When Pim Fortuyn was brutally murdered in 2002, the Dutch spoke about Amerikaanse toestanden, which translates as “American situations/circumstances”. This phrase expressed a kind of alienation from what we were witnessing in our small country: a prominent politician being murdered in broad daylight, along with all the sentiments of fear, anxiety, and paranoia. The phrase Amerikaanse toestanden has disappeared from public speech in the years since, but now seems relevant once again. With the rise of far-right political views in the West, many suspect that the election of Donald Trump may foreshadow the future of European politics.
‘Amerikaanse toestanden’ now: No middle ground
Which is not to say it came out of nowhere. The public debate about race, religion, and culture has been growing bigger and louder over the last few years. A big political blind-spot here has been mostly this: there seemed to be no moderate middle-way. The picture often painted by both the public, the media, and the politicians seemed like you were either a fascist warlord who wanted to purge the world of all non-white scum, or a naive liberal who hugged trees as s/he (we’d better not assume gender!) held a long, drug-fueled monologue about how the power of love will conquer the love of power as we all hold hands in a multi-cultural rainbow of tolerance, peace, and prosperity.
Perhaps there is a midpoint between the extremes. The problem here, however, is that such a midpoint will often quickly be claimed by either extreme side of the debate. An example of this can be seen in Mark Rutte’s recent open letter (link in Dutch) to our nation. Taking a staunch “love it or leave it” approach, Rutte calls out for more decency in society. The most striking and controversial sentence in the open letter is the following: “Act normal, or go away.”
This sentiment has been received with both praise and criticism. Needless to say, Rutte’s words have not escaped the international press. Controversial as it may be, the value in Rutte’s message is that he’s not calling for a ban on disagreeing with Dutch culture and politics, but rather encouraging people to evaluate their own place in it. The overall message can be read as: “The Netherlands was here first, it has no obligation to change in order to suit your preferences.” This statement was less controversial (and even widely applauded) when it came from the mouth of Aboutaleb, the muslim mayor of Rotterdam, who in 2015 told Islamic extremists to **** off if they don’t like it here.
Rutte’s remark perhaps raises more questions that it answers. If “acting normal” is the standard for whether or not you should be in this country, then there should be a very clear and uncontroversial definition of what this ‘new normal’ is. Moreover, though there is no overt reference to race or religion, it is rather obvious that the “leave it” part is aimed at foreigners and/or muslims who fundamentally reject Dutch societal norms.
Can we tolerate people who don’t tolerate others?
The question that is raised here (and it is in fact good that it can be raised in an open society) is how we deal with a clash of cultures. How can we be tolerant if tolerance means embracing people who, by your definition, are not tolerant themselves? Telling certain groups of people that they have no place in our society may not be the most nice and decent thing to do, but it may still be the most logically consistent approach.
This is not a message that will be easily received. If there is one thing that can be learned from the election of Donald Trump, it’s this: people will eventually no longer care if you constantly label them as racists, bigots, Nazis, Islamophobes, etc. The knee-jerk reaction of moral indignation has failed in the US, and will most likely fail here. Like another commentator aptly put it: “being offended doesn’t work anymore!” Quite the opposite, actually. If you keep pushing the increasingly fashionable sentiment that white people are inherently racist and oppressive, then they are not just going to accept the label of “racist”, they’re going to embrace it.