Saturday, December 18, 2004

Holland Daze

Holland Daze


THE SMALL CITY of Schiedam, on the Nieuwe Maas river near Rotterdam, has played a big role in the Dutch imagination of late. Five years ago, the historian/journalist Geert Mak entranced the country with a long narrative called My Father's Century. It is still in bookshop windows and is now in its 27th printing. It begins in Mak's great-grandparents' sail-making business in Schiedam, and follows the lives of his family members as they collide with Dutch history in the twentieth century: the Dutch Reformed faith they drifted in and out of, the herring they ate, how much money they made, what it felt like to live under Nazi occupation, their shyness (or boldness) about sex, the jokes they told, and how they faced the 1960s. The book consoled Dutch people that however tumultuous the changes the 20th century had wrought, there was an ineffable 'Dutchness' that somehow perdured. Schiedam played the role in the Dutch imagination that Macomb County, Michigan, or Luckenbach, Texas, did in the American imagination in the mid-1980s: You could look there to see how the 'real' people in the country lived.

Early this month, another Schiedam native, a 30-year-old man known in his police dossier as Farid A., was found guilty of issuing death threats over the Internet. When the conservative Dutch politician Geert Wilders described Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat last year as a "terrorist leader," Farid A. posted a picture of him on an Islamist website urging: "Wilders must be punished with death for his fascistic comments about Islam, Muslims, and the Palestinian cause." That was a year ago, and since then, Wilders has done even more to tick off Muslim radicals. He left the conservative Freedom and Democracy People's party (VVD) after a personal spat with the party leadership, promising to launch his own "Geert Wilders List," along the lines of the one-person movement that turned the gay populist Pim Fortuyn into the most popular politician in the Netherlands in early 2002. Wilders has focused on Turkey, crime, and the unsustainability of high immigration. He has warned that many of the more than 1 million Muslims who live in the Netherlands "have already opted for radical Islam," and has urged closing extremist mosques.

There is a market for his forthrightness. In early November, a poll in the left-leaning daily de Volkskrant showed that Wilders could win several hundred thousand votes, which would translate into nine seats in the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of the national legislature. When the gadfly filmmaker Theo van Gogh was shot and knifed in southeastern Amsterdam on November 2, the letter that his killer pinned with a knife to his corpse contained a promise to do the same to the Somali-born feminist VVD member of parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Wilders got similar threats shortly thereafter. There were two results for Wilders. First, his popularity shot through the roof: A second poll in de Volkskrant showed Wilders would now win almost 2 million voters, taking 28 seats, or a fifth of the parliament, and that he was drawing support across party lines and in every single sector of Dutch society, despite--or perhaps because of--perceptions that he is a single-issue candidate.


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