Europe Was Left #7 – Geert Wilders and PVV’s Decisive Moment

It’s Monday, February 20th and coming to you from Berlin I’m Alper for episode 7 of ‘Europe Was Left’.
The coming Dutch elections are dominated by the specter of Geert Wilders’s far right PVV (the Dutch Freedom Party). The PVV has been on the stage for about a decade now but this is the first election where they are leading in the polls.

Things should be looking up for them, but not everything is going as smoothly as it should.

Some repositioning from their direct competitor the ruling right-wing VVD and other parties has deflated Wilders’s poll lead from its all-time high of 35 to some 25 seats for our parliament of 150. Still huge but no longer unassailable by our current prime minister Mark Rutte.

Not having the electoral stamina to cash in on this early lead was to be expected but there are some other signs that Wilders is stumbling.
He bowed out of the first major television debate with the flimsiest of excuses. Additional parties had been invited to the debate than had been initially agreed upon because the field had narrowed. That change proved too much for Wilders and he refused to participate.

Then he bowed out of another debate by the same television channel because they had interviewed Wilders’s brother about his politics and their family ties. Wilders said this was a disgrace and again refused participation.

His brother does not much approve of Wilders’s extremist politics and has said so occasionally on Twitter over the past years. In the interview he said he’d like their family ties to be reinstated and told that he himself has been the target of threats from Wilders supporters. This is ironic since it is Wilders himself who is always paraded as the imperiled politician.

Two debates down, we are in a situation where he will be only in two major debates before we get to vote. One debate the day before the elections and the other two days before the elections. You would almost think that Wilders’s positions don’t hold up to scrutiny by his political opponents.
Wilders also had his official campaign start last Saturday in Spijkenisse, a town that is the epitome of the beleaguered white working class. For being the candidate who leads in the polls he didn’t manage to draw a huge audience of rapt supporters. Somewhere between 80 and 200 people showed up, about as many as the number of people from news organizations present to cover the event.

Dutch state broadcaster NOS tried to play up his support and opened the eight o’clock news saying that ‘unbelievable crowds of people’ were present. They were supposed to say ‘unbelievably small’ but found themselves too beholden to Wilders to be able to say the truth.

Flanked by his protection detail Wilders attempted to hand out fliers barely able to reach beyond the thicket of domestic and international press.
Wilders is under protection because he offended a bunch of dudes with small dicks ages ago but that doesn’t matter that much anymore. The protection itself has become inseparable from the entity that is Wilders. It is the source of his moral high-horse and his electoral appeal. He has admitted in private that his visible security detail nets him several parliament seats at least.

But threats to ethnically cleanse the Netherlands, such as Wilders has expressed, are not speech that deserves protection. During his last interview Wilders pedaled back from this position but even then: threatening to ethnically cleanse the Netherlands publicly and then backing off when pressed, is also not a speech act that deserves protection.
Yesterday world famous comedian Arjen Lubach aired a long segment exposing the emptiness of Wilders’s where none of his extremist statements are grounded in any kind of reality or backed by even an inkling of a plan.

Lubach’s segment was necessary. Dutch journalists, too afraid to estrange the angry old white man still buying their newspapers, have been lax and mostly absent when it comes to rebuking Wilders. A clear history and overview of the absurdity of Wilders’s position is useful both as a reference and to obliterate any votes he might get from people still susceptible to reason.

What Lubach doesn’t get though is that—well of course Wilders voters don’t watch his show—but more than that it is exactly the impossibility and unreasonableness of Wilders’s positions that makes him so attractive to a certain kind of voters. This is the quality that most makes him a fascist. Wilders’s positions do not need to be practical, or reasonable or anything else, the only thing they need to be is extreme, broad and damaging to elites, foreigners and other undesirables.

Fascists do not care that lots of treaties will have to be rescinded or the constitution will have to be cut up. The one in the White House doesn’t and Wilders won’t either.
I think Wilders is recusing himself from debates and interviews and any other kinds of public exposure that he can’t control because he is getting nervous. The coming elections are his last and best opportunity to seize power and become prime minister of the Netherlands. But even this best opportunity is still pretty uncertain.

If he doesn’t succeed this time and we manage to keep him out, he’ll have to while away another four years in opposition while people better than him govern the country. He can stand on the sidelines and shout things that are even more extreme—or try it, I’m not sure more extreme is physically possible anymore at this point—and spend the rest of his time collaborating with foreign powers and media.

What will be left of him after another four years? Not much I reckon. A decisive electoral defeat come March 15th will stop Wilders and after that we’ll be rid of him.
That’s all for this episode. Like Europe Was Left where you find it, keep the comments coming and talk to you soon.

Dutch Public Broadcasting Goes Fake News

Geert Wilders, leader of the PVV —the far right Dutch Freedom Party— had his campaign start today for the upcoming parliamentary elections in Spijkenisse, one of his traditional strongholds.

The eight o’clock news of the NOS (the Netherlands’ state broadcaster) opened with this and their reporter Michiel Breedveld on the scene in the video below said it had attracted ‘an unbelievable crowd of people’.

Other reporters who were on the scene today (1, 2) said the number of people Wilders had attracted was somewhere between 80 to 200 and that the ratio of supporters and press was about 1:1.

Salima Bouchtaoui: ‘Spijkenisse this Saturday morning. Lots of press. And lots of police. Few people.’

Haro Kraak: ‘There were at most 150 supporters of the PVV, probably fewer. And at least as much press, probably more.’

There seems to have been so much press that this was what it looked like most of the time.

This incident is oddly reminiscent of Trump’s inauguration where the actual number of people present was much lower than was claimed by the administration.

But the crucial difference is that Trump was the liar. Wilders could spread the lie that his campaign start ‘had the most people ever’ but why should he if the state broadcaster does it for him?

Update: Dutch newspaper the Volkskrant (a newspaper I’ve given some grief before) calls the NOS’s coverage bad and harmful.

Update: De NOS have posted a rectification on their single page hard to link they use for this.

It’s not the opening of the evening news, but it will have to do. Notably they say they have used ‘wrong words’ to describe the event and they still put the number of supporters at several hundred.

Dutch newspapers should do their jobs

Just another day in the Dutch election campaign.

Geert Wilders posts a photoshopped image (tweet) of Alexander Pechtold his most direct opponent and says ‘Pechtold is protesting alongside Hamas terrorists.’

This is in reaction to the statement by Simone Kukenheim, Alderman of Amsterdam, who said Amsterdam would not recognize fascist policies under a possible Wilders government and could look to secede.

Alexander Pechtold was not amused since he has had to defend himself from death threats caused by these kind of insinuations before. Unlike Wilders Pechtold does not gain that much electorally from having his life put in danger.

This seems to have gotten really under Wilders’s skin (I talk a bit about it at the end of Europe Was Left #4), maybe because a sovereignty move from Amsterdam would effectively make him a foreigner again.

I inquire whether there is a Dutch newspaper that will do their jobs and take him to task for spreading a false image. Margriet Oostveen posting the original tweet works at the Volkskrant. The Volkskrant is what some people in the Netherlands consider to be a quality newspaper.

I don’t get a reply from her but a question back: ‘Which paper are you subscribed to?’ The answer is that I just subscribed to the New York Times. I am actually looking for a Dutch publication right now and can’t find anything suitable.

I offer to buy any article of theirs that is critical of Geert Wilders. I am told I am lazy and I should get lost. I then remember @Disruptia had pointed out that Margriet Oostveen just wrote a fairly neutral piece about Pegida.

Then later that afternoon former politician Tofik Dibi tweets a quote from the same Volkskrant where the political editor of that newspaper Frank Hendrickx in his coverage seems to have written that ‘It is unclear whether the PVV (the political party of which Geert Wilders is the dictator) knew the image was doctored.’

The second tweet is him saying that sentence was removed. I found and purchased the piece on their site using Blendle and I couldn’t find that sentence in it. The article isn’t even that bad but that makes it all the more difficult to understand how something that stupid could end up in there.

This is one case, the above mentioned nuancing of right-wing extremist group Pegida is another and the list goes on and on. The only thing you could say is that the Volkskrant is not as bad as some other Dutch newspapers. But at this point I don’t have much use for effectively slanted, pretending to be fair and balanced reporting.

Finally I said ‘Volkskrant more like Völkische Krant’ which is not fair. I take that back. But they definitely aren’t a Münchener Post either.

Local politics in Berlin

Somewhere between language proficiency levels C1 and C2 lies a plateau that I’m finding difficult to cross in German. Living in Berlin I’m simply not exposed to enough of the language on a day to day basis. The usual advice would be to join a Verein and hang out with Germans. That sounds fun but I’m not in the market for a new hobby.

I’m going to approach it from another direction by becoming kind of politically active. I don’t think people of my generation will become members of political parties much again. I also don’t have much of an interest in political work. I do want to figure out why things work the way they do. If nothing else I hope it makes me a better citizen and improves my German.

To do this I’m going to attend events of the two major progressive parties around: die Grüne (the Greens) and die Linke (the Left). There have been local elections last month and both parties are likely to enter in a coalition with the SPD and rule, so it is an exciting time to dive in.

I’ve now attended one event by each and here’s a quick write-up.

die Grüne

A while back just after the September election I attended an event by my local Green chapter. It was fun to see all the people I knew from the campaign posters gathered in one place. In general they’re nice people of the kind that I would normally hang out with anyway.

The Greens were peeved that they’d suffered a loss but not super peeved. They are still the biggest party in Friedrichshain/Kreuzberg and they will likely get to govern Berlin as a whole as well.

I’d attribute that loss to a campaign that felt complacent and did not have a strong narrative to address economic justice issues. Rent and income disparities in Berlin are on the rise which makes them the most important political issue here. I see the Greens focused more on social justice, environmental and quality life issues.

The Greens may really not have to worry since the more an area gentrifies, the more it seems to vote green. Berlin as a whole will definitely continue to gentrify.

die Linke

Last Saturday I finally found a Linke event that I could attend which happened to be the education session for their locally elected representatives. Each borough in Berlin is governed by a BVV (Bezirksverordnetenversammlung) which is the lowest level of representation and the only one I am allowed to vote for in Germany. This event was meant to give the newly elected legal and administrative foundations to help them through the next five years.

I showed up this Saturday morning at 09:00 for a four hour lecture. Some thirty people, mostly newly elected Linke BVV representatives but also some stray SPD/Grüne members, were there. I wouldn’t say the Linke is a more representative cross-section of Berlin but it seems somewhat more social-economically diverse.

A session like this is not the recommended way to get acquainted with a party, but it proved to be very educational if you enjoy twisted, complicated things. I had some rough ideas of what the BVV can and cannot do and this lecture filled in the blanks. My preconceived notions notions were confirmed (as they too often are).

The main problems are as follows:

The BVV is not authorized to do anything. From the handout I got: the boroughs are not a legal entity and they have no rights to set budgets or to create statutes. This means they have no actual responsibilities and cannot determine anything. They are fully beholden to the state of Berlin (every borough has the suffix ‘von Berlin’). BVV work seems to revolve around applying whatever little agency you can find or whip up.

The BVV is a huge amount of work. What I gathered from the Grüne meeting as well is that the workload for local representatives is ridiculous even by German standards. Just the committee meetings on weekday evenings take a lot of time. Add to that the various other meetings and all the preparation that goes into them and it looks like a full-time job (but it isn’t). Being a BVV member is a voluntary position that is nominally compensated (with some €500/month). I have no clue why people would volunteer to do this.

The BVV is a democratic distraction. I got the idea that the various levels of government do not communicate with each other that much. As said the BVV is the lowest level and has near zero power but it is the place where democracy connects with citizen’s lives. If you interrogate the BVV about something in the city not working properly, they’ll usually answer that they’re not zuständig (not competent). Both hearing that things are the fault of the senate and having to tell people that, get really annoying really fast for everybody. The BVV functions as a democratic pretense that allows the state government to do its thing without being bothered by people.

Deutschland ’83

I was tremendously hyped for Deutschland ’83 after hearing about it and watching the first episode. Now that it is finally airing in Germany it turns out that it is not doing that well. Viewership started out low and has been declining over the first four episodes.

IMG_0181

People are attributing this to the fact that the average RTL viewer is stupid and only used to watch plain episodic series. That may well be true, but the decline of the series’s ratings closely mirror the decline of my appetite for the show itself. By episode four Deutschland ’83 is a slog and the only thing that got me to the finish line was an empty Sunday and stamina.

The plot devolves and loses whatever internal logic and coherence it had. The characters which are enigmatic to begin with become increasingly hard to empathize with and start doing random things. Worst of all, Deutschland ’83 tries to put a neutral spin on one of the most polarized conflicts of the last century which of course fails.

The one message that does come through is that everybody on the East side was evil and psychopathic and that the people on the West side were basically decent chaps. This is a laughable depiction of the world as it was back then (or as parts of the world still are). The violence and surveillance enacted by the Soviet bloc is hardly different from the stuff the Americans did and still do around the world. The only reason we get to ridicule the East Germans in the series is because they lost.

Actually it’s about ethics in software engineering

This is an expanded transcription of a tweetstorm (based partially on conversations with Peter) that starts at this Tweet about the Volkswagen emissions scandal but actually as we go along it will be clear that it is about ethics in software engineering. First the news that started it all.

Volkswagen’s US head Michael Horn blamed his engineers during a testimony about the emissions scandal.

Does anybody believe a German multinational is agile enough for a couple of engineers to be able to ship a feature without oversight? Because on the one side as people have commented if this were true that would leave huge questions open when it comes to their quality control and delivery process. On the other side if true it would be a refreshing level of agility in a German corporation. A car maker that uses the tagline ‘move fast and break things’ would certainly be a novelty.

I would be curious to see what the codebase of a modern car looks like but thanks to the DMCA that will probably never happen. Unless maybe if somebody dumps the VW code during the CCC this year?

This isn’t about car manufacturing or recruiting engineers, this is actually about ethics in software engineering. How this will affect VW’s chances of hiring the best engineers (“Volkswagen, and how not to describe your employees”) is one issue. They couldn’t hire the best anyway but they will likely always be able to hire a fair level of talent. To write good code, having a clear vision and a stable process are more important than having a mythical 10x engineer on your team. The questions now are why this took so long to be discovered and what the consequences are for the various parties involved.

I will focus on the software engineers because I am one and because I think they will be underrepresented.

Programmers could get away not caring about ethics when it involved being callous with user data or new ways to serve banner ads. The proliferation of really weird privacy-invading ad tech used to be considered a perfectly acceptable way for engineers to spend their time. Even the leak of sensitive user data like in the Ashley Madison hack was more or less business as usual among digital companies. Software companies being liable for their errors and engineers engaging in ethical behaviour were considered optional.

Not anymore. You probably wish you hadn’t snoozed through that ethics class in university. Not that that would have helped that much. Unlike many others, in university we got courses in both ethics and in the history of science and technology. Courses which at the time were much maligned by my fellow students for their lack of practical application. They were right that that course wouldn’t have helped you much by itself, but some basic level of understanding on this subject is nice to have.

Besides continuing to teach ethics, schools should teach engineers about rights and liability. Those courses in ethics could be supplemented by a practical course about your rights and liabilities when you are working at somebody else’s company or at your own. It used to be that either nobody cared about this stuff or that the company would bear the consequences. Both of those notions seem fairly shaky right now.

What do you do when your boss tells you to implement a feature, or very very strongly encourages you to reach a certain outcome? What VW seems to be arguing is that nobody gave the order to build this specific feature but it arose from a rogue group of people. That seems just as unlikely as the case where this was mandated but VW management maintained the operational security required to keep it a secret. The investigation almost certainly will reveal that an order was given and who gave it.

In an ideal company a manager of course will not tell their people how to do their work. Your boss should give you an ‘Auftrag’ (assignment) to reach certain strategic goals and leave it to you to determine the best way of getting there. They will trust that you will operate to the best of your ‘Fingerspitzengefühl’ (working knowledge) within the framework that is the norm in the ‘Einheit’ (unity) that is the company. This all borrowed liberally from Chet Richards’s excellent Certain to Win.

Even if an order was not given this points to an atmosphere in which exerting huge pressure is normal and where people consider it standard operating practice to cut corners maybe even without informing their superiors.

What recourse does a software engineer have in that situation? The current policy situation and broader environment suggest they have almost none.

Who’s responsible when that feature threatens the planet, evaporates shareholder value and leads to criminal investigations? Now that software is a determinant in one of the biggest industries in the world, bad actions have large consequences. Selling millions of faulty cars and exposing many millions more to pollution finally gives us a software malfunction that everybody can relate to.

This isn’t just the case for VW since other car companies are also implicated in fraud during emissions testing. It isn’t even exclusive for car makers since the sequence of events leading up to the financial crash were nothing but a large number of model/software malfunctions.

In the case of the financial crash nobody got punished. The American enthusiasm to extract punitive damages from VW may be attributed to the fact that the U.S.A. finally is a relevant player in (clean) car technology again.

Because these are the biggest industries in the world with immense resources and influence, normal or just rules of responsibility don’t really apply.

We need to answer these questions ourselves because if you ask the higher-ups it is clear who’ll get thrown under the VW bus. Software engineers can refuse to do work that they find ethically objectionable and find another job easily (the Snowden option). That is a luxurious position but it still remains to be seen how many actually do this.

What will likely happen is that the legal investigation will take forever and in the end some convenient people will take the fall. I think it’s unlikely that that will create a just outcome or improve the overall situation.

The criteria to which these emissions tests were held were already watered down thanks to the lobbyists of various car companies who also set the tests so that it would be easy to cheat on them. The tests may be fixed a little bit ostentatiously because they are the most visible point of failure.

The actual problem will go unfixed. We can’t independently verify the code that runs in cars now thanks to our broken copyright legislation. When cars become self-driving and dependent on remote services this will become infinitely harder. We are not be able to check software running in our devices to see whether it does what it promises to. That is the real problem and one I don’t think that is going to be fixed anytime soon.

Update: So today the word got out that some 30 managers at VW were involved in this. It looks like Michael Horn’s statement about the rogue engineers was not true.

Insurance in the age of big data and personalized tracking

Last week there was some debate spurred by some of the larger insurers of the Netherlands who want to use tracking data to personalize insurance coverage. A piece in the Reformatorisch Dagblad of all places and Rob Wijnberg talking about it at DWDD.

The problem is that insurance by definition is not personalized and we should be protected from each other’s best interests. I tweetstormed about it and have recorded it below.

This is particularly salient from a design perspective if you see the tweets below. What this comes down to is a policy design problem of a vast scale, a level of abstraction up again from service design. People aren’t well equipped to make these decisions for themselves and they probably shouldn’t have to be. They should be aware of which expertise they are lacking and they should know who they can trust. Creating those two competencies are the two hardest problems of our time.

The Glomar Response

A couple of weeks ago already, James Bridle opened his first solo show The Glomar Response at NOME gallery here in Berlin. The opening was attended by more or less everybody I got to know when I first got to Berlin, a reunion of sorts.

James Bridle opening

The exhibition is a collection of recent work and is still exhibited there for this entire month. James is one of the few artists who creates thoughtful work from the conflation of state power and information technology. His work is only made stronger by the writing that underpins it which is all worth reading and listed neatly over on booktwo.

Evgeny Morozov discovers actor-network theory

With some trepidation did I read Evgeny Morozov’s latest piece “The Taming of Tech Criticism” but thankfully the firebrand has matured and this piece is both readable and relevant.

A critical or oppositional attitude toward Silicon Valley is no guarantee of the critic’s progressive agenda; modern technology criticism, going back to its roots in Germany at the turn of the twentieth century, has often embraced conservative causes.

It treats something that I had been struggling with over the past week after the umpteenth debate here about Silicon Valley and venture funded technology. I share the qualms of my friends but at the same time I hink that criticisms of startup culture are deeply reactionary. Whatever argument you make against them is going to be boring, non-productive and unsuccessful. Morozov signals a similar trend that technology criticism which is startup criticism by another name is conservative and futile.

“By offering to reduce the amount of work we have to do, by promising to imbue our lives with greater ease, comfort, and convenience, computers and other labor-saving technologies appeal to our eager but misguided desire for release from what we perceive as toil,” notes Carr in an unashamedly elitist tone.

The fact that Nicholas Carr is patronizing, elitist, stupid and wrong is nothing new but it is good to read it exposed clearly. What does this say about people who still read Carr?

In fact, what distinguishes radical critics from their faux-radical counterparts is the lens they use for understanding Silicon Valley: the former group sees such firms as economic actors and situates them in the historical and economic context, while the latter sees them as a cultural force, an aggregation of bad ideas about society and politics.

What it comes down to and what Morozov considers to be a radical—I’m sure this is radical in America—is that we need better things as well as better ways to pay for them. That is something that should still be eminently feasible in the parts of Europe that have not fallen prey to neoliberalism.

By the end I found out that all of Morozov’s writing—much of it mistaken by his own admission—was so difficult because he hadn’t come around to the speculative turn yet. With this piece it sounds as if he might have, though his omission of sources makes it hard to tell.

By slicing the world into two distinct spheres—the technological and the non-technological—it quickly regresses into the worst kind of solipsistic idealism, paying far more attention to drummed-up, theoretical ideas about technology than to real struggles in the here and now.

Even a cursory reading of Bruno Latour and friends would have told you long ago that divisions between technology and non-technology—society and nature— are a lie (“We Have Never Been Modern”), that there is no technology per se (actor-network theory), and that you cannot take short-cuts when talking about anything (object-realism).

In fact, the very edifice of contemporary technology criticism rests on the critic’s reluctance to acknowledge that every gadget or app is simply the end point of a much broader matrix of social, cultural, and economic relations.

This is actor-network theory if ever I read it.

The rallying cry of the technology critic—and I confess to shouting it more than once—is: “If only consumers and companies knew better!”

It is my conviction as a designer that consumers and companies usually do know better. They are as well informed as they can be for the things they value and they take the best possible decisions considering their personal value functions. Claims to the contrary gloss over realities that these actors are faced with and more than anything else stem from a patronizing difference of opinion.

Session of the traffic commission of the Berlin borough of Neukölln

Neukölln committee for traffic meeting

I heard about the session of the traffic commission of Berlin-Neukölln through the great Urbanist Magazine who wrote that cities get the bike paths they deserve and that being present at political sessions is a prerequisite to change things.

So I made my way over to Rathaus Neukölln during rush hour yesterday to listen in on the session. Even though these things are deadly boring, they are at the same time extremely revealing of the workings and attitudes of our governments and just for that fact worthwhile to occasionally visit. At the same time I think it is a civic duty to attend these sessions for the things that you are interested in. If you don’t, others will.

Berlin.de on an iPhone

The website Berlin.de lists the proceedings of the session but it is unfortunately totally unusable on a mobile device (see the screenshot above) so I went by ear and noted what I could understand of the proceedings. The meeting protocol was I may add a bit chaotic and unclear. Part of it may be because I was ten minutes late (thank BVG) but I would expect local political sessions to at least have signs to show who’s who (like they do in Amsterdam).

Points two to five of the agenda were about improvements for cycling in Neukölln and after some debate all of these points were summarily rejected by the SPD/CDU who have a majority in this part of the city and I gather also chair the commission. For some proposals the chairs took offence and for the others they declared that what was proposed would be of no use. During the vote for each of these points they were rejected.

The debate about point 3 was especially illuminating.

Point 3 was a proposal to research how to keep the bike path on Karl-Marx-Straße free of parked cars. The chair of the committee said that this problem simply cannot be solved. The representative of the police said that they don’t have the capacity to enforce the law when it comes to this matter and that doing so would jeopardize their ability to stop violent crime. Somebody present requested that these people be fined to which the chair replied that that wouldn’t help either because people don’t care about the fines.

The chair cited examples to the contrary from around Schloßstraße and Savignyplatz. These don’t really seem relevant to me. Fines for parking on a bike lane are nearly trivial but not so trivial that they wouldn’t be felt in Neukölln at all.

A couple of people attending protested and said that this was a selective application of the law meant to fuck cyclists. These people were not taken seriously at all by the committee.

It seems that the governing parties in Berlin reject any proposal submitted by the opposition. An opposition who I may add do not seem to be the sharpest knives. Some of the proposed solutions were not realistic in the slightest. One example: replacing the DHL trucks with cargo bikes is batshit crazy. To add to that: DHL trucks parking on the bike lanes are not the biggest problem at all and something that can be solved fairly easily.

I went to this meeting to see why cycling in Berlin is so bad as it is and most of what I thought was confirmed. Berlin does not take cyclists seriously and the governing bodies are populated by people who say they care but who really don’t give a shit.