Nieuws - 29 november 2014

Blog: Piet out of proportion

Even if you've lived in the Netherlands for a short time, you must have heard about Sintaklaas and his helper, Zwarte Piet. In the past 4 years, this Dutch children's tradition has ignited a tense debate due to its alleged racism.

An awful lot has been written on the topic, to which a foreigner has nothing to add. Instead I'll take you to my home city, Venice, where I recently observed something that offered an insight into the rally around Zwarte Piet.

Punta della Dogana is the checkpoint of the city of Venice, a majestic dock from where to control anyone entering and leaving the city. A few years ago, the traditional lamp of the checkpoint was replaced by a statue by a prized American artist. The statue is a three metre tall naked boy holding a lizard. People from Venice do not dig that statue in the place of the lamp. They even called it 'obscene'.

Objectively, there was nothing indecent about the statue. Much worse were the cruise ships leaving Venice always across the city's main canal. These ships are twice as tall as the city's main buildings. The waves they create erode the wooden poles which support the city, by exposing them to aerobic decomposition and shocks. After three years of protest, citizens won their cause and the 'horrible' statue was removed.However, as of today cruise ships still horribly cross the city, with incalculable damage.

Why are Venetian citizens protecting a small tradition instead of dealing with the huge ships? Perhaps, they can't face such a disproportional issue: the municipality corruption is beyond their range, but the lamp is their small victory.

Let's now get back to the Netherlands. Similar to Venice, the 'defense of tradition' went out of proportion. The idea to change the Zwarte Piet into something less 'black' triggered death threats, TV shows, a legal trial to Zwarte Piet, the intervention of UN delegates and celebrities (thank you Russel Brant for taking up even this cause). Why? Because Zwarte Piet stands for something much, much greater than a children's tale. Piet stands for the sovereignty of Dutch people over their own traditions and customs in a rapidly changing Holland. It stands, for some, for the right to claim as much freedom and tolerance as they concede to the numerous 'allochtonen' (non-native Dutch) in the Netherlands.

As understandable as the Zwarte Piet fuss is, ignoring the real issue of Dutch people's fear of having their sovereignty eroded through integration will bring much more severe consequences than 'turning black into rainbow'.