The Dutch Adrift

AMSTERDAM—For the past semester, I've lived above one of this city's notorious hash—and—marijuana coffee shops, on a corner in the this city's famed Red Light district. Legalized drugs and prostitution are generally what Americans think of when they think of Amsterdam, but I can assure you that after a while, its salaciousness begins to seem quite boring. Really. And what becomes apparent, when the sensational has lost even its entertainment value, is that Holland is in a deep crisis.

Despite what you may hear these days about the Netherlands, it wasn't always a European center of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Although a kind of libertarian humanism, typified by Erasmus of Rotterdam, does seem to have characterized Dutch society for centuries, it wasn't quite the secular humanism of today.

The full—throttle and state—sanctioned hedonism of twenty—first century Holland finds no inspiration or legitimacy in any of the centuries preceding the twentieth. In short, Dutch society used to have—dare I say it?—a more religious foundation on which the values of humanism, intellectual openness and tolerance were based.

I think it can be argued that this departure from this past—and the virtual rooting out of Holland's rich Christian humanism—has contributed directly to the rise of the culturally confused, politically feeble, guilt—ridden and self—negating Dutch of today. One might even suggest that the modern history of Holland is the history of Europe, writ small.

I moved to Holland in January to take graduate courses in journalism and politics. In my free time, I have scoured different libraries and bookstores, looking for anything that might tell me what Dutch society may have been like before today's hookers and hookahs. I also tried to talk to different Dutch people, especially those who, according to my reasoning, offered the best glimpse into Holland's past—those who came of age before the counter—cultural revolution of the 1960s.

Historians explain that until the tumult of the 1960s, Dutch society used to be structured into four separate, tightly organized ideological "columns" (or pillars)—Catholic, Protestant, Socialist and a laissez—faire or classically liberal one. Each column had its own infrastructure—that is, its own neighborhoods, industries, newspapers and institutions. Lacking a 'neutral public sector', Dutch people relied primarily on their families within each column for identity and support.

The Catholic column is of special interest since sociologists tell us that until the 1960s, the Dutch Catholic Church was the most traditional on the European continent. You'd certainly never guess that today. A local priest, well past retirement, told me one day that most cradle—Catholics in Holland, even those with traditionalist inclinations, simply allowed themselves to be carried away by the broader societal changes during the 1960s. "They weren't so much tolerant [of the changes] as they were completely indifferent," he explained.

Holland still observes national religious holidays. But talk to a few locals and you'll quickly see how for the vast majority of citizens these now are devoid of any real spiritual content. Easter and Pentecost are no more than tattered remnants of a common patrimony that Holland formerly shared with other European countries.

Among university students, little cognizance of the Kingdom of the Netherlands as anything other than a rapacious former colonial oppressor is evident. They are unaware of any former national greatness, and seem almost guilt—ridden by their history. (I prefer to think of Holland as a formerly powerful maritime republic, which had an enviable empire reaching across the globe, much of which was brought under the civilizing yoke of the West through the United East India Company.) In fact, Dutch students today show little more than a superficial respect towards the artifacts of culture around them—churches, mansions, museums—and seem to spend plenty of money, instead, on drinking and clubbing, all—night raves, techno—parties and orgiastic revelry. They exhibit the very same condition that afflicts the rest of Europe—in Jeffrey Hart's words, the "draining away of seriousness, intensity, gravity, self—definition."

If I were to be polemical, I would say that Holland has been in the throes of a macabre death dance since the 1960s. But if I aim to be simply descriptive, I would say that Dutch society has adopted nihilism as a philosophy of life—and nihilism can never serve as a bulwark against civilizational challenges.

Whether one looks at the superficial expressions of Holland's rootlessness (the legalized drugs and prostitution), or the government's failed multicultural policies, or the "targeted jihad" that brought an end to the lives of filmmaker Theo van Gogh and politician Pim Fortuyn—or the cold, Calvinist approach to immigration that recently forced the Immigration Ministry to revoke the citizenship of Somali—born Dutch MP Aayan Hirsi Ali (who will now join the American Enterprise Institute)—it's clear that something is terribly amiss in the Dutch soul.

I have to be careful here not to sound like I am blowing the trumpet for some kind of spiritual revival. Not at all. I am simply rattling the saber for a renewed recognition of Holland's—that is, Europe's—heritage of Greek reason and Roman law. My diagnosis of Holland is entirely from a non—denominational, civilizational point of view.

Sadly, Holland's current aimlessness, its society's loss of roots, the relativism that guides its academic elites and its generally feckless political class have made it incapable of any real assertion of national self or any meaningful defense of beliefs. The national identity has been hollowed out over the years; traditional Dutch beliefs have been forsaken; and the past has been extirpated. Nihilism of this sort, regardless of the number of tulips that garland it, is an insufficient foundation on which to base liberal, democratic values or a vibrant, civil society.

Alvino—Mario Fantini is currently an Erasmus Mundus scholar through the European Union. He has previous written about Bolivia for The American Thinker.

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