The Dutch disease

AMSTERDAM–It’s hard to write about modern-day Holland without repeating the same litany of sins regarding prostitutes and (marijuana / hash) coffee shops. But living above one of these coffee shops and on the corner of the Red Light district here for the past semester has made the city’s salaciousness begin to seem quite boring, really. And what becomes apparent, as the sensational increasingly loses its interest, is that Holland is in a deep crisis.

Despite what you may read in some accounts of the contemporary history of the country, the Netherlands wasn’t always the European home of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Although a kind of libertarian humanism, so to speak, typified by Erasmus of Rotterdam seems to have characterized Dutch society for centuries, it wasn’t quite the secular humanism of today. The full-throttle and state-sanctioned hedonism of 21st century Holland finds no inspiration or legitimacy in the intellectual attitudes of any of the centuries preceding the Twentieth. In short, Dutch society used to have–dare I say it?–a more religious foundation on which the values of humanism, intellectual openness and tolerance were based.

I think it can be convincingly argued that the departure from this past–and the virtual erasure of Holland’s rich Christian humanism–has contributed directly to the rise of the culturally confused, politically cowed, self-negating and guilt-ridden Dutch of today. One might even say that the modern history of Holland is the history of Europe, writ small.

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Under the aegis of a European scholarship, I spent last fall in Denmark and moved to Holland in January to take classes in journalism and politics. In my free time, I scoured different libraries and bookstores, looking for anything that might tell me what Dutch society may have been like before the hookers and hookahs of today. I also tried to talk to many different Dutch people but especially those who, according to my reasoning, offered me the best glimpse into Holland’s past–those who came of age before the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s.

Historians and sociologists explain that until the tumult of the 1960s, Dutch society used to be structured into four distinct, tightly organized ideological “columns” (or pillars)–Catholic, Protestant, Socialist and a laissez-faire (or classically liberal) one. Each column had its own infrastructure–that is, its own schools, newspapers, industries, and neighborhoods–and, lacking a neutral public sector, Dutch people relied primarily on their families within each column for identity and support.

The Catholic column is of special interest since sociologists of religion tell us that until the 1960s, Dutch Catholicism was in fact the most traditional on the European continent. You’d certainly never guess that today. A local priest, well past retirement, told me one day that most cradle-Catholics in Holland, even those with traditionalist inclinations, simply allowed themselves to be carried away by the broader societal changes during the 1960s. “They weren’t so much tolerant [of the changes] as they were completely indifferent,” he explained.

Holland still observes national religious holidays, but these are devoid of any real spiritual content for the majority of the Dutch. Easter and Pentecost are no more than tattered remnants of a common patrimony that Holland formerly shared with other European countries.

Among the university students to whom I’ve talked, little cognizance of the Kingdom of the Netherlands as anything other than a murderous, rapacious former colonial oppressor is evident. They seem guilt-ridden and unaware of any former greatness. (I prefer to think of Holland as a formerly powerful maritime republic, which had an enviable empire reaching across the globe, much of it brought under the civilizing yoke of the West through the United East India Company.) In fact, Dutch students today show little more than a superficial respect towards the artifacts of culture around them–churches, mansions, museums–and seem to spend plenty of money, instead, on drinking and clubbing, all-night raves, techno-parties and orgiastic revelry. In fact, they exhibit the very same condition that afflicts the rest of Europe–in Jeffrey Hart’s words, the “draining away of seriousness, intensity, gravity, self-definition.”

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If I were to be polemical, I would say that Holland has been in the throes of a macabre death dance since the 1960s. But if I aim to be merely descriptive, I would say that Dutch society has simply adopted nihilism as a philosophy of life–and nihilism can never serve as a bulwark against civilizational challenges.

Whether one looks at the superficial expressions of Holland’s rootlessness (the sex and the drugs), or the government’s failed multicultural policies, or the “targeted jihad” that brought an end to the lives of filmmaker Theo van Gogh and politician Pim Fortuyn, or the cold, Calvinist approach to immigration that recently forced the Immigration Ministry to revoke the citizenship of Dutch MP Aayan Hirsi Ali (who will now join the American Enterprise Institute), it should be clear that something is terribly amiss in the soul of the Netherlands.

I have to be careful here so as not to sound like I am blowing the trumpet for some kind of spiritual revival. Not at all. I am simply rattling the saber for a renewed recognition of Holland’s–that is, Europe’s–heritage of Greek reason and Roman law. My diagnosis of what we may call today’s Dutch disease is entirely from a non-denominational, civilizational point of view.

Sadly, Holland’s current aimlessness, its society’s loss of roots, the relativism that guides its academic elites and its generally feckless political class have made it incapable of any real assertion of national self or any significant defense of beliefs. The national self has been hollowed out over the years; traditional Dutch beliefs have been forsaken; the past has been extirpated. Nihilism of this sort, regardless of the number of tulips that garland it, is an insufficient foundation on which to base liberal, democratic values or a healthy, vibrant civil society.

Alvino-Mario Fantini is Europe correspondent for Brainwash. He is currently an Erasmus Mundus scholar through the European Union.