Russell Shorto

The Nanny and Her Sister

by Russell Shorto

April 27, 2011

[Note: This is an English-language version, slightly revised, of an opinion piece that appeared in Dutch on 4/24/11]

Not long ago my son’s Moroccan-born gastouder (daycare provider) asked if I would sign an immigration document in support of her sister, who wanted to come to Amsterdam to visit. I was confused at first: I thought one was required to get such statements of support for people who intended to emigrate, not who merely wanted to visit family. I subsequently learned that it is necessary in the Netherlands for people from certain countries to file extensive applications, including having residents vouch for them, even if all they want to do is see the canals and tulips. I signed the form. Then a few weeks later I heard that the sister’s application had been denied. The reason given: she was ​“onbetrouwbaar”–untrustworthy. When my son’s gastouder asked, through an immigration lawyer, for clarification, she was told that due to ​“ties” in the country, it was feared that the sister might stay in the Netherlands.

Our gastouder and her family are legal, upstanding residents of the Netherlands. She is registered in her work; her husband drives a city bus; they have two young children and they speak Dutch at home. They are, as we say in America, ​“playing by the rules.” Yet they are punished. Indeed, one might say they are humiliated, made to feel like criminals. And, ironically, it would seem to be the very fact that they have so thoroughly and properly situated themselves in this country that makes them untrustworthy.

This strikes me as pretty much a classically misguided policy. As such, it is typical of much of what is going on not only in the Netherlands but in many countries. At its root – at the root of much political divisiveness today – is the fraught, and by now tiresome, question of identity. To wit, in this example: are Moroccan-Dutch ​“really” Dutch?

The Netherlands is far from alone in struggling with the identity issue, but it does seem to have a particularly difficult time with it, for I can think of few countries in which people so visibly shrink from the idea of posing the question ​“Who are we?” Princess Maxima caused a stir a few years ago by saying that she couldn’t really find a ​“Dutch identity.” The controversy, perhaps, was due to the fact that she had hit a sore spot. I don’t mean that I don’t think there is a Dutch identity, but that the topic is uncomfortable for many. On the one hand, people want to be able to relate to a national identity, and surely they can point to customs and traditions that bind them. But they know there is a fine line between national identity on the one hand and bigotry and racism on the other.

The next presidential election in the U.S. won’t come until November 2012, but the battles are already underway, and there too the identity question lies beneath much of the politics. One of those who may run for the Republican nomination, former Governor Mike Huckabee, made a revealing statement last month. He was ostensibly distancing himself from the so-called ​“birthers” – far-right fanatics who insist that Barack Obama’s presidency is illegitimate because according to the Constitution a president must be a natural born citizen and, they claim, Obama was not born on American soil. That Obama’s birth certificate and volumes of other evidence demonstrating that he was born in Hawaii exist keeps this issue marginalized, so that only the extreme fringe uphold it. A right wing politician who is interested in angling a bit toward sanity is thus smart to distance himself from the birthers. What Huckabee said, however, was considerably more sinister than the birthers’ argument. ​“I am not saying he is not a citizen,” Huckabee said of the president. But, he noted, ​“I do think he has a different worldview and I think it is, in part, molded out of a very different experience. Most of us grew up going to Boy Scout meetings and, you know, our communities were filled with Rotary Clubs, not madrassas.”

This is, as they say, coded language. Boy Scouts, Rotary Clubs: these are signifiers of tradition, of an idealized, smalltown America. In short, they signify one thing: us. With great sophistication, Huckabee used the single word madrassa to indicate them. He was referring to the fact for part of the time he spent in Indonesia as a child Obama went to a Muslim school (he also went to a Catholic school).

So my son’s gastouder and the president of the United States are both casualties of the identity war; both are nudged into the hinterland of them.

Awkwardness or discomfort over the identity question is, I think, part of the reason for the implosion of traditional, mainstream political parties in Europe. Immigration trends, birth rate disparity (as Jean-Pierre Lehmann, professor of international political economy at IMD, wrote recently, ​“On the north side of the Mediterranean is the world’s oldest population and on the southern side is the world’s youngest”), and economic disparity combine to make it relevant and necessary to grapple with national identity – especially in the wake of upheaval across North Africa. Yet mainstream politicians seem tentative, unable or unwilling to elucidate clear visions for the future, for what their society will look like in ten or fifty years. Thus what were once fringe parties, many with frankly rabid ideologies at their core, come to the fore, for the politicians in these parties do have definitions of national identity, as well as sharp critiques of the status quo and visions for the future. And where once they were openly racist, some, as they sense the possibility of actually gaining power, are becoming more nuanced. France is a case in point. Where far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the National Front, freely espoused antisemitic, racist ideas in formulating his nationalist vision, the new head of that party, his daughter, Marine Le Pen, now eschews the overt racism, and cleverly casts her party as the protector not of French Christian values but of French secular values.

“Identity” is a relatively easy way to sway people, for it is shallow soil that covers the roots of some of a society’s strongest fears. By defining one’s nation not by its values and traditions, large and small (in the case of the Dutch: ​“we eat pancakes, we wear orange on certain days, and we believe in democracy and individual freedoms”) but rather in opposition to outsiders, fear mongers invite voters to look ahead to a distant future, observe immigration trends, and conclude that in time our country will have become their country. The alarmist culture critic Mark Steyn memorably articulated this fear: ​“Most European races are going to be out of business in a couple more generations.”

In the United States, such thinking is a basic component of the Tea Party movement. Yet American history also provides a strong counter-argument. American history is a story of immigration; it is a long saga whose central theme involves turning them – Irish, Italians, Africans, Japanese, Catholics, Jews, Muslims – into us. Doing so requires, of course, that there be a sense of us. This involves an institutionalized sense, but also an ingrained one: bringing immigrants into the society can’t be relegated to legislation; it must also include ordinary people and their sense of what it means to be American (or Dutch, or French). This sense of identity is, thank goodness, not a hard-and-fast thing, and it is inevitably, and properly, the subject of eternal dispute.

In the Netherlands, too, there is a historical basis for considering diversity as part of the national identity. In fact, there is a bridge between the Dutch and American traditions of multiethnicity. The Dutch Republic was the most mixed society in Europe in the seventeenth century, thanks in part to its pioneering of the concept of tolerance. Yes, certainly, Dutch tolerance was a very limited thing. But it was nevertheless a milestone in the development of liberalism – of modernity itself. And, as I’ve argued in the past, the Dutch founding of a colony based on the island of Manhattan had diffuse but far-reaching influence on American culture. While New England and the South developed as distinctly English monocultures, the New York region – undergirded by the mixed society that originated with the Dutch – became the basis for the American melting pot. To illustrate with a single, tiny example, while researching the colony of New Netherland, I repeatedly came across two names. Early in the records, I encountered frequent references to an Englishman called Charles Bridges. Later, he vanished, but there were numerous records for one Carel van Bruggen. Then I realized they were the same person. The Englishman had ​“melted” into the Dutch society of early Manhattan. That the dominant language of the melting pot culture changed eventually from Dutch to English only underscores the point that multiethnicity was basic to Dutch and American cultures, and also that it is not antithetical to the development of identity.

As was the case in the seventeenth century Dutch Republic and in Dutch Manhattan, there is today in both the Netherlands and the United States in addition to a cultural argument a vigorous economic argument to be made for defining national identity in an inclusive rather than an exclusive way. Immigrants are good for business, and choking off immigration further exacerbates economic troubles. Late last year a report on NBC television in the U.S. focused on digital entrepreneurs, and found that many bright young immigrants – from Asia, from Europe, from Canada – who had started online companies in the U.S. were forced by misguided immigration policy to return to their home countries: their visas had expired. The entrepreneurs reported that while some countries, such as Singapore, are offering incentives to people who want to emigrate and start businesses, the United States is pushing away entrepreneurs and the jobs they bring. The same might be said for the Netherlands, where immigration policy is becoming more draconian by the day.

It is not only the Geert Wilders of the world who have the right to declare that the years in which ​“multiculturalism” was a prevailing ethos governing immigration policy were offbase. Multiculturalism, European-style, which actively promoted the preservation of ​“foreign” communities within a nation, seems to have been a prescription for chaos. But over-the-top ​“fear of the other” is not the only possible response to that awareness. The Netherlands and the United States are in the relatively favorable position of being able to tap into their historical tradition in asserting a national identity that makes economic sense and deals with immigration creatively and proactively. We seem to be in the midst of a vast realignment of political forces, as mainline parties, looking like crazy old aunts and uncles, continue to wear the policy dress that may have been fashionable decades ago but has become not only comic but constricting. The strident voices that define identity in aggressive, exclusionary language – and couple that message with economic populism to attract blue collar votes feel their jobs are being taken away – are emerging as one new component of that realignment. That strategy may lead to short-term political victory, but it would be a Phyrric victory for society. Sanity dictates that another viewpoint has to emerge as well: a sensible, mature political voice that can both articulate immigration as a benefit and still insist that social change be managed responsibly. Then, maybe, my son’s gastouder would not only be able to welcome her sister as a visitor to the Netherlands, but would be proud to do it.