Is the Statue of Liberty still an appropriate icon for the USA? To an international audience, the massive monument is undoubtedly the country’s most famous and cherished landmark. Lady Liberty still welcomes crowds of tourists, just like she used to welcome immigrants with her arms wide open. But does she tell an honest tale? Is the USA as friendly and free as she implies? In actual fact, the country is closing itself off. They now have a president in office who wants to build a wall to keep immigrants out, instead of welcoming them in. A president who closes the borders, who says ‘America First’. It may be time for the US to embrace a different icon: a logo that would serve as a warning to the world.
I would like to suggest an alternative monument to take its place. No need to build a new one, either, since my proposed alternative already exists: the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, a gleaming catenary arch of stainless steel, 192 meters high and 192 meters wide. This landmark is not situated in a cosmopolitan coastal city, but in flyover country, USA. It may be less famous internationally, but its colossal stature fits the bill. I hadn’t seen it myself until I coincidentally ended up living in St. Louis for a while. By now, I’ve reached the point that I think everyone should know about the Gateway Arch. The story that the Arch tells about the USA is much more honest.
In 1967, the monument was dedicated ‘to the American people’ as a ‘memorial to the westward territorial expansion of the United States’. In other words, construction was completed just a few years before the first man was put on the moon, as a tribute to the country’s pioneering spirit. That makes the Arch a true monument to the ‘height of American power’, according to historian Tracy Campbell, who wrote a ‘biography’ of the Arch.
But the Arch also has its darker sides, as I gathered from his book (Tracy Campbell, The Gateway Arch: A Biography, Yale University Press, 2014). Its construction was used as a clever excuse to demolish forty square blocks of ‘blighted’ residential property – which just so happened to be home to many African Americans. Moreover, it was an underhanded way to bring federal funding to the city. The official reason for building the memorial was not all roses and sunshine, either: that ‘westward territorial expansion’ was soon followed by driving out and killing off the indigenous population. Some St. Louis residents therefore view the Arch as a monument to inequality. And it’s not restricted to the history books, either. Viewed from the Arch, you can almost see Ferguson: the suburb where its citizens revolted against modern-day injustice just a few years ago. Finnish sculptor and architect Eero Saarinen, who designed the Arch, had envisioned both a gateway to the city and a Romanesque triumphal arch. Incidentally, the artist was later criticized by a fascist architect from Italy, who claimed that Saarinen had stolen his design. The Arch was literally built in a place where minorities were driven from their land, to commemorate a genocide, based on a design which is marred by the taint of fascism.
The Arch is a Statue of Unliberty. The monument teaches us that freedom has always gone hand in hand with a lack of freedom, long before Trump came along. At the same time, it also embodies that wonderful bravado, that optimism, that attempt to reach up and touch the sky. The Arch is not just any archway, it is a sweeping curve in the shape of a completely suspended necklace. The steel changes color depending on the light. Simply gorgeous. The Arch is as megalomaniac as it is elegant. All that is good and evil in America is united here. Its two pillars keep a polarized land trapped together, held in an immovable vice. The good news: the monument was renovated recently, for a mere 380 million dollars. This year’s 4th of July festivities will include an opening ceremony. It would be an excellent time to declare the Arch the new logo of the USA.
This is part 2 in our series of blogs leading up to our event on July 4th with Matthew Desmond, author of the book ‘Evicted’
Translated by Joy Phillips
Dutch journalist Arjen van Veelen didn’t plan on moving to the U.S.—but after his wife accepted a job in St. Louis in the summer of 2014, he found himself coincidentally in the backyard of the Ferguson riots. With that, he began to research and write about his American experience, reporting back to a fascinated Dutch audience on life in the heartland. These experiences are now brought together in his book Americanen Lopen Niet (Americans Don’t Walk), published by the online news platform De Correspondent.
By Katherine Oktober Matthews
The America that you witnessed firsthand was not at all what you expected.
The first day we drove to the university where my wife worked, we were shocked by the racial and economic divide of the city. We were driving through St. Louis, and when we crossed from one street to the next, both the cityscape and the people we saw walking there completely changed: from almost entirely black to almost entirely white, from completely deteriorating buildings to big mansions with shiny cars.
It was a shock, maybe because I was quite naïve. My view of the United States was based on what I saw on Dutch television which, like American television, tends to focus on the big coastal cities and tourist places. It was also quite shocking to see young children begging in the streets. That was new for me, I thought it was something from the past.
The media left after the protests, but I was still fascinated by this strange city that I had never heard of before moving there. I began to explore St. Louis and found that the root causes of the protests were more shocking than the riots themselves.
What did you find shocking?
In the book there are basically two storylines: one is me trying to understand what I saw during the protests, with the people out on the streets and the teargas, which I didn’t understand at all at the time. Then, a year or so later, the presidential election started, and Trump comes into the picture and there’s another kind of uprising. Not street protests, but voters are angry, and I try to understand why. And it’s also from this quite naïve point of view, that I’m shocked by what I see in the country as well, all the small towns and all the main streets that are no longer flourishing. In the end, I’m asking the question which is still being asked in the Netherlands: is it the identity or is it the economy?
St. Louis is a perfect case study for this question, because it’s both. It’s two forces that work together. If you want to understand the United States, you shouldn’t go to New York City or L.A., but St. Louis. I think of it as the capital of the Heartland. In the 19th century there was even a movement to make St. Louis the capital of the United States, instead of Washington D.C., which made sense at that time, right after the Louisiana Purchase.
But to be clear, this is a personal book, it’s not investigative journalism. I literally walk through this strange city and write about what I see, what shocks me, and then I try to understand what I have seen through research.
How do you think being Dutch affects your perspective?
Growing up in the Netherlands, you’re immersed in American culture. We watch American television and follow American news very closely. We probably even watch the presidential elections with more attention than Americans themselves! On the one hand we follow every step of the U.S. very closely, but on the other hand our view is very limited because we are focused on the big coastal cities like New York and L.A., and on tourist things like Route 66. We ignore a lot of the country. That’s one of the reasons why I was shocked: there was so much difference between what I thought I knew and what I saw.
What do you think was the harshest lesson for your naïveté?
At first, during the protests in Ferguson, there were things like shootings and teargas, which were new for me, I’d never been in that kind of situation before. But the most shocking thing was rather how normal the divide was. During the protests, everybody was talking about when the “normal” situation will return, but the normal situation was quite extreme for a lot of people. What was shocking to me was how quickly you accept a situation.
When I returned to the Netherlands, I saw the same trends, though maybe less extreme. The Netherlands is still a welfare state in many ways, there’s a much stronger safety net, but seeing the same trends worried me. I don’t want this to be a book about how terrible everything is in the United States, because in Europe we have the same trends. We have our own share of populism, for example. Trump is not the root of all evil, he’s just a symptom. The lesson I learned is to readjust the issue from Trump to structural issues.
Did you see anything to make you optimistic?
The inspiring thing about living in St. Louis is that people know how to protest. They were already protesting under Obama, not against Obama but against the system. I find those people to be very inspiring, they show how to confront fundamental and structural issues. That’s also a take-home message of my book: if you’re worried about the current situation and want to do something, then look at the people who were protesting already. You don’t have to accept the situation as normal.
Another inspiring thing I saw is that, wherever you go, the most rundown places are also where you find people who are the most resilient; they know how to survive. They are strong and creative, and they’re optimistic. I don’t know if it’s an American trait, but it can be a very beautiful thing to see all those rundown places in Missouri and in the country, and you always meet people who are very proud and strong and optimistic. At first I thought it was just a façade, just a way to cope, but it’s not.
What do you most hope your Dutch audience will get out of your book?
That they stop focusing so much on the current president and try to understand the more abstract economic and social forces that created this situation. But also that they understand that those same forces—whatever labels you want to give them, like neo-Nazi, neoliberalism or whatever—are also happening in Europe. So, the book is set in the U.S., but it’s not only about the States.
Tell us about the title, ‘Americans Don’t Walk’.
When I first arrived, I didn’t walk, because people warned me that it wasn’t safe. My legs started to feel funny because I wasn’t walking at all. After a few weeks though, I realized I had to walk to explore and get to know my surroundings, so I walked.
There is the big cliché here that Americans don’t walk anywhere because they’re all car lovers or just lazy. But one of the things I learned is that a lot of Americans do walk. In St. Louis, I think 1/4 of the population doesn’t have access to a car. This is not because they want to live car free, but mostly because they can’t afford one. And this is a city where the public transportation isn’t very developed: only about 1/3 of the jobs in the metro area are accessible by public transport. So a lot of them walk—very long distances every day, along busy streets without sidewalks, crossing highways, facing all kinds of hazards—to get to work.
And, they walk to protest. There’s a joke that if you see an American walking, he’s either protesting or walking to his car. During the Ferguson protests, there were a lot of people walking in St. Louis, just marching and marching. So, for many reasons, walking is political.
On July 4th, Arjen van Veelen will contribute a column to the evening the John Adams Institute is organizing with Princeton sociologist Matt Desmond about his book ‘Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City’: https://www.john-adams.nl/matthew-desmond/ In the coming weeks, the John Adams will post an interview with Desmond, three blogs from Van Veelen’s book and a blog by Lize Geurts about the exhibition on ‘Evicted’ which is currently on view in the National Building Museum in Washington DC.
All blog posts in our series “The War We would Forget” on the Vietnam War have now been assembled in a wonderful digital publication for your enjoyment.
All six blog posts in our series “A Nation Torn” on the 2014 midterm elections have now been assembled in a wonderful digital publication for your enjoyment.
Three months in Amsterdam, over and done with. It’s impossible for me to believe how quickly the time has gone by. I love this city, and I’ll miss so many things about it.
I’m very excited to be headed home, but I can’t help but feel a sense of dread about the political situation that awaits me there. These past three months have made me realize how psychologically comforting, politically cathartic, even morally clarifying it is to live in a country with policies that so strongly resonate with my personal sense of fairness and justice.
Almost all of the progressive political battles that seem so stuck in the mud in the United States have been fought and won in the Netherlands. And the system they’ve created here works! Taxes are high, but the country as a whole is extremely prosperous. Certain sectors are heavily regulated, but there’s plenty of market-based competition. Individuals and families have extensive freedoms and protections, quality of life is high, inequality is low, and even the least fortunate enjoy a decent standard of living.
In the Netherlands, there’s broad agreement that the state should play an active role in society. This frames public policy debates in constructive and often creative terms. This simply isn’t the case in United States, where one of our two political parties is almost entirely devoted to cutting taxes for the wealthy, deregulating the private sector, and dismantling the ability of government to do things for the common good. Even as corporate profits go through the roof, income inequality rises to all-time highs, and social mobility sinks to new lows, efforts to promote slightly greater redistribution, modest expansions of the safety net, better protections for workers, etc. are smeared as somehow un-American, or worse—socialism (gasp!).
As a highly political creature, I can’t escape the feeling that when I step back onto American soil, I’ll be returning to a bloodbath. The country has never been more divided, at least in my lifetime. And it’s not just about policy anymore. Democratic values that I thought were ironclad are under constant attack. The dignity that I’ve come to expect from the White House is being defiled on a near-hourly basis. Politics often feels completely detached from reality. It’s still hard for me to believe, but I’ll be returning to a nation where 63 million people felt that Donald Trump would be an acceptable choice as President of the United States. That people were so blinded by resentment of some undeserving “other” that they were willing to vote for him…it’s still very difficult for me to comprehend.
As I prepare to leave Europe, I can’t help but wonder—why is it that the United States has been so resistant to adopting the kinds of policies that have existed for decades in the Netherlands and many other European countries? What is it about us that makes us willing to stomach such intense inequality? What is it that led nearly half our country to feel angry and alienated enough to vote for someone like Donald Trump?
It’s a line of questioning that I was often subject to while I was here. I don’t know the answer. Is it our racial and cultural diversity? The way that wealth has concentrated in cities, home to the reviled ‘cosmopolitan elite’? Our evidence-immune devotion to the supposed moral superiority of unregulated markets and the farce that is trickle-down economics? Our mythic elevation of the pioneer’s spirit, the worship of the individual over society? Has our tolerance for inequality itself exacerbated the distance we feel from others, thus diminishing our level of empathy for people unlike ourselves?
Whatever it is, the place we’re in now clearly demonstrates that what we have isn’t working. Healing our divisions; creating a kinder, fairer, more trusting society; restoring some sense of shared purpose—these will be huge battles that play out on a generational scale. It sure would have been nice if our postwar generations could have figured this out like their Dutch or European counterparts, or at least made a bit of progress. Instead, they gave us Donald Trump. But such is life—with the Dutch spin on social democracy as my political compass, time to jump back in.
Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. You can read his previous blog here.
London— what a city. I just visited for the first time and absolutely loved it. The place has an unbelievable energy running through it, so much variety in its neighborhoods, such an invigorating landscape of diversity. Rich contrasts abound—it is sprawling yet walkable, obscenely opulent and deeply gritty, frenetic with pockets of incredible tranquility. It left quite an impression.
Several days of romping through London was great for putting life in Amsterdam in perspective. In some ways, I think I’d lost track of how utterly unique the city is. A few reflections on the most distinctive elements of urban life in Amsterdam.
First is the fact that nearly everything in the city is built and designed at the human scale. Very few buildings are over six stories tall. Only a handful of roads have more than two lanes. Open spaces are relatively compact. The built environment almost never leaves you feeling dwarfed, overpowered, or anonymous. Things feel approachable, comfortable, even cozy—you are inevitably a participant in the environment around you, unable to fade into the background. The vibe is worlds away from, say, standing in the shadow of the 95-story Shard building, where you can’t help but feel like an insignificant speck relative to the scale of what’s around you.
Second is the unusual degree of aesthetic and atmospheric consistency throughout Amsterdam. There’s plenty of variety from neighborhood to neighborhood, but its subtler than in most other major metropolises. This creates a kind of cohesiveness to the experience of travelling through the city. Much of this has to do with the steady scale of the built environment, but the presence of the canals, the ways that streets are laid out, and the general framework used in building design also contribute significantly to this feeling. The ways that more contemporary architecture incorporates elements of older styles adds to this sense of seamlessness. Also, because the city lacks a real skyline, you seldom have any kind of visual reference point on the horizon—other than the occasional church spire, there is rarely anything to draw your attention away from the streetscape in front of you.
London, on the other hand, is shockingly jumbled. Architectural styles vary dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood, and a single street can be home to a huge range of buildings. I was particularly struck by the mix in the formerly-industrial eastern part of town, where old, soot-stained factories and working-class apartments stand alongside gleaming, hyper-modern office buildings and condominiums. The geographic distribution of high-rises also adds to the visual complexity. Unlike, say, Chicago, where skyscrapers are confined to a specific part of town, towering buildings are scattered throughout London. It’s a dynamic that is only accelerating—cranes are absolutely everywhere.
Third is the relative lack of monumentalism in Amsterdam. Sure, there are several large, magnificent buildings—the Rijksmuseum, the Royal Palace, the Westerkerk, and others. But for a city that was once the wealthiest place on the planet, things are pretty understated. Perhaps this stems from the fact that Amsterdam’s wealth was largely private, derived from the prowess of monopolistic corporations like the Dutch East India Company, which dominated the global spice trade for almost a century. Obviously, with businesses and individuals wielding such power relative to the state during the city’s Golden Age, grand civic (or monarchic) displays were less of a priority. This isn’t to say that Amsterdam’s wealthy individuals didn’t have a public impact—they financed an enormous amount of public improvements, including massive expansions of the canal ring. But history clearly played out differently in London, with its palaces, enormous cathedrals, cavernous neo-classical museums, etc., all prominently adorned with plaques commemorating the monarch responsible for their construction.
Obviously, I’m comparing apples and oranges here. London’s population is literally ten times the size of Amsterdam’s. And the fact that the Golden Age of the Victorian era largely coincided with the industrial revolution massively influenced the trajectory of the city’s built environment. I also don’t mean to come to any value judgment—it’s often exhilarating to feel overpowered by a city’s urban intensity, stimulated by its unfathomable variety, and surrounded by extravagant public works. But being in this kind of environment for several days brought Amsterdam’s exceptionalism–it’s near-otherworldliness—into stark relief. When I head back to the United States next week, I’ll miss it very, very much.
Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. You can read his previous blog here.
People always talk about the ways that company culture affects organizational performance. But for some reason, these discussions rarely extend to the public sector. It’s strange—contrary to common belief, governments are composed of human beings, and these individuals powerfully influence what government actually does. I’m a strong believer in the innovative potential of cities, but the fact of the matter is that if you want cities to do experimental, boundary-pushing things, you need to somehow get experimental, boundary-pushing people to work in public life.
Amsterdam has somehow accomplished this. In my time here, I’ve been struck by the number of individuals in the public and civic sphere who are looking to push the envelope. A sizeable contingent of people working for the greater good come from alternative, experimental, or countercultural backgrounds, and it shows. Public and civic life in Amsterdam is marked by a desire to be radically inclusive, to empower individual citizens, and to use the city as a testbed for innovation in many forms. This unorthodox orientation isn’t an accident—it’s a manifestation of the attitudes of people working in public and civic life.
A few examples.
Last week, I wrote about the Bureau Broedplaatsen. The way that this agency was formed is a great illustration of the openness of the policymaking atmosphere here. The idea was largely conceived of by the squatting community, who worked with partners in government to make the agency a reality. In 2000, the official proposal to create the Bureau was titled “No Culture Without Subculture.” Can you imagine a city council in the United States working hand in hand with squatters and signing legislation with a title like this?
Jaap Schoufour, who has led the Bureau since 2004, is not your stereotypical civil servant. He is a passionate advocate for this city’s artistic community, and sees creativity and experimentation as being essential to the spirit of Amsterdam. I’ve spent a bit of time with Jaap over the past few months, and it’s been very interesting to see him in action. The creative community may not agree with everything he does, but there is a recognition that he is deeply committed to their cause, and that working with him (and thus, government) will help advance their interests. This dynamic between creative, countercultural people and city government is much more intimate than anything I’m familiar with in the United States.
Another example is Martin Berendse, the director of the city’s public library system. Berendse has spent most of his career in artistic and cultural spheres—first, as a director and manager for several arts festivals and theater production companies, then as a leader in national cultural policy in The Hague. His tenure with the library system has been marked by bold new thinking on the role of libraries in the 21st century. I’m particularly impressed by the Maakplaats (Maker Space) initiative that he has helped implement. Within the next three years, ten libraries in various parts of the city will have dedicated maker spaces with a range of high-tech machinery. Library employees are being trained as instructors in “maker education” and digital fabrication, and soon, the general public will be able to enroll in courses, learn to use these machines, and access this technology at any time. It’s a radical re-envisioning of the role that libraries play in their neighborhoods and communities.
As I’ve noted before, the civic community in Amsterdam is extremely influential, and it is full of alternative, do-it-yourself types. Marleen Stikker, the president and co-founder of the Waag Society, comes from a squatting background. She was a pioneer in the early days of the internet, having created the first virtual community with public access to the web in 1994. Egbert Fransen, founder and director of Pakhuis de Zwijger, led a consulting company for cultural industries, organized a range of music and arts festivals, and has consistently been involved in providing a platform for creative individuals. Both of these organizations are key players in bottom-up initiatives around the city and are regular provocateurs in the city’s public discourse.
These are just a few examples of forward-thinking, culturally or counterculturally-inclined individuals working in Amsterdam’s public and civic spheres. There are many more.
Watching this ecosystem in action, I can’t help but see it as a kind of virtuous cycle. High-performing, off-beat, creative people join local government or civic groups to help drive innovative new approaches to social issues. Residents see the local public and civic sector as effective, bold, and inclusive, bolstering their trust in these organizations. Talented, creative people from a wide range of backgrounds see local government and civic groups as an effective outlet for their skills and ideas, making them more inclined to work in these places. There is a real sense of dynamism in public action, a strong feeling of social solidarity, and an intense public commitment to improving life in this city.
How can we jumpstart a cycle like this in cities in the United States?
Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. You can read his previous blog here.
What makes a city cool? A certain threshold of restaurants and bars with exposed brick walls? Pairs of Doc Martens boots per capita? The percentage of residents who subscribe to the “Hipster Chill” playlist on Spotify?
I’d like to think the answer is a bit more profound. Here’s a theory: the coolness of a city is largely determined by the vibrancy of its creative, cultural, and countercultural scenes. Artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and other alternative types make a place culturally dynamic, and the more innovative, free-thinking, boundary-pushing individuals hanging around, the better.
What draws these people to a specific place? The two most important factors: proximity to other creative people, and affordable space for living, working, collaborating, and congregating.
Coolness, of course, is closely related to demand, and demand usually spells trouble for affordability. We all know how the situation plays out. Alternative types rent apartments and create studios in a low-income neighborhood. The area gains notoriety as the new hip spot. Prices rise. Soon, the people who sparked the action are pushed out, along with many of their neighbors. The edge that made the place enticing is smoothed over, commodified, commercialized, and made palatable to more bourgeois tastes. The displaced creatives move to another neighborhood, and the cycle begins again. Lather, rinse, and repeat until vast swaths of the city are unaffordable and culturally depleted.
Are creative people destined to be pawns in the economic development game, alternating between roles as bleeding-edge gentrifiers and victims of displacement? Are off-beat, alternative neighborhoods doomed to become sanitized, faux-bohemian versions of themselves? Or is there a way to disrupt this market cycle and inject a measure of security and stability into a city’s creative landscape?
For those concerned with these kinds of issues, Amsterdam has a strategy worthy of your attention. Since 2000, the city has administered a robust set of policies aimed at supporting artist studio spaces and creative incubators. A municipal government agency known as the Bureau Broedplaatsen helps groups of artists transform abandoned or underutilized spaces into places for creative work. The agency provides subsidies, credit guarantees, project management expertise, and legal assistance to get the incubators off the ground, and then the spaces are run as independent organizations. With a fifteen-year budget of only €48 million, the city has created over 60 incubators housing over 170,000 square meters of highly affordable creative space. Thousands upon thousands of artists have benefitted.
Owing to the bottom-up design of the policy, every broedplaats is different. Some are exclusively working spaces. Others include housing for artists. Many have a community-oriented element, like restaurants, bars, or event venues. Others even offer public goods like community gardens and high-capacity kitchens. The end result—a city with an extraordinarily rich and diverse cultural fabric, with individual nodes of creativity scattered across its many neighborhoods.
It’s interesting to note the ways that the Bureau Broedplaatsen has changed over its nearly two-decade existence. Like many other cities, the real estate market in Amsterdam in 2000 was struggling. The broedplaats policy was initially a kind of concession to the city’s squatting community, which was very strong in the 80s and 90s. Creating broedplaats was a way for the city to semi-institutionalize its abundant countercultural energy and leverage it to facilitate economic development and neighborhood revitalization. Now, as the housing market has caught fire and available space has plummeted, the agency has adopted more of a defensive stance, working to preserve the spaces it has already created and developing new strategies to bring about additional ones. High demand for studio spaces among artists themselves has also led the Bureau to implement policies to increase turnover, a move that has been controversial to some in the creative community.
If you’re intrigued by the broedplaats idea, stay tuned—I hope to write significantly more about this topic over the coming weeks. For now, suffice it to say that it’s inspiring to see a city so committed to public intervention in support of its creative community. Though the contributions of individual artists and creative people are not always discernable in the broader cultural fabric of a city, there’s no doubt that their collective presence has been tremendously enriching here. Amsterdam became a global hotspot of countercultural cool because of the vibrancy of its free-thinking creative scene, and the broedplaats policy is a forceful statement from local government that it intends to keep things that way.
Every city faces similar social problems. No matter where you go, certain groups or neighborhoods struggle with intergenerational poverty, low educational attainment, poor health, crime, and other issues. National and local policies may reduce the severity of these problems, but there’s a growing recognition that top-down, technocratic approaches to these challenges aren’t doing enough for those that are affected.
Might social problems be better addressed from the bottom up, by individuals and community-based groups that have a better sense of what their neighborhoods and fellow citizens need? Perhaps. The issue is that community leaders and organizations often lack the resources, relationships, and platforms necessary to operate at a meaningful scale. How can governments most effectively galvanize citizen action and leverage residents’ expertise, energy, and creativity in tackling tough social problems?
Amsterdam—a city with an extraordinary tradition of bottom-up action—has recently taken an interesting approach to this question. Here, the “triple helix” model of public action—the notion that government, the private sector, and academia should work together to solve problems—is old news. Instead, it’s all about achieving the “quadruple helix,” which seeks to activate citizens themselves as critical elements of the larger problem-solving equation.
This approach was intriguing enough for the European Union to name Amsterdam the “Innovation Capital of Europe” in 2016. The distinction also came with a prize of €1,000,000. What did the city do with its winnings? It created a social innovation competition where citizens and community-based groups working on issues like education, workforce development, and public health were invited to apply for funding and a spot in what is essentially a social innovation accelerator program. City government handed off the competition design, selection, and administration process to a consortium of heavy-hitting civic institutions, including the Amsterdam Economic Board (my employer), the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Studies, Kennisland, the Waag Society, and Pakhuis de Zwijger.
The initiative, “Maak je Stad!” (Make Your City!), has made quite the splash. It just recently announced its winners and kicked its accelerator program into gear. 37 groups were selected out of 475 applicants, each being awarded between €5,000 and €20,000 to help expand operations and capacity. The initiatives are wide ranging—there’s “School Makandra,” a peer-to-peer weekend learning program in the southeastern part of the city. There’s “The Power of Unity,” an initiative that helps prepare young people for the construction trades while renovating rundown buildings. There’s “Bloom and Grow,” an organization that provides environmental and agricultural education to vulnerable women. The list goes on.
A few reflections on this approach to stimulating bottom-up action and leveraging communities themselves to address social problems.
First, this process demonstrates the tremendous value of having a strong network of civic institutions in your city. An unconventional initiative like this could never be run from within municipal government, if only to prevent the appearance of political conflicts of interest. Cities with locally-focused, boundary-pushing civic organizations have a huge advantage in bringing residents into the problem solving fold.
Second, this effort shows the importance of building bridges between people and government. Local government may be closest to the people, for communities themselves, City Hall can feel as remote as a national legislature. To create change, citizens need to feel comfortable with “the system,” and it really helps to have relationships with folks who control the levers of power. A significant chunk of the Maak je Stad! accelerator program is devoted to fostering relationships between the winning organizations and the relevant departments and individuals in municipal government.
Third, Maak je Stad is a good reminder of the incentivizing power of public recognition. Considering its very modest size, it’s pretty incredible that nearly 500 individuals and organizations applied for this program. Clearly there’s a lot of latent demand among community groups for more funding and support, but in some ways, it seems like the opportunity for public distinction was equally motivating. By making this a high-profile, well-publicized competition, the city was able to generate serious enthusiasm and participation.
On both sides of the Atlantic, many people seem to have lost faith in the ability of national institutions to solve social problems. Maybe it’s time to think on a smaller scale. With Maak je Stad, Amsterdam has shown what is possible when the city takes seriously its role as a facilitator of bottom-up problem solving.
A challenging side of human nature—we tend to distrust people from other groups. Because of this, diversity and social tension are often interlinked. We don’t need to hold hands and sing Kumbaya, but as American and European societies become increasingly diverse, we’ve got to learn to live with one another. How do we make that happen?
Practice, basically. Regularly interacting with different groups may feel uncomfortable at first, but eventually, we grow accustomed to the presence of others. With the right amount of exposure, our “us versus them” inclinations start to diminish.
The way we experience diversity is largely shaped by national and local housing policy. It’s been eye-opening to see how Dutch national policy and Amsterdam’s local approach to housing has influenced the ways that different groups interact in this city.
The central government in the Netherlands plays a huge role in regulating housing markets—it’s a level of involvement that would be unthinkable in the United States. Housing affordability and stability for low- and middle-income people is guaranteed by a robust set of national laws, and tenants enjoy strong protections from rent increases and evictions.
Some of the key elements of the national system: The Dutch government caps rents via a nationally-administered points system. The points that a specific unit receives are determined by things like size, the number of windows and bathrooms, and location, so it’s difficult for property owners to increase prices year over year. Properties with points under a certain threshold are considered “social housing,” and they are available only to low- and moderate-income individuals (and are made more affordable through government subsidies). Central government enforces strict quotas on the quantity of social housing in cities, and housing operators are subject to a level of scrutiny that surpasses anything I’m aware of in the United States.
Amsterdam builds on this foundation of affordable and stable housing with a remarkable dedication to mixed-income neighborhoods. The amount of social housing in Amsterdam is stunning—nearly 50% of the city’s housing stock falls into this category. While there are some pockets of concentrated wealth or poverty, most neighborhoods are extremely diverse. Throughout the city, affluent people, poor people, Dutch natives, Muslim immigrants, students, and the elderly all live alongside one another.
On the ground, you can feel the combined effects of these national and local policies. With so many different kinds of people around, there’s a richness to neighborhood life. This is enhanced by the way that neighborhoods and public spaces are designed. Despite the massive cultural differences between Dutch natives and Muslim immigrants, tension between the groups feels relatively low. People may not be close, but they are clearly accustomed to being around each other. And though many traditionally low-income neighborhoods are experiencing huge influxes of newcomers, the hostility that so often accompanies gentrification feels less pronounced. Perhaps because lower-income renters are so protected, they are less likely to see newcomers as a threat.
The system isn’t perfect. In Amsterdam, there’s a fairly acute middle-class housing crisis, as the non-social housing stock is relatively limited. People who make too much money to qualify for social housing but not enough to afford non-subsidized rents are often forced to live elsewhere in the region. And the mixed-income neighborhood approach hasn’t created a classless, post-racial utopia. But there does seem to be a comfort with coexistence that exceeds most of what I’ve seen in the United States.
What’s preventing the United States from guaranteeing greater housing affordability and stability to lower- and middle-income people, and what’s stopping our cities from demanding mixed-income neighborhoods? After all, the benefits of such an approach go far beyond greater social solidarity—creating mixed-income neighborhoods generates greater social mobility, reduces crime, and promotes better public health outcomes.
Two of the major culprits—timid and toothless regulations at both the national and local level, and a never-to-be-underestimated resistance toward creating greater housing density. Until we’re able to advocate for a stronger government role in housing markets and change attitudes about the socioeconomic composition of our neighborhoods, the segregation, inequality and social division that plagues American cities will continue.
Skeptical that a city can simultaneously ensure affordable housing, promote mixed-income neighborhoods, preside over a thriving economy, and remain a nice place to live? Maybe a trip to Amsterdam is in order.
Zef Hemel is a man with a plan.
A former urban planner for the city of Amsterdam and my colleague at the Amsterdam Economic Board, he has been a vocal proponent of dramatically increasing the population of this city. He envisions a future where Amsterdam is home to 2 million people, more than double the population that currently lives here now.
Unsurprisingly, Hemel’s proposal has made him a bit of a controversial figure around town. Amsterdammers are fiercely protective of their city, and many fear that an influx at the scale that Hemel proposes would diminish the quality of life that they currently enjoy.
Are their fears legitimate? Amsterdam offers a truly unique way of life, and it makes sense that a massive population increase would be perceived as a threat. But greater population density and a high quality of life are not mutually exclusive things. It all comes back to planning and design.
Paris, generally seen as one of the most beautiful and liveable cities in the world, has almost twice the population density of New York City. It packs in over 54,000 people per square mile to New York’s 28,000. Barcelona, another one of the world’s great cities, is also nearly 50 percent more densely populated than New York. For comparison, Amsterdam is currently home to 12,710 people per square mile, a bit less than Boston and a bit more than Philadelphia. Twice as many residents would put Amsterdam’s population density in the company of Bilbao, Bucharest, and Lyon—hardly a group of overcrowded urban dystopias.
Since hearing of Hemel’s plans, I’ve kept an eye out for where this city might create greater density. The most obvious target is the southern bank of Amsterdam-Noord, just across the river IJ. This area will soon be made tremendously more accessible by a pedestrian and cyclist bridge. As of now, you need to take a ferry to cross the water.
Many neighborhoods outside the city center also have significant amounts of underutilized space. The area near me in the Oost, for example, seems to present some solid, relatively straightforward opportunities. Just around the corner from me (near the INIT building, for you locals) is a large parking lot, a significant amount of vacant land, and a big, underutilized former warehouse. A few blocks further in Kattenburg, there is an even larger stretch of underutilized space owned by the Dutch Navy.
Of course, achieving greater population density would mostly come from building slightly higher residential buildings in various neighborhoods around the city. Newer parts of the city (where the iconic row houses give way to late nineteenth or early twentieth century apartment blocks) would likely be the target here. Neighborhood redevelopment is always logistically complex and politically contentious, but it seems reasonable to assume that creating more units in these “garden city” neighborhoods could contribute significantly to housing supply and leave residents’ quality of life intact.
Taking a step back, why should Amsterdam grow? What would be the point of accommodating twice as many people? For that matter, why should any city seek to increase its population?
From an economic standpoint, accommodating more skilled workers helps boost local economic productivity and growth. In a global economy where cities compete with each other for skilled workers, housing availability and affordability is a critical distinguishing factor—inherent to Hemel’s vision is the notion that Amsterdam would be able to attract significantly more talented workers with cheaper housing. And given the size of the Netherlands, maintaining Amsterdam’s globally-competitive edge isn’t just a local imperative—the Dutch national economy will largely rise and fall with Amsterdam’s fate.
From a cultural standpoint, Amsterdam has long defined itself as a place that welcomes young, creative, freethinking individuals. This atmosphere is a huge part of the city’s overall attractiveness. But with demand for housing so dramatically exceeding supply, many of these kinds of people can no longer afford to live here. If more housing is not built, the city risks losing this core advantage and source of identity, instead becoming a less dynamic place that caters increasingly to the wealthy.
In my mind, it seems clear that Amsterdam would do well to increase its housing supply. The question is: by how much? Thanks to Zef Hemel, the conversation is well underway.
Talent, investment, and a high quality of life.
No pressure, local leaders, but if your city falls short on any of the above, your economy is doomed. Good luck juggling all three things simultaneously—talented people won’t move to your city unless it offers them good employment prospects. Companies won’t invest in your city unless it provides them with access to new markets and skilled workers. Nobody will stick around if you don’t have the money to make the city a nice place to live.
Managing? Meet globalization. Individuals and capital are more mobile than ever before. As soon as people or firms see a new advantage on the horizon, they can get up and leave. Cities across the world are breathing down your neck, competing for the same talent and resources as you.
OK, I’m being a little hyperbolic. But it’s true—urban economic development is incredibly difficult to pull off, and competition between cities has never been more intense. How do cities deal with this?
At the Amsterdam Economic Board, I’ve gotten a glimpse into how this city interacts with competitiveness and its position in the global economy. It’s been fascinating comparing things here to what I’m familiar with in the United States.
The first major difference that I’ve noticed: domestic competition between cities feels less vicious in the Netherlands than it does in the United States. Public leaders in Amsterdam don’t seem to worry much about losing their edge to another Dutch city.
This might be partially explained by specialization—the major cities of this country have come to focus on very different industries. Amsterdam is the undisputed cultural, financial, and media hub; Rotterdam dominates the manufacturing, engineering, and logistics trades; Eindhoven is the technology powerhouse. Because they naturally attract different kinds of workers and firms, there is less reason for Dutch cities to go after each other. Most American cities are less specialized, so they more frequently compete over the same territory.
Another potential explanation for this lower intensity—Dutch cities are limited in their ability to influence private sector behavior. Cities here depend on the national government for most of their funding, and their discretion over financial decisions is restricted. Compare this to the United States, where local governments rely heavily on local taxes and have substantial fiscal power. Desperate for the revenue that economic growth brings, cities often try to lure companies with enormous tax breaks, land deals, or other forms of favorable treatment. Large companies are quick to exploit this dynamic, leveraging offers from one city to gain additional concessions from others.
Another major difference: Amsterdam is much more focused on attracting international talent than any city I’ve seen in the United States. It’s a testament to the success of the Dutch private sector that there is a fairly serious high-skill labor shortage here.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, given the fact that only 17 million people live in the Netherlands. Still, it’s striking to see the extent to which Amsterdam has built an entire infrastructure around attracting and accommodating high-skill foreigners. It’s an approach that builds upon a huge societal advantage—Amsterdammers tend to speak English extremely well, so for the international set, it’s easy to come here and conduct business immediately.
In the United States, companies often speak of the importance of foreign talent, but as far as I know, municipalities themselves are less involved in the recruitment and accommodation process. Rather it is universities who seem to be the primary entry point and launch pad for internationals.
A third major difference: the politics of economic development and gentrification have an interesting international twist to them here. Amsterdam has long balanced a deep international cosmopolitanism with an unusually strong sense of local identity. But many locals are now concerned that the push for talent from abroad—driven by pressure from the business community—has gone overboard. This fear of an internationally-driven cultural sanitization is exacerbated by the fact that property values have skyrocketed in recent years.
Obviously, there are many other differences in the ways that Amsterdam and American cities experience global competition and economic development. But one thing is clear—for cities to survive in this hyper-connected era, they’d better have a plan.
Amsterdam and Venice. Both famous for their picturesque canals and waterways. Both compact, easily walkable, and densely populated. Both overflowing with culture, filled with beautiful architecture, and renowned for offering a high quality of life.
There’s only one problem—many parts of both cities are bursting at the seams with tourists.
Last weekend, I visited Venice for the first time. I had a spectacular trip—I wandered the beautiful, mysterious Venetian streets, visited the one-of-a-kind Biennale, and quickly developed a taste for Aperol Spritz. But wow, so much of the place is devoted to visitors.
Obviously, tourism can be a great thing for cities. An influx of cash from outsiders can boost the local economy and create jobs. It can enrich local culture and add to the vibrancy of the local “scene.” But once tourism reaches a certain threshold, it begins to cut into residents’ quality of life. Streets and sidewalks are clogged. Businesses cater to visitors’ tastes rather than selling things that locals want and need. Weekenders often cause trouble. The constant presence of outsiders can diminish a neighborhood’s sense of community and local ownership.
How can cities maximize the economic and cultural benefits of tourism while minimizing the impact on residents’ quality of life? It’s an increasingly tricky balance to strike, and as Venice shows, the stakes are incredibly high.
Over 20 million people visit Venice every year. Despite the constant inflow, the city’s population has fallen by half in the past thirty years, down to below 60,000 residents. The crush of visitors has distorted the local economy, marginalizing nearly every industry except hospitality and retail. Housing costs have skyrocketed. Most of the city’s workers live elsewhere. The few who can still afford to live in the city often feel like their neighborhoods no longer belong to them.
Just look at the city’s politics. The current mayor ran on a platform largely focused on reducing tourism’s impact. A range of measures along these lines have since passed. Local support for cracking down on cruise ships is robust. There is talk of creating a city-wide entrance fee. Outside of the restaurants, shops, and museums, the mood is one of resistance—anti-tourist posters are commonplace. I even encountered a public demonstration against cruise ships.
Despite being commonly referred to as the “Venice of the North,” Amsterdam is a very different city than its Italian counterpart. The municipality’s population is more than ten times larger. Its economy is diverse and built on a strong foundation of high-skill labor. The center of the city is often mobbed with tourists, but most neighborhoods do not feel overrun.
Still, the impact of tourism has been substantial enough to generate pushback. The city council recently passed a moratorium on new hotels in most parts of the city. The municipality struck a landmark agreement with AirBnB, limiting the number of days that property owners can rent out their homes. The budget of the city’s marketing operation was recently cut by more than 20 percent.
Ultimately, issues with tourism are heavily influenced by the trademark urban scarcity—the availability of space. It seems like compact cities with little geographic separation between major attractions and residential areas or central business districts suffer more from tourist overload than larger, more diffuse places. A bigger, more dispersed city can contain tourists in specific areas where they’ll be less disruptive to the regular rhythms of urban life. Or they can spread them out across many areas of the city so the oversaturation point is harder to reach.
It’s also no secret that areas popular with tourists quickly become more expensive. As affordability becomes one of the defining issues in cities across the world, local governments need to think long and hard about the tradeoffs between accommodating visitors and keeping things affordable for residents.
Unfortunately, managing tourism will only become more complex over the coming years—the “democratization” of the hospitality industry by services like AirBnB has made regulation more difficult, and the global middle class is growing exponentially. Many more tourists are coming. Soon.
Given the local/visitor, insider/outsider dynamic inherent with tourism, this issue forces cities to take a good, hard look in the mirror. Who gets to experience the city? How far are we willing to go to keep it that way?
Scenario 1: Biking to work in Washington, D.C.
I leave the house, heading west. Soon I encounter Georgia Avenue, one of the highest-capacity roads in Washington D.C. As I wait for the light to change, as many as a hundred cars thunder past me—they’re bumper to bumper, flying by at nearly 40 miles per hour. Once my light turns green, I pedal southwest to 11th street, where I can enjoy a “separate lane,” a strip of white paint that suggests where drivers should yield to cyclists. The street is also a bus route, so bikers are forced to merge into heavy traffic as buses pick up and drop off their passengers. After continuing southwest for some time, I turn onto the commercial strip of 17th street. Here, I dodge and weave through trucks and deliverymen as they unload their wares into the restaurants nearby. My ride ends with a few hundred meters on the chaos that is Massachusetts Avenue, another one of D.C.’s busiest thoroughfares.
The overall experience: Enjoyable, in an adrenaline-fueled, hectic sort of way. Not particularly safe. Worth it, but it’s clearly not for everyone.
Scenario 2: Biking to work in Amsterdam.
My ride starts with a few hundred meters on a pedestrian- and cyclist-only path bordering a park. I soon turn right onto Czar Peterstraat, a route that has one lane for cars going north, two lanes for electric trams, and two wide bike lanes. Every transportation grade is separated by a hefty concrete barrier. After crossing one mid-sized intersection, I’m cruising down Sarphatistraat, wheel-to-wheel and handlebar-to-handlebar with dozens of other bike commuters. The ride is almost eerily quiet—other than the low rumble of the electric trams and the occasional car or motorcycle, the only noises are the gentle ringing of bicycle bells and commuters talking to one another. I cut west on Plantage Middenlaan. It’s a higher capacity road but bikers still enjoy a separate transportation grade, along with a view of the flamingos at the Royal Zoo. I cut through a small park—no cars allowed, obviously—push myself over another canal, and eventually I’ve arrived at my office.
The overall experience: Serene. Totally safe, as long as you keep an eye out for your fellow cyclists. Perhaps most notably, everyone takes part—the people riding alongside me are schoolchildren, businessmen in suits, hippies wearing tie-dye, Muslim women in headscarves, young couples holding hands, etc.
We seldom think about it, but the way we get around profoundly influences how we experience cities. To get into a car is to enter a sort of bubble—you close the door, turn on the stereo, and are separated from the rest of the world by a thick windshield and about 1,000 kilograms of metal. Using public transportation also has a way of sealing you off. On a bus or a tram, sit down, put on your headphones, and watch the city go by. On a subway, you go underground in one part of town and pop out in another, experiencing none of the urban landscape in between.
Biking, on the other hand, allows you to interact with the city as a seamless whole. Nothing separates you from your environment. You experience the weather head-on. You can hear the conversations people are having on the sidewalk. You can speak to other bikers at the traffic light. You develop an intimate knowledge of the streets—you find yourself subconsciously avoiding familiar potholes, recognizing slight changes in slope, and speeding up to catch a quick light.
Finally, biking is fun. There is something innately enjoyable about pushing yourself around on two wheels, going wherever you want at whatever speed you feel like. It’s nothing short of liberating. Drivers and mass transit commuters during rush hour—are you feeling liberated?
Obviously, it’s not really fair to compare any American city’s cycling infrastructure to Amsterdam’s. By American standards, D.C. has actually done quite well for its cyclists. But living in Amsterdam is a constant and tantalizing reminder of the possibilities that exist when you reduce the role that cars play in the planning equation.
Here’s hoping that my generation of urban dwellers will drop the “from my cold, dead hands” attitude about cars in cities, and give bicycles the priority they deserve.
Hello again, readers! Thanks to those of you who are back for Round 2. Newcomers—welcome. It’s hard to believe, but I’ve now been living in Amsterdam for a month.
Everyone needs a bit of personal space from time to time. But ultimately, we’re social creatures—we thrive when we engage regularly with others, and we’re gloomy when we feel isolated.
The design of our neighborhoods exerts a powerful influence on our ability to connect with the people around us. Some approaches facilitate contact and encourage relationships. Others set the stage for separation, anonymity, and even hostility.
I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot recently, as my neighborhood in Amsterdam has a totally different social dynamic than my former neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. The main difference? The balance between public and private space.
Most of the housing in my Amsterdam neighborhood (Oost) consists of multi-unit, walk-up apartment buildings. Individual units are pretty small—if you need some extra room, you simply have to leave the house. Fortunately, there is a large, spectacular park immediately adjacent to my building, which functions as the entire neighborhood’s gathering place. And thanks to a consistent mixed-use approach to zoning, there are plenty of “third spaces”—cafes, restaurants, and bars—within a few blocks of my front door.
Washington’s residential landscape is changing rapidly, but for the most part, it is still dominated by single-unit row homes. These houses offer large living and dining spaces and a significant amount of semi-private outdoor space, in the form of patios or backyards. With so much room, it’s easy to feel like you never need to leave. If you do decide to venture out in public, cafes and restaurants are generally confined to specific commercial strips. It practically goes without saying that public space is hard to come by.
These different housing and neighborhood dynamics manifest themselves powerfully in community life. In Amsterdam, the people in my building seem to know each other much better than my neighbors did in Washington, D.C. Here, whether you like it or not, you see each other all the time—in the stairwell, in the park, at the café across the street, at the grocery store down the block, etc. Nearby businesses are frequented almost entirely by people who live in the surrounding area, creating a distinct feeling of neighborhood ownership. This encourages a certain level of familiarity with the people around you, and perhaps even a degree of trust. The result is palpable.
In Washington, there are drastically fewer opportunities for this kind of consistent, casual interaction. Sure, you say hello to your neighbors if they are sitting out on their front patio, but for the most part, people stay within the bounds of their private space. If you want to interact with your neighbors, you have to make a conscious effort. And because commercial strips are more condensed and public parks are rare, these spaces often feel less intimate, catering to an ever-changing cast of strangers rather than a relatively consistent group of neighbors.
Thinking about these differences, I’m struck by the extent to which the United States has built itself up to maximize private space. The suburbs are of course the most dramatic example of this, but housing and neighborhood design in our cities often reflects similar values—namely, that public space takes a back seat to private space, and that residential areas should mostly be separated from commercial activity. The end result? An atmosphere that creates distance between neighbors, inhibits spontaneity, and makes mutual trust more difficult to achieve.
Obviously, having regular and pleasant interactions with your neighbors is not enough to guarantee happiness. But I’d argue that a key component of happiness is having a rich social network, and that casual interactions between neighbors can set the stage for more satisfying interpersonal connection.
If we recognize that certain approaches to housing and community design can encourage positive social bonds, what’s stopping us from building more neighborhoods with these qualities? Of course, making radical changes to the built environment is no easy task. But in theory, if the demand is there, it will happen. Ultimately, the question for American city dwellers will be this—how much privacy are you willing to leave behind?
A quick look at my neighborhood. A few things to point out: the large apartment buildings are separated into segments with 10-15 units each. Every segment has its own entrance, so tenants share a front door and a stairwell with only a handful of other people. This encourages a good deal of familiarity among neighbors–you can remember 10 faces, you can’t remember 100. The park caters to a wide range of activities. It’s got something for all ages and interests. And the fact that several buildings look out onto the park lend it an additional feeling of safety–the fact that there are always “eyes on the street” helps everyone feel comfortable taking advantage of the space.
Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. You can read his first blog here.
Hello, readers! Welcome to my blog. It’s great to have you here.
Seeing as this is my inaugural piece, I figure that an introduction is in order. I am a 28-year-old American, born and raised in the Washington D.C. area. Up until a few months ago, I worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit think tank, where I focused on urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities. Before that, I studied political science and history at Lafayette College, a small liberal arts school in Easton, Pennsylvania.
Beyond the resume, I’m a pretty curious guy, and I really love cities. What’s not to love? Urban areas are the engines of our global economy. They are the physical manifestations of the market’s interaction with government and society. They are ever-evolving monuments to our social and technological progress. They are the demographic melting pots of our society; our most intimate public venues for political and cultural expression, critical components of how we construct our identities…I could go on, but you get the idea.
How did I find myself in Amsterdam, writing this blog?
When I was 20 years old, I spent about five months here as a student at the Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA). That semester was incredible—I made amazing friends, broadened my horizons immensely, and fell in love with Amsterdam. For years, I’d been itching to return, not just as a tourist for a few days, but in some kind of productive, longer-term capacity. After some long-distance networking, I was able to secure temporary positions with the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research at UvA and the Amsterdam Economic Board. I’ve now been here for about 3 weeks.
It was perhaps inevitable that my return to Amsterdam would put me in a reflective state of mind. In many ways, it felt like coming home after a long absence—a feeling that was magnified by the fact that my current apartment is literally across the street from where I was living as a student. Of course, the context around my being here has changed completely. Where I was once a carefree student, flannel-clad and in serious need of a haircut, now I am a working professional, donning professional attire and…well, probably still in need of a haircut. When in 2010 I arrived as a wide-eyed 20 year-old, still in the process of figuring out what I was interested in, now I carry with me several years of work experience and a relatively firm sense of professional and intellectual direction.
Thanks to several years of working on urban policy issues, the way that I find myself interacting with Amsterdam today feels very different than it did in 2010. When I was here as a student, I was not thinking about the functioning of the city in a particularly sophisticated way. Sure, I was blown away by the cultural vibrancy of the city, the effortless cosmopolitanism of the place, the cycling infrastructure, the canals, the gabled row houses, etc., but my comprehension of what was actually driving these things was very limited.
Now, I feel like I can understand what’s going on “under the hood.” Everywhere I look, I’m seeing political decisions, zoning laws, urban planning choices, infrastructure investments, neighborhood development efforts, creative uses of public space, and other forces shaping the contours of city life. While I’m just beginning to understand the specifics of local laws, regulations, and funding flows, I’m already feeling well-attuned to the general undercurrent of public strategies, private investments, and civic initiatives that have shaped (and continue to shape) the city. This greater sensitivity to my surroundings has made the experience of being here—and enjoying this beautiful, highly-functioning place—much more profound.
Going forward, this blog will largely serve as the place for me to articulate my observations on how things work here, and how city life in Amsterdam compares to my experiences back in the United States. I hope to cover a wide range of topics, including urban quality of life, neighborhood design, cycling (of course), diversity and gentrification, the role of creative industries in urban life, and many more.
Thanks again for reading, and hope to see you next week!
Ross Tilchin is a visiting fellow at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and a member of the strategy team at the Amsterdam Economic Board. Before arriving in Amsterdam, Ross worked as a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C., where he specialized in urban economic development and a wide range of issues related to cities.
For this final installment of a three part blog series, The John Adams Institute talked with Ellen Fleurbaay, head of Presentation and Participation at the Stadsarchief Amsterdam, to hear about the Amsterdam side of this project.
New Amsterdam Stories is a project carried out by three different partners: the New York City Municipal Archives, the New Netherland Institute and the Stadsarchief Amsterdam. It came about when Jan Kennis, cultural attaché at the Dutch consulate in New York, realised that both the New York Municipal Archives and the Stadsarchief were unlocking their archives, and recording what is inside the documents they have filed away. Nowadays, this also means that the contents of these documents are digitized. The Stadsarchief has a variety of archives, from personal ones bestowed to the Stadsarchief to civil registration. One of these archives is particularly interesting to the New Amsterdam Stories: the Notarial Archives, which the Stadsarchief is currently unlocking. People would go to a notary to sell their house or to make a will: anything that needs official approval. Because these documents have always been legally binding, almost all of them have been saved. This means that the amount of documents we are talking about is huge. The exact number is not yet known as they have yet to be unlocked, but our estimation is that the Notarial Archives contain at least 20 million notarial deeds.
This project is challenging not just because of its sheer size, but also because of the difficulty of researching these archives. The problem is that all the deeds have been stored away in chronological order. There is no system based on the content of the documents, so a sales contract can be stored away next to a will. For centuries, notaries were filing away their records on a day-to-day basis, unfortunately without keeping in mind future archivists.
In the 1950s and 1960s, archivists were put to the task and made an effort to structure the documents. Groups of up to thirty archivists have worked on this for almost three decades. Even after all those years, they still had done only seven percent of the archives. This means that as of now, 93% of the contents of the Notarial Records is still unknown. The good news for the New Amsterdam Stories is, however, that there has always been a strong focus on New Amsterdam. As the archivists were trying to order the documents they were going through, they had to make choices in their categorization. New Netherland has always been labelled, and now 6,000 documents are known to be related to the settlement. That is a lot for only seven percent, and it shows how keen the archivists have always been on the topic.
In the process of making a Story, the archivists of the New York Municipal Archives pick which individual they want to focus on, in consultation with Dennis Maika, the guiding historian from the New Netherland Institute. They will then send all the details they have to the Stadsarchief, such as the name – or names – of people closely associated with them, dates of birth, dates of arrival in America, dates of death. At the Stadsarchief, the old card system will be used to go through those seven percent of known documents, hoping to find a match.
In the meantime, the Stadsarchief continues to unlock the rest of those 97% of Notarial Archives. Luckily, the process goes much faster now due to digitization, which has so many advantages: it becomes much easier to research the documents, and in turn people can access these documents online. But before the records are presented to the general public, we ask those very same people to support the project: the majority of the funding is expected to come from crowdsourcing.
For the first step, professionals are definitely needed. The Stadsarchief hires a scanning company that can scan up to 3,000 documents a day. Together with experts from the Stadsarchief, they know how to handle these very old documents. After the documents are scanned, they are uploaded on a platform. This platform, attached to the website velehanden.nl, is an independent platform developed by the Stadsarchief a couple of years ago. The Stadsarchief does not have the capacity to host such a platform, and furthermore, many other archives in the Netherlands can now make use of it. So, after the documents have been uploaded on this platform, they are handled by a group consisting mainly of volunteers, who are the main engine of the project. As of now, 15.000 records have been indexed.
The volunteers often wonder if they deliver sufficient quality work, and the answer is that they actually do. Some of these volunteers are unbelievably dedicated. Once, on a different project, the Stadsarchief was identifying photographs from the 19th century. A volunteer cycled around the Amsterdam canals for weeks until he could locate a detail on a staircase. Even the most dedicated professional would seldom go to such lengths to acquire information.
Once the documents have been uploaded, the volunteers sort them by topic and type them out. With birth and death registrars, there are two volunteers who type out the same names, as 16th and 17th century handwriting can be tricky. Then, a computer compares the results and, if any differences are found, a professional will take a look at it. Since this project encompasses some 20 million documents, the project is happy with all the manpower it can get. Not all the volunteers who sign up actually are up to the task: of the few hundred people who participate in a project, about twenty percent gets the job done. This is a dedicated core group who make sure that the quality of the end result is at least as high as it would be if professionals had done the job. All the documents that are typed out and sorted become accessible online. On the website of the Stadsarchief, popular topics have their own heading. New Amsterdam is definitely one of these topics, so all newly-digitized documents can be viewed there (in Dutch). Of course, these documents can also provide content for the New Amsterdam Stories.
These Stories will paint a more complete picture of New Amsterdam. The aim is to make the archives accessible for people who would otherwise not so easily delve into it. The Stories will be successful if they help people, for example by getting them to enjoy history. This is the case for archives in general: there are many people for whom archives can play a vital role in their lives, ranging from those who are able to identify their parents, or who can trace their lineage much further into history, as is evident for those with ancestors from New Amsterdam. Archives tend to have a stuffy image, but actually they are simply about information and people’s life stories: about making information available to the public. The entire Internet is about information, and the Stadsarchief has millions of documents full of information. Think of all the stories it contains! I truly believe that archives are one of the most interesting branches of the cultural sector.
For this second installment of a three part blog series, The John Adams Institute talked with Dennis J. Maika, Senior Historian with the New Netherland Institute, who is one of the scholars who guides the project.
‘New Amsterdam Stories’ is a collaboration between the New Netherland Institute, the New York City Municipal Archives and the City Archives of Amsterdam. Records from these archives are disclosed on the website, telling stories about individuals that dwelled in New Amsterdam. In those early days the ties with the colonists’ homeland, the Dutch Republic, were still very strong. This means that documents about single individuals are often found in both archives. The project tries to tell a (more) complete story by combining information from both archives in one place.
The project tries to reconstruct the lives of individuals in New Amsterdam by showing snapshots of their lives. While the story of someone’s life can never be completely traced through an archive, putting the pieces of the puzzle together might give us a glimpse into that life. For the first phase of the project, all three institutions decided to focus on residents whose records were definitely available in both archives. After selecting the individuals, the archives dug up the relevant records about these early city dwellers. This process was guided by dr. Maika, who works as a historian for the New Netherland Institute, a non-governmental organization that ‘aims to cast light on America’s Dutch roots’. This project is one of the efforts to reach that goal, and also attempts to answer the question that preoccupies all archives: how can we offer this information to the general public?
Public participation and engagement has changed over the last few years, as the wind of digitization is blowing even through stuffy archives all over the world: the New York City Municipal Archives and the Stadsarchief Amsterdam are both digitizing. Thanks to this process, documents that had been put away somewhere in the endless rows of filing cabinets are now just one click away.
The archives want to share this information with the world, and the New Amsterdam Stories are an answer to this huge task. Archive visitors need to be guided in order to wade through the wealth of information available. At the start of this project, it was clear that putting individuals in the spotlight would be the key to achieve this. Individuals are an easy entrance for the public, but they are also an easy entrance for the archivists. Individuals can be traced. They show up in court records; they leave records with their notary.
The Amsterdam notaries, held at the Stadsarchief, are the core of this project. Before there were lawyers, people needed notaries to draw up any record that they would want to hold up in court, such as wills, marriages, sales contracts, business contracts, indentured servitude contracts, debt obligations. All these records have been kept by these notaries, and ended up in the archives. The collection is incredibly rich and representative of that time, because almost everybody used a notary (you did not have to have a lot of money to still want to take good care of your business and life affairs). In combination with the New Amsterdam court records, which are held at the New York City Municipal Archives, so much can be discovered about the early residents. These records are truly a treasure trove, filled with known and unknown stories.
One of the most well-known individuals of New Amsterdam was Petrus Stuyvesant. Of course, a Story had to be written about him, but it should not be the obvious story of him as the last director-general of New Netherland, or about how he lost his leg: this project should tell the story that is in the records. The records contained his will – not his final will, but one that he had drawn up when he was only 29 years old. He was about to leave for the Caribbean, where he would serve the Dutch West India Company. He bequeathed all his belongings to his sisters Anna and Margriete, and in case they would die, to their children. While this might not appear as the most exiting story, it does tell something about him as one reads between the lines. It tells us that he might have been afraid to die; he was most definitely aware of the dangers involved in a voyage across the ocean. In those days, many did not return from these long missions, but not everybody was ready to face that. Petrus Stuyvesant was. The will is not especially interesting because of its contents, but because he made it when he did: at such a young age, and about to travel across the Atlantic Ocean.
However, not everybody in the Stories is as famous as Stuyvesant. For this first phase, the project tried to select a limited cross-section of the population. This is why the Story of Anna and Wolfert Webber is included. Although they are not famous historical figures, they are still of historical significance. They represent typical settlers, whose lives are little known, yet nonetheless important to the city. They seemed to be average people living an average life. However, records with information about the couple can, and were found on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The earlier records are located in Amsterdam, like their Prenuptial Agreement, and their Notice of Marriage, in 1630. There is also their Authorization to leave for New Netherland, which they received in 1649, so quite a few years after their wedding. Then, in the New York City Municipal Archives, there is a record of a court case on August 9, 1655. Anna is testifying in court against Jan Willmsen Iselsteyn van Leyden, claiming that he called her a whore and beat her with his gun and a crowbar. A year later, Anna had to appear in court again, because there was a dispute over two bibles. She states they are hers, because they were given to her daughter by Indians who captured her in the 1655 ‘Peach War’. The daughter had carried them throughout her captivity, which lasted for several months. The original owner stated that the Indians had no right to give them away, because they had stolen the bibles from her when she had just arrived in Manhattan; now she wanted them back from Anna. The court’s decision is revealed in these records. Together these two archives bring Anna and Wolfert Webber alive: living a life on two continents.
Genealogy is very important to many people, and this is one of the reasons individuals are such a good entrance point into archives. So many people are interested in their heritage, but the threshold is high. By digitizing the records, it becomes possible to search them, but it is still difficult. As of now, the project does not allow individuals to search for family records yet- but it is definitely a long-term goal.
One of the reasons it is so difficult to access the records is that you have to read Seventeenth Century calligraphy, written in Seventeenth Century Dutch. After the digitization, the document is typed out, but even then it requires skill to fully comprehend it. In a later phase, full transcriptions of the original documents will be provided, as well as complete translations into English. But for now, the format of the Stories should make these documents more accessible. A summary of a document’s content is provided, so visitors can look at the document and understand it, even if they cannot literally read it.
The Stories can open up history for a bigger audience, and their potential should be maximized. Potentially, this project will also expand beyond focusing on individuals. For example, telling the stories of major events that happened in New Amsterdam, such as the wall that was built to shield the settlement. This wall was built on what would be called Wall Street – which is obviously still there.
Hopefully, these Stories are only the beginning of a larger and long-term project. However, there is always the question of funding. During the first phase, three organizations have funded the project: Amsterdam-based Dutch Culture, which gets its funding from the Dutch government, the National Archives in The Hague, and Dutch Culture USA, which is basically the Dutch Consulate in New York. The Dutch Consulate, and in particular cultural attaché Jan Kennis, was instrumental in this project. Mr. Kennis was familiar with the New Netherland Institute, and when he heard that both the Stadsarchief Amsterdam and the New York City Municipal Archives were digitizing their archives, he immediately saw the potential. It took about two years, but now the Stories are actually published on the website. Partial funding for the second phase has just been received from Dutch Culture USA, but funding for the long-term future needs to be secured.
It would be great if this collaboration continued. This compelling project demonstrates the importance and significance of a shared cultural history between the Netherlands and New York. Or New Amsterdam, as it was called then. And if there is one thing that this project teaches us, it is that it is full of stories.
The next installment of this blog series will be published on December 19. You can read the first part, written by Russell Shorto here.
In this first installment of a three part blog series, Russell Shorto writes about his experience with the New Netherland archives.
Since the Dutch founded one of the original European colonies in America, and since its capital was none other than a little island called Manhattan, it might be reasonable to suppose that Americans would be brought up with the idea that “Dutch” is as much a part of their heritage as “Pilgrim.” But of course that isn’t true. People may have some inkling that the Dutch once fiddled around in New York. They might even know that it was originally called New Amsterdam. But they tend not to put the Netherlands alongside Britain as one of America’s cultural forebears.
One reason for that is contained in the truism that history is written by the winners. An English invasion force took over the Dutch colony of New Netherland in 1664. The English and the Dutch were at the time bitter rivals. The English, not to put too fine a point on it, hated everything Dutch. All the derogatory sayings in the English language involving the word Dutch-Dutch treat, Dutch courage, double Dutch–date to this period. One of my favorites of the many anti-Dutch pamphlets published in England in the seventeenth century has this for a title: The Dutch-mens Pedigree, Or, A Relation Shewing How They Were First Bred and Descended from a Horse-Turd Which Was Enclosed in a Butter-Box.
So the English, once they took over Manhattan Island, weren’t about to give the Dutch credit for anything they had done there before. Nevertheless, they did take possession of the thousands of pages of official records of New Netherland, and they kept them. All conquerors do this, because it allows for continuity. Still, those records had a fitful existence. In 1685, after King James ordered a reorganization of the American colonies, the volumes were tossed onto a stagecoach bound for Boston; three years later they made the same rough trip back to New York when the new monarchs, William and Mary, reversed the ruling. Some volumes were lost on these journeys. In 1741, the fort where the records were housed was torched in what was held to be a slave conspiracy. The gatehouse burned, but the records were saved by a diligent secretary tossing them out the window. It was a blustery day, and many pages blew away, but the bulk of the records remained intact.
During the American Revolution the records spent a good deal of time on a ship in New York Harbor. Mold set in. Then they were shipped to England and spent the last portion of the war in the Tower of London. When they were returned, the secretary of New York State reported that they were “much mill-dewed and greatly injured.” But he tried to stop the damage, using state-of-the-art methods: he directed, he said, “my best endeavors to preserve them, having frequently exposed them to the sun and air, and several times had them brushed through every leaf.”
Then in 1818 the state decided that it ought to have a full English translation. The man selected for this work—Francis Adrian van der Kemp, an elderly Dutch minister and former soldier who had emigrated to New York—translated all 12,000 pages, within four years, and despite the fact that he was going blind, and that his English was not very good. The result was a translation that was in a sense worse than worthless, for it was riddled with errors and yet it became the standard way for historians to learn about the colony. Eventually, mercifully, this translation itself burned up in a fire.
Then in 1974 a true and proper translation and publication effort got underway. The archives were now housed in the New York State Archives and Library, in Albany. Charles Gehring, a young American with a doctorate in Germanic linguistics with a specialization in 17th century Dutch, was hired for one year. Then another. Then another. In late 2016, he is still at it. He and Janny Venema, a Dutch historian who has been his transcriber for the past 30 years, have worked their way through more than half of the material. A community of historians and researchers have built up around the translation and publication effort of the New Netherland Institute. In 1999, the 12,000 pages of manuscript records of the Dutch colony were declared a national treasure by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Besides giving the moldy pages a belated dignity, the designation also came with funds to help preserve them.
I began my interaction with these materials in the year 2000. I had thought to write a magazine piece about the Dutch founding of New York; someone put me in touch with Charles Gehring. He suggested I come up to Albany the following month, when he would host his annual seminar on the Dutch colony. I did. After meeting with several of the people working on the material, I decided to write a book on the colony. Charles Gehring and Janny Venema cleared a corner of their office for me. They gave me access to the records, and help in deciphering them. I needed a lot of help, since the documents were written in 17th century Dutch (which is quite different from modern Dutch) and in handwriting that to the untutored eye looks something like a cross between Arabic and chicken scratch. I spent hours and hours in that corner of the office, occasionally looking out on downtown Albany but otherwise staring at the antique pages.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to rely on my own abilities to decipher them. Gehring and Venema had published at that time 18 volumes of translations. Plus, the two people who knew more about this material than anyone else on earth were right there, ready to answer questions. This was before Google, but it was better than Google. I was able to interact with these actual pieces of 300 year old rag paper, to get to know the various writers through their handwriting, and at the same time I had guides to it all.
What came through–what comes through for anyone who sits with this material and has the patience to work with it–is the human reality of this corner of the past. Up from the pages rise Peter Stuyvesant, Adriaen Van der Donck, Pieter Minuit, Catalina Trico, Joris Rapalje, and hundreds of other people who settled New York before it was New York. You come to know them. You know their secrets, their longings, their schemes. It dawns on you, over time, that the seething atmosphere they created–in which everyone is doing business, everyone is buying or selling beavers, everyone has a piece of the next voyage, everyone wants a piece of the action–has never left the island. The Manhattan they created is still there on paper. And it’s still there in the world’s most magnetic city.
Russell Shorto is an American historian, journalist and author. In 2004, he published The Island at the Center of the World: the Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America, for which he spent many hours in the New Netherland archives. Between 2008 and 2013, he lived in Amsterdam, where he was the director of the John Adams Institute.
The next two installments of this series will be published on December 12 and December 19.
“ Before bed at night, think about why you get up the next morning. And think about what you eventually want it to say on your tombstone. Nobody says at a funeral: that guy had such a great flatscreen tv. Material possessions are not important. All that matters is how you affect the lives of others. ”
“ Churches haven’t done a good job figuring out how to be relevant. Churches provide not only Sunday services, but human services. ”
— Reverend Tim Crellin tijdens de zondagsdienst in St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church
“ The Republicans have adopted a suicide strategy and that is to be a party of whites. ”
— Professor Richard Parker van de Harvard Kennedy School
“ In New Hampshire, you can’t swing a cat without hitting a state representative. ”
— Roger Carroll van de Nashua Telegraph over de absurd grote hoeveelheid state representatives
“ ‘I’m gonna get the job done’ doesn’t resonate well, because people want to throw off the shackles and blow up the system. ”
— Ruy Teixeira van The Center for American Progress over Hillary Clinton’s campagneboodschap
“ The Republicans are reaping what they have sown, and that is Donald Trump. ”
— Roger Simon van Politico
Deze week stond op de website van De Volkskrant een opiniestuk van Haro Kraak, getiteld: Waarom schrijven jullie hier nou nooit over? “Van complotdenkers en bezorgde burgers tot rechtse commentatoren en dwarse mediamakers – haast iedereen houdt ervan om te zeggen dat de media iets negeren. Maar waarom eigenlijk?” Volgens Kraak besteden de mainstream media wel zeker ruimschoots aandacht aan al die zogenaamd genegeerde onderwerpen. Ook ik denk dat we ons niet per se zorgen hoeven te maken om de hoeveelheid aandacht. Maar wel om iets anders.
De opwarming van de aarde bestaat niet
In New Hampshire sprak ik, in het hoofdkwartier van Ted Cruz, een eloquente, opgewekte vrouw die me met volle overtuiging zei dat de opwarming van de aarde een fabeltje is en dat ik er goed aan doe niet meer naar de mainstream media te luisteren. Dat was haar conclusie na zes maanden eigenhandig onderzoek. Waar ze haar informatie vandaan haalde? “Van het internet.” Ze liet me wat obscure websites zien die zeiden dat ze gelijk had, en beloofde me een of andere documentaire door te sturen die het haarfijn uitlegde. (Nog niet gebeurd.)
In plaats van druk te maken over te weinig aandacht voor een onderwerp, zoals het Volkskrantartikel, wegen mensen soms niet goed (genoeg) de waarde (of: waarheid) van de aandacht die er wél is. Journalistiek is mensenwerk en bijna elk medium een doorgeefluik: een bron van een bron van een bron.
Oranje is groen
Om zelf ook een bron van een bron te zijn: in San Francisco, op de bovenverdieping van boekhandel City Lights, vond vorige week een literaire avond plaats met schrijver Jarett Kobek, die het boek ’I Hate The Internet’ schreef. Na een verhitte en enigszins komische woordenstrijd tussen Kobek en een Bernie Sanders-fan (“Twitter makes revolutions possible, meeeehn!”), kwam het gesprek uit op Googles algoritme en ‘de waarheid’.
Een onthutste man zei: “Het mag gewoon niet zo zijn dat iemand ergens beweert dat oranje eigenlijk groen is, en dat genoeg mensen erop klikken of het liken, en dat het dan boven aan in de zoekresultaten van Google komt. Wat is dan nog de waarheid?”
Waarop een andere man antwoordde: “What is truth anyway? Orange is orange because enough people once agreed that it was. If the majority feels that orange needs the definition of green, then maybe it should be.”
Hillary Clinton is een crimineel
In het Volkskrantartikel: “Nu kun je voor elk verhaal duizenden bronnen vinden en als je goed genoeg zoekt, vind je jouw waarheid altijd terug.” Het eerste wat je leert bij een journalistieke of mediagerelateerde studie, is dat (en hoe) je elke bron moet toetsen op betrouwbaarheid. Vandaar dat het fijn is dat bijvoorbeeld De Correspondent in een aantal artikelen doorlinkt naar aangehaalde bronnen – al werken daar net zo goed geen robots.
De mensen die ik op de straten van New Hampshire sprak, of tijdens rally’s en het campaignen, zeiden allen dat hun voorkeurskandidaat als enige de waarheid verkondigt. De anderen zijn leugenaars. Bij een rally van Bernie Sanders was een Republikein aanwezig die zogezegd polshoogte kwam nemen. Toen het gesprek op Clinton kwam, liep hij een beetje rood aan en je mag er best rondvliegend speeksel bij fantaseren toen hij zei: “Hillary is a liar, a fraud, she should be in jail!” Vooralsnog is het onderzoek rondom haar e-mailserver nog gaande.
Dat komt niet uit de lucht vallen, want de presidentskandidaten zelf liegen misschien ook wel meer dan ooit. Politico constateerde dat dit the dirtiest Presidential race since ‘72 is. De New York Times heeft een factchecker in dienst die een handig overzicht bijhoudt waarin statements van kandidaten tegen het licht worden gehouden. Zijn het leugens, waarheden, of, ook een optie: ‘it depends on how you measure it’. Dan lijkt deze vraag nog niet eens zo gek: what is truth anyway?
Op 6 februari arriveerde ik met de BKB-academie in de Verenigde Staten. We hadden het toetje nog nauwelijks verteerd, of we werden al in de verkiezingsgekte meegesleurd omdat het grote GOP-televisiedebat in New Hampshire begon.
Wie teveel last van jetlag had om het debat te kunnen volgen, kon zich gelukkig laten informeren door de vele analyses die de volgende ochtend op het web en in de krant verschenen. Het grootste nieuws: Marco Rubio – vanaf dat moment ‘Robot Rubio’ – was erin geslaagd zichzelf een paar keer te herhalen. Ophef alom.
“All the press corps cares about is process”
Het bleek niet gemakkelijk een analyse te vinden waarin de presidentskandidaten werden beoordeeld op wat ze daadwerkelijk te melden hadden, of hoe hun opmerkingen zich verhielden tot hun eerder ingenomen standpunten. ‘Pundits’ schrijven liever over hoe Clinton verbitterd kijkt, Kasich stottert of Rubio in de repetitiemodus zit. Of neem de duiding van Bob Woodward, een van de meest gezaghebbende journalisten van de VS: zijn commentaar op Hillary Clinton ging over haar ongemakkelijke communicatie, die volgens hem wees op een gebrek aan zelfacceptatie. Is dit het soort analyse dat we van onze journalisten verwachten?
“All the press corps cares about is process”, zei Politico-columnist Roger Simon hierover toen hij met ons sprak in Washington D.C. De pers schrijft liever over het spel en de prestaties van kandidaten, dan over wat ze van plan zijn als ze eenmaal aan de knoppen zitten. Mijn mede-academicus Thomas Smolders vatte het goed samen in zijn blog voor De Morgen: “Amerikaanse presidentsverkiezingen verglijden steeds meer tot een politieke versie van The Hunger Games waarbij de vorm primeert op de inhoud.” Nick Bryant van de BBC vergeleek het eveneens treffend met een spel, hij noemt het “horse race journalism”, waarbij niet de geschiktheid voor het ambt centraal staat maar waarbij men vooral geïnteresseerd is in “who should stay on the island, rather than who should become the most powerful person on earth”.
May the best man win
Maar in zekere zin raakt het laatste deel van dat citaat precies de kern van waar het hier over gaat: wie moet straks de machtigste persoon ter wereld worden? Als dat inderdaad is waar deze verkiezing over zou moeten gaan, dan zullen we ons moeten afvragen of al die debatjes die vraag wel beantwoorden. Debatten scheppen namelijk geen enkele helderheid over wat een president zou moeten kunnen en of de kandidaten in kwestie daartoe in staat zijn. De machtigste man of vrouw ter wereld moet vooral behendig zijn in het bij elkaar brengen van partijen, oplossen van geschillen en het opereren onder grote druk. En dat geldt des te meer in een tijd waarin niet alleen Washington, maar ook de internationale gemeenschap, tot op het bot verdeeld is.
Wie daadwerkelijk geïnteresseerd is in het vinden van de meest geschikte kandidaat voor dit ambt doet er dan ook goed aan de overblijvers op een andere manier te testen. Vergeet die stomme vragen die zo makkelijk met een ingestudeerde oneliner kunnen worden beantwoord. Stuk voor stuk beproevingen die ons niet vertellen wie de beste leider van het machtigste land ter wereld zal zijn. Nee, stel de kandidaten liever bloot aan een crisissimulatie van een crisismanagementbureau. Sluit de kandidaten 24 uur op in een ruimte en laat ze Model United Nations spelen. Of Risk, als dat beter is voor de kijkcijfers (ik ben benieuwd wie zichzelf dan nog een geschikte commander-in-chief durft te noemen). Alle campagneslogans kunnen dan plaatsmaken voor een gezamenlijke, die elke cheesy campagneslogan overbodig maakt: may the best man win.
Denktanks spelen een grote rol in het Amerikaanse politieke spel. En zoals zoveel in de Amerikaanse politiek, zijn ook die gelieerd aan een van de twee partijen. Een bezoekje aan de American Enterprise Institute.
Het American Enterprise Institute is de schrik van links Amerika. De Conservatieve denktank publiceert aan de lopende band onderzoeken die de denkbeelden van de Republikeinse partij ondersteunen en die van de Democratische partij volledig affakkelen. Al is het onderzoeksinstituut officieel niet gelieerd aan de Republikeinen, waren veel van de medewerkers actief in de regering-Bush.
De meeste Nederlanders zullen geen groot fan zijn van de meeste Republikeinse idealen. Toch hebben Nederlanders wel degelijk een stempel gedrukt op de denktank. Voormalig VVD-politica Ayaan Hirsi Ali sloot zich aan bij de denktank en ook econoom Stan Veuger. We spraken Veuger en zijn collega Michael Strain op het hoofdkantoor van het instituut.
De heren vormden een bijzonder duo. Niet alleen omdat ze in staat waren om binnen een recordtijd blikjes cola naar binnen te werken of elke vraag uit de groep met een vileine vorm van humor te beantwoorden, maar ook omdat ze gewoon een redelijk verhaal hebben. En Republikeinen die in de ogen van een Nederlander een redelijk verhaal hebben, dat is bijzonder. Zo beschreven de sprekers hoe ze het socialezekerheidsysteem willen hervormen. Die hervorming komt neer op een systeem van “iedereen dekt z’n eigen kosten en God voor ons allen”, maar dan wel onderbouwd op een manier die hout snijdt.
Veel medewerkers van het instituut waren actief in de regering-Bush en daarom is het niet verwonderlijk dat de sprekers een afkeer hebben van de Democratische kandidaten Clinton en Sanders. Zo zou Sanders totaal vervreemd zijn van de werkelijkheid en geloven in complottheorieën. Ook voor Trump en Cruz hadden ze geen goed woord over. De hoop (en verwachting) van de denktank is dan ook dat een gematigde Republikeinse kandidaat de nominatie binnen zal slepen.
Twee heren die Republikeins beleid geloofwaardig weten te onderbouwen, die hebben wel een blikje cola verdiend.
Fysiek uitgeput, maar mentaal energieker dan ooit blik ik terug op de onvergetelijke academiereis naar Amerika – Boston, Nashua, Washington.
Wat hebben wij veel gedaan, gezien en gehoord. Geïnspireerd, opgetogen en verward schrijf ik deze blog. Waar moet ik beginnen? Wat heeft deze reis met mij gedaan? In wat voor wereld leven we eigenlijk? Welke rol speelt politiek hierin? Wat is de invloed van campagnes, big data en de media?
De korte antwoorden op deze vijf vragen:
Geen idee. Van alles. Geen idee. Een grote. Heel veel.
Wat wordt er besproken, geregeld en gedaan voorafgaand aan een verkiezingscampagne voor de New President of the United States of America?
Het korte antwoord: Alles.
Aan alle manieren van invloed uitoefenen op de campagne en de verkiezingsuitslag wordt gedacht. De spelers van de Amerikaanse politiek worden opgesteld door de uitkomst van Facebookposts, Instagramfoto’s, Think Tank adviezen, Google-zoekopdrachten, scripts voor ‘persoonlijke’ campagnemails en campagnebureaus voor de campagneteams van de campagne voor vrouwen, Latino’s, African Americans en andere minorities die helemaal niet in de minderheid zijn in veel Amerikaanse staten, die allemaal voor een overheidsfunctie gaan.
Als de sponsoren, zwakten en sterkten, troeven en beelden van de verschillende presidentskandidaten in kaart zijn gebracht gaan ze het veld op met een heel team van vrijwilligers en coaches achter zich. Op het veld wordt duidelijk wie de tegenstanders zijn. De spelers gaan zich profileren aan de hand van speeches, filmpjes, foto’s, quotes en andere acties. Ondertussen worden de vrijwilligers voorzien van bijpassend promotiemateriaal in beeld en tekst, aangepast aan de te overwinnen kiezer. Als de vrijwilligers hun vakantiedagen hebben opgenomen kan de strijd langs de deuren, achter de telefoon en bij de stembureaus beginnen.
Dat de campagnebureaus in Amerika veel wisten over de kiezer, is algemeen bekend, maar dat ze er zoveel mee kunnen én doen – voor- en tijdens de verkiezingsstrijd – is bizar. Wat dit met me doet?
Het zet me aan het denken en maakt me enthousiast. We kunnen hiervan in Nederland nog heel veel leren. Door alle informatie die beschikbaar is over de kiezers worden ze beter bereikt. Hiervan kan je zeggen dat hun privacy geschonden wordt. Ik interpreteer het liever positief: de informatie over de presidentskandidaten wordt in aanspreekbare taal overgebracht op de kiezer. Dit biedt hen de mogelijkheid zelf na te denken over de issues die worden aangekaart. Je creëert hierdoor een bewuste, betrokken kiezer. Kijk maar naar alle vrijwilligers die de presidentskandidaten opnemen in hun campagneteam, dat zijn er ongekend veel. De Nederlandse politici en burgers kunnen hiervan nog een hele hoop leren in plaats van dat de Amerikaanse verkiezingen alleen maar als overdreven en privacyschendend worden bekritiseerd. Laten we afstappen van het idee ‘Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg.’ en laten we de politiek en haar betrokken burgers nog een kans geven het bewustzijn van ons allemaal te vergroten.
“It’s time we recognize that our state and federal prisons, where 65 percent of inmates meet medical criteria for substance use disorders, are no substitute for proper treatment — and reform our criminal justice system.” – Hillary Clinton
ISIS, veiligheid, wapens, economische ongelijkheid en immigratie zijn leidende thema’s tijdens de debatten en rally’s van de presidentskandidaten. Maar in New Hampshire voerde ook een andere kwestie de boventoon: ‘the heroin apocalypse’. Elke dag sterft minstens één persoon in de kleine noordoostelijke staat aan een overdosis heroïne, fentanyl of een ander opiaat.
Bijna een halve eeuw nadat Nixon de ‘War on Drugs’ uitriep, lijken zowel de Democratische als een deel van de Republikeinse kandidaten zich te bewegen richting een beleid wat zich richt op rehabilitatie in plaats van straffen. Maar het land, waar de gevangenissen vol zitten met plegers van niet-gewelddadige drugsdelicten, staat nog ver af van destigmatisering en decriminalisering.
Voorgeschreven pijnstillers, zoals oxycodon, vormen een groot deel van het probleem. Patiënten raken verslaafd en switchen dan naar heroïne, gezien dit goedkoper en makkelijker te verkrijgen is. Voor sommige kandidaten staat het onderwerp heel dichtbij: zo stierven een vriend van Chris Christie en de halfzus van Ted Cruz aan een overdosis. De dochter van Jeb Bush was verslaafd aan voorgeschreven pijnstillers en zat gevangen voor drugsbezit.
Hillary Clinton ging in gesprek over drugsgebruik met burgers in New Hampshire, waar ze pleitte voor betere behandelprogramma’s en de politie opriep zich te richten op afkickmogelijkheden in plaats van opsluiting. Als president wil ze hier tien miljard voor uitrekken. Tijdens een rally van Hillary zag ik Bill spreken over het belang van betere toegang tot naloxone, een middel dat de potentiele fatale effecten van een overdosis opioïden kan tegengaan. Cruz ziet de oplossing in God en het sluiten van de grens met Mexico. Trump pleit soms voor de legalisering van marihuana, maar gelooft vooral dat een muur op de grens met Mexico alle problemen doet verdwijnen.
“And so we need to start treating people in this country, not jailing them. We need to give them the tools they need to recover because every life is precious.” Chris Christie
De groeiende ‘opioïden epidemie’ benadrukt op pijnlijke wijze dat het drugsbeleid in de VS inadequaat is. Het verstrekken van schone injectienaalden en substitutie middelen zijn evidence based interventies, die de overdracht van hiv en hepatitis C tegengaan en het afkicken ondersteunen. Maar het grootste deel van de drugsgebruikers in de VS heeft geen toegang tot deze middelen en programma’s.
Maar wat leveren die interventies dan op? Het National Institute on Drug Abuse schat dat elke dollar die geïnvesteerd wordt in behandelprogramma’s tussen de $4 en $7 bespaart aan drugs gerelateerde misdaad en strafrechtelijke kosten. Wanneer gezondheidszorgkosten hierin worden meegenomen, kan de besparing oplopen tot twaalf maal de investering. De evidence is er. Nu de president die de policies maakt nog.
“Hoeveel procent van jullie volksvertegenwoordigers is een vrouw?” met deze vraag begon Denise Feriozzi, Deputy Executive Director van Emily’s List, het gesprek. Het exacte antwoord moesten wij haar op dat moment verschuldigd blijven, al maakte haar dat niet veel uit. Het punt dat ze wilde maken is dat vrouwelijke vertegenwoordiging in andere landen nog altijd beter is geregeld dan in haar eigen land. “Ik zeg dan vaak tegen andere groepen: jullie doen het veel beter! Hoe doen jullie dat?” Met deze opmerking probeerde Feriozzi het succes van haar organisatie te relativeren. Al toont het meer de wilskracht van Feriozzi om het veel beter te willen doen. Want er is wel degelijk reden om onder de indruk te zijn van de prestaties van Emily’s List. Tot de oprichting van deze organisatie was het nog geen enkele vrouw gelukt om een gekozen functie te vervullen door verkiezingen te winnen. In een kleine 30 jaar is het Emily’s List gelukt om 100 vrouwen in het Parlement, 19 in de Senaat en 11 vrouwelijke gouverneurs te laten verkiezen.
Het is echter niet makkelijk geweest om dit voor elkaar te krijgen. In het begin had de organisatie te maken met financiële obstakels. Volgens Feriozzi hebben “kandidaten veel geld nodig om een verkiezing te winnen. Het wilde vrouwen echter niet lukken om destijds voldoende geld op te halen. Dat kwam omdat mensen die in staat waren om geld te doneren dachten dat vrouwen niet zouden kunnen winnen. Ze weigerden dus ook om geld te doneren, waardoor vrouwen inderdaad niet konden winnen.” Emily’s List wist het verschil te maken om toch voldoende geld op te halen voor vrouwelijke kandidaten, wat uiteindelijk ervoor zorgde dat vrouwen verkiezingen konden winnen, om zo deze vicieuze cirkel te doorbreken. Ook vandaag de dag ondervindt de organisatie nog altijd financiële moeilijkheden. Dat heeft te maken met het gemak waarop de republikeinen groot geld weten binnen te halen via grote bedrijven. Volgens Feriozzi maakt dat de verkiezingsstrijd weer moeilijker voor progressieve vrouwen.
Naast financiële obstakels ondervindt de organisatie ook culturele moeilijkheden. Dat werd het meest duidelijk wanneer Feriozzi het over Hillary Clinton had. “Hillary is misschien wel de beste presidentskandidaat die we ooit gehad hebben. Maar wanneer vrouwen voor een hoge functie gaan moeten ze kunnen balanceren tussen ‘being strong’ en ‘likeable’. Voor velen mag er geen twijfel over bestaan dat Hillary Clinton ‘strong’ is, maar tegelijkertijd is het duidelijk dat ze moeite heeft met ‘being likeable’. Dat komt deels omdat kiezers kijken of ze graag een biertje zouden drinken met een kandidaat. Als we eerlijk zijn is dat ook gewoon een seksistische bril.” Volgens Feriozzi kan deze bril pas aangepast worden wanneer we meer vrouwen in gekozen functies hebben “want dan zien we dat een vrouw net zo goed president kan zijn”.
Ondersteuning Emily’s List
De ondersteuning die Emily’s List biedt aan vrouwen is alomvattend. “We gaan soms letterlijk met vrouwen om de keukentafel zitten vanaf het moment dat ze overwegen om voor een politieke functie te gaan. Vanaf dat moment adviseren wij vrouwelijke kandidaten met alle belangrijke strategische beslissingen die ze moeten nemen.” Bij Hillary Clinton is dat echter niet nodig. Hillary heeft al een omvangrijk netwerk en een eigen campagneteam. Toch ziet Feriozzi nog een rol voor Emily’s List om Hillary te ondersteunen. De ondersteuning die ze bieden is in dit geval, vooral in de vorm van kiezersmobilisatie. Dat doen ze op allerlei verschillende manieren. Door middel van politieke advertenties maar ook door het verlenen van ‘credibility’ voor Hillary. Oftewel in het openbaar te verklaren dat Hillary wel degelijk progressief is.
Waarom zou je op een vrouw moeten stemmen?
Kiezers overtuigen om op een vrouwelijke kandidaat te stemmen is ook iets waar Emily’s List constant mee bezig is. “Voor mij is het reden genoeg om te zeggen, vrouwelijke vertegenwoordiging is veel te laag. Alleen voor kiezers is dat in het algemeen niet voldoende. Je moet concreet duidelijk maken wat de meerwaarde is van een vrouwelijke kandidaat. Dat kan je doen door duidelijk te maken wat op het spel staat. Onderzoek heeft aangetoond dat vrouwen in het algemeen ook aantoonbaar progressiever stemmen.”
Een van onze laatste sessies tijdens de Amerikareis, gistermiddag, vond plaats bij Google in Washington D.C. We bezochten het internetbedrijf vanwege zijn hart voor democratie. Google probeert sinds enkele jaren om informatie over verkiezingen en verkiezingskandidaten te verspreiden en resultaten inzichtelijk te maken, in landen als India, Duitsland en de VS. De search tools van het bedrijf bieden hiervoor een perfect platform. De vraag die bij mij speelde: is het ontsluiten van informatie het enige doel dat Google dient met zijn democratiseringsprojecten?
Het kantoor van Google in Washington D.C.
Google is al langer bij de (Amerikaanse) politiek betrokken. Topman Eric Schmidt maakte deel uit van het campagneteam van Barack Obama in 2012 en het bedrijf heeft een sterke lobby in Washington. Maar Google heeft ook onderhuidse invloed. Volgens deze studie van Robert Epstein en Ronald Robertson kunnen zoekresultaten de voorkeur van zwevende kiezers tussen 20 en 80 procent doen verschuiven. De invloed van zwevende kiezers is bij een close race groot, en dus zou Google de uitslag van de Amerikaanse presidentsverkiezingen best eens kunnen beslissen.
Dit is natuurlijk geen verrassing. Informatiebronnen hebben nu eenmaal een enorme invloed op kiesgedrag. Dat weten moderne kandidaten: de politieke macht van de mainstreammedia is in de presidentiële race van 2016 een belangrijk onderwerp van discussie. Maar ook vroeger was men zich van de rol van informatie bewust. Een academiegenoot vertelde me over de telegraafbaas die in de negentiende eeuw presidentskandidaat was en structureel voorkwam dat negatief nieuws over hem werd doorgeseind naar krantenredacties.
Op het kantoor van Google hoorden we uiteraard niets over het beïnvloeden van verkiezingen. Nou ja, één ding dan: de belofte dat het bedrijf geen enkele controle uitoefent over kiesgedrag. Verder ging de presentatie puur over de projecten waarmee Google informatie over stembureaus en kandidaten verspreidt. Dat zijn nobele bezigheden. Maar het probleem is niet dat Google zoekresultaten over presidentskandidaten zou kleuren – zo expliciet is dat hun nooit ten laste gelegd. Het probleem is de macht die Google zou kúnnen uitoefenen. In een gezonde democratie wordt niet invloed, maar de mogelijkheid tot invloed aan banden gelegd. Het was gaaf geweest om bij Google over deze elephant in the room in discussie te gaan.
Het is net na achten wanneer de langverwachte verkiezingsresultaten van de presidentiële voorverkiezing binnendruppelen. Nieuwsstation ABC roept Bernie Sanders uit tot winnaar van The Granite State, ongewoon vroeg omdat pas twintig procent van de stemmen is geteld. Mijn hart gaat sneller bonzen en ik weet dat ik maar op één plek wil zijn als de resultaten bekend worden; de partijbijeenkomst waar Bernie Sanders zijn overwinningsspeech houdt en zijn voorsprong van de afgelopen tijd in de peilingen verzilvert.
Met een groep mede-academici racen we naar onze auto met het idee dat we zo’n kans niet mogen missen. Er is me eerder op de dag door een Sanders-medewerker verteld dat de bijeenkomst besloten is en erg druk is, zelf heeft ze geen hoop om te gaan. Het deert ons niet en we vullen Warren Road in op de navigatie. We komen op onze locatie aan maar het blijkt een andere Warren Road te zijn. We toetsen hetzelfde adres met daarachter de juiste plaatsnaam in – Concord – en gaan als de wiedeweerga onderweg met topchauffeur Geerten en hopen dat we Bernie Sanders nog te zien zullen krijgen.
In Concord is het een drukte van jewelste van auto’s die rond de middelbare school een parkeerplek proberen te vinden om ook aanwezig te kunnen zijn. We knallen onze auto op een hoek, rennen naar de ingang en halen opgelucht adem als we binnen zijn. Nota bene twee mensen achter ons in de rij worden de deuren gesloten en mag niemand meer naar binnen – lucky us! We gaan langs security en begeven ons naar het feestgeluid in de gymzaal waar de mensen al op de tribunes en sportvloer ‘Bernie! Bernie!’ roepen, in afwachting van hun kandidaat. Ik kom een vrijwilliger tegen die me diezelfde dag nog een officieel vrijwilligers shirt cadeau deed en we delen ons enthousiasme.
Niet kort daarna verschijnt op een groot scherm de speech van Hillary Clinton, die de verkiezingen met 17% achterstand heeft verloren. Zonder enig boegeroep roepen de aanhangers simpelweg de naam van hun favoriete kandidaat wanneer ze het niet eens zijn met Hillary. Ze matigt zich in haar speech de agenda van Sanders aan door te praten over het aanpakken van Wall Street en de gelijkheid van mannen en vrouwen, minderheden en de LGBT-gemeenschap. In het publiek klinken verbaasde kreten en lachen dat Hillary de standpunten van Sanders lijkt te kopiëren om stemmers te winnen, en maakt de stemmers op Sanders nog meer overtuigd dat hun kandidaat de juiste is.
Er gaat feestmuziek aan en de sfeer zit er goed in. Er worden leuzen geroepen als ‘No more Superpac, Bernie has our back!’ en ‘Feel the Bern!’. Het publiek is ontzettend divers en ook een stuk jonger dan het publiek op de bijeenkomst van Hillary, de hele maatschappij lijkt vertegenwoordigd. Een koppel heeft zelfs hun baby meegenomen; het niveau van idealisme is hoog en werkt aanstekelijk. Deze mensen zijn samengekomen voor een andere toekomst en dragen hun kandidaten op handen.
Dan komt Sanders het podium op en wordt er massaal gejoeld van enthousiasme. Het duurt een goed aantal momenten voor Sanders bijna blozend de zaal tot stilte kan bedaren. Hij begint door Hillary Clinton te feliciteren met een mooie strijd en het publiek klapt met hem mee. Vervolgens bedankt hij alle campagneteams en loopt hij alle punten af die belangrijk zijn in zijn campagne; dat de campagne geen financiële steun heeft van bedrijven en mogelijk wordt gemaakt door de bijdragen van 3.1 miljoen Amerikanen. De zaal is uitzinnig wanneer ze het gemiddelde bedrag van deze bijdragen kunnen mee roepen: ‘Twenty-five-dollar!’. Sanders noemt vervolgens het overmatig hoge collegegeld, de overmatige gevangeniscijfers en grote winsten voor farmaceutische bedrijven als problemen. Hij stelt gratis Hoger Onderwijs voor, gelijke betaling voor mannen en vrouwen en een zorgsysteem waarin alle zorgkosten over alle betalers worden verdeeld. De zaal zwaait elke keer grote borden in de lucht met Sanders’ hoopvolle campagne slogan: ‘A future we can believe in’
Sanders besluit zijn overwinningsspeech op een persoonlijke noot. Zijn ouders waren Poolse immigranten die geen geld hadden of Engels spraken toen ze in de VS kwamen. Ze konden niet anders dan dromen om een eigen huis te hebben buiten de stad, iets dat Sanders’ moeder nooit mee kon maken omdat ze vroeg overleed. Dat een kind van normale arbeiders het zou kunnen schoppen tot presidentskandidaat zou een nog grotere droom zijn. Een droom die mogelijk is in Amerika en in de toekomst moet blijven. Bernie besluit dat hij vereerd zou zijn deze droom voor zijn kiezers werkelijkheid te maken en de volgende president van de VS te zijn. Het publiek is uitzinnig.
Wanneer hij van het podium loopt drommen de mensen samen om hem een hand te geven en met hem op de foto te gaan. Zo ook wij vieren, die zeer onder de indruk zijn van de fantastische sfeer en de thema’s klimaatverandering, minder oorlogen en het recht van elke vrouw om over haar eigen lichaam te beschikken. We zijn gelukkig genoeg om precies op de juiste plek te staan om onszelf met Bernie op de foto te zetten en twee van ons weten hem nog een hand te geven. We hebben het gevoel dat we onderdeel hebben uitgemaakt van de geschiedenis; een lange reis van een politiek systeem dat langzaam verandert.
We verlaten de zaal en verzamelen nog wat campagneborden als aandenken. Eenmaal buiten en in gesprek met enkele andere aanhangers horen we dat het bijzonder is dat we binnen konden komen omdat de tickets allang uitverkocht waren. We voelen ons waanzinnig uitgelaten dat we op onze laatste campagnedag nog zo dichtbij onze ideale kandidaat hebben kunnen komen en het risico namen om niet binnen te komen. Mogelijk was dit evenement bepalend voor het kandidaatschap van Bernie Sanders om in het Witte Huis te komen. Zo niet voor Bernie dan wel bepalend voor ons als campagne leerlingen om zo’n volslagen enthousiaste en idealistische menigte aanhangers te zien die samenkomen om invloed uit te oefenen op de toekomst.
De campagnereis van BKB16 was al een succes, de beslissing om een gokje te wagen om bij een besloten en afgelegen evenement binnen te komen maakte hem nog completer. Hopelijk nemen de stemmers in de hierop volgende voorverkiezingen ook een goede gok met de presidentskandidaat die ze het beste kunnen vertrouwen; een beetje vertrouwen hebben in Bernie Sanders betaalt zich dubbel en dwars terug!
Na de bijeenkomst rijden we lachend en vol van energie terug naar de accommodatie. Bij het tankstation komen we nog een Bernie-fan tegen van de bijeenkomst en kopen een ijsje als overwinning snack. De pomphouder zelf is ook dik tevreden over de uitslag, hij heeft namelijk gestemd voor Trump, die met 36% leidt bij de Republikeinse voorverkiezing. Tot onze verbazing zegt hij dat Sanders zijn tweede keuze is en hij hem na Trump het meest vertrouwt. Ook dat geeft ons vertrouwen dat de toekomst van Amerika – en het verloop van de Amerikaanse verkiezingen – nog hoopvol kan zijn.
In het noorden van New Hampshire ligt het plaatsje Hart’s Location. Het telt slechts 46 inwoners. Ondanks deze omvang herbergt het plaatsje rond deze tijd meer journalisten dan menig miljoenenstad. Hart’s Location is namelijk het eerste dorpje dat tijdens de eerste echte primary (Iowa is immers een caucusstaat) een uitslag bekendmaakt, simpelweg omdat er zo weinig stemmen geteld moeten worden. En iedereen is natuurlijk reuze benieuwd welke kandidaten de hearts and minds van dit dorpje – dat dit jaar overigens reuze verdeeld is over wie de nominatie verdienen – hebben weten te winnen.
De inwoners van de staat New Hampshire worden verwend. Door de timing van hun voorverkiezing krijgen ze disproportioneel veel bezoekjes (en beloftes) van de diverse kandidaten. Het lokale geniet hier in zekere zin heel eventjes globale belangstelling. Maar de aandacht stijgt de inwoners van New Hampshire niet naar het hoofd. Als ware juryleden werken ze verschillende rallies af van de kandidaten voor hun partij, om te horen waar deze kandidaten voor staan en om hen vragen te stellen. Velen bezoeken zelfs meerdere rallies, want “ach, het is toch om de hoek” (dat zeggen ze ook als het een uur rijden is).
Deze zondag bezocht de groep twee rallies in New Hampshire. Bernie Sanders sprak in onze aanwezigheid aanhangers en twijfelaars toe in een ‘community college’ in Portsmouth (grappig genoeg gelegen aan ‘corporate road’) en Ted Cruz sprak in ons bijzijn in het plaatsje Keene. Die rally maakte de meeste indruk. Je zou niet geloven dat hier de winnaar van de republikeinse caucus van Iowa stond. In de hoek van een troosteloze Mexicaanse eettent in the middle of nowhere, met cowboylaarzen, jeans en nauwelijks beveiliging. De eters waren blijven zitten. Sommigen hadden braaf de uitgedeelde Ted Cruz-stickers op hun borst geplakt, anderen leken onaangenaam verrast door zijn aanwezigheid. Ze waren net aan het genieten van een burrito, en zagen zichzelf nu omsingeld door binnen- en buitenlandse journalisten (van AFP tot Russia Today), evangelical groupies en spionnen van andere campagnes (voor mij stond bijvoorbeeld iemand minutieus verslag te doen in een appgroep met de titel ‘Trump 2016’).
Het campagneteam van Cruz had deze locatie en setting waarschijnlijk zorgvuldig uitgekozen. In gewone kleding, tussen gewone mensen, in een doodgewoon restaurant dat tijdens zijn praatje doodgewoon zompige nachoschotels bleef uitdelen. Maar de thema’s correspondeerden geenszins met de issues die je aan de inwoners van dit dorpje zou toeschrijven. De vragen en antwoorden gingen immers nauwelijks over de economie, de zorg of het onderwijs – onderwerpen die je wel zou verwachten – maar over het buitenland en immigratie; de laatste zorgen van Keene, zou je zeggen.
Terwijl Cruz zijn publiek waarschuwde voor een Noord-Koreaanse aanval met eenEMP-bom op de Verenigde Staten, de gevolgen van de nucleaire deal met Iran, de afschrikkingspositie tegenover Poetin of de gevaren van immigratie, knikte menig bezoeker instemmend, af en toe iets mompelend in de trant van “yeah, he’s right” en “this man tells it like it is”. Zelfs degenen die nog twijfelden, kookten van woede toen ze van de senator uit Texas hoorden dat het Bill Clinton was die de Kim Jong-Il van de miljarden voorzag om het nucleaire programma mee door te ontwikkelen. Cruz verwees ter illustratie van het ‘democratische gevaar’ nog naar een stripje waarin de Iraanse opperste leider Khamenei liet weten zoveel mogelijk Amerikanen te willen doden, waarop John Kerry vroeg: “well, can I meet you halfway?” Nee mensen, als Ted Cruz president wordt, buigt hij voor niemand.
Geen onderdeel van het Amerikaanse verkiezingsproces is zo bijzonder als een willekeurige rally in een willekeurig dorp. Niet minder indrukwekkend is dat het juist de problemen die dit dorpje zo goed als zeker bespaard zullen blijven zijn die de inwoners de meeste zorgen baren. ‘All politics is local’ leest men in vele verkiezingsanalyses, zeker tijdens de Amerikaanse voorverkiezingen. Maar laat je niet misleiden door de gewone man van New Hampshire, met zijn houthakkershemd en cowboyhoed. Politics zijn zelfs in deze uithoek even global als local.
We zijn er: de Verenigde Staten! Om precies te zijn in Boston, Massachusetts. Na een 8-urige vlucht vol films (Clueless!), halfbakken pogingen tot slapen en slap ouwehoeren lopen we de gate uit, recht tegen de eerste Amerikaanse vlag aan. Die blijkt alom aanwezig: hij hangt op het vliegveld, pronkt bovenop gebouwen en wappert in voortuinen langs de huizen waar we rijden. Op weg van het vliegveld naar ons eerste hotel zien we nog veel meer clichés: enorme auto’s, grote, gekleurde houten huizen, billboards met mannen met cowboyhoeden en overal Dunkin’ Donuts. Als glazuur op de donut is alles bedekt met een laagje sneeuw. Oh, Amerika :).
We brengen onze spullen naar een langs de weg gelegen hotel met ernaast natuurlijk wederom een Dunkin’ Donut. Dit keer haalt iemand van ons een doos vol geglazuurde, bespikkelde goodies – ik heb er een nieuwe verslaving bij. Gelukkig heb ik niet al te veel tijd om hieraan toe te geven, want we moeten door naar onze allereerste activiteit: een bezoek aan The Friendly Toast in nabijgelegen plaatsje Cambridge.
The Friendly Toast is een pub-achtig restaurant met knalgroene muren die vol hangen met oerlelijke parafernalia, waar we gaan eten met gasten Loeki Westerveld, Daan Cramer, Tim de Gier, Wonbo Woo en Mary Meehan. Nog voordat we onze gasten leren kennen bestellen we eten, en in tegenstelling tot onze verwachtingen staat er lang niet alleen maar fastfood op de kaart, zijn de porties zijn van ‘normaal’ formaat, en kan je bij je friet ook gewoon mayo bestellen als je niet van ketchup houdt. Tafelgenoot Jeroen en ik besluiten tot een compromis van ongezond en gezond: we delen een vegan rijstmaaltijd met geroerbakte groenten en tofu én een D.G.G.C. oftewel Damn Good Grilled Cheese. Complimentair bij de maaltijd krijg je een ongelimiteerde hoeveelheid frisdrank, voor je dagelijkse (enorme) portie suiker.
Ondertussen is het tijd voor een korte introductie van de mensen met wie we aan tafel zitten. Loeki, Daan en Tim zijn oud-BKB Academici. Tim, journalist voor Vrij Nederland, is samen met Mary (journalist uit Kentucky, gespecialiseerd in zorg) en Wonbo (tv producent) zijn zogeheten Harvard Nieman Fellows; “accomplished and promising journalist, given the gift of time and intellectual resources to fortify their work.” op Harvard een jaar lang mogen reflecteren op journalistiek. Ook Loeki doet – als +1 van Tim – mee aan dit programma. Daan doet een MBA aan de Harvard Business School.
Aan tafel wordt rustig met elkaar en de gasten gepraat. Zo vang ik een anekdote op van Daan over zijn favoriete leraar die lesgeeft door alleen maar vragen te stellen; door studenten zijn vragen te laten beantwoorden geeft hij ze – met her en der wat sturing – zijn lessen mee. Ook vertelt Daan dat hij medestudenten het verschil moest uitleggen tussen socialisme en communisme; termen die in de VS vaak in één adem worden genoemd (en als scheldwoord worden gezien). Ondanks dat iedereen moe is praten we over Harvard en de vele fellowships die deze school organiseert, de stad Boston, de Verenigde Staten en natuurlijk de huidige verkiezingen. Ondanks dat we niet rechtstreeks vragen wie de gasten steunen, is duidelijk dat we omringd worden door democraten.
Het is nog vroeg als de groep collectief besluit af te taaien; we zijn moe en de gasten hebben beloofd de komende week nog langs te komen bij een van onze vele andere activiteiten. Het idee van ‘in Amerika zijn’ is bij mij na een avond lang omringd te zijn met vrijwel alleen maar Nederlanders vrijwel volledig verdwenen. Gelukkig zien we buiten, met onze voeten in de sneeuw, alweer zo’n prachtig belichte wapperende Amerikaanse vlag.
All six blog posts in our series “A Nation Torn” on the 2014 midterm elections have now been assembled in a wonderful digital publication for your enjoyment.
I spent my time at the five-day long Impakt Festival watching screenings, listening to talks, interacting with artworks and making plenty of connections with both new and old friends. I’m still digesting the deluge of aesthetic approaches, subjective responses and formal interpretations of the theme of the festival, “Soft Machines: Where the Optimized Human Meets Artificial Empathy”.
It’s impossible to summarize everything I’ve seen. While there were a few duds, like any festival, the majority of what I experienced was high-caliber work. Topping my “best of list” was the “Algorithmic Theater” talk by Annie Dorsen, the Omer Fast film, “5000 Feet is the Best”, the Hohokum video game by Richard Hogg and a captivating talk on the Human Brain Project.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to cover just the presentation on the Human Brain Project (HBP). Even though this is a science project, what impressed me was similarities in methodology to many art projects. HBP has simple directive: to map the human brain. However the process is highly experimental and the results are uncertain.
HBP is largely EU-funded and was awarded to a consortium of researchers from a competition with 26 different organizations. The total funding over the course of the 10-year project is about 1 billion euros, which is a hefty price tag for a research project. The eventual goal, likely well-after the 10 year period, will be to actualize a simulated human brain on a computer — an impossibly ambitious project given the state of technology in 2014.
I arrived skeptical, well-aware that technology projects often make empty promises when predicting the future. Marc-Oliver Gewaltig, who is one of the scientists on HBP, presented the analogy of 15th-century mapmaking. In 1492, Martin Behaim collected as many known maps of the world as he could, then produced the Erdapfel, a map of the known world at the time. He knew that the work was incomplete. There were plenty of known places but also many uncertain geographical areas as well. The Erdapfel didn’t even include any of the Americas since it was created before the return of Columbus from his first voyage. But, the impressive part was that the Erdapfel was a paradigm shift, which synthesized all geographical knowledge into a single system. This map would then be a stepping stone for future maps.
According to Gewaltig, the mission of the HBP will follow a similar trajectory and aggregate known brain research into a unified, but flawed model. He fully recognizes that the directive of the project, a fully working synthetic human brain is impossible at this point. The computing power isn’t available yet, nor will it likely be there in 10 years.
The human brain is filled with neurons and synapses. The interconnections are everywhere with very little empty space in a brain. Because of this complexity, the HBP project is beginning by trying to simulate a mouse brain, which is within technology’s grasp in the next 10 years.
The rough process is to analyze physical slices of a mouse brain rather than chemical and electrical signals. From this information, they can construct a 3D model of a mouse brain itself using advanced software. For those of you who are familiar with 3D modeling, can you imagine the polygon count?
Gewaltig also made a distinction in their approach from science-fiction style speculation. When thinking about artificial intelligence, we often think of high-level cognitive functions: reasoning, memory and emotional intelligence. But, the brain also handles numerous non-cognitive functions: regulating muscles, breathing, hormones, etc. For this reason, HBP is creating a physical model of a mouse, where it will eventually interact with a simulated world. Without a body, you cannot have a simulated brain, despite what many films about AI suggest.
While I still have doubts about the efficacy of the Human Brain Project, I left impressed. The goal is not a successful simulated brain but instead to experiment and push the boundaries of the technology as much as possible. Computing power will catch up some day, and this project will help push future research in the proper direction. The results will be open data available to other scientists. Is that something we can really argue against?
The works in the show circled around the theme of Soft Machines, which Impakt describes as “Where the Optimized Human Meets Artificial Empathy”.
Of the many powerful works in the show, my favorite was the 22-minute video, “Hyper Links or it Didn’t Happen,” by Cécile B. Evans. A failed CGI rendering of Philip Seymour Hoffman narrates fragmented stories of connection, exile and death. At one point, we see an “invisible woman” who lives on a beach and whose lover stays with her, after quitting a well-paying job. The video intercuts moments of odd narration by a Hoffman-AI. Spam bots and other digital entities surface and disappear. None of it makes complete sense, yet it somehow works and is absolutely riveting.
After the exhibition opening, the crowd moved to Theater Kikker, where Michael Bell-Smith, presented a talk/performance titled “99 Computer Jokes”. He spared the audience by telling us one actual computer joke. Instead, he embarked on a discursive journey, covering topics of humor, glitch, skeuomorphs, repurposing technology and much more. Bell-Smith spoke with a voice of detached authority and made lateral connections to ideas from a multitude of places and spaces.
In the first section of his talk, he describes that successful art needs to have a certain amount of information — not too much, not too little, citing the words of arts curator Anthony Huberman:
“In art, what matters is curiosity, which in many ways is the currency of art. Whether we understand an artwork or not, what helps it succeed is the persistence with which it makes us curious. Art sparks and maintains curiosities, thereby enlivening imaginations, jumpstarting critical and independent thinking, creating departures from the familiar, the conventional, the known. An artwork creates a horizon: its viewer perceives it but remains necessarily distant from it. The aesthetic experience is always one of speculation, approximation and departure. It is located in the distance that exists between art and life.”
In the present time where faith in technology has vastly overshadowed that of art, these words are hyper-relevant. The Evans video accomplishes this, resting in this valley between the known and the uncertain. We recognize Hoffman and he is present, but in an semi-understandable, mutated form. We know that the real Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead. His ascension into a virtual space is fragmented and impure. The video suggests that traversing the membrane from the real into the screen space will forever distort the original. It triggers the imagination. It sticks with us in a way that stories do not.
What Bell-Smith alludes to his talk is that the idea of combining the human and the machine won’t work…as expected. He sidesteps any firm conclusions. His performance is like the artwork that Huberman describes: it never reaches resolution and opens up a space for curiosity.
Later he displayed slides of Photoshop distasters, a sort of “Where’s Waldo” of Photoshop errata. Microseconds after viewing the advertisement below, we know something is off. The image triggers an uncanny response. A moment later we can name the problem of the model having only one leg. Primal perception precedes a categorical response. Finally, everyone laughs together at the idiosyncrasy that someone let into the public sphere.
After Bell-Smith’s talk we had a chance for eating-and-drinking. Hats off to the Impakt organization. I know I’m biased since I’m an artist-in-residence at Impakt during the festival itself, but they certainly know how to make everyone feel warm and cozy.
Next up was the keynote speaker, Bruce Sterling, who is a science fiction writer and cultural commentator. He boldly took the stage without a laptop, and so the audience had no slides or videos to bolster his arguments. He assumed the role of naysayer, deconstructing the very theme of the festival: Where Optimized Human Meets Artificial Empathy.
Defining the terms “cognition” (human) vs “computation” (machine), he took the stance that the merging of the two was a categorical error in thinking. His example: birds can fly and drones can fly, but this doesn’t mean that drones can lay eggs. My mind raced, thinking that someday drone aircraft might reproduce. Would that be inconceivable?
Sterling tackled the notion of the Optimized Human with san analogy to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. For those of you that don’t recall your required high school reading, the main character of the book is Raskolnikov, who is both brilliant and desperate for money. He carefully plans and then kills an morally bankrupt pawnbroker for her cash. The philosophical question that Dostoyevsky proposes is the idea of a superhuman: select individuals who are exempt from the prescribed moral and legal code. Could the murder of a terrible person be a justifiable act? And would the person to judge this be someone who is excessively bright, essentially leaving the rest of the humanity behind?
In the book, the problem is that the social order gets disrupted. Raskolnikov action introduces an deadly unpredictable element into his village. With an uncertainty to the law and who executes it, no one feels safe. At the conclusion of the novel, Raskolnikov ends up in exile, in a sort of moral purgatory.
The very notion of the “optimized human” has similar problems. If select people are somehow “upgraded” through cybernetics, gene therapies and other technological enhancements, what happens to the social order? Sterling spoke about marketing, but I see the greater problem one of leveraged inequality. If there are a minority of improved humans who have integrated themselves with some sort of techno-futuristic advantages, our society rapidly escalates the classic problem of the digital divide. The reality is that this has already started happening. The future is here.
Bruce Sterling concluded with the point that we need to pay attention to how technology is leveraged. His example of Apple’s Siri system, albeit not a strong case of Artificial Empathy, is owned by a company with specific interests. When asked for the nearest gas station or a recipe for grilled chicken, Siri “happily” responds. If you ask her how to remove the DRM encoding on a song in your iTunes library, Siri will be helpless. While I disagreed with a number of Sterling’s points in his talk, what I do know is that I would hope for a non-predictive future for my Artificial Empathy machines.
The Impakt Festival continues through the weekend with the full schedule here.
During my time at Impakt as an artist-in-residence, I have been working on a new project called EquityBot, which is an online commission from Impakt. It fits well into the Soft Machines theme of the festival: where machines integrate with the soft, emotional world.
EquityBot exists entirely as a networked art or “net art” project, meaning that it lives in the “cloud” and has no physical form. For those of you who are Twitter users, you can follow on Twitter: @equitybot
What is EquityBot? Many people have asked me that question.
During stock market hours, EquityBot continually tracks worldwide emotions on Twitter to gauge how people are feeling. In the simple data-visualization below, which is generated automatically by EquityBot, the larger circles indicate the more prominent emotions that people are Tweeting about.
At this point in time, just 1 hour after the stock market opened on October 28th, people were expressing emotions of disgust, interest and fear more prominently than others. During the course of the day, the emotions contained in Tweets continually shift in response to world events and many other unknown factors.
EquityBot then uses various statistical correlation equations to find pattern matches in the changes in emotions on Twitter to fluctuations in stocks prices. The details are thorny, I’ll skip the boring stuff. My time did involve a lot of work with scatterplots, which looked something like this.
Once EquityBot sees a viable pattern, for example that “Google” is consistently correlated to “anger” and that anger is a trending emotion on Twitter, EquityBot will issue a BUY order on the stock.
Conversely, if Google is correlated to anger, and the Tweets about anger are rapidly going down, EquityBot will issue a SELL order on the stock.
EquityBot runs a simulated investment account, seeded with $100,000 of imaginary money. In my first few days of testing, EquityBot “lost” nearly $2000. This is why I’m not using real money!
The project treats human feelings as tradable commodities. It will track how “profitable” different emotions will be over the course of months. As a social commentary, I propose a future scenario that just about anything can be traded, including that which is ultimately human: the very emotions that separate us from a machine.
If a computer cannot be emotional, at the very least it can broker trades of emotions on a stock exchange.
As a networked artwork, EquityBot generates these simple data visualizations autonomously (they will get better, I promise).
I don’t know if there is a correlation between emotions in Tweets and stock prices. No one does. I am working with the hypothesis that there is some sort of pattern involved. We will see over time. The project goes “live” on October 29th, 2014, which is the day of the opening of the Impakt Festival and I will let the first experiment run for 3 months to see what happens.
Feedback is always appreciated, you can find me, Scott Kildall, here at: @kilda
The Impakt Festival officially begins next Wednesday, but in the weeks prior to the event, Impakt has been hosting numerous talks, dinners and also a weekly “Movie Club,” which has been a social anchor for my time in Utrecht.
Every Tuesday, after a pizza dinner and drinks, an expert in the field of new media introduces a relatively recent film about machine intelligence, prompting questions that frame larger issues of human-machine relations in the films. An American audience might be impatient about a 20-minute talk before a movie, but in the Netherlands, the audience has been engaged. Afterwards, many linger in conversations about the very theme of the festival: Soft Machines.The films have included I, Robot, Transcendence, Her and the documentary: Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine. They vary in quality, but with the introduction of the concepts ahead of time, even Transcendence, a thoroughly lackluster film engrossed me.
The underlying question that we end up debating is: can machines be intelligent? This seems to be a simple yes or no question, which cleaves any group into either a technophilic pro-Singularity or curmudgeonly Luddite camp. It’s a binary trap, like the Star Trek debates between Spock and Bones. The question is far more compelling and complex.
The Turing test is often cited as the starting point for this question. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this thought experiment, it was developed by British mathematician and computer scientist, Alan Turing in a 1950 paper that asked the simple question: “can machines think”.
The test goes like this: suppose you have someone at a computer terminal who is conversing with an entity by typing text conversations back and forth, what we now regularly do with instant messaging. The entity on the other terminal is either a computer or a human, the identity of which is unknown to the computer user. The user can have a conversation and ask questions. If he or she cannot ascertain “human or machine” after about 5 minutes, then the machine passes the Turing test. It responds as if a human would and can effectively “think”.
In 1990, the thought experiment became a reality with the Loebner Prize. Every year, various chatbots — algorithms which converse via text with a computer user — compete to try to fool humans in a setup that replicates this exact test. Some algorithms have come close, but to date, no computer has ever successfully won the prize.
The story goes that Alan Turing was inspired by a popular party game of the era called the “Imitation Game” where a questioner would ask an interlocutor various questions. This intermediary would then relay these questions to a hidden person who would answer via handwritten notes. The job of the questioner was to try to determine the gender of the unknown person. The hidden person would provide ambiguous answers. A question of “what is your favorite shade of lipstick” could be answered by “It depends on how I feel”. The answer is in this case is a dodge as a 1950s man certainly doesn’t know the names of lipstick shades.
Both the Turing test and the Imitation Game hover around the act of deception. This technique, widely deployed in predator-prey relationships in nature, is engrained in our biological systems. In the Loebner Prize competitions, there have even been instances where the human and computer will try to play with the judges, making statements like: “Sorry I am answering this slowly, I am running low on RAM”.
It may sound odd, but the computer doesn’t really know deception. Humans do. Every day we work with subtle queues of movement around social circles, flirtation with one another, exclusion and inclusion into a group and so on. These often rely on shades of deception: we say what we don’t really mean and have other agendas than our stated goals. Politicians, business executives and others that occupy high rungs of social power know these techniques well. However, we all use them.
The artificial intelligence software that powers chatbots has evolved rapidly over the years. Natural language processing (NLP) is widely used in various software industries. I had an informative lunch the other day in Amsterdam with a colleague of mine, Bruno Jakic at Applied AI, who I met through the Affect Lab. Among other things, he is in the business of sentiment analysis, which helps, for example, determine if a large mass of tweets indicates a positive or negative emotion. Bruno shared his methodology and working systems with me.
State-of-the-art sentiment analysis algorithms are generally effective, operating in the 75-85% range for identification of a “good” or “bad” feeling in a chuck of text such as a Tweet. Human consensus is in the similar range. Apparently, a group of people cannot agree on how “good” or “bad” various Twitter messages are, so machines are coning close to effective as humans on a general scale.
The NLP algorithms deploy brute force methods by crunching though millions of sentences using human-designed “classifiers” — rules to help determine how a sentence looks. For example, an emoticon like a frown-face, almost always indicates a bad feeling.
Computers can figure this out because machine perception is millions of time faster than human perception. It can run through examples, rules and more but acts on logic alone. If NLP software code generally works, where specifically does it fail?
Bruno pointed out was that machines are generally incapable of figuring out if someone is being sarcastic. Humans immediately sense this by intuitive reasoning. We know, for example that getting locked out of your own house is bad. So if you write that this is a contradictory good thing, it is obviously sarcastic. The context is what our “intuition” — or emotional brain understands. It builds upon shared knowledge that we gather over many years.
The Movie Club films also tackle this issue of machine deception. At a critical moment in the film, Sonny, the main robot character in I, Robot, deceives the “bad” AI software that is attacking the humans by pretending to hold a gun to one of the main “good” characters. It then winks to Will Smith (the protagonist) to let him know that he is tricking the evil AI machine. Sonny and Will Smith then cooperate, Hollywood style with guns blazing. Of course, they prevail in the end.
Sonny possess a sophisticated Theory of Mind: an understanding of its own mental state and well as that of the other robots and Will Smith. It takes initiative and pretends to be on the side of the evil AI computer by taking an an aggressive action. Earlier in the film, Sonny learned what winking signifies. It knows that the AI doesn’t understand this and so the wink will be understood by Will Smith and not be the evil AI.
In Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine, which recasts the narrative of the Deep Blue vs.Kasparov chess matches, the Theory of Mind of the computer resurfaces. We know that Deep Blue won the chess match, which was a series of 6 chess matches in 1997. It is the infamous Game 2, which obsessed Kasparov. The computer played aggressively and more like a human than Kasparov had expected.
At move 45, Kasparov resigned, convinced that Deep Blue had outfoxed him that day. Deep Blue had responded in the best possible way to Kasparov’s feints earlier in the game. Chess experts later discovered that Kasparov could have easily forced a honorable draw instead of resigning the match.
The computer appeared to have made a simple error. Kasparov was baffled and obsessed. How could the algorithm have failed on a simple move, when it was so thoroughly strategic earlier in the game. It didn’t make sense.
Kasparov felt like he was tricked into resigning. What he didn’t consider was that when the algorithm didn’t have enough time — since tournament chess games are run against a clock — to find the best-ranked move, that it would choose randomly from a set of moves…much like a human would do in similar circumstances. The decision we humans make is emotional at this point. Inadvertently, Kasparov the machine deceived Kasparov.
I’m convinced that ability to act deceptively is one necessary factor for machines need to be “intelligent”. Otherwise, they are simply code-crunchers. But there are other aspects, as well, which I’m discovering and exploring during the Impakt Festival.
I will continue this line of thought on machine intelligence in future blog posts, I welcome any thoughts and comments on machine intelligence and deception. You can find me on Twitter: @kildall.
The city of Utrecht, which is embellished by functioning canals and an old city center is just a 30 minute train ride from Amsterdam and 45 minutes from Rotterdam. Every year in the fall, the Impakt organization holds a media arts festival, called appropriately: Impakt Festival.
The first festival was in 1988, which is ancient history in terms of media arts and since then, the organization has seen the rise of the internet and a widespread embrace of digital culture. The theme of the festivals have evolved along with the culture and this year, the theme is Soft Machines.
What exact does this mean? Like any well-respected arts festival, it asks questions rather than provides explanations. The short answer is empathetic technology. How can machines: be they robots, algorithms or something else take on the soft, good emotions of humans?
This is especially important now, in a time where every week we see new discoveries in robotics, computing, biology and others fields of science. At last, the future is here. Culture warrants a response as we adjust, define and frame our human needs to this rapidly changing technology.
The festival has assembled an interdisciplinary program of art exhibitions, screenings, talks, and performances to provide conversation around the Soft Machines theme.
My name is Scott Kildall and I have been invited to Impakt as an artist-in-residence for two months this fall. The residency which overlaps with the festival and provides me with a creative atmosphere, a studio at Impakt headquarters, funding and an apartment in Utrecht. The project I am working on is called EquityBot, which will be live on the web for the festival at this website and is a stock-trading algorithm with a philanthropic personality.
I have been working in the field of new media art for many years. I write software code, also known as algorithms, which act as autonomous agents for social good. Additionally, my projects often manifest themselves as physical data visualizations, using code to shape data into physical forms.
Recent projects include Tweets in Space, in collaboration with Nathaniel Stern, which opened up a Twitter feed to a nearby exoplanet that might support humanlike biological life. And also, Water Works* which is a 3D-printed data-visualization of the network of pipes that comprise the San Francisco water infrastructure.
An artist’s residency is a coveted opportunity to break with your normal flow of life and experiment with new work. I live in San Francisco, which has an economy increasingly defined by technology. In the quaint city of Utrecht, I’ve had the chance to reflect on ideas, to write code, research and do studio experiments with 3D printing.
The EquityBot project is very much one that is process-oriented and focused on research and experimentation. I will be discussing it in more detail in the next blog post. For the next 10 days, I will be blogging on this site about the Impakt Festival and EquityBot. You can always find me on Twitter @kildall.
The nation is awash right now in tributes marking the 50th anniversary of the death of John Kennedy. Some are focused on the man himself, others on his presidency, and still others on his assassination. The half century mark marks a moment to dream of the man who would be king, to reassess his short time in the White House, and to revisit yet again the murder of our leader.
In my mind’s eye two things stand out. The first is his sense of style – John Kennedy’s style. He was that handsome, that charming, that rich, that witty, that clever, that famously framed by so fabulous a family.
The second is a sense of closure – John Kennedy’s ending forever an imagined ideal. The ideal of a great leader taking the United States of America to heights greater than those scaled by any other nation in the history of the world. Even Ronald Reagan, in these two ways Kennedy’s only conceivable successor, does not qualify. His presidency came too late. By then, by the 1980s, the American people already were jaded.
What’s astonishing is Kennedy’s hold even now. Even 50 years later we remain mesmerized by the man, so much so that the year 1963 is remembered for nothing so much as his death.
But if we step back, shed our fixation on this single individual, there is this: Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Both came out in, yes, 1963. Two of the greatest American documents ever were born in the year that Kennedy died. King’s Letter is one of the seminal pieces of the leadership literature, and Friedan’s book is acknowledged the “bible” of the 20th century women’s movement.
So in commemorating 1963 we might commemorate not only the death of a president, but this in addition:
Martin Luther King, from “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed….For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “’Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘Justice too long delayed is justice denied…
“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban woman struggled with it alone. As she…lay besides her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – ‘Is this all?’”
– Betty Friedan, from The Feminine Mystique
Barbara Kellerman is the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
This blog is also posted on Barbara Kellerman´s own site: www.barbarakellerman.com.
Thirteen years after, I was born, in 1976. The myth was then already debunked, and thus the Kennedy saga unfolded to me in a different order than to the generation of my parents: not the dream first and then the wake-up call, but vice versa. The Kennedy I got to know was a wandering opportunist who once, long ago, had enchanted America. It is likely that JFK would have been remembered as a disastrous president if those terrible events at Dealey Plaza had not happened.
I saw the first real outline of JFK, the person, the character, after readingThe Dark Side of Camelot, the controversial book by Seymour Hersh that was published in 1997. Hersh filled in the blanks in the already known dark side of Camelot: how father Kennedy bought election victory in 1960 for his son, how Kennedy himself prolonged the war in Vietnam out of pure political opportunism. Writing about a concealed marriage and a host of venereal diseases: Hersh burned the Kennedy court down to the fundamentals.
Seymour Hersh was – in a slightly different scale – a legend himself. I wanted to become such a good journalist as well, and I wanted to believe him. In my mind, JFK behaved almost the same as Nixon. JFK’s youngest brother Edward Kennedy criticized the book as malicious slander. Hersh had no evidence for all his claims indeed, but the core of the book was solid.
Ten years later I went to live in Washington. Obama was about to be elected. The Kennedy brand proved to be like Teflon: the Kennedy brand had survived all the scandals. During a joint election rally at the American University in Washington, Edward Kennedy passed the torch to Obama. The eloquence, the youth, ideals: Obama deserved an official stamp of approval from America’s only royal family. Also on stage was Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter. Recently she was named ambassador to Tokyo by Obama. She doesn’t have any special rhetorical gifts and this received frowned eyebrows here and there. But Caroline’s a Kennedy – the brand reaches deep into Asia.
Kennedy’s youngest brother died in the summer of 2009. My sister was visiting me at that time. Together we stopped at his office in the Russell Building, right behind the Capitol. A mini pilgrimage through the stately halls of Congress. We stopped at room SR -317: Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts. Inside we signed a condolence register. Weeks later there we received a beautiful envelope in the mail, including a full-color photograph of Edward Kennedy at his very best. “Thanks for your compassion – The Kennedy Family.”
That same summer I sailed on a boat along the coast of Rhode Island. ‘That’s where John and Jackie were married,’ said the skipper, pointing to a villa by the water, and we took pictures. Later that year I went to visit Dealey Plaza for the first time.
The images from Dallas still make a deep impression. Meanwhile – as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Kennedy – the man who took over the torch is losing prestige every day. Even though Obama is – again, like Kennedy – sometimes obsessively concerned with his appearance: his place in history must be secured. It’s, now in the fifth year of his presidency, a burden on his shoulders.
Kennedy’s death was terrible, but the brand was saved by it.
I was born on the last summer day of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, at least as Americans might count it. I was born on Labor Day Monday 1963, a holiday that marks the end of summer with family get-togethers. That’s how the other Kennedys – no relations of mine – spent their own Labor Day weekend, at their traditional home away in Hyannis Port. The photos taken of that weekend all add to the poignancy of the family tragedy; a scant twelve weeks later JFK would be shot and killed.
I obviously have no personal recollection of Kennedy myself. But I’ve often imagined myself having been born in another, better time than the one I actually came to experience. Those last summer days of 1963 were days before the Fall – in which a political assassination led to all kinds of ugliness: a brutal war in Vietnam, increased racial tensions across the United States and new levels of political recrimination and public cynicism. For Europeans just as for many Americans, a hope for a new and better era had been dashed suddenly at Dallas. His death brought, as it has been said countless times, a Loss of Innocence.
That vision of history has never lost its on grip on me, because it’s a powerful one: it fits the narratives of both romance and tragedy that we’d like to believe in. And for Americans, it’s tempting to think that a “what if JFK had lived” counterfactual history would have been a lot better than the 1960s which we actually got which, in comparison to situation here, was pretty painful. But I doubt very much that it would have been much different if JFK had been around to preside over it all. To be sure, JFK might have prevented a massive expansion of American intervention in Vietnam, but Kennedy’s record is ambiguous enough to suggest he may well have taken up a policy similar to Johnson. In any event, in a decade of rising expectations – expectations which Kennedy himself did much to elevate – disillusion and discontent was bound to hit the Kennedy administration at some point soon. Race riots and burnt black churches in Mississippi were less than a year away, not to mention signs of a culture war over prayer in public school and protected free speech. Kennedy could not have stopped the Fall from coming, and we should not continue to suppose that he could have stopped it.
The image of JFK’s shooting is like a hall of mirrors. You can’t trust anything you see through the layers of mythmaking about the man, his presidency, his assassination. True, much of his legacy has been revised by historians (on Cuba, Vietnam, civil rights), but one piece of it remains largely undisputed. From the election debates with Nixon to his violent death, moving images came to define what his legacy means.
I confess the more you read about him, the less you understand: the man is so mediated frame-by-frame-by-frame. We now know that Kennedy’s youthful charm and Jackie’s dazzling beauty as televised did not show us the constant pain he was in physically or the predatory behavior the president exercised on a string of young women (to satisfy his sexual appetite or numb the pain?). To grasp the zeitgeist – or JFK’s psychology for that matter – we might turn to other moving images. The character of Don Draper in the TV drama series Mad Men, for example, brilliantly feels the pulse of the era: the over-the-top sexism, racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism mixed in with the excessive drinking and smoking.
In an episode vacillating appropriately between history and fiction, I have had my own personal TV moment with JFK. Etched in my mind is one afternoon when in 1967 a man came to install the family’s first black-and-white TV in our Amsterdam apartment. We were latecomers to the world of consumption. When the man turned on the TV to align and fine-tune the antenna on top of the set with the aerial mast on the roof, the moving images that sprang to life – in black-and-white, flickering, and grainy – were the Abraham Zapruder shots of when Jackie pulled in special agent Clint Hill and the motorcade sped away. I know every detail of the half-lit bedroom I walked into that afternoon to see the new gadget: the light, the angle, the static noise. As an historian, I also know people create false memories about the past. Come to think of it: he was not even my president. Yet, that’s what I remember. And so it goes: my first TV moment belongs to the haze of mythmaking that is the JFK assassination.
Ruth Oldenziel is professor at Eindhoven University of Technology. She has been a research fellow at Hagley Museum and Library, DE; the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., the Lemelson Center in Washington, D.C. and Georgetown University. Since July 2012 she is also the chair of the board of the John Adams Institute.
Each correspondent in WashingtonDC is surprised by the weird little space that passes for the Briefing Room, the press room at the White House. Here, the President or his spokesman is questioned about wars, revolutions, legislative issues or sexual escapes with trainees. Few people know that this claustrophobic space served an entirely different purpose forty years ago. White House correspondents fromABC, CBS, the Washington Post and the New York Times are now standing on what was once the pool of the White House. Here, according to his adviser and historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., President Jack Kennedy swam many laps to take a break from his busy schedule.
But that image of Kennedy is not correct. According to investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh, the pool at the White House was primarily used by Jack Kennedy for meetings with his mistresses. In his bookThe Dark Side of Camelot, Hersh describes the many sexual adventures Kennedy arranged in his pool. Source for all these stories are the personal experiences of four agents of the Secret Service who had to oversee the safety of Kennedy. They felt powerless when it came to the endless pursuit of women by the president. The women could not be screened, and so the president took the risk that he would be a victim of espionage, extortion or even a murder. ‘Reckless,’ the agents of the Secret Service called Kennedy’s behavior in his insatiable desire for sex. Curiously, all his escapades during his presidency were kept a secret. Kennedy had surrounded himself with extremely loyal friends and advisers. Even journalists such as Ben Bradlee, the later editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate affair, knew of these affairs but never published about it. Everyone was under the spell of this charming and charismatic man. They didn’t realize that Kennedy put himself, his presidency and his country in an extremely vulnerable position. At the height of the cold war, during the Cuban crisis, there is even talk of an affair with an East German spy, Ellen Rometsch. Never confirmed, but according to journalist Hersh this was a dangerous liaison that could have destroyed his presidency even before November 22, 1963.
Kennedy’s successor Johnson would still swim a few laps in the pool, but his successor Richard Nixon made an end to this. This place of Sodomand Gomorrahwas immediately given a new purpose and was now only suitable for that one profession that Nixon hated: the press.
During my first visit as a correspondent in the Briefing Room at the White House, I searched for traces. There’s nothing to see anymore, but a few inches below the floor there is still that legendary pool, Kennedy’s favorite hang out in the White House.
I used to think of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as a major turning point. The speech, this young man with no overcoat, his clear voice and his inspiring rhetoric, the glamor of Jackie: it had all the appearance of a new era. That is how it probably felt in 1961. I was too young to fully realize it, but where I grew up, in the Catholic south of the Netherlands, Kennedy made us proud. One of us, a Catholic, had become the most powerful man in the world. Paradise could no be far away.
Ever since things have not gone particularly well for Catholicism and neither did they for the historical memory of John F. Kennedy. And now, fifty years later, I know that the tipping point was the assassination, not the inauguration. Kennedy as a rich kid, the son of an ambitious and rather unscrupulous father: that is a story of the postwar period. Sure, Kennedy represented the ideal image of model of a young, dynamic America. He was the symbol of the American Century, tanned, intelligent and above all very young, but he also was very much “of that time”. I now see him as very fifties, as much if not more as his equally young, but much older looking opponent Richard Nixon.
What I know now is that the sixties took off that November 22, 1963. With those pieces of skull scattering in the shocking Zapruder film, the American myth exploded. In one blast America lost its innocence, or what was left of it, at least in the public mind. Of course, presidents had been assassinated before but they were never the most powerful men in the world. At best they were the most powerful Americans. The United States was not all that important back then. This time the assassination was an attack on the Western world, barely one year after the most frightening cold war crisis so far. That is how it felt for Vice President Lyndon Johnson as well, which explains his to some unseemly hurry to be sworn in as President.
That famous photograph of Johnson with a blood spattered Jackie next to him, in that claustrophobic airplane: it is a razor sharp image framing that particular moment. We now know that Jackie was wearing a light salmon-colored suit, but then and there we were still living in a black and white world. All pictures, all movies, all our opinions were still in black and white. So was my world as that Catholic nine year old. In many ways it was the picture of an ending, or, as I like to think now, of a beginning.
Because that day, around one o’clock, as the doctors in the Dallas hospital pronounced John F. Kennedy dead, the sixties started. The world turned upside down. Revolt, chaos, violence, Vietnam and more killings became the standard. And liberation became all the rage. We are still enjoying the gains and suffering the losses of that truncated decade. JFK did not belong to it.
That’s what I will be thinking of, on 22 November, the day blood was spilled and the the modern world was born.
Frans Verhagen ‘s publicist and editor of meiguo.nl. His most recent book was “Lincoln – A brilliant politician” (Historisch Nieuwsblad).
I was born twenty years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, so I can’t really tell what impact the death of this iconic American President had on me personally. But an icon he was. Listening to Dutch people remembering JFK in Coen Verbraak’s documentary ‘De Dag dat Kennedy werd vermoord’ (The Day Kennedy was killed) I was reminded once again that also in the Netherlands people looked at this man as nothing less than a saint. ‘Savior of the world’, is how former TV host Koos Postema (81) recalls thinking of JFK. Even though he was living in a country at the other side of the Atlantic, as a young man he actually wished Kennedy could have been the president of the Netherlands. Former Dutch politicians across the spectrum from left wing to right wing all had very fond memories of this American president who became a historical figure and a symbol of the hopes they had in their own youth.
The closest I ever came to Kennedy, except for visiting his grave in Arlington, was his Presidential Library and Museum in Boston when I was there for a holiday this past September. There was a special exhibit titled ‘To the Brink’ telling the story of how the world was on the eve of destruction during the Cuban missile crisis. Centrepiece of the exhibit was a series of secret White House recordings of President Kennedy discussing the standoff with Khrushchev, talking to his Joint Chiefs of Staff. Against their advice, Kennedy refused to bomb Cuba. Also on display: the speech he would have given in case he would bomb Cuba. Impressive items, and I couldn’t help but think of Barack Obama who was contemplating military action in Syria and dominating the headlines when I was vacationing in Boston.
Different times, different men, but the comparison between JFK and Obama is easy to make. Both were once viewed as saviors. Young, charismatic men with lofty ideals that promised hope and change for America, and the rest of the world. Was JFK the Obama of the sixties, or Obama the JFK of our time now? Evaluations of both presidents now are no where near what they used to be. Of course we don’t believe in political saints, and they all have to fail at some point. But if there ever was a ‘savior of the world’ maybe John F. Kennedy could be called one, at least in those near fatal days in 1962.
Bertine Moenaff is a journalist for Radio 1, covered US politics for various media during the 2012 elections and was a Lantos/HIA Fellow in the US Congress in 2010.
I “remember” very well where I was when JFK was assassinated. The quotation marks, of course, mean that I have no idea whether it is in fact a memory or an image that my mind created after the fact. I was with my mother shopping in the local department store in Pennsylvania.
It was in the days before the cellphone. Somehow the news percolated into our science class at high school. President Kennedy had been fatally shot. We were pretty well versed in the ballistics of William Tell’s experiment with the apple, but this morning doom descended – with no other than a vertical path.Foreign leaders don’t mean much to school kids, but on that morning I realized JFK was different. With Jackie, Caroline and John-John the American near-royal family was alive in my perception of the world. The JFK mystique, lovingly dubbed Camelot, was a source of inspiration I turned out to share with millions around the globe.Profiles in courage, the 1955 clarion call to Americans of all denominations and backgrounds, was one of the first non-fiction pocketbooks I possessed. The cover with that Mount Rushmore like portrait of the young Massachusetts senator appealed to my interest in noble leadership – often to be flattened by realities unforeseen.The comparison with Barack Obama is hard to resist. Kennedy did not live to truly disappoint his voters. Had he met the days of Fox and the Tea Party his dalliances with ladies of diverse reputation would have made JFK a permanent and lasting punching bag, relegating Bill Clinton to the junior league. Obama so far remains pretty rumor free in this field.On the war front the current president would certainly best John Kennedy, had he escaped his attacker(s) on November 22, 1963. The Vietnam quagmire is on a disaster par with the Iraq War initiated by George W. Bush. The Kennedy administration sucked the US into the Vietnam War, whereas Obama painfully disentangled his country from the unwise adventure his predecessor left.Yet, JFK died sufficiently early to be spared the massive disappointment Obama has to live through in his second term. Both initially offered hope and the notion of rational governance, with a tinge of national and bipartisan generosity. How unbearable we will never know whether Kennedy would have had a defter hand in navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of Congressional politics. Maybe not, given Johnson’s contrasting knack at it.One of JFK’s most loyal servants definitely beats his mental successors. Robert McNamara, the steely intellectual and technocrat who led America into the Vietnam War died at 93 only four years ago, having comtemplated and admitted his mistakes in The Fog of War and other documentary evidence. If anything that was a profile in courage, a sign of analytical wisdom Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Cheney still have to begin developing.McNamara did Camelot’s after sales service. A tribute to JFK’s possible greatness.
Marc Chavannes is journalist, columnist and former correspondent in Washington D.C. for NRC Handelsblad.
Long lines of voters, cheering Obama supporters along roads and many happy Americans that say they have made history. Shortly, this was the spirit that made Election Day 2008 a historical day for the United States and the world. How different is it now, four years later. Today Chicago was a dull and grey city, with none of the enthusiasm that was there, just four years ago.
We Dutch journalists expected long lines and great smiles today. Yes, we where even hoping for a great celebration, but it turned out very different. The weather was cold and wet, so not many people must have had the drive to walk outside and wait in the rain. Also, a lot of voters have voted early, so today there weren’t any big lines. It seemed just an ordinary working day, with nothing much going on. President Obama was in town, supporting his volunteers and waiting for the first results to come in from states like New Hampshire and Maine.
I decided to call my friend Pat Duncan, who lives in swing state Ohio. Maybe he could tell me something about voting in his hometown Norwood. ‘Kemal, I had a totally different experience today than four years ago. In 2008, the line at the polling office in my neighborhood was far longer and way more diverse,’ he told me. The crowd was also different. ‘Four years ago, there where lots of youngsters and African American voters, seventy percent at least. Today most of them did not show up. It was a weird experience for me. Why didn’t they vote?’ Pat himself voted for Obama in the last election. ‘This year I voted for real change, so I’ve voted for Mitt Romney.’
After the phone call, we cruised trough Chicago to find voters: from Chinatown to Greektown and from downtown to Andersonville. No lines, no voters, no news in sight. So we drove up to McCormick Place, the big convention center at the shore of Lake Michigan, where all the action would be going on. Here we found hundreds of journalists from all over the world for president Obama’s election party. It truly was and is a special experience.
For now I am writing my piece in one of the halls, with at least two hundred colleagues around me. Soon the first guests will arrive and the results will come in. It’s going to be a special election night.
An old African American woman is leaning against a fence and holding a blue sign with ‘Forward’ in her hand. She is surrounded by others who stand shoulder to shoulder in the burning Florida sun. All of them are accompanied by thousands of people. They all are here for one thing: to support President Barack Obama, who will appear soon. Volunteers of the Obama campaign spread bottles of water around so that people will not get dehydrated. Other volunteers hand over signs with ‘Forward’ and ‘Obama 2012’ on it. In the air you can hear the sounds of Aretha Franklin’s song “Respect”. Somewhere on the field, a group of people is singing along: ‘R-e-s-p-e-c-t!’
This Obama rally is held at a high school football field in Hollywood, a city in the Miami metropolitan area. The event was announced on Friday and fully booked within a couple of hours. After visiting the Republican rally with Veep candidate Paul Ryan in Panama City, my colleagues and I wanted to attend a Democratic gathering. We jumped in our SUV to drive down to southern Florida. We drove until 3 a.m. and stopped in Ocala – central Florida – for a short sleep in a motel, stood up early today and drove on to Hollywood. In total it was a nine-hour drive. After arriving at the football field, we could park on a special media spot and walk in. The contrast with the visitors couldn’t be bigger. They had to stand in line for hours before they could even enter the field.
Halfway through the afternoon the first speakers appear on stage. At first former Florida governor Charlie Christ speaks out. ‘A few months after the economic crisis broke out, President Obama came down to Florida to help us out. During the BP oil spill, the president was here day and night to help us out. When he gets reelected I’m confident that the president will help our Florida out again. That’s why you have got to reelect him,’ says Christ. Next to speak is R&B artist Pitbull: ‘My father and mother are Cuban refugees. Thanks to President Obama, Cuban Americans have a future.’ Once the national chairwoman of the Democratic Party is speaking the crowd goes wild again, because the presidential limousine drives along.
For us Dutch journalists, the Obama rally is an amazing happening to be part of. Not only have we never seen Obama up close, but we also have never see so many people that gather together at a political event. Dutch politics can learn from this approach. However, we are not the only journalists: more then forty colleagues (domestic, local and foreign) are here to cover this event. It differs a lot from the Paul Ryan rally that we attended yesterday. There were only ten journalists in Panama City. The reason for Obama to campaign in Florida is the same one as the Romney camp has: due to the undecided situation in battleground state Florida, this year every vote counts. Therefore both parties came down to the state to urge people to vote.
After the pledge of allegiance and the American national anthem, the moment arrives that we have all been waiting for. President Obama appears on stage and is cheered on by thousands of people. The crowd really goes crazy. The president walks to the microphone and says: ‘I’m fired up and ready to go!’ His stump speech is about reforms, his future plans and a lot of optimism. Obama wants to hire more teachers, invest in the economy and complete his health care plans. But for now, the most important message comes down to this: get out and vote! Obama: ‘This election will be a close one. That is why you and others near you have to vote on Tuesday. Yes Florida, get out and vote!’
One who drives through Bay County, Florida, is confronted with Romney-Ryan signs along the road everywhere. Anti-Obama signs, such as ‘Obama isn’t working’ and ‘defeat Obama’, are also very popular over here. This is an average country in the pan handle, a piece of Florida with an overall Republican base. It is in this area that congressman and Veep candidate Paul Ryan holds a rally at the Marina of shrimp fishing town Panama City.
Foreigners aren’t seen much over here, so our presence did not go unnoticed. After parking at the Marina, we are approached by a local senior citizen who starts to talk about how bad Obama is for America. ‘I just don’t trust him,’ she says. A few yards ahead a few Republican volunteers greet us. ‘You come all the way from Amsterdam to report about Ryan? That is great,’ another woman said. She welcomed all press. Next to her is a long line with hundreds of Republicans; who are dying to see Paul Ryan. They wear T-shirts with ‘I love the USA’ and ‘God bless Romney and America’ on it. After the usual security checks we walk into the press section where we have to wait for hours to see the candidate.
But why does the Romney campaign organize an event such as this one in a heavily Republican area? This has to do with demographics in the swing state of Florida. Recent polls show a dead heat between Romney and Obama. The one who gets the highest turn out among its own base could win Florida, an important state with 29 electoral votes. As in the years 2000 and 2004 this year it will come down to small numbers and margins. By organizing a rally in Bay County, the Romney campaign team hopes to get a higher turn out in the pan handle, the area where the most Floridian Republicans live. On the other hand Obama has the same strategy: former president Bill Clinton visited southern Florida on Friday and today the President himself will go to Hollywood, a city near Miami, to encourage Democratic voters.
After hours of waiting in the sun and listening to country singers and local Republican politicians, the big moment is finally here: Paul Ryan walks on stage. His stump speech comes down to the following: America doesn’t need four more years of Obama. Ryan says that Obama broke all this promises, increased the national deficit and wants to turn the US into a socialistic country with a strong government. ‘But it is God who makes the people, not government,’ says Ryan. The crowd goes wild. He also has another message for these Republicans: vote early and encourage fellow Republicans to get out and vote on Tuesday. ‘We need all votes in Florida to win this, and we have three more days,’ Ryan tells them. After his speech, he waves and walks away to a bus that is waiting for him. It will bring him to the local airport, where his plane awaits him to fly him to a rally in another swing state.
Swing state Florida is definitely one of the most interesting places to visit during election time. During the last couple of months both candidates and their running mates hold many rallies at places such as Palm Beach and Jacksonville. The grand finale was this week, when Michelle Obama and former president Bill Clinton held five meetings in only two days. Unfortunately the two photographers and I arrived yesterday evening, when both of them flew back north to campaign in other states.
In our mission to cover the American election circus, we are now on our way to Panama City, a town in the north west of Florida. Republican Veep candidate Paul Ryan will speak there today at two in the afternoon. We landed in Miami yesterday (a flight that was booked way in advance) and are driving now up north to the pan handle, where Panama City is. It’s a nine-hour drive and we are making the best of it. Our rental car, a monstrous white Chrysler SUV, brings us there.
Though we have been on the road for hours, we did not see any campaign signs along the road. Nor did Floridians talk about the elections with us. Most of them like the fact that we are here to cover it all, but don’t really seem to care about the campaign. I get the impression that months of political campaigning are now finally coming towards an end in Florida. The Paul Ryan rally is also the last one planned for now, which means that our team has only one chance to cover the campaigning in this warm and sunny state.
Today we will drive for six more hours to attend Ryan’s rally. It better be good.
Palm trees, beaches, beautiful woman, amusement parks, senior citizens and Miami Vice are a few of the many stereotypes that I have about Florida, the so called sunshine state that lies at the northern edge of the Caribbean. Another stereotype is the one of the all time swing state, where the counting of voting ballots has not always been very easy. Back in 2000 Al Gore (D) lost the election after many Floridian recounts and a battle at the US Supreme Court. Ever since, Florida has been an important state during the presidential elections. In 2004 the Floridian voters gave then President George W. Bush the benefit of the doubt above democratic candidate John Kerry and in 2008 they went for current president Barack Obama. Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, is an important state. Whoever wins Florida can win the White House.
Every year I tend to visit the United States, a country that I have been studying for at least ten years now: first as a student at the UvA and later as a journalist. During this decade I have traveled trough at least 16 states, including New York, California, Ohio and Texas, but Florida was never on my list. It was just too far away from the states that I visited. But today that is going to change: as a reporter for the John Adams Institute I will fly to Miami and write about the presidential elections in this battle ground state. Journalistic photographers Rick Nederstigt and Freek van den Bergh will join me. Together we will chase the Floridian election circus and see more of the American campaign trail in the coming week in states like Michigan and Illinois.
Important to know is that both candidates and their running mates have visited Florida over a dozen times (Obama 23 times and Romney 32 times). They attended rallies in places like Tallahassee, St Petersburg and Kissimmee. These are places where undecided voters want to listen to them, but where they will normally never come. But election season turns everything around. Also former president Bill Clinton gave speeches in Florida. Today he will speak at a rally in Palm Beach. Unfortunately for us, our plane will tip the ground when Clinton finishes his speech. So we will try to attend a Republican rally with Veep-candidate Paul Ryan, in Panama City, on Saturday. This place lies in the so called ‘pan handle’ one of the most conservative places in the US. Or as one could say: is that again a stereotype?