Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Dutch Future

Nearly half of this conference of the International Society for the Study of Reformed Communities considers Dutch and Dutch-American questions. In the opening paper of the conference, George Harinck, of the Free University of Amsterdam, argued that the Netherlands, as a nation composed of minorities, had historically been held together by the strong sub-group loyalties of Dutch people. In the early 20th century Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch politician and churchman (and something of the patron saint of this society) set in motion the reorganization of Dutch society that, by mid-century, had organized everyone into one religious/ideological pillar or another. The Dutch "nation" was the sum of these pillars. Their national identity was composed of mutually tolerant minorities.

And then the Sixties happened. Television brought everyone awareness of life in the other pillars, and in the non-pillarized world beyond. Individualism as the dominant ideology throughout the West created heroic movements of individuals asserting their identity against the pillar, against the church, school, state, and any other institution that established a group identity. In the headiest days of the revolt, families, too were rejected as too confining. The pillars were dismantled. The welfare state was reconfigured to subsidize individualism.

The problem with this kind of anti-establishment identity, though, is that it becomes hollow when the establishment gets demolished. It is a negative identity, which requires a substantial Other to define itself against. Barring invasion, there is little to make a "Dutch" identity with.

And then the invasion came. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants, in a country of but 16 million, arrived from the Sixties on – arriving exactly as the old identity-making institutions were dissolving. The immigrant communities do have strong identities, sometimes overwhelmingly strong. The groups that have gotten the most attention are Muslim, with their strong sense of faith, and honor, and a restricted place for women. Yet there have also been hundreds of thousands of non-Muslim immigrants, especially Christians from the ghostly remnants of the Dutch colonial empire. They, too, have strong identities and strong institutions.

The United States has a muscular tradition of assimilating immigrants through Americanization. Some of the more relativist elites in this country now shrink from anything so forceful, but most Americans, and most immigrants, do strongly identify with the American dream and the American Project. We still do make Americans out of all the world's people, just as we do with each new generation born here.

There is no parallel tradition of "Dutchification" in the Netherlands. The Dutch Project was defined negatively as the culture that tolerated all groups of Dutch people. What made them Dutch people, though, was just assumed. Harinck argued that devotion to the royal House of Orange, a seeming anachronism to American ears, became one of the few unifying symbols of 20th century Dutch identity. He did not say that there is a concerted effort to "orangize" the new immigrants.

The Netherlands is not America. They are not even on the same scale of comparison. The analogy that occurred to me is that the Netherlands is the Rhode Island of Europe. Rhode Island cherishes its identity as the place where the refugees from the surrounding strong religious cultures could be free. When Quakers were being hanged on Boston Common, they were freely practicing the faith in Rhode Island. Yet Rhode Island, like every other state, became absorbed in the strong and absorbent identity of the United States. True believers in Europe are trying to forge a strong European identity, and it is possible that the residents of the Low Country will become strong Europeans in the future. So far, though, there is not enough to "Europe" to make a real identity, and the Dutch have proven skeptical of the European Union anyway.

The Dutch future is a negative space waiting to be filled by a positive identity. This is a mission opportunity for a revitalized Reformed Church. Or it is an invitation to conquest by a stronger outside identity.

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