Values that shake the world: I – Introduction

Values, values, values – it is the talk of the day. It is the one thing which the political murders of controversial film maker Theo van Gogh and of populist politician Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, the unease in European societies with the consequences of immigration, but also the controversy surrounding Rocco Buttiglione and the re-election of George W Bush have in common. Our values, say the protagonists, are “under threat”, and the upsetting events show this is true.

An increasingly frightened and insecure population yearns for solutions. And on both sides of the Atlantic, an increasingly confident political right provides them. But which values are under threat? And, most of all, where are the socially progressives in this debate?

Most of the analysis I see does not do justice to the complexity of the situation. I miss things. For instance, I do not think the Netherlands is or ever was a tolerant country. Indifferent: yes, but tolerant: no.

Secondly, I think we should distinguish between the muslim extremism that originated in the dictatorships in the Middle-East (like Bin Laden’s or Palestinian extremism), and the “new” muslim extremism motivating disgruntled youths who grew up in the West (like the murderer of Van Gogh). Their anger seems to be directed not at western policies in the East, but at western policies at home. If that is true, we are dealing with different problems, requiring different solutions.

Thirdly, “values”, in my view, is a dangerous catch-all term obfuscating our view of what they entail. Modern society, in particular its socially progressive part, have lost track of which values really underpin modern society, and have difficulty formulating them. The modern right has fewer inhibitions refering both to ‘values’ in general and to actual values like ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, or ‘respect for the individual’ – but, it seems, not always in their modern meaning. This confuses the debate, and risks taking it in a direction most people would not agree with.

I have been trying to combine all the elements I just mentioned in one big, comprehensive, analytical essay. Due to time and other constraints, however, I find it difficult to complete that analysis in the foreseeable future, or at least before the whole debate is over. Therefore I have decided to split up the essay into smaller parts which are easier to handle for me and allow me to develop my thoughts over time. It has the additional advantage that the smaller composite parts fit better into the ordinary ‘blog’ format. I may or may not revise or combine the individual parts later. Keep watching this space.

This is part I in a series on values. Next: Part II, Tolerance in the Netherlands.

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