My aunt was born in 1917 in the Netherlands and lived until her 94th year. I visited her often and we talked frequently until late at night. One of the many remarkable stories she told me was how she was taught, in secondary school, that “the citizens of Country XX (I will not mention the European country she quoted) are inferior beings.” This was taught as a fact during Geography class. It must have been in 1930 or thereabouts. Can you imagine? Today, a teacher would be fired for THINKING such a thing, let alone teaching it. Did my aunt attend some racist or fascist school? Not at all, she went to a completely run of the mill Dutch secondary school in the city of The Hague.
Similarly, my parents taught us – and now we were in the 60ies – that “Black Africans (they actually used a now forbidden word, completely matter-of-factly and without any sneer intended) need to be treated correctly, but they are not our equals”. Probably parents would lose their parental rights for stating such a thing in front of their children today.
Were my parents retarded racialists? I really do not think so. For instance, we received a very liberal education, to such an extent that parents of other children in our school were frowning upon their “lack of discipline”.
Still in the 60ies, I remember what happened when during family gatherings the topic of discussion dwelled on a gay relative or acquaintance. A silence would fall, and then one of the elders would state in a hushed voice something like “He is different” or something of that nature. After a brief and uneasy silence, during which people would look at one another, the conversation would be steered to safer waters as quickly as possible.
These stories do not illustrate that my background was super conservative or racialist or fascist. At least, that is what I firmly believe. I believe these stories illustrate the incredible progress the world – or most of the world – has made in terms of equal rights and the abolishment of racism. This leads us to two strains of thought.
The happy one is that progress has been fast, and nothing indicates it is slowing down. I firmly believe the world is continuing to make progress in the direction of worldwide democracy in a free society combined with a real and binding international justice structure.
The other strain of thought is that one has to be careful in judging historic people with todays’ values. One of my favourite composers for instance is Richard Wagner. It is known that he was a rabid anti-semitist. It is also widely known that his music was – long after his dead – highly appreciated and promoted by the German Nazi regime. These two facts are very damning. However Wagner never knew anything of the horrors that the Nazi regime would bring. It is also very questionable that he would have concurred with any of the Nazi values, or the mis-use of the regime of his music. If one studies the libretto of the Ring, for instance, one immediately appreciates the whole story is a continuous warning against the abuse of power and of the fact that gold does not bring happiness. The famous start of the second act of the Valkyrie (many people know it from the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now) could certainly be construed as a celebration of heroism. However, the scene starts after a battle has waged, not during. There is not a single anti-Semitic reference in any of Wagners’ works that I know of.
With this I do not claim that Wagner was a nice guy. Studying his biography induces me to believe he was very far from it. The question then is: does an artist need to be a nice guy for us to appreciate his work? Was Picasso a nice guy? And if he wasn’t, should his pictures be disregarded or burned?
We should appreciate people within the framework of the time during which they lived. Which does not mean we should accept their mistakes or misconceptions. On the contrary, these show us how the world is progressing. We should not forget that a hundred years from now future generations will almost certainly look upon us – todays’ “us” – as a bunch of retarded and misguided people.
Maarten van Leeuwen
Group Managing Director
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