- Published on Saturday, 03 September 2011 01:00
- Category: Letters From the Netherlands
A strange mood has gotten hold not only of the Netherlands, but of Europe at large.
Over the past decade, the world has come to know a few famous faces from the Netherlands, but the man who has gained the most infamy is one of our politicians. It is not our prime minister, nor any minister at all. He is both a de facto member of the government and the opposition simultaneously, a man who propagates a very leftist economic agenda, yet claims he despises the left and attacks them as “the elite.” He is so fond of cartoons insulting Islam - which he defends as freedom of speech - that he has received a fine for using one with such haste that he forgot to ask permission from the artist. Yet he demands cartoons insulting him be taken down from the Internet. I am talking, of course, about Geert Wilders, head of the populist anti-immigration Party of Freedom in the Netherlands.
Personally, I am not all that fond of Mr. Wilders. I am often annoyed with the amount of attention he gets and can’t help but roll my eyes whenever someone tells me how brilliant he is. But then, in a society like ours, it is inevitable that a person like Wilders would garner the attention he has gotten. In fact, I often hear people say that the media created Wilders, just as it created Sarah Palin in the U.S. There’s no doubt that the media has played its part. But the sentiments that people like Palin and Wilders have ridden to success are bigger than any one politician. They do not own a monopoly on those sentiments, try as they might.
Recently I went out camping and found myself in the midst of some stimulating conversation. I ran into a pleasant woman who, when she heard I was a student of the Middle East, asked me to explain a few things to her. She told me some ‘Middle Easterners’ in her neighbourhood, Turks in particular, had harassed her for not dressing properly. They had called her a “whore,” and had blocked her path because, as they informed her, a man could block a woman’s path if he wanted to. She asked how a culture like that could ever live harmoniously with ours.
She told me of a time when she was walking her dog and a young man from Africa had asked her if it was much effort to have a dog. When she replied that it would get in the way of work, the young man had apparently laughed at her and told her he hadn’t come to work, he had come to live off of our social institutions. She said she wasn’t going to vote for Wilders, but surely, she reasoned, the foreigners had only themselves to blame, had they not?
I got the sense that I was supposed to answer for them.
Things got slightly grim when she continued describing how one Algerian had come to interview for a job at her office. He was eventually rejected because she said he stunk. Then when the next Algerian came, he reportedly stunk as well. The woman looked at me. “When I get the next Algerian interviewee, do you understand that I am going to dismiss his request? Don’t you agree they have only themselves to blame?”
Yes, I do understand her. But that does not mean I agree with her.
It’d been a while since I called someone a racist, and on those occasions when I have done so, it was always in jest. But not this time. I told her she was a racist. The woman responded in a shocked manner at first, then simply shrugged it off. Racism or not, she wasn’t going to stand for having to walk home via a detour because a gang of foreigners terrorised the road. Her parents had raised her not to think of black people as different from white people, but she claimed she had plenty of “experience with foreigners” to make a judgment about them.
As a fellow human being, I felt sorry for what she had been through. Being a fairly tall guy, I haven’t ever had troubles with anyone on the streets, let alone with immigrants or people whose roots lay elsewhere. Perhaps the woman thought my judgement was clouded from having been pestered exclusively by other white kids in my youth, from knowing my fair share of indigenous Dutch people who live equally well off of our social institutions, or from having gone out with plenty of my indigenous Dutch friends who had referred to women using less than flattering terms. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t agree with the woman. But I looked at the frail woman and couldn’t help but think that I might have been equally scared had I been her.
However, as a student I was fascinated. The woman’s upbringing taught her not to see the difference between black and white, but life experience told her otherwise. If a man is getting beat up again and again by a gang of black people, is it not logical that he would hate black people? It is fascinating for me to watch our civilised world cope with such dilemmas, even as we redefine our definitions of morality, and ultimately ourselves.
People like Geert Wilders, Sarah Palin, Israel’s Foreign Minister Lieberman, Pamela Geller, and the American presidential candidate Herman Cain are not the faces of this uncomfortable struggle. They are but exponents of it, and the woman I spoke to would not choose them as her representatives. Still, they are the loudest voices and they fill the niche reserved for them by the media and by society.
I don’t prefer Mr. Wilders, but I appreciate the way he, in contrast to the woman I talked to, usually evades the accusation of racism. It’s too easily used, as is any comparison to Hitler. I appreciate his role in forcing us to redefine both ourselves and what we used to hold as truths. Accepting his place in this debate is a test for our civilisation and morality. It is predominantly an intellectual and verbal struggle, and it is one we would do well to settle it as such.
And in the end, I find myself feeling positive about the outcome of this debate. I believe the predominant trend to be that, as humans living on the same piece of land, we grow closer to one another rather than further apart. That is what I told the woman: that we ourselves must stay true to the culture and morality we claim to defend.By Lennart Rogier Proot, Aslan Media Contributor