Henry Hudson set sail across the Atlantic, planted a flag on an island and called it New Amsterdam. 400 years later, 20 New Yorkers were invited to now come to the Netherlands with their own outlandish ideas. I had the honor of being chosen as one of the participants of this project, called P!oneers after the trailblazing of this early explorer. For several days we brainstormed with 20 Dutch counterparts on the issues facing our societies, seeing how our collective expertise as a group of 40 individuals could create something to make a positive impact on our respective societies.
This was my first trip outside of the United States since the inauguration of President Obama and the shift in the understanding of American and of Americans was palpable. No longer did I find myself answering hard questions as to how our people could elect and re-elect a man that was so universally disliked by the rest of the world. To defend seemingly inexcusable policies. To explain the double standards. Instead, there was a shared spirit of “yes we can” and an interest to learn lessons from a country that continues to capture the imagination of people everywhere.
This dichotomy was best summarized in my discussion with Parliamentarian Frans Timmerman where he described his mother’s memory of Amerians as having saved her from the Nazis and giving her a taste of chocolate for the first time versus his son’s who took him to a Rage Against the Machine concert where they marched onto stage in orange jumpsuits and denounced the fascist policies of the red, white and blue. Certainly a conflicting understanding of “the American dream”, particularly if we are to believe that the country continues to be a beacon of light and hope unto the world.
The hope I encountered in many ways seemed to mask a growing pessimism within the Netherlands. This fascination in New York quickly revealed itself to be a growing nervousness about the future of their own country. The current issues of economic despair, growing nationalism, and a violent reaction towards a minority group elicit painful memories of a recent war that most people I spoke with didn’t experience but can never forget.
Long a place where people sought asylum, now many Dutch are buying into the scaremongering by politicians who explain that as Muslims reproduce with drastic speed, traditional Dutch society will soon be an Islamist state. That it will be oppressive to the very ideals of openness and democracy that had allowed such ideas to flourish in the first place. Not all of this is just spook tactics however as there have been a series of racially motivated murders and a parliamentarian who had to flee to the United States for her security.
Most unnervingly, this seems to be a rising trend throughout Europe. The Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway and Germany, among others, are all seeing a rise in nationalism and in parties that promote this as a solution. These places are searching for a self-identity without wanting to embrace the concept of the “melting pot.” While that is all fine and good, apparently it does not have the same appeal.
One of the issues is that European States apparently find self-criticism difficult, and aren’t particularly keen on hearing it. When a Danish cartoonist creates an inflammatory cartoon depicting the prophet Mohammed, there is outrage over the scandal citing that democracies do not censor. Many of these same countries censor the internet that their citizens are able to access. A Czech artist, David Cerny, once censored by the Soviets but now fully European and hired by the Czech head of the European Commission, recently created a piece depicting the current stereotypes of the continent. “Entropa,” is on display in the European Council building in Brussels. Italy as soccer balls. Bulgaria as a toilet. The Netherlands as minarets. As I understand it, there was not much laughter, nor criticism. Merely disdain.
Much of this has to do with the social services that many of these countries provide. As more people immigrate, it is an increased burden to the State to provide adequate food, housing, and healthcare. The Dutch face having imported workers from rural (read: uneducated) areas of Turkey and Morocco, who initially brought with them exotic traditions and behaviors, and eventually brought relatives. With the support of social services and government-provided madrasas, people that didn’t want to interact with Dutch society didn’t have to. Self-ghettoization.
The issue is not (yet) as in the US where Americans are wary of foreigners taking their jobs. There seems to be an acknowledgement that those jobs are unwanted by the Dutch in the first place. The issue is Islam’s perceived oppression of women, violence towards homosexuality, rejection of democracy and embrace of terrorism. It is when these two perceptions collide that tensions really start to mount and the situation gets dangerous.
With the current economic downshift, former economic models that supported immigration no longer function as seamlessly. Previously, immigrants would come to wealthy nations and send reparations back home until those family members could then transfer to said wealthy nation and do the same. Those unable or unwilling to transfer became dependent on those remittances to survive as economies strengthened in those developing nations (particularly in Turkey, but also in Morocco). With unemployment rising, those workers are becoming more reliant on a state already stretched to capacity to provide for their relatives. Abroad, the stream of support runs dry, placing families into difficult situations.
Time will show whether older generation Dutch will try to take over jobs that they had previously not been interested in or not. If they do, things can come to a head quite quickly, particularly with the exponential rise in popularity for right wing nationalist parties. If not, then the Netherlands has some innovative projects that will serve as a lesson for the rest of the world. Thankfully their government has expressed an interest in exploring creative ways to address social concerns, which is why I was invited to the Netherlands in the first place.
*P!oneers – 40 innovative thinkers at the frontier of active citizenship and our initial strategies for societal betterment
*Newer Amsterdam – Lessons from Dutch innovation and the applicability of new models of change in New York