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Dealing with the Dutch Elections

by Freek Colombijn –

Few people will have missed the fact that the PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid, Party for Freedom) has been the big winner of the Dutch parliamentary elections of 22 November. I have just returned from a class where a colleague of mine discussed the election results with their students. One student said he felt “defeated,” and others were upset. Why does the PVV victory evoke such a strong reaction among anthropologists?

The PVV is against the core values of our discipline. The PVV holds an ethnocentric view of society in which whole groups of people are disqualified because of their religion or origin. Alleged “Christian” and “Dutch” values are the standards for the PVV. The construction of mosques should be stopped, and wearing a hijab prohibited. These views go strongly against the cultural relativism that is at the heart of our discipline. (It is also very bad anthropology to speak of “Dutch national culture” as a bounded, coherent set of values and practices that distinguish it from other national cultures. This primordial approach to “national cultures” is what Eric Wolf calls the flawed “billiard ball analogy” in his Europe and the People without History.)

The PVV is not only against the core values of our discipline but also advocates policies that would seriously damage our academic practices. Anthropology and the academic world at large are global endeavours, and international cooperation is indispensable to propel us further. Denying this reality, the PVV wants to curb the internationalization of higher education and wants the Netherlands to leave the European Union. The international classroom is essential for incorporating diverse perspectives into the university, and while the confrontation with views of people with diverse backgrounds may sometimes lead to uncomfortable debates, it is also crucial to practice cultural relativism and to learn to see the world through the eyes of others. A Dutch Brexit or Nexit will damage international cooperation in research, as scholars from the UK have learned all too well.

To make it worse, the PVV does not want to support states or groups of people that fight against aggressive, imperialist regimes. The Russian invasion of Ukraine or the construction of new settlements in territory occupied by the state of Israel are causes of social injustice that, in my view, the Dutch government should fight against. The PVV does not want to help people in other countries, and it wants to close Dutch borders to migrants and even refugees. Arguably worst of all, the PVV wants to divest funding from measures to fight climate change. If the PVV succeeds in forming a coalition government, we may ride the storm until the next election, but climate change does not pause for four years.

How should we deal with the PVV victory? We certainly should not demonize the PVV leader, Geert Wilders, nor his constituency. His success calls for cultural relativism on the side of anthropologists that he lacks himself. Why is it that about a fifth of the Dutch electorate supports his ideas? When one zooms in on the cast votes, there is a clear dividing line between people with theoretical and practical education, and people living in university towns and provincial capitals versus people living in the rest of the country. We should also reflect on the “social bubbles” we are living in. All the people I have spoken to today confess they do not know a single PVV voter in their social circles. Why is it that people feel excluded by political parties that are disqualified by them as the “establishment”?

To end on a positive note, until less than 24 hours ago, it looked like a conservative party (VVD) would win, which is led by a woman, Dilan Yesilgöz. She could have made history by becoming the first female prime minister in the Netherlands (if she managed to form a coalition government and if she became prime minister as the political leader of the largest party). Her gender has been a non-issue in the campaign, and that is something to celebrate. Or at least, both politicians and mass media were convinced it was inappropriate to hint at her gender, and that is also good news. At a very practical level, we must collectively try very hard to make students and colleagues who do not meet the PVV image of a “good citizen” and “Dutchness” feel welcome in our university.

Freek Colombijn is an associate professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, VU Amsterdam

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