December 20, 2013 1:09 pm

The squabble for Holland’s soul

‘Blacks, Jews and asylum-seekers have all taken a kicking lately. But anti-racists have grown louder too’
Illustration, tulips©Luis Grañena

When a Chinese singer appeared onstage on the Dutch TV show Holland’s Got Talent, a judge named Gordon shouted out: “Which number are you going to sing? Number 39 with rice?” Afterwards, Gordon was complimentary: “This is the best Chinese I had in weeks. And it’s not a takeaway.”

By recent Dutch standards, Gordon’s remarks weren’t particularly offensive. Blacks, Jews and asylum-seekers have all taken a kicking lately, alongside the country’s favourite modern scapegoats, Dutch-Moroccans. But anti-racists have grown louder too. This is a squabble for the soul of the little country where I grew up.

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Simon Kuper

The current frenzy began with “Black Pete”. All of us who were once children in the Netherlands know and love Saint Nicholas’s helper. He and “Sinterklaas” bring presents and “pepper-nut” biscuits. Unfortunately, Pete – with his black face, earrings and big lips – is modelled on a colonial slave. Verene Shepherd, a Jamaican historian who chairs the United Nations working group on people of African descent, complained about him, whereupon Dutch media wrongly reported that “the UN” wanted to ban Black Pete, or even Sinterklaas himself. Hysteria erupted. Within days, two million of the Netherlands’ 17 million inhabitants had signed a pro-Pete “Pete-ition” on Facebook. Black Dutch people who didn’t like Black Pete were advised to “go back” to their own countries. A parade featuring black, green and orange Petes was called off after organisers received death threats (a common Dutch debating technique in recent years).

The Dutch quarrel about multiculturalism has been bad-tempered since September 11 2001. At first the arguments centred on terrorism. Admittedly, the Netherlands never exactly topped al-Qaeda’s hit list but the extremely safe Dutch set high standards for their personal security, and Dutch-Moroccans kept having to deny terrorist sympathies.

The underlying anxiety was always that immigration might change Dutch traditions. With Black Pete, this anxiety became explicit. Here are some expressions of it just since late November (documented in part by the Dutch columnist Bas Heijne):

• When picky asylum-seekers refused accommodation in a former jail, Roland van Vliet, member of parliament for Geert Wilders’ anti-immigrant PVV party, tweeted: “Stamp those guys out!” He later clarified that he “obviously” wasn’t calling for violence. (I’d like to dismiss the PVV as a lunatic fringe group but it’s the largest Dutch party in recent polls.)

• An employee of an Arnhem electronics company rejected Jeffrey Koorndijk’s application for an internship, explaining: “It’s nothing. Firstly a dark-coloured (negro). And on his cv little to no experience with computer etc.” Whereupon this computer expert accidentally emailed his views to Koorndijk himself.

• After Nelson Mandela died, so many Dutch tweets called him hoofdpiet, or “Chief Pete”, that the country’s biggest newspaper, De Telegraaf, noted that he had “died on the very night of Sinterklaas (with Black Pete)”. The newspaper later apologised.

• The columnist Sylvia Witteman, interviewed by her newspaper De Volkskrant, lovingly discussed her habit of making “concentration camp jokes . . . Saying mean things about Anne Frank to each other . . . ”

Halfwits the world over make racist remarks. The issue is what happens next. Van Vliet and Witteman have kept their jobs. (Happily for Witteman, her husband edits her newspaper.) Complaints have come disproportionately from humourless minority “multiculti” PC types like me. Of the first 13 people who reported Gordon to an anti-discrimination watchdog, 12 were Chinese. Black people started the fuss about Black Peter. And when the Jewish novelist Leon de Winter criticised Witteman, he expressed surprise that nobody else had.

Around the world, people frightened by globalisation choose a nativist response. Yet the Dutch frenzy has two very Dutch aspects. The first is the Calvinist tradition of “saying what you think”. The Dutch prize frankness.

Second, most Dutch people cannot imagine life as a persecuted minority. That is outside their experience. Even the Nazi occupiers regarded the Dutch as fellow “Aryans”. So when minorities fuss about ethnic issues, Dutch people often struggle to understand. James Kennedy, a Dutch-American historian at Amsterdam’s VU University, says the Dutch tend to view Dutchness as “the normal condition”. Anything else is strange.

A Dutch friend once asked me why I talked about my “ethnic identity”. He himself, he said, had no ethnic identity. I told him that if he moved to Zambia, he’d quickly discover his ethnic identity as a Dutchman. “Yes, then I would,” he shrugged. But why would he move to Zambia?

However, the nativist backlash may not survive long in this globalised trading nation. Any Dutch person who has spent time in, say, the US, senses the trickiness of explaining Black Pete abroad. Many Dutch are themselves growing uneasy about Pete. Some Sinterklaas shopping catalogues now feature pictures of kids with ash-smudged cheeks, instead of black-faced Petes. Yvonne Zonderop, expert on Dutch populism, says: “In five years, Black Pete will be a minority. Black Dutch people have won this one.”

Indeed, the Netherlands will probably keep adapting to globalisation. If not, we can expect an acceleration of a current trend: highly educated young Dutch people emigrate to join the global elite, leaving behind nativists who can’t understand why anyone would object to Sylvia Witteman or Black Pete.

simon.kuper@ft.com; Twitter @KuperSimon

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Letters in response to this report:

Anti-Semitism should not be ruled out / From Emeritus Prof Jeffrey Fessel.

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