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Holland’s Own Trumpland: From Zwarte Piet to Geert Wilders

To say that the Donald Trump’s (electoral college) victory has galvanized the far right globally is an understatement. Though France’s Marine Le Pen tends to grab most of the headlines here in the States, she may soon be upstaged by the Netherlands’s Geert Wilders, who just delivered his closing statement in a hate-speech trial he deemed unworthy of his presence for most of its proceedings. (The trial stemmed from a 2014 rally at The Hague in which Wilders told supporters who’d voiced their desire for fewer Moroccans in Holland that “we will arrange that.”)

This isn’t the first time Wilders has run afoul of Dutch law. In 2011 he faced similar charges for comparing the Koran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, along with issuing other anti-Islamic denunciations. He’s also a serious contender for Prime Minister. Sound familiar? Wilders, like Trump, is no anomaly. He’s simply the loudest voice in a seedy underbelly of intolerance that’s been running through all Western “free nations” since their founding. Indeed, Wilders and the Holland template can provide much needed insight into our own troubled, white nationalist terrain.

For several years my sister taught at an international school in the Netherlands, so I spent many a holiday winter with her in Amsterdam. And while the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas and his slave helper Zwarte Piet makes for a visually arresting international scandal every winter — when the streets are filled with adorable blonde kiddies donning blackface — this is actually just the tip of a problematic iceberg.

I remember seeing a Document Nederland exhibit, produced by the Rijksmuseum and newspaper NRC Handelsblad, which featured the large format photos of NYC-based, Amsterdam-born photographer Dana Lixenberg. Lixenberg had traveled throughout the Netherlands for a year snapping pics of the 418 mayors from the 22 municipalities that make up the Dutch provinces.

A Dutch newspaper featuring Geert Wilders.
Photo: tup wanders/Creative Commons

Oddly, what emerged was less a portrait of The Mayor. An everyday office (as the exhibit was titled), than a striking public display of sober-looking, Wilders-resembling, old white men. (Even Ahmed Aboutaleb, mayor of Rotterdam and the only person of color to be represented, looked suspiciously Caucasian.) Out of all the works shown I counted exactly three female mayors.

Even more surprising, however, is that I’m doubtful the Netherlands would be much different with the country’s women calling the shots. Another holiday season saw the clueless editor of the Dutch magazine Jackie being forced to resign after a racist slur regarding Rihanna. (Which she’d thought was a joke when she tweeted it, she claimed, and only lukewarmly apologized for.) But to chalk all this up to straightforward racism also would be a simplistic assessment since I don’t believe the Dutch are a particularly racist culture at all — or at least no more so than our own.

Rather, Holland is just burdened with a historically insensitive and defensive mentality, leaving its populace prone to making excuses (for example, slavery — a trade which fueled the Dutch economy for centuries — is viewed as the shame of other nations) rather than facing itself in the mirror, taking responsibility, and changing its collective patriarchal outlook. Which, unfortunately, is even more insidious than Klan-style racism since it’s cloaked in the loaded word “tradition.” (No surprise that Breitbart loves Wilders.)

For the past few years I’ve also been theorizing that this mindset may have been a contributing factor to the Netherlands losing more of its Jewish population during WWII than any other nation outside of Poland. (Though the Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg would most likely take issue with this. Sorry, Arnon.) There’s just an ingrained sense of denial in the conservative Dutch that feels as much a tradition as haring and bitterballen. (As a Dutch friend once explained to me, his people historically possess a “mentality of indifference.”)

In spirit, the Netherlands often seems like one giant Trump resort where everything must be kept clean, safe and gezellig. Life there is rarely messy, and generally, a lot of Dutchies just would rather not be bothered, nor get involved in anything that might disturb their stable world. (Holland’s Black Lives Matter protests do take aim at police shootings — in the United States.) The idea of confrontation, or even being put in the least bit uncomfortable situation, is anathema and must be avoided at all costs. Africans want to work here? Welkom! Just don’t rock the boat by messing with Zwarte Piet.

In fact, if I wanted to be truly uncharitable I could make the case that Amsterdam has so many lovely historical museums — including one dedicated to the Dutch Resistance during WWII and another to the Dutch slave trade — in order to pay lip service in an orderly manner to the nation’s rich legacy of anti-Semitism and promoting racism. Sure the Anne Frank Museum is a poignant attraction, but wouldn’t it be nobler had the Jewish author survived to write another book? Unfortunately, this talented teen lived in a country that continues to dismiss demagogues as aberrations (often for the courts to deal with). When really, they’ve been part of our collective political fabric on both sides of the pond all along.

Photo: Metropolico.org/Creative Commons