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Amsterdam, April 6 2016
Yes? No? Compassion!
It’s the end of March and I am joining the first meeting of the Flag of Compassion’s working group. The crowd of participants comprises a student Interdisciplinary Sciences, an artist, a management consultant, a political analyst and the self-appointed writer that I am. Although we are different, a sense of community strikes us even before the introduction round has passed. The spark of this communal sense is caused by the upcoming ‘Ukraine Referendum’.1
Are you for or against the Approval Act of the Association Agreement between the European Union and Ukraine? We feel deceived by the many agendas that are hidden behind this seemingly straightforward question. And we feel compassion for the Ukrainians, a whole population. They barely play a role in the discussion, while they are the ones who will suffer the consequences.
Hence we postpone working group topics of individual interest. A post-it note written by a group member and placed within a large and yellow post-it mind map reads Movement of the flag in space. On the other side of the post-it composition I hesitatingly added Compassion for non-human beings/entities. We are grateful for the time constraint forcing us to produce less abstract ideas.
In a nutshell the idea we finally come up with contains 1000 microstickers representing the Flag of Compassion. Later, in the polling booth, these stickers can function as voting-weapons against a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For we support engagement of citizens in a democracy, but we doubt whether this will be achieved with Roos and Baudet’s question. Within the debate the content of the association agreement is obfuscated by ‘the Europe-Russia politics’, ‘the general dissatisfaction about the rapid expansion of the European Union’ and all the other issues forming the actual interests of the initiators of the referendum.
In news- and literary magazine De Groene Amsterdammer Aukje van Roessel sharply formulates how how the question in the referendum does not address the Association Agreement’s key issues: “If you are going to vote, you might answer the question in your head whether Russia benefits from a Dutch ‘no’. But various other questions could be at play. Therefore the referendum is not about what it is about.” As a voter you will find yourself in a deadlock indeed: even not voting is suboptimal, unless you really do not give a shit about democracy.
Early in the morning on the 6th of April I arrive at the City Hall, which seems dead quiet. The polling booths are untouched and my colleagues are untraceable. All of us turn out to be waiting in front of different doors in the municipal labyrinth. As soon as our action group (I hesitate using this word) is complete, we begin our search for the few real voters among the possibly-voting-white-collars. In search of the right tone of voice to start a conversation, we find it pays off to approach passersby in a humble, flirty manner. The flags themselves too, dancing wildly in the spring-breeze, excite interest.
Indecisive voters are particularly curious about the meaning of the flag. Although most of their ballot papers lie in the trash bin already, they embrace the flag-voting-weapons that we offer them. Thus, the Flag does not merely form a point of reference, but it also illuminates what would otherwise remain obscured: the desire of citizens to participate in a democracy without having to answer a question that is about something else for everyone.
However humble we position ourselves, the flags are waving provocatively. A D66 windbreaker wearing campaign leader madly runs towards us and accuses us of influencing the voting process. Another, rather rotund man reacts to the flag as a bull to a red something. ‘Your flag is a symbol of power’, he cries out, ‘I will tell the cops that you are illegally standing here!’. The aggression is contagious, for a moment I feel like an angry activist who only engages with the world in terms of negativity. Rebel rebel, is what I am thinking. But we are no rebels at all, are we?
What I find interesting about the Flag of Compassion is the shattered harmony that forms its core concept. On the one hand a flag includes, connects and melts together, on the other hand it divides the world into nations and categories about which we will forever argue. This contradiction of the flag symbol is precisely what I am encountering today, by showing compassion, by fighting for compassion.
No surprise, that we are confusing people and that some view us as a bunch of troublemakers. During a short newspaper interview Parool journalist Pim Brasser also fails to understand the flag’s ambiguity. “Since 8 o’clock in the morning the ladies have been handing out their manifest”, he writes, “which pleads for emancipation and change but which stays rather vague all the same”. Brasser seems to forget that we are presenting an artwork that elaborates a certain complexity, and which, by no means, can be grasped in the simplifying yes/no language of the referendum.
When the sun breaks through we move to the Waterlooplein. A big-smiled salesman of mishmash goods approaches us. He proposes to include the Flag of Compassion in his flag collection. There it sits proudly, gold and wavy, in between Jordan and the Netherlands. On top of a snack table, next to the falafel-menu and pink bouquets, the man displays our manifests and he yells: ‘I love your ideas!’, and: ‘I love your flag!’.
Indeed, the Flag of Compassion also symbolizes celebration; the heartiness for something bigger than you and me. It symbolizes change that can only be caused by a form of love. We can only speculate about the effects of a referendum that has dissatisfaction as its purpose.
1 The Dutch Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement referendum, held on April 6, 2016.
Iris Blaak: Yes? No? Compassion!