In a recent interview on CBC Radio, the Dutch journalist and essayist Geert Mak explained the development of the Dutch "Polder Model" of conducting politics. In areas of the country that lie below sea-level and must be protected by dikes, a great deal of compromise between different towns and organizations is required in order to set up protections from flooding. If one party refuses to negotiate or live up to his or her side of the deal, there will be catastrophe for everybody.
Mak goes on to explain that this Polder Model is also linked to the pillar system that developed during the twentieth century in the Netherlands. Traditionally, virtually everybody in the country was aligned with one of the large umbrella groups involved in running the country -- whether it was the Roman Catholic or Protestant Churches, the socialists or the liberals -- and each of these groups ran its own set of schools, social clubs, newspapers and radio stations, and so on. People lived most of their lives interacting primarily with other people and organizations within their own pillar.
These two systems together made running the country quite a simple affair: a handful of people, generally men -- politicians, clergy, labour leaders, bankers and industrialists - could sit together in one room, drink coffee, discuss a particular national problem for a few hours, and at the end of the day emerge with a negotiated solution that would satisfy just about everybody in the country.
These attitudes of relaxed tolerance and compromise were what led to the famous Dutch permissiveness that is so popular with tourists: the coffeeshops, the red-light districts, the friendliness towards alternative viewpoints and lifestyles. Ian Buruma, in a recent New Yorker article about Amsterdam (n.b. subscription required to see the full piece), notes that "[t]he Dutch say, 'Vrijheid, blijheid,' which . . . might be roughly translated as 'doing your own thing.'"
The Netherlands has also, historically, been very open to immigration -- from its former colonies in Surinam and Indonesia and also several hundred thousand from Morocco and Turkey, among other countries.
In a similar way, Canada is also a very open, tolerant country. We Canadians are taught in primary school about our friendly "mosaic"-style society, in which we allow newcomers to maintain their own cultural traditions and symbols, as opposed the so-called "melting pot" of the United States.
In both the Netherlands and in Canada, though, these national self-impressions have been shown to be more troubled than at first thought: tears have appeared in the cheerful, multi-coloured tapestries.
In the Netherlands, likely because of the tight space -- 16 million people crammed into about 40 000 square kilometers, an area smaller than Nova Scotia -- the fissures have appeared sooner and more dramatically. In 2002, the openly homosexual academic Pim Fortuyn formed a new political party -- the "Pim Fortuyn List," or LPF, to run in the parliamentary elections that year. He quickly gained a large following and posted impressive poll numbers, largely on the basis of his outspokenness on the questions of immigration and the perceived incompatibility of traditional Islamic beliefs with the permissive slant of Dutch culture. In one interview he said, "I am also in favour of a cold war with Islam. I see Islam as an extraordinary threat, as a hostile religion." Fortuyn was a strong supporter of the Netherlands' traditionally liberal policies with regard to drugs, same-sex marriage and euthanasia, and felt that the increasing societal and political strength of the 800,000-strong Muslim population would threaten that liberal tradition. He promised that, if made prime minister, he would restrict the Netherlands' relatively open immigration policy.
On May 6, 2002, a few days before the election, Fortuyn was assassinated by Volkert van der Graaf, an animal rights activist. Fortuyn's party went on to great success in the subsequent election, becoming part of a coalition government. It has since subsided in popularity, but its effects are still widespread in Dutch politics. (In 2004, as part of a television series, Fortuyn was voted the "Greatest Ever Dutchman," beating out even the Netherlands' independence hero, William of Orange.) Immigration policy has been tightened, and a new party, the Party for Freedom, or PVV, led by the extreme right-winger Geert Wilders, won nine seats (out of 150) in the 2006 parliamentary election. The PVV has also performed well in recent local elections in the Netherlands, and polls have forecast that it could win between 24 and 27 seats in the parliamentary elections scheduled for June 9, 2010, putting it in a strong position to become part of a ruling coalition. (Wilders has experienced legal problems, death threats, and has had trouble travelling to the UK and Germany as a result of his incendiary views on Islam, which include banning the Koran, halting all Muslim immigration, and imposing a special tax on Muslim women who wear headscarves.)
And of course there was, in 2004, the grotesque, broad-daylight murder in Amsterdam of provocative filmmaker Theo van Gogh by Mohammad Bouyeri, an Islamic extremist, and the subsequent rise to global prominence of van Gogh's charismatic collaborator, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ali, who was a Dutch member of parliament at the time, subsequently had to go into hiding for her own protection. (She has also written a stirring autobiography, Infidel; a second volume, Nomad, is due out in May 2010, and she is scheduled to appear in Ottawa on June 10th, at an event sponsored by the Ottawa International Writers Festival.)
The result of Fortuyn's campaign, van Gogh's assassination, and Ali's ordeal is that the Dutch have awakened to the reality that their main cities -- Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague -- contain large pockets of disaffected Muslim youth, under-educated and under-employed, who have never felt part of larger Dutch society -- who have never been encouraged to feel a part of it -- and often display hostility towards its most cherished elements. (Around the same time, it was revealed that the sex and drug trades were largely controlled by organized crime.)
All of these events have led to a deep new sense of uncertainty and instability in the Netherlands. Geert Mak writes that "opinion polls showed last spring that more than 40% of the Dutch want only someone of Dutch origin as a teacher for their child, more than 60% think that Islam is incompatible with modern life in Europe, half are afraid of the influence of Muslims, and a third openly admit to having become more racist in recent years." It is a disturbing picture of a society rapidly becoming disillusioned with its own favourite myths about itself and questioning its own ability to handle stress and change.
In Canada, we do not have it so bad. Partly because of the sheer size of our country, we simply seem to run into each other and get on each others' nerves less often than in crowded Europe. There are, however, some worrying signs. A recent Globe and Mail editorial highlighted a Statistics Canada report that projected that in 2031, about a quarter of the Canadian population will be foreign-born. Meanwhile, university-educated immigrants today earn, on average, a shocking $27,020 less per year than their Canadian-born counterparts. This is a recipe for tension and disenchantment, and the strain on the economy of paying for the health care, pensions and other social services of our aging population is only going to exacerbate any fault lines that develop in the national psyche.
The danger, should these fault lines appear, is that short-sighted, attention-seeking media pundits and politicians, following the lead of people like Wilders, other European nationalist leaders like Jean-Marie Le Pen of the Front National and Nick Griffin of the British National Party, and proponents of the "paranoid style" of American politics -- Rush Limbaugh, Tea Partiers -- will foment racial and religious mistrust.
Increased freedom, democracy, and liberalism inevitably lead not to increased homogeneity of thought and behaviour but rather to more disagreement and a greater variety of cultural and religious expression. In englightened, modern, diverse populations, engaged citizens and their political representatives must be prepared to talk and to compromise with each other. And this talk must not become polluted by crass generalizations, simplistic dichotomies, or ad hominem attacks. In the words of Mak, in characterising the issues facing the Netherlands, "The real problems . . . are not theological problems, but social problems, immigration problems, city problems, economic problems, political problems. And I will not, and I cannot, [accept that] these questions [be] redefine[d] in terms of 'enemies' who 'invade' our cities and 'take over' . . . European society, as some suggest."
There are, as most reasonable people in both Canada and the Netherlands realize, limits to compromise. Violence against and submission of women, for example, cannot be tolerated in any form. (Though when it comes to the matter of wearing a burka or niqab, I believe the scales should tip towards tolerance.) As Lodewijk Asscher, a Dutch politician interviewed in Buruma's article, says, "'Of course, we cannot ask people to give up their identities . . ..But we must at the same time stress our values. We must make our norms more explicit . . .. the rule of law, freedom of expression, non-discrimination, faith as a strictly private affair.'"
In essence, our common aspiration should be to converse with one another -- not simply in its modern meaning of "to speak with," but in the original meaning of the Latin term conversari: "to live together." This conversation will be more challenging than it sounds. It will mean embracing change, giving up on nostalgic ideals of a settled, secure, homogeneous community, and certain cherished traditions. There will be bellows and squawks of protest -- perhaps most often from what Malcolm Gladwell, in a recent talk in Ottawa, termed "Angry White Men," and others who write embittered rants under assumed names on newspaper websites.
Moderation of tone will be key but so will solidity and strength of principle and argument: one must strive not to offend others, but at the same time one should not shy away from giving -- or taking -- offense if it is necessary to debate one's position. As Ayaan Hirsi Ali says, "Avoiding offense means that we don't accept each other as equals." And that equality, while it may be nurtured by government policy and regulations, must arise out of the personal attitudes and behaviours of all 33 million of Canada's inhabitants. This is what Buruma has noted is happening even on the front lines of the cultural conflict in the Netherlands: another of his interviewees, Mourad Ezzoubaa, says that young Dutch Muslims now "understand better how Dutch society works . . . They don't even feel especially threatened by the likes of Geert Wilders. We know there must be room for all opinions, even his.'"