Willa Cather describes her anxiety about the increasing construction of skyscrapers in New York during the 1920s through various metaphors. As Molloch, a Semitic deity that invokes associations with child sacrifice; monstrosities from the “orient”; an “Asian Genius” that enfeebles the Statue of Liberty. Why do Cather’s associations point to the “East” even though the origins of the skyscraper is lie in the West?
What Cather expresses is a sentiment familiar to anyone who looks carefully at the logic of the “West’s” relation to its fears. Whatever is fearful or uncanny comes from the outside. For example, instead of blaming businesses, and the sale of historic buildings, featureless malls and hotels, the right-wing make “the immigrant” their target. Capitalism, the destroyer of cities as places for communities of people, has its origins right here in Europe, and is perpetuated by European governments and business today, but it is the foreigner who is responsible for divesting Europe of its sense of self according to the local.
From Cather’s misplaced anxieties, to a recent article in Amsterdam Alternative, which places the blame of cultural dissipation in Amsterdam on all English-speaking people in the city, it seems that when anything is taking Western countries in the wrong direction, it is the foreigner that is held accountable. The problems which are the result of systems that both originated in and are propagated by European capitals such as Amsterdam are blamed on foreign sectors of society.
A few years ago, in a speech being made by a squatter, I had heard a common refrain: “...and one never hears Dutch in the streets anymore.” What does this statement imply? It implies that ideally everyone should speak Dutch in the street. The “anymore” suggests that at some point in history, the streets were pure: you only ever heard Dutch. This kind of thinking is part of a wider ideology which suggests that there was a homogenous and pure past before some kind of Great Corruption. According to this logic, there was a time that Amsterdam was great, but because of an all-too reductive and simple reason – e.g., the fact that people speak more in English now – it has become a monument of capitalism.
Consider the non-Western English-speaking person, like me, or the Sudanese English teacher who is looking for a home here, or the fellow selling papers in front of Albert Heijn, who can only communicate in English. The above argument bundles us together with those who colonized us and are now set on destroying this city. Speaking English well, as I do, is the result of trauma that “my country” (whatever that means) suffered. It is now a language that I share with millions of non-Western people; the result is that we can travel, study, and indeed utilize in order to get anywhere in life. In the vice grip of colonialism, millions were forced to choke up a language, through a slow cultural violence. And now, we have made it our own, internalized it, so that we even dream in English.
Moving Towards Complexity
Perhaps the problem lies in the general oversimplification of the situation. We should be aware that Occam’s razor, the scientific argument that “the simplest explanation is the correct one”, is the worst principle to apply to social situations. It should be turned around; let us consider my own version of Hickam’s dictum: “the complex explanation is the best one”. When hearing me speak English, the cultural purist may assume that I am part of an international business elite. On the basis of the language I speak, they would believe that I participate happily and to my own profit in neoliberal and capitalist exploitation. Perhaps I am a wealthy student. Perhaps I work at Shell.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I worked hard. I studied in Europe thanks to hard-earned scholarships. Again and again, I was penniless, always on the verge of having no right to remain in Europe. I spent over ten years (I’m now in my 30s) trying to build a life here. What the cultural purist would assume, given my education and my language, is that I’m some kind of spoilt rich brat, willingly nomadic, or indigent. Nothing could be further from the truth. I never had a city to call my own. Never a language. I was born an immigrant. I’m the perpetual foreigner wherever I go. That is how it is, and I cannot change that. But I know one thing, that me or people like myself should never carry the blame for capitalist exploitation and neoliberalism because of the language we speak. I am not responsible for the capital-hungry municipality destroying central Amsterdam, turning Bungehuis into SOHO House, evicting squats, or gentrifying neighborhoods.
Let us take a more inquisitive look. Come with me and let us together find the centers of power. Let’s listen. I hear, very distinctly, Dutch voices echoing in the city halls and in the parliaments making decisions that are wreaking havoc in and on Amsterdam. I hear estate agents discussing million Euro deals in Dutch. The cultural purist could hear them, too. Instead of charging at them, however, the people the purist blames for destroying Amsterdam are people “like me”. The problem is not the language they speak, the problem is what they are saying.
The aforementioned article in this publication described English-speakers as “rich, students, hipsters”. And what are the leaders of this country? I wonder. Are we more powerful than them? Do I destroy the city more than they do, merely by opening my mouth and speaking? But to counter views such as that, perhaps I don’t need to advance any arguments. After all, blaming a whole language spoken by 20% of the world’s population, many from countries that were previously colonized, is just a stupid thing to do.
The Myth of Mokum
Instead of being nostalgic for a Mokum of the past – and nostalgia has at times a vicious conservatism to it – think about the Mokum of the future where people like me who deeply care about this city are considered part of it. I think there is an obsession in Europe, a fear of loss, and it is drowning nuance. What is worth conserving is not the Mokum of one language – a myth created and glorified only in our present. It is the idea of Mokum, real and unreal, which has freedom at its heart. The liberals who strangle this place right now, building monuments to capitalism, want you to bicker with me about what language I should be speaking. All the better for them…
Linton Kwezi Johnson, whom was quoted in “English is a gentrifier”, was railing against colonialism. And here is another person, telling me what European language I should speak… I dedicate this poem to cultural purists everywhere:
Anyone telling you what language to speak – is an asshole
There’s no escaping it
Another one shouts, cut out your tongue, we’ll sew it back on again.
Even so, you are not one of us, for we can still see the seams
You want what is good, I know, but so do I
You love your city, and that is beautiful
May you never be lost, without language or country
May you never be the eternal stranger
But perhaps one day you would like to come with me
So we can put our ears against those opulent doors
So we can hear in what language the lawmakers are weaving
And weaving their nets
It isn’t Dutch, it isn’t English…
een klinkend metaal,
of luidende schel geworden
The language of capital