EDITOR’S NOTE: This column appears in the July 15, 2002, issue of National Review.
Amsterdam–Dildos, tulips, and waffles, all on the same block: Welcome to the Netherlands, a country renowned for the bourgeoisification of vice.
I have just entered Amsterdam’s red-light district in–honest!–an attempt to visit the Oude Kerk, the medieval “old church” that is the capital city’s oldest stone building. Because the streets are so clean, orderly, and nonthreatening, you hardly realize you’ve entered the louche part of town, until you notice that the sickly-sweet aroma of burning hashish from the “coffeeshops” never really goes away. Then you notice display windows proffering a selection of bizarre devices and videos appealing to every imaginable vile affection (and even some unimaginable ones, about which PETA should be concerned). And, of course, there are the whores, many of them transvestites, standing in their windows, rapping on the glass to solicit attention and trade. The Oude Kerk sits in the middle of this cesspool, a faded jewel in a steaming dunghill.
Like many of the great old churches of Holland, this place is barely used for worship anymore–one hour on Sunday morning, for what’s left of the Calvinist community–and is instead primarily a monument and exhibition hall. On this day, they were having an exhibition of prizewinning photos from the world press, which I didn’t give a fig about, but for which I had to buy a ticket if I wanted to see the interior. As it turned out, several of the photos were potent images from the September 11 attack.
And these overwhelming images have everything to do with why I’m in this country. If not for the Islamist terrorist attacks, the fear and loathing many Dutch people have concerning the presence of Muslims in their country would not have been aired in Holland’s politically correct public square, and certainly would not have found a voice in the late Pim Fortuyn. The rookie politician was assassinated by, police believe, a radical animal-rights activist days before the May 15 election; the aftermath of the killing helped return the center-right Christian Democrats to power, and made the List Pim Fortuyn, a brand-new political party, one of the country’s largest.
The libertarian Fortuyn came to prominence in large part by persuading voters that the secular West was in the midst of a clash of civilizations with intolerant Islam. Fortuyn said that Holland’s civil order is under assault by sharply rising levels of street crime, much of which is attributable to young men from Islamic countries; worse, Muslim immigrants, over the long term, pose a potential fifth-column threat to tolerant democracy as long as they refuse to assimilate and accept Dutch values. Multiculturalist dogma and political correctness, he argued, prevent the West from accurately gauging the threat posed by Islam, and discussing ways to counter it. “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel,” said Robert Frost–a succinct phrasing of Fortuyn’s indictment of the Dutch establishment.
Fortuyn was not the first contemporary European politician to draw attention to the immigration question, but he was the first to frame it explicitly as a matter of the bankruptcy of multiculturalism–which, he contended, was meeting its Waterloo in the crime-ridden Islamic ghettos of Dutch cities. It’s apt that this problem emerged so pointedly in the Netherlands, because this country is perhaps the world’s most postmodern nation, the place where liberalism has penetrated most deeply. It’s an egalitarian social democracy, sexually emancipated, thoroughly irreligious, and largely devoid of nationalist consciousness. Holland prides itself on tolerance uber alles–except, of course, toward conservatives. Until now, the Islamic sort of conservative has drawn a pass, owing to his origins in the Third World, before which good European liberals cannot sufficiently abase themselves.
The plunging birthrate of native-born Europeans, and thus their need to import foreign workers (mostly Muslims), raises some doubt as to whether democratic Europe can survive in its present form. Fortuyn understood this, and wanted to save the Netherlands–but what exactly did he want to save it for? An open homosexual who bragged about his promiscuity, Fortuyn championed Holland’s anything-goes society as a morally desirable end. For him, the glorious fruit of Dutch liberty was not the civilization the Oude Kerk stands for, but the institutions on the church’s ramparts: Sexyland (“Live F**k Show”), the High Time Coffeeshop, and the ladies in the windows. He did not grasp that the licentious individualism he praised was seriously weakening the bonds of the society he wanted to preserve.
And such bonds still exist. The Dutch are, by and large, a middle-class nation of friendly, modest people beavering through ordinary lives in quiet towns and suburbs. But they are the canary in the West’s cultural coal mine–an advance warning system of what’s to come for the rest of us.
“The things you Americans are facing today, Holland faced ten or fifteen years ago,” says Rob Hondsmerk, a child psychologist who directs Focus on the Family-Netherlands. “I see America going down the same path, and if things keep going at the present rate, it’s not going to take you fifteen years to get there.”
Though predominantly Calvinist in culture since the Reformation, Holland has, since the “Golden Age” of the Dutch Republic in the 17th and 18th centuries, enjoyed a reputation for tolerance, perhaps due less to virtue than to the mercantilist pragmatism for which the Dutch are well known. This intellectual and religious freedom helped produce not only immense wealth, making the Netherlands the center of European commerce for just over a century, but also the work of such Western cultural icons as Spinoza, Vermeer, and Rembrandt.
Modern Dutch political history began in 1897, with the “pillarization” of the country’s politics. Each of three main groups–Catholics, Protestants, and socialists–organized itself around its own “pillar,” and rarely operated outside this virtual ghetto; elites of all pillars worked together to prevent sectarian strife. This politics of consensus kept the country together, but it required avoiding open conflict over ideas. Joshua Livestro, 35, a political speechwriter and conservative activist, says pillarization effectively destroyed any hope of building a conservative political party because those who held right-of-center views were dispersed among the various confessional parties, diluting their strength.
And their divisions left them completely unprepared for the 1960s. It has been remarked that no society on earth was more thoroughly transformed by the Sixties than Holland’s. James Kennedy, a history professor at Hope College in Michigan, wrote his doctoral dissertation on how the Netherlands went from being one of the most religious, socially conservative countries in Western Europe to being a bourgeois Babylon in a few short years. Postwar Dutch society lost faith in the old system, which the counterculture showed to have been made of straw.
“A number of Dutch religious and secular leaders concluded there wasn’t a lot to be done to resist,” explains Kennedy. “One thing the Dutch political culture does well, maybe too well, is to accommodate itself to new moods in society. What you don’t do is try to create a ’silent majority’ to resist new trends, because in this view, trends can’t be bucked.”
The Left captured the culture without firing a shot. The welfare state burgeoned, and cultural leftists took over influential opinion-leading posts in academia and the media. They have so thoroughly dominated the national conversation for an entire generation that there are barely any conservatives left. Unlike America, where the Right emerged from the 1964 Goldwater defeat with the resources, institutions, and intellectual firepower to sustain a long-term resistance against the Left, Holland had no counter-force.
“This is a very small country,” says Andreas Kinneging, 40, a legal philosopher who is the intellectual godfather of Holland’s nascent conservative movement. The Dutch “have a few national papers, a few channels, a handful of universities, a few publishers. Most of the elites know each other. They’re all liberal, and all think the same. They consider themselves moral, upright, good people. Their power is tremendous . . . You have to be very independent-minded or very cosmopolitan not to be indoctrinated by this worldview.”
Despite having turned itself into perhaps the most socialistic, morally permissive democracy in the world, Holland has worked, more or less, because of the residual Calvinism in its national character. The typical Dutchman is hard-working, sober, honest, and self-disciplined; he is generally satisfied with the welfare state, because he finds it not only morally just, but a good return on his investment. Society functioned relatively smoothly over the past few decades, so few Dutch found reason to complain.
But their comfortable arrangement is cracking, with the new arrivals bringing fault lines in the system to the surface. Says Livestro: “Immigration magnifies the problems left by the erosion of religion and family, and the usurpation by the state of all the functions of society. Striving to improve your lot is ingrained in Western culture, materially and spiritually. All of that has been made suspect by [the Dutch establishment]. We’ve gotten to a point where ordinary people feel that the political class is removed from their concerns.”
What increasingly bothers the Dutch are freeloaders. Though the unemployment rate is just over 2 percent, 18 percent of the Dutch labor force is on the dole to some degree, with 11 percent receiving occupational-disability benefits under the widely abused system. Immigrants, who have a high unemployment rate, are another irritant. Eight percent of Holland’s 16 million people are of foreign descent, with more than half of them Muslims, mostly from Turkey and Morocco. Holland’s four largest cities–Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, and Utrecht–are home to the majority of immigrants. Almost half the population of Rotterdam, where Fortuyn launched his political career, is of foreign descent.
This has had unfortunate consequences. Earlier this month, the trade association representing Holland’s supermarkets announced that it would be shutting down stores in the immigrant-heavy inner cities unless the government got serious about policing the areas. That’s because young immigrant men from these neighborhoods are disproportionately represented in Dutch crime statistics. According to criminologist Chris Rutenfrans, a study in 2000 found that 33 percent of all criminal suspects are foreign-born, as are 55 percent of prison inmates. An astonishing 63 percent of those convicted of homicide are immigrants–Moroccans, Antilleans, and sub-Saharan Africans are the chief culprits. “The reason always given to explain these statistics is that they live in deprived circumstances,” says Rutenfrans. “But other minorities are similarly deprived, and they aren’t criminals.”
Some Muslims bring with them a culture of religious extremism, encouraged in part by religious schools–at least one-third of which are funded by the Saudis, according to a government report. The report also revealed that 20 percent of Holland’s Islamic schools receive funding from the radical Islamic organization Al-Waqf al-Islami, or have radical Muslims on their boards. The government warned that the country’s Islamic schools showed very little commitment to preparing their students for integration into Dutch society.
More troubling, the government intelligence service warned as long as a decade ago that the Netherlands was becoming a center of Islamic terrorist recruitment and operations. Since September 11, terrorism experts have warned that violent Islamic extremists are conducting operations in Holland, in part because the country’s deeply ingrained taboo against intolerance gives them relative freedom from scrutiny.
Worries about terrorism and crime manifest themselves as anxiety over immigration, yet Dutch voters also see the rising crime rate as part of a broader decline of civil society. It’s common these days to hear the Dutch complaining that beneath the egalitarian surface, theirs has become an individualist culture, in which everyone thinks only of his rights, but not his obligations to the larger community. “People are fed up with the abuse of the welfare state, but they have yet to realize the problem is the welfare state itself,” says Bart Jan Spruyt, political editor for Reformatorisch Dagblad, a Protestant-affiliated daily.
“The Dutch worry about what’s happening to civil society, but they don’t understand that the state cannot make you moral,” says Livestro. “They fail to see that civil society starts with personal morality, and with the family.” The social problems are connected to the decline of religion and the consequent loss of faith in traditional Judeo- Christian morality. Some 30 years ago, 60 percent of the population were at church on Sunday morning; today, it’s between 8 and 13 percent. The media have relentlessly mocked religion.
To be a believing Christian in today’s Holland, therefore, requires a countercultural courage that’s hard for most Americans to imagine. But these people exist. I stumbled across a small congregation of Iranian Pentecostals, all converts from Islam, in a distant suburb of Amsterdam. The pastor, who asked not to be identified because of past violent threats from area Muslims, told me that he was shocked by the naivete the Dutch have about radical Islam. He thought Fortuyn was “a bit extremist,” and didn’t count himself a supporter–but he agreed with much of what Fortuyn said, and was glad somebody finally said it.
In this, the Iranian pastor was like most Dutch voters with whom I spoke, telling me that Fortuyn wasn’t their cup of tea, politically, but he was invaluable as a catalyst for a long-overdue discussion of Islam and the limits of multiculturalism. Kinneging says Fortuyn struck a chord with voters sick of being taken for granted: “In the wake of the transformation of our big cities [by immigration] has come a lot of guns, violence, drugs, trading in women, and dirty streets. The political, intellectual, and journalistic elite who are in favor of this immigration do not live in these urban neighborhoods.”
Fortuyn’s criticism of Islam was risky. Holland has a clause in its constitution criminalizing “discrimination,” which has been interpreted by the country’s highest court to include speech deemed too critical of women and minorities. The threat of legal censure as well as denunciation in the court of public opinion has a serious chilling effect on politically incorrect speech.
Nor was this the only factor reducing conservative support for Fortuyn. Despite sharing some of his common-sense views on immigration, reducing the bureaucracy, and law and order, many serious Dutch conservatives remained skeptical of Fortuyn: As correct as he was on diagnosing the threat from Islamofascism and multiculturalism, they believed, any solution that does not address the breakdown of the family and the moral order can only be a stopgap measure, a finger in a crumbling dike.
“He was a liberal in every respect,” says Kinneging. “What he wanted was a country where his type of liberal hedonism could be kept up. For him, Islam was a danger because the ethics of Islam are contrary to today’s Western hedonism. In a sense, he was part of the problem, not the solution.”
Even so, conservatives acknowledge a great debt to him for standing up for free speech, thereby providing what may be the first opening they’ve had in a generation. As the present and future continent-wide struggles over Islam and immigration exacerbate the problems inherent in the permissive welfare-state society, Dutch conservatives anticipate that the public will become more open to their ideas. Livestro, Spruyt, Kinneging, and other conservatives have organized a small think tank called the Edmund Burke Foundation (www.burkestichting.nl): They want it to serve as a launching pad for getting conservative critiques and policy ideas into the still-inhospitable Dutch public square.
“This is missionary territory,” says Kinneging. “It will be difficult for us, and we are a small group of people, but Russell Kirk started all by himself.”
While Kinneging tends to be pessimistic about the prospects for a conservative revival in his country, Livestro, the foundation’s director, is possessed by a Reaganite faith in the good sense of his countrymen. This comes out when I repeat to him observations from the ordinary Dutch citizens I interviewed. One complained about the loss of respect for authority–the result, in his view, of egalitarianism gone too far. Another said that though he isn’t a Christian, he has a newfound respect for the achievements of Christian culture, and believes the Dutch ought to listen more to Christian teaching on virtue and order.
“They’re probably not alone,” says Livestro. “One of our challenges is to figure out how to reach people like that. It is part of human nature to aspire beyond yourself. There’s a universal moral grammar written in the human heart. If you can speak to people in that brief moment, and speak to those words written on their hearts, people can change sometimes.”
They had better. Like dissolute descendants of old money, the Dutch have been living for two generations now on the moral and spiritual capital built from centuries of religious faith and practice, however imperfect. The accounts are nearly depleted. “The Dutch believe that if it’s possible, then you mustn’t forbid it, you must tolerate it,” says Focus on the Family’s Hondsmerk. “We’ve had that for a generation now. That works as long as people have a natural self-control, but that is fast fading.”
“What we are witnessing now is the very first generation who grew up without a religious background,” says Kinneging. “What has happened until now is that most people without a religious background have become consumerists, materialists, and hedonists. They are still law-abiding citizens. We’ll have to see what the next generation will become.”