I want my country back. Venerable and anarchic Amsterdam, the glorious arse-hole of Europe, seedy and hungover, blinking at the harsh morning light. Or suspiciously modest Groningen, ill at ease in a countryside most of its denizens never see, bathing in the waft of tobacco factories, marijuana, and the scent of Surinam groceries. Or my hometown of Oude Pekela, teenage pregnancy capital of the country, jovial and violent, the dirty water of the river a deep and warm green in the afternoon haze. Living in one of the most orderly and squeaky-clean countries of Europe, I miss all that. And while I'm at it, I want my Guilder back, too, with the face of the Queen (a friend of mine reminds me that the Euro has the face of the Queen, too. But it's not the same). And the smoking sections in the trains. And a Communist Party which I can vote for once in every four years and rail against for the rest of the time.
I write this post after having read that the Christian Democrat Party wants to shut down the Coffeeshops, that most Dutch of Dutch institutions. First, they take away our real money and substitute it for fake money. Then, the moralist Mayor of Amsterdam starts a crusade against the red light district (okay, it's more complicated than that, but allow me to vent my spleen). Then, the Christian Democrats ban smoking in pubs - destroying the bruine kroeg, our Dutch equivalent of the British local pub. From now on, pubs in the Netherlands will be trendy hell-holes with abstract art on the wall, filled with non-smoking twits eating sushi and drinking drinks that glow in the dark. And now, they come for the Coffeeshops. For clarity: this is not going to happen. I do not believe it will be possible to introduce a prohibitionist mentality in a culture congenitally hostile to prohibitionism. But the very idea is enough to arouse my anger (ever-simmering as of late) at the direction the Dutch government has been taking.
Dutch culture has always had its own dialectic, a covenant between pencil-pushing bureaucracy and anarchism, between vicious social control and toleration, between finger-wagging moralism and libertinism. But the covenant has now been broken, and for the moment, the prigs and prudes and puritans seem to be in the ascendancy.
Secular-minded leftists often rail against communalism, the viewpoint that religious and cultural minorities in the West should be left, to a large extent, to handle their own affairs. The irony is that what is still the most liberal society in Western Europe is also deeply, thoroughly communalistic. After the reformation and the foundation of the Dutch republic at the end of the 16th century, Dutch Calvinism became the state religion - which it remained until halfway the 19th century - but Protestantism never attained the absolutely dominant position it did in Scandinavia. The Catholics remained a very sizeable minority (and currently, a majority among the religious part of the nation). The Calvinists very quickly fractured into orthodox and Arminian factions and continued to fracture. And Calvinist protestantism was never alone to begin with: the Anabaptists were the first organized protestants in the Netherlands, and the Doopsgezinde congregation remains (even if small).
Coupling this with the fairly weak state during the Republic (Orange-minded groups and institutions constantly competed for power with republican groups and institutions) goes a long way in explaining the Republic's tolerance for outsiders and dissidents. Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews came to the Netherlands and were left alone; philosophers and scientists such as Descartes and Linnaeus studied and worked in the Netherlands; protestant Huguenot refugees from France found a refuge in the Netherlands in the 17th century as did Catholic refugees from Germany in the 19th century.
The system that would gradually emerge in the Netherlands has been called pillarisation: any particular religious, cultural or political community had its own institutions, media, political organizations, etc., creating a 'pillar' of clubs and institutions surrounding the individual from birth to death. A Dutch reformed boy would go to a Dutch reformed school, join a Dutch reformed football club, work most likely for a Dutch reformed boss, marry of course a Dutch reformed girl, and would quite likely end his life in a Dutch reformed nursing home. For individuals, the system may well have been quite suffocating: at the same time, it worked - there was very little violence or strife between various religious groups (outside from maybe the traditional village-to-village brawls in the countryside). And communities would work together when needed. During the Second World War, the Communists and the hardcore Calvinists were both very active in the resistance, and they developed a curious respect for each other.
The system began to crumble and decline in the 1960s and later. The ruling Christian Democrat party is itself a symptom of that decline: being based on a 1980 fusion between a Catholic and two Protestant political parties. My own youth is pretty much a picture of the survival of 'pillarised' institutions in a secularizing society: I visited a Catholic primary school, a ecumenical (but largely Protestant) high school, played in a Dutch reformed marching band and attended meetings of the Communist Party.
Dutch television is still largely 'pillarised': public television airtime is divided between a Catholic station, an Evangelical one, a Social Democrat one, etc. But marking the demise of pillarisation, for example, is the fact that the liberal protestant television, after the 1960s, turned into the most artistically radical and countercultural station (the first to show full frontal nudity, etc.). We would watch their children's television when we were little, which was pretty edgy (I recall one show where the Monster of Frankenstein underwent a sex operation). But my parents preferred us watching that than watching the American children's animations on the other stations where people would be shot up and so forth. In any event, the station is currently protestant in name only - and where the other religious stations maintain a stronger identity, even the Evangelical one has been under pressure to secularize.
But even as the individual 'pillars' crumbled, the Dutch policy of leaving people pretty much alone to settle their own affairs flourished. A verb that entered politics was gedogen, literally 'tolerate' but specifically referring to the policy of neither legalizing a particular area of vice, nor prosecuting it. Prostitution has been 'tolerated' for a long time before legalization which meant simply that it remained technically illegal but the state refused to prosecute. The same still goes for the possession of small quantities of most drugs (quite aside from the regulated sale of marijuana in Coffeeshops). The policy remains, in my opinion, a fairly brilliant one: I still wonder whether gedogen is sometimes actually preferable to full legalization. Legalization is a double-edged sword: it tends to favour larger operations and companies which can deal with the regularizing and state intervention inevitably following rather than, say, the individual grower having a backyard full of weed plants or the individual prostitute. Also, legalizing a sphere of activity such as prostitution and bringing it under government control may lead to policy decisions not necessarily in favour of the persons involved: in the city of Arnhem, the red-light district (central, well-attended and therefore quite safe) was shut down with the official 'prostitution zone' removed to some kind of industrial zone at the edge of town.
In any event, the Dutch political equilibrium, and its toleration policy, was decisively disturbed with the meteoric political rise and murder of Pim Fortuyn in 2002. Fortuyn's movement channelled immense unrest and discontent about multiculturalism, the problems of which had been covered up with a suffocating blanket of political correctness for decades; with softness on crime; with globalization and the European Union which remains highly unpopular in the Netherlands; with the government constantly crowing on about economic good times which, somehow, surprise surprise, did not really trickle down to the poorer layers of society, etc. Fortuyn's jerry-rigged political 'party' did not survive his death for very long, but right-wing populism remains a force to be reckoned with in Dutch politics.
(As does, incidentally, left-wing populism: the Social Democrats have been bleeding supporters into the hard-left, economically socialist and culturally conservative Socialist Party, which is on the verge of overtaking them).
Basically, the feeling is that the Dutch policy of gedogen has also extended to 'tolerating' crime, vandalism, youth gangs and the ghettoization of parts of the big cities. At the same time - and this is a peculiar and interesting feature of Dutch right-wing populism - there is a (not unjustified) feeling that the muslim minority does not share the general Dutch tolerance for gays, alternative sexual lifestyles, etc. Pim Fortuyn was much more a libertarian than a conventional European nationalist.
Toleration in Dutch society has never been an enshrined principle in the way secularism is in the French republic, or constitutional values and individual liberty in the United States. Precisely because the Netherlands for such a long time has been a collection of various cultural and religious groups, living their own lives and pulling together as needed, depillarisation and its consequences have left us, I believe, grasping for such a basis: liberalism and toleration itself is not enough when dealing with the integration of a minority which has in some aspects quite illiberal values. At the same time, one might state that the integration of islamic minorities has been mismanaged from day one: guest-workers from the 1960s were discouraged from assimilating too much into Dutch society in order to discourage them from staying - and yet they stayed, leaving a second generation to grow up with one foot in a culture which is not theirs anymore, another in one which has never been quite welcoming and is currently utterly hostile.
The 2006 elections were, in some way, a revolt of the 'countryside' against the political elites of the big cities. The winners were the hard-left Socialist Party, with its base in the Catholic south and also strong support in the traditionally socialist/communist North-East; the culturally conservative and economically leftist Christian Union (itself a fusion of two denominationally different Calvinist groups: another example of depillarisation) which has its support in the Dutch Calvinist 'Bible Belt' from Zeeland in the Southwest to Kampen and Staphorst in the East; the Christian Democrats which always have been strong all over the countryside; and the hard-right Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, which has strong support in Limburg where Wilders is from. Losers were the Social Democrats, the liberal democrat D66, the right-wing liberals of the VVD - all parties with their power base in the big cities and the suburbs.
The resulting government has for the first time involved the Christian Union. I actually like the Christian Union (and the openly theocratic SGP) as opposition parties: they are excellent conservative watchdogs. I am less enthusiastic about their participation together with the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats in government, which has driven an increasingly illiberal line. The apex of which are justice secretary Hirsh Ballin's efforts not just to preserve but to broaden Dutch anti-blasphemy laws (which were last used sometime in the sixties). As well as his efforts in having a Dutch cartoonist lifted from his bed and arrested by 10 armed coppers for violating 'hate speech laws'. Interestingly, there seemed to have been little pressure from the supposedly offended muslims at work here - rather, the Christian Democrats are using them as an alibi for their own campaigns.
What they want is turn the Netherlands into just another squeaky-clean, nannyist European country in which any actual discontent is covered with 'hate-speech' laws, we all step in line, obediently filter our internet, do not indulge into such unhealthy activities such as smoking joints, and correspond perfectly to the Brussels bureaucrats dreams of what Europe is supposed to be. It won't work of course. The illiberalism of the Christian Democrats is, ultimately, foreign to the Dutch mentality as a whole. Laws people don't see the sense behind are simply ignored. The same is already starting with the smoking ban, which is openly ignored by an increasing number of pubs.
On an optimistic note, here's rap group THC's patriotic hymn to Amsterdam: