Being Dutch, more or less

By Tuesday 30 November 2010 3 Comments

Lammert de Jong, currently residing in New York City and Amsterdam, has written a new book about Dutch identity politics, published by Rozenberg Publishers. One of his fierce criticisms, albeit in a humorous kind of way, aims at how the Dutch view themselves on the world stage, and how this affects local identity debates. Being an educated cosmopolitan, de Jong occasionally also mocks his own Frisian background, reminding me for instance, that the Frisians defeated the Hollanders in 1345, a very momentous point in world history indeed. His new book, Being Dutch, more or less, provides readers with an interesting comparative analysis and a self-critical perspective on the Netherlands.

Why did you write this book?

The changeover of the Netherlands in the last decades has come as a shock to me; from an open minded and tolerant country to a place that is marked with Allochton speak, black schools, and Muslim phobia; a Netherlands that does not know how to manoeuvre a world that has changed irreversibly.

Of course, this shock originates in my personal history of having grown up in an ever more prosperous and liberal Netherlands, coming from a small village in Friesland, Calvinistic upbringing, first in a family of 8 children who went to the University; who overcame church and religion in the gay sixties; came out as homosexual; worked for years in Africa and the Dutch Caribbean; never had to look for a job, just had to raise my finger; enjoyed all along the security of good income, and a comfortable house bought with generous tax credits. Yet in those days political and street activism was part of life. Actually, I surfed on the super swell waves of Dutch Wonderland, a “let it be” country, but built on all sorts of solid securities that guaranteed a good life, also for people who could not make it on their own, including refugees and asylum seekers; a country that allowed for a lot of leeway. In many respects I was part and product of a grand Dutch emancipation process.

This adult life experience, many years outside the Netherlands, sharply contrasts with the prevalent insecurity, and the present day obsession with the Echte Nederlander, the True Dutch; with black schools for immigrant children of non-western origin, and with the public abuse of Muslims and Caribbean compatriots. I am of a generation that feels betrayed by this changeover; and at the same time a generation that has betrayed itself by neglecting those who have not been so lucky; the lower deck of the nation. This generation collected the fruits of Dutch Wonderland, and witnesses now a dramatic reversal of their own silver lined emancipation course: a Dutch de-emancipation process.

In this book I have tried to come to an understanding of what has happened, on the surface but also underneath a populism that promises to restore the old order and “take back the Netherlands,” that loudly proclaims that Muslims must go home; a populism that flatly denies the reality of a world where national borders are fading markers; a populism that has now become an acceptable part of the public order, to be reckoned with.

When did you realize that something had changed in the Netherlands?

I realized that we had an identity problem in Holland in the nineties. In the last decade of the 20th Century easy going Holland became The Land of Hate and Envy, the title of a book. The Dutch became preoccupied with an autochthon complex, emphasizing that the True Dutch were the owners of the (Nether-) lands. Under the pressure of immigration, the Dutch felt that their identity was at stake. The Dutch had botched the job of becoming an immigrant country, they were taken by surprise and had preempted thought and reason with an overdose of Dutch enlightenment. The Dutch no longer radiated that weakness was their strength! Even the Dutch have now entered into a muscular national discourse. The bloc-based identities of ‘our kind of people’, Catholic, Calvinist, or Secular, were lost in the haze of secularization. It would seem however that another identity of ‘our kind of people’ took over, now to demarcate the difference with people of non-western origin who have become Dutch nationals. This line of demarcation is not a sign of a robust Dutch identity, but has come into existence by default, resulting from a lack of imagination when it comes to articulating what it means to be Dutch.

Our classification of immigrants was very typical, we called them allochton [from the Greek allos and chton which literally means “other” and “land”, i.e. from an other land], which implies that even if you are Dutch citizen, you remain for life an allochton; that is not from here, and your children as well. In other countries, for example the USA, children of immigrants are called first generation USA citizens. But we apparently wanted to make a distinction between who we are and who they were, and stamped newcomers with a permanent non-Dutch label. The concept was introduced, I believe in the seventies, as a means for target group policies. But it developed into a distinction of us and them, which was corroborated by the “black” school we invented, which is a school for immigrants of non-western origin who have settled in the Netherlands.

Can you explain what you mean with Dutch Wonderland in your book?

Dutch Wonderland is a country for people who have a lot of liberties, personal freedoms, good education, very good healthcare and solid pensions. It’s a bit crowded but there is excellent public transport and public services are very good. On many indicators they score the best in the world. They think well of themselves in Dutch Wonderland, and many pretend that the Dutch could be a guide to the world. They want to save the world and hand out development aid in a generous manner. It is a country where there is little to complain about. And then, of course, everybody loves to refer to the glorious past, to the Golden Century (17th century A.D.), to Holland ruling the waves and counting great artists. Holland is actually just a dot on the globe, but it had something to show for itself. Is that still the case, that’s one of the questions causing troubles in Dutch Wonderland!

Does Dutch Wonderland have something to say?

At the moment, the picture is rather ambiguous. A strong selling point has always been Dutch tolerance and diversity, respecting each other, which was basically rooted in the Dutch history of pillarization: in order to live together as a strongly divided people we had to be separated in distinct blocks, a.k.a. pillars. During the immigration period, that has pretty much changed. The Netherlands became a secular nation, and the blocks came down. The Dutch are still very liberal for themselves, in terms of gay rights, euthanasia, legalizing soft drugs, but in respect to immigrants and Muslims it looks like the mind has closed.

One of your main theses is that whereas before people believed in Dutch Wonderland and believed in progress, today this belief has been jeopardized. What you’re saying is that although it’s true that these beliefs started to be jeopardized with the coming of immigrants, in reality the immigrants are not the ones who are the cause of this sense of uncertainty.

Immigrants give a handle to the turbulence, which is principally rooted in developments that turned the idea of Dutch Wonderland upside down; this idea does not fit into the contemporary modern world. Holland is really a very small country and when it wants to be part of the big world, it has to beg the United States: “Can we be present at the big economic forums?” I think the Wonderland story is eroding because of international governance, economic market forces, and also because the Dutch have lost their ideological feathers. For long people were motivated by religion (Catholicism, Protestantism), or ideology and worldview (Socialism, Liberalism). All those agents have eroded, except for free market fundamentalism, which Abraham de Swaan labels marktism, a modern day heresy with wide ranging and devastating effects. There is a motivational deficit at the moment. That’s one part, and the other is the problem we actually have in determining our lives, when international market forces give and take away: a big bonus to bankers and the loss of home, income and savings for by-standing citizens, not so much in Holland but visible in stark figures elsewhere. The real value of the Dutch parliamentary democracy must be questioned. These issues that we talk about here don’t make for an appealing political platform, such as international governance, the unbearable lightness of Dutch-European citizenship, the shrinking power of national self-government, and a motivational deficit. Political leadership to tackle these issues is glaringly missing. Nonetheless the Dutch must be made understood that the world has changed, becoming much more difficult to keep up a Dutch Wonderland standard.

So the immigrants are symptoms, to the Dutch, of the globalizing world and their increasing insignificance?

Yes, and at the same time, they are being focused on. Topics of “integration of immigrants” and “keeping Muslims out” give the Dutch a feeling that they are handling the turbulence of economic globalization and international governance that has wrecked their home turf ownership. Allochstan on the Northsea is a ruse to deceive the Dutch that they are in control by charging full force ahead with the integration of non-western immigrants, while the writing on the wall indicates that they themselves are rapidly losing their foothold in the changing order of the world. All the hoopla about the integration of allochtons suggests that the Dutch have a handle on clearing the debris the nation has been facing since immigration hit the Dutch fan. This fallout must be cleared by an integration project that firmly incorporates the allochton into the Dutch fold; then all will be well again. Their primary concern is the integration of non-western foreigners, while the democratic and moral signature of their own Dutch world is fading. A sense of gaining control of some strangers in their backyard blinds the Dutch to a much larger identity crisis that looms in the corridors of globalisation. They must be made aware that the table of Dutch sovereignty and citizenship – burgerschap – is turning over.

How do you see the relation of the European Union to the issue of ‘not in my backyard, keep the immigrants out’?

Thanks to the European Union, we are prosperous and do very well in Holland. Since the end of World War II there has been peace in Western Europe. Much of our wealth and security comes through our interaction with Europe. At the same time, the European institutions are not seen as a kind of government that can be held responsible. Even politicians in Holland often see the European Union as a foreign occupier, and transfer that feeling to the public. It was not only Holland who voted against the constitution, but also France, but I think in the case of Holland, it has much to do with it being such a small country, a dwarf state as Bolkestein said, so that the whole Wonderland pretension evaporates in European air.

International governance, the European Union and open borders that make the economy flourish are matters of fact. Also, the lack of democracy in this domain is a matter of fact. This gives people a feeling of uncertainty with regard to who and what is determining the great goodies of their lives. These insecurities are not very well articulated, but they are there, for example expressed in the NO vote against the European constitution. This vote was a vote against the European Union, which was perceived as an authority that overrules the Dutch, and especially their True Dutch and anti-immigrant sentiments. Being against the Europe Union gives some politicians a handle to tackle the sense of insecurity among the Dutch.

A project to democratize the European Union is not part of an urgent political agenda. The slogans of the European elections are “Europe is okay,” i.e. it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t harm. A project to activate Dutch-European citizenship is painfully missing, while this is a much more fundamental issue than integrating immigrants in your country. So it’s not surprising that Wilders is against the European Union, immigrants and Muslims simultaneously. He complements these stands with a fourth platform, care for old age people who are under siege because of their growing numbers, which makes for a perfect insecurity agenda that, however, has a blind spot for how much the world has changed.

Rather than having a tough agenda on Dutch-European citizenship, that is integration of Dutch citizens in Europe, we have a tough agenda on the integration of immigrants. We focus on Islam and immigrants, and send their children to black schools. Dutch children of non-Western origin are going to schools that are labeled black, which shows a bizarre twist in the Dutch mind. Why do we call those schools black schools? This must hark back to a racist attitude, telling They are not Us. True Dutch people don’t send their children to these schools if they can help it. In that way, we are light years removed from a well-integrated society, not because of THEM, but because of US.

Your book also compares the Dutch situation to the Caribbean.
Yes, I’m very lucky with recent developments in the Dutch Caribbean, because much of what I wrote fits really well with the actual situation. Here is a beautiful example of a very diverse kingdom, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, with a European part and a Caribbean part. Here we find strong antagonistic forces, disparate identities and an overlay of colonial history that is played out when people feel right to do so. Even Curacao, an island “loaded with complexes” as a friend from Curacao once told me after he had left, came around and voted YES to remain part of an updated Kingdom. In the end the Netherlands Antilles on five islands imploded, but they all wanted to remain part of the Kingdom. The European Dutch voted NO to the European constitution, while the Dutch Caribbean voted YES, even so this Kingdom configuration is loaded with a history of white over black. I think that we can learn from the Caribbean resolution. Their motivation is that “we’re much better off in the Kingdom than being an independent island on our own.” I think our overseas compatriots really thought glocal: reaching for a global attachment which is provided by the offices of the Kingdom, a lifeline as it were; and acting local now and then, giving the governors in The Hague a lot of trouble.

Are you saying that the Caribbean Dutch trumped the European Dutch, realizing what’s best for them?

Yes, this illustrates that. The Dutch Caribbean realized that it is better off with Holland, than being on its own, nourishing the island’s Patrimonio Nashonal. Notwithstanding being burdened by Dutch colonial history and slave trade, the Dutch Caribbean showed strong political leadership and citizenship in opting for access to a larger world, although the Dutch connection must not be exaggerated. I think the European Dutch have been shortsighted by voting NO to the European Union constitution, attempting to restore a True Dutch fantasy. Actually they were lacking political leadership in making the right choice, for better (peace and prosperity) and worse (European bureaucracy and democratic deficiency).

I am flustered by how strong the True Dutch sentiment has become dominant in politics, media and Dutch walk-and-talk, causing a watershed in what was once Dutch Wonderland. The Dutch just seem to be focused on keeping things as they were, rather than using their imagination as to how to operate in a new world. Instead of turning back, Dutch Wonderland should realize that the world has changed. And if Dutch Wonderland wants to remain a wonderland, it has to participate in that world instead of closing the borders and the Dutch mind. It has to be open and know how much of that wonderland quality rests on a world wide web of interrelations that have overrun the Netherlands borders. If Dutch Wonderland doesn’t realize that its wellbeing depends to a large extent on the world at large, it will become very small, much smaller than the country already is.

An introduction to the concept of Dutch Wonderland can be read here:

About Lammert de Jong
Dr. Lammert de Jong (1942) served 9 years between 1985 and 1998 as resident-representative of the Netherlands government in the Netherlands Antilles. Prior to this he was attached to the University of Zambia and the National Institute of Public Administration in Lusaka, Zambia (1972-1976). In the People’s Republic of Bénin, he was director of the Netherlands Development Aid Organization (1980-1984). He received a PhD in Social Sciences at the Free University, Amsterdam (1972), and published during his academic years about public administration and participation.
He concluded his civil service career as Counselor to the Netherlands government on Kingdom relations. Since then he has written as a free-lance scholar on post-colonial statehood in the Caribbean. His most recent book, Being Dutch, more or less, is on Dutch identity “in the making.”

Pooyan Tamimi Arab

Pooyan Tamimi Arab

Pooyan Tamimi Arab heeft kunstgeschiedenis en filosofie gestudeerd in Amsterdam en New York. Op dit moment is hij promovendus Culturele Antropologie in Utrecht.


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