
What types of speech are illegal in the Netherlands, land of liberty and libertines?
SB: If, through speech, you promote violence, or if your speech restricts the freedom of others, it is illegal.
How does my expressing hatred for someone limit their freedom?
Ronald Eissens: You can hate all you want. The moment you incite others to take violent action, that is where we draw the line. The freedom of speech also has its limitations: “fighting words” or if your words create what your Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called a “clear and present danger.”
In what significant way does an injury from a “hate crime” differ from an injury from being at the wrong place at the wrong time? If I am simply vulnerable and I am victimized, do I not bleed just the same and feel the same pain as if the action was prompted by some hoary hatred?
RE: It only differs in intent. By attacking someone for their ethnicity or religious belief you are engaged in violence against the entire group of people.
How does hate speech differ from all of the other words and expressions that we are forbidden from giving voice to in public? George Carlin made a famous list of words, most of which are sexual. Being Dutch, don’t you think that Americans should be liberated from their Puritanical views of sex? Why not also liberate us from having to encode our prejudices in sheepish words? Wouldn’t we be healthier if we de-sublimated our feelings?
SB: You’re hypocrites who prefer to have businesses make the decisions.
RE: I think that this is a moral issue. It’s not merely a matter of losing advertising.
Isn’t this a “who’s watching the watchers?” kind of question? Who is to determine taste and propriety?
RE: All societies do it. As societies change, their language and sense of morality changes.
Do you think that Theo van Gogh had it coming to him because he was intentionally offensive?
RE: No. Even Theo van Gogh, who was infamous for his biased and racist views against Muslims and Jews, had a right to defend his art and expressions before a judge. Years before his murder, he was convicted for antisemitism and had to pay a fine. I am against violence against anyone because of their speech.
Someone like Catherine MacKinnon might define his speech as a form of violence. Perhaps, if his speech was essentially violent, his murder was an act of self-defense.
RE: That’s an invitation to vigilantism and to chaos. It suggests that law does not work.
Many people say that anti-immigrant politics stem from racism, but there are many examples that can’t fit this model. For example, the most egregious anti-immigrant violence of the past year was in South Africa, now liberated from racism, whose black African population burned nearly a hundred black African immigrants to death and forced the South African government to save another 25,000 for violence by placing them in camps. “Race” was not invoked by the xenophobes.
SB: Ethnicity was important. Race is a false term because there are no real races. There is only one race, the human race. We use the term “racism” to address intolerance towards groups of people. In South Africa, immigrants were targeted.
Doesn’t conflating all ethnic hostilities remove what may be of special significance regarding race? Are all forms of bigotry the same?
RE: Most forms of bigotry are essentially the same. Bigots will use anything they can to label a group of people.
SB: Just because it wasn’t white against black doesn’t make it not racism.
I’d like to ask you about your strategy for carrying out your mission – making more tolerant and inclusive societies. How does monitoring hate speech on the internet do this and perhaps you can tell us about some of your high profile actions?
SB: Our complaints bureau was the first in the world.
RE: In 1994, we had a “whistle stop tour” of a train through Holland that was a public information campaign to inform people of the dangers of voting for the extreme right. We were asking people to vote and to consider eight reasons for not voting for the right. The reasons also included criticizing their economic platform, proposed limits on people of color on our national soccer team. On the train, we had an exhibit from the Anne Frank Foundation, Dutch celebrities handing out information on board, [and] live music. It got a lot of publicity.
SB: In 1995, we had a campaign called “Sarajevo Calling.” The oldest Jewish charitable organization in the former Yugoslavia, La Benevolencija, was distributing meals and medicine to the Muslim and Christian communities, all citizens of Sarajevo, and they ran out of supplies. Within two weeks, we organized a food and medicine airlift that filled two Hercules transport planes. Supermarkets made it possible for people to donate food and “Pharmacists Without Frontiers” donated supplies necessary for emergency rooms. A vitamin company donated pills. The Dutch Air Force couldn’t land, so we had to put it on a boat. It was the first food and medicine [brought] into Sarajevo in three months.
What is going on regarding Muslim relations in Europe? Are things getting better or worse?
RE: It’s getting worse. The number of complaints that we had directed against Muslims and Jews were on the same level until 2008. For the first time, there is more anti-Muslim hate than anti-Jewish hate. On the social level, there is a campaign to depict all Muslims as terrorists, a “fifth column” that is taking over countries in Europe. In reality, a moderate strain of “European Islam” is developing, with people more interested in integrating into Europe. There are some that denounce this as strategy of “wolves in sheep clothing.” There is now a resurgence of antisemetic rhetoric from the 1930s applied to Muslims. Things will level out if politicians in Europe keep their heads straight, watch their rhetoric, and try to solve problems of integrating all groups.
SB: The whole of Europe is taking a turn to the right.
RE: There are new, populist parties that are already moving to the extreme right.
SB: Whenever people say things about Muslims, Muslims are expected to grown “thick skin,” but if a Muslim criticizes Europe, there are calls for expulsion.
What position do you take on the Danish cartoons, the murders, and death threats afterward? The editor of that newspaper is still living on the lamb.
RE: Anything that is not hate speech should be free. We are against blasphemy laws because we think that religion and deities are not humans. God does not have a right not to be slandered or insulted.
What about cyberhate against Magenta? Have you been threatened?
RE: We have always had threats. I don’t want to go into detail.
It’s unusual for a democratic society to be governed by someone from an ethnic minority. One of the few present examples I can think of is the Sikh president of India or Sarkozy in France. Does this mean that America has transcended ethnicity before Europe?
RE: The time was right for Obama. People who had reservations about a black president felt like the Republicans offered no solutions to their problems. I don’t think that you can transcend these issues in a few years or even in a generation.
Magenta in South Africa, 1996.
Do you find it ironic that if Obama had been born to his father’s family in Kenya, he would’ve been disenfranchised?
RE: He’s proving the point that it’s possible in America, which is one of the great things about this country.
Brunkhorst and Dutch Integration Minister Van Boxtel.
Are there significant differences in social conditions and history between the US and Europe that would lead to different tactics if you operated here?
RE: The US approach works here. Here, they only look at whether something promotes violence. In Europe, with the Holocaust being fairly recent, we know that pogroms and other atrocities were built, initially, on words. Freedom of speech has limitations.
SB: We’re not out to get people prosecuted. We don’t put people in jail. We aim for removal. We send our requests, not to the internet provider, but to the person who put it on-line. Last year, 97% of our requests were granted. In the States, you have to write a letter to the provider. I once made an attorney general foam at the mouth by saying that that it’s better for these things to be handled informally, since taking it to court is costly and takes forever.
In broad terms, someone can make reasonable arguments that societies are growing more inclusive and also have increasing tensions. Whither shall we go?
SB: It would be natural thousands of years ago for someone to see another who appears different as a potential danger. You would fight to be sure. These days, we don’t need to have these deep-rooted fears, but many still do. We have an option to do nothing and change nothing or to do something and change things a little bit.
Is there a connection between xenophobia and other forms of oppression, like patriarchy and homophobia?
SB: If you make a scale of what people are afraid of, people are more afraid of men from ethnic minorities than women, so the gender issue is likely to be solved before ethnicity. It is part of evolution.
Clearly, people seem to be more tolerant than their ancestors, but these views endure and our weapons of mass destruction have grown ever more massive. Are we headed toward a utopia of understanding or a dystopia of radical difference?
RE: I’m not an optimist. Arguing from the last 50 years, we’ve been doing better, but from the Holocaust, there was only one way to move. Looking at Burundi genocide, look at Al Qaeda, at Mumbai. The fabric of the societies we have spun is maybe too flexible and capable of coming apart. When people with big hatreds collect followers, anything can happen.
How and when did you get involved in political activism?
RE: In 1981, I was working at the Emerald Bank in the Netherlands. I joined the Dutch Socialist Labor Union (the FFNV). We were on the verge of introducing new kinds of payment systems, like the ATM, and it looked like a lot of people would lose their jobs. The union decided to strike and demand the shortening of the workweek to save jobs. We organized that strike. Never before had bank clerks gone on strike. It was huge in Holland. We were on international television. I was on the front page of a newspaper.
How did you move from music to politics?
SB: I left home at 14 and had to get a special license from the courts to live on my own. I was also a photomodel. The Milky Way is a multi-media center that was started in a former milk factory in 1970. I came aboard in 1974, as a 14 year old, to sell tickets at the door. Then I moved to wardrobe and learned sound engineering. I became the first female DJ of the Netherlands. I have a very large collection of female artists, maybe 1,000 records. Some were albums with only female musicians and engineers. Others, like the Andrew Sisters, were very popular as well. As a DJ, I played whatever would make people dance – new wave, disco, punk, whatever – because, as a DJ, you taste the atmosphere in the room and play the records that fit the mood. From 1976 to the mid 80s, I DJed at The Milky Way and for the women’s movement. I asked a fee. People asked me to show solidarity. I asked, “What kind of solidarity is it for the women’s movement to force me to marry a man just to have a place to live? Either you pay me or let me live with you.” They all paid!
How did you reconcile modelling and feminism? How did you escape the objectifying male gaze?
SB: I never did anything I was ashamed of. Even so, women who do pornography don’t have guns put up to their heads. They get paid. Good for them. I remember radical feminists arguing for lesbianism as a political choice. Someone said, “When I have sex, I don’t think of any politician.” The lesbians started foaming and had to be removed. I am proud to have been one of the organizers of the first international women’s festival not organized by hardcore lesbians. It was 1978.
(All photos provided by the Magenta Foundation.)