Nahed Selim, born in Egypt and living in the Netherlands, is an author and interpreter. This article appeared in Trouw on 30th of august 2008.
Translation Maggie Oattes
This strange negativism
Were the old days all that good? Nahed Selim consciously chose to live in the Western world she fervently defends. „No civilization in the history of mankind has brought so many good things to so many people at the same time, as the modern, Western, capitalist society.”
(HH: Ooh, if a Westerner said that they would be called arrogant and racist!)
Why is it that my contemporaries are so mercilessly critical about themselves and the age in which we live? Hearing them, one would think our society has not even one redeeming quality. Cynicism and discontent prevail. But was life really that much better in the past?
I am a so-called baby boomer, part of the generation born roughly between 1945 and 1955. It benefited like no other from the increasing post-war wealth and could therefore afford to make radical choices. It was a generation that thought it knew everything better than all previous generations. They were going to do everything differently.
I got to experience the last bit of this era when I came to the Netherlands in the 1980s at age 25. And I joined in enthusiastically.
The late Pim Fortuyn, born in 1948, was not impressed with the accomplishments of his contemporaries. In his book ’Babyboomers’ (1998) he reproached them for having dealt irresponsibly with the social institutions they were put in charge of.
Perhaps he was right. But I do not like to complain, not even about the people who complain all the time. I merely observe that I lack the mental attitude of people who remember the past nostalgically, a past when everything was supposedly much better.
I believe there is no point in focusing on the past. Today is the only reality, and we should love this real reality. The past and the future are merely memories or utopias. The only real life is now, here, today. And it is my job and my moral duty to focus on the present. Everything else is childish. Irresponsible escapism.
I personally have an unbridled confidence in our time and at the same time a deep aversion to the current cynicism and the discontent I observe all around me. This cynicism often takes the shape of anti-Western feelings, both in westerners themselves and in people with different cultural backgrounds.
In those years there was a kind of cultural rebellion against everything that was ’old-fashioned’ and authentic in the Netherlands. One might call it an exaggerated enthusiasm for the modern capabilities In any case it was totally different from what I was accustomed to in my own Arabic culture where everything modern and new was synonymous with wrong, evil and therefore undesirable.
Yet I felt very happy here. I was also rebellious at the time; I needed that to distance myself from many traditions and cultural conventions. My own attitude facilitated my interaction with Dutch people. Back then they were very open to foreigners and they immediately made you feel you belonged. You even felt an eagerness in the way they embraced you. In England and France, where I had briefly lived before, it took much more effort on my part to make contact with the people. Here I instantly formed close friendships with Dutch women and men. I also fell in love all the time.
This strange negativism about the own Dutch culture still has not disappeared completely. However, a large part of the population is in the middle of a revaluation process. I think that is healthy, nothing to get worked up about.
Revaluation of the national identity should not be taken to mean a sign of hate towards migrants. Every civilization has the right to defend itself and safeguard its survival; and you may expect from newcomers that they adjust. This, in my opinion, also explains the immense popularity of the political parties of Geert Wilders and Rita Verdonk. They are erroneously referred to as extreme right-wing parties. What they want has nothing to do with extremism. They want to put a stop to the snobbish disdain for everything indigenous and Dutch.
The current revaluation of the cultural heritage is an appropriate correction.
Even though I was not born here, I feel very connected with the West. Even though it is not the culture I grew up in, it is the culture I have chosen. That is why I feel entitled to defend and protect this culture. Even more than someone who just happens to have been born here, I am aware of the advantages of the Netherlands and the West. And there is nothing to stop me from going back if I did not like it here.
No civilization in the history of mankind has brought so many good things to so many people at the same time, as the modern, Western, capitalist society. Other civilizations were and are good to the small elite that holds all power. They took little notice of the rest of the population, least of all the weak, the infirm and the disabled.
The most frequent complaint about this era is the hurried pace. People supposedly don’t have time or room for fun things and for each other anymore.
People who complain about a lack of time often forget that the eight-hour working day is a fairly recent phenomenon. In the first half of the twentieth century it was quite normal to work six or seven days a week and ten or eleven hours per day. In the rest of the world civil servants are the only people who work short hours. In all other professions people work long days, that rarely have a maximum number of hours.
Never before have we had as much time at our disposal in the West as right now. And then we also have clean running water for all, heating that simply comes out of pipes, electricity everywhere, household appliances that save lots of time, and food you can buy almost-ready-to-eat. All things that save huge amounts of time.
Many people argue that ’materialism’ is a major drawback of current Western civilization. People supposedly only care about money and material things. That is nonsense. Nowhere in the world is more money given to culture, the arts and charities as in the West. Global organizations like Amnesty International, the Red Cross and environmental organizations all started in the West and are funded primarily by Western donors. Other rich countries such as the oil states give almost nothing to charities.
We often hear that ’materialism’ is less prevalent in other parts of the world. The opposite is true. Money is hugely important elsewhere also. Weddings, funerals, and other events that may reflect people’s social status cost a fortune there. People want to show others they have money, even if they don’t.
In addition the rich people in other parts of the world are much more arrogant. A wealthy man who does the household himself, gets his own groceries, tends to his garden or drives his own car is unheard of in third world countries.
I think the only difference between the West and the rest is the fact that many people have the opportunity to earn a lot of money. In countries like India, Russia, China, or Egypt this is the privilege of a small elite. In that respect the majority of the world’s population would trade places with the West in a second.
The quality of life of women in the West is another major advantage. Thanks to the feminism of previous generations – in spite of excesses such as the open hostility towards the male – women here have rights and freedoms that women in other cultures can only dream of. Every time I go on holiday to Egypt this is brought home to me again.
So why do we complain so much about the modern time and modern civilization?
Complainers are cultural pessimists. I would like to distinguish two groups.
One category is unhappy about the West for ideological reasons. What they want is to see the realization of heaven on earth, if possible before they die. Their utopia cannot endure or tolerate violence, poverty, or unfairness. They have often distanced themselves from believing in a heaven after death, but they do want to see this same heaven here on earth.
They forget that all contrasts go together. On earth they coexist: wealth and poverty, love and hate, humanism and barbaric behaviour. Striving for improvement is a good thing, and we must continue to do that. But letting your own life go sour because you aim for the impossible is a waste.
A second category of complainers are the socialists, communists, anti-globalists, and environmental activists. They would have us believe that the ideal life can be realized by choosing a different political system or making different political choices. They believe in a government that takes care of and controls everything; that is the only way to make total equality between people possible.
I too believe this once. Fortunately I don’t any longer.
As far as I am concerned it is a good thing to remain critical, in order to improve things insofar as that is possible. But complaining and striving for the impossible – while we already have so much, are capable of so much and we have so much freedom – verges on ungratefulness.
Our job is to be happy in this world. We have opportunities and possibilities that so many people can’t even imagine. If we let discontent turn our lives sour in spite of all that, how will that make those other people feel?
Well GO GIRL!!! Read the rest by clicking on the title