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Holland Park Press

The Hierarchy of Things

18 March 2012 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar

There are people who think it’s odd that a coach crash in Switzerland which killed 28 Dutch and Belgian passengers, including 22 children, receives more attention than a similar accident that took place in Africa, involving African victims. They ask, ‘Aren’t both events equally awful?’

The Belgian Prime Minister immediately travelled to Switzerland, and announced a day of national mourning. I saw pictures of the Belgian King at the airport, personally seeing off the parents of victims. That was a lovely gesture. The Dutch were far less generous: the Prime Minister expressed his sympathy and the Dutch Queen sent a telegram to the Belgian King.

Even though six Dutch children also died, it was much more of a Belgian news item. Was this because the Dutch children attended a Belgian school?

There are also people who think it’s strange that Prince Friso’s skiing accident received even more attention than this coach crash, and these people subsequently vented their opinion through the social media. Don’t do it!

You could argue that Friso is just one person, but in real life actual numbers don’t matter. In the meantime, Friso has been transferred to the Wellington Hospital in London. It’s not at all clear if he will ever wake up from his coma. It’s no longer news, but nothing has changed for the Queen; he’s still her son. That’s exactly why the Dutch Queen should have followed the example set by the Belgian King.

From time to time you hear about an accident far away: for example, a plane full of Chinese people has crashed in China. People don’t comment on it at the butcher’s: ‘Isn’t it terrible about all those Chinese people dying?’ The Dutch TV news will mention that there were two Dutch people among the victims. Is it so bad that the Dutch victims, unlike the Chinese, are mentioned by name?

Compare this to the Olympic Games, being held in London this summer. It looks like a world event, but that’s a misconception. Each country is primarily interested in its own athletes. In Turkey, weightlifting is a national sport, whereas table tennis is very big in China – these two sports are dominated by the Turks and the Chinese.

The reverse also happens: a Dutch basketball player who becomes a star in America. Suddenly, just because it involves a fellow countryman becoming famous in a big country, everyone is immensely proud, even though basketball is a minor sport in the Netherlands.

Last year, the Nobel Prize for Literature had far more impact in Sweden than in the rest of the world, because it was awarded to Tomas Tranströmer. (In any case, Swedes collect this prize more often than anyone else.) It was just that bit more important for the Dutch than for other countries, because Tranströmer had been translated by a well-known Dutch writer.

It’s not surprising that your own country dominates domestic news reporting, nor is it surprising that you rank certain news items higher than others. That’s because there is no absolute hierarchy of things.

For example, to me, my own mother is more important than the Queen. (Sorry, your Majesty.) If you, the reader, say to me that the Queen is more important than my mother, I would ask, ‘Is your own mother more important than the Queen?’ I hope you would say yes: this reflects well on you.

I do hope the Queen is aware of the fact that, although she is important, for most people she’s less important than their own mother or child: an absolute hierarchy of things doesn’t exist.

What matters is that you understand that some things are more important for other people than for you. I’m talking about empathy; without empathy there wouldn’t be any art or foreign aid. As for setting the relative importance or hierarchy of things, that’s up to you.

© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press

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