Values that shake the world: II – Tolerance in the Netherlands

When Pim Fortuyn rose to (posthumous) power on an anti-immigrant agenda in 2001, and now again with the assaults on Muslim schools and mosques after the murder of Theo van Gogh, foreign commentators expressed surprise. That this could happen in the Netherlands, of all places – that cool little country where they legalised prostitution, pot and gay marriage – how could they hate foreigners?

The misunderstanding here is that Dutch people have a long tradition of tolerance. This is not true. The way I would put it, is that over the ages, Dutch people have not so much learned to tolerate, as well as to ignore differences.

Building a nation on calvinism
A key period in this respect, at least in terms of self-definition, was the Reformation of the sixteenth century, when many people in the area that is now the Netherlands converted to protestantism. This coincided with a rise of economic prosperity and increasing self-confidence of the merchant and burgher class. So much so, that when Spanish King Philip II (who inherited the region from his father, Emperor Charles V) tried to raise taxes, the result was popular resistance and a war of independence that lasted for 80 years. The Republic of the United Netherlands was born, and went on to become a world power (lest anyone forgot).

However, standing up against the lawful King dit not sit very comfortably with contemporary, and calvinist, notions that it was immoral to overthrow a government God had placed above us – even if that government acted immorally itself (cf. Kant, who thought likewise). The official justification, therefore, could not rest on conflicting views on taxation and the distribution of power, as was actually the case, but needed something higher. Religion came in useful. Calvinism puts moral, and religious, responsibility firmly with the individual believer, which means that worldly rulers cannot impose their religion by force. But as that was exactly what Philip, a devote catholic, tried to do, protestants could argue that they had no other choice: The Dutch national anthem, which originated in this period, still maintains that “I have always been faithful to the King of Spain”. Protestantism became the rallying and nation-building force in the Netherlands throughout and long after the 80 Years’ War.

Half of the country though (in essence, the southern provinces which remained in Spanish hands for most of the war) was still catholic. With a nascent national identity that was so closely knitted to protestantism, this was a little awkward, even if the official mythology has it “religious freedom” was the main issue of the war. It is here that we see one of the first clear examples of “tolerance” as it would be practised in the Netherlands for centuries to come : With power and richess firmly in the hands of the western, protestant, provinces, the country’s elite decided to ignore the presence of the large catholic minority as much as it could. Mainstream culture was to remain protestant. But although religious leaders argued in favour of taking measures against the catholics, nothing was done that would antagonise them sufficiently to begin an insurrection. Catholics were free to hold church services, as long as this happened out of sight for the rest of the population. It was only in the nineteenth century that they regained the right to build their own churches. Their social status and prospects remained lower until deep into the nineteenth century, which showed e.g. in lower literacy rates.

Pillars keep people apart
The same method was followed in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when a new potentially destabilising group entered the stage: the socialists. This time again, the situation was pacified by keeping ordinary folks organised within their own group, separate from the others, while their leaders sorted out the necessary political compromises between them. “Pillarisation”, or consociationalism as it was baptised by Arend Lijphart, was going to be the model organising Dutch society for most of the nineteenth and twentieth century. As a Dutch catholic, you went to catholic schools, were a member of catholic sports and other clubs, you belonged to a catholic trade union, watched television programmes made by the catholic broadcasting corporation and you voted for the catholic party. Likewise for the (since the nineteenhundreds) two protestant and one socialist “pillar”, and only slightly less likewise for the liberal one. Only the “tops” of the pillars, i.e. the leaders of organisations and political parties, would interact with each other and negotiate over whatever was necessary to keep the country as a whole running.

I should add that like in many northern-European countries, wether this is due to pillarisation or not, the pressure to conform is enormous within each social group. Hence the fact that, analogously to Scandinavia with its Jante law, most Dutchmen consider the saying “Act normal, that’s strange enough” equally, perhaps more, characteristic of their culture than tolerance.

The pillars disappeared only slowly, and not even completely, in the course of the late sixties and seventies of the twentieth century, mostly because the role of religion in the lives of (autochtonous) Dutch decreased. Also, people no longer felt committed to only one social group or political cause, but more often to several. Conformism as a cultural trait, however, remained. At a time when social progressiveness was the social norm set by political and opinion leaders, i.e. during most of the seventies, this allowed for the introduction of policies that would be anything but centrist in most other countries. Examples are the famous Dutch cannabis policy and, later, gay marriage and euthanasia. How effective the conforming process was, becomes clear from the fact that, as far as the majority of the population is concerned, none of these measures is subject to much discussion. And as long as they are not perceived as a clear threat to people’s everyday lives, this progressiveness is probably there to stay.

This is different as regards policies towards the one million or so inhabitants of foreign descent living in the Netherlands. Most of them are muslims originating from Turkey and North-Africa. They, or their parents or grand-parents, were invited to the Netherlands and surrounding countries in the nineteen-sixties and early seventies, as unskilled workers doing the impopular jobs of which there were plenty at the time. Problems arose when those jobs disappeared and many of these first generation immigrants could not find new jobs due to lacking language and education skills. The same top-down conformism that had brought liberal cannabis laws, now also brought the social policies seen as common-sense at the time. So the approach was to provide generous unemployment and other benefits, rather than taking the education and engagement measures prescribed by current, more liberal, views of the state as a springboard rather than a safety net.

Another important factor was the idea that immigrant workers would stay only “temporarily” and return to their country of origin after a few years of work in western Europe. This meant that there was no reason, for either side, to invest time, money or effort in a life together. It also reinforced the “natural” inclination of Dutch people to treat their new compatriots as they would anyone belonging to a “pillar” different from their own: with disinterest and disapproval.

The Fortuyn revolution: Lord of the Flies revisited
Then, finally, there is what I would call the “democratisation of social behaviour”. In the seventeeth century already, foreign visitors complained how rude, blunt and impolite the Dutch were. Now this was partly because these high-ranking diplomats and statesmen found it difficult to accept that ordinary people – commoners, and even women – treated them as they would people of their own rank. Such deep sense of equality is, of course, only a good thing. New however since the Fortuyn revolution, is the aggressiveness with which people assert their equal rights (or their interpretation of it). It is as if they have suddenly discovered the many rights and liberties granted to them by the modern state of law, but, like the boys in Lord of the Flies, without realising that with freedom comes responsibility.

Pim Fortuyn himself was a typical example: “I say what I think” was his motto – and damn the consequences if it was misinterpreted. So he said things like “the country is full” and “islam is a backward religion” – opinions that had their merit when put in the proper context and when softened with the nuances even Fortuyn in the end acknowledged, but which also fueled (without the nuances) his immense popularity among racists. When journalists asked if this did not disturb him, the typical reply was: “Don’t worry, they are in good hands with me”. Theo van Gogh, of course, fitted in the same category, with his remarks on burning Jews and on Muslims being goat fuckers (and these too have to be seen in their context which, in the case of Van Gogh, was that he simply offended everyone without discrimination).

In the wake of opinion leaders like Fortuyn and Van Gogh, more people felt encouraged to drop whatever old courtesy rules held them back, and to blurt it all out. In the name of free speech of course, and with the intent of “starting a dialogue”. And it has to be said that some of the subjects raised certainly are worth a discussion – the positions of women and homosexuals in muslim immigrant groups for instance. But it has always baffeld me how exactly you get someone to start a dialogue with you by slinging the deepest possible insults at him. So I do not entirely understand the outrage caused by an editor at Index on Censorship when he wrote that Van Gogh “abuse[d] his right to free speech”. Even if the article could have been more nuanced, it certainly had a point – namely that, as John Kerry might have said: “You can be legal, but you can be wrong!”. Even if the law allows something, it may still be ethically wrong to do it.

In my view, the angry reactions to the “free speech abuse article” are typical for modern western society, where people are increasingly rights-oriented instead of virtue-oriented. They do indeed, as Buttiglione said (and as he does himself!), fail to distinguish between morality and the law. But that discussion is for later in this series.

This is part II in a series on values. Next: Part III, Failing States in East and West. Previous: Part I: Introduction

One Response to “Values that shake the world: II – Tolerance in the Netherlands”

  1. precursor fiend Says:

    you forgot the other side: the insults öf extreme free speech work in 2 directions.
    as a young boy I, as a “autochtonous” Dutchman was regarded inferior by many of the immigrant groups youths. Daily I was called “kankerkaas” (cancercheese) or “filthy jew” or just plain “faggot”. In the early 90’s, in the big cities, the poorly educated Turkish-Dutch and North African-Dutch children were filled with hate towards the “autochtonous” by their social lagging behind (which is indeed caused partially by defected social policy of respective Dutch governments) ánd cultural differences. This also resulted in reverse discrimination, and as a countersymptom: discrimination.
    North Africans tend to be more direct in speech, which is contrary to the dutch spirit of “minding your own business” and not being too direct in conduct.
    Anyway the situation seems to be improved, notwithstanding all the propaganda that Holland is on fire. The education of mentioned youth groups has greatly improved in the last 15 years, which results in a society which is actually better balanced and where tolerance is much greater between the “groups’ within society. At my job (government social section) we have a lot of Muslim-women which are scarved in black, and no-one makes a fuss about it. The problems start when everyone starts listening to people like Wilders, a man who exaggerates probelms greatly. In my conversations with people from all over the world, the predominate contention is that we have a country in great social distress. This is not the reality however. It shows only that across the globe the one who shouts the hardest, will be the one that is heard. Regardless whether his views are based on reality.

    Final note: between Amsterdam and Rotterdam there is an ancient rivalry. The next burgomaster of Rotterdam (pop: 700.000) will be a Moroccan-Dutch politician from Amsterdam!

    This shows that the social coherence between different groups is actually far better than perceived in the world.

    Noteworthy in this respect is that the USA only has had 2 or 3 black senators out of a population 80 million African-Americans! The tolerance issues in other countries are far greater than with us here. People listen to the wrong sources in determining there are social problems.

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