Friday, January 23, 2009

The Decline of Dutch Tolerance

My friend Cliff, who blogs here, sent me an email last night with a link to a blog that follows the Dutch political scene. On that blog, the case is made that Dutch civil liberties are a myth, as is the country’s tolerance. As evidence of these moral declines, Perry de Havilland cites the decision by a Dutch court that the prosecution of a Dutch politician accused of hate speech may proceed. Cliff inquired if the report was even close and he asked me, because he considers me his resident Dutch expert. So here’s my two cents worth.

I see two issues that should be addressed in answering the “is it close” question. First, is Wilders being prosecuted for hate speech, and second, is this evidence of the decline of legendary Dutch tolerance. Let me take the latter first, just to be different. As a longtime (former) Dutch citizen, I lived in the sheltered cocoon of self-delusion about the national identity of the Dutch. We considered ourselves cosmopolitan, interested in world affairs, independently critical of the actions of large Nation States, and above all, tolerant of all views. As I traveled throughout Europe, these views were reinforced and refined. But when I took up residence in the US, these views changed. I now think the Dutch were not so much tolerant as indifferent. The indifference is not malicious – it does not mean they do not care. It means they allow for others to do their “thing” as long as it does not interfere with their own “thing.” The Dutch are tolerant in the sense that they do not put personal morals in front as political aspirations. They do not, or at least they did not used to, “preach” about what they perceived as the right path forward being the only path. I’ve found that in the US personal freedom and the protected free speech has created endless opportunities, to include the opportunity to harden one’s opinion about others’ equally eloquently stated opinions. Tolerance of other opinions, especially in the political arena, seems to be going the way of the dodo. We defend everyone’s right to express their opinion, we just are adamant to discredit is as forcefully as we can, for the purpose of political and personal gain.

Is that tolerance? I think not. And it seems to me that the ‘we” in the latter part of the previous paragraph is not limited to the US – I think The Netherlands is losing some of their “indifference” toward others and copying (as they do everything else) the US example. So the “we” is becoming “universal.”

Back then to the first part of the question, is Wilders being prosecuted. The answer is yes. It is my understanding that he indeed can be prosecuted for hate speech. I read some of the comments to the posting as well and those illustrate to me the difficulty in establishing limits on free speech. It seems to me that everyone, the US included, struggles with someone's right of free speech when it bumps up against "hate mongering." These are both abstract concepts and the position of the separation line is not clear. A three-judge panel in Amsterdam ruled not that Wilders is guilty; they ruled that the State can prosecute him. He will have his day in court and Dutch civil liberties are no more threatened by this action than when a US judge orders that Guantanamo prisoners have a right to their day in court. We may not like what the outcome of the trails may be, but we cannot claim that the Dutch State has a rubber backbone, just because the judiciary approves the State’s attempt to test the limit on free speech. Free speech is not free….there are consequences and when free speech is no longer tolerant to the interests of others’ life and limb, it seems to me every society has the obligation to examine where free speech becomes hateful and harmful. A slippery slope, I agree, and one that Dutch “indifference” avoided for a long, long time.

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