Or how to compare the two different House of Cards trilogies
So on Friday night we got right into it and knocked off the first two episodes of House of Cards, Season 2. A good start with a driven and scheming Frank Underwood, but as was the case with season one, thoughts inevitably wander back to the original FU, British prime minister Francis Urquhart. And begging the question, who is the better one and if there isn’t one that is better, how do they differ and why?
Having just started the second season it is of course not possible to render a fully baked verdict, but there are some notable differences between the American and British Francis. The latter, a living monument to the phenomenal acting talents of the late Ian Richardson, was in political terms a staunch Thatcherite. In fact, the series creator Michael Dobbs has been rumoured to have coined the name ‘FU’ after meeting the late iron lady in person. Underwood, the Democrat is devoid of any deep ideological urges and is more of a Clintonesque power broker willing to cut any kind of political deal in order to advance his career. A battle with the teacher’s unions in the first season ends with a bill that ultimately satisfies most parties with Underwood taking credit, Urquhart in all likelihood would not have rested until he had personally reduced the union to a pile of human rubble. From that perspective both series reflect the political era in which they were created, Urquhart coming out of the polarized eighties, whereas Underwood stands atop the centrist model that has framed the Clinton-Bush-Obama-Clinton era.
One of the other key differences between the two political maestros is related to that. Urquhart’s is indeed not a nice guy by any means, in particular when he addresses the viewer directly to elaborate on his dire views of humanity and his political friends and foes. He in fact is a very lonely and bitter warrior whose disdain for the world around him makes him seriously unlikeable. Underwood however comes across as a kinder and gentler soul, precisely when he talks to the audience and you find yourself thinking, yes, that somehow makes total sense. A drinking spree with former college buddies in season one and trying to neutralize Raymond Tusk’s influence on the oval office give Underwood a human and sometimes almost admirable foundation, something utterly lacking in Urquhart’s cold world. The notion of a nicer Underwood is also supported by the sort of victims he makes. The ambitious Zoe Barnes will get on your nerves as a not particularly likeable journalist, and it is quite hard to warm up to late congressman Peter Russo. Yet to this day I have warm feelings for Zoe’s British equivalent, Mattie Storin and recall the brutal way Urquhart dispatches her when he throws her off a Westminster roof. The viewer is upset and misses her, but it is hard to feel the same about Barnes and Russo. Simply put, Urquhart is the crueler politician and Underwood’s creators must somehow have positioned it that way in the script.
Yet it does not make Urquhart unlikeable. Far from it. The acceptance of evil as a viable tool to heal the nation and further one’s career is given wings by the classic parody of Westminster politics that the British version of the show is. Nowhere is that better exemplified than in the second season entitled ‘To Play the King’ where Urquhart takes on the constitutional monarch, a thinly veiled caricature of Prince Charles who has just ascended the throne and wastes no time to implement a more social and caring agenda, putting him on a direct collision course with our hardcore capitalist Urquhart. The battle of inherited privilege versus the fearless commoner, a role Urquhart masterfully assumes, somehow gives the prime minister the upper hand in the demise and forced abdication of the new king, resulting in this classic scene:
To Urquhart in the end it all is a game, playfully moving from target to target with a wink and a nod only to accumulate more power. Inflicting deep loss and ridicule on his victims is an integral part of this mission and he accomplishes it with verve and style. To the audience it is a hilarious way of commenting on the realities of political life as we understand them and therein probably lies some of the respect we ultimately extend to Urquhart. Despite all his brutal tactics he has a point. With Underwood that is far more difficult to establish, it is almost as if there are no deeper truths or wry commentary that the viewer can take a way from the southern politician. Underwood at times is bland and reluctant to mock and criticize the foundations on which present day Washington power broking is built. He is a willful part of it all and Americans take it the way it is. Carried by Kevin Spacey it makes for great drama, but it lacks the punch of the British House of Cards.
Above all it is the ability of the Brits to distance themselves from the subject to assess its inherent weaknesses and shortcomings while talking real political issues. “To temper economic rigor with a little more respect for human values” as the embattled monarch in the second season states – against Urquhart’s explicit wishes - is as real an issue today as it was in the eighties and nineties. It elevated the original House of Cards to a benchmark in political drama that will stand the test of time. The American version is as dark but in its delivery a lighter version of the original. That said, you have to work hard to keep the urge to binge watch under control, because House of Cards Season 2 is a riveting experience.
The Dutch Auschwitz Committee recently started a campaign to build a monument for all 102,000 Dutch Jews that perished during the Second World Ear, listing all of their names. The website in Dutch and English can be found here. More importantly you can help build it by adopting the name of one victim for 50 Euros all with the goal of reaching the 5 million Euros necessary to build the Monument with Names.
This initiative – driven in particular by the chair of the Dutch Auschwitz Committee, Jacques Grishaver – is worthwhile on many levels and there are a number of things that struck me about it. Firstly, we are close to the seventy year mark of the end of the war and the generation that consciously lived through it, survived it, is disappearing. My own father, passed away last year and his formative years as a teenager were spent in war torn Europe where he had to hide during the last year of the war. With the passing of that generation, the first person accounts will die and it will be up to newer generations to ensure that the memory of what in my mind was the most gruesome crime against humanity ever perpetrated, stays alive.
From that perspective the internet is a saving grace. Not only is it a platform where many memories can be shared, it is remarkable how many stories and accounts have now found a home. Yad Vashem has a formidable website and Youtube channel with witness accounts and in The Netherlands a digital record of all murdered Jews can be found online here. I often visit it, to read some of the backstories or just to take in a few names and reflect on the individuals and families that perished, often together on the same day after a grueling journey in cattle wagons through the heart of Europe. The sad story of a woman from the town of Brielle, Jannetje Philipse-van Buren, who was deported to Sobibor at age 97 to die there on the same day of arrival is one that I came across while browsing the list of names. You read it, reflect on it and for some reason that person stays with you for a little while. You picture it and you try to understand how something like that could have happened and why in this case someone of that age from an innocent place like the town of Brielle could end up in a train to Sobibor. Some seventy years after the fact a total stranger in the digital age picks up the life of someone murdered in the holocaust and brings him or her back to life.
And therein I think lies the importance of building a Monument with Names in the city of Amsterdam. It does the one thing we can do and the one thing that those murdered can possibly ask of us. And that is to not ever forget and keep them, in whatever form, alive. A digital monument is one format, but I do think that The Netherlands and the city of Amsterdam in particular after all these years, owe it to the 102,000 Jews to give them a monument where each and every victim is named and properly remembered.
My contribution adopted Salomon Turfreijer who together with his wife Jansje and son Hijman was murdered in Sobibor on 16 April 1943, his daughter Rosina died in September 1944 in Auschwitz. I did not just contribute 50 Euros to a name, no, somehow Salomon Turfreijer came back to life together with his family. Their stories, with probably no witnesses still alive or photos, somehow became visible to the world. By building a monument for the 101,996 others we contribute to an experience of remembering that will ensure that all of these victims have a name and voice for many generations to come.
Their memories should never be lost, the struggle against the debased theories and hatred that ended their lives is a task that continues relentlessly and we all should contribute to that. Regardless of whether you are Jewish or Dutch you can- and should - adopt a name and contribute here.
This is my weblog and as opposed to the earlier one I ran years ago, this is not one about just politics and markets.