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Low Countries’ Hyperbole

July 18, 2005

Leon de Winter in the New York Times (via Marc Schulman):

FOR centuries the Netherlands has been considered the most tolerant and liberal nation in the world. This attitude is a byproduct of a disciplined civic society, confident enough to provide space for those with different ideas. It produced the country in which Descartes found refuge, a center of freedom of thought and of a free press in Europe.

The murder last year of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, whose killer was convicted this week, and the assassination of the politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 marked the end of the Holland of Erasmus and Spinoza.

Now, I’m not entirely adverse to these sorts of broad, historical arguments. In a book chapter I wrote some time ago, for example, I argued that:

…Europe will have to confront the underlying religious components of its political and cultural identity: a Latin Christian community, albeit one divided by the schisms of the Protestant Reformations. In some respects, secularization makes this a more difficult task. It constitutes the religious basis of European community, as well as the religious identities of its inhabitants, in diffuse terms. Religious markers of identity lurk below the surface, and are therefore more difficult to directly negotiate.

But if we’re going to make broad historical claims, let’s at least try to make arguments that don’t contradict themselves immediately out of the gate!

The Netherlands “of Erasmus” died when Charles V got busy burning and imprisoning anabaptists, when Philip II attempted to root out Calvinism, when waves of iconoclasm swept through the pre-revolt Netherlands, when the Sea Beggars themselves systematically overthrew the Catholic leadership of towns in Holland and Zeeland and banned Catholic worship, and when the government of the Netherlands tried to suppress Arminianism (the climax of a brutal struggle in which the political leader of the Arminian party was executed).

So, um, trying to argue that sex-crazed secularists destroyed an unbroken tradition of tolerance in the Netherlands is just nonsense. But what else may we expect from a writer who blames the “cultural and sexual revolution” of the 1960s for destroying, in effect, the delicate balance of the Netherland’s pillars system, but holds out Pim Fortuyn, whose open homosexuality never would have been possible without that revolution, as an example of a corrective modell?

Put differently, can we agree to separate forms of multiculturalism that collapse into moral relativism – certainly not a good thing – from the expansion of liberal tolerance to include a wide variety of consensual sexual activity? Wasn’t Fortuyn’s point that fundamentalist Islam was incompatible with the post-1960s liberalism he benefited from, including gay rights, feminism, and so forth?

UPDATE: I forgot to add that the history of the Netherlands suggests that its legacy of toleration (which is quite significant despite the caveats above) is not such as fragile thing as de Winter believes.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.