Lammert de Jong
Being Dutch, More or Less
In a comparative Perspective of USA and Caribbean Practices
The Dutch have been living in Wonderland for quite a while, boosted by a glamorous 17th Century history, the grand Dutch Golden Century, when Holland ruled the waves. Undeniably the Dutch carry a rich history, though with ups and downs. Noblesse oblige! The Dutch have felt that their country could be a guide to the world; if they could, the Dutch would save the world, for sure. Since the end of World War II the Dutch gradually evolved into occupants of an excellent spot on the globe.
Until the 1960s the Dutch were a church-going and parochial people. Today the Netherlands is a secular society. Religion went out the window and was replaced by all sorts of transcendental animations. The security of God and the wonders of redemption and forgiveness no longer count when scripting one’s individual life story. In the process of secularization, Dutch identity lost its religious anchorage. The parish perished, and a new concept of being Dutch needed to be constructed. At first, the cause of good, go and green replaced religion. The Dutch believed in progress and reached for the best: public participation, generous public welfare, asylum for refugees, multiculturalism, environmental legislation, public transport, development aid, and the end of all war. In the 1960s and 70s the Dutch proclaimed a live and let live culture that allowed for a high degree of individualisation. The Dutch identified themselves essentially as people without borders who endorsed the Beatle’s dream of Let It Be! Any other definition would not meet the terms of the enlightened Dutch. ‘To be free’ was in those days the moral core of Dutch identity, or so it appeared, not only for themselves but also for immigrants who had come to the Netherlands. Unlike the Americans with their Shining City upon a Hill, the French Mission Civilatrice, or Britishness in the United Kingdom, the Dutch did not hyperventilate about the importance of Dutch identity.
That changed when a substantial number of Dutch neighbourhoods began to grumble about immigrants not speaking Dutch, even after having spent a lifetime living on Dutch soil, largely being dependent on generous handouts from the Dutch welfare state, as well as hauling large families into their quarters. Many of them were Muslim, inclined to obey the Koran, Imam, and – for women - their husband, rarely ever leaving their own communities. More and more Dutch neighbours felt that they were being forced to put up with foreign intrusions, which they had not asked for.
Like in many Western European countries the effects of economic and governmental globalisation, immigration and Islam are dividing the Netherlands. Some regard these changes as wrecking the homeland, others as inevitable global developments, or welcome them as productive interactions that benefit the Dutch commonwealth. The Netherlands experiences difficulty in hosting the exchange between an established Dutch identity on one hand, and the impact of these New Dutch developments on the other. The willingness of the Dutch to accept these presences, and the receptiveness of the Dutch social habitat must be questioned. Political movements that promise to turn the tide attract large followings, yet at the expense of established parties that have been in power since World War II. Populist appeals of closing the borders, forcing immigrants to assimilate, expelling Muslims who ‘think wrong’, and cancelling aid to Third World countries do not fall on deaf ears. These appeals essentially aim at restoring a True Dutch identity, a belief in an original Dutch character, untainted by foreign elements; the Dutch as a kind of Noah’s ark of their kind. A resolute Not In My Backyard stance challenges the erstwhile liberal Dutch narrative of diversity and solidarity: Take back the Netherlands!
The Dutch are losing grip on who they are. Once upon a time they were proud carriers of a dual attitude of live and let live and saving the world. Those days the Dutch felt good about themselves. Nowadays the Dutch realize that their realm is rather limited. Their sense of being a guide to the world fails a reality check. That ambition is evaporating into thin air, which causes opinionated Dutch voices to sound rather shrill. When looking in the mirror many Dutch do not recognize themselves, nor can they believe what they are thinking or hearing about others and themselves.
Dutch identity caved in under the pressure of immigration, globalization and free marketeers. The Dutch were accustomed to living on high moral grounds. But the democratic foundation of Dutch citizenship is eroding. Worldwide economic forces and international governance hold sway in the Netherlands, for most part out of range of Dutch political powers and Dutch citizenship. For some, the lightness of being Dutch became unbearable, triggering attempts to hail back the good old days of home sweet home! This True Dutch regression actually reflects a blind spot in Dutch imagination as to how to negotiate the modern world.
Every generation has to cope with changes over time, more or less invasive. In the first half of the 20th Century, the older generation deplored the loss of the old-time beauty of Dutch cities and landscape due to modern developments (cars, bitumen roads and railroads). Jan Huizinga, a renowned Dutch historian, recommended caution in regard to the reaction of this generation: “One must not disregard these elegiac sentiments as reactionary whining (reactionair pruilen) of an old man. The younger generation does not know, nor will know, what beauty they are missing, which the elderly of today [in 1941] have known and enjoyed just in time” (Huizinga, 1941, 54)
True Dutch is not the answer. The Netherlands is only a dot on the globe. The Dutch must realize that protecting a romanticized ‘homeland’ does not make sense. Take back the Netherlands is an illusory promise. They are facing the question, which was raised by a UN director of peacekeeping operations: “Having lost the comfort of our geographical boundaries, we must in effect rediscover what creates the bond between humans that constitute a community” (Judt, 2008, 407).
Famous Dutch painters of centuries ago still determine today what we see as beauty in a supposedly true Dutch landscape, while the actual landscape is fabricated in great detail and thus immensely changed. What do we look for now? On a photographers’ exposition of Dutch landscapes in 2008, Nature as Artifice, the question was raised: ‘Beauty is not the issue. So what is?’ This book deals with a similar question, paraphrased with respect to the search for being Dutch: ‘True Dutch is not the issue. So what is?’
Not a Comparative Study
This book is about being Dutch; it is not a comparative study. The Netherlands does not stand alone in Europe having issues with immigration and national identity. Also in France, the United Kingdom and Germany red flags have been raised over these matters.
Sarkozy, President of France, initiated in 2009 in the French Republic a discourse on French identity. Apparently the iron-clad certainty of what it meant to be French and the solidity of the French Heritage have been shaken by immigration tremors and Muslim believers. France’s early exit from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was blamed on a lack of patriotism, shared values and national honor of a French soccer team with many members who are black or brown and descended from immigrants. The National Front, a persistent far-right party, preaches French purity and exceptionalism, and opposes immigration and the European Union: “Like the Soviet empire in its time, this E.U. empire will collapse.” Debating French identity, newcomers appear to be the real patriots, referring to the gift France bestowed on immigrants: the grandeur of France.
In the United Kingdom a ban on the Muslim veil has been in the making since 2006. Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary until 2005, tabled this garment as "a visible statement of separation and of difference." According to the Dutch press, close to a majority of the Britons wants to leave their island, which they see as having been flooded with scores of immigrants. Most Britons want job-less immigrants to be asked to leave. Interestingly, the large immigrant population originating from countries that were once part of the former British Empire now declares that Brittan is full when counting the large numbers of Eastern European immigrants.
Germany witnessed in the last decade of the 20th Century serious incidents of violence against immigrants and Muslims. At the same time: “[…] the lack of political rights for Germany’s second-generation “foreigners” has not prevented them from achieving significantly higher levels of employment and experiencing less segregation in schools, less dependency on welfare, and being less often convicted of crimes than their counterparts in multicultural Netherlands” (Koopmans, 2005, 245).
In this book the Dutch stand out; it is their story, by a Dutch author, but in English so that people other than the Dutch can also share this narrative. Being Dutch, more or less explores the critical stage of Dutch national identity due to changes in the Dutch social habitat at home, and by intrusions of immigration, globalization and free marketeers.
In the first chapter - Dutch Wonderland! - the wonders of being Dutch are pictured, a history of tolerance (or was it just a fine sense of business acumen?), the Golden Century’s multinational trade companies, great art, and the present-day personal freedoms and welfare state comforts, in sum a true Dutch Wonderland. Yet Dutch identity is in danger of becoming jammed in the preservation of True Dutch comforts. The Dutch stand at a juncture that they must answer: who do we want to be?
Chapter 2 explores Dutch liberation after World War II, during the gay 1960s, which subsequently ran amok in the era of immigration and globalization. Once they were an allegiant and obedient people, framed by church and public authority. When these identity markers faded, Dutch identity became a question. What does it mean to be Dutch, more specifically, what is its content in a world with nominal borders?
Chapter 3 confronts “Dutch Wonderland!” with shocks to “The Lowlands”: racist, fundamentalist Islamic and political murder, 9/11, ethnic segregation and black schools. “Not In My Backyard” sentiments turned Dutch liberalism upside down. A search for a True Dutch character yielded no substantive results; actually it appeared hard to find. That was a real shocker.
In Chapter 4, the packaging and processing of immigrants in the Netherlands is dissected: Allochstan on the North Sea. Allochtons are pimped, immigration issues pumped, and Muslims targeted. Chapter 5 focuses on the Dutch black school, a typical Dutch construction that collects children of non-western lands. These two chapters deal with the defective balance between acceptance and integration of foreigners in Dutch Wonderland: They are not US.
In Chapter 6, overseas Dutch Caribbean compatriots speak out: Dutch in the Caribbean. The Caribbean Patrimonio Nashonal, a remarkable soul brotherhood with True Dutch sentiments across the Atlantic, challenges Netherlands’ provision and control. The compact between the Dutch Caribbean and metropolitan Netherlands serves as a real-life rehearsal of how to operate Dutch citizenship in a multicultural Kingdom, balancing the mixed blessings of globalisation.
In the last Chapter, the core of Dutch identity crisis is defined as a confrontation with democratic and security deficits; a de-emancipation process. Grand historical narratives do not reflect the Dutch position in today’s global order of the world. Dutch identity is sucked into a normative and democratic black hole, which paradoxically invigorates a True Dutch character by default. The Dutch are losing grip on their identity. Once upon a time being Dutch was grounded in church and religion, to be replaced by a Let it Be! mentality that soon gave way to hard-core nationalist sentiments. The construction of a moral substitute -who do we want to be?, combining the comforts of their home with the Dutch position in today’s global world has yet to begin.