Column: Are the Dutch weird?Article by Tom Bijvoet
The Dutch are weird. Yes, yes, I realize that many of our readers are Dutch or of Dutch descent and that they may take offense at a blanket statement like that. But I am Dutch myself, so I think I can safely say it without danger of incurring the wrath of too many of our readers. And really, doesn’t it take one to know one?
So what is particularly weird about the Dutch? Well, you only need to leaf through this magazine to find a good number of examples. The Dutch grab raw fish by the tail, slide it down their throats and consider it a national delicacy (page 18). Where other nations will boast of their beauty, their grandeur or their might, the Dutch seem to relish the national virtue of smallness (page 42). Even under the harshest of circumstances they can fight amongst themselves over the interpretation of a couple of bible verses (page 45). But that is not what I mean, particularly. Every culture has traits that may seem odd to outsiders. That’s the beauty of human diversity. No, what I am getting at is that the Dutch seem to carry such inner contradictions.
A few days ago I hit the streets with our friends from TulipTV to find out from random passers-by what they knew about Holland. The answers were not entirely unpredictable: tulips, canals, wooden shoes, marijuana. But when we spoke to a lady who runs a maternity shop she made an interesting comment: “I think they are probably much more relaxed in their attitude to breastfeeding and they probably nurse much longer than we do.” She was highly surprised when I told her that my wife had been lambasted on several occasions by a wide variety of Dutch women of all ages for nursing (ever so discreetly) in public, and for nursing too long. Most Dutch women stop breastfeeding before their children are three months old. Nursing for six months or more is considered outrageous, while the World Health Organization advises women to nurse for at least a year, but preferably two. I don’t think that the maternity shop lady’s assumption was so strange: the Dutch are known to be liberal and easy-going about most things, so one would think that breastfeeding women have it easier there. She could not know that the Dutch, for whatever reason, are so uptight about breastfeeding.
Another example is the attitude to the multicultural society that over the past thirty years has developed in The Netherlands. As the desire to encourage immigrants to integrate has increased over the years and has become a particularly intense political issue, so the willingness to accommodate relative newcomers has slipped. As we can read on page 26, the process to become a legal resident of The Netherlands is arduous, which may be understandable but, more significantly, just takes far too long. People are left in limbo for many years, sometimes a decade or more, which is hardly an incentive to immerse oneself in the language and culture. The simple acceptance that immigrants, especially first generation immigrants, may at times have split identities and split loyalties also seems alien to the Dutch. Allowing for dual nationality would appear to be a logical step to gradually ease an immigrant family into society. Despite a clear international trend toward more acceptance, the Dutch seem to be uncharacteristically averse to dual nationality.
One of the strangest public policy positions that I can imagine was the Dutch approach to immigration and emigration in the last half century or so. After World War II the Dutch government started encouraging its own citizens to leave the country. In 1949 it first started subsidizing the less affluent emigrants and then from 1953 onward everyone who chose to leave the country received a subsidy from the Dutch government. In the late 1950s Holland started to experience a shortage of labour and so workers were recruited around the Mediterranean. A large flow of immigrants started coming into Holland, often subsidized either by the government or by big business. But the subsidy for Dutch people leaving Holland was not discontinued until the early 1980s. In effect, for a period of about 25 years the Dutch government was paying its own citizens to leave, while on the other hand it was paying Turkish and Moroccan citizens to come to Holland. Can it get any weirder? Well, I suppose it can. The strangest thing is no-one in The Netherlands ever questioned this contradictory practice, which has to all intents and purposes shaped current Dutch society. The demographics of The Netherlands have changed for ever under these strange policies and many of society’s perceived ills stem directly from these fundamentally unusual population management policies. On a collective level, these policies may have changed society, but on a personal and individual level these policies have caused a lot of grief and sorrow, and continue to do so to this day.
But despite of all of that, that little country across the ocean still instills a sense of pride in us. Does that not prove conclusively that we’re weird?
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