Dutch deep-thinker says like-minded ‘elites’ must oppose racism of Wilders

Amsterdam Letter: Distinguished historian Geert Mak charges the Dutch political and cultural elite with going silent on right-wing intolerance

When historian Geert Mak, one of the best-regarded writers in the Netherlands, recently accepted an award for his outstanding contribution to the Dutch written word, he had two stinging messages – one for the "political and cultural elite" and the other for the media.

The former, he charged, had been shamefully silenced by the "sneering" of the right, first by the late Pim Fortuyn and more recently by Geert Wilders. As a result, they had come to accept that they were out of touch with so-called "ordinary people" and had "lost the courage to oppose".

With certain named exceptions, the media, Mak went on, were not much better. In particular, public service TV, he contended, had lost the will to engage with complex social issues, and increasingly produced a diet of ratings-chasing “pink slush” that was nothing less than “insulting”.

It was both scathing and surprising stuff, not least because Mak (68) had in his sights people just like himself. He originally trained in law and worked in politics and journalism before writing the historical non-fiction that has earned him a string of awards.


Nothing shameful

A former city editor of the daily newspaper

NRC Handelsblad

, Mak acknowledged this when he used the word “elite”, a term about which, he reassured his Amsterdam audience, there was “nothing shameful”.

“The elite should be the political and cultural vanguard of this country,” he said, “and they include my own elite of people who write.

“I say to the members of that elite now: there are other important things to think about besides the quality of your own work and your careers.

“You have to show courage. You have to empathise with what is happening in your society, and where necessary you must have the courage to oppose. This elite has become fearful and has lost that courage.”

If Dutch politicians and the mainstream media have indeed lost their bottle, as Mak believes, it was heartening to see just a few days later that the government’s sociocultural think tank, the SCP, can still put its money where its mouth is.

Following a group of Polish and Bulgarian immigrants it interviewed first in 2009 and 2010 when they moved to the Netherlands, and again in 2012 and 2013, the SCP produced some very unsettling statistics. These showed rising discrimination and many returning home because of it.

In 2010, for example, 17 per cent of the Bulgarians said they had faced discrimination in the Netherlands. By 2013 that figure had shot up to 66 per cent. For Poles, the picture was slightly better but still ugly, starting at 39 per cent and rising to 49 per cent.

Over the same period, the number of Bulgarians who said they were happy with their lives in the Netherlands dropped from 71 per cent to 45 per cent. By contrast, eight out of 10 Poles said they were still happy here, a figure that remained unchanged.

Bravely, the SCP pointed out that the survey period coincided with a surge in anti-immigrant rhetoric from Wilders and his Freedom Party, including the launch in 2012 of a website and "hotline" where the public could report "problems" with immigrants from eastern and central Europe.

“Did you lose your job to a Pole, a Bulgarian, a Romanian, or any other Central or Eastern European?” the website asked.

Popularity spike

The controversy, which led to a spike in the Freedom Party’s popularity, “is likely to have had an impact on the attitudes and experiences” of the Poles and Bulgarians who took part in their survey, the SCP researchers concluded.

That survey is important not just because of its specific findings, but because it establishes the link between cranking up the rhetoric and having a real and detrimental effect on the lives of immigrants who are generally among society’s more vulnerable.

Given the EU’s commitment to freedom of movement for all citizens of its member states, it’s abhorrent that immigrants should be forced out of their adopted country by discrimination. So at least goes the liberal consensus.

For Wilders, it’s probably the ultimate proof that they should never have come here and, one way or another, a good result.

And, as we saw when Wilders paid a visit to Tea Party Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington last week – before Sunday's shooting at an event he was attending in Garland, Texas – he usually gets what he wants.

That’s exactly what worries Geert Mak.