Amsterdam and Seattle have been compared a lot lately as world capitals of progressive politics — bike-friendly port cities where marijuana is legal and gay pride flags fly.
This summer I got the chance to explore those comparisons a little more deeply as the co-director of a study abroad program at the University of Amsterdam.
I spent a great deal of time with my Seattle-based students, learning about Amsterdam and its politics. While my students explored the cities’ differences with bicycling policies and social services, one of our evenings together revealed to me a more nuanced difference: how Seattle and Amsterdam express their own versions of “appropriate” liberalism.
It was the Fourth of July. We celebrated on the rooftop of our student housing with a small potluck party with as much patriotism as we could muster. We were grilling sausages and corn, drinking Dutch beer, and lighting sparklers.
I brought a fellow American friend to dinner with me who had a path much like mine: raised in a liberal and accepting family, went to a very liberal liberal-arts college, went on to a PhD. But while I’m doing my PhD work in progressive Seattle, his is in a conservative Southern U.S. city.
This friend is a scientist who trusts data and facts, and searches for rational explanations as to why things are the way they are. He also doesn’t mind pushing people’s buttons, and resists accepting a popular (read: progressive) viewpoints just because it is what we are supposed to believe.
While this trait initially threw me off, I grew to appreciate it because it made me validate my claims and think about my own assumptions about race, class, gender, and other axes of inequality.
But my 19 and 20 year-old students, born and raised in Seattle, proud to be feminist and sex-worker advocates, were having none of it.
Their faces actually contorted in horror at my friend’s part-facetious, part-genuine commentary and questions — for instance about why a disproportionate number of crimes in the U.S. are committed by black people. (Of course, plenty of analysis on that question has sprung up in response to Ferguson and the shooting of Mike Brown by police — see this piece, this essay, and this Huffington Post piece which is chock full of infographics, especially this one).
It was incomprehensible to them that not everyone adopted their politically correct and progressive world view about institutionalized racism and patriarchy. More than that, to challenge that view was an unacceptable affront to their liberal sensibilities.
I should have expected this, I suppose. It was natural to disagree with my friend’s devil’s advocate perspectives. But where there could have been a great chance for dialogue, instead I saw these young people recoil in disgust.
This was a great example of the Seattle-style brand of what I’ve come to call ‘intolerant liberalism’ — adopting very left-liberal political views, and becoming quite intolerant and hostile to anyone who either doesn’t agree with you or questions perspectives you take to be obvious and true.
So what about in Amsterdam?
Read any lay account of Dutch history, and you will likely hear a similar refrain: the country has been known for its tolerance for centuries, in large part because peoples’ relationship to water forced them to work together for the greater good, and overlook inter-personal differences. Through the canal system, polders, and agriculture, the Dutch have seemingly been tolerating their neighbors’ eccentricities and opinions since the 1600s.
This ideology of tolerance, which is deeply sewn into the narrative of Dutch life, informs many of the liberal policies for which the country is known: legalized prostitution, legalized euthanasia, decriminalized drug use, equal rights for LGBT folks, and, in theory, a secular state that is open to religious beliefs.
And yet, when I asked individual Dutch people whether their countrymen were particularly tolerant, many responded that, “really, it’s just that we’re very pragmatic.”
The drug legalization issue is a practical one: it is cheaper and easier to regulate than to criminalize. Prostitution? People have been selling sex for centuries. We might as well make a profit on it, and regulate it for safety’s sake. Euthanasia? Why not. Who are we to spend extra money keeping someone alive who is terminally ill and has expressed a conscious desire to end their life? Finally, gay marriage? Sure! Why would the state say who can and cannot marry?
But this issue of gay rights in particular abuts the myth of religious tolerance. In a country that preaches liberalism and has many of the most progressive policies in the Western world, the fastest growing political party (the PVV), leverages gay rights as a weapon against Islamic faith and Muslim immigrants. These politicians argue that Muslims, in their admonition of homosexuality (as if all Muslims share the exact same beliefs!), do not fit the mold of Dutch tolerance.
Thus, we see some Dutch, rather than holding tolerance as a universal value, adopt anti-Muslim rhetoric, couched in language about the ideology of tolerance, in the name of, ironically, being more tolerant towards gays and lesbians.
This is an example of ‘progressive intolerance’. That is, shunning cultural or ethnic groups who do not subscribe to the mainstream progressive Dutch platform.
Both of these tendencies — the intolerant liberalism of Seattleites, and progressive intolerance of the Dutch, are dangerous. But they’re not the same problem. Intolerant liberalism happens with individuals: creating distance, inviting shame, and eroding trust. The intolerant liberal says, “I am right, and you are wrong, and if you do not believe what I believe, you aren’t worthy.”
Is this an action that produces dialogue? Of course not. It is alienating, and were it not for the good humor of my friend and I, could have potentially led to embarrassment, shame, and future silences. ‘Liberal’ and ‘conservative’ become dirty words we use to define people by their politics, a shorthand that allows us to write off other perspectives without even hearing them out.
Progressive intolerance like that found in The Netherlands also produces fractures amongst residents, eroding trust in those that are different, and simplifies complex issues into sound-bytes. But rather than taking the stance of a superior minority critiquing the flawed mainstream like we Seattleites might, it instead relies on an assumption of a shared history in which tolerance is agreed upon and minorities are intruders corrupting that tolerance.
For every argument against the xenophobic and racist political platform of the PVV, there are endless documents, police reports and media coverage about Muslim hate crimes against gays, the threat of Islam on Dutch culture, and Turkish and Moroccan violence and petty crime. Fears about social inequalities and economic insecurity are directed towards Muslim immigrants. In the process, the progressive, white Dutchmen is seen as appropriate, correct, safe and normal. (More here on Orientalism and Islamophobia).
Let me be clear that I do not think all Seattleites nor all Dutch people fall prey to these miscalculations . The PVV, while growing, is still a minority viewpoint in The Netherlands (where there is not technically a majority viewpoint, at least politically speaking, because of their multiple party system).
But to the extent that they are pervasive, I see both of these tendencies to be incredibly dangerous, and to stand as obstacles to true liberty or justice. Couched in rhetoric about the “right” way to be, both serve to alienate and distance those who might otherwise share common interests.
Regardless of whether we live or have lived in either of these places, we should consider our own tendency to assume a “correct” approach to politics or policies. Does fear inform our beliefs?
How might we change a stance, or challenge that of the politicians who represent us, if we lead with empathy and curiosity instead? There is no “right” way to be liberal or progressive, but there are many ways to produce pain and distance in the name of being “right.”