AMSTERDAM—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.
That Netherlands no longer exists.
The murder last year of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, whose killer was convicted last week, and the assassination of the politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 marked the end of the Holland of Erasmus and Spinoza.
No, the Dutch suddenly did not become intolerant and insular. But these killings showed the cumulative effect of two forces that have shaken the foundations of Dutch civic society over the last 40 years: the cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and the influx of Muslim workers during those years of prosperity.
While most of Europe points to that epochal year of 1968 as a watershed, perhaps no country was affected as profoundly by the radicalism of the times as the Netherlands. In less than 15 years most forms of traditional authority and hierarchy, the counterbalancing forces that made Dutch tolerance possible, were undermined.
Among students and the intellectual elites, “civil disobedience” in itself was more admired than the point behind such actions. Provos—students and artists staging absurdist “happenings”—and squatters ruled the streets, and in 1980, the apogee of Holland’s cultural revolution, the coronation ceremony of Queen Beatrix in Amsterdam vanished behind a haze of tear gas and anarchistic rioters.
Hence the current image of Dutch tolerance: marijuana served at coffee shops, police officers growing their hair as long as the Grateful Dead, gays and lesbians coming out of the closet without fear or hindrance, public television showing full nudity and, for those who prefer not to work, a government package of benefits that makes a toil-free life entirely feasible.
The second, simultaneous, change in Dutch life was the recruitment of young men from the Rif Mountains of Morocco, most illiterate and many with only a rudimentary grasp of spoken Dutch, to work in Holland’s rapidly expanding industries. When they came to the country, often under long-term government work visas, they were faced with a highly educated but apparently decadent society in the grip of a cultural revolution. Many were astonished: Was this country some sort of freak show?
No, it certainly wasn’t. Under the effusive “anything goes” exterior, the majority of Dutch people held on to their disciplined Calvinist values. To the immigrants, however, this core was all but invisible.
For a while, the immigrants did the dirty work for which no training was needed, and the two factions lived amicably. But during the technology—and service-oriented economic boom of the 1980s and 1990s, the demand for unskilled work declined. The “guest workers” were no longer needed in such numbers, but they were also not required to return to Morocco. Instead they were given extensive social benefits and their families were allowed to come from Morocco to join them. It was the birth of the ethnic-religious ghettoes that surround our affluent cities and towns.
And thus the delicate mechanism of Holland’s traditional tolerant society gradually lost its balance. The news media, politicians and artists gnawed away at the traditional values of Calvinistic civic society, while in the bleak Muslim suburbs resentment grew among the Moroccans’ Dutch-born children, who found the promise of an affluent life unfulfillable.
Meanwhile, the news media and politicians maintained an unofficial ban on any discussion of the problems of immigration: after all, in progressive Holland only socioeconomic problems were admissible.