I Have Suffered Much

My latest Dutch discovery is Multatuli. For those who don’t speak Latin (“I have suffered much”), that is the histrionic pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker, who in 2002 was declared by the Society for Dutch Literature to be the most important writer in the country’s history. His magnum opus, “Max Havelaar,” is wildly fresh and modern in its language and humor–almost postmodern. At one point, for example, the narrator actually hands the reader his business card. Which is all the more striking considering it was published in 1860.

Multatuli’s fame derives from this book, which had an impact on the world that few novels not written by J.K. Rowling have had. Dekker shipped out to the Dutch East Indies at age 18, and rose in the colonial administration until he reached the point where he saw the nature of that system. It was built on a complex web of abuse and corruption, which involved Dutch officials enmeshed with Indonesian aristocrats, and which repressed local peasants so as to ensure the supply of trade goods to Europe–even at the risk of famine for the locals.

Dekker wrote his novel to expose the system. The back story is complicated by the fact that Dekker himself was a bit of a maniac, who seems to have set himself up to be a martyr, and may actually not have wanted the book to be published. But it was, and the goal was achieved beyond what he could have imagined. It echoed around Europe, causing the first wave of shock over the system of colonial exploitation.

But forget the history. If you open the book, just expect to have a good time.

Blank Slaters

As the third presidential debate looms, people are wondering how to process the fact that Mitt Romney got a big boost out of his performance in the first debate while President Obama did not get much of a boost out of his performance in the second debate. I think there is a very plausible theory. The vast majority of likely voters long ago made up their minds. Of those who had not as of a few weeks ago, most seem to fit a certain type. According to Reuters, most of them lack a college education and earn less than $25,000 a year. They had not been tuned into the campaign, had not partaken deeply of the Republican primaries, and thus had not felt that they had been properly introduced to Mitt Romney. Yet they were, by definition, people who had made the decision that they would vote. In other words, they want to vote, but don’t have the time or inclination to study the candidates and issues deeply. Their determination, presumably, was that they would wait for the debates to tune into the campaign, and make up their minds then.

These blank-slaters, as one might term them, approached the first debate with a striking willingness to take things at face value. And they saw and heard, in that debate, a Mitt Romney who seemed sane, clear, moderate, balanced, and presidential. He seemed more presidential than the President. And the President did nothing to counter that impression.

The blank-slaters, then, reasoned as follows. The economy has been pretty bad. This Republican fellow seems quite solid and reasonable. So let’s give him a shot.

The blank-slaters didn’t feel they needed to give President Obama another chance in the second debate. I doubt that they will tune in avidly to the third debate. They were willing to open a window to allow the American presidential campaign to enter their consciousness. Then they closed it.

This isn’t to say that the election has been decided. But it does, I think, explain the dynamic we’ve seen in the polls.