By guest author Martijn de Koning Rather than a strong sense of national pride, the idea of the moral community seems to be central in opting into the Dutch national project. At the heart of the idea of Dutch nation-state was the notion that every member of society, irrespective of background and religious affiliation, should subscribe to an imagined moral community – an imagined community based upon shared ideas about what constitutes a good and virtuous life. Since the 19th century most of the Protestant groups in the Netherlands (with the exception of a few orthodox Calvinist dissenters between 1830 and 1860 who rejected state interference with church matters) acknowledged the Dutch nation-state as their moral community, linking nation, religion and virtue. The secular regimes of that time promoted the idea of virtuous citizens realizing their moral selves by conforming to prevailing ideas of what constituted a good life and doing good acts on behalf of the welfare of the nation-state.
After the secession of Belgium in 1830, the Dutch nation-state became a Protestant nation-state. The threat to the unity of this religious-nationalist community was perceived to come from the Catholics in the south, who were assumed to be more loyal to the Pope in Rome than to the Dutch nation-state (Van Rooden 1996). A new relationship between the nation-state and virtue emerged after the pacification of 1917 that produced the pillar system. The pillar system divided Dutch society into separate groups but also united them in one moral community, effectively replacing the notion of the Netherlands as a ‘Protestant nation’ with the concept of four groups (Catholics, Protestants, Socialists and Liberal-humanists) constituting one moral community. At the end of the 1960s the system collapsed as a result of secularization and individualization rendering the power of churches to mobilize people ineffective and obsolete.
The consequence of the collapse of the pillarized model in the 1960s was the changing of the basis of moral community: the Netherlands was no longer a moral community based upon religious and ideological nationalism. Also the legacy of the second World War discredited strong and overt nationalist expressions and associations. Together with a culturalization of citizenship and integration, during the 1990s the idea of the Dutch moral community was more and more constituted by the of the imagined nation consisting of citizens who find virtue in sexual and secular freedoms. Migrants, and after 9/11, in particular Muslim immigrants and their descendants, increasingly became the ultimate other alledgedly not conforming to the ‘real’ Dutch values and norms and for being loyal to their ‘home’ country or the idea of a world community of Muslims.
Racist, certainly overt racist, are not a strong element in Dutch nationalism. In particular World War II and the holocaust discredited strong and overtly nationalist ideas and expressions and even more so ideas that linked the idea of the Dutch nation with racist ideas. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t part of Dutch nationalism at all. The history of colonization and also the Sinterklaas and Black Pete tradition (partly) prove otherwise. Also it is argued by some that the contemporary critique by populist nativistic parties to a certain extent can be seen as racist as far as it constitutes Muslims as a monolithic group of people that have (a violent representation) of Islam in their genes. We can also find some ideas of race linking to nation in current ad campaigns. Consider the next campaign of the largest Dutch dairy company, Campina. One of their products is the Milner cheese:
The ad is located in a rural area. The voice over tells us that in the ideal world the Netherlands was still one large village. It never was of course, but that is one of the myths about the Dutch past. In this past, as the voice over reminds us, all farmers looked like Rintje Ritsma (a famous Dutch speed skater). All the girls at this farm are blue-eyed, blonde and slim. The fact that they are slim is significant since the theme of the commercial for this cheese is: ‘More cheese, less fat’. Note that there is also one woman in the ad who is a curly dark haired woman named Fatima; a stereotype a the typical Moroccan woman. This voice over startles when he mentions this, apparently acting surprised but then says ‘that is ok too’. (In a recent version ‘Fatima’ is not present anymore).
Another example is the recent campaign of the Dutch tea brand Pickwick (in this case interestingly part of the US company Sara Lee):
The question in this commercial is why there isn’t something called Dutch blend (like English blend) tea. The producers therefore decide to call in ‘real Dutch people’ in order to create a Dutch blend. We see white ‘real Dutch’ people who come to the factory by bike to jointly create the new, ‘typical Dutch’, product reviving the idea of the Dutch East Indie company.
In the next Campina campaign there is talk about ‘Dutch’ cows and milk:
In this ad the voice over tells us that we may think that all milk is the same but that more and more milk is coming from abroad. Fortunately, according to the voice over in the ad, Campina milk is guaranteed from ‘our Dutch cows’. (It is not clear to me whether ‘our’ refers to native Dutch, Campina or another party). The farmer in the commercial explains that Dutch farmers take care and feed their cows optimally. The farmer you see in the ad is also a father and a family man, therefore in the ad he states ‘Also as a father I went the best for my family’. The commercial ends with the slogan ‘With Campina you get the best from our country’; country referring to the rural agricultural area as well as to the nation-state. Together with the rise of nativist populism focusing on Muslims, integration of migrants and ‘Dutch normas and values’ we can witness an increasing tendency of people trying to reclaim and resource the idea of closeness, authochtony and authenticity by linking the idea of the nation to an ideal, authentic past and (other) well known stereotypes such as the Dutch as white, blue eyed blonde people. The reason why Campina went along with these ads is that, according to them, there is a tendency of buying local and the urge people feel to buy products that are produced ‘closeby’. Campina is not alone in this. Other Dutch companies do the same such Unox (part of Unilever) and the ‘Old Amsterdam‘ (Gouda cheese) commercials.
The idea of the Dutch moral community that is spread by these commercials differs considerably than the one that is spread by the Dutch government and municipalities for example in the anti-discrimination ads and other campaigns (including commercial ones) that often use images of Muslim women with headscarf.
Now as with every interesting story, this one has a twist as well. One that involves Campina. During one episode of a Dutch newsprogram it was discovered that the Milner cheese is certified halal (by Halal Food).
The product is halal certified (‘even the age-old Dutch cheese’) without consumers knowing it because it is not mentioned on the labels. Consumers thought that this should be on the label so they could make an informed choice. According to a state-secretary consumers have the right to know how a product is prepared, ‘certainly if this has a religious connotation’ and according to another person it is important to know the ‘religious background’ of the product. An anti-islam commentator stated that ‘we do not want things that involve sharia are covered up’. Earlier the populist anti-islam Freedom Party wanted halal food to be removed from the restaurant of the parliament as a case of fighting against Islamization and fighting against ‘the Netherlands adjusting itself to Muslims’. Other parties did not agree, but stated that consumers should be able to make an informed choice. This incident does not in any way however discard what I mentioned above. Campina and other companies try to reach the market as best as possible and in different ways. What matters here is, first, that in the latter incident, or for example in the Pickwick company selling other teas like Turkish Apple and Minty Morocco, does not include the Other in their idea of what constitutes real Dutch. Second these companies sell the idea of an authentic Dutch past based upon, sometimes, racial stereotypes.
All of this may seem trivial but it doesn’t mean that this is not significant. Michael Billig coined the term ‘banal nationalism‘ to direct our attention to the ways nationalism is quietly, invisibly and continuously reproduced in daily life rather then being overtly expressed. The idea of the nation is reproduced in ‘mundane’, ‘routine’ and often ‘unnoticed’ ways. Banal nationalism can be harmless but it can also provide political entrepeneurs with the foundation to mobilize people and to turn this seemingly harmless nationalism into a frenzy; it is the simplicity and pervasiveness that gives banal nationalism its power. The idea of the nation and citizens being prepared to fight for it and take pride in it requires that the sense of nationhood is instilled in us over a lifetime by continuously and in different ways repeating and circulating this idea. Commercial ads, although its makers may have a different intention, are very suited because they come directly in our homes and are often aired multiple times per evening during several weeks. The makers could be right and are probably sincere when they argue that they tap into feelings of buying local but at the same time they reproduce the idea of the local by linking the idea of the nation with whiteness, authenticity and authochtony.
Martijn de Koning holds a PhD degree in anthropology from the VU and now works at the Department of Islam and Arab Studies at the Radboud University in Nijmegen. His research focuses on religious practices of young Muslims in the Netherlands. This article is re-published from his own blog, where he writes about anthropological issues including Salafism in the Netherlands.
Martijn earlier wrote about ‘the paradoxical case of Tariq Ramadan’ on this weblog (in Dutch).