The eternal Golden Age: The discursive corruption of the Dutch self-image

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The Netherlands is often seen as a very tolerant country, where the right to individual self-determination comes first. The roots of Dutch tolerance and the desire for freedom are believed to originate from the Golden Age. Strangely enough, the idea of what the Golden Age exactly was, has been developed in the extremely conservative nineteenth century. About fifty years ago the meanings of tolerance and freedom have changed completely, but the idea has remained that the Netherlands is an exceptional country  ̶  not any longer a country that turned its back on the rest of the world, but rather a progressive guide country. All in all, there appears to be something like ‘discursive corruption’: based on an incorrect self-image, there is no proper debate about what the Netherlands could or should be as a country, because it seems that the precise nature of the Netherlands is already fixed.

Visitors from abroad seem to like the absence of monstrous monuments in the Netherlands. The lack of references to a feudal or colonial past is refreshing and it is seen as an expression of the lack of hierarchy. Characteristic of the tolerant country that the Netherlands is supposed to be.

Of course there are such references, they are just a little less flashy. After all, a street name is less likely to be noticed than a statue or a column. And the statues and columns that exist in the Netherlands are curiously often found just outside the city center.

But that may not all be that positive. I cannot say it with 100% certainty, but could it not be that, in the absence of statues, the Dutch seem to have forgotten what exactly their past has been. Revisionist ideas find their way easily and have led a national self-image that hardly seems to be factual.

The problem is that such an incorrect self-image makes it difficult to have a proper democratic debate. Such a debate requires a discourse within which it can be discussed which direction is the right or most desirable one. Instead, there seem to be discussions in the Netherlands about how decisions and actions contribute to the perfection of the Dutch national nature. While it is doubtful to what extent this national character is given, especially if you realize that it only is an apocryphal reconstruction.

One could speak of discursive corruption: the story the Dutch tell about themselves and that is repeated at the pub table, in the newspaper, in politics, and elsewhere, is based on a twisted representation of history and denies that democracy is about the development of a collective identity, not about maintaining it.

Of course every historical perspective is a biased selection, based on what people want to see. No history can be neutral or objective, because the only correct history would be the entire history itself.

That’s not what it’s about. In fact, discursive corruption is about the history of history. A national self-image is formed by agreeing upon historical benchmarks that indicate which values, virtues, achievements and goals are considered important. However, the presence of such benchmarks allows the further consideration of the desirability of this self-image by reflection, taking and discussing it.

For example, there are debates in many countries about how to deal with statues that are ‘contaminated’. The statues and structures that were erected in the nineteenth century symbolized military strength and courage and the supremacy over other countries, peoples and cultures. It was the era of ‘invented traditions’ that had to contribute to the creation of a national identity. In addition, history is written from the point of view of the winners, who show that it is not only good, but also righteous that they have won.

Today, we find a national identity derived from such values undesirable. The colonial and racist sense of superiority belong to the past, just as bloodthirsty militarism. The triumphant historiography of the nineteenth century has itself become part of history.

This cannot be found in the Netherlands. The history that is known to the Dutch still is the history of the victors of days gone by. Protests against the images of slaves on the King’s ‘Golden Carriage’, the statue of Coen in Hoorn or the street name of Witte de Withstraat in Rotterdam are not protests against these victors, but are seen as the confirmation of traditional Dutch values ​​such as tolerance and freedom. Slavery was an aberration that took place far away, Coen’s genocide was not only far away, but also long ago, and nobody knows anyway who Witte de With was and what he has done.

In short, these memorials do not seem to compel the Dutch to adjust their self-image, so that the corrupt national discourse can be persevered. That discourse is formed by the idea that the Netherlands is a thoroughly tolerant, progressive and democratic country. A forerunner in progress and enlightenment. That idea that the Dutch love to lean on is unfounded and not older than half a century, as I will show later. The fact that the Netherlands has been lagging behind the rest of Europe and that this was something the Dutch were proud of, has been forgotten, since there were very few monuments to helped them to remember their unenlightened past.

Let’s take a look at the street signs that express that the street in question is named after a ‘nineteenth century statesman’. Abraham Kuyper, for example, who, as the patriarch of the so-called pillarized society, has had an unprecedented influence on the Dutch state system.

Kuyper founded the Anti-Revolutionary Party, the first political party in the country and up to the 1990s, a constant factor in the government. The revolution that is criticized in the name of the party is the French Revolution and more specifically the ideals of political equality and scientific rationality that come along with it  ̶  in short, the ideals of the Enlightenment. For Kuyper, these ideals went directly against the Calvinistic word of God.

According to the ARP, the Netherlands should do everything it could to resist progress, which was the course of the rest of Europe, where the Enlightenment inspired all kind of democratic experiments, such as the bloodily crushed Commune of Paris.

It is true that of the values ​​of the revolution  ̶  freedom, equality and brotherhood  ̶  you can find the first one in the nineteenth-century Netherlands. But then, above all, it was all about the freedom to just mind one’s own business. All those religious factions were only busy proving to themselves that had God on their side.

Something similar applies to the value of equality. The different pillars were considered equal, but within them hierarchical structures persisted. Elites were in charge, others had to follow.

Without doubt, the greatest Dutch value is that of tolerance. Today we see that as the acceptance even the celebration of differences between groups of people. For a Dutch person of the nineteenth-century, tolerance was mainly about the right to be left alone. All groups stood with their backs against each other, there was little that bound society as a whole. In the end, this attitude became crystallized in the pillarization, in which schools, newspapers, political parties, sports clubs, were formed around a single ideological direction, so that no one had to take issue with the concerns of outsiders.

It is pillarization that explains why there are so few large memorials were constructed, at a time that pompous arches and pillars were built elsewhere in Europe. There was simply no symbol that could unite the whole country. In other words, the revolutionary value of brotherhood was foreign to the country. That is an important point, because the idea that all members of a society are affectionately connected to each other is a condition for a well-functioning democracy. Only when people are seen as equals and those people share something as an identity, a culture, a certain way of understanding the world, something like a ‘people’ that is ‘sovereign’ to have control over themselves can come into existence.

Kuypers disliked American democracy. Many Americans, on the other hand, have been inspired by Kuyper. Especially extremely conservative Americans, such as those in the Donald Trump government, which are usually considered as right-wing radical idiots in the Netherlands.

Betsy DeVos, for example, minister of educational affairs, who is dismantling the American education system, by allowing the rich to buy the best education for their children, leaving the rest of society behind. DeVos, that sounds like a Dutch name. And indeed it is, she is from Holland, Michigan, founded by Calvinist pilgrims from the Netherlands. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Abraham Kuyper was a welcome guest there and his thinking had and still has a great influence.

In fact, the ideas of DeVos about what the American school system should be are directly inspired by Abraham Kuyper’s policy of schools that received money from the government, but otherwise were not to be restricted in their ideological or confessional character.

Another name that you often find on street signs: Johan Rudolf Thorbecke. The author of the 1848 constitution, which implied that the power of the king was transferred to parliament. He must have been an enlightened democrat, or not? Well, not really. Above all, he was a liberal conservative, focused on maintaining and increasing the dominant position of the free ‘citizens’  ̶  that is, that part of the population that could had become rich thanks to free trade and the absence of regulation. Men of wealth, about 5% of the population.

In the nineteenth century, politics in the Netherlands was by no means progressing upwards, as can be observed in other countries. It was primarily a trench war between Christian politicians and liberal politicians. Both parties were extremely conservative, aimed at preserving the rights and privileges that they considered theirs. The idea of ​​‘people’s sovereignty’, as said, a basic condition for democracy, was widely seen as a threat.

In 1865, Busken Huet, writer and journalist, puts the following words in the mouth of Thorbecke the words that “it is a mystery how one can relate our new constitutional institutions, new as far as they go in 1848 with the word popular sovereignty; to speak of popular sovereignty is as good to him as talk of a chaos, of something of which I cannot form a clear understanding; and that there is no trace of popular sovereignty in the occasional laws proposed by me”.

This may have been satire, but it was good satire because it brought out the essence of the matter.

If there was a widely shared idea that could unite the Dutch, it was that the Netherlands was an exceptional country. It had nothing to do with the rest of the godless world.

This exceptionalism was supported by the history that was reconstructed in the nineteenth century. The victors who determined the history of Dutch were the victors of the 19th century, the conservatives and their belief in God and Orange and the liberals and their belief in free trade. They found the roots of the Netherlands in the 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age, in which the Netherlands became a free country that was no longer ruled by the Spanish king and the Roman pope. The Dutch themselves determined what they believed.

The Netherlands of the Golden Age was a trading nation, the basis of their success was economic progress. Not only tolerance, but also capitalism is a Dutch invention. That commercial spirit included the discovery voyages from the seventeenth century that were intended to develop a commercial empire.

At the same time there is a fate with the house of Orange. William the Silent, prince of Orange, started the campaign against Spain and this was successfully continued by his son Maurice of Nassau. The Oranges were seen by many as the natural leaders of our country, culminating in the establishment of a kingdom in 1815.

The narrative that was developed in the nineteenth century and that seems to be continued to this day is based on these characteristics: freedom, tolerance, commercial spirit and ‘Orangism’.

What did not belong in this narrative appears to have been retouched. This mainly concerns the entire eighteenth century, when surrounding countries became big and when the scientific revolution took off. This century was disastrous for the Dutch, business went steeply downhill and the Orange governors made a mess of their administration. Instead of tolerance, there were militias and civil wars between the the ‘orangists’ and the ‘patriots’. The victors of the nineteenth century managed to label the second group that had established the Batavian Republic of the late 18th century as traitors, who were collaborated with the French, which ultimately led to the Netherlands being ‘occupied’ by Napoleon’s France. On the Dutch Wikipedia site it can still be read that with the Batavian Revolution ‘a vassal state’ arose. It does not say that the revolutionaries turned to France to bring some order and civilization to the Netherlands, and that they tried to contribute a new direction to the country. No, the implication seems to be that the revolutionaries turned against a national character that was established only a century later. At least I think so, with my historical education it has become impossible for me to understand what exactly the implications were of the eighteenth century and the French era.

Today, little is left of Kuyper’s conservatism. Somehow the idea arose in 1960’s and 1970’s that the Netherlands did not oppose the Enlightenment, but was at the forefront of the great project of progress.

Conservative tolerance was effortlessly ‘reframed’ into progressive tolerance. With the disappearance of the pillars, also the hierarchy within those columns disappeared and gave way to a seemingly completely egalitarian country. Self-determination within the pillar became self-determination for every individual. Dutch isolationism became activist cosmopolitanism, and every repressive regime could count on the condemnation of the Dutch.

The stifling dogma’s of the pillarization were renounced, because it was found that these do not at all fit with the character of the nation as it was formed in the Golden Age. After all, the Netherlands it was all about freedom, self-determination and tolerance.

I can’t really say how that happened. Perhaps a combination of:

  • the rise of mass media, with English-language music, series and films coming in untranslated (subtitling would have been cheaper than dubbing);
  • many vacation days that were filled with trips abroad;
  • the first post-war generation who wanted to distance themselves from the religious chains of the past;
  • the success of the country in the greatest sport in the world that showed that the Dutch mattered;
  • and perhaps above the maintenance the rock-solid faith in their own infallibility.

Whatever the case, the Dutch wanted to be at the forefront of issues such as the emancipation of women and minorities, tolerance for people with a different opinion, participation for everyone, a cleaner environment. In addition, the Dutch thought they had the best command of English of all non-English-speaking countries (yeah right), their directness was valued as honesty. No other country was as pro-European, as pro-globalization.

It was typical that, especially in the 90s, you could not offend a Dutchman worse than saying that there was another country where people were ‘further’. This mainly concerned the so-called ‘ethical issues’ abortion, euthanasia, drug policy and gay marriage. Now that the pillars had fallen away, individuals had the right to determine for themselves what was good for them.

In these issues, the Netherlands thought to be unthreatened in progressiveness, but also when it comes to education, wealth distribution, emancipation, freedom, diversity, participation, etc., the Dutch claimed to be the progressiveness champion of the world.

This story is strange, but it becomes even stranger. The unfounded self-image of the world champion progressiveness  is being used more and more in current debates as something to be resisted. The ultimate subject of contempt is the cabinet of Den Uyl, the ‘most progressive cabinet of all time’. Incidentally, this was a cabinet that also contained the Abraham Kuyper’s ARP, so it is questionable how progressive that cabinet actually was.

Under the guise that we no longer want to be progressive fools that are ahead of the troops, protests are being made against sustainability policies, against taking on refugees that are in need, against investments in a viable European economy, and so on.

It is easy to establish empirically that the Dutch have never been ahead of the troops. In most rankings, they are dangling at the bottom.

Sometimes there is an outlier, for instance when the Lonely Planet declares Rotterdam or Texel as places a foreign tourist shouldn’t miss. The Dutch will probably also be leaders in breeding seeds and cultivating flower bulbs. But usually, the Netherlands is newsworthy because of its status as a tax haven, as the home country of companies that do business with corrupt regimes, as a country that would like to make human rights ‘negotiable’, as the least sustainable and least emancipated country in Europe, as a country with a sharp decline of the quality of education.

There are enough good things to be proud of, don’t get me wrong. It is a nice country to live in, with a lot things that are being taken care of in a well-organized way. Moreover, there will be few countries that have had more great footballers and painters per capita. But at the same time, the Dutch seem to be the victims of a corrupt national discourse: their collective self-image is wrong, while many political reactions are aimed at overthrowing this self-image. That makes it twice as faulty.

It needs to be said that there are discussions taking place, actually there are much more than would be desirable. Such discussion concern historic scandals such as slavery and mass murder. There are those who say that it was ‘just the way it went in those days’ and that such scandals ultimately contributed to the development of the Dutch identity as it was formed in the Golden Age and as such should still be seen as good. And there are those who that if the Netherlands wants to remain a progressive country, it needs to distant itself from that history ― for only that would do justice to the same Dutch identity that was formed in the Golden Age.

The fact the this Dutch identity has been a 19th century n invention that has little to do with the Golden Age of 200 years earlier gives this discussion a surreal touch. And it doesn’t bring anyone one step further.

It is better to give up the whole idea of ​​a fixed historically shaped identity, precisely because it is not at all clear what history has been exactly. The debate about a national identity is not only a debate about how a population relates to its history, but also which historiography is the right one that fits the national identity.

The Dutch may not have the obviously erroneous memorials that point them to the malleability of history, but that does not release them from the duty to be much more critical of the corrupt discourse that is now taken for granted.

Further reading:

De Tocqueville, A. (2008). Over de democratie in Amerika. Brussel: Prometheus.

Hobsbawm, E., & Ranger, T. (2012). The invention of tradition: Cambridge University Press.

Lijphart, A. (1975). The politics of accommodation: Pluralism and democracy in the Netherlands (Vol. 142): Univ of California Press.

Schama, S. (1988). Embarassment of the Riches. An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age: Random house.

Shorto, R. (2013). Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City: Hachette UK.

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