Pseudohistory and the systems approach

Romanticizing Dutch naval hero Admiral De Ruyter?

Dutch war and trade successes   The 17th century Anglo-Dutch Wars were a follow-up of the Dutch–Portuguese War (1601–1661), which itself was part of the 80-year Dutch Revolt (1568-1648) against Habsburg rule. This revolt was the Dutch answer to a genocidal attempt by the Spanish Habsburgians to root out Protestantism in the Netherlands. Every one of these wars had great historical significance: (1) the Revolt ended with the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which established the principle of freedom of religion and the principle of non-interference in sovereign states (this remains key to world peace to this day, see Kissinger’s ‘World Order‘, publ. 2014); (2) the Dutch-Portuguese War ended with the Treaty of The Hague, which confirmed the Dutch hegemony in the Far East and South Asia; and (3) the Anglo-Dutch Wars (1652–54, 1665–67 and 1672–74) resulted in Dutch domination of world trade until 1713 (followed by British domination in the 18th, 19th and half of the 20th century – partly because the Dutch stopped investing in battle ships, partly because of a slump in East-Indian profits, partly because Dutch traders started moving their businesses to London from the late 17th centuy onwards, and partly because of the occupation of the Netherlands by Napoleonic France (1795-1813).

sea battle

Michiel de Ruyter (1607–1676)   … is the most famous of Dutch naval heroes. His life reads like a history book as he fought countless battles from the Baltic to the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, against the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Brazilians, English, and the Ottoman-licensed Barbary pirates from Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. His foot was shot off by a French cannon ball during the Franco-Dutch war (1672-1678), when the Netherlands were simultaneously attacked by the French, English, Germans and Swedes. He died a week after his leg was amputated. A very pious man, his last words were: “O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee” (Psalm 63:2). Like many Dutch, De Ruyter was not very keen on unnecessary decorum. He was very much loved by his sailors and soldiers, who nicknamed him ‘Bestevaêr’ (older Dutch for ‘grandfather’.) An innovator of naval combat, one might call him a maritime version of Napoleon, though totally devoid of the latter’s grandeur, hybris and political ambitions. (De Ruyter website, Dutch)Michiel de Ruyter (funerary monument, Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam)

Michiel de Ruyter (movie)     Yesterday (29 January, 2015) a Dutch film about the 17th-century admiral Michiel de Ruyter was released in cinemas in the Netherlands. A few days earlier, its premiere was protested by several hundred people (shouting things like “Michiel the Robber”), because they associated De Ruyter with colonialism, slavery and ill-founded nationalism, generally. Since the Second World War, there is a widespread belief in the Netherlands that nationalism leads to war. Clearly, these protesters have a point if nationalism prevents the reasonable accommodation (in all sorts of domains) between nations. There are certain forms of nationalism that indeed work that way. However, it would seem the film makes the point that the Netherlands in the 17th century was under military attack from all sides by nations led by people whose interests were under threat by efficient Dutch traders. How accommodating can you be if your enemies are bent on your destruction?

Philosophical dozen     … is a recurring feature by Marc van Dijk in the Dutch newspaper Trouw that I am subscribed to. In it a dozen or so Dutch philosophers discuss an issue every week (actually the name of the feature is ‘filosofisch elftal’). This week two philosophers (Frank_Ankersmit and Marli Huijer) debate for and against “entertaining, patriotic heroism” in the cinema. According to Ankersmit, cinema is about storytelling even if it is historical. The new film ‘Exodus’ is a marvelous movie, but its Ramses II has very little in common with the historical pharaoh. No problem, as long as the makers don´t suggest it is a documentary film. Huijer thinks film makers have social responsibilities and encouraging patriotism is not one of them. She, and many people like her, think one cannot make a film about the Netherlands in the 17th century without a mention of European colonialism and the slave trade. Ankersmit counters by saying that the protesters, not the film makers, are the ones who turn cinema into a political tool.

Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886)     … was the German founder of modern history who wrote: “You have reckoned that history ought to judge the past and to instruct the contemporary world as to the future. The present attempt does not yield to that high office. It will merely tell how it really was.” He was very much opposed to Hegel’s notion that people and governments should learn from history, or act on principles deduced from it. Others consider that Von Ranke’s method is naïve, because historians not merely report facts – they choose which facts they use. In the case of the De Ruyter movie the film maker makes the patriotism of the 17th century visible. Ankersmit suggests that there is nothing wrong with that, not even from Von Ranke’s “narrow” point of view.

White heroes in immutable past       According to Huijer there is no such thing as an immutable past that can be represented either rightly or wrongly. Instead we “deconstruct” history all the time (Foucault). She supposes there is a large group of Dutchmen who have a (perverse?) need for heroic stories about great, white, strong men who fought for their country and were victorious. Such a need is presumably fed by certain underlying cultural interests and assumptions that some people find appealing, but others abhor. There is a simple alternative, which is making films like ‘12 Years a Slave’. I would add that 12 years a slave is based on a memoir from 1853. So it took more than one-and-a-half century before it was turned into a movie that seems to be as much part of a current (false or real) redemptive movement with regard to US slavery as the (imported from the USA?) black Pete discussion in the Netherlands.

Systems approach to history     I recently applied the systems approach (Williams & Van ’t Hof, 2014) to two conflicts, one historical (decolonization of Indonesia), the other contemporary (northern Mali conflict). The findings suggest that between Huijer and Ankersmit there is a third way. The systems approach designs interventions based on diverging perspectives and underlying values and worldviews. So, a film can be considered an intervention. An analysis can also be considered an intervention. Both a film and an analysis or another type of intervention must answer a question of sorts or resolve a problematic situation. Identifying such a question or defining such a situation is part of the task. In the Indonesian case a good question turned out to be, for me at least: How should the agreement of Linggajati have to be reformulated for a better transition to sovereignty and beyond? In the Malian case the question became: Is there a way to avoid a pointless guerrilla struggle that drags on for decades, that impoverishes governments, and that stymies aid, trade and development? In both cases it is important to look far beyond a diplomatic agreement or treaty to a more comprehensive solution, or else the creation of a state or federation or whatever becomes just one fairly insignificant step in an outdrawn bloody process.

No simple answers     Where did we hear that before? In the case of the systems approach it means that one attempts to take in the full complexity of the situation. It orders the facts by looking at the underlying values and assumptions. It will not try to change the values, but rather seeks to find an intervention compromise at both the value and activity level. And there is the notion that any design must to some degree form an appealing whole. This is especially true when we deal with a medium such as film. And last but not least: there are many solutions. So, there is not only no simple answer, there is also no single answer. But when there is an answer, it should be the result of a transparent, systemic process. The systemic design way seems to offer an approach to satisfy both Ankersmit and Huijer, not so much because of one end result or the other, but because of the process and the way the systems approach works. It does so by looking at the larger picture and working critically through the many perspectives and inter-relationships. In the end result of e.g. Michiel de Ruyter, the movie, there may still be no mention of slavery, but it leaves one less vulnerable or unprepared to criticism.

Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2014). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03., p. p. 97). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Retrieved from


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