Karl F. Winkler


                                                        The War at Home                                                                                                                                                      December 14, 2015

WinklerThe dawn after the Presidential election in 1968 I was waiting for a med-evac flight in the San Antonio, Texas, Air Force flight service center.  I was in my Army greens and captain’s bars with combat tabs.  My journey was to Montgomery, Alabama to see my parents before getting orders to go to Vietnam.

The tumultuous anti-war riots at the Chicago nominating convention, campus demonstrations, young men fleeing to Canada to escape the draft, all preceded that election.

A tired, faded DC-8 rested about 50 yards from the service center. Long shadows streaked behind it as it faced the rays of the rising sun. I entered a door in the middle of the fuselage, ducking to avoid banging my head and gold-banded cap. It was dim inside. And quiet. I couldn’t quite stand up in the aisle without hitting my head.  Tucked into shadow were cots and the soldiers on them.  As my eyes adjusted to the light, I could see young men with bandages and missing limbs while I walked to the front of the plane carrying my bag.

War Protest- San Francisco, 1967

War Protest – San Francisco, 1967

The boys in the beds were looking at me. One raised his hand.  “Sir. Captain,” he said softly. Half his face was covered in bandages; the arm on that side hidden by a blanket pulled under his chin.  I thought to myself that it must have been a mine; that he’s lost his eye and his arm, maybe his leg.

“Yes, soldier,” I said.

“We are right, aren’t we?” he said.

I didn’t want this conversation. The other boys, who were conscious, were looking and listening.  What can I say to them?  I thought. They’ve given so much of themselves when so few have.  They were the boys without college, or graduate school, or political pull, or a huge metropolitan draft pool.  This war never made sense to me or my fellow officer trainees.  We proudly served; we didn’t have to believe.  But what to say?

“You were right, soldier.” I said as I stumbled forward to the passenger section thinking of the price they all had paid.

The slow plane ride took a long time. Corpsmen moved back and forth in the section carrying the wounded and maimed.  Eventually we landed in Montgomery and I left the plane after the boys had been evacuated.

Jeffrey Miller lying face down after being shot at the Kent State University war protest, May 4, 1970.

Jeffrey Miller lying face down after being shot at the Kent State University war protest, May 4, 1970.

I was directed to a building next to a fence. That was where my parents would be sent to pick me up.  I walked toward the building. There was a crowd at the fence. They had signs. “Killers,” said a sign  “Shame,” said another. A guy with a megaphone was yelling.  The signs and screaming were directed at the boys on stretchers being loaded into military ambulances. The crowd gathered by the gate as it opened and the procession of ambulances moved through. The guy with the megaphone and his followers spit at those boys who had given all they had.

None of today’s “We honor your service,” applause, salutes, or thumbs up. That was Vietnam at home to me. The treatment of our combat troops, often black, Hispanic, rural, by others not serving their country appalled me then and appalls me now. I was lucky and never got orders for Vietnam, partially because my twin brother was in country.

This experience at Maxwell Air Force Base was seared into my memory and smokes and gives off acrid fumes today.  It is a microcosm of everything that war meant and still means to me. Thank you for asking me to share it.

Also read JAI director Tracy Metz’s introduction (December 2), editor Phillip C. Schaefer’s introduction (December 4), the essay by veteran Jim Harris (December 7), the essay by veteran Glen Kendall (December 9), the essay by George J. Fesus (December 16), the essay by veteran Carl DuRei (December 18),  the essay by James Laughlin (December 21), the essay by John T. Lane (December 23), and the essay by Bud McGrath (December 27).

The Enduring Confidence of James Madison - By Dennis C. Rasmussen


Despite being a rather sickly hypochondriac, James Madison outlasted all the other founders, living until June 1836, almost through Andrew Jackson’s second term as president. Through all that time he remained relatively confident in the superiority and durability of America’s constitutional order. He did occasionally harbor some real worries and experience some palpable disappointments, as might be expected, but these concerns were never so deep and lasting as to lead to disillusionment with the political system as a whole or to despondency about its future. In this, he was the proverbial exception that proves the rule among the founders.

James Madison

The obvious question is why Madison was such an outlier. Why did he remain largely optimistic about America’s constitutional order when so many of his compatriots came to despair for it?

One potential answer can be ruled out immediately. Given his familiar moniker “The Father of the Constitution,” one might assume that Madison was sanguine for so long because he got what he wanted out of the Philadelphia Convention and remained satisfied with the result, but this was by no means the case. In fact, Madison lost more battles than he won in Philadelphia, including a number of those that he regarded as most important, and at the Convention’s close he deemed the Constitution to be radically defective.

Yet Madison soon grew reconciled to the Constitution, and indeed became one of its biggest admirers, in a way that his coauthor of The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, never quite did. And his confidence in America’s constitutional order endured, unbroken if not quite undisturbed, for almost another half century – not only through the 1790s, by the end of which Washington, Hamilton, and Adams had all grown disillusioned, and not only through Jefferson’s despondent final years, but also through much of the turbulent Jacksonian era.

Madison’s confidence can be attributed, at least in part, simply to his temperament. He was far more composed and even-tempered than the passionate Jefferson, the fiery Hamilton, the irascible Adams, or even Washington, whose pent-up anger occasionally burst through the stoic façade that he generally showed to the world. Madison’s unflappable disposition no doubt contributed to his lack of despair.

Tom Freeman’s painting of the burning of the White House by British troops during the War of 1812 during Madison’s presidency

On a related note, Madison also had lower expectations than the other founders regarding what was politically possible. He never supposed that his fellow citizens would consistently surmount partisanship or sacrifice their self-interest for the sake of the common good (as Washington and Adams, respectively, hoped they would), nor did he long for the nation to achieve economic and military greatness on the international stage or for virtuous yeoman farmers to conduct the politics of their local ward (as Hamilton and Jefferson, respectively, envisioned) – and this meant that he was less likely than the other founders to be disappointed in what America became.

Still another explanation for Madison’s late-life confidence was precisely that by that point he had lived so long and seen so much in company with the nation that he had helped to found. He reasoned that if the Constitution and the union managed to survive the Alien and Sedition Acts (a harsh crackdown on civil liberties spurred by war hysteria), the War of 1812 (during which much of the capital went up in flames under Madison’s own watch), and the Missouri crisis (the biggest confrontation yet over the nation’s most divisive issue, the expansion of slavery), then surely they could survive a good deal more. The longer the nation endured, the more durable it seemed.

The War of 1812, depicted as a boxing match between King John III and James Madison

If Madison could find solace in the fact that America’s constitutional order had managed to weather nearly a half-century’s worth of storms by the time he reached old age, then perhaps we should be cheered to recall that it has now survived for more than two hundred and thirty years. This should not be taken as grounds for complacency, of course, for today’s political ills are both serious and pressing, as the elderly Washington, Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson would surely remind us. Madison, though, would encourage us to summon a broader sense of perspective before announcing the doom of the republic.


Dennis C. Rasmussen is Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is the author of four books, including Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders and The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought, which was shortlisted for the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. Click here for the first 5 parts of this blog series.

The Disillusionment of Thomas Jefferson: Sectionalism - By Dennis C. Rasmussen


Thomas Jefferson’s disillusionment was in many respects the most surprising of all. For most of his life he was consistently – one might even say relentlessly – optimistic about America’s future. Even when the Federalists implemented measures that he deemed deeply objectionable during their ascendancy in the 1790s, from Alexander Hamilton’s financial plan to the Alien and Sedition Acts, he was confident that the American people would eventually set things right, for he believed that deep down they were almost all virtuous republicans, and indeed Jeffersonian Republicans.

Thomas Jefferson, by Thomas Sully (1821)

And Jefferson believed that the people did set things right through what he immodestly called the “revolution of 1800,” by which he meant his own elevation to the presidency. His Federalist opponents were annihilated as a political force in the early years of the nineteenth century, and he was succeeded in the nation’s highest office first by his most trusted political partner, James Madison, and then by his longtime acolyte, James Monroe, for two terms each. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Jefferson retained a sense of hopefulness far longer than did figures like Washington, Hamilton, and Adams.

Yet in Jefferson’s final years he too came to despair for America’s future. His late-life loss of heart was brought on by a number of factors, but the central one was the sectional divide between North and South that came to light during the first great conflict over the expansion of slavery in America, the Missouri crisis of 1819–21.

In a famous letter of April 1820, Jefferson proclaimed that this conflict “like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union.” In the process of explaining the cause of his alarm, he all but prophesied the path to the Civil War: “a geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.”

Map of the Missouri Compromise 1820

Jefferson concluded the letter with an unforgettable expression of regret: “I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves, by the generation of ’76. To acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it.” One would be hard-pressed to compose a clearer, more forceful articulation of disillusionment than this, and it was far from an isolated moment of anguish on his part: Jefferson wrote seemingly countless letters on the Missouri crisis during this period, each more hysterical and apocalyptic than the last.

Jefferson was kept in the depths of despair in the years leading up to his death in 1826 by what he regarded as the illegitimate and dangerous centralization of political power within the federal government, even at the hands of his fellow Republicans. Indeed, he found this tendency so distressing that he began to wonder whether a breakup of the union might soon be not only inevitable, but desirable. In December 1825 he told one correspondent that “there can be no hesitation” when “the sole alternatives left are the dissolution of our union … or submission to a government without limitation of powers” – clearly implying that he found disunion preferable to the path that he believed the nation was then taking.

Jefferson’s grave site at Monticello (VA)

The following month, Jefferson wrote to another correspondent to bemoan “the evils which the present lowering aspect of our political horizon so ominously portends.” He had expected, he confessed, that “at some future day, which I hoped to be very distant, the free principles of our government might change … but I certainly did not expect that they would not over-live the generation which established them.”

Throughout Jefferson’s final years, in short, even his abiding faith in the American experiment grew emphatically riddled with doubts.


Dennis C. Rasmussen is Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is the author of four books, including Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders and The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought, which was shortlisted for the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. Click here for part 1-4 of this blog series.

The Disillusionment of John Adams: Civic Virtue - By Dennis C. Rasmussen


The namesake of this institute, John Adams, was unsurpassed among the American founders in the depth of his knowledge about politics, history, and law. No one in that age of remarkably learned political leaders – not even James Madison – read as voraciously or ranged as widely as Adams in contemplating the proper underpinnings of government.

John Adams, by Gilbert Stuart

One of the key insights that Adams gleaned from his studies was that republican government depended not just on the right institutions but also on the people’s character. No country could remain free for long, in his view, unless its citizens exhibited a sense of civic virtue – a willingness to put the public good ahead of their own – for otherwise politics would be little more than an insoluble clash of conflicting interests.

Yet Adams was never entirely persuaded that the American people possessed the requisite sense of duty. As early as January 1776, he fretted that “there is So much Rascallity, so much Venality and Corruption, so much Avarice and Ambition, such a Rage for Profit and Commerce among all Ranks and Degrees of Men even in America, that I sometimes doubt whether there is public Virtue enough to support a Republic.”

House of John Adams at the Keizersgracht, Amsterdam

Adams spent most of the decade from 1778 to 1788 abroad, serving as a diplomat in France, Britain, and the Netherlands. Whereas the years that Thomas Jefferson spent as minister to France reinforced his belief in the unique purity of America and its people, Adams’s time in Europe had the opposite effect. In his magnum opus, the Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, he declared flatly that “there is no special providence for Americans, and their nature is the same with that of others.”

Neither the launching of the new government in 1789 nor his own elevation to the presidency eight years later managed to assuage Adams’s worries. Just two months after his inauguration he grumbled that “the Want of Principle, in so many of our Citizens … is awfully ominous to our elective Government” and that “Avarice and Ambition … is too deeply rooted in the hearts and Education and Examples of our People ever to be eradicated.” It is doubtful that any other American president has been as pessimistic about the entire political order at the very outset of his administration.

After facing a challenging presidency and then losing a rather vicious election to Thomas Jefferson in 1800, Adams concluded that “downright corruption has spread & increased in America more than I had any knowledge or suspicion of” and predicted that “we shall be tossed … in the tempestuous sea of liberty for years to come & where the bark can land but in a political convulsion I cannot see.”

‘Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States’, by John Adams

Adams’s retirement lasted for more than twenty-five years – longer than that of any other American president until the twentieth century. During this period he experienced occasional bouts of relative optimism, such as in the midst of the patriotic fervor unleashed by the War of 1812. Throughout most of that quarter century, however, his bracingly candid and wonderfully colorful correspondence continued to dwell on his fellow Americans’ lack of fitness for republican government.

“Oh my country,” Adams exclaimed to his friend Benjamin Rush in 1806, “how I mourn over thy follies and Vices, thine ignorance and imbecillity, Thy contempt of Wisdom and Virtue and overweening Admiration of fools and Knaves!” To his son John Quincy, he predicted that “the Selfishness of our Countrymen is not only Serious but melancholly, foreboding ravages of Ambition and Avarice which never were exceeded on this Selfish Globe … the distemper in our Nation is so general, and so certainly incurable.”

In all, then, Adams’s disillusionment with the American experiment started much earlier than it did for the other protagonists of this series- before the Constitution was even a twinkle in the framers’ eyes – and lasted for nearly a half century. As he saw it, the pervasiveness of selfishness, avarice, and ambition would pose a perpetual threat to America’s fragile project of self-government.


Dennis C. Rasmussen is Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is the author of four books, including Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders and The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought, which was shortlisted for the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. Click here to read the first three parts of this blog series.

The Disillusionment of Alexander Hamilton: Governmental Energy - By Dennis C. Rasmussen


Among the American founders, Alexander Hamilton was easily the most consistent and unabashed proponent of a strong national government. His foremost dream for the new United States was that it would eventually achieve the kind of international prominence, military might, and economic prosperity that he saw embodied in the great European monarchies, especially Britain, and he believed that a vigorous or “energetic” central authority would be necessary to achieve these ends.

Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull

Many of Hamilton’s contemporaries – Thomas Jefferson being the foremost example – worried that a powerful national government would threaten individual liberty, but Hamilton insisted that stability and energy were necessary in order for liberty to endure. In his view, an impotent government is often a greater threat to liberty than a strong one and a dearth of effective political power is frequently more dangerous than an excess of it – as he believed the nation’s experience under the feckless Articles of Confederation had demonstrated.

Although the Constitution was designed to rectify this problem, Hamilton did not believe that it went far enough in doing so. At the end of the Constitutional Convention he resolved to defend the new charter as better than nothing – which he went on to do so ably in The Federalist – but he told his fellow delegates that “no man’s ideas were more remote from the plan [i.e., the Constitution] than his were known to be.” In his view, the narrow interests of the small states and the widespread but unwarranted apprehensions about centralized power had prevailed even within the group of (mostly) nationalist Federalists who had assembled in Philadelphia.

The Federalist

Hamilton therefore spent most of the 1790s seeking to strengthen the government in every way that he could dream up. As the nation’s first treasury secretary he developed a sweeping financial program that helped to put the country on a sound economic footing; as a pivotal member of President Washington’s Cabinet he fought to expand presidential power in both domestic and foreign affairs; and as the effective commander of the nation’s army later in the decade he sought to capitalize on the “Quasi-War” with France in order to build up the military.

Although he accomplished a great deal during these years, Hamilton was never satisfied that he had done enough. Jefferson and the Republicans, suspicious of his every move, continually whipped up popular opposition to his actions and prevented him from realizing the full extent of his vision. Around the time that Hamilton resigned his Cabinet position in 1795 he declared that his mindset was “discontented and gloomy in the extreme. I consider the cause of good government as having been put to an issue & the verdict against it.”

Statue Hamilton in D.C., 1st Secretary of the Treasury

Then, to Hamilton’s great dismay, Jefferson and the Republicans swept into power in the election of 1800 with a mandate to pare down the government’s powers still further. Although Jefferson’s conciliatory inaugural address initially gave him a glimmer of hope, Hamilton soon grew convinced that the new president was systematically rendering the government weaker and the country more vulnerable. In his view, the Republicans were betraying America’s founding principles as well as its greatest hero: “In vain was the collected wisdom of America convened at Philadelphia,” he wailed in one of his many public protests. “In vain were the anxious labours of a Washington bestowed.”

Burr-Hamilton duel (1804)

Hamilton’s confidence in the durability of the American regime ebbed and flowed over time, as it did for the other founders, but by 1802 it hit rock bottom. In a letter to his friend Gouverneur Morris he went so far as to describe the Constitution as a “frail and worthless fabric,” adding that “every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me.” He told another correspondent that the survival of republican government in America would require “foundations much firmer than have yet been devised” in the United States.

By the time of his fatal duel with Aaron Burr in 1804, in short, Hamilton had concluded that the Republicans had already done irreparable damage to an already-weak government and that little but disorder and dissolution could be expected thereafter.


Dennis C. Rasmussen is Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is the author of four books, including Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders and The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought, which was shortlisted for the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. Click here for other parts of this blog series.

The Disillusionment of George Washington: Partisanship - By Dennis C. Rasmussen


Throughout his remarkable public career, one of George Washington’s foremost wishes for his country was that it would remain free of political parties and partisanship. All of America’s founders at least professed an aversion to “factions,” as they were frequently called, but none loathed them more fiercely, consistently, and sincerely than he did.

As Washington saw it, partisans are necessarily partial, meaning that they favor the interests of a parochial group over the public good. Partisans could not be true patriots. Parties were also, in his view, fatal to republican government. By sowing conflict, they divided the community and subverted public order; by opposing the government’s actions, they prevented its effective administration; by favoring some over others, they opened the door to political corruption and foreign influence.

In the event, of course, America’s first party system, which pitted the Federalists against the Republicans, emerged within the first few years after the Constitution was ratified and the new government was set up. In fact, the two sides were led by a pair of bitter enemies within President Washington’s own Cabinet, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.

By 1792, the year in which he reluctantly accepted a second term as president, Washington had already begun to bemoan the “internal dissentions” that were “harrowing & tearing our vitals” and making it “difficult, if not impracticable, to manage the Reins of Government or to keep the parts of it together.” Unless the partisan bickering abated, he warned Jefferson, the republic “must, inevitably, be torn asunder.”

When the partisanship did not abate — on the contrary, it grew continually worse over the course of his second term — Washington’s outlook became ever more bleak. He immortalized his worries for posterity in his famous Farewell Address of 1796, the great theme of which was the dangers of factionalism in its various guises: political parties, geographic divisions, and the ways in which foreign entanglements exacerbated both. The Farewell is often read as a warning about potential dangers that Washington feared the country might someday face, but it was just as much a lament about ills that he was sure had already beset it.

Washington’s 2nd inauguration (1793)


Although Washington lived only three years beyond his exit from the presidency, the state of American politics during his short retirement confirmed his darkest fears. Partisanship reached a fever pitch during the early years of the Adams administration, in the midst of the undeclared “Quasi-War” with France, leading Washington to warn that “party feuds have arisen to such a height, as to … become portensious of the most serious consequences” and that they appeared unlikely to “end at any point short of confusion and anarchy.”

Washington came to believe that it was no longer individuals and their virtues but rather parties and their ideologies that determined the outcome of elections. He insisted to one correspondent that if the Republicans were to “set up a broomstick, and call it a true son of Liberty, a Democrat, or give it any other epithet that will suit their purpose … it will command their votes in toto!” By this point, Washington was convinced that not only Congress but also the American people had become thoroughly and irretrievably partisan—and he had always insisted, since his days at the head of the Continental Army, that republican government could not survive for long under such conditions.

Washington’s Farewell Address (1796)

In Washington’s own view, then, his political career represented something like the reverse of his military career: in politics he won most of the battles—the elections, the policy disputes—only to lose the broader war. Just weeks before his death in December 1799, he wrote to James McHenry, his former secretary of war: “I have, for sometime past, viewed the political concerns of the United States with an anxious, and painful eye. They appear to me, to be moving by hasty strides to some awful crisis; but in what they will result—that Being, who sees, foresees, and directs all things, alone can tell.”


Dennis C. Rasmussen is Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is the author of four books, including Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders and The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought, which was shortlisted for the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. Click here for the 1st part of this blog series.



Why America’s Founders Came to Fear for the Country’s Future - By Dennis C. Rasmussen


On September 17, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention gathered one last time in what is now Independence Hall in Philadelphia in order to sign the charter that they had spent the past four months crafting. As the last of the thirty-eight signers affixed their names to the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin called attention to the high-backed mahogany chair that the president of the Convention, George Washington, had occupied at the head of the room that summer, which had a decorative half-sunburst carved into the crest (and which is still on display at Independence Hall – see the photograph below for a detail of the crest).

Detail of the Rising Sun Chair, Independence Hall, Philadelphia (PA)

Franklin remarked that painters often found it difficult to differentiate, in their compositions, a rising sun from a setting sun. “I have,” he said, “often and often, in the course of the session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that [sun on the chair] behind the President, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: but now at length, I have the happiness to know, that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”

This vignette is often taken to exemplify the great sense of hope that America’s founders felt at the new government’s birth, but it is a striking fact that almost none of them carried that optimism to their graves. Franklin survived to see the government formed by the Constitution in action for only a single year, but most of the founders who lived into the nineteenth century – or even to the dawn of the new century, like Washington – came to feel deep anxiety, disappointment, and even despair about the government and the nation that they had helped to create. Indeed, by the end of their lives many of the founders judged America’s constitutional order to be an utter failure that was unlikely to last beyond their own generation. This blog series will tell the story of their disillusionment, drawing on my new book on the topic, Fears of a Setting Sun.

Like the book, this series will focus principally on four of the preeminent figures of the period: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. These four lost their faith in the American experiment at different times and for different reasons, and each has his own unique story. As we will see, Washington became disillusioned above all because of the rise of parties and partisanship, Hamilton because he felt that the federal government was not sufficiently vigorous or energetic, Adams because he believed that the American people lacked the requisite civic virtue for republican government, and Jefferson because of sectional divisions that were laid bare by conflict over the spread of slavery.

Franklin at the Constitutional Convention 1787 by Joseph Boggs Beale

Washington, Hamilton, Adams, and Jefferson were the most prominent of the founders who grew disappointed in what America became, but they were certainly not the only ones. In fact, most of the other leading founders – including figures such as Samuel Adams, Elbridge Gerry, Patrick Henry, John Jay, John Marshall, George Mason, James Monroe, Gouverneur Morris, Thomas Paine, and Benjamin Rush – fell in the same camp.

The most notable founder who did not come to despair for his country was the one who outlived them all, James Madison. Madison did harbor some real worries from time to time, but on the whole he remained sanguine about the nation and its politics all the way until his death in 1836. The final entry in this series will explore why Madison largely kept the republican faith when so many of his compatriots did not.


Dennis C. Rasmussen is Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is the author of four books, including ‘Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders‘ and ‘The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought‘, which was shortlisted for the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award.




The Age-Friendly City - By Chris & Melissa Bruntlett


As we get older, many of us aspire to the same ideals: To enjoy old age from the comfort of the home we’ve built for as long as our bodies and minds will allow. We save for retirement to reduce financial worry, set up systems with family and friends to take care of each other, and do our best to choose a place that makes us happy.

What is often overlooked is how the built environment around us — namely our streets — helps or hinders our ability to age in place. When the parameters of aging in place are defined, they need to look beyond just how one’s home is organized, and to how neighborhoods can be better arranged to allow people to live independently for as long as possible. Otherwise, we run the risk of increasingly isolating older adults, and putting them in greater harm.

When planning and designing civic spaces, successful design is often touted as one where amenities are accessible within a one-kilometer walking radius from one’s home: “The 15-Minute City”. However, for the average older adult, that radius is often drastically reduced. This means that to create an age-friendly city, that radius should be reduced to 500 meters. Additionally, important details like seating and ubiquitous curb cuts are crucial, providing opportunities for people to stop and rest when their stamina begins to diminish, and to get them to the places they need to go.

Beyond design features, it is the life of a street that is critical to creating a positive space to age in place. As we grow older, our social circles naturally diminish. Families move, friends relocate to be closer to relatives, and, of course, our peers inevitably begin to pass away. A vibrant street life therefore becomes the space in which older adults can continue to feel a part of society rather than apart from it. Social isolation has very damaging effects on us regardless of age, but for older individuals who are retired, opportunities to interact with others play an important role in their emotional well-being.

An elderly person who leaves the home at the same time every day to go shopping can expects to see familiar faces along the way, creating opportunities for happy “Hi-Hi” moments. The cashier at the grocer becomes a regular social contact that can uplift their mood simply by asking about their day. This ensures they experience feelings of connection and value, even in these brief moments. Powerfully, these small, seemingly insignificant snapshots in time, help combats feelings of isolation, depression, and loneliness, all of which are detrimental to our health and some of the leading causes of premature death.

Car-based systems that mandate ownership of or access to an automobile are predicated on the assumption that everyone can drive or wants to drive. The truth is that all of us, at some point in our lives, will no longer be able to do so. According to the American Automobile Association, older adults are outliving their ability to drive safely by seven to ten years. Combined with research from the RAND Association suggesting that drivers over 65 are 16% likelier to cause a crash, this creates dangerous environments not only for them but for everyone around them. Age-friendly mobility systems recognize the need to create networks and systems that provide other, safer, options.

The clearest evidence of this is the prevalence of older adults cycling longer into old age in the Netherlands. People over 65 comprise the largest group of adults who cycle, not because they’re super-human, but because of a combination of traffic calmed streets and safe, separated cycling networks. We also can’t overlook the role electric bikes play in this trend, allowing older adults to keep pedaling on, even when their stamina begins to diminish. Low-car, human-scale environments allow people to participate in society far longer into old age.

The WHO Global Age-friendly cities guide identifies eight dimensions an age-friendly city must consider: Outdoor spaces and building, transportation, housing, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic participation and employment, communication and information, community support and health services. If we want to ensure our society is afforded the respect and dignity to age in place and be a part of our social fabric for as long as possible, then we need to prioritize the human experience above all else.

This is the last part of the blog series ‘Life is better on a bike’. Click here for part 1-5. Chris and Melissa are Canadian authors and urban mobility advocates. In 2019, they moved to the city of Delft in the Netherlands.

You can follow them on Twitter: @modacitylife or visit their website. Their book ‘Curbing Traffic’ appears at the end of June. John Adams readers get a 20% discount (use promo code BRUNTLETT) at islandpress.org. All pictures in this blog are by Chris & Melissa Bruntlett.



The Prosperous City - By Chris & Melissa Bruntlett


No matter the country, the connection between access to opportunity and economic prosperity is intrinsic. A population should be able to easily access housing, education, employment, health care, shops, and essential services. Despite this recognition, a car-dominant focus overlooks the negative impact this has on almost everyone, particularly those of lower incomes.

Bike bridge spanning a highway (Eindhoven)

Taking into account depreciation, insurance, fuel, maintenance, financing, parking, and registration, the average American automobile costs its owner a whopping $12,544 a year ($14,452 for an SUV). That’s half a million dollars over the course of someone’s working life. With the average low-income household earning $20,000 to $50,000 annually, and the average family owning 2.28 cars, this is not an insignificant sum of money. It is driving many families into debt, with Americans owing a total of $1.6 trillion on auto loans in 2018 (that’s $4,875 per capita). But it is debt that is practically required by the built environment: even in dense New York City, only 15 percent of jobs are accessible within an hour by transit, as opposed to 75 percent within an hour’s drive.

Sign: “Bicycle street. Cars are guests”

We often view the burden of car ownership as the expense of the vehicle itself, but in reality, it is the external costs — the ones not borne by the owner — that are often the most damaging, impacting millions. There are, of course, the costs for road construction and maintenance (through the collection of taxes), the health care costs associated with an increasingly sedentary society, and the environmental costs of a fossil fuel-burning society. Beyond these, however, are the hidden costs of a transport system designed to maximize automobile flow. These costs are downloaded onto households that don’t have the means to purchase their own motor vehicle.

These households are also hit the hardest by lack of investment in transit. With acute emphasis on the continual movement of cars, and funds channeled to “solve” issues of congestion, the relatively small remaining portion of budgets is split between walking, cycling, and public transport — with the latter often losing out. Since 1956, highways have accounted for nearly 80 percent of all government spending in America’s transport system, leaving precious little for other modes.

There is no better encapsulation of this than Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, an 18-kilometer freeway that has severed the city from Lake Ontario since it was built in 1955. In 2016, council voted to replace the crumbling arterial, including a 7-kilometer elevated section, at a cost of $2.2 billion. Between 2020 and 2030, that single piece of infrastructure will eat up 44 percent of the transport department’s capital plan, despite moving 7 percent of commuters. Less costly, at-grade options were rejected by councillors after a staff report predicted they might prolong peak driving times by two to three minutes.

Bike parking at a train station (Rotterdam)

In contrast, the Nederlandse Spoorwegen (Dutch Railways) is an outstanding example of what’s possible with a more balanced approach to these investments, boasting 3,200 kilometers of track connecting 410 stations. When regions don’t allow the automobile to dictate and dominate their budgets and priorities, it frees up all kinds of funding to improve the speed, frequency, and coverage of their public transport. For Delft residents like our family, this means — taking connections into account — 202 daily trains to The Hague, 182 to Rotterdam, 168 to Utrecht, and 150 to Amsterdam. With 81 percent of the country’s population living within 7.5 kilometers of a station, the national railway operates like a national metro system. Harnessing the synergy between cycling and public transport is integral to freeing residents from the economic burden of automobile dependency, thus leading to a more prosperous and equitable country.

Parking space for bicycles at a bus stop

These collective investments in frequent, flexible public transport — to maximize convenience and coverage — are precisely what governments must do to lighten the financial burden of car ownership and break down the barriers experienced by those lowest on the socio-economic ladder. But too often, untold billions are spent widening roads to benefit those who already enjoy the greatest proximity and privilege, while mass transit that would benefit those who need it the most is chronically ignored and underfunded. By doubling, and then tripling down on car dependence, and mandating costly ownership, regions are literally holding themselves back, preventing swaths of the population from fulfilling their economic potential. The tremendous cost of car dependency continues to blow a giant hole in our governmental and household budgets, and everyone ends up the poorer for it.

This is part 5 of the blog ‘Life is better on a bike’. Click here for part 1-4. Chris and Melissa are Canadian authors and urban mobility advocates. In 2019, they moved to the city of Delft in the Netherlands.

You can follow them on Twitter: @modacitylife or visit their website. Their book ‘Curbing Traffic’ appears at the end of June. John Adams readers get a 20% discount (use promo code BRUNTLETT) at islandpress.org. All pictures in this blog are by Chris & Melissa Bruntlett.

The Accessible City - By Chris & Melissa Bruntlett


Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a reccurring theme appeared every time a city suggested removing on-street parking in favor of low-car environments with extended sidewalks, pop-up bike-lanes, and patios; all in an effort to accommodate physical distancing and safer movement through its streets. Namely, the negative impact that would have on the disabled community: creating more space to access high streets and retail hubs using human-scale modes would lead to inaccessibility. Essentially, cars created equitable access.

At the core of this belief is the presumption that everyone living with a disability has access to an automobile and uses it as their main mode of transportation. This overlooks the fact that many living with some form of disability cannot legally drive, depending on the type and severity of their condition. Additionally, it assumes people living with a disability want to be dependent on a car (or someone else to drive it). This couldn’t be further from the truth. In a 2008 paper, Dr. Rachel Aldred identified that 60% of people living with a disability in the UK do not have access to a motor vehicle. When you compare that to only 27% of the general population, it begins to become clear that presuming the disabled community can only access the city through car travel is not only flawed thinking; it is completely false.

The continuing focus on designing cities around the automobile is creating disabling environments; places where only the most able can enjoy the public realm independently and unimpeded. The fact is, as so eloquently phrased by Dr. Bridget Burdett, principal researcher at MRCagney in New Zealand: “Every person is on a continuum from strong to weak, from tired to energized, from depressed to exuberant, and from pain free to experiencing chronic pain.” At any point in our lives, we may find ourselves living with a disability, a lesson Melissa learned earlier this year when she unexpectedly broke her leg. Auto-centered ideas, like thinking everyone with a disability has access to a car, are ableist ideas, and assume autonomy of movement—not being dependent on others to get around—is not a value equally desired by the disabled community.

Beyond presumptions of access, since the dawn of the automobile, transport planning has focused largely on the journeys we regularly take. They are easily counted, as they are visible in traffic volumes, public transport ridership, and physical observations of street activity. However, much like how this approach tends to focus on the office commute — ignoring care trips and trip-chaining — it also omits the trips people don’t take. This is particularly problematic for the disabled community.

By only focusing on the trips they see, cities critically forget to take into account the impact disabling environments have on the people for whom leaving the house is a struggle. The impact of inaccessible design that forces people to travel convoluted, uncomfortable routes that take far more time than direct routes. The impact of public transport schedules with reduced service during off-peak hours that don’t take into account the non-“nine-to-five” job. These are factors that cause people — particularly those living with a disability — not to make the trip at all. The impact of those forced choices are myriad: reduced physical and mental well-being, feelings of isolation and social disconnection from their community, higher rates of depression, and so on.

The key to addressing this issue and ensuring a more equitable approach to transport planning for people with disabilities is simple: Talk to them! Policies that incorporate Universal Access Design principles are certainly a good start, but unless planners and designers are actually conversing with the people these decisions will directly impact, there will always be the risk of misinterpreting their actual wants and needs.

Our experiences inform how we approach our work. By inviting the people who are living with the disabilities we are aiming to accommodate; we can better understand their lived experience and how to design for it. This in turn enables equitable access to the city, without the need for a private motor vehicle. From community engagement to stakeholder meetings, to the people leading our cities, inclusive design starts with inclusion. From there, we can do away with assumptions and anecdotes, and collaborate on creating enabling cities that provide the right of autonomous and independent travel to everyone.

This is part 4 of the blog ‘Life is better on a bike’. Click here for part 1, 2 and 3. Chris and Melissa are Canadian authors and urban mobility advocates. In 2019, they moved to the city of Delft in the Netherlands.

You can follow them on Twitter: @modacitylife or visit their website. Their book ‘Curbing Traffic’ appears at the end of June. John Adams readers get a 20% discount (use promo code BRUNTLETT) at islandpress.org. All pictures in this blog are by Chris & Melissa Bruntlett.




The Feminist City - By Chris & Melissa Bruntlett


In the Netherlands, 56% of cyclists are women. This is not, as many like to purport, because Dutch women are born on bicycles, or that somehow, they are more confident, take more risks, or are in any way superior. Rather, the female cycling rates are so high because every Dutch city, town, and village has been planned in a way that makes it one of the easiest and most convenient ways to get from one’s home to every destination—regardless of gender. When life’s daily trips—getting children (or oneself) to school, doing groceries, going to work, meeting up with friends—are made simpler by cycling, it becomes the natural choice; especially for women.

Unfortunately, since the dawn of the industrial age, and the subsequent proliferation of the automobile, speed and convenience were attached to one mode over any other: motor traffic. The establishment of city planning in the early 20th century placed its focus on the view from 30,000 feet up, meaning shaping streets that got one from their home to their destination (i.e. work) with the fewest obstacles or detours. With all planners at the time men, their experiences and needs informed their approach, instead of speaking to the people who actually lived on the streets to understand their needs. Coupled with suburbanization and the increasing separation of work from home, the marginalization that has impacted generations of city dwellers became inevitable.

One’s personal and lived experiences influence our decisions, creating both implicit and sometimes explicit bias. To truly appreciate the very male approach to urban design and planning, it helps to reflect on the four urban functions coined by the Congrès International d’Architecture Modern in the early 20th century: living, working, recreation, and circulation. As a membership made up entirely of men, working was naturally valued above all else. This terminology explicitly omits the experience of women in cities. In particular, the trips required to perform care work: unpaid labor performed by adults for children and dependents. The term, coined by Professor Inés Sánchez de Madariaga from Madrid Polytechnic University, was further expanded to define care trips, or all the trips taken in a day to perform care work, often done through trip chaining: the practice of making multiple stops within one journey; still predominantly done by women.

Following decades of underrepresentation by women in the planning and transport sectors, it is no wonder the needs and wants of women haven’t been taken into account. In the UK, women make up just 30% of those working in the transport sector. Similarly, women working in the US transportation sectors make up just 20%. It may not seem like correlation, but the fact is that representation matters, and has been proven to change systems before.

In 1980, the election of President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir in Iceland was the catalyst for major improvements for the quality of life for women in the country. Policies like full-time, highly subsidized childcare, and nine months paid parental leave had a dramatic effect of women’s lives. Because she had experienced the world differently from her male predecessors, President Finnbogadóttir’s life informed how she governed.

Similar, in Europe, the adoption of gender mainstreaming following the UN Conference on Women in 1985 and the subsequent Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997 set out to integrate equality objectives into all programming and was successful in bringing conversations of the feminist

perspective into the planning process. This led to a number of initiatives and programs throughout Europe that help create more gender equity in cities. Unfortunately, because gender mainstreaming was not an established policy, many of these programs became “nice ideas”, quickly slashed during budget cuts or changes in political leadership. Therein lies the challenge – unless gender equity in cities is taken seriously, permanent change will remain optional rather than mandatory.

“We don’t know what a feminist city is because we’ve never had one.” These words by urban anthropologist Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman are poignant. But there is hope. Leaders like Janette Sadik-Khan in New York City, Anne Hidalgo in Paris, and Valérie Plante in Montreal have shown that with women at the table, positive change to our transportation systems, and our cities, are possible. Prioritizing gender equity in planning and transportation sectors, as well as for those who live in our cities will make that feminist city a more attainable reality, and one that benefits everyone.


This is part 3 of the blog ‘Life is better on a bike’. Click here for part 1 and 2. Chris and Melissa are Canadian authors and urban mobility advocates. In 2019, they moved to the city of Delft in the Netherlands.

You can follow them on Twitter: @modacitylife or visit their website. Their book ‘Curbing Traffic’ appears at the end of June. John Adams readers get a 20% discount (use promo code BRUNTLETT) at islandpress.org. All pictures in this blog are by Chris & Melissa Bruntlett.

The Child-Friendly City - By Chris & Melissa Bruntlett


Emigrating to a new country is a difficult decision for anyone, and we were fully aware that uprooting our nine- and twelve-year-old children from the lives they had known since birth would come with its own set of challenges. But to give our children a freedom and independence we found impossible in our car-dominated East Vancouver neighborhood, in 2019, we chose to trade the peaks of British Columbia for the lowlands of South Holland.

According to Dr. Lia Karsten, associate professor of urban geography at the University of Amsterdam, geographical childhood for most kids these days can be classified into two types: indoor children: those who spend majority of their time indoors, largely of lower means and access; and the backseat generation: those who are shuttled from one activity to another in the backseat of a car. As motorized traffic increasingly dominated streets in the latter half of the 20th century, childhood was pushed from the public sphere—playing on the streets with friends under the watchful eye of neighbors—to more private, safe space like homes, backyards, and play gyms.

One of the most damning effects on both indoor children and the backseat generation is their growing disconnect from the world around them. When no longer able to explore their streets unsupervised by foot or bicycle, the space between their relative “zones” – homes, school, community centre, etc. – become vast oceans that are impassible without the assistance of their caregivers. Dr. Karsten describes this as “the city as an archipelago”, where, because travel is so intensely supervised and controlled, many children don’t know how to get from their home to any of their other regular destinations.

Our former Vancouver home was surrounded on all sides by four- and six-lane arterials each moving upwards of 40,000 cars per day. Because there were few crossings we felt comfortable enough to allow our children to navigate—due to fading markings or the prevalence of ‘beg buttons’ to ask permission to cross the street—they rarely walked independent of their parents.

This lack of safe design is having a detrimental impact on kids everywhere, namely in the form of severely reduced activity level. In Canada, 93 percent of children don’t get the recommended daily amount of physical activity. That could be vastly improved by walking or cycling to and from school each day. Where 50 percent of American kids walked or cycled to school in 1959, fifty years later that was just 13 percent.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In the Netherlands, two thirds of school children walk or cycle to school and 75 percent for high school students. This dates back to policies established decades ago mandating the safer design of streets. In our current home of Delft, a 1970 Traffic Circulation Plan specifically addressed the mounting safety crisis due to the speed and volume of cars on their streets. The fundamental idea was that every child should be able to walk safely to school, a friend’s house, the shops and everywhere in between without having to cross a major arterial. Preventing cars from using neighborhood streets as thoroughfares created an environment where even decades later, young children can safely travel within their community.

Delft’s safe and social streets allow our children to travel independently with friends inside and outside the city. They get more physical activity, they have more social interaction with their peers and they are happier, as they are no longer trapped inside their home or supervised by Mom and Dad. At a time when five to ten percent of children in the U.S. are diagnosed with depression, cities and towns can help them combat loneliness and inactivity by designing streets that allow our kids to feel more connected to their community.

Physical activity, the ability to experience the world independent of their parents, and the social relationships that can be built through walking and cycling among peers are critical to our children’s health and happiness. Streets designed to encourage this are a basic human right that all children should be able to enjoy, not just the Dutch. It just requires the commitment to prioritize the safety of our most vulnerable, allowing them to come back outside and experience the world on their own terms.


This is part 2 of the blog ‘Life is better on a bike’. Part 1, an interview by John Adams director Tracy Metz with Chris and Melissa Bruntlett, appeared on May 20th. Chris and Melissa are Canadian authors and urban mobility advocates. In 2019, they moved to the city of Delft in the Netherlands.

You can follow them on Twitter: @modacitylife or visit their website. Their book ‘Curbing Traffic’ appears at the end of June. John Adams readers get a 20% discount (use promo code BRUNTLETT) at islandpress.org. All pictures in this blog are by Chris & Melissa Bruntlett.

Everything in life is better on a bike - By Tracy Metz


“Ask a Dutch person why they cycle so much, and they’ll shrug: ‘It’s just in our culture’; oblivious to the vast infrastructure networks built to make it easy. Ask an American why they drive so much, and they’ll do the same. First we shape our streets; then our streets shape us.”

Chris & Melissa Bruntlett

This was a recent tweet posted by the Canadian authors and urban mobility advocates Chris and Melissa Bruntlett. The couple made a conscious choice two years ago to leave Vancouver and move to the Netherlands with their two children. The life-work balance is better here, they felt, in large part because people have so many more options for moving around – and therefore for living their life – than in North America. They live in Delft and have not had a driving license since they moved here.

Chris works as marketing and communications manager for the Dutch Cycling Embassy, which was started in 2011 by the ministry of transport to export Dutch expertise overseas. Melissa is an international communications specialist with Mobycon, a Dutch-American consultancy for sustainable mobility. At the end of June their new book is appearing, called Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives. Talking to them, and reading this book, makes you stop and realize what an enormous impact our streets have on our lives: how they are designed and for whom. For cars, or for people?

Rush hour in Amsterdam

The Netherlands is the safest place in the world to walk and cycle, Chris says – but it doesn’t necessarily look that way. “Human-based transport systems feel more chaotic because they are more dependent on eye contact instead of traffic lights and rules. Those may feel safe, but ironically they are more deadly, because most drivers then go on auto-pilot and stop paying attention.”

For Melissa, it was an emotional moment to realize that as a woman on a bike here, she is no longer alone. “In Vancouver the simple act of getting on a bike in your normal clothes was remarkable. It has been nice not to stick out anymore.” Unfortunately, this past winter her bike slipped on an icy patch and she broke a leg. That meant surgery and walking with crutches for seven weeks. “We borrowed a cargo bike and Chris took me around. We did learn that there is lots of room for improvement in accessibility on trains!”

Hasn’t everyone seen the light by now about the advantages of cycling? Even Los Angeles now has a successful bike-sharing scheme, and during the corona lockdown a lot of cities have expanded their bike path networks.

Bike parking at Amsterdam Central Station

Chris: “The challenge now is that electric cars and autonomous vehicles are seen as the easy fix. But they are not going to solve everything. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, technology has been seen as the way forward. But tech cannot solve the problems cars create in equity, accessibility, livability, public space, air quality. We shouldn’t be talking about electric or autonomous or flying cars, but about fewer cars and more options. Why should we have a thousand choices for breakfast cereal and only one for mobility? We hope that our book will help cities maintain the transformation they achieved this year, and not go back to the status quo before the pandemic.”


‘Curbing Traffic’ (publ. Island Press) appears at the end of June. John Adams readers get a 20% discount (use promo code BRUNTLETT at islandpress.org) The rest of this blog will be written by the Bruntletts themselves; part 2 will be about children. You can follow them on Twitter: @modacitylife or visit their website. All pictures in this blog are by Chris & Melissa Bruntlett.



Testimony of our landscape - By Richard Frishman

House and ambush site of state field secretary for the NAACP Medgar Evers (Jackson, Miss.). In 1963, he was gunned down in his driveway by a white supremacist.


All human landscapes are embedded with cultural meaning. And since we rarely consider our constructions as evidence of our priorities, beliefs and behaviors, the testimonies our landscapes offer are more honest than many of the things we intentionally present. Our built environment, in other words, is a kind of societal autobiography, writ large.


Many of the places I’ve photographed were found after conducting research online, in person and on location. I have reached out to scholars, historians and ordinary people who might share their insights, experiences and suggestions. Local libraries, museums and historical preservation websites often guide me to forgotten places, often hidden in plain sight.

Former Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market (above) in Money, Miss., where in 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was falsely accused of whistling at a white woman. He was later kidnapped, tortured, lynched and dumped in the muddy waters of Black Bayou Bridge over the Tallahatchie River (below).


In 1964, three civil rights activists were followed by Klan members after being released from county jail in Mississippi. They were forced off the road, taken to the remote location shown in this video (below) and bludgeoned to death.In showing  this hallowed ground, I wanted to convey the feeling of the place and the terror it represents. I can never know what truly went through the hearts and minds of these moral heroes. I can only know what their courage and suffering means to me.


The past is never dead. It’s not even the past. Thus observed the brilliant writer William Faulkner of Oxford, Mississippi. America continues to struggle with its ghosts of segregation. This troubling truth, so evident in the rising racial rhetoric of today is my motivation to document these stories. I am not photographing places as much as commemorating the people who struggled.

Below: grave of Charles Eddie Moore (Meadville, Miss.). In 1964, two black teenagers, Henry Dee and Charles Eddie Moore were picked up by KKK members while hitchhiking. They were tortured in a nearby forest, locked in a trunk of a car, driven across state lines, chained to a Jeep motor block and train rails, and dropped alive into the Mississippi River to die.



Rich Frishman’s photography is in a wide range of private and institutional collections in the US. His work has garnered dozens of prestigious awards. In 1983, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He lectures around the US about the intersection of the designed environment, history and social issues. Click here for his website. All pictures © Richard Frishman. This blog series is an adaption of on an article by Richard Frishman previously published in the New York Times. Edited by Mieke Bleeker. To read part 1 and 2 of this blog series, click here.

The Original Sin - By Richard Frishman

A former ‘segregation wall,’  built to separate customers of color. Templin Saloon, Gonzales (TX).


Slavery is often referred to as America’s “original sin.” Its demons still haunt us in the form of segregated housing, education, health care, employment. Through these photographs, I’m trying to preserve the physical evidence of that sin — because, when the telling traces are erased, the lessons risk being lost.

‘All white help’ sign at Clark’s Cafe in Huntington, (Or)

Many of the locations I’ve documented have already disappeared. The painted sign for Clark’s Cafe in Huntington, Ore., which trumpeted “ALL WHITE HELP,” was destroyed shortly after I photographed it (right). The Houston Negro Hospital School of Nursing (below) has since been demolished.

I often wonder: Does such erasure remedy the inequalities and relieve the suffering caused by systemic racism? Or does it facilitate denial and obfuscation?

These photographs are less about the places themselves and more about the people who once populated them. My goal is to heighten awareness, motivate action and spark an honest conversation about the legacy of racial injustice in America.‘

Houston Negro Hospital School of Nursing, Houston (TX)

The photographs are also a testament to the endurance of the racial inequalities that have plagued American society, projected backward and forward in time.

The deaths last year of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, among many other Black Americans, prompted a long-overdue national reckoning, spurring one of the largest movements in U.S. history.

And these pictures prove that if you look carefully enough, you’ll find that the evidence of the structures of segregation — and the marks of white supremacy — still surrounds us, embedded in the landscape of our day-to-day lives.

The E. F. Young Jr. Hotel (Meridian, Miss.) provided lodging for black travelers who were excluded from other hotels during the Jim Crow era.


Next week: Part 3 – Testimony of our landscape. Click here for part 1 – “We might get lost again”


Rich Frishman’s photography is in a wide range of private and institutional collections in the US. His work has garnered dozens of prestigious awards. In 1983, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He lectures around the US about the intersection of the designed environment, history and social issues. Click here for his website. All pictures © Richard Frishman. This blog series is an adaption of on an article by Richard Frishman previously published in the New York Times. Edited by Mieke Bleeker.




“We might get lost again” - By Richard Frishman

Former colored entrance to a theater, Kilgore (TX).


The six faded letters are all that remain, and few people notice them. I would never have seen them if a friend hadn’t pointed them out to me while we walked through New Orleans’s French Quarter. I certainly wouldn’t have realized their significance.

On Chartres Street, above a beautifully arched doorway, is a curious and enigmatic inscription: “CHANGE.” Now part of the facade of the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, the letters mark the onetime site of the St. Louis Hotel & Exchange, where, under the building’s famed rotunda, enslaved people were once sold.

Several years ago, I began to photographically document vestiges of racism, oppression and segregation in America’s built and natural environments — lingering traces that were hidden in plain sight behind a veil of banality.

When the Omni Royal Orleans (left) was built in the 1950s, some of its history was incorporated into a small section of the building. The word “change” is a fragment salvaged from the original St. Louis Hotel and Exchange. The remaining letters were lost.


Some of the sites I found were unmarked, overlooked and largely forgotten: bricked-over “Colored” entrances to movie theaters, or walls built inside restaurants to separate nonwhite customers. Other photographs capture the Black institutions that arose in response to racial segregation: a Negro league stadium in Michigan, a hotel for Black travelers in Mississippi. And a handful of the photographs depict the sites where Black people were attacked, killed or abducted — some marked and widely known, some not.

The small side window at Edd’s Drive-In, for example, a restaurant in Pascagoula, Miss., appears to be a drive-up. It was actually a segregated window used in the Jim Crow-era to serve Black customers.

The locked black double doors aside Seattle’s Moore Theatre (below) might be mistaken for a service entrance. In fact, this was once the “Colored” entrance used by nonwhite moviegoers to access the theater’s second balcony.

These sites surround us, but finding and verifying them requires months of due diligence.

The very existence of the door shocked me. I had walked past it countless times over the 40 years I’ve lived in Seattle, never giving it a thought. It wasn’t until the summer of 2020 that the tragic nature of this obscure door resonated with the sobering reminder on the marquee.

Former colored entrance at Seattle’s Moore Theatre


After being tipped off by a contributor to a website called Preservation in Mississippi, I verified the history of the window at Edd’s Drive-In with the manager, Becky Hasty, who told me that the owners had retained it as a reminder of the past. “If we don’t remember where we’ve been,” she said, “we might get lost again.”

Next week: Part 2 – The Original Sin


Rich Frishman’s photography is in a wide range of private and institutional collections in the US. His work has garnered dozens of prestigious awards. In 1983, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He lectures around the US about the intersection of the designed environment, history and social issues. Click here for his website. All pictures © Richard Frishman. This blog series is an adaption of on an article by Richard Frishman previously published in the New York Times. Edited by Mieke Bleeker.

Home is where the heart is - By Chad Bilyeu & Mieke Bleeker

A large part of issue number four of Chad in Amsterdam is about origin. What does it mean when you’re constantly on the move?

In A Tale of Three Cities (The Dutch Inquisition), we find Chad once more at a bar, being asked where he’s from. This time, it gets him reminiscing about the three cities he has lived in: Cleveland, Washington D.C. and Amsterdam. “It’s tricky to ascertain precisely where I’m from as I’ve lived in a few places on the globe. The majority of my life has taken place in a triptych of diametrically opposed cities”.

“When I’m in Cleveland and someone asks me where I’m from, I assume that they are probably themselves from Cleveland and are wondering precisely where on the east or west side I grew up.” In DC he was quick to learn that origin was not such a hot issue. The opening line most heard in the capital, where politics and career making are ubiquitous, is not ‘where are you from’, but ‘what do you do?’

In Amsterdam, he found, the question ‘where are you from’ was put to him so often, that it started to feel less of an inquiry and more like an inquisition: “It seems that my origin is of utmost importance here in Amsterdam. I found it strange that the denizens of such a historically diverse city had such a proclivity towards focusing on superficial differences.”

Meanwhile, over at the bar, Chad doesn’t answer the question this time. Instead he gets up, lost in thought and heads home.Phone Home

Phone Home* is an ode to his family back in Cleveland. “I wanted to add a personal touch. In some of the stories, I may seem like a jerk, always spewing criticism. But I’m really not, I’m just telling it like I see it.”

It’s kind of nice to see a more personal side of Chad, as he is chatting away with his mom about the cats and sharing inside jokes. Talking about the situation back home makes Chad realize the upsides of living in Amsterdam. Like how it’s safe to wander the streets at night, and how there is no out of control gun violence. And simply just how beautiful the city is.

As anyone would, Chad misses his family. But, as his mother points out to him, every place has its good and bad sides. Home is where the heart is. And in the end, isn’t that what it comes down to?

* fun fact: the artist of Phone Home, Rachelle Meyer, worked on a blog series for John Adams last year, which showcased her Faces on the Ferry art project.

Lera Ryazanceva created the images for ‘A Tale of Three Cities’. Those of ‘Phone Home’ were made by Bernie Mireault. All content copyright © Chad Bilyeu. Visit Chad’s website to get your copies of ‘Chad in Amsterdam’. They are also available in several bookstores in Amsterdam, like Athenaeum Boekhandel and The American Book Center. Click here for the other blogs in this series.

Something Fishy - By Chad Bilyeu & Mieke Bleeker


In The Four Fish Specialists in the third issue of Chad in Amsterdam we’re talking herring. Although it is considered a delicacy in the Netherlands, dipped in onions, the silvery and slightly slimy snack is not for everyone. Especially for the non-Dutch, it can be quite the experience.

Chad’s first encounter with the infamous fish was not a good one. There was something ‘fishy’ about it. So when a market vendor at the Nieuwmarkt in Amsterdam tries to sell him herring instead of the requested ‘kibbeling’ (fried fish), he hesitates.

But, curious as he is about the peculiarities of the Dutch, he decides to give it another try. While the vendor is preparing his order, Chad turns out to be quite knowledgeable about the history behind the Dutch love for herring.

“You know, I just so happened to be reading about herring in this one dude’s book just recently”, he explains. This ‘dude’ turns out to be former John Adams director Russell Shorto, who in his book Amsterdam wrote about the lucrative business of the herring trade that brought about the Dutch Golden Age. A term Chad is critical of, as it downplays the atrocities inflicted upon other nations during this time period.

Still, his renewed attempt at munching away herring at the Nieuwmarkt? Nothing fishy about it this time.

Where are you from? – part 2

In the first part of this blog series, we learned that Chad is not too keen on being asked where he is from. “In terms of getting to know someone, it’s such an empty question. It would be nice to be considered an individual instead of always being branded ‘an American’.

So mostly, questions like these do not lead anywhere. But sometimes they do. In the third episode of The Dutch Inquisition, Chad is out clubbing* when a girl comes up to him and asks him the dreaded question: where are you from? An animated conversation follows and even some romance.Chad points out one particular image in the story: the one where the girl offers him a drink. Not particularly mind-boggling you’d think, but according to Chad, it always has his American friends stunned. “It really shows the difference in dating culture between the Netherlands and the U.S. In the States you would never let a girl pay for anything on a date. In fact, women expect you to pay. So a girl offering a guy a round, is pretty alien to me and my friends.” Chad admits the Dutch directness between the sexes has its advantages. This time, it got him the girl and the drink.


* fun fact: most locations featured in the comic are based on pictures taken by Chad which the artists use as a source for their drawings.

Gary Dumm created the images for ‘The Four Fish Specialists’. Those of ‘The Dutch Inquisition’ were made by Bernie Mireault. All content copyright © Chad Bilyeu. Visit Chad’s website to get your copies of ‘Chad in Amsterdam’. They are also available in several bookstores in Amsterdam, like Athenaeum Boekhandel and The American Book Center. Click here for the other blogs in this series.

The Dutch Inquisition - By Chad Bilyeu & Mieke Bleeker

In the recurring item The Dutch Inquisition in the second issue of Chad in Amsterdam, Chad again goes into the subject of compartmentalization, the Dutch urge to divide the world into nicely fitting categories, as he sees it.

One of the things he loved about Amsterdam when visiting the city before moving there, was its diversity. But after settling in, he found this diversity to be somewhat superficial: all these different people hardly mingled. Instead, they would stick with their own, safely within the borders of their own group.

As he tries to explain the situation to an American friend who is visiting, it’s clear that the Dutch claim on tolerance bugs him. Are you truly tolerant when there is hardly any interaction between all these different ethnicities?Fietsdepot

Fietsdepot is a fun story, and probably the most recognizable of all for everyone living in Amsterdam, no matter your background or where you came from. The horror when you realize your bike is no longer where you parked it, but instead has been moved to the fietsdepot (‘bike depot’), located at the western outskirts of the city.

One can only empathize with Chad, while he struggles with the bureaucratic hassle and takes the trip westward by public transport and on foot.

What also seeps through, is Chad’s genuine curiosity about how things work in the Netherlands. When he meets the employee of the bike depot who is in charge of matching towed bikes with their rightful owners (the typical accent of a Dutch person who speaks English reproduced brilliantly), he lets himself get fully educated on the workings of the depot’s system.One thing he learns: chopping things up into clear-cut categories even applies to something like a bike depot. Chad: “You know what it reminds me of? The moment your plane descends to Schiphol Airport and you see the fields below, all divided into neat squares.” That’s quite a clever comparison.


DroL created the images for ‘The Dutch Inquisition’. Those of ‘Fietsdepot’ were made by Erik Why. All content copyright © Chad Bilyeu. Visit Chad’s website to get your copies of ‘Chad in Amsterdam’. They are also available in several bookstores in Amsterdam, like Athenaeum Boekhandel, The American Book Center and Zwart op Wit. Click here for the other blogs in this series.


Where Are You From? - By Chad Bilyeu & Mieke Bleeker


“Where are you from?” Chad has lost count how many times he’s been asked that question. It inspired him to create The Dutch Inquisition, a recurring item in all four issues of the comic. The question seems pretty harmless, nothing more than an easy way to start a conversation. But to Chad, it is much more.

First of all, the infamous Dutch directness: “You’re having a drink, minding your own business, and from the other side of the bar, someone yells: ‘Where are you from?’ No pleasantries, no introduction. Before you know, this guy is in your face, fully convinced he knows more about the U.S. than you do.”

But the question also touches upon another Dutch trait according to Chad: compartmentalization, in this case probably best translated by the Dutch word ‘hokjesgeest’. “Once they find out you’re American, people seem to think they have you all figured out. Like labelling you a patriot. I wouldn’t describe myself that way. It’s stereotyping people. It makes me feel like I’m on display. Nothing good ever comes out of it. Certainly not a good conversation.”

An ‘Amsterdammertje Situation’

In Amsterdammertje we meet a different Chad. Well, actually it’s the same Chad. But since each story is drawn by a different artist, we get to see multiple representations of him (the four issues almost 20 ‘Chads’), and his different sides too.

When moving to another country, he finds it important to delve into its culture, its customs, and all the weird and interesting habits that come with it. “I wouldn’t call myself an expert on Amsterdam”, he says, “but a lot of expats or even Dutch people who are not originally from Amsterdam, think they know everything there is to know about the city just because they live there. For me, that’s not enough.”

In Amsterdammertje we clearly see he did his homework. How many of you had heard of an ‘Amsterdammertje situation’ before? According to tradition, if the last bit of ‘jenever’ (gin) in the bottle turns out to be too little to fill up the glass, the customer gets it for free, while the bartender opens a new bottle to pour a full one.

At the same time, Chad admits his handling of the situation also shows his American side: too polite, using too many words to explain himself, and, because of that, losing the stand-off with the bartender, twice. That would not have happened to a smart-mouthed Amsterdammer.








Visit Chad’s website to get your copies of ‘Chad in Amsterdam’. They are also available in several bookstores in Amsterdam, like Athenaeum, The American Book Center and Zwart op Wit. Jared Bogges created the images for ‘The Dutch Inquisition’. Those of ‘Amsterdammertje’ were made by EKS Graphics. All content copyright © Chad Bilyeu.





‘Your Freedom or My Freedom?’ - By Mieke Bleeker


After a harrowing journey, the Pilgrims had finally reached the Promised Land and found their freedom. But what about the freedom of the people who were already there?

Land for grabs
The New England coast might have appeared abandoned at first. Earlier European visitors transmitted numerous diseases that ravaged the Native American communities. Between 1616 and 1619, ninety percent of the original inhabitants of the coastal region had either died or fled. Still, the Pilgrims were aware of native tribes inhabiting the land. But because the way the indigenous people lived was so foreign to them, they considered the land to be ‘unpeopled’ and unused. The Pilgrims took it as a sign from God: the land was theirs to take.

Mutual interests
Still, based on mutual interests, the Pilgrims and the local Wampanoag people developed a relative friendly relationship at first. The Pilgrims were clueless on how to get the colony started. As almost half of the Mayflower passengers had died by the spring of 1621, they were in sore need of help. The Wampanoag on the other hand were looking for allies against other hostile native tribes. This agreement might have been the origin of the so-called first Thanksgiving celebration.

(Mis)representation of the 1st Thanksgiving, J.A. Brownscombe (1914)

Thanksgiving 1621
The popular story of the first harvest festival in 1621, with Pilgrims and Native Americans joyfully coming together to give thanks and share food, came to lead a life of its own. But the exact origin for the present-day feast is hard to pinpoint. Sources tell us of Thanksgiving celebrations in Virginia as early as 1619. But whatever the true nature of the 1621 edition (some say the Wampanoag joined primarily for diplomatic reasons), in 1637 Thanksgiving took on a whole different meaning.

The relationship between the Pilgrims and the native tribes had not been without conflict, but as the influx of colonists increased, so did the competition over land and trade. Confrontations became more frequent and more violent. In 1637, a series of incidents led an alliance of colonists (including some native tribes) to burn a village of the Pequot tribe, killing hundreds of men, women, and children. The ones who didn’t die in the fire were ambushed and shot. This became known as the Mystic Massacre.

‘Sweet Sacrifice’
As far as we know, the Pilgrims did not participate in the attack. Although the brutality of the attack rattled him, Governor and Pilgrim William Bradford seems to have been pleased with the outcome. In his History of Plimoth Plantation he writes: “The victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemies in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory.” Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was founded in 1628, proclaimed an official Day of Thanksgiving to commemorate the battle.

‘History of Plimoth Plantation’ by William Bradford

Day of Mourning
There would be more massacres and many wars. The American colonies expanded, while the native tribes were deprived of their land and their freedom. It would be oversimplified to directly blame the Pilgrims for the demise of the indigenous people, but they did play their part. It is therefore not surprising that the Native Americans of New England chose to regard Thanksgiving Day as a Day of Mourning instead.

The ultimate price
The National Day of Mourning originated in 1970 when Wampanoag leader Wamsutta was invited to make a speech in Plymouth on the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim’s arrival. But when the organization found out that he intended to use his speech to address the tragic fate of the native tribes, they did not let him speak. So instead, he and his supporters gathered elsewhere. While overlooking Plymouth Harbor and the Mayflower replica, Wamsutta gave his original speech. This would become the location of a yearly manifestation honoring native ancestors and the struggles of native peoples to survive today. In the end, it was they who paid the ultimate price for other people’s freedom.

National Day of Mourning Plaque, Plymouth


This was the last blog of the blog series ‘The Pilgrim Fathers: The Price of Liberty’. Click here for part one and two.

The exhibition ‘Pilgrims to America – and the Limits of Freedom’ is part of Leiden400, a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower. It highlights not only the story of the Pilgrims but the cultures and places they came into contact with as well. ‘First Americans’ at Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden showcases contemporary indigenous lives, art and politics in North America.

‘Do I Stay or Do I Go?’ - By Mieke Bleeker

Even though the Pilgrims believed strongly in God’s providence, this question must have weighed heavy on their minds. What would it be like on the other side of the ocean? Would they survive the crossing? Could they afford it? In the end, only about fifty of the three hundred people who made up the Pilgrim community in Leiden in 1620 left for the New World.

Design by Northern Light

Getting a land grant from the English King was the easy part. In 1619 they received permission from King James I to settle in Virginia. Although he considered the Pilgrims to be traitors, having them as far away from England as possible was probably for the best.

The unconditional trust the Pilgrims had in God’s will did not always work in their favor. They got misled by the Merchant Adventurers, a group of investors who financed their trip. For the first seven years in the New World, the Pilgrims were supposed to work four days a week to pay off their debt. Two weekdays could be spent working for themselves. After this time period, they would be their own masters and the houses and the surrounding land would become theirs alone. But right before they left, the deal changed: four days of work for their investors turned into six, and after seven years, the Merchant Adventurers would remain part-owners of the houses the Pilgrims built. Apparently, liberty came with a price.

Monument De Vliet Leiden, the Pilgrims’ point of departure

Family separation
And the price for freedom kept rising. In order to save money, the Merchant Adventurers decided to make room for paying customers from England and also added a group of misfits the English were happy to get rid of. Less space meant the Pilgrims had to make some difficult choices: who should go? Who would stay? Families split up, the youngest and weakest were left behind. Most of them would never see each other again.

A rocky start
In July 1620, the Pilgrims left Leiden for Delfshaven, a small harbor near Rotterdam, where they boarded the Speedwell, the boat that was purchased to sail alongside the Mayflower to America. This scene is supposedly portrayed in a painting by Adam Willaerts. After arriving in Southampton, where the other passengers boarded, both the Speedwell and the Mayflower set sail, only to return to the English coast three days later. The Speedwell was leaking uncontrollably, which happened again after a second try. They had no choice but to abandon the ship and cram into the already packed Mayflower. Some travelers, including some of the Pilgrims, decided to abandon the ordeal and stay behind.

The Departure of the Pilgrims from Delfshaven, by Adam Willaerts

Myth of the Mayflower Compact
The ten-week trip was extremely uncomfortable. The delays, bad weather, and poor navigation caused the ship to arrive in winter time instead of summer and at the wrong place: on 11 November 1620, the Mayflower anchored near Cape Cod, Massachusetts instead of reaching the coast of Virginia. After a failed attempt to sail further south, they settled for what would become the coast of New England. The passengers other than the Pilgrims saw an opportunity to get out of the arrangements: “They would use their own liberty; for none had power to command them, since they would not be settling in the agreed-upon Virginia territory.” The Pilgrims feared the new colony was doomed if they did not stick together.

Enter the Mayflower Compact. This agreement, signed by 41 of the male passengers, settled the terms of self-government for the colony which basically held the group together. The document was – and still is – often cited as the first democratic experiment on American soil, and a precursor of the U.S. Constitution.

Text of the Mayflower Compact

But that’s a myth. The Pilgrims did not aspire to a democracy, they just did what was needed for their ‘holy experiment’ to succeed. As the Compact stated, everything was “for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith.” Did the Compact inspire the writers of the Constitution? Perhaps. But free exercise of religion for all as laid out in the First Amendment? The Pilgrims would have been horrified.


Next week: How the indigenous people paid the price for the Pilgrims’ newly found freedom

The exhibition ‘Pilgrims to America – and the Limits of Freedom’ is part of Leiden400, a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower. It highlights not only the story of the Pilgrims but the cultures and places they came into contact with as well. Part of the program is a city walk which leads visitors along sites connected to the Pilgrims, like the American Pilgrim Museum and the Pilgrim Fathers Monument De Vliet.

“Can I Be Who I Am?” - By Mieke Bleeker


Can I be who I am? It’s one of the questions the exhibition Pilgrims to America – And the Limits of Freedom presents to its visitors. If we could ask the strict, Puritan religious community in England in 1608 which we now know as the Pilgrim Fathers, they would probably have answered with a negative: no, they could not be who they were in the England of that time.

Design by Northern Light

Therefore, after clashing with the English State Church and the English King over their beliefs and in fear of persecution, roughly a hundred of them decided to pack their bags and head to the Dutch Republic. The city of Leiden, a fairly tolerant city for those days, had no objections taking the English refugees in. They were free to live, believe and worship as they saw fit, as long as they worked an honest job and would live in peace.

The Pilgrims settled down quietly in Leiden and lived mostly within the confines of their close-knit community. But God had bigger plans for them.

Heaven or hell
Their ultimate goal was to return to the ‘pure’ faith of the first Christians and rid the church of everything that had no literal basis in scripture. What set the Pilgrims apart from other Puritans, was their conviction that they had been divinely chosen to serve as a beacon for the salvation of humanity, predestined to create ‘one nation under God’. If Leiden turned out not to be the right place for this ‘holy experiment’, God would surely lead them somewhere else.

Geneva Bible as used by the Pilgrims

Their strict beliefs left little room for dissent: anyone who preferred different rules of faith was on his way to hell. The tolerance the Pilgrims sought for themselves in order to freely exercise their beliefs, did not extend to the outside world.

Fear of the other
Not surprisingly, then, one of the reasons why the Pilgrims decided to leave Leiden was fear of assimilation. City life came with all kinds of temptations, and after over a decade, it got harder and harder to stay on God’s righteous path and to maintain their ‘Englishness’. Over time, their journey over the Atlantic has become synonymous with the American urge for freedom, but disdain for how others lived their life should be part of the narrative too.

Devout 17th century couple praying,(anonymous, after J. de Gheyn)

Fear of war
But we have to be fair. The reasons for their desire to leave were manifold. Life in Leiden was tough. They worked hard for low wages, mostly in the textile industry. There was also a fear of war. After a twelve-year truce, the relationship between the Dutch Republic and the Spanish had gotten very tense, with dire implications for the degree of tolerance and freedom of expression.

Time to go
This becomes clear from what happened to William Brewster, a Pilgrim who printed anonymous publications criticizing the king of England. After pressure from the English, whose help the Dutch depended on in case of a new war with Spain, Brewster was arrested and his printing materials seized. This move had been unthinkable in the years before and showed the Pilgrims that their time in Leiden was coming to an end. After eleven years, they packed up and left again, paying the price for how they envisioned freedom.

William Brewster Alley, Leiden


Next week: The Pilgrims face a dilemma. Should they stay or should they go?

The exhibition ‘Pilgrims to America – and the Limits of Freedom’ is part of Leiden400, a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower. It highlights not only the story of the Pilgrims but the cultures and places they came into contact with as well.
Part of the program is a city walk which leads visitors along sites connected to the Pilgrims, like the American Pilgrim Museum, De Pieterskerk and the place where William Brewster printed his pamphlets.


Rumblings Among the Dispossessed - By Sjors Roeters


Shelter in place, they ordered. Stay home, they said.

Tonight I have neighbors for a change. I’m new on the block. I parked my van next to a family along the Pacific Coast Highway, half an hour west of Los Angeles. The stuffed garbage bags outside their beat-up car indicate that they’ve been living here for a while.

I actually have dozens of neighbors tonight, because it’s quite a good spot. There are no “NO OVERNIGHT PARKING” signs, so it appears that car and van dwellers are relatively free from harassment by police and security. And of course there’s the luxury of a porta potti on a parking spot a few hundred feet away which, according to the schedule on the door, is supposed to get emptied and cleaned once a week.

Yet even adding the Californian sunshine, and seeing and hearing the waves of the Pacific crash onto Malibu beach, I can’t stave off the sadness that sweeps over me every time I see people forced to live in their cars and on the streets – an inescapable observation in my daily life as a foreign journalist living in a van in this country. Official numbers say that there are half a million unhoused in the US. According to other estimates it is more in the range of two million.

I’m fortunate I’m not forced to live in a van. I chose to because I planned to travel across the United States for a year to follow the Bernie Sanders campaign. Then came the pandemic and all events were cancelled. After Bernie dropped out, my gaze broadened further still.

Slowly making my way up north along the West Coast, I immerse myself in Howard Zinn’s classic A People’s History of the United States. Zinn was an influential American historian and this is his most famous work. First published in 1980, it sold over a million copies and has seen many updated editions since. It is considered a classic because it provided a new take on American history, from the arrival of Columbus in 1492 to the 2000 election and the ‘War on Terrorism’. The phenomena the book highlights, such as rising inequality and militarization, have become only more pronounced over time.

During its rise as a global empire, the United States, “finding itself possessed of enormous wealth, could create the richest ruling class in history,” writes Zinn, “and still have enough for the middle classes to act as a buffer between the rich and the dispossessed.”

Homeless. Unhoused. Outdoorsy

The homeless, they’re often labeled. The unhoused, they’re occasionally termed. When asked, they sometimes refer to themselves as the outdoorsy. Like Allen, an outdoorsy guy I met on a parking lot in Las Vegas. With or without a pandemic, they don’t have a home to stay safe in.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been living on the streets of the richest country in the history of the world for years. They end up in the streets for all kinds of reasons. Some because of mental illnesses and disabilities – eleven per cent of the unhoused are veterans – for which they can’t get help because they’re uninsured. As Theo Henderson, currently unhoused and residing in LA, tells in his podcast We The Unhoused: “I did not one day wake up and decide to live out on the street. I was working as an educator, and I had a diabetic coma. It happened at the most inopportune time, during the 2008 Great Recession.”

Many of the unhoused work full-time jobs, but still have to live in their cars or tents because they simply cannot afford to pay rent. The pre-pandemic ‘booming economy’ has caused rents to rise astronomically. Considering that at least twenty-two million people lost their job in the past four weeks, homelessness is bound to rise rapidly – unless people go on rent strike.

Data shows homeless communities and people of color are two to three times as likely to die from COVID-19. The middle and upper classes complain that life under lockdown is horrendous, that they want to go to bars, restaurants and shopping malls again. Meanwhile images from New York City show the working class, predominantly black and brown, crammed into subways during rush hour (not even six inches apart), because the lowest-paid jobs, the cleaners and janitors and Wal-Mart employees, can’t be done remotely.

Are all men created equal?

All men are created equal, they wrote.

COVID-19 has prompted authorities to address the homelessness crisis that has been sweeping across the US for decades. One might applaud the efforts to house the unhoused in hotels. But for whose sake? And so by extension: for how long?

I’m not getting my hopes up. This country started out as a series of colonial business enterprises – not a noble democratic experiment, as is generally claimed. A highly stratified class society quickly developed. This balance of power in favor of wealthy elites was firmly established long before the American Revolution of 1776 took place and the Constitution was written. The Constitution merely institutionalized and consolidated the power of the economic and political elites.

“The Constitution was a compromise between slaveholding interests of the South and moneyed interests of the North,” Zinn explains. It solidified the injustice and systemic violence already pervasive in the empire. “Four groups were not represented in the Constitutional Convention: slaves, indentured servants, women, men without property. And so the Constitution did not reflect the interests of those groups,” Zinn points out. But now everyone can vote, right? Zinn: “If some people had great wealth and great influence; if they had the land, the money, the newspapers, the church, the educational system – how could voting, however broad, cut into such power?”

Millions across the country are concluding that it is not enough to rely on the electoral component of democracy. People are rising up. In California calls for rent and debt strikes are becoming louder and louder. In Los Angeles people are demanding “Homes not hotels”. Since the start of the pandemic, dozens of unhoused families have taken over state-owned houses that have long stood vacant, and more continue to do so every single day.

Families reclaiming vacant state-owned homes in LA

Workplace strikes, rent strikes, debt strikes: throughout history, strikes were one of the only ways the working class and dispossessed have ever been able to gain political power and drive societal progress. This pandemic has made very clear that it is the working class that creates value in the economy; when they don’t go to work, the economy collapses. And they’re becoming aware of their power. More and more strikes are hitting corporations across the country. On May 1, nationwide rent and workplace strikes are being organized.

Something’s rumbling among the dispossessed.



Sjors Roeters (1991) is a journalist focusing on the influence of economics and tech on society.

Dutch doctors in the epicenter in New York City - By Jaap Jan Boelens and Leontine van Elden


Every evening at seven o’clock we listen to the tens of thousands of New Yorkers cheering in support of all the healthcare workers and other essential workers in emergency rooms, outpatient clinics and nursing homes. Our kids are proud of us: “They are cheering for you too!”

When we moved to New York City in the summer of 2018, we didn’t really know what to expect – but we certainly did not anticipate this. As a family of two physicians and three daughters, we decided together to make the move to New York City, with two cats and a horse. We quickly felt at home here, with the wonderful people this vibrant and multicultural city has to offer. We feel the fear too, but it never crossed our minds to leave the city in its time of need.

Get to know the neighbors

Suddenly we are getting to know our neighbors, such as Ashlee who is a Juilliard alum and teaches music at Columbia University. Daughter Isis (15, tenth grade) and little sister Faye (7) are taking piano lessons, and their music drowns out the ambulance sirens outside. And Carolina, an NYU-student from Brazil who is stuck in Brooklyn without her family, takes the subway every day from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side to guide our youngest daughter Faye through her virtual schooling while we are at work. She is definitely one of those essential workers!

Merle, Faye and Isis

Disruption of our daily life

Our daily lives have been disrupted, not in the least for our daughters. Our eldest daughter Merle (a junior in high school), who loves her social life and misses her friends, bravely celebrated her eighteenth birthday solely with her nuclear family. She has emerged as a real chef, making breakfast for her little sister to keep her ‘healthy’ and preparing meals and lunches. Our cats are happier than ever, with people around all day giving them extra attention, and even horse Zoe gets ridden a couple times a week by a friend.

Seven-day shift at the Intensive Care Unit

Jaap Jan is normally responsible for managing the pediatric (bone marrow) transplantation and cellular therapy team at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. We had to drastically change practice in only a couple of days. For example, the usually very frequent checkups in the main hospital weren’t possible anymore, but thanks to telemedicine we were able to do the checkups at the labs in the MSK regional centers.

Even though our hospital is a cancer center, we knew there would inevitably be a surge of COVID-19 patients. In New York hundreds of healthcare workers as well as hundreds of cancer patients contracted COVID-19.

The majority of the COVID patients admitted to our hospital had cancer. That brings an extra dimension to the treatment: what can we and can’t we do. Both of us worked to make sure that the impact on the already vulnerable (pediatric) cancer patients is as small as possible. The routine of going into a room, examining the patient and talking to the patient and the family has changed drastically: as you have seen in the media, we have to wear full protective PPE. This all takes a lot of extra time and makes contact also less personal.

Leontine just finished a seven-day shift at our Intensive Care Unit as a ‘critical care physician’, instead of her usual pulmonology practice. Although MSK is a cancer center and doesn’t have an emergency room, they have managed to create room for critically ill COVID patients. Some staff have been re-deployed to other departments. The pulmonary team Leontine normally works in, for example, is rotating in shifts.

The hospital has put a lot of effort into protecting its healthcare workers and there have been no shortages of protective material. Leontine did come home every day with stories about critically ill COVID-19 patients fighting for their lives, in complete isolation from their loved ones. But she was very much aware that the real “frontline healthcare workers” are out there.

Humble and blessed

People tell us: you are so brave, working “on the frontlines”, whilst we feel humble and salute all the helpers around us. We feel blessed to work in a highly specialized cancer care hospital where everybody is well-prepared. And above all, we are proud of our three cool kids who are handling this situation on top of a life-changing immigration just twenty months ago.


The Dutch doctors Jaap Jan Boelens (oncologist) and Leontine van Elden (pulmonologist) moved to New York City in 2018 with their three children Merle, Isis and Faye, plus two cats and horse Zoe. Jaap Jan and Leontine both work at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where for the past weeks they have been on the frontlines of the corona pandemic.

My Life as a Dog - By Leon Neyfakh


I had gotten pretty good about feeling lucky even before all this happened. But I’m now more conscious of my luck than ever, both in terms of the big picture – I am young, healthy, self-employed – as well as all the circumstantial reasons that have allowed me to experience the pandemic not as a catastrophe but as a novel interruption of my regular life.

My wife’s parents made it possible for us to leave our apartment building in Brooklyn and relocate to an empty house outside the city. We are “stuck” here with two of our closest friends and two cute dogs who don’t mind each other. The four of us spend our days doing work while sitting on couches; when we finish for the day, we take the dogs out to a field where they can run around, and in the evenings, we take turns cooking dinner. When it gets cold in the house, we can turn up the thermostat. There is literally nothing to complain about.

The biggest luxury might be that we have full control over what we know about the outside world, and how much information we’re exposed to about the suffering we’re being spared. We could fill each day reading about people who are sick and dying; doctors and hospital staff who are making impossible decisions on little to no sleep; workers and business-owners who don’t know how they’ll recover their losses or start earning money again. I do read about all those things, and I do empathize and donate and mourn and worry. But I do so from the comfort of my temporary home. And the fact is I could choose to ignore it all if I felt like it.

Having this discretion insulates me from reality to a degree that should be impossible. It is a form of extreme luck that a stronger, less selfish person might try to redistribute. But I have convinced myself, conveniently, that there’s little I could give up that would help anyone else. It makes me wonder how the people without my luck – the people with loved ones who have died, who are waiting in food lines, who are risking their own health by going out into the world to help others – would conceptualize the difference between us, if they didn’t have more urgent things to think about. I wouldn’t blame them for hating my guts.

After I finish writing this, I will take my dog outside to pee; then I’ll give him breakfast and pet him while he sleeps on a literal tuffet. My wife and I have had him for 5 years now, and on countless occasions, during moments of acute work-related stress, we have glanced over at him and thought, “You have no idea what’s going on, you’ve never had to do anything, and nothing bad has ever happened to you.” All true. Lucky dog.


Leon Neyfakh is an American podcast maker. He created the award-winning podcast series ‘Slow Burn’, about the Watergate scandal and the Lewinsky-affair. His podcast ‘Fiasco’ deals with the hotly contested 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush and the Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan administration. Leon Neyfakh visited the John Adams to talk about storytelling in the digital age in 2019.

Quiet Spring in Rock Creek Park - By Bas Blokker


Every morning my editor calls from the Netherlands. We discuss what we think is happening in the United States, what we’ve read or seen, and what could be a topic for me to write about. He used to call from the Amsterdam office of the national daily NRC Handelsblad, a four-storied workspace in the old center of the city. The sound of coffee machines and colleagues in the background. Now the only sounds other than his voice, are the shrieks of his young children. He’s working from home. As millions and millions of people are doing. As I am in Washington DC. Trying to be a correspondent for the USA.

Once our deliberations are done, I get to work. Plenty to write about. And every day, somewhere between four and five o’clock, I put on my shoes and coat, and I go out. I walk, sometimes I ride my bike to some place where walking is nicer, unknown. That’s a new ritual.

A week ago, I went to New York to write a story about a city that has found itself in the heart of the pandemic. As I drove back home to Washington DC, I heard Dr. Anthony Fauci say during the daily White House press conference that people who had been in New York City and left for another place should self-quarantine for two weeks. Since then, my world has shrunk into the size of my house – but for the daily walks.

Car-less Sundays

Now I have to be careful to not trivialize the gravity of this epidemic. Every day stories, pictures and podcasts fill my ears and eyes with people getting sick, people suffocating and people dying. I’ve seen pictures of bodies being stacked in refrigerated trucks in New York because the morgues are overflowing. There cannot be a lighter side to this.

Still, every time I go outside to walk, I see other people doing the same. The sound of cars and busses has been replaced by the sounds of people talking, children laughing, bikers ringing their bell.

In the Netherlands some people have compared the corona-walks there to the 1973 oil crisis. Back then the oil-producing countries strangled the western countries that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur war. The Dutch government proclaimed a ‘car-less’ Sunday for each month the oil embargo held. Kids skated on the highways.

Spike in gun sales

All differences aside, I see what they mean. There is a peacefulness to these walks that belies the severity of this crisis, apparently in the Netherlands just as it is in Washington. It could be that this feeling will fade as the weeks of ‘stopping the spread’ grow into months, which I think is inevitable. As food or other daily needs get more scarce, people might dig in and turn to some real aggressive hoarding. And if I am really trying to scare myself, I read about the huge spike in gun sales. (Not as high as the Obama-election spike, though. Apparently that was even scarier.)

Nietzsche? Or Conan the Barbarian?

But until that moment, let me enjoy this quiet spring in Rock Creek Park. A father throwing balls with his 9-year old son. A couple letting their toddler swing on the hanging branches of a tree. A lonely man (social distancing!) reading on a park bench. My neighbor’s piano playing has definitely improved these weeks.

There are a lot of caveats: domestic violence is bound to spike, some parents could go crazy because of the children being around all the time. My editor keeps warning me to take time off. He says people staying at home tend to lose track of their working hours, at the risk of burning out.

But I can’t help thinking that the people that don’t catch the Covid-19-virus, who don’t get sick at least, will be healthier because of the way of living these weeks. Less stress (maybe) and more walks (definitely). To quote Nietzsche: what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger. Or was it Conan the Barbarian who said that?


Bas Blokker is US Correspondent for NRC Media (NRC Handelsbald, NRC Next, nrc.nl). He lives in Washington DC.

Mieke Kirkels – The Oral History of the Black Liberators - By Jonathan Pieterse


There is one person who has done more than anyone else in the Netherlands to bring the stories of the Black Liberators into the light of day: Dutch oral historian Mieke Kirkels. She is the author of From Farmland to Soldiers Cemetery, From Alabama to Margraten and Children of Black Liberators. I interviewed her to hear how she discovered the suppressed history of the participation of African American soldiers during World War II.

Kirkels decided to interview Dutch farmers in the Margraten area for the National Project ‘Heritage of World War II: Eyewitness Accounts’, which started in 2008, to hear what the farmers thought of their farmland becoming a military cemetery. Kirkels’ story is filled with remarkable coincidences, such as this one: “In one of the first interviews an older woman told me: ‘I felt so sorry for those poor black guys.’ I had no idea what she was talking about: to me, the American liberators were white guys with their shiny boots, helmet and a big smile. But she was talking about black guys having to bury all those bodies! Many of the farmers I interviewed confirmed it.”

The revelation that African American soldiers were stationed in the Netherlands prompted Kirkels to try to incorporate them into her project about the cemetery at Margraten. However, by 2009 she had found so little information that she almost decided to continue without their stories. Then, out of the blue, she got an email from the United States. “It sounds like a coincidence, but to me it felt like fate: An American woman wrote to say she was so glad the website about the cemetery at Margraten was in English, since her neighbor had been a US Army captain in World War II.”

Dr. Wiggins

This neighbor, Captain Solms, turned out to have been in charge of a unit of African American soldiers who dug graves at Margraten. But he was white. Was he by any chance still in touch with any of those African American soldiers? The veterans’ organizations were whites-only back then. But Solms had met one of them two years before, and still had his phone number! His name was dr. Jefferson Wiggins from Connecticut, born in Alabama. Kirkels interviewed both dr. Wiggins and Captain Solms and in September 2009 they both came to Margraten to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Dutch province of Limburg.

Dr. Wiggins asked Kirkels to help him write his memoirs (From Alabama to Margraten, published in 2014) of his three years in the segregated US army during World War II. She was the only person he had met in the Netherlands who knew of the segregation. That ignorance was not limited to the Netherlands. Kirkels: “American journalists, accredited by the US Army to come to Europe, were forbidden to write about the African American soldiers.”

Children of Black Liberators

Another startling coincidence led to her next project, the book Children of Black Liberators (2017). “People could order the book From Alabama to Margraten and pick it up themselves. Suddenly there is this man of color standing in front of me. He took my hand and said: ‘I am so happy with your book, I have been searching for years in archives for black soldiers stationed here, because my father was one.’ His name was Huub Schepers. Eventually, about 25 children of African American soldiers reached out and 12 of them were willing to be interviewed. Through this project these ‘children of black liberators’ became like the family that some of them never had.”

Kirkels also interviewed pastor Matthew Southall Brown sr, a black veteran, by phone in 2016. Three years later in May 2019, he emailed her that he wanted to visit the cemetery at Margraten. The American embassy then invited him to represent the U.S. as a guest of honor at the official start of 75 years Freedom in the Netherlands. Pastor Brown was one of 7 veterans present at the commemoration – and the first guest to shake the king’s hand. “For me, it has now come full circle.”

Race code 2

Kirkels is now researching the African American soldiers who are buried at Margraten. Her colleague, researcher Sebastiaan Vonk, made a final list of 172 African Americans buried there. They were able to identiy them om the basis of the race code on the burial certificates: race code 2 were African Americans. Vonk is now leading a project in the United States to interview the relatives of those 172 soldiers, with the aim of telling the story of a group of soldiers who have been forgotten until now. Kirkels: “There are a couple of websites about American cemeteries, but they are just about white American soldiers. We want to give the African American soldiers of Margraten a face and tell their stories.”


For more stories about African American soldiers in the Netherlands and Mieke Kirkels’ research, visit https://blackliberators.nl. This is the final blog in our series on the Black Liberators. Click here to read the whole series.

Pictures © Martijn Beekman/Jean Pierre Geussens, Artwork © Brian Elstak

All In All We Be Blessed - By Michael Martin


After leaving the Netherlands ten years ago my family and I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina where we still rent an old red-brick parsonage adjoining a Moravian church. Directly across our street is an elementary school and around the corner a middle school; within a couple of blocks you’ve got two more churches, a public pool and a few day-care centers. Weekends come and the school playground across the road turns into a neighborhood park; kids shoot hoop and dogs get walked and if you want to talk to someone you can talk. What a big slice of life just out the front door! But no more.

For awhile it’s been like I don’t know what it is we’re nowhere near the end of.

The churches were one of the first acts around town to get wise to the situation. After they shut down on account of the coronavirus everything else soon followed and now the neighborhood and the city is oh so quiet.

But boy are we fortunate. My wife can work from her home office and the boys are dialed into their school with something called ‘remote learning.’ They don’t seem to miss seeing their friends and I know they don’t miss their teachers. When I first thought about all of us being at home together day after day for god knows how long I think to myself, ‘Uh-oh.’ But some survival instinct seems to have kicked in for each of us. I make breakfast for the boys each morning. Never did that before. Christa bakes bread after that. We watch bad movies together at night. We’re taking polaroid pictures of apples and the dog. Hang ‘em on the fridge. The din from the nearby freeway is gone. No planes overhead. The birds seem louder. All in all we be blessed, even though the anxiety visitations come upon me from time to time — that bad worry about everyone I love.

Horses don’t like being alone either. It’s the herd thing. I was out riding the other day with a friend who has three horses stabled at her farm about an hour from our place. My friend rode the gelding and I took one of her mares while the other mare, Daisy, remained behind at the barn.

We steered Gigi and Elijah along the shoulder of a two-lane asphalt road. Even in these rural areas, everyone is laying low so only a few vehicles came up on us. As they slowly eased by each driver would wave and we would wave back.

“My dad loved his country because he could criticize it. It meant he cared”.

Horses spook easily when they’re away from what they’re used to – the scent of other critters, funny noises, those kind of things can get them edgy. If they sense a danger they might dash for home – with you or without you, makes no difference to them. But Gigi and Elijah were easy that day. The ride smooth and peaceful and as the morning rolled along for some reason I got to thinking about my father.

I got to thinking what my old man would make of the mess America is now. The Trump Virus and all. My dad had flown hundreds of missions in the Air Force in two wars. But he was no patriot. Didn’t own the Vietnam Vet hat. Would have scoffed if someone ‘thanked him for his service’. He was just a good pilot and liked the steady pay for being one. He loved his country because he could criticize it. It meant he cared. When he was alive he’d make his comments on the whole national circus without saying a word. He’d couch in front of the evening news and I’d be close to the old man, studying what he’d shake his head so incredulously at, when he’d take a deeper pull from his cigarette. I was working all that stuff in my head as we turned the horses around to head back to the farm.

“Gigi and Elijah picked up their gait, ready to canter back to their farm.”

It’s called ‘barn sour’ – the herd instinct. Gigi and Elijah picked up their gait right away, ready to trot, ready to canter back the long haul to their farm. To Daisy. We worked the reins and held the horses back and had we not they would have had their way with us and galloped home. As we rode along the mare and gelding heard Daisy braying from the barn and brayed back. And we weren’t even that close.

We rode the mare and gelding into my friend’s pasture. We unsaddled the horses and slipped the bridles off and carried it all away as the horses ran around. When I got to Daisy in her stall she was loathing it all like a tiger in a cage. I cornered her and slipped a harness and rope on her. Walked her toward the pasture. The closer we got the more I had to hold the mare back. The closer we got it felt she’d pull my arm off just to get into the pasture with her pals.


Michael Martin is the author of ‘Extended Remark: Poems from a Moravian Parking Lot’ (Portals Press). For decades his poetry has been published widely in literary magazines, including Poetry Ireland, the Moth, American Journal of Poetry, RHINO Poetry, New Orleans Review, Carolina Quarterly & Berkeley Poetry Review.

He co-founded the literary magazine Hogtown Creek Review and for a decade lived in the Netherlands, where he was a feature writer and contributing editor with Amsterdam Weekly. In 2010 he edited the anthology ‘Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing’ from Harper’s Magazine. He’s been a consulting editor for Lewis Lapham, Dutch film director Louis van Gasteren, poet Jack Butler and author Jim Bouton. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and boys.


False Reassurance - By Casper Thomas


Life under lockdown in Washington DC has quickly led to new habits. The daily late-afternoon walk ranks in the category ‘pleasant’. The Corona-crisis has turned parts of DC into what sometimes resembles a Southern European city: countless people just going around the neighbourhood, stopping for a chat. People on the streets instead of cars. This is one aspect that I hope remains after the days of quarantine are over.

There is of a course a local touch to this leisurely spectacle. Normally one of the most dressed-up cities in the US, DC now seems to wear little else but sports kit and ‘athleisure’ wear. If I were to make a Corona-investment, it would be in companies producing yoga pants. Until then, I try and spend money at local restaurants than are eerily empty now. Ben’s Chili Bowl – in business since 1958 – had a radio add calling on customers to do take out. I happily obliged.

Five o’clock is now competing with other moments of the day for the cocktail hour slot. ‘We have rediscovered daytime drinking’, a neighbour merrily announced. Being a foreign correspondent means 17:00 hours is Trump time. At that moment the White House holds its daily Corona-briefing. Like the daily sitcom, there is always anticipation about who will star today. The President himself of course is the lead character, and vice-president Pence is rarely absent. Around this core duo, there is a revolving cast of characters. Medical experts, military men and the president’s own family, to all of whom Trump grants the stage.

Will Anthony Fauci, the country’s top epidemiologist speak? Or will he only stand there, keeping a plain face, trying to not reveal his inner thoughts as the president of the United States touts unproven drug treatments for Corona and spreads misinformation. ‘We are doing a great job’. ‘We have this under control’. ‘I have great relations with the State governors’.

In the midst of the greatest health crisis the US has seen in a century, Trump deals in false reassurance. The registered death toll is nearing the 15.000 and expected to reach the 100.000 or beyond. New York City is considering mass burial sites in public parks. On Twitter, Trump taunts and insults State governors, who beg the federal government to supply more emergency ventilators and masks. As long as the Corona-crisis lasts, United is the last thing these States are.

On a recent occasion, The Corona-briefing featured Michael J. Lindell. From Minnesota and with an estimated net worth of $300 million, this businessman stood behind the lectern to explain what Americans should do now the virus spreads. The US was a nation ’that had turned its back on God’, Lindell Said. It was time to ‘go home and get back in the Word’.

The enormous reservoir of religiosity among Americans is, admittedly, one of the things I struggle with most to get my head around. Maybe it’s my personal conviction that faith, or non-belief, is best practiced in private – I consider a church congregation hovering between the public and the private sphere – and preferably not talked about. Lindell reminded me why. ‘God gave us the grace on November 8 2016 to change the course we were on’, he said. I consider politicians elected, not as divine gifts. When faith meets political power, the inexcusable becomes a priori pardoned. Trump has proven a case in point on numerous occasions.

Lindell is also an ‘inventor’ and the CEO of My Pillow, an online company dealing in, well, pillows. On its website, you can buy his book filled with entrepreneurial wisdom as well as a Mike Lindell bobble-head-figure. Perhaps this effigy will now be in higher demand, as Lindell has converted part of his production capacity to making facemasks. He had been invited by Trump to announce this generous act of supplying the nation in times of need. There was a question begged by this little spectacle of capitalist theocracy that America in a way has become. Why are facemasks, cheap and even less perishable than Twinkies, in such short supply in the US?

The Surgeon General recently reported critical shortages of all medical supplies. US hospitals report having to compete for stock amongst each other, often finding batches snatched away by a higher bidder. The Corona outbreak is considered a global health crisis. At the same time, it is a crisis of completely market-based healthcare systems that promise rewards for those who can turn scarcity into profit.

While writing the paragraph above, the name of one of the main proponents of an alternative health care system, pops up in my mailbox under the header ‘breaking news’. Bernie Sanders is quitting the primaries, making Joe Biden in all likelihood the Democratic nominee. Sanders’ free health care for all plan was one of the reasons many moderate Democrats were reluctant to pit him against Trump. Political history does not deal in ‘ifs’, but one wonders how the primaries would have played out if Corona had hit a few months earlier.

Still, health care persistently ranks as the number one topic of concern for American voters on either side of the political divide. Bernie throwing in the towel was a reminder that a presidential election waits at the end – or maybe in the midst – of this. US financial institutions operate on scenarios that the economy will not return to full normal until the summer of 2021. Events drawing large crowds, for instance, may be banned for a significant period of time. The mass rally is perhaps the most defining feature of US elections, and I was looking forward to reporting on them. Instead, I brace myself for more televised speeches. Not having a fired-up MAGA-crowd may turn out to be Trumps biggest problem that comes out of the Corona-crisis.


Casper Thomas is correspondent in Washington D.C. for Het Financieele Dagblad and editor of De Groene Amsterdammer.




Marga Altena – Bringing Color to Dutch History - By Jonathan Pieterse

Marga Altena wrote the text for the graphic novel Franklin – Een Nederlands Bevrijdingsverhaal (Franklin – A Dutch Liberation Story). She is a cultural historian who publishes about class and ethnicity like the book A True History Full of Romance. Mixed Marriages and Ethnic Identity in Dutch Art, News Media and Popular Culture (1833-1955). The scenario for Franklin, her first non-fiction book, is based on her own research and studies like Cees van Kouwen’s Forgotten Liberators and Mieke Kirkels’ Children of Black Liberators. Marga is a project coordinator for Loving Day.nl, a platform for researchers and others interested in mixed race relationships and families in the Netherlands. As such, Loving Day facilitated and organized the Black Liberators project. Loving Day was named after the married couple Mildred and Richard Loving. You can watch the trailer for the movie based on their life.

How did Marga come to be interested in mixed-race couples and African American soldiers in World War II? “I was asked for this project because of my earlier work. For my PhD thesis, I studied how in the Netherlands about 1900, photos and films of female factory workers were employed by various producers to support very different political agendas. I discovered that there was a great likeness in the ways class and raciality were expressed. That’s why my thesis Visual Strategies was followed by my study of ethnicity in the Netherlands, resulting in the book A True History Full of Romance.

© Brian Elstak

An important storyline in Franklin is how Frances, the granddaughter of the African American soldier Franklin, decides to find out who her grandfather was. She visits archives and searches online, looking for hints of her past. Was this a way for Marga to incorporate her research methods into the story she was writing? “Yes indeed. It was a way to show how historians do research, but my main object was to write a scenario about African American soldiers that would interest a large and varied public. It helps that Franklin includes several generations. For young readers it can be difficult to relate to people who lived 75 years ago. For them, it is easier to sympathize with a protagonist who they can imagine to be their grandfather. I hope that Franklin shows that this history still affects people’s lives today.”

The Black Liberators have long been a forgotten part of Dutch history. Why? Marga speaks from her own experience: “In Dutch research and in society the topic of raciality has long been avoided. I was told that researching racial issues in the Netherlands meant risking my career.” This is still a problem: When the Dutch news organization NOS covered our NIOD exhibition, their website received 900 negative reactions within 5 days. Comments dismissed NIOD, a respectable organization, as “a left-wing grachtengordel institution’ and the exhibition organizers as “out to divide the Netherlands.” Other comments stated that we are “forcing diversity into Dutch history” when we aim to fill a void in historiography and do justice to the Black Liberators. As a researcher, Marga studies patterns in people’s expressions and in media representations. If patterns of exclusion keep repeating themselves and prove to have long histories, you cannot but conclude that that the Dutch still have a problem with racism today.

In Franklin the children of the Black Liberators are highlighted. They were included to do justice to these children, and to show how history influences peoples’ lives today. The children of the Black Liberators were very visible in Dutch society at that time and they were considered a disgrace. Often, these children were sent away from their mothers and put in foster homes and institutions. There they were mistreated and sexually abused to such an extent that many were traumatized for life. As adults, they could only feel safe with their spouses and children; the rest of the world felt hostile.

Black Liberators Exhibition

Finally, I asked Marga how Franklin and the Black Liberators exhibition have been received by the public. At the exhibition at NIOD, like at the Vrijheidsmuseum in Groesbeek and at Theater aan het Vrijthof in Maastricht, visitor reactions have been very positive. Some of the visitors were children of Black Liberators themselves and they felt recognized and seen. Other visitors are surprised to learn about the existence of black soldiers in the Netherlands. Some wish to make them more visible in Dutch history, saying: “Every Dutch person should know this story!” The book sales for Franklin started slowly but are now picking up. And even more now the book has been selected as one of The Best Book Designs. Marga hopes that before long, Franklin will become widely popular and turn into a textbook classic. 100 copies are donated to school libraries to ensure that the story remains accessible in the future. Franklin – A Dutch Liberation Story is available at book shops, websites and through Rose Stories.

The first installment of our blog series was an interview with Brian Elstak, who created the art of Franklin. The second blog is an interview with NIOD researcher Kees Ribbens. The third blog is based on a talk by professor Gloria Wekker, about forgotten and suppressed history.

How We Live Now - By Russell Shorto


My wife and I both work from home. We live in a small town in the mountains of western Maryland, which is always quiet. So: not much change. Except that our 10 year old is no longer in school, and our 19 year old is back from his first year at university. Both of them are here with us, roaming around the house, settling in front of a computer to do some school work, then roaming again. Maybe what’s weirdest about that is that they’re both being so nice. We all are. Nobody is panicking or getting on each other’s nerves. I guess we all know there’s nowhere to go, so we don’t let ourselves slip into bitchiness or pouting, which would only spiral downward.

We go on long walks, together or in pairs or alone with the dog.

Of course we consume news fiendishly, including from friends and family, and report findings to whoever is in the same room. “Prince Charles has it.” “Is somebody taking care of your aunt?” Yesterday we learned that Pamela’s niece, a nurse in the neo-natal unit at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, was told they were running out of hospital masks so they should be prepared to bring bandannas to work. That is possibly the single most alarming thing I’ve heard to date.

It is impossible to overstate the hideousness of Trump, including the fact that a large majority of Republicans continue to see him as a credible human being, let alone as a credible leader. His hideousness has grown exponentially with all of this. The future will look back on the Republican Party in the United States at this moment as on a par with the very lowest depths of human thought and morality.

My mother is sheltering with my sister and her family, which is a relief: everyone in that household is working from home. My niece was on a plane last week and the man next to her was coughing; today she doesn’t feel well so everyone is wondering if she has it. A friend in New York told me yesterday he has been volunteering at a homeless shelter, which is noble and kind, but I worry about him getting the virus. He lives alone and has no family.

Every day more people tell me they are watching Governor Andrew Cuomo’s press conferences as an antidote to Trump’s horror shows. Cuomo offers information and empathy. In the evenings he appears on his brother’s news show on CNN. Their mix of news with fraternal taunting is the first big TV hit of the coronavirus era.

At the start of all of this, I bought a jigsaw puzzle, figuring we would be stuck together and it would be a family project. Nobody has done more than fiddle with a few pieces. Maybe we’ll start on it in a week or two. It’s a painting of the facade of Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris. I loved going there when I was in Paris in my early twenties, pretending that I’d just missed Ernest Hemingway paying a visit to Sylvia Beach.

Benji, the 19 year old, has become a body builder. When I told him he couldn’t go to the gym, he didn’t get angry but instead put together a homemade gym in the car port out back, then announced that he was going to provide customized training regimens for Pamela and Anthony. They’ve been doing their workouts, maybe more for his sake than theirs. So far I have been able to resist getting buff.

We all four eat dinner together every single night. They’ve been pretty great dinners, both the food and the conversation. Relaxed, roaming topics. The virus filters into the conversation, then gives way to another subject. Last night we were talking a lot about our apartment in Amsterdam, and the time one of the two cats — Simon — ran away. Simon never returned. Garfunkel continued living with us for years, then last year he got hit by a car. We wondered if maybe Simon was still out there, roaming Oud Zuid.


Russell Shorto is an American writer, historian and journalist, best known for his book on the Dutch origins of New York City, ‘The Island of the Center of the World’. He is also the author of ‘Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom’, which tells the story of the American Revolution through the eyes of six Americans from vastly different walks of life. Shorto is a former director of the John Adams Institute. He currently lives in Maryland. He is a senior scholar at the New Netherland Institute and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.

A Stage Set without Actors or Audience - By Brian Rose


As a photographer, the concept of sheltering in place is foreign to my instincts, but here in New York, in the midst of this invisible infectious storm, we have been ordered to stay at home. However, we are permitted the liberty of taking walks as long as we maintain the requisite social distance of six feet (2 meters). So I’ve been walking the streets and parks of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, largely devoid of human presence, a stage set without actors, and no audience, still brightly lit. It is a troubling, but strangely beautiful moment in the history of this dynamic city, the daily ebb and flow of commuters from the suburbs frozen, and the countless flights from abroad grounded. We are alone in the world together – all nine million of us.

Having done this work a long time – documenting the urban landscape – I understand the value of taking a patient measure of change and continuity in contrast to the more episodic nature of photojournalism. In 1980 I photographed the Lower East Side at a time when New York was crumbling, and many had given up on the city. In retrospect, it turned out to be a moment of rebirth more than a moment of decline. My photographs serve as a record of that inflection point in history.

A few years later, I photographed the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. I did not know when I started that project that the wall would soon open, that democracy would sweep across eastern Europe, and that my work would constitute a key document of that time.

Before 9/11, I made many photographs of lower Manhattan that included the World Trade Center, the Twin Towers as ubiquitous signposts on the skyline. After their destruction, I continued to photograph the site, collecting visual evidence, following the gradual rebuilding of the city. I had no special access. No commission. I just did what I do as a photographer.

The greatest lesson for me, as obvious as it may be, is to never take anything for granted. Even the most seemingly permanent of structures – physical, political, cultural – can disappear in the blink of an eye. The present is quite likely another pivotal moment in history. It will test our resilience as urban animals, human beings, living in a complex, dense environment. It will test our institutions and possibly our democracy.

The pictures I am taking are not dramatic depictions of the calamity that has befallen New York. They are simply what I see walking the streets in this “time of plague”. The trees are blooming, and the sky is blue, adding insult to injury. Or perhaps, signalling hope that we will come through this stronger, as we have come through great upheavals in the past.

Photographer Brian Rose studied urban design at the University of Virginia and moved to New York City in 1977 to attend Cooper Union. In 1980, he and fellow Cooper graduate Edward Fausty photographed the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In 1985 Rose began photographing the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, resulting in the book ‘The Lost Border. The Landscape of the Iron Curtain’ (Princeton Architectural Press, 2004).

From 1993 to 2007, Rose lived in Amsterdam. In 1998 he photographed the Mercatorplein neighborhood with its immigrant population and Amsterdam School architecture: ‘Mercatorplein, Image of a World in Amsterdam’. Back in New York in the mid-2000s, Rose began re-photographing the Lower East Side of New York. ‘Time and Space on the Lower East Side’ (2010) was followed by two companion books: ‘Metamorphosis’, about the Meatpacking District, and ‘WTC’, a chronicle of the Twin Towers and the rebuilding of the World Trade Center.

His most recent project was about Atlantic City (Circa Press, 2019). In a series of urban landscape images, Rose portrays Atlantic City as a metaphor for America’s dysfunctional politics. The John Adams Institute devoted a blog series to this project. Rose’s images have been collected by the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. All images © Brian Rose






Gloria Wekker – Suppressed Histories - By Jonathan Pieterse


Gloria Wekker is an professor emeritus of Gender and Ethnicity at the University of Utrecht. In 2016 Duke University Press published White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race, about racism in the Netherlands. She is Surinamese-Dutch. At the Institute for War-, Holocaust- and Genocidestudies she spoke about the importance of an inclusive history. The occasion was the opening of the exhibition Black Liberators, about the Afro-American soldiers who helped liberate Western Europe during the Second World War.

©Lenny Oosterwijk

While reading the graphic novel Franklin: A Dutch Liberation Story, professor Wekker was struck by the general ignorance in the Netherlands on the topic of the children of black liberators. Is this a forgotten history, or a suppressed one, she wondered? There is an important difference between the two. A forgotten history has an accidental character, there was no deliberate attempt to ‘forget’ it.

Tapestry depicting the history of African-American soldiers during World War II in the Netherlands. After drawings by Brian Elstak, designed by Lyanne Tonk and woven by FiberArt Pure Country Weavers.

However, the suppression of history is very intentional. It refers to hidden power structures. Who decides which questions are addressed in the discipline of history? Why has it taken until now until the history of these children of black liberators was written? It may be a cliché to say that history is written by the victors: but like most clichés it is also true. Ann Stoler, the Willy Brandt Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research in New York City, has coined the term colonial aphasia, which may be of use here.¹ Aphasia is a disorder which impairs a person’s ability to process language. Instead of talking about colonial amnesia, we should speak of the collective inability to speak. Colonial Aphasia is about 1. Actively cutting off knowledge, 2. The inability to create a vocabulary that connects appropriate words and terms with the corresponding things, and 3. The inability to understand the importance of that which has already been said.

Professor Wekker can speak about colonial aphasia from experience. When she was the Chair of the Diversity Commission at the University of Amsterdam in 2015-2016, many of the interviewed staff spoke openly of the lack of female professors and associate professors, but there was an incapacity to speak about religion and especially race and ethnicity. There was no vocabulary that allows the staff to speak out. Those who manage to speak on the topic, say: “with time, more teachers and students-of-color will come…” effectively placing the blame for their absence at the feet of the excluded groups.

Jonathan Israel – The Dutch Republic

Professor Wekker returns to history. She says that what she regards as the four canonical works on Dutch history, Israel, Schama, Shorto and Kennedy―all by foreign authors, coincidentally―have one fact in common: Race is conspicuously absent from their histories of the Netherlands. They reflect to the Dutch what they believe of themselves already and what they presumably have told these authors: we don’t do race, nor racism. And so, the issue of race in Dutch history is not forgotten, it is suppressed. Only now, it seems, has the time come where we can finally allow ourselves to look at the history of the black liberators and their children.

Tapestry depicting the history of African-American soldiers during World War II in the Netherlands. After drawings by Brian Elstak, designed by Lyanne Tonk and woven by FiberArt Pure Country Weavers.

If you have missed our previous two blogs, click here for my interview with Brian Elstak, the illustrator of Franklin – A Dutch Liberation Story. And click here for my interview with professor Kees Ribbens, about comics and popular history.


  1. Stoler, A.N. Colonial Aphasia: Race and Disabled Histories in France, Public Culture 23:1, 2011.


Celebrating a Birthday – via Zoom - By Deborah Frieden


It was time for my first social distancing Happy Hour. On the block where I live, in Oakland, California, my neighbors stepped out onto their porches or front yards with a drink and we all toasted each other from a safe distance. My husband and I live at the bottom of a hill. So when we stepped outside we couldn’t see anyone. Still holding our French 75 cocktails, we emailed our neighbors that we were outside. Seconds later, one replied – just walk up the hill, we are here!

Since then other small moments of connection and generosity have occurred – calls from distant friends, a visit from a neighbor checking in on us (standing ten feet apart on our deck) and the forming of a neighborhood email list to provide help to anyone in need. Tonight, we are holding a virtual birthday party for my husband with friends who had otherwise intended to throw him a party. We will convene over Zoom with drinks in hand so we can see one another despite my aversion to how the computer camera seems to age me worse than in real life! Small gestures are now big things in our lives.

“We are simultaneously in need of news and yet unable to take one more minute of it all.”

We have been at home for 12 days now, although it was only 4 days ago that Governor Gavin Newsom put the “shelter in place order” into effect for all Californians. This means Californians must stay at home except for essential trips like grocery or pharmacy shopping, medical help or other necessary activity. Yesterday was a glorious spring day and we took a walk through the neighborhood to see all the gorgeous flowers in bloom – it seemed like an ordinary weekend, except we crossed the street every time someone came toward us. There remains a surreal quality to it all – everything looks normal except for how quiet it is on normally busy streets. Getting out for exercise and fresh air is helping a lot to keep our spirits up, but the rain is returning so we’ll have some gloomy days coming up.

Shopping is very much an issue…what’s safe and what’s not? Picture a bumper car game, but now the objective is to stay as far apart as possible when traffic is coming from all directions. This was us this past weekend, when my daughter Adrienne (33) and I braved our local farmers’ market to obtain some fresh food. Weirdly only the young people were wearing masks. We could only wonder what that was about, as my daughter helped steer me away from busy stalls or the inevitable oblivious wanderer.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf had asked the markets to stay open to support our small farmers, but also to make fresh produce available when the grocery stores’ shelves were often bare. I bought an armload of tulips in season now since I don’t know if the small family farmer will be able to stay in business. Since then though, we are no longer even going out to shop and are using online purchasing.

“My daughter scored toilet paper at her local market and gave it to my husband for his birthday.”

Ordering food is a game of chance too. Deliveries get postponed for no apparent reason but then when they do come, you get a quarter of the order and it is always the most random set of items, rarely the basics. Today two tubes of toothpaste, a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of rice vinegar arrived at my doorstep – what will I do with these? Supposedly, the flour, oatmeal, milk and butter will come later… but no mention of the meat. There is still almost no toilet paper anywhere, although my daughter scored a 12-pack at her local corner market and gave it to my husband for his birthday. Fortunately he appreciated the ironic humor of her gesture. That said, there is a lot of food coming into the city and the delivery networks are ramping up, so we expect things to improve shortly.

Finally, I must say something about the TV. We are simultaneously in need of news and information and yet unable to take one more minute of it all. Many of us have substituted the ‘news’ sent by friends as we sit at our computers hoping to work but distracted by a sense of restlessness, curiosity, and an overwhelming need to know what our friends and family are doing. Which brings me back to where I started…the small things mean a lot right now.


Deborah Frieden lives in Oakland, California. She is a cultural project planning consultant assisting organizations and municipalities in planning for the creation of new museums, cultural centers, district initiatives or the re-envisioning of existing institutions. Her work is national as well as international and goes beyond the walls of the institutions and explores the contextual issues of cultural organizations in their specific communities, who they serve, and how their development will enhance their community. In 2006, Deborah was awarded the prestigious Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in recognition of her work. She spent a year in residence in 2006-7 and is currently serving on the Alumni Council. 

At Sea Without A Captain - by Kim Wehle


The question of how America is dealing with COVID-19 warrants a response on at least three levels: the personal, the political, and the ethical.

On a personal level, the feeling in the United States seems to toggle between anxiety and fear on the one hand and, by some reports, indifference on the other. I live right outside Washington, D.C., hunkered down with my four daughters, who are finding ways to enjoy the downtime even though they can’t see their friends. My older, college-age girls have quickly realized that this is a rare time in their young lives where the ‘have-to’s’ cease. They still do online classes, but are able to indulge in art, reading, TV-binging, and cooking without having to satisfy the social draw of their friends or the obligations of work. The younger ones seem more able to tolerate the hours that lie ahead with ease – perhaps a reflection of how “boredom” is something that children learn to handle with aplomb.

Yet in some parts of the country, people are reportedly still going about their business as if little has changed. This is due no doubt to a lack information – or blatant misinformation from certain facets of the media and even the White House – as well as, perhaps, the general human instinct to shy away from truths that are too overwhelming to fathom. Death is one of them.

“We will collectively lose many lives that could have been saved if measures had been taken earlier.”

Politically, the United States is at sea without a captain. President Trump has proven himself unable to muster basic compassion or leadership and continues to dispute the validity of science and expertise. This is not surprising given who he is, but the implications are devastatingly serious. Without a strong leader, Americans are left to navigate the storm largely on their own. State and local leadership have stepped up to varying degrees, as has private industry, but the country needs more federal help.

The clear-eyed view here is the same as that of countries across the globe: the current state of infections and exposures means that we will collectively lose many lives that could have been saved if measures had been taken earlier to test, to quarantine, to track contacts of infected people, to stock up on medical supplies—especially ventilators, and to convey consistent information to an often misinformed and frightened public.

“We are engaged in an astonishing debate over whether economics are more important than people.”

With the $2 trillion congressional aid package that Congress passed this week – the full Senate voted on Wednesday, the House on Friday – the silver lining is that the U.S. Congress is finally kicking into gear after years of overall obeisance to the White House and private interests. The needs of struggling individuals and small business are finally taking center stage – because now there is no choice.

Ethically, Americans are finding ourselves engaged in an astonishing debate over whether human life matters. Or, to put a finer point on it, whether economics are more important than people. One of my sincerest hopes-against-hope is that, with our populace having toyed with the extreme edge of humanity, this catastrophe will bring core principles of benevolence, mutual respect, honesty, truth and common sense back to America to one degree or another – because now there is no choice.

In the meantime, please stay safe.

Kimberly Wehle is a former assistant United States attorney, a former associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation, and a visiting professor at the American University Washington College of Law. She is a CBS News legal analyst, a BBC News contributor, and author of “How to Read the Constitution and Why.” She spoke about her book on the Constitution at the John Adams Institute on Super Tuesday, March 3rd, at an event moderated by Eelco Bosch van Rosenthal. Her second book, ‘What You Need to Know About Voting – and Why’, will be published in June. Click here to follow her on Twitter.

Kees Ribbens – Comics and Popular History - By Jonathan Pieterse


Kees Ribbens is a big comic book fan. He has a large collection of comic books, many of them about World War II and so I interviewed him about his involvement with Franklin – A Dutch Liberation Story. He is also a senior researcher at the NIOD, the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies and one of the organizers of the exhibition ‘Black Liberators’, about the African American soldiers in the US army in the Second World War.

Franklin: A Dutch Liberation Story

It was Kees Ribbens’ and Mieke Kirkels’ idea to create a graphic novel as a way of telling the story of the Black Liberators, the African American soldiers who helped liberate the Netherlands at the end of World War II. Black Dutch artist Brian Elstak was asked to draw it. The result is Franklin – A Dutch Liberation Story. You can read my interview with Brian Elstak here.

Given his interest in popular culture, Ribbens himself has a substantial number of comic books published in various western countries. But actually very few of them depict black soldiers in World War II. Throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ’70s an incredible amount of cheap black-and-white comics about World War II were produced. They could hardly be called nuanced depictions of history, and so the absence of African American soldiers is not very surprising.

Sergent O’Brien, by Jean Pape

The comic Sergent O’Brien (written in France in the 50s) shows an African American soldier, but he is portrayed as part of a white squad of soldiers and as carrying a weapon. The illustrator completely disregarded the fact that the US army remained strictly segregated until 1948, and that African American soldiers were rarely allowed in combat roles in Western Europe, during World War II.

Only more recently have comic books started to pay more attention to soldiers of color. For instance, recent French comics now often feature soldiers from the French colonies in both World Wars. Ribbens explains: “Comic books are not the most progressive of literary genres. They often follow where film and novels have gone before. They are more a reflection of movements in society than they are pioneers. Perhaps that is why it is only now that comics have started to incorporate minorities into their depictions of history.”

Commemoration 1955, Wageningen

Why have the Black Liberators have been absent so far from the Dutch collective memory of World War II and the liberation? Ribbens: “Historical collective memory tends to be somewhat one-sided and lacking in nuance. The liberators were Brits, Canadians and Americans. Most of them were white men and so they were all remembered as white men. Moreover, the Dutch have always focused on the liberation of the north and the west of the country in 1945. The liberation of the south by the Americans in 1944 is a less-known chapter. As a consequence, the African American soldiers, who made up some 10% of the American army that liberated the South, were left out of the picture.”

The graphic novel Franklin finally acknowledges the role that African American soldiers played in the liberation of the Netherlands. Our collective historical memory is becoming more diverse, more inclusive. This is due in part to changes in the Dutch population during the past decades.

Cemetery Margraten

Kees Ribbens explains how the NIOD became involved in the Black Liberators project. A few years ago, with the 65-year commemoration of the end of the war, a government grant to the NIOD helped to start research into the multicultural aspects of World War II. At the same time a project was initiated to study the history of the American cemetery at Margraten. This research revealed that the cemetery was constructed by African American soldiers, and a number of African American soldiers are buried there. This discovery represented a forgotten piece of history: the role African American soldiers played in the Netherlands during World War II. Mieke Kirkels has continued this line of research in recent years, revealing various stories of these African American soldiers and their descendants.

Can New York City Lose its Twinkle? - by David van der Leer


Questions are typically more appealing to me than the right answers, but tonight I realized I am yearning for answers to questions I had been avoiding for weeks.

It is 9 pm and I am standing on the roof of my apartment building in Chelsea. We are sandwiched between the skyline of the Financial District to the south, and Midtown with its grand Empire State and Chrysler Buildings to the north. In just a few weeks, all I see around me has gotten downgraded from what many still seem to consider the capital of the world, to ‘an’ and perhaps soon ‘the’ epicenter of the pandemic.

Sunday evening, strict measures were announced to stop the spread of the virus: in the city and all around the state non-essential businesses have been ordered closed and we are only allowed to go out for bare necessities like food, medicine and brief stints of exercise. Who knows for how long? And who knows when there will be even stricter measures?

For the past four weeks I have been preparing for this moment, from moving my team to work from home and readying my apartment to lock myself in, to testing videoconference dinners and drinks with friends and family. Getting it all done in time – just before the strict rules that finally went into action, and before I possibly get sick – feels like a strange New York accomplishment that I should not be so relieved with having succeeded at.

“I realize I never heard the birds in the trees sixteen floors below me until this morning.”

I look down. Normally hundreds of cars drive on 7th Avenue below me. At night they create a cloud of lights that when you squint your eyes, looks like a twinkling Christmas tree that is crowned by the bright lights of Times Squares in the distance. Tonight, I squint as usual, but a long 42-city block strip of grey asphalt stretches out in front of me, and however much I try, I cannot make it twinkle with just a handful of cars.

A helicopter with a search light keeps circling the Google East-Coast headquarters a block away from me ominously, but when it finally disappears, there is so little traffic that for the first time in years I hear a church bell ringing in the distance. Staring at the empty sidewalks, I realize I never heard the birds in the trees sixteen floors below me until this morning. Those who can leave, have left, or more likely they occupy the dark apartments in the towers across from me only for a few weeks a year anyway. The city is quieting down.

“Why we are so focused on growth, that we cannot manage a massive slowdown?”

With the quiet around and in me, the questions I have been pushing away for weeks, hit me in full force. Probably like many other people, I feel a pressure build in my chest when I question if the healthcare system is ever going to be able to handle what is about to hit us? Why we are so focused on growth, that we cannot manage a massive slowdown? And, how we are going to be able to take care of the most vulnerable around us while we are all cooped up in our apartments? Finally, I wonder how one protests against the many political mistakes that now have become blatant threats to our lives, when the act of congregating is a risk to those same lives? How selfless or selfish will we turn out to be?

All questions that, if we are not alert and pro-active enough, will in a matter of weeks unfold into answers that we never imagined having to hear. Stay safe. Be well. Let’s squint and find that twinkling in the distance.

David van der Leer is Dutch, but has lived in New York for almost fifteen years. He is a forecaster and cultural advisor at his agency DVDL DD, the former Executive Director of the Van Alen Institute, and a Guggenheim Curator.

“My apartment is small but so close to everything that I walk and bike everywhere. My fridge is the size of a hotel room mini bar, and I keep virtually no stock of anything in my pantry as I eat or take 85% of my meals out. I keep barely any plants because I am often traveling, and many of my friends live a 30-minute subway ride away. My doormen send and receive my many packages and dry-cleaning throughout the week. Frankly, I don’t even know how to operate the washing machines in the basement of our building. Usually I like all of that – it is all still so New York after all these years – but calamities of the past, like Superstorm Sandy, have left their mark. And judging from the manic Amazon delivery trucks, and the lines at the supermarkets and pharmacies, I was not the only who had to figure out what it means to suddenly stock up, and imagine a life in which you cannot rely on any of the trivial luxuries I have gotten so used to.”

Brian Elstak – Art, Racism and the Black Liberators - By Jonathan Pieterse


For the first instalment of this blog about the Black Liberators, I interviewed Brian Elstak. Not only did he contribute to the Black Liberators exhibition at the NIOD (temporarily closed), he’s also the illustrator of the graphic novel Franklin – A Dutch Liberation Story. It tells the fictional story of the African American soldier Franklin, stationed in the Netherlands during World War II. He meets a Dutch girl, they fall in love and conceive a child. The novel also tells the stories of their child and grandchild, as they search for answers about their heritage.

Brian Elstak, who is himself black, describes his own style as ‘sketchy and raw’, which makes it particularly well-suited to a frayed and raw story such as Franklin. Asked why he wanted to participate in this project, he quotes the famous singer Nina Simone: “A true artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” Through this project he addresses the very real racism that still plagues the Netherlands. Much of his art deals with serious, heavy topics, but he tries to offset the heaviness with other projects: he has written several children’s books as well.

When I asked Brian if he already knew the history of the African-American soldiers in the American army in World War II, he said: “You know, but you don’t know.” There are hints in the known histories, here and there. But it is not widely known that there were black servicemen, nor that the US Army was segregated till long after the war. Movies don’t usually show it either, with a few exceptions. For instance, the movie Red Tails (2012) is about the Tuskegee airmen, a group of African-American pilots during World War II. The movie’s producer, George Lucas, had to fight for years before he finally got the movie made. Yes, thát George Lucas, director of Star Wars and Indiana Jones! Another movie that shaped Brian’s view of African American soldiers before he started working on the graphic novel is Miracle at St. Anna, directed by Spike Lee.

It is set in Italy in 1944, and shows a group of African-American soldiers in the thick of battle. Brian explains that he was inspired by this movie while drawing the African-American soldiers in Franklin as carrying weapons, only to be told later that they weren’t allowed to carry weapons at all in the Netherlands – nor in any other part of Western Europe, in fact. The African-American soldiers were assigned to support roles, delivering equipment and provisions to the front lines and serving as mechanics. The only exceptions were the African-American soldiers assigned to guard German prisoners of war. They just didn’t receive any ammunition to go with their weapons. As Brian put it: “They were allowed to die for their country, but they weren’t allowed to defend themselves.”

This was part of the challenge to create a historically accurate graphic novel. A lot of research was required, and Brian had to comb through a mountain of photographic material. A lot of it came from the BBC, where a large number of African-American soldiers were stationed before they went to the mainland. The stories from that time are similar to those from the Netherlands. They all provide the ingredients that Brian used to draw Franklin.

I had gotten the impression after reading Franklin that the period of liberation might have been one of the most racism-free times in Dutch history. Brian explained that the Dutch population was simply glad to be liberated, and anyone who brought freedom, food and commodities was welcome. But just like when a famous person dies, after a short time we forget and life goes on. The stories from this time are forgotten if we don’t talk to those who lived through it. The oral history can only be remembered if it is talked about – and if it is forgotten, you can only see one side of history. A Golden Age, but Golden for whom?

Franklin shows how everything is connected, through the characters of Frances (Franklin’s granddaughter) and her father. It is not just a World War II story, people today still grapple with racism. Brian hopes that Franklin will become pop culture, so we may learn to listen to one another’s stories.


Follow Brian Elstak on Instagram and his website. You can buy your own copy of ‘Franklin: A Dutch Liberation Story’ here (use discount code BOEKKORTINGFRANKLIN – valid from April 1-May 31. In Dutch). The book has been added to the list of ‘The Best Dutch Book Designs 2019‘. All images © Brian Elstak.

John Brown: friend or foe? - By Mieke Bleeker


“John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave,
While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save;
But tho he lost his life while struggling for the slave,
His soul is marching on.”

‘John Brown’s Body’ – Union marching song (tune: Battle Hymne of the Republic)

For people either very much against or in favor of slavery, the question whether John Brown was a hero or a villain must have been easy to answer. While Union soldiers marched to the tune of the song dedicated to Brown, many in the South viewed him as a criminal and a madman, or someone we might nowadays call a domestic terrorist. For people in the middle, he was a little bit of both, as this quote by Abraham Lincoln seems to indicate: “Old John Brown has just been executed for treason against the state. We cannot object, even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong.” 

Marching Union soldiers

Different views, different treatment

But the different views of John Brown and his fellow raiders did not end there. They also become apparent when we look at how they were treated after their arrest and even in death. While many abolitionists pleaded for the release of Brown, they did not ask for the freedom of the two black raiders who were captured. These black men were hanged separately from their white fellow raiders, and while all convicts had asked to be buried in a free state, only their request was dismissed. Instead, their bodies were hastily buried in Virginia, only to be dug up by medical students for dissection.


Heyward Shephard Monument

A topsy-turvy monument

Things get even more topsy-turvy when we look at the case of Heyward Shepard, the free black man who was – presumably accidentally – shot and killed by John Brown’s men. In 1931, a monument was erected for Shepard by – of all people – the United Daughters of the Confederacy, claiming it to be a symbol of faithful black people who did not join the raid or believed in its purpose. Besides the fact that we have no idea what Shepard’s thoughts on the raid might have been, the monument feels more like a bad PR-stunt to defend the lost cause of the South. It’s still there, although it seems to go unnoticed by most visitors to Harpers Ferry.

Modern day views

Booklet Centennial 1959

Even in this day and age, people still seem to have mixed feelings about John Brown’s actions. At the raid’s centennial in 1959, the reenacted capture of Brown was met with wild cheers from the crowd. The black raiders did not play any part in the ‘festivities’. Under President Barack Obama, things changed, and descendants of both the black and white raiders were invited to attend a commemoration. Some called upon the President to posthumously pardon John Brown. In 1965, Malcolm X uttered the following: “If you are for me and my problems – when I say me, I mean us, our people – then you have to be willing to do as old John Brown did.” Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh once cited Brown as an inspiration.


So what should we make of John Brown? Was he a liberator, a murderer, inspired, radicalized, sane or mad? It’s an ongoing debate. What we can say, is that when it comes to John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, nothing is black and white.


Crossroads of Abolitionists - By Mieke Bleeker


Frederik Douglass

Why John Brown opposed slavery in the way he did is hard to say. We know that as a twelve-year-old, he witnessed a slave boy about his age being severely beaten with an iron fire shovel, which shocked him greatly. We also know that his father, who was involved in the Underground Railroad by providing a safe house to escaped slaves, sent his son to be schooled by an abolitionist. And when John started his own business, he used his work place to hide countless runaway slaves. Still, Brown seems to have been primarily motivated by religious principles during this time of his life, not by fanaticism or political conviction. But he lived in polarized times, which might have triggered his activism, as the following incident indicates. In 1837, a pro-slavery mob attacked and killed minister, journalist and abolitionist Elijah Parish Lovejoy, prompting Brown to claim: “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”


Six years later Brown and his family moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, a hotspot of the abolitionist movement. He joined the Free Church, where he listened to anti-slavery speeches by renowned abolitionists like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. It proved to be another pivotal moment in his life. Sojourner Truth was born in to slavery on an estate owned by Dutch settlers and grew up speaking Dutch as her first language. After finding freedom, she travelled the country preaching abolition and equal rights for all women and blacks alike.

Sojourner Truth

It’s unknown whether she ever spoke to John Brown, but Brown did meet Frederik Douglass several times. Douglass was also a former slave, who became a vigorous social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer and statesman. Their meetings had a profound influence on Douglass. Up until then he had hoped abolition could come about peacefully, but his conversations with Brown made him strongly doubt this. Still, when Brown asked him to join his armed revolt on Harpers Ferry, Douglass was intrigued but refused, believing it was likely to fail and would hurt their cause.


Help and admiration

Historical marker Harriet Tubman, Maryland

A famous abolitionist who did help John Brown with the raid was Harriet Tubman. A former slave herself, she carried out dangerous missions to slave-holding states, freeing hundreds. Tubman was well acquainted with both Douglass and Truth and met John Brown in 1858. Due to her knowledge of escape routes and her contacts in the region, she was able to offer Brown valuable information to plan his assault on Harpers Ferry. She also recruited supporters. It is said that ‘General Tubman’, as John Brown called her, was planning to join the fight, but illness prevented her from going. After John Brown’s death, she claimed that Brown “had done more for her people in dying than hundred men would in living.

Portraits of John Brown and his family at Frederik Douglass’ house

Douglass agreed. Although he had to flee to country temporarily after a letter addressed to him was found among John Brown’s possessions, he often voiced his admiration for Brown: “John Brown began the war that ended American slavery and made this a free Republic. Until this blow was struck, the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain. The irrepressible conflict was one of words, votes and compromises. When John Brown stretched forth his arm the sky was cleared.” Up till this day, a picture of John Brown and his family adorns the hall of Frederick Douglass’ former house in Washington D.C.


Was John Brown’s failed raid still a success? - By Mieke Bleeker


Just over a week after his capture, John Brown stood trial. He was charged with treason, conspiracy and murder. It must have been quite a sight: the courtroom was packed with witnesses, journalists and spectators, while John Brown was lying on a cot due to stab wounds he had sustained during his arrest. Brown’s lawyer made an insanity plea, but Brown wasn’t having it: “I am perfectly unconscious of insanity, and I reject, so far as I am capable, any attempt to interfere in my behalf on that score.” He knew the trial was his only chance to get his case against slavery on the front page of the nation’s newspapers, and being described as crazy would not help his argument.

Grave of John Brown

The trail took four days. The jury – all slave owners – found Brown guilty on all charges. He would be hanged a month later. Four of his surviving raiders received similar sentences. To add to the drama, Brown sat on his own coffin in the back of a horse-drawn wagon on his way to the gallows.


During the raid, fear of a massive slave rebellion sent the people of Harpers Ferry into a frenzy, further fueled by the liquor that was served in the saloons throughout the night. Dangerfield Newby, an ex-slave who had joined John Brown hoping it would lead to the release of his enslaved wife and children, was shot and killed, his body heavily mutilated and left for hogs to eat (the alley where this took place is still called Hog Alley). William Leeman, who had killed the mayor of Harpers Ferry, was shot while attempting to escape across the river. Angry townspeople and militia men used his body for shooting practice for hours afterwards. They also turned on raider William Thompson who was taken prisoner at some point during the raid. He was dragged onto the bridge, shot and thrown into the river, where the mob emptied their rifles into him. John Copeland surrendered and was greeted by an angry crowd shouting “Lynch him! Lynch him!” One of the slaves John Brown freed during the raid was beaten unconscious and drowned.

Dangerfield Newby

War fever

A journalist at that time wrote: “The Harpers Ferry invasion has advanced the cause of Disunion more than any other event that has happened since the formation of Government.” The war fever that had already began to emerge grew fast. The excessive response of both the military and the townspeople was a clear symptom. Although John Brown’s army was only small, multiple militias from nearby Frederick, Charles Town, Martinsburg, Shepherdstown and Winchester marched to Harpers Ferry to suppress the revolt. Robert E. Lee brought no less than ninety U.S. Marines with him. Not what you would call a fair fight.

Domino effect

Emancipation Memorial

The raid made clear that compromise was no longer an option. While the voices against slavery in the North grew louder, the South felt more and more threatened. Both sides braced themselves for a conflict. John Brown’s actions created a domino effect. The aftermath split the pro-slavery Democratic Party in two, while the Republican Abraham Lincoln went from dark horse to frontrunner for the presidential candidacy of 1860. Soon after his election, South Carolina was the first state to secede. Civil war was coming, as John Brown seems to have predicted in a note he wrote shortly before his execution: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood.”

In hindsight, the raid on Harpers Ferry seems merely a prelude. When the war ended, four million enslaved people were freed. So, if we could ask him, would Brown consider his failed raid a success in that sense? With 620,000 soldiers and 50,000 civilians dead, it would be an extremely hard question to answer.

The raid: “Men, get on your arms, we will proceed to the Ferry” - By Mieke Bleeker


John Brown

John Brown, a white man, was a fierce opponent of slavery who saw the enslavement of black people as a sin against God. At an anti-slavery convention in Canada in 1858, he proposed the creation of a free state under a new set of laws called the ‘Provisional Constitution of the United States’, which would apply to anyone who joined his cause. Brown became Commander in Chief of the Provisional Army, which consisted of only twenty-two men, sixteen white and five black (four of them were born free, one was a freed slave). Extensive preparations followed. On October 16, 1859 he finally told his followers: “Men, get on your arms. We will proceed to the Ferry.”

Harpers Ferry, 1859

Smooth start

Strategically, the attack on Harpers Ferry made sense. To reach Maryland and disappear into the wildness of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you needed only to cross the bridge over the Potomac River. Also, the town was home to the United States Armory and Arsenal, where over a hundred thousand guns were stored. Surprisingly, the Armory was hardly guarded. Upon entering Harpers Ferry around 10.30p.m., they encountered just two watchmen: one on the bridge and one at the Armory. This might seem odd. But in the late nineteen hundreds, an organized attack on the US government by its own citizens on such a scale was simply unimaginable. Rumors of the raid even reached the Secretary of War, but he dismissed it as something not very likely to occur.

Bridge over the Potomac River

With the darkness providing cover, John Brown and his men easily took over. Within a couple hours they took 60 hostages (among them the great-grandnephew of George Washington) who were confined in the fire engine house, which later would become known as John Brown’s Fort.

Going down

But things quickly fell apart. At 1.30 p.m., a train arrived at the station which was held until daylight. The long stop-over stirred enough commotion on the train for Howard Shepherd, the station baggageman, to walk out to see what was happening. He was shot and killed by John Brown’s men as he approached the bridge. The first victim of the raid had fallen. He was a black man, a former slave, already free. John Starry, the town’s doctor, also became alarmed after noticing armed black men in the streets. He saddled his horse and warned the authorities. Soon the bells of a nearby church rang out to warn the town’s citizens. Meanwhile, the passengers on the train that had been allowed to continue its journey, told everyone at the next station that a massive slave revolt was underway in Harpers Ferry. So great was the fear in the South of an armed slave uprising, that the number of raiders got higher every time the incident was passed on.

John Brown’s Fort

Killed, captured, questioned

While John Brown and his small group of men waited for the hundreds of slaves and other like-minded men who they expected to join the fight (but who never came), the townspeople, several militias and the U.S. Marines moved in. On October 18, Robert E. Lee, who would soon become the Commander of the Confederate States Army, quickly captured or killed most of the raiders and stormed the engine house where John Brown and the last of his men and their hostages were now trapped. Once they were in, the ordeal lasted no more than three minutes. Brown and his surviving followers were arrested.

During his questioning John Brown made clear that, although he failed, the story of his raid did not end there: “You may dispose of me very easily; I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled – this Negro question I mean – the end of that is not yet.”

The capture of John Brown

Atlantic City: Excess and Decline - By Tracy Metz


In this fourth and final blog of this series, John Adams director Tracy Metz selected photographs from Brian Rose’s book ‘Atlantic City’ showing Atlantic City as a symbol of excess and decline.


“Atlantic City is a dramatic symbol of American excess and decline. Once the most popular family vacation destination in the United States, the city has slid into a dystopian version of its former self, with beachfront property plummeting amid vacant lots and deserted high-rise hotels garishly positioned against the coastal backdrop.” Nowness – March 7, 2017


“How can a presidential candidate look at a city damaged so directly by his own business practices – and say only that he’s smart to have gotten out when he did?”Arielle Brousse, The Washington Post – October 6, 2016

“Down at the Boardwalk’s terminus, by night, the seagulls keep flying into the Revel and dying. Or they flap and limp around a bit before dying. You never see or hear the impact, you just get what happens after. Immense white gulls, flapping, limping, expiring. They fly into the Revel’s giant vacant tower of panes and break their necks, because without any lights on, the glass is indistinguishable from the sky.”Joshua Cohen, N+1 magazine – Winter 2017


You can order the book here at Circa Publishers. Watch a video with Brian Rose here, and read a review and interview in the Guardian here.


Trump’s failed Kingdom - By Tracy Metz


For the third blog of this series, John Adams director Tracy Metz selected several photographs from Brian Rose’s book ‘Atlantic City’ showing the remnants of Donald Trump’s failed Atlantic City kingdom.

“The shuttered Trump Plaza will likely be torn down. It is one of four casinos that closed in 2014, representing a third of Atlantic city’s gaming halls. Trump’s name has been removed from the façade. Only the gaudy golden crest, a color reminiscent of Trump’s famous hair, remains.” Matt Katz, WNYC News – August 26, 2015

“In January of 2016, after a winter storm flooded parts of the Jersey coastline, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, then a candidate for president, sarcastically asked whether he should ‘pick up a mop’ to help with flooding – a remark that was criticized by environmentalists for being out of touch with the gravity of the situation. Christie accepts that human activity contributes to climate change, but contends that the issue ‘is not a crisis’.” Michael Edison Hayden, National Geographic – May 4, 2016

@realDonaldTrump: “Remember, anything you read about Atlantic City has nothing to do with me. I sold years ago and left. Good timing but very sad!” Twitter – Sept. 6, 2014


You can order the book here at Circa Publishers. Watch a video with Brian Rose here, and read a review and interview in the Guardian here.

Can Trump make Atlantic City great again? - By Tracy Metz


For the second blog of this series, John Adams director Tracy Metz selected photographs from Brian Rose’s book ‘Atlantic City’ showing the effect Donald Trump had on the city.


“As for Michael MacLeod, the sculptor of the elephants outside the Taj, he says his anger over the episode has faded, and he can now joke about how he once got stiffed by a famous billionaire.” Bernard Condon, Associated Press – June 28, 2016


“Trump told the New York Times about his 25 years in Atlantic City: ‘The money I took out of there was incredible.’ It’s the only thing he has to say of my now-destroyed home town. He came, he took and he left. And I hate to break it to you, America – he’s not coming back for us.” Arielle Brousse, The Washington Post – October 6, 2016



@realDonaldTrump: “I would absolutely consider investing in Atlantic City again, great and hard working people, but much would have to change: taxes, regs, etc.” – Twitter, October 26, 2014



You can order the book here at Circa Publishers. Watch a video with Brian Rose here, and read a review and interview in the Guardian here.

Taj Mahal in Atlantic City - By Tracy Metz


Atlantic City, on the coast of New Jersey, was born in the mid-nineteenth century and grew so big, so fast, that it captured the American imagination. It was ‘the World’s Playground’. Its hotels were the largest and finest, its nightclubs legendary. And then, as it began to fade, the casinos came. Donald Trump was one of those who built casinos on the Jersey shore, the more exotic and fanciful their themes the better. On the presidential campaign trail he boasted of his ‘success’ in Atlantic City, of how he would do for America what he had done for Atlantic City.

Looking at the haunting book by the same name by the American photographer Brian Rose, that statement of Trump’s does not bode well for the rest of the nation. Rose has documented what remains of the city in the aftermath of the casino explosion. Empty lots, huge vacant buildings made of painted cardboard and chipped concrete, all under the same cloud of sadness and decay.

“The closure of Trump Taj Mahal and Trump Plaza have sent this already depressed city reeling”, writes Rose. “And now Trump is President. Is Atlantic City emblematic of what is happening to the country as a whole?” When the Trump Taj Mahal opened in 1980, he proclaimed it ‘the eighth wonder of the world’ – but five of the city’s casinos closed down within four years. Atlantic City is a metaphor for decline, but also a very real place, which lost 11,000 jobs since 2014.

In his introduction, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger calls Atlantic City ‘New Jersey’s Potemkin village – a façade of pseudo-prosperity facing the sea, with little of substance behind.’ It tried to be glamorous, but what is managed to be instead was a curious combination of the aspirational and the tawdry – a little bit of grandeur seasoned with a lot of popular entertainment.” It’s not Las Vegas, it’s not Miami Beach – “and the empty lot is now the true symbol of the forlorn place that is called Atlantic City.”

You can order the book here at Circa Publishers. Watch a video with Brian Rose here, and read a review and interview in the Guardian here.



The Eternal Tourist - by Rachelle Meyer


I like to think I can tell which passengers on the ferry are tourists. There are some dead giveaways, of course – suitcases on wheels, pairings of cargo shorts with baseball caps, shopping bags from cheese shops and major museums. What I envy is their fresh-eyed excitement.

‘Mother & Son’ – sketch (15-8-2018)

 When we turned our gaze towards Amsterdam Noord as a potential place to live, we had already been in Amsterdam for eight years. I wouldn’t say I was jaded, but a city that once inspired me to move across an ocean had lost some luster to the wear of everyday life. As soon as we’d step on the ferry though, something changed. It was like we were traveling again, and not just because the ground was literally moving under our feet. The ferry was our gateway to a new start, a fresh perspective, and a chance to fall in love with Amsterdam a second time. The whooping alarm that announces the lifting of the gangplank would cause a Pavlovian reaction in me. It meant that I was headed for adventure and I’d break out in a grin.

‘Our Golden Time’ – summer collection

As an adult I’ve chosen to live in international cities with high immigrant populations. On any given day, I can meet someone from Ghana, or Croatia, or Iraq. I remain an eternal tourist in the land I call home. Every face I come across is uncharted territory. Every person I meet is a potential discovery. The ferry brings us all together without discrimination. There is no first class on the ferry, there’s just us. The working folk, the holidaymakers, the party people, we’re all one and the same. Thanks for coming on this journey with me. I’m glad you’re here.

‘Diamonds (Father & Son) – summer collection


Rachelle Meyer is an illustrator and artist originally from Texas who came to Amsterdam 13 years ago by way of New York. She lives in Amsterdam Noord with her English husband, Dutch son, and two wild backyard bunnies. https://www.rachellemeyer.com

The Faces on the Ferry installation can be seen through Nov. 17th in NDSM Fuse, NDSM-plein 85, Amsterdam Noord. https://facesontheferry.nl

‘Something in Common’ – sketch (22-8-2018)

Springfulness - by Rachelle Meyer


Spring comes on like a gift. The sun, an almost forgotten friend, coaxes the ferry passengers out onto the deck. He opens us up like flowers.

It was the changing of the seasons from winter to spring that inspired the broader Faces on the Ferry project. When I flipped back through my mini sketchbook and relived the journey from January to May, I experienced the gift of spring for a second time. I wanted to find a way to express that joy through art and pass it along to others.

‘Unwind’ – spring collection

Spring has its own innate capacity to bring us into the moment, if only to turn our faces up into the light for a few minutes and celebrate that we survived the most brutal season. This is a natural form of mindfulness, but we greedily seek any methods that can bring us to this state. Sketching does it for me. My attention is turned outwards, and I feel calmer. Aware. More empathetic.

“The Twelve-Minute Sunbath” – sketch (23-03-2017)

The play of mindfulness is performed regularly on the ferry as it shuttles back and forth, rhythmic as a meditative breath. Whether it’s this particular seasonal surrender to the sun, or a deliberate decision to use the short journey to collect one’s thoughts, sketch, or simply observe other passengers, we are literally all in the same boat, trying to enjoy this moment, yearning to seize the now.


Rachelle Meyer is an illustrator and artist originally from Texas who came to Amsterdam 13 years ago by way of New York. She lives in Amsterdam Noord with her English husband, Dutch son, and two wild backyard bunnies. https://www.rachellemeyer.com

‘Touch of Spring’ – spring collection

The Faces on the Ferry installation can be seen through Nov. 17th in NDSM Fuse, NDSM-plein 85, Amsterdam Noord. https://facesontheferry.nl

‘Back to (Virtual) Reality’ – sketch (10-4-2017)

Illustrate with Words - by Rachelle Meyer


I love the written word. One of the reasons I chose to put “Dedicated Readers” in the spotlight in the Faces on the Ferry series is because I think they deserve attention, simply for choosing to absorb information in this thoughtful, patient way. A book, of course, is the traditional cherished object. But I’ll read anything put in front of me, even if it’s just a cereal box at breakfast.

“Book Lover (Valentine)” – sketch (14-2–2017)

When I go to exhibits and dutifully read the descriptions provided on the title cards, I often feel pushed further away from the artwork instead of being brought closer. I see a lot of multisyllabic words that obscure meaning rather than clarify it. I squint through the text to find the intention between the lines, but the only thread I pick up belongs to the emperor’s new clothes. It’s all puff and pomp, signifying little, and illuminating nothing.

As an illustrator, I often create images in the service of a text. If they do their job properly, illustrations not only help define a text, but add further value. They can and should be beautiful, thought-provoking, and multi-layered. I believe that when artists write texts describing our work, we should do the same. The text should act in service of the art, but it can also add more – if we dare.

Being earnest is not very cool. It is downright vulnerable. Who wants to lay open her heart, allowing the world to pick over its private intentions? Well, I will try.

Dedicated Reader #1 – winter collection

I hope that this art project brings people a sense of peace and communion. By tying together the still moments that people experience on a ferry ride with the larger scope of a year passing, I want to create a sense of awe at our small position in the universe. It’s ambitious and maybe even impossible, but I hurl myself at transcendence.

Let your words be clear and crystalline. Rather than covering your intention with a drift of snow, strive to make each word sparkle in its specificity. Illustrate your art with words.

Dedicated Reader #2 – winter collection

Rachelle Meyer is an illustrator and artist originally from Texas who came to Amsterdam 13 years ago by way of New York. She lives in Amsterdam Noord with her English husband, Dutch son, and two wild backyard bunnies. https://www.rachellemeyer.com

The Faces on the Ferry installation can be seen through Nov. 17th in NDSM Fuse, NDSM-plein 85, Amsterdam Noord. https://facesontheferry.nl

“The Knitter” – sketch (2-3-2017)



Common Time - by Rachelle Meyer


After I moved to Amsterdam Noord, I started sketching fellow passengers during my twelve-minute ferry ride to the center in the mornings. I’d finish the pencil sketches off with fineliner pens and marker over a cup of coffee once I got to my studio. Between January and May 2017 the tiny sketchbook filled up with images. When I flipped back through it, I discovered that it not only told a story of how people spend their time during the quiet ferry ride, but how the seasons change. I wanted to find a way to express these overlaps of time.

Dedicated Reader #4 (autumn collection)

Like any good pattern-seeking animal, I make sense of things by putting them in order. It sets a rhythm to a world which is otherwise chaotic. I came up with a visual system for expressing these overlapping currents of time, which flow in and out of each other like the waves that gently rock the ferry.

I am (autumn collection)

Since our year is divided into four seasons, I chose four images for each season from the two tiny sketchbooks. Each season has its own unique four-color palette, with one color that carries through to the next. Thus, a streak of orange tethers the fall to winter. The baby blues of winter float into spring. The warm gold from spring brightens up into the summer. And the almost shocking fluorescent yellow of summer creates a vivid autumnal mix.

Let’s start here, in autumn, my favorite season. We’re situated not only in real time, but common time. A four-four beat, the most workaday musical signature, will set the pace for our journey. Are you ready? The ferry’s just about to take off.


Buiten Dienst (sketch 20 Oct. 2018)

Rachelle Meyer is an illustrator and artist originally from Texas who came to Amsterdam 13 years ago by way of New York. She lives in Amsterdam Noord with her English husband, Dutch son, and two wild backyard bunnies. https://www.rachellemeyer.com

 The Faces on the Ferry installation can be seen through Nov. 17th in NDSM Fuse, NDSM-plein 85, Amsterdam Noord. https://facesontheferry.nl

Hush (sketch 3 Sept. 2018)


Old and Young - By Emile Waagenaar


When Milton Vanicor, 90 years old in this picture, was still a child, his father made this 1-string fiddle for him. It only sounded good if it was a ‘Prince Albert’ cigar box. His wife Odile used to arrange the financial agreements for the bands Milton played in, among others The Lacassine Playboys with Iry LeJeune. After I took this photo Odile wanted to know what the photo was going to be used for. She looked very doubtful when I said I didn’t know yet.

Cajun music and culture are not just for the elderly. I visited Kira Viator in 1998, when she was about 12 years old. She was surrounded by her collection of stuffed animals. Kira has had her own band for years now, and says she plays Cajun music out of respect for her musical heritage and for the ‘Cajun Country’ way of life.

Steve Riley, older than Kira but a lot younger than Milton, is the great example of the renewal in Cajun music in the late 1980’s. He played the traditional songs just a little differently than the generation before him, with a bit more ‘modern floating beat’ as I call it. When I photographed him in his apartment in September 1997, he had just returned from a tennis match. On sandals. He held his head a little crooked, but that went fine with the crooked frame on the wall and the crooked bin next to the couch. Good Cajun music also sounds a bit crooked.

D’Jalma Garnier, a fantastic Creole Cajun fiddler, warned me that I hadn’t photographed enough Creole Cajun musicians. I have to agree – but they don’t really live in my neighborhood either.

Morris Ardoin, a Creole Cajun musician who lived on Creole Road in Mamou, brought me to his father, another living legend, Alphonse ‘Bois Sec’ Ardoin. He got his nickname ‘Bois Sec’ because, when working in the fields, he always was the first to sit dry at home when it started to rain. The black Creoles often have horses, that is why I thought the old horse trailer was a nice background.

Boozoo Chavis, more a Zydeco than a Cajun musician, lived in Lake Charles and I had heard that he gave a big garden party on Labor Day. But I didn’t have his address. When I arrived in Lake Charles I saw the TV studios. The main entrance was closed, but through a back door I entered in a small canteen where 2 women were eating at a table and another woman was sweeping the floor. Asked if anyone knew where Boozoo Chavis lived, the woman with the broom shouted with her beautiful Southern Louisiana accent, “Oh boy, that’s my brother, wait a minute until I’m done and I’ll take you there.” Another wonderful Louisiana coincidence.

On Sunday, November 10th, Emile Waagenaar will give a lecture in Utrecht on his photo series of Cajun musicians. For more info: here. You can order ‘Arrête pas la musique! – Portraits of South Louisiana’ from Amazon here.

This is the final of seven blogs based on Dutch photographer Emile Waagenaar’s book of portraits of Cajun musicians. The first one appeared on September 18, 2019. 

See You Later, Alligator! - By Emile Waagenaar


Shelton Manual was blind. Long ago he was blinded by a bullet during the hunt. So he could not see what his room looked like. He had a housekeeper who benefited from it and had taken half the interior of his house. Shelton’s neighbor welcomed us warmly and showed us to the living room. I saw Shelton in a small bedroom, the door ajar. I heard him whispering with the neighbor: “Are these guys ok?”. “Yes, they are,” the neighbor whispered back a little too loudly. Shelton had become more careful who he brought into his house. His neighbor watched his guests. We had a wonderful time with this still happy living legend.

Don Montoucet from Scott, Louisiana, couldn’t stand mess. He pulled out a white sheet to hide the dirty carburetors on the table. Of course there was no time to tidy up in Don Montoucet’s life, because in addition to the automobile and agricultural garage, he was also a bus driver on the school bus in Scott, he manufactured triangles with a double curl at the ends and cared for his wife who had Alzheimer’s. But luckily he had time to pose for me, below his mounted trophies.

Bobby Charles of Abbeville told me that he had written the song “See you later, Alligator!” at the age of 15. He played it on the piano for the family and some friends. Someone asked if he could have it, Bobby thought it was fine and just gave that song away.

He got that worldwide hit in his head when one afternoon, in 1955, when he left the bar and called in the doorway “See you later, alligator!”, a girl in the back of the bar shouted “After a while, crocodile!”  He went back inside to ask who had called out, and he thanked the girl who timidly replied that it was her. When he got home he wrote the alligator and crocodile song that was made world famous by Bill Haley & His Comets. The girl later became his wife. He also told me that he was still trying to get the rights to that song back. Years later he finally succeeded, but shortly afterwards he died. He wasn’t able to enjoy the royalties for very long. “After a while, crocodile!”

On Sunday, November 10th, Emile Waagenaar will give a lecture in Utrecht on his photo series of Cajun musicians. For more info: here. You can order ‘Arrête pas la musique! – Portraits of South Louisiana’ from Amazon here.

This is the sixth of seven blogs based on Dutch photographer Emile Waagenaar’s book of portraits of Cajun musicians. The first one appeared on September 18, 2019. 


Eddie, Eddie, Ervin, Rodney and Doris Leon - By Emile Waagenaar


I also visited several small but world-famous sound studios such as Eddie Shuler’ s Goldband Records in Lake Charles, not far from the Texan border. A small dark recording studio where in 1959 Eddie recorded the first single by Dolly Parton, then 13 years old, called ‘ Puppy Love’ . But also in the 1950’s he made the first recordings of Iry LeJeune, the legendary half-blind father of Ervin and Eddie LeJeune. He also repaired television sets. In 2017 they tore down that historical building.

Iry LeJeune died in a car accident at the age of 26 in 1955. I first met his son Eddie LeJeune in September 1998, when I photographed him with his grandson Emerson Jr. at their house in Morse. When Eddie went on tour in Europe a few months later, I met him again at a gig in the Netherlands, in the Blues Café in Apeldoorn. He was wearing the same house slippers that he wore in his living room in Morse.

Ervin Lejeune showed me the accordion and fiddle of his father Iry. He was an accordion builder and a passionate Cajun musician. When I bought one of his handmade accordions I paid him with all the money and checks I had with me, but I still came up $30 short. That was fine with Ervin. He said: “Ok, now we go out for a crawfish meal!” I said, “But Ervin, I have no money anymore!” Ervin with a big smile: “But I have!”

Ervin died on January 26, 2018, 67 years old.

Rodney Lejeune, a cousin of Iry, lived just across the border in Texas, in a town called Nederland. It was founded in 1897 by farmers from the Dutch province of Friesland. When Rodney saw that I wanted to take a picture with an image of Obama on the giant tv set, who was still in the election battle, he said kindly but strictly: “Oh no, not with that man!”

Looking for Mr. D.L. Menard, I stopped at a police station in Erath to ask directions. “Drive a little until you get to a small bridge with trees on the left, that’s where he lives.” But after 10 minutes,  not a bridge with trees in sight. I went back to ask again. “Just keep on driving”, was the answer. After another 10 minutes still nothing, but I did see some people standing by a house. As I approached them, a man came up to me and asked if he could help me. “I’m looking for Mr. D.L. Menard.” “Well, that’s me,” the man said, “follow me.” He had been visiting friends. It was at least another 10 minute drive to his house. Now I know that “a little further” in America is at least another 20 miles.

On Sunday, November 10th, Emile Waagenaar will give a lecture in Utrecht on his photo series of Cajun musicians. For more info, click here. You can order ‘Arrête pas la musique! – Portraits of South Louisiana’ from Amazon here

This is the fifth of seven blogs based on Dutch photographer Emile Waagenaar’s book of portraits of Cajun musicians. The first one appeared on September 18, 2019. 

Cajun Musicians At Home - By Emile Waagenaar


In those first years I traveled from here to there, on roads like the LA 82, passing the Rockefeller State Wildlife Refuge near Grand Chenier. No idea where I would end up.
But the more musicians I got to know, who all referred me to other musicians, the more I got the idea that I was working on a special project, photographing the founders of Louisiana’s Cajun music at home in their living room, kitchen or in front of their car. The pictures you always saw of musicians were during performances, never how they lived at home.

In 1982, for example, I visited Leroy ‘Happy Fats’ LeBlanc, a former alderman in Rayne, a radio DJ and guitarist and singer with the Rayne-Bo-Ramblers. Happy Fats was in his pyjama jacket and wanted to be photographed with an old guitar without strings. He was very ill. A year later a son of his set fire to his mobile home, and he had to go to a nursing home where he died on February 23, 1988.

No ‘Happy Fats’ at all.

The city of Rayne, about 18 miles west of Lafayette, is known for its murals with frogs and for the annual Frog Festival organized by the local newspaper, the Rayne Acadian Tribune. Myrta Fair Bradbury Craig, 74 years old in 1982 and director of the Tribune, photographed me with her beautiful Ya-Ya-Yashica camera for an article in her newspaper. It was a nice story, this strange guy from the Netherlands who came to photograph frogs!

I found the oldest frog mural in Rayne, Frog Capital of the World, next to the beautiful Worthmore five & dime store on North Adams Avenue. Both the store and the wall painting are from the end of the 19th century. When I visited it again in 2017, you could hardly see the entire painting for the trees.

Another great musician from Rayne is Jo-El Sonnier. He opened the door for me with a big yawn, he’d had a late night. When he heard that I was from the Netherlands, he pulled me into his living room. A few months before, had he had an interview with a prestigious music magazine from the Netherlands, Block Magazine, and would I please translate. After an hour of translating of 8 pages he said “Bien, that was a good interview”, climbed on his exercise bike and started playing some songs from his new LP for me.

On Sunday, November 10th, Emile Waagenaar will give a lecture in Utrecht on his photo series of Cajun musicians. For more info: here. You can order ‘Arrête pas la musique! – Portraits of South Louisiana’ from Amazon here.

This is the fourth of seven blogs based on Dutch photographer Emile Waagenaar’s book of portraits of Cajun musicians. The first one appeared on September 18, 2019. 

A Warm and Humid Evening in Louisiana, 1982 - by Emile Waagenaar


On a warm and humid evening in May 1982 I got off the Greyhound bus in Lafayette. I found myself standing at the crossroads of another culture, across from the Grant Street Dance Hall.

I went into a bar where a band was playing, they told me it was Zydeco. Good music, but not what I was looking for. This is Rockin’ Dopsie & Zachary Richard playing at the Grant Street Dance Hall in that same year, 1982.

That evening someone gave me the name and address of the godfather of Cajun music, Ambrose Thibodeaux, written on a paper napkin. The next morning I met Ambrose in his yard, mowing the lawn. He was very surprised that somebody from the Netherlands was interested in his music! He put away the lawn mower and we went into his house. For the rest of the day.

One of the places where I discovered real Cajun music and culture was at Fred’s Lounge in Mamou. People gave me the names of musicians scribbled on little pieces of paper or on cardboard beer coasters. Time and again I was surprised by the cultural endurance of this relatively small group of people. Both old and young keep their history alive through a simple bond—the culture, the language, and the songs of their ancestors.

Fred’s Lounge is a special pub. After Fred’s death, his wife Sue (‘Tante Sue’) kept the bar open only on Saturday mornings, from 9 to 1 pm, with live Cajun bands. Here Kurt Daigle and friends are hanging out at Fred’s on one of those Saturday mornings. On my first trip, in 1982, I visited Fred’s at 10 in the morning and asked for a cup of coffee. Sue looked at me and said almost angrily, “Coffee? I don’t have that, you have to be across the street at the hotel on the corner. Here you can get beer or whiskey!”

At Fred’s Lounge a nice lady gave me the name and address of another living Cajun legend, Aldus Roger. Aldus was married for the third time, his wedding photo hung over his couch. I got a 45-rpm from him and I asked if he would sign it for me. His wife did that for him because he had never learned to write. As a child, he was constantly hit with a ruler on his fingers when he spoke French at school and not English. Then his father took him out of school to help pick cotton in the fields.

On Sunday, November 10th, Emile Waagenaar will give a lecture in Utrecht on his photo series of Cajun musicians. For more info, click here. To order ‘Arrête pas la musique! – Portraits of South Louisiana’ from Amazon: click here.

This is the third of seven blogs based on Dutch photographer Emile Waagenaar’s book of portraits of Cajun musicians. The first one appeared on September 18, 2019. 

Cajun Origins in Acadie - by Emile Waagenaar


The Cajuns trace their history back to French people who left their homes in the 1600’s and ventured to Acadie (today’s Nova Scotia, Canada). Among these migrants were carpenters, notaries, even prostitutes. Later, many French farmers and fishermen also moved there. This is a passenger registration list from 1636, from the Archives Départementales de Charente Maritime in the French town of La Rochelle, with the names of several early settlers in Acadie.

They originated mainly from small villages such as this one, Beauvoir-sur-Mer in the Vendée, and from the départements of Normandy, Brittany and Poitou-Charentes. Their descendants would become known as the Acadians. In 1755, the British, who had taken control of Acadie earlier in the eighteenth century, began dispersing the Acadians across North America and Europe.

In 1774, one group of Acadian refugees ended up back in France. The Marquis de Pérusse d’Escars built them 150 farms near Archigny in Poitou-Charentes, in an area still known as ‘La Ligne Acadienne’.

Each family got a house, a harrow, a plow, a wagon, two oxen, two cows and 42 acres of land. Some of the buildings are still standing, although the houses are more often used as barns today. For some of the Acadians (‘Acadiennes’) in France, as well as for others scattered around the northern Atlantic, Spanish Louisiana beckoned as an attractive option for resettlement. Originally founded as a French colony, its inhabitants shared a language and religion with the dispersed Acadians.

This sign marks the home of Francois Daigle and Jeanne Holley, who lived here in 1774. More Acadiennes started arriving in Louisianain the mid-1760’s and on through the 1780’s. The colonial government settled them along the bayous and prairies of south Louisiana, where over time they developed a distinctive culture and their name was corrupted into ‘Cajuns’. Influenced by neighboring black Creoles, and bringing their own historical references to the table, by the twentieth century these Cajuns created music rooted in its heritage yet almost constantly evolving.

After 25 years working as a manager at Burger King, Bay Hebert decided to change his life dramatically. He went to live with his wife and son as his ancestors had lived in Louisiana in the 19th century. This is him plowing his land with his two mules near Carencro, Louisiana, in 1998. A wonderful example of slowing down, just a pity that he died a few years later. While plowing his donkeys were startled by something, Bay fell and hit his head on a rock, and did not survive.

On Sunday, November 10th, Emile Waagenaar will give a lecture in Utrecht on his photo series of Cajun musicians. For more info: click here. You can order ‘Arrête pas la musique! – Portraits of South Louisiana’ from Amazon: click here.

This is the second of seven blogs based on Dutch photographer Emile Waagenaar’s book of portraits of Cajun musicians. The first one appeared on September 18, 2019. 

How I Discovered Cajun Music - By Emile Waagenaar

This is the first of a series of blogs for the John Adams by the Dutch photographer Emile Waagenaar, author of the book ‘Arrête pas la musique! – Portraits of South

Louisiana’ for which he photographed Cajun musicians at home. The blog will appear biweekly on our website. 

It all started in 1979. On the radio I heard a Dutch-American music program called ‘Nashville’, playing music that was completely new to me. So pure, so honest. It turned out to be Cajun music from Southern Louisiana.Three years later I traveled there to find it. Being a photographer, I made some portraits of some of the pioneers, but also of the next generation of younger musicians who were carrying on the Cajun tradition. And I went to places in France where the Cajuns originally came from.In 2010 the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC enthusiastically accepted my donation of sixty-four portraits of Cajun musicians. Curator of photography David Haberstich wrote an article about it. You can read it here.

My book Arrête pas la musique! – Portraits of South Louisiana was published in 2017 by the University of Louisiana Press at Lafayette. It has twice been nominated as the best photo book of 2018 by an independent American publisher.

On Sunday, November 10th, Emile Waagenaar will lecture on his photo series in Utrecht. More information can be found here.
You can order Arrête pas la musique! – Portraits of South Louisiana from Amazon here.


When I was visiting my cousin in Boston, he showed me a picture of me in an old family album. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I was 7 years old, wearing my grandfather’s hat and vest and holding a real Cajun toy accordion. I had totally forgotten that I had ever had that accordion…. And 25 years later I started photographing the real musicians, like Ambrose Thibodeaux.




Ann Savoy, who wrote the foreword in my book, is an author, a record producer and a photographer. She is also a musician, and plays guitar, fiddle and accordion. Ann has written about the history of the Cajuns, and in 2006 she made an album with Linda Ronstadt, ‘Adieu False Heart’, that was nominated for a Grammy.

How America was lost - by Willem de Bruin


The merchants of St. Eustatius were used to the presence of British warships around the island, on the lookout for ships with supplies for the rebellious settlers in North America. It therefore took some time before they realized that the fleet approaching the island on the morning of February 3, 1781, came for a different purpose.

After the warships had cast their anchor in the bay of Oranjestad, a sloop rowed ashore from the flagship. The officers on board climbed the path to the fort, where they handed the following statement to a totally overwhelmed governor De Graaff: ‘We the General Officers, commanding his Britannic Majesty’s Fleet and Army in the West-Indies, do, in his Royal Name, demand an instant Surrender of the Island of Saint Eustatius and its Dependencies, with everything in and belonging thereto, for the Use of his said Majesty. We give you One Hour, from the Delivery of this Message, to decide. If any Resistance is made, you must abide by the Consequence.’

Nest of villains

Great Britain was presented a casus belli when the Royal Navy in September 1780 intercepted an American ship on the Atlantic Ocean. One of the passengers was Henry Laurens, special envoy of the Continental Congress. In his luggage he carried the draft of a secret trade agreement between the United States and the city of Amsterdam. Surely no more evidence needed of the insidious behavior of the Dutch?

War was declared on December 20, 1780. The first war goal was set in advance: the island of St. Eustatius, ‘this nest of villains’ as commander of the British fleet admiral George Rodney put it. “If it had not been for the treasonable assistance” of the island’s merchants, “the American War must have been long since finished.”

Admiral George Bridges Rodney had a questionable reputation. No one doubted his capabilities as commander of the fleet. But there was also George Rodney the gambler, who only barely managed to keep his creditors at bay. In those days it was still customary in wartime for the crew of the fleet to share in the proceeds of the seized goods. But what was legitimate war booty in this case? All the goods or only from those traders who had done business with the Americans? And were British citizens from nearby islands who had settled on St. Eustatius excluded?

Rodney decided to keep it simple. This was a unique opportunity to free himself from all his worries. He ordered the confiscation of all goods on the island. His greed was apparent from a letter to his wife: “The riches of St. Eustatius are beyond all comprehension. The capture is prodigious.”

Rodney was asking for trouble. Soon the British merchants filed a series of complaints against the admiral, maintaining that he was not entitled to expropriate British citizens.

The worst was yet to come

But the worst was yet to come. The main purpose of occupying St. Eustatius was to cut off the supply line of the insurgents, enabling Great Britain to win the war. But George Washington was no longer fighting alone. In 1778 France had entered the war and had already sent a number of troops, though not enough to tip the balance. However, in the course of 1781 a large fleet set sail for Martinique, the main French naval base in the West Indies. It was obvious that the ships would set sail for North America from there. Thus it was of the utmost importance to prevent them doing so.

But Rodney was too busy filling his pockets and did not take the threat seriously enough – and the French fleet sailed unhindered to the American east coast. The result was a crushing defeat for the British in the Battle of Yorktown, at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, in October 1781. They would never overcome this blow. As Edmund Burke later declared in the House of Commons: the capture of St. Eustatius indeed ended the war, but not in the way that Great Britain had envisioned.

This is the third and last blog in the series ‘The Golden Rock’, based on Willem de Bruin’s book by the same name on the role the Dutch island of St. Eustatius played in America’s war of independence. De Bruin worked for most of his career at the Dutch daily newspaper De Volkskrant, as editor of the news section and later of the op-ed page where he was responsible for the daily editorial. He wrote essays for various sections of the newspaper on both domestic and international topics. He left the newspaper in 2011 to write books on history.

‘You find here everything’ - by Willem de Bruin


When in the spring of 1775 the first shots sounded in the American War of Independence – as it would later be known -, neither party was prepared for a prolonged struggle. Washington’s Continental Army faced many problems. His army was not only smaller, but in need of everything, especially weapons and gunpowder. So when Captain Robinson set sail on the Andrew Doria from Philadelphia in October 1776, his instructions were to sail to the Dutch island of St. Eustatius and bring back any and all supplies you can lay your hands on.

The British navy did everything in its power to prevent supplies from reaching the insurgents. Both the Dutch Republic and France were only too happy to provide the necessary war-material for the British settlers, though their motives differed. For the Dutch, selling arms and gunpowder to whoever wanted them was simply a pragmatic matter of supply and demand. The French, on the other hand, were primarily interested in weakening the enemy.

Bustling free port

But transport by ship from Europe directly to the east coast of America soon became too risky. The solution was to let the shipments make a detour via the Dutch island of St. Eustatius. The French colony of Martinique was used for the same purpose. The cargo was picked up there by American ships.

At the time St. Eustatius was already a bustling free port where merchants from all nationalities met to do business, hence the nickname The Golden Rock. Walking through the now almost deserted Lower Town you can still see the ruins of the warehouses and shops that once stretched over a distance of nearly two kilometers along the coast. A visitor wrote in 1775: ‘It were endless to enumerate the variety of merchandize in such a place, for in every store you find everything.’

All trade, legal and illegal

The island acquired this position thanks to its strategic location and the monopoly the other powers – Great Britain, France, Spain – maintained on the traffic with their colonies. As a consequence, the British, French and Spanish possessions in the region were not allowed to trade directly with each other. The Dutch, however, traded with everybody. The Dutch West-India Company therefore saw the opportunity to create a neutral free port, open to all ships and to all trade, legal and illegal. The island offered a range of services, including the reflagging of ships, the repackaging of goods and the ‘adjustment’ of freight lists to conceal the nature of the merchandise or its origins.

The war in Britain’s colonies in North America offered new opportunities. No more lucrative trade than the arms trade. In the eyes of the British government the selling of arms to the rebellious settlers was a hostile act, but the profits outweighed the risks. In an attempt to secure the delivery of the badly needed supplies, the Continental Congress in the fall of 1775 ordered the foundation of what was to become the US Navy. The Andrew Doria was one of the first ships to be put into service.

Double-dealing Dutch

The salute the warship received in St. Eustatius strengthened the morale of the insurgents, but the British government became more convinced than ever that the Dutch were double-dealing. That put both countries in an awkward position. The merchants in the Dutch Republic gambled on a victory for Washington’s army and already dreamed of the possibilities the American market offered. But they also knew that Holland, with its neglected fleet, could not win a war with Great Britain.

London in turn was eager to punish the Dutch for their support of the insurgents, but then England would lose its only ally – at least on paper – in Europe. Both countries tried to avert a war without making concessions. In the aftermath of the ‘first salute’ the Dutch authorities kept the British at bay by promising an investigation into the behavior of the governor of St. Eustatius. The British government finally lost the momentum and had little choice but to wait for the next chance to teach the Dutch a lesson.


Next week part 3: How America was lost at St. Eustatius

Journalist Willem de Bruin worked for most of his career at the Dutch daily newspaper De Volkskrant, as editor of the news section and later of the op-ed page where he was responsible for the daily editorial. He wrote essays for various sections of the newspaper on both domestic and international topics. He left the newspaper in 2011 to write books on history.


The First Salute - by Willem de Bruin


St. Eustatius – or Statia as the English-speaking islanders say – is hardly a tourist destination. Unlike neighboring St. Maarten, visited by thousands of Dutch and American holiday-makers, St. Eustatius has no golden beaches. Yet this small Dutch island on the northern end of the Lesser Antilles is popular with divers, who are attracted by the numerous shipwrecks in the surrounding waters – all of them reminders of St. Eustatius’ turbulent past.

The island’s history is closely related to that of the United States. To learn more about this, you have to leave the lower part of the only town on the island, Oranjestad (Orangetown), and climb the Old Bay Path to the picturesque Upper Town, built on a cliff forty meters above sea level. The first major building on the top is Fort Oranje (Fort Orange), balancing on the edge of the cliff.

Fort Oranje in the 18th century

Flagpole and plaque

Entering the complex through the small gate, you cannot miss the huge flagpole in the center of the courtyard. On its base a plaque states: ‘In Commemoration of the Salute to the flag of the United States fired in this fort on 16 November 1776 by orders of Johannes de Graaff, Governor of Sint-Eustatius in reply to a national gun-salute fired by the United States brig-of-war Andrew Doria under captain Isaiah Robinson of the Continental Navy. Here the sovereignty of the United States of America was first formally acknowledged to a national vessel by a foreign official. Presented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States of America.’

Roosevelt presented the plaque in 1939. Others followed. One plaque on the fort’s wall is from the nearby American Virgin Islands, maintaining that the salute to the Andrew Doria turned the Dutch Republic into ‘the first nation to officially recognize America’s independence’. Though this claim is somewhat at variance with the historical truth, at the time the event was certainly seen this way.

Eleven salutes

What actually happened on November 16th, 1776? That day the commander of the fort, Abraham Ravené, saw an unknown brig approaching. As was the rule, the ship carried the Dutch flag on the main mast. But from which country was the flag waving from the foremast and the stern? From a distance it looked like the ‘red ensign’, the flag all British ships carried, but on this one the red plane was divided in thirteen stripes. And was the brig a man-of-war or a merchantman?

Before anchoring the ship discharged eleven salutes, forcing the commander to decide with how many salutes he would answer: with two less, as was the rule when greeting a merchantman, or with an equal number, confirming the ships status as a war vessel – and by implication recognizing the country it represented? He asked the governor, Johannes de Graaff, for advice. Without knowing the status of the ship either he ordered: answer with two shots less.

It turned out, however, that the brig, named Andrew Doria, was a converted merchantman now in the service of the recently founded Continental – later US – Navy. It bore the new flag of the United States of America. The consequences of De Graaff’s order, therefore, were far-reaching. The governor’s defense that the salute from the island’s fort proved he was convinced that he was dealing with a merchantman, made no impression on the British government. In Britain’s view this was the utterly unjust recognition of a bunch of rebels – a hostile act Great Britain could not accept.


Next week part 2: Why did the Andrew Doria sail to St. Eustatius?

Journalist Willem de Bruin worked for most of his career at the Dutch daily newspaper De Volkskrant, as editor of the news section and later of the op-ed page where he was responsible for the daily editorial. He wrote essays for various sections of the newspaper on both domestic and international topics. He left the newspaper in 2011 to write books on history.

And so the Story Ends - by Laila Frank


My first week in Los Angeles was miserable. Months of fantasizing about a new life and a new career reality ended in a shitty campervan in a garden in the Valley, an empty mailbox, loneliness and instant self-doubt. On the fourth day I drove my rental car straight into the rear end of a sharp white Nissan on the 405-highway. The sound of metal crushing was the sound of my evaporating savings and a reminder that procrastination is not a good idea when it comes to arranging car insurance. In seven days I went from journalist on an adventure to immigrant illegally scraping a lousy job as a furniture mover for a bossy Hungarian women I deeply disliked.

It was a bad start, but it made for a good story – at least so my friends in LA kept telling me. In the end, stories were what I had come to the Mecca of podcasts, documentaries and movies for. I wanted to understand what makes Americans so good at telling stories and why they value it so much that they start teaching storytelling at kindergarten. Why every soul I meet on the road seems to be able to tell you a novel-worthy version of their lives. Why I can’t buy a pack of cereal without consuming a brand story and why commercials from American politicians can move me to tears where Dutch ones just make me feel uncomfortable.

This is where the plot twists: I didn’t find my answer in LA. I found it in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Center for Civil and Human Rights was my first stop on an afternoon with time to kill. Not far into the exhibition the museum guard escorted me to an imitation of a bar in a 50’s diner. “Take a seat,” she said. “Put your hand on the bar and close your eyes. I’ll put on your headphones.” Instantly I am sucked into history. A man asks me what I want to drink. “Coffee please.”  Just after he pours me a fresh cup, a group of men come in and start shouting. ‘What you doing here nigger, you filthy piece of shit.’ They hit me. I fight back but they are with too many. My bones crack. Blood drips from my head. I fall to the floor. I am not supposed to be there. I want to get out. Get me out! Silence. The lady taps me on my shoulder and tells me it is over. I know it’s fake. But it makes me cry. And I am truly angry.

In the mood for something a little more cheerful I cross the square where a smiling face and a can of Coke welcome me to the Coca Cola Experience: a genius piece of marketing. A museum built solely on visitors making selfies with Coca Cola paraphernalia from around the globe and sharing them on social media while being high on liquid sugar. It all starts with an obligatory group tour and a short movie. For five minutes, my brain is injected with stories about friendship, family and Coca Cola. And although I know it is all a lie, and I am fully aware that I am being worked, I can’t help it: I cry. Again. Yet this time my tears have nothing to do with injustice. This time it is a carefully orchestrated artifact of capitalism that sincerely moves me.

Two slices of Americana served at the same square on the same afternoon. They couldn’t be more different yet they are both communicated through powerful stories. It made me realize that stories in America are not just an art form or a way to transfer knowledge: storytelling is a necessary survival skill in America. You need it to sell: yourself, a politician or a brand. You need it be heard. You need stories to prevent history from being repeated. There are so many fights to be fought in America, so many products to be sold. The ones that tell a good story will always win from the ones that don’t.

After that first week, things got better quickly. Work started flowing, a better neighborhood brought new friends and I never received a bill from the car crash. Yet now my adventure in LA comes to an end. Time to explore new parts of America. Time to find new stories.


Laila Frank is a freelance journalist specialized in America, campaigns and politics. She is fascinated by humanity’s (in)ability to (co)exist; her writing feeds off that fascination. She was trained as a political strategist and campaign manager and worked behind the scenes in politics for over 12 years before becoming a journalist. These months she is traveling California, looking for stories.

The Architecture of Being Lonely - by Laila Frank


Chris looked like the popular hunk in a teenage movie. His defined jawline, toned muscles and shiny set of teeth kindly greeted me at his door in Corpus Christi, Texas. Like most estates in that part of Texas, the place looked more like a castle then like the single-family home it really was. Two dogs the size of calves frolicked around on the ground floor – a huge open space – hampered only by furniture of the most essential kind.

A television screen as big as a small camper van just started screening an NBA play-off game and Chris invited me to join. We casually chatted and cheered through the first half. Turned out Chris had moved to Texas for work: he reorganized hospitals for a living. At age 32, it had provided him with a huge paycheck and enough savings to retire at forty. “Let’s drink”, he said at half time and offered me a shot of cherry flavored vodka. My lack of enthusiasm sparked a quick drive to the liquor store: by the start of the second half, 3 bottles of wine had joined us. As the night unfolded, I realized I had mistaken his generosity for loneliness.

Quickly into the second half, Alexa joined the conversation. I didn’t take Amazon’s virtual assistant to be more than a fun addition to our evening and an endless source of basketball trivia. Then, after singlehandedly consuming two and a half bottles of wine, Chris turned to Alexa and asked her to wake him at 6 am. “I like it when she wakes me”, he said. “She asks me how I slept. Sometimes I tell her my dreams.”  I didn’t know what to say. He continued: “When I get home after work, I talk to her. She’ll ask me about my day. People keep to themselves out here. It is hard to find new friends. Alexa is my friend no matter what.” He finished his glass and went to bed.

Chris fits a harsh statistic. Half of Americans experience severe feelings of loneliness, a recent large-scale survey from a health care provider showed. Thirteen percent of Americans say that zero people know them well. Although the scale of the problem is growing, it is hardly a new insight. In the 60’s architect Paolo Soleri took on loneliness in his vision on urban planning. The widespread suburbs of America created a waste of natural resources, he said. It also designed compartmentalized lives where people just moved from A to B in cars and never met. Urban implosion rather then explosion was his solution: cities without cars where all aspects of life were within reach and natural resources were not wasted.

Soleri and his wife started the construction of Arcosanti, a prototype of his vision for urban design in the northern Arizona desert. It is an ongoing experiment. Volunteers that live and work in this remarkable piece of architecture keep Soleri’s heritage alive. A couple of weeks after my stay at Chris and Alexa’s, I am welcomed into the womb of Soleri’s love child. Our tour guide for the afternoon is Tim, a 35- year- old actor from New York City accompanied by a hangover he extensively apologizes for: they had a party the night before. Tim moved to Arcosanti in search of a different life: “less chased, more true connection”, he explains.

We follow his easy pace into the Arcosanti community, greeting residents shooting hoops in the open air, manually manufacturing bells –the signature souvenir of the Arcosanti foundation – or adding to the construction according to Soleri’s principles. His girlfriend – an artist he met at Arcosanti – joins us for lunch. “Come back any time”, he says as we exchange numbers and say our goodbyes.It is not hard to be lonely in America. I have met many wandering souls on the road. Their stories show there is no real recipe for loneliness. Some seek the company of others, some the company of nature and some the company of a virtual friend. At times it breaks my heart, watching their struggle. Yet I also find comfort in their stories. Because in the end, the search for love and belonging is what it is all about. And that is the one thing we’re all in together.


Laila Frank is a freelance journalist specialized in America, campaigns and politics. She is fascinated by humanity’s (in)ability to (co)exist; her writing feeds off that fascination. She was trained as a political strategist and campaign manager and worked behind the scenes in politics for over 12 years before becoming a journalist. These months she is traveling California, looking for stories.




(The City of) What If - by Laila Frank


The place was deserted except for one man, carrying the unmistakable air of a long-life surfer. With a cigar between his lips he had sat his slender and tall body on a rock, patiently staring at the ocean. “Waiting for the waves?” I asked. “It might be a while”, he said. “Care to join?” We sat and waited. Richard, as it turned out, was not a man for chitchat. After about ten minutes he broke our silence: “I surf because the water is the only place I feel free. There is only the moment itself, the waves and the motion. There, I am present. In that moment, everything is perfect.”It turned out life had not been quite perfect. His ex-wife recently drank herself to death. Two years earlier they had divorced, leaving him with a large debt. She left him for his best friend. What if things had gone differently? he asked of no one in particular. The ocean responded to his reminiscing with a set of waves and we went in. We surfed in silence until sunset, grateful we had the waves to ourselves. Hungry and satisfied we decided to share our Christmas dinner at a funky little fish place a bit further up the coastal highway.

Richard was a gifted musician. “I wasted a lot of it on booze, though”, he said. Casually, the way only Americans can morph a celebrity into a conversation, he mentioned his favorite artist to play with was JJ Cale. A surfer late in life, I learned: they went into the water frequently. On one of their last sessions before his death, Cale made a remark that still haunts Richard: if you want to make it in this business you can’t hold back. You have to give all of yourself to it. “What if I had spent all that time on my music instead of drinking? What if I had spent all that time in the water on my music?” Richard asked of no one in particular. The waitress brought the check and we parted.

His ‘what if’ resonated on the drive home that night, passing endless strips of billboards with the promise of success and a life of fame and fortune. Los Angeles is filled with what ifs: American Dreams as business models captured and romanticized in many stories of Hollywood. What if tomorrow is my big breakthrough? What if I get the gig, the house, the girl, the investment, the part? One the one hand it’s this wonderful, contagious, palpable energy the City of Angels drives on. Whenever I need courage or the feeling that anything is possible, it’s always there providing inspiration on demand.

Most dreams don’t come true, though. ‘Part of the journey’, they say out here. You dust yourself off and try again. It’s part of the narrative. Richard moved me because he refused to march to that drum. He voiced the sound of broken dreams. He was a man who had given up on them and was not afraid to show it. He was a breath of fresh air in a choking mantra of success. I knew I did not have to feel sorry for him in any way. He would be fine. Richard had found his place in LA free of ‘what if’s’, the only place he was truly free. Richard had the ocean.


Laila Frank is a freelance journalist specialized in America, campaigns and politics. She is fascinated by humanity’s (in)ability to (co)exist; her writing feeds off that fascination. She was trained as a political strategist and campaign manager and worked behind the scenes in politics for over 12 years before becoming a journalist. These months she is traveling California, looking for stories.






The Last Free Place on Earth - by Laila Frank


It was a little before sunset when the sign ‘Last Free Place on Earth’ welcomed us to Slab City. Abel drove up in his ragged pick up truck and the unmistakable aroma of marijuana to drop off the keys. Our home for the night was a gutted-out RV in the southern California desert, one of two that Abel and his wife rented out to make some extra bucks. “Do you want a tour? Hop on in!”

We pass Salvation Mountain – a handmade mountain dedicated to Jesus that artist Leonard Knight gave twenty years of his life to build. We sail past empty barracks, skillfully covered in graffiti and construction of waste transformed into pieces of art. “Is this a great place to life or what?” Abel cheers. He and his family are some of the few permanent residents of Slab City, a snowbird community in the Southern California dessert. Several thousand campers use the site during the winter months. ‘When the hornets arrive, it’s time to go. To darned hot,’ one of them explained on his way out late March.

I asked Abel how his family survives summer. “We lay under wet blankets all day and come alive at night. We adjust.” Leaving is not an option: the earthship he and his wife have built carefully over the years would most likely be squatted and leave them with nothing. It’s the downside of living in a community where government is absent. Hobo’s, beggars and addicts are as much part of the community as the RV-snowbirds and the permanent residents. But that lack of control is also what draws people to Slab City: no rules, no laws, no schools, no taxes; an alternative living community away from the norms and demands of society.

It has been four years since they arrived here from Colorado. Abel lost his job a couple of months after his wife Cherry did. They struggled to keep up with the bills and the requirements of city life. “We wanted to be free, just break out of it,” Abel explains, sitting outside the family earthship underneath a shed. They sold what they had no need of, packed up their four kids (2, 6, 8 and 10 at the time) and their leftover belongings and drove off to Slab City. Two years later, their fifth kid was born: a true ‘slabber’. All of them are homeschooled. “There is one other family with kids but we don’t really hang out,” their oldest daughter says. “Do you ever miss Colorado?” I ask. “I don’t know,” she answers and walks off.

There are many places like Slab City in the southwest of the States. Desolate spots where people go to be left alone and escape society. Some of them choose consciously to live off the grid. Some choose the desert sun just for winter. But most of the communities I visited over the year are filled with stories of people falling behind. The one thing they are truly free of is the fear to lose it all. That all American reality lingering somewhere around the corner only one lay off, unexpected hospital bill, divorce or a bad turn of events away. They have been there. Then they gathered what was left of their lives and drove off to Slab City or places alike.

On our way out, the irony of the welcoming sign we passed strikes me again. The Last Free Place on Earth is a sanctuary for those who have the liberty to leave if they choose. But if you don’t have a choice, you are captured in a phrase that promises freedom but gives you life.


Laila Frank is a freelance journalist specialized in America, campaigns and politics. She is fascinated by humanity’s (in)ability to (co)exist; her writing feeds off that fascination. She was trained as a political strategist and campaign manager and worked behind the scenes in politics for over 12 years before becoming a journalist. These months she is traveling California, looking for stories.


Good Neighbours and Distant Friends - by Laila Frank

An unexpected gust of homesickness snuck up on me while watching a Scandinavian series on Netflix. Maybe it’s because everybody here seems to think Amsterdam is the capital of Scandinavia and I have given up explaining it’s really not. Nonetheless these gorgeous blond people driving around at night between Northern European countries, mingling languages that sound identical to me have become indicators of home. When away, the sound of exception becomes a reminder of where I am, and where I am not.

I contemplated on this lying butt naked, my head repetitively banged into the belly of a tiny Korean powerhouse wearing black panties I came up close with every time she bowed over to scrub my back. At least ten other women were voluntarily suffering the same routine in this particular area of the Korean spa, best described as the salon version of a cubical office. Beauty comes with a price. “Sit,” she said. “Go to sauna, 10 minutes. Then come back.”

A Korean soap opera on a huge screen awaited me in the dry sauna, volume way above relaxation level. I decided to sit in the hot tub instead. In the corner an older Korean woman was rubbing another woman’s back. A mother washed her daughter’s hair. Two friends were sitting on the side of the bath chatting, relaxing. The beauty of the bathing ritual struck me. Surrounded by naked bodies of all colors my white skin was an exception.


I hardly ever notice it anymore. Being a minority is everyday life; breaths of air I take in unaware. California is one out of five states with a minority (non-Hispanic) white population – only 38 percent. Asian Americans make up 15 percent of the population (the highest in the country) and 35 percent is of Hispanic decent, making California the third ‘Hispanic’ state (New Mexico and Texas being 1st and 2nd). No other city showcases diversity like LA. When you move to another part of the world, your get new neighbors. But when you move to LA, you get the world.

In Western Europe, our neighbor is the East Coast. We are focused on Washington DC and New York City. That’s where most of our news comes from and where our media are based. It’s where the biggest population of European immigrants historically set foot. Of all the mindsets in the States, it’s the one we know best and have internalized unaware. But in California, our neighbors are Mexico and Asia. News from those countries affects everyday life here more than what happens on the East Coast. Some of the newspapers out here with the largest editions are in Mandarin or Spanish.

The Far Left is a nickname for California I have come to appreciate in particular. It gives meaning beyond the obvious political statement and the independent character of the Golden State. It tells you where we are and who we live with. It tells you what shapes life out here. Therewith it tells you what we value. While the East Coast is our distant friend, Mexico and Asia are our good neighbors.

“Lay down,” the dominatrix yells at my return to the torture lab. While she climbs on my back for a massage, I realize I will miss her and the Far Left she represents dearly when I get back to Amsterdam. Because when far away, exception reminds me of where I am and where I am not.


Laila Frank is a freelance journalist specialized in America, campaigns and politics. She is fascinated by humanity’s (in)ability to (co)exist; her writing feeds off that fascination. She was trained as a political strategist and campaign manager and worked behind the scenes in politics for over 12 years before becoming a journalist. These months she is traveling California, looking for stories.

Money Talks - by Laila Frank


“Do you have en emergency number you would like us to call? It saves you the expensive ambulance ride to the hospital in case something goes wrong during class. And welcome to your new yoga school!” “Happy to be here”, I reply, aware of the appropriate response. Yet inside I smile and warily shake my head: nothing reminds you of being in America like a casual remark about capitalism.

I remember the first time I noticed a remark like that. It was was on a memorable nocturnal Greyhound ride from Montreal to New York City, about a decade ago. Around 2 am a woman with six kids entered. With a toddler on her arms and a bunch of kids and bags in her wake she reached the back of the bus. A big man, vastly asleep occupied her seat. There was plenty of room in the bus but she wanted that particular one. Half awake he asked her to pick any other spot –easier for everyone. Bad move. Things got ugly quickly.

What started as a screaming standoff escalated into a full-blown showcase of a certain America: swearing, racial accusations, a scuffle and KFC-buckets flying around (thanks to a previous pit stop the bus smelled like fried chicken all the way to the Big Apple). The bus driver pulled over and called in the police. Unloaded we drove of to our final destination, hours delayed. What stuck with me more than anything was the argument the woman loudly screamed out over and over again: “I PAID FOR IT, I HAVE A RIGHT TO THIS SEAT.”

It may not seem like a world shocking remark but that simple sentence defines everyday interactions – big or small – in this country: if I pay for it, I have a right to it– whatever it may be. It’s the argument that makes all others disappear. Casual remarks about money and what having it or lacking it means keep sneaking up in everyday situations. When taking a bus ride, in random conversations with strangers, or taking a class in a California hippie yoga school. ‘Clasp your hand like you’re holding a 100 dollar bill’ is most certainly the most out of context instruction I have ever had in a yoga class. Namaste.

Ever since I moved to America, money is top of mind and not just because journalism pays shit and California is ridiculously expensive. Money is part of life and everyday conversations almost like the weather is in the Netherlands. Friends – rich and poor – all talk about their side hustles; their projects on the side to safe for a rainy day they are pretty sure will come one day.

It’s not just money in politics or income inequality, or Piketty’s Capital that expose capitalism’s meaning in society. It’s the remarks that keep on sneaking up in everyday rituals and habits. It’s the casual expressions that slip into a conversation, the friendly joke the bartender makes while pouring you a drink, the date that starts a conversation saying: I know I am a good catch, I am good for at least 300 grand a year (it was a very short date). I keep a list of these remarks. It grows steadily. And every time it does I smile on the inside, warily shake my head and answer the only way appropriate: “Happy to be here!”


Laila Frank is a freelance journalist specialized in America, campaigns and politics. She is fascinated by humanity’s (in)ability to (co)exist; her writing feeds off that fascination. She was trained as a political strategist and campaign manager and worked behind the scenes in politics for over 12 years before becoming a journalist. These months she is traveling California, looking for stories.

Dirty Joe - by Laila Frank


It had been two months since Dirty Joe caught a wave. The last one broke his arm; another casualty added to a long life of surfing. His return did not go unnoticed. It was a Sunday morning, just after sunrise. There is something magical about early morning sessions: the water still fresh and crisp, the sound of nature awakening. Every wave holds the promise of the day ahead.

Joe’s return instantly broke the code of silence on the water. The scattered group of old men I happened to float among started cheering and applauding. Dirty Joe was back!

It didn’t take long before Joe popped up next to me and introduced himself: “Hi gorgeous. I am Dirty Joe.” I couldn’t help but smile: “What kind of Dirty are we talking?”He laughed: “It’s just a nickname I picked up in the Navy.” “You’re not gonna tell me, are you?” Another big smile, a wink and off he went, catching another wave. “You want to know something else I picked up in the army?” He asked when he paddled back up to me. “People call me the dolphin whisperer. I can communicate with dolphins.”

Just as I threw my most sarcastic ‘uhuh’ at him, three fins popped out of the water in the distance. “Let’s go”, Joe hollered, paddling away swiftly. Out of breath I caught up. Joe sat up straight, radiating an air of calm and patience. The high whistle-like sound he created with his hands folded to his mouth, carried over the ocean. We sat in silence, gazing at the surface. On his second attempt it happened: seemingly out of nowhere and with the speed of light, they flashed by. My jaw dropped. I just looked at him in joyous disbelief. With a big wink and a twinkle in his eye Joe replied: “You better believe it, gorgeous! It’s playtime.”

Time stopped there and then. I have no idea how long we sat out there but I knew it was just Joe, me, and the dolphins. They jumped up and down alongside when we paddled, dove under our boards when we sat up. They swam off to return just as swiftly, their cheerful dolphin sounds reaching us before they did. Our soundtrack played a frolic back and forth of Joe’s sounds and the dolphin’s reply. Just as quickly as they came, they disappeared. We paddled back and parted. Joe caught up with his crew of old men and surfed like nothing had happened. I just sat on my board, mesmerized.

It was one of those magical California moments; an encounter with a random stranger and the beauty of the unexpected. Every now and then I get lucky and see the dolphins pass from my board. I never saw Joe again. But every time I’m out there and see a dolphin, I think of him and smile.


Laila Frank is a freelance journalist specialized in America, campaigns and politics. She is fascinated by humanity’s (in)ability to (co)exist; her writing feeds off that fascination. She was trained as a political strategist and campaign manager and worked behind the scenes in politics for over 12 years before becoming a journalist. These months she is traveling California, looking for stories.



Under the Boardwalk - by Laila Frank


It’s a hot summer afternoon and Rob and I are walking the Venice Beach Boardwalk. Vendors display their goods while tourists stroll past, bodybuilders sculpt their torsos on Muscle Beach while musicians catch up with the sound of the ocean. It’s Hollywood at its most picture perfect: Venice Beach as it is known around the world. Like in Hollywood, though, nothing is as it seems.

We are reaching out to homeless teenagers, many of whom flock around this small strip of land by the sea. Although some of them clearly live on the streets, for the untrained eye most of them are unrecognizable as homeless people. “Shame and pride,” Rob explains. “They don’t want you to know, they just want to be like you.” One of his many lessons that day.

A little earlier Rob had sat me down. When a man like Rob speaks to you, you listen. “A bad case of hood disease,” he says. He got caught up in gang life and street culture.  That was then. He healed. Now he works to keep teenagers on the right track and off the streets he knows so well. He fires questions at me, testing his waters. Am I streetproof? I pass. “One more thing before we go out”, he says. “We are on gang turf. We are being watched. Play by the rules.”

“Wait, what?” My image of gang turf is not compatible with musicians and tourists. It turns out this little stretch by the sea belongs to not one but three gangs. Need a place to rest? Sell your stuff? Conduct business? Sure. Quid pro quo is what it means. Rob deals with the OG’s – Original Gangsters – so the kids can be safe. That afternoon, while I hand out water and information to the teenagers in need, Rob works a turf of his own. I watch the unspoken exchange of looks, fist bumps, signals. I watch him eagle-eying everything that goes unnoticed by the instagramming flock of tourists.

Last week I returned to the Boardwalk. It was the first time since that summer afternoon. The magic is there, it’s easy to tap into and forget about the worlds underneath. Strolling around it hit me, though, that California is exactly that: a fantasy on the outside – something for everyone, the place to make your dreams come true – but when you scratch the surface, you see an uncomfortable truth.

It is the capital of homelessness and income inequality. The richest state in the country also has the highest poverty rate. Middle-income families are moving out in high numbers, simply because they cannot afford the rent anymore. The cost of living is higher then anywhere else in the country, yet affordable housing is 3 to 4 million units short in California. The list goes on.

It has been almost a year since I landed in LA and California has been generous to me: there were many adventures, stories and encounters that I cherish. But at the end of the day, there is this aching feeling that something’s off. That California is broken. The state where you could once be poor and happy has become a state for the happy few. Ironically the resistance state, home of progressive Democrats has become the national symbol of income inequality. If that is not uncomfortable, I don’t know what is.


Laila Frank is a freelance journalist specialized in America, campaigns and politics. She is fascinated by humanity’s (in)ability to (co)exist; her writing feeds off that fascination. She was trained as a political strategist and campaign manager and worked behind the scenes in politics for over 12 years before becoming a journalist. These months she is traveling California, looking for stories.



Up and Down the Ballot - By Iris Bos

It is almost two weeks since the U.S. Midterm Elections took place. As more and more races that were too close to call on or right after Election Day have finally been called, the new political landscape is slowly becoming clearer. Even though pundits on Election Night were sceptical at first, we did see a blue wave in the House of Representatives. The Democratic Party has already secured 231 seats, electing its most diverse class of members and improving their ability to check President Trump’s power. The Republican Party has expanded their majority in the Senate and with it the ability to continue building a conservative judiciary. However, as Kyrsten Sinema became the first Democrat to win an Arizona Senate seat in 30 years, the Republicans got the message that even reliable red seats are now in play.

On November 6th, Americans not only voted for a new Congress in Washington. The outcome of state and local elections often have a greater impact on people’s daily lives. As reading up on your national, state and local representatives can already be an afternoon’s work, voters in 37 states voted on a total of 157 ballot measures on Election Day. The measures dealt with many aspects of people’s daily lives, such as Medicaid expansion, abortion rights and voting rights.

Down the ballot, you will often find several ballot questions. In the Netherlands we have different types of referenda. Some are advisory, others are binding. This also goes for American ballot questions. Public officials can include an advisory question to ask their constitutions’ opinion on specific legislation, while ballot measures are a way for the public to directly pass or repeal a specific law – without it having to pass each chamber or requiring a signature from the governor.

The ballot measure that perhaps received most national media coverage is Florida’s Amendment 4, which would automatically restore voting rights for more 1.4 million ex-felons (about 9.2 percent of the voting-age population in Florida). The measure passed with an overwhelming majority of 65% of the vote. Even though some of the restrictions were put in place by Gov. Rick Scott (R), Amendment 4 received bipartisan endorsements. Many high-profile Americans campaigned in Florida to get the measure passed.

Other ballot measures will also have a substantial impact on people’s lives. The minimum wage of 900,000 workers will be increased in Arkansas and Missouri. The expansion of Medicaid – a program offering free or low-cost health coverage to the elderly, low-income people, families and children, pregnant women, and people with disabilities – was passed in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah. This means that 300,000 more low-income American will receive health coverage. And Washington voted to tighten its laws on gun control, raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21 years.

In 2016, transgender rights became national news when North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory (R) signed a law restricting cities from allowing transgender individuals to use public bathrooms for the sex they identify as. The people of Massachusetts decided otherwise on November 6th. They passed the nation’s first statewide vote on anti-discrimination protections for transgender people, prohibiting gender-based discrimination in public places.

The last ballot measure I want to highlight deals with abortion rights. With the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, many women around the country fear that their right to choose – protected by Roe v. Wade – might be taken from them if the Supreme Court decides to overrule. In that scenario, abortion rights will again be decided at the state level. Until then, the restrictions passed in Alabama and West Virginia two weeks ago that cease to recognize and protect a woman’s right to have an abortion, remain symbolic.


This is the sixth and final blog in our blog series about the Midterm Elections 2018. Contributions were made by Iris Bos, boardmember of Stem op een Vrouw, Kathelijne Niessen from Campagnebureau BKB and Casper Thomas from Het Financieele Dagblad and De Groene Amsterdammer.


Casper Thomas

Iris Bos

Kathelijne Niessen



Midterm Reflections - By Casper Thomas


Politics are about emotion, especially at the Midterm Elections in the U.S. that were widely seen as a referendum about the most controversial president in recent history.

Politics were also about emoticons on this Election Day. On the website of the New York Times, a ballot was shown throughout the day. You could click on it if you had voted, and express the feelings you experienced while in the booth: happy, angry, or worried. I had the card opened during the day and saw smiling, frowning or anxious faces constantly appearing.

Especially on the coasts the emotions danced across the screen, and it looked like the worried emoticons had the upper hand. It seemed to me a reflection of the nail biting of democratic voters in the cities in California and New York and other liberal strongholds. In their own states the ‘blue wave’ that was said to wash over the US was coming for sure. The question was what would happen in those races for the Senate, the House of Representatives and the Governor positions that symbolized the attempt of the Democrats to win back the country from Trump. In particular Beto O’Rourke’s attempt to defeat Ted Cruz in Republican stronghold Texas and Andrew Gillum’s candidacy, who had a chance to become the first Democratic governor in Florida in decades.



My study in Washington DC became a kind of ‘election cockpit’. MSNBC on my iPad, CNN on my computer, phone on twitter to track results. Sheets of paper to write down quick impressions and statistics.

A few examples: health care is a more important issue for voters than the economy, and that is what should help the Democrats. A quarter of the electorate thinks the violence that overshadowed these elections – mail bombs delivered to prominent Democrats, deadly attacks on a Pittsburgh synagogue and a yoga studio in Tallahassee – a determining factor in their vote, CNN reported. A question for later research: how exactly do voters think to bridge the extreme polarization with the choices they made these midterms?

The stakes were clear: The Democrats had instructed themselves to conquer the House of Representatives. That meant winning 23 seats from the Republicans. A feasible mission, with a lot of new candidates and a record number of women and minorities, who were able to harvest the unhappiness about Trump in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

For Republicans the Senate was the most important. From a favorable situation, the GOP had to retain its majority. Of the 35 seats that were contested, nine were in the hands of the Republicans, which – in short – gave little opportunity to the Democrats to steal something from the Republican Senate majority.

During the evening the predicted scenario gradually played out. The blue wave washed over the House of Representatives where the number needed of seats to win a majority was getting smaller and smaller. The ‘Red Wall’ in the Senate remained intact, and seems to have become even a little higher.

The two chambers in Congress reflected how the country is heading in two different directions. The Democratic posters boys did not make it. Around 10:00pm the press dared to declare that Beto O ‘Rourke was short of a couple of hundred thousands  votes to stop Cruz. While writing this, Gillum versus in DeSantis Florida is still ‘to close to call’ but it seems that DeSantis, a Trump epigone with the support of the president, will draw the longest straw.

The sports bar I went to to follow the results, empties out as the success of the two big Democratic promises seems unlikely. D.C. voters are in a peculiar situation; they may vote on Senators and Representatives, who do not have the right to vote in Congress. And so the political emotion was projected onto other states. But without the symbolic victory of Democrats, the blue wave feels somehow likean expected victory, without the intoxication of winning against the odds.

As soon as it becomes clear that the Democrats are going to win a majority in the House of Representatives, the conversation immediately switches to Trump. The President’s free reign made possible by the Republican majority in Congress is gone. With the House in Democratic hands, the Democrats can do what was impossible until now: force Trump to answer the many questions surrounding his presidency: about his tax return, about his business interests and ties between the Trump team and the Russians.

It is just before midnight when Nancy Pelosi appears in front of the cameras. She is the one Democrats project their partial victory upon. As the new leader of the House of Representatives, she will be the one to call Trump to account. These elections offered the Democrats momentum to rally the troops and for the Republicans to strengthen their line of defense. Both succeeded. The real battle for democracy in the U.S. starts now.


Casper Thomas is correspondent in Washington D.C. for Het Financieele Dagblad and editor of De Groene Amsterdammer.


Making it hard to vote - By Iris Bos

The United States is the oldest existing nation with a constitutional government in which the people elect their own government and representatives. However, most of its citizens do not participate in the process. Voter turnout in the U.S. is much lower than in most established democracies. In the midterm elections of 2014, only 36.7 percent of the population eligible to vote actually cast their vote. In presidential elections, about 60 percent generally cast their vote. Political parties encourage their base to go out and vote. Many companies – such as Facebook, Google and Spotify – also take action to make sure people participate in the political process. But whereas some people may simply not want to vote, others are actively discouraged.

The right to vote in the United States has been contested throughout the country’s history. Literacy tests, ‘good character’ tests and poll taxes are just three examples of mechanisms used to disadvantage minority voters. In 1920, women were guaranteed the right to vote by the 19th Amendment. However, many restrictions still hindered non-white women to vote.

Only in 1965 did the Voting Rights Act, signed into law during the height of the Civil Rights movement, give racial and ethnic minorities protection of voter registration and subsequent voting. But unfortunately, voter suppression is still present and actively discourages communities across the country from voting.

In many states, the question is whether people will be able to cast their votes at all. Ninety-nine bills were designed to diminish voter access in 31 state legislatures last year, such as tougher voter ID laws, restrictions to early voting and barriers to registration. Many Republican legislatures argue that these measures combat voter fraud, even though studies show that voter fraud is very rare.

Four cases stand out: in Florida, 1.6 million ex-felons will not be able to cast their vote this year. The state is one of four that prevents ex-felons from voting. In Kansas, the single polling station in Dodge City was moved to a location without a sidewalk or access to public transportation, discouraging the mostly Hispanic residents from voting. Secretary of State Kris Kobach has imposed many restrictive voting laws in the state.

Two other cases of voter suppression have received a lot of attention from the national media. In Georgia, Secretary of State and the Republican candidate for Governor Brian Kemp invoked an exact-match law to purge 53,000 voter registration applications from voter rolls. If the last name on your application missed even a hyphen, your voting status could be suspended. Important is the fact that nearly 70 percent of the registrations were from African-Americans, while they make-up 32 percent of the state’s population. Kemp is running against the Democrat, Stacey Abrams, who could become the first black woman governor in the United States. The measure is highly controversial, as Abrams’ campaign strategy put a lot of effort in registering 600,000 unregistered black voters. Last Friday, a U.S. District Judge ruled the state must relax restrictions that could prevent thousand of people from voting in today’s midterm elections.

In North Dakota, thousands of Native Americans are actively discouraged from voting in an important Senate race. The Supreme Court upheld a law that requires residents to show an ID when casting their vote. The law specifically disadvantages 5,000 Native Americans, as their ID has to show a residential street address. This is troublesome, as many Native Americans living on reservations only have PO boxes, not a street address.

The law could prove harmful to Senator Heidi Heitkamp. She is up for re-election and won her seat in 2012 by only 3,000 votes, many of which came from Native American voters. Maggie Astor, a reporter for the New York Times, spent three days in North Dakota reporting on the law. In a very interesting Twitter thread, she illustrates the efforts being undertaken by tribal officials to ensure everyone has an ID and an address.

During the 2016 Democratic Convention, President Obama had a simple message for the crowd in Philadelphia. Don’t Boo, Vote! But this might prove to be a serious problem for some Americans.


Iris Bos, boardmember of Stem op een Vrouw, is currently travelling across the United States. This is the third blog by Iris Bos about the Midterm Elections of November 6. “I hope to illustrate that this election is about more than President Trump and the question whether the Democrats will gain a majority in the House on November 6th. This election is about the country’s broken healthcare system and its ongoing system of voter suppression, but also about a wave of women running for office.”

Women to Watch - By Kathelijne Niessen


American politicians Stacey Abrams and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have a couple things in common. Until recently, the two women were relatively unknown on the national stage. Neither of them are ‘usual suspects’. And both of them could write history next week. On November 6, their names will be on the ballots in Georgia and New York.

It’s Time for a Political Revolution

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a candidate for the House of Representatives for the state of New York (14th district, Bronx/Queens). No one knew the 29-year-old Latina until last May, when she launched this campaign video. A month later she defeated Joe Crowley during the Democratic primary with 57.5% of the votes. Crowley has been a House Representatives for almost twenty years and was seen as a possible successor of Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House. In addition, his campaign funds were ten times those of his opponent.

Ocasio-Cortez, who actively campaigned for Bernie Sanders in 2016, does not accept any money from powerful and controversial Political Action Committees (PAC’s). Instead, she relies mainly on donations from donors and the efforts of volunteers.

How did she win? She gives a number of reasons:

– She actively involved the communities in the Bronx and Queens in the campaign and organized her team very effectively.

– The campaign had a very clear and successful message.

– With that same message, Ocasio-Cortez and her volunteers knocked on doors that were normally passed by. People finally felt heard, and voted for her in great numbers. With her campaign she reaches groups which – according to her – Democrats pay too little attention to: young voters, people who do not vote or are voting for the first time, minorities and the working class.

–  Since her victory last June, Ocasio-Cortez is hot news: every magazine and news channel wants to talk to the emerging political talent. The idea of ​​Ocasio-Cortez (in time) in the White House is not inconceivable for many enthusiasts. Everything indicates that she will be the winner on November 6th, which would make her the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Representatives. Yes she can!

Giving voice to those who feel voiceless

We head south, to Georgia. With her nomination alone, Stacey Abrams wrote history as the first female African-American candidate for governor. Next week she can actually become the very first female African American governor of the United States. That this is nowadays possible in the Deep South, given the history of the Civil War and the Afro-American Civil Rights Movement, makes it all the more exceptional.

Abrams receives a lot of attention for her campaign strategy. She does not focus on ‘flipping’ Trump voters. Her approach revolves around the conversation with new voters, minorities who think that their votes do not matter, and the mobilization of registered Democrats. Why? It’s simple math. The strategy is based on the statistics that there are enough people in Georgia to win these elections.

© Facebookpage Stacey Abrams

Abrams believes that people do not vote because they are given no reason to vote. Because they do not see candidates who represent their problems and concerns. She shares her personal story about having debts, about her brother’s struggles with mental illness and drug addiction and the consequences of a poorly functioning health care system. She connects personal stories to urgent themes and policies. In her mind, voters need to feel the urgency to actually make the effort to go to the ballot box.

In the presidential election, Donald Trump won Georgia by five percent. For fifteen years, the governorship in this state has been in the hands of a Republican. The election will be more nerve-racking for Abrams than for Ocasio-Cortez. The predictions of Nate Silver are currently 0.9% in favor of her opposing candidate, Brian Kemp. Still here supporters are hopeful that Abrams will write history in the red state of Georgia next week.


Kathelijne Niessen has a history degree in American Studies and works as a campaign strategist at Campaignbureau BKB. The history and politics of the United States seized her at a young age and intrigues her ever since. It brings her to the U.S. regularly, preferably during election time. In 2016 she campaigned for Hillary Clinton in Colorado for several months.

Rewriting the Playbook: A historic number of women are running for office - By Iris Bos


More women are running for political office this year than ever before. That is remarkable, given that feminism suffered a tough blow in the United States 2016 election. Not only did the defeat of Democratic presidential nominee and former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mean that women have yet to shatter the highest political glass ceiling in the United States, but the number of women in Congress and state legislatures failed to increase as well.

The minor increase of elected women is especially striking when placed in context. While the latter three decades of the twentieth century were characterized by a steady growth and later surge in female representation, the number of women in Congress has stayed relatively constant over the last election cycles. But next week’s election might shake things up.

The 116th Congress is expected to consist of a record number of women. Currently, there are 23 women serving in the U.S. Senate and 84 women in the House of Representatives, comprising 19.3% of House members. Only six states have a woman serving as their governor. Without intervention, the United States Congress will not eliminate the gender gap until 2117. The election of Donald Trump and defeat of Hillary Clinton might prove to be such an intervention.

Almost 500 women have filed to run for a seat in the House of Representatives, an increase of nearly 60 percent compared to the previous high in 2012. Unfortunately, many of these women ran in highly competitive districts or faced an incumbent as their opponent – greatly decreasing their chances. However, 235 of women candidates won their primaries. This is a promising number, knowing that only 167 women won their House primaries in 2016.

Interestingly, these candidates are not at all evenly divided by party: 78 percent of women candidates running for the House are Democrats. For U.S. Senate races, this is 65 percent. Scholars offer several explanations. Democratic women are more likely to be recruited for office and receive encouragement from elected officials and political activists, they are better represented in ‘pipeline professions’ (professions often held prior to running for political office, such as law, business, education, and politics). And more women’s organizations – such as EMILY’s List – focus on the recruitment and financial support of pro-choice, Democratic women. Moreover, women are still perceived to hold more moderate views than men. As the most conservative candidate usually wins Republican primaries, Republican women have to combat the perception that they are less conservative than their male counterparts.

This record number of women running and the fact that gender has emerged as an important theme in the 2018 midterm, doesn’t mean that the gender gap will be closed this year. As became apparent during the Kavanaugh hearings, party identification trumps gender when it comes to voting. Even though women are more likely to identify as Democrats, both men and women rarely cross party lines. This was also the case in 2016, when polls showed that 89 percent of Republican women voted for Trump. Polls show that this percentage is even higher this year. Moreover, party, race, education and class also divide female voters. Another important factor is turnout, as the gender gap does not automatically benefit Democrats. Higher than average turnout among white women in 2016 helped Donald Trump, so Democrats are relying on higher turnout among African-American women, Latinas and college-educated this year.

More transformational is the fact that women have changed the way in which they market themselves on the campaign trail. Women no longer want or need to conform to this playbook written by white male candidates. This year, women have re-written the campaign playbook. In campaign ads, women are taking their children to work, showing their tattoos and wearing jeans and a T-shirt instead of the traditional pantsuit. MJ Hegar, a veteran and House candidate from Texas, released a powerful ad focusing on her early experiences with domestic abuse, her career as an Air Force officer and her efforts fighting discrimination towards women. This not only shows voters the incredible diversity of women candidates, it will send a clear message to women who are thinking about running for office and even young girls that they themselves can write their own playbook.


Iris Bos, boardmember of Stem op een Vrouw, is currently travelling across the United States. For the John Adams Institute she will write several blogs on the midterm elections. “I hope to illustrate that this election is about more than President Trump and the question whether the Democrats will gain a majority in the House on November 6th. This election is about the country’s broken healthcare system and its ongoing system of voter suppression, but also about a wave of women running for office.


This Election is about Health Care - By Iris Bos


“My health insurance costs me $625 every month and I still pay a lot over-the-counter.” I’m on a Greyhound bus from Knoxville, TN to Washington, D.C. and it has broken down in a small town in rural Virginia. We have been waiting over six hours for a new bus to arrive out of North Carolina, so my conversation with the busdriver has shifted from the weather to more significant issues. The essence of his remarks? “Our health care system is broken and no-one seems to want to fix it or knows how to do so.”

Millions of Americans spend up to $500 – $1,000 per month on their health insurance, putting the United States at the top of the list of high-income countries’ medical expenses. However, researchers have not found that Americans use their medical system more often. Then why does all this money not translate into healthier people? Research points to the high prices of drugs, procedures and administrative services.

In 2010, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) into law. Ever since, Republicans have attacked the law, often referred to as Obamacare, and have carried out multiple attempts to reform or repeal it. The last four elections were dominated by discussion on the law and President Trump made repealing ACA a cornerstone of his campaign. The Republican party has succeeded in dismantling many parts of the law, but they have not successfully been able to unite around new legislation.

Republicans have abstained from another attempt to repeal the ACA this year. Moreover, many Republicans up for re-election are talking back their reform-or-repeal votes. Why? The issue of health care has steered away from the ACA and has instead focused on pre-existing conditions. Many Republicans voted to repeal the law. This meant taking away health care from people whose health conditions predate someone’s insurance coverage and stripping the provision that allows a child to stay on its parents’ insurance until age 25. As these two features of the bill remain very popular since its introduction, the Democrats have put them front and center of their campaign this year.

This year, Democratic groups spent nearly half of their money on health care ads: 44 percent of Democratic House races and 50 percent of their Senate campaigns discussed the issue. The divide with Republican races is stark, as the issue does not even make it into the top five issues for Republican Senate campaigns. Democratic candidates have blanketed the airwaves with their personal health stories: Senator Claire McCaskill from Missouri talks about her fight with breast cancer, while Senator Tammy Baldwin from Wisconsin describes finding her mother, who had a drug abuse problem, passed out. The opioid crisis is an issue that has received a lot of the attention of candidates talking about health care.

I met Laurie Meschke, a Professor at the Department of Public Health at the University of Tennessee, at her office in Knoxville, where she outlines how this opioid epidemic has a major impact on families across the country. “While we have made access to prescription drugs more difficult, we see a stark increase in the use of heroin and thus in overdoses.” She emphasizes the interrelatedness between health care and policy and how to improve the country’s health care system. “Policy has the greatest impact on health care and it’s driven by politicians. But I think we are on the right track. I don’t think a complete repeal is good, but revision of our federal systems is always necessary. People change and so does our economy. I think we have to look at our tax laws and make sure that uber rich people are paying their fair share.”

So while people on the news and in Washington D.C. are mostly talking about Kavanaugh or Khashoggi, my busdriver from Tennessee and voters across the country will be thinking about their health care when they cast their vote on Election Day.


Iris Bos, boardmember of Stem op een Vrouw, is currently travelling across the United States. For the John Adams Institute she will write several blogs on the midterm elections. “I hope to illustrate that this election is about more than President Trump and the question whether the Democrats will gain a majority in the House on November 6th. This election is about the country’s broken healthcare system and its ongoing system of voter suppression, but also about a wave of women running for office.




A Knock on the Door - By Lize Geurts


 “There is a knock on the door. Whether or not the belongings are packed, the kids are ready, or the new plan is put in place, no longer matters.” A few sentences written on a wall plastered with eviction notices describe what happens to a family when their landlord one day decides it has been enough; it is time to evict. Their belongings are moved to either a storage space or the curb. And because a storage unit costs money, money that evicted tenants do not have, they often choose the latter. “The movers would pile everything onto the sidewalk: mattresses; a floor-model television; a nice glass dining-table and a lace tablecloth; the meat in the freezer.”

Photo by Sally Ryan, www.sallyryanphoto.com

Each year more than 2.3 million Americans, most of them low-income renters, face eviction. The National Building Museum in Washington D.C. is now showing a collaborative exhibition with Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, based on his Pulitzer prizewinning book Evicted. Using photographs, videos, maps, installations and statistics, the exhibition puts faces to the names of the people who figure in Desmond’s reports about evictions in Milwaukee, and places them in the broader context of evictions and its consequences for American society. Desmond has also started a follow-up project, the website Eviction Lab (https://evictionlab.org/), which makes factual information on evictions accessible to a broad public.

The museum set it up to be an “immersive experience”. Four installations that resemble houses present the most important statistics. A large map of the United States uses different sizes of boxes to illustrate the number of evictions in each state on a yearly basis. It feels like walking through an architecture studio.

Photo by Sally Ryan, www.sallyryanphoto.com

In a video dealing with the gap between low income and ever-rising rent, Desmond speaks of an eviction epidemic in America. More than two million people receive eviction notices every year. 2.4 million were carried out in 2015, almost equivalent to the number of foreclosures at the height of the housing crisis. As a consequence, the average age of a homeless person in the United States is now nine years old.

When an eviction is issued, the case goes to court. Ninety percent of the landlords have representation, while only ten percent of the tenants do. If the tenant does not show up, the case is dubbed a default. Desmond recorded the court judgements of a few days of eviction cases. The tape sounds like a broken record: “default, default, default, default”. And ‘default’ means that the landlord can legally evict. Many tenants fail to show up, as hearings often take hours, and people cannot find a babysitter or get off work. Also, you will not be taken seriously without a lawyer, and those are too expensive.

Desmond wanted the exhibition to be free, so that the evicted could come too. And they did. Keith, an older African-American man with round glasses who works at the museum information stand, has seen homeless people from the nearby shelter come to visit. Visitors left their comments in the guestbook. Some sympathetic: “I am here because my sister was evicted.” Some seem to feel guilty: “My parents are landlords, and I hope I can change their practices.” Landlords come too, but Keith says they complain about the representation of their profession.

Photo by Sally Ryan, www.sallyryanphoto.com

And how about Washington D.C. itself?  The capital claims to be legally “tenant-friendly”, and it is – compared to cities without any legislation on the issue. But Washington is not low-income tenant-friendly. More than 40,000 households are on a waiting list for public housing that has now been closed for several years. The city is growing increasingly more expensive, and it is gentrifying. Keith: “The government is the main employer. Roughly 70 percent of the people living in Washington are employed by the government. They are paid minimum wage, at least. How can it still happen here?”

The ‘Evicted’ exhibition in the National Building Museum runs through May 19, 2019: https://www.nbm.org/exhibition/evicted/ This is the sixth blog in our seven-part series ‘Poverty and Profit in the American City’. The last blog will be an interview by Katherine Oktober Matthews with Matthew Desmond himself.

Interview with Matthew Desmond - By Katherine Oktober Matthews


In his book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond reports on the contemporary American epidemic of evictions. His warning looms large: “Without a home everything else falls apart.” Told from the perspective of eight individuals being evicted in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as well as their landlords, Desmond’s investigative book addresses the scope of the crisis through personal narratives. Desmond will be speaking about his work at the John Adams Institute on July 4.

What is the relationship between poverty and housing?

Today, most home-renting families in America spend at least half of their income on housing, and about one in four spend over 70 percent of their income just on rent and utilities. We’ve had flat incomes, soaring housing costs and a failure of our federal government to bridge that gap. Under those conditions, you don’t really need to make a huge mistake to get evicted.