Re-placing Cultures

Re-placing National Culture
Globalization and collective identity in the Netherlands

Frank Lechner, Associate Professor of Sociology


Vol. 7 No. 5
April/May 2005

Special Issue

Re-placing Cultures
A dialogue among disciplines
Guest Editor, Bruce M. Knauft, Executive Director, Institute for Comparative and International Studies, Samuel C. Dobbs Professor of Anthropology

On transculture
Mikhail Epstein

I think the boogieman of AIDS has more resonance in the United States than it might have in a community in Africa, where people are accommodating to it.
Deborah McFarland, Associate Professor of International Health

Increasingly, our law is so tied up with the religiosity of this society that it’s not just repositioning law, it’s
repositioning the role of religion in American culture.

Martha L.A. Fineman, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law

Re-placing National Culture
Globalization and collective identity in the Netherlands
Frank Lechner, Associate Professor of Sociology

Digital Nationalism
Re-placing place in the Indian diaspora
Deepika Bahri, Associate Professor of English

Further reading

God’s Chosen Tongues
Hebrew and Arabic in the Qur’an
Devin J. Stewart, Associate Professor of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies
Further reading


Return to Contents

Talk about national identity used to be taboo in the Netherlands; today it is a hot topic. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende recently declared that national distinction was becoming more important in unified Europe and claimed that the Netherlands would remain a Christian country even if no one went to church anymore. Late last year, the leader of the liberal party, Josias van Aartsen, called for a revival of national pride and historical awareness in a nation bound by common sentiment. He referred approvingly to a Labor Party intellectual, Paul Scheffer, as one of the “neopatriots” who advocate greater commitment to national values and traditions. When Scheffer lamented the failures of Dutch “multiculturalism” in an essay published some years ago, he triggered extensive debate in parliament, where politicians across the spectrum professed a renewed interest in the national culture as a basis for social cohesion. This debate followed successive rounds of argument on the topic of national identity among intellectuals and public officials in major newspapers during the 1990s. The collective soul-searching occasioned by the assassination of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Moroccan-Dutch militant in November 2004 only intensified an ongoing debate about what it means to be Dutch.

If nations are “imagined communities,” the Dutch are now
“reimagining” theirs. Some participants in the Dutch debate believe, as one put it, that “the Netherlands doesn’t exist any more.” Rejecting such skepticism, others think of the Dutch nation in more cosmopolitan fashion as a “platform” from which to participate in the world at large. Still others believe the debate itself is overblown, since the nation is in fact an ongoing “conversation” conducted in Dutch, by the Dutch, for the Dutch. Yet the voices of cultural nationalists, both more anxious and more insistent with regard to national identity, have become ever stronger. Even such nationalists or “neopatriots” typically describe the Netherlands as the embodiment of enlightened, liberal values, marked by a unique combination of freedom, tolerance, and equality under the law, thus appealing to “global” principles and reimagining the nation in partly transnational terms. Some, like Balkenende, add a more particular appreciation of Dutch history and of the Netherlands as a special “place,” illustrated by van Aartsen’s praise for Dutch engineering and Dutch soccer.

Elite discourse of this sort is not the only way in which national identities are reconstructed. Recent social-scientific studies
of public policy, which have emphasized the role of underlying ideas and paradigms, suggest that collective efforts to address collective problems also serve to identify who the national “we” are. An especially relevant case in point is Dutch minority or integration policy, which since the 1970s has been a prime arena in which intellectuals and officials have had to reflect on the kind of nation the Netherlands was and wanted to become.

The “paradigm shifts” in Dutch integration policy convey changes in national self-imagination. Through the 1970s, policy makers refused to acknowledge that the Netherlands was changing significantly to become a “country of immigration” and hence developed few special policies to accommodate the presence of the “guest workers” who stayed. Around 1980, the policy establishment changed course, recognizing the permanent presence of migrants, accepting their cultural difference, and striving to emancipate them as part of a multicultural society—a stance expressed in some concrete policies. Discontent with these policies led to yet another, gradual shift in the early 1990s toward a paradigm stressing the need for full integration of cultural minorities as citizens with a common language in a cohesive society, again expressed in matching policies, including the requirement for newcomers to fulfill a “civic integration” contract. Though actual integration measures still reflect the earlier, once “politically correct” multiculturalism, the van Gogh assassination is likely to intensify the recent “toughening” of Dutch integration policy along more overtly nationalist lines.

In response to the arrival of culturally different minorities and to European integration, the Dutch are grappling with the question of national identity. In doing so, Dutch elites are replacing their national culture, both by raising its salience and by subtly changing its received content. By fostering a new kind of cultural nationalism in public discourse and a new emphasis on national social cohesion in integration policy, they are reinterpreting Dutch traditions. At the same time, these efforts reflect “local” precedent, as references to Dutch traditions in nationalist discourse and the continued influence of old cultural divisions in current integration policy make clear. Yet even as they focus on restoring a sense of the national in what they say and do, Dutch nationalists still look outward as well, invoking global principles to justify their actions and position the country within a global community of nations.

The revival of national concern, in the Netherlands as elsewhere, displays the pervasive impact of globalization. Migration and European integration are only two instances of the greatly expanding transnational connections that, according to some scenarios, call into question the role of any localized, national identity. “Deterritorialization,” the hallmark of globalization, would appear to disturb the link between people, place, and power encoded in national identities, turning the nation, as one scholar has suggested, into an empty shell. Many Dutch, it seems, disagree. They are strengthening the shell and filling it with content. Thus they show that it may be more plausible to think of national identities as undergoing “renegotiation.” Though this is work in progress, the outcome of which is by no means certain, the case lends support to another view of nations in globalization that stresses the resilient adaptation of local traditions to global challenges. In this adaptation, “local” and “global” factors are not separate, opposing forces; instead, it turns out, local culture replacement is part and parcel of translocal deterritorialization.

The fact that leading figures in the Netherlands now quite deliberately oppose the empty-shell scenario does not mean that they have found an effective way to fill the shell and prevent it from breaking. Though a certain form of cultural nationalism has made headway, the replacing of national culture is heavily contested. Both in public discourse and across policy sectors, different participants in current debates offer different answers to the question of national identity. As trends in discourse and policy indicate, the most prevalent answers have also shifted over time, suggesting that reimagining the national community is inherently fluid. The once-muffled national “conversation,” interrupted occasionally by fervent cheering at national sports events, has turned into a high-pitched, high-stakes debate. Quite apart from customs such as legal prostitution, medically assisted euthanasia, and “coffee shops” that sell marijuana, it is the pattern in this debate that continues to make the Dutch distinctively Dutch.