From Amsterdam to Seattle, the pitfalls of being ‘progressive’

The Netherlands have a long history of social tolerance that many ascribe to the need to collectively manage water. (Photo from Flickr by Tambako The Jaguar)
The Netherlands have a long history of social tolerance that many ascribe to the need to collectively manage water. (Photo from Flickr by Tambako The Jaguar)

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 piecethis 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.

Are the progressive bumper stickers often sighted around Seattle a sign of tolerance, or just the opposite?
Are the progressive bumper stickers often sighted around Seattle a sign of tolerance, or just the opposite?

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.

A scene from the 2008 gay pride parade in Amsterdam. (Photo from Flickr by FaceMePLS)
A scene from the 2008 gay pride parade in Amsterdam. (Photo from Flickr by FaceMePLS)

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.”


  1. Since “Progressives” are conservative in that they want to keep their power, by voting fraud, enabling corruption from tort lawsuits, legislating union monopolies — anything to keep their power, raw power over us, and to keep their billionaire contributors giving. They give away taxpayer money to do so. They enable policies against the majority of American beliefs. They could be thought as regressives – retain the status quo – not Progressive – looking ahead to enable the people to protect and grow themselves, not by taking taxpayer money and giving it to voting blocs. Yes it is confusing, but taking away the power OF the people and giving it to elites in Washington DC is anything but progressive.

  2. By definition it’s almost impossible to consider yourself or your city/state as “progressive” when you have the most regressive tax system in the country, which by default makes WA one of the most regressive in the world.

    If you are concerned about “big” government, liberal spending, and unions and you consider those the pillars of conservatism then it’s hard to imagine a more accommodating place to live than Washington.

    I think this story confuses liberals with libertarians, which is a better definition of a majority of Washingtonians.

  3. Thank you for this robust article. As a original Seattleite who lived for nearly 3 decades in Amsterdam, I can confirm the pattern you are identifying. However, as you know, cultures consist of systems, not lone attributes. The Dutch progressive liberal society (face it, the party platforms of even the most right-wing parties would be considered “socialist” in the USA…) does not stand apart from other Dutch characteristics: dialogue and agreement (“inspraak” and “afspraak”). The Dutch believe and expect that all parties should have a say in any decision. Because of the multiparty political system (all governments are by coalition) the party that wins elections is not seen as having a mandate for their platform, but rather a mandate to moderate the ongoing discussion. Very different from the American winner-takes-all approach to politics. This leads to an infuriatingly slow but (greatly appreciated) inclusive approach to change. Dutch decisions about social change tend to take most of the population with them.

    1. Thank you for sharing this perspective on Dutch life! And thank you for pointing out that the Dutch political system is more complex than this article allowed for. From what I witnessed, the multiparty system has been extremely successful in incorporating a wide range of social views into the political leadership. Interestingly, as you point out, the economic perspectives are much more common there than in the US. Here, our most liberal parties are the most conservative there, while the idea of a robust welfare state isn’t even up for debate there – it seems like a guarantee! That said, I’m curious what the Dutch political economic landscape will look like in 10 years. It seemed like many efforts are being made to privatize and EU-ize the economy and state.

  4. Nice Catch-22. If your are not tolerant of those whose aim is to destroy tolerance, then you are intolerant. Seems to me sort of like saying those who are pacifists but willing to defend themselves against a real threat are not really pacifists.

    I think there is some confusion here. Is the goal to be tolerant, or cultivate a tolerant society? Those are different objectives and require different responses in certain situations. It’s a matter of perspective, an individual perspective versus a societal perspective.

    1. Interesting point, although I think in identifying this as a confusing Catch-22 you miss the substance at the end – which is to be wary of the concept of tolerance or assuming your perspective as fundamentally right and tolerating (or reluctantly coping some other perspective of aversion). True, tolerance might be important on an individual level (i.e. tolerating your neighbor’s eccentric gardening choices or your mother’s preference of music), but on a societal scale it assumes a ‘right’ or ‘normal’ stance, which risks neglecting to undergo a critical analysis of what actually informs that stance. As the author says in the end, how can we challenge these ‘right’ (or in Seattle/Amsterdam’s case often progressive) agendas to make sure that they are indeed projects of egalitarianism rather than isolating or exclusive platforms that have to vilify an ‘other’ to achieve their validity.

      1. That liberals and progressives are not always tolerant is patently obvious. One cannot argue against that point, and I don’t.

        I merely wanted to point out that tolerance quite naturally has limits if one’s ambition is to cultivate a tolerant society. Toward that end, intolerance of intolerance is a virtue.

        1. Let me state a concrete example. I note that religious tolerance is largely a secular idea. It’s no accident that the US Constitution mandates a secular government AND protect religious diversity. I make no apologies for being intolerant of the Religious Right when they campaign, however thinly disguised, for some form of a Christian theocracy. A theocracy, regardless of which flavor, is always antithetical to religious diversity. Theocracy is a form of intolerance, and therefore I am intolerant of it.

          1. John,I appreciate the perspective you offer, and have often found myself on the side of ‘not tolerating the intolerant’. It wasn’t until seeing this play out in Amsterdam, however, that it gave me pause. Who decides which system is the appropriate form of tolerance? Even in the example that you state about the religious right, I would suspect that most folks are probably just trying to support their own belief system (even if it seems uncanny or more power-laden than that). If the goal is to actually advance a more equitable society, then writing off a group for their perceived intolerance doesn’t seem like it will go very far towards advancing that goal, instead creating distance. That is really the point I’m getting at here (as Annie pointed out quite eloquently. Thanks, Annie!)

          2. I agree with John. What is with the seemingly absolute focus on tolerance?

            Yes, tolerance is a required part of equality. But what does tolerance at all costs give you? In order to survive, at some point a line has to be drawn. And perhaps where that line is drawn is up for debate, but you cannot pretend that it does not exist.

            There is no overarching power that keeps rightwing theocrats and progressive secularists in some sort of balance of power, or some natural harmony. If, in the name of tolerance, you can’t discern a real threat to your values, beliefs, and way of life, then tolerance isn’t your biggest problem.

  5. Yup, it’s good to be able to say no to great dogma sometimes no matter how liberal and progressive and tolerant. It’s these blind spots and fear of not appearing politically correct that created, in part, the context for the horrific Rotherham child sex abuse incidences to occur. Well written!

  6. Playing “devil’s advocate” as a way to test beliefs and arrive at some sort of truth, rather than using it as a “gotcha” tactic for the purpose of discrediting someone, is always valuable. I think it was Camille Paglia (of all people) who pointed out that when “The Left” dogmatically refuses to consider any subject, it will eventually be taken up by extremists on the right, and the left will be unable to offer a considered counterpoint. Something like that. Anyway, nice article, Elyse.

    1. Theron! So great to hear from you. Thanks for reading and reaching out. I’ll have to check out that reference – I’m not aware of it.

  7. The irony is that progressives are a driving force behind the rapid rise in Muslim immigration. Tolerance of intolerance is the same as intolerance. Get ready for some very interesting times.

  8. The reason why progressivism is become increasingly and hysterically intolerant is that it is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions, hypocrisies, and irrationalities. Like all irrational belief systems, it becomes more rigid and fanatical as the cracks in its ideological foundation get wider and more visible.

    Progressives like to wrap their ideology in fancy, high-flying moral terms invented by the kind of people who have fat, cushy, tax-payer-funded jobs at public universities teaching or researching worthless subjects like “the connection between philanthropy and inequality.” However, the fact is, in practice, the heart of their ideology is simply being “anti” anything associated with Western civilization: white people, Christianity, Western laws and mores, capitalism. Thus while “progressives” loudly honk and bray that they are for “equality” and “tolerance”for all people, in practice they march for Trayvon while ignoring the legions of white people who are being beaten to death–for sport–by black gangs all over the country. Thus, they screech hysterically at conservative Christians who are anti gay marriage, while ignoring the inconvenient fact that conservative Muslims believe in stoning gay people to death. Thus, they have white Christian lounge singers arrested for singing a “racist” disco song (this actually happened in England), while ignoring the fact that gangs of brown Muslim adult men have been gang-raping and sexually torturing thousands of 11-year-old white Christian girls in that same England for more than two decades. Thus, they pump their fists in the air to screech their support of Occupy, while happily lapping up financial goodies from George Soros, one of the nastiest, most ruthless, most exploitive capitalists alive.

    To use a favorite “progressive” buzzword, progressivism is simply unsustainable, and more people are waking up to that fact every day. When it finally collapses, like its spiritual ancestor, the Soviet Union, the only people who will miss it will be those kinds of people who make money off of it–i.e., people like Soros and the legions of tax-payer funded, tenured, “progressive” academics who infest the Western university system.

    1. Way to insult the author’s work and vomit a bunch of baseless claims all over the thread. I’m sure that’s a great way to get people to take your opinion seriously.

      And Soros conspiracy theories, really? is that way —->

      1. Way to not address anything I said, Joseph. Didn’t really expect it, because you know everything I said is true, and you can’t refute it. You used the same exact tactic that “progressives” used to aid and abet massive child rape and torture in England for more than 15 years.

  9. Wow, this is an excellent discussion. And thank you for creating the topic, Elyse. I appreciate the idea of evaluating if our tolerance has become intolerant. And I believe this is a real problem and it is something that conservatives understandably get angry about.

    It is interesting to have the discussion followed by Mary Kay’s remarks which reflect a conservative point of view. Even though Mary Kay’s remarks were presented in an inflammatory way (and understandably, people became angry), she does make some good points about how tolerant people shut out “intolerant” points of view without really giving the point of view a chance.

    It is a real thing that certain groups do display more violent tendencies. (I’m not saying that violent tendencies are inherent in any race, but that if someone lives in an unsafe neighborhood with few opportunities, violence is more common. And if an immigrant comes from a country where violence is acceptable behavior, then they may display more violent behavior.) Behavior differences between groups are very real. And this is where we “tolerant” people need to see the problem in a realistic way.

    Here’s an example: Both myself and my friend, Tom, are Democrats. But my other friend, Nancy, is conservative. Nancy explained that she is voting for Trump because she wants someone who will crack down on illegal immigrants. Nancy has lived in poor neighborhoods most of her life, and life is pretty scary there — lots of crime, burglaries, gunfire at night, etc. And in these neighborhoods, she sees that they are mostly Hispanic immigrants. So her fear (and the fear of many people who live in these neighborhoods) is completely understandable. And it is something that we, as a country should work to resolve.

    When I brought up this topic to Tom, I explained that I thought that a higher percentage of illegal immigrants were criminals. (I might be completely wrong here, but I just assumed because there are high crime rates in Latin America right now, so by the law of averages, it seemed logical.) So Tom adamantly disagreed with me. And he said that I sounded like Trump! (And being a Democrat, that was a terrible insult, of course ;)

    I still don’t know if I’m right or wrong, but that is not the point. The point is that if we truly want to help the people who are suffering in our society, we have to look at realities. What are the conservatives really telling us? In this case, my friend literally lived in fear. And if we, as progressives, can’t even try to discover the real causes because it might not sound politically correct, then we lose our ability to make effective change. (I’m not saying that we need to build a wall or anything, but there are many more positive methods to address high crime rates.)

    In addition, we should not discount that Christians have strong beliefs that abortion and gay marriage are wrong. These are deeply-rooted religious beliefs, so we need to work with them from a place of understanding. Certainly, abortion has two sides — one is to avoid harming the fetus and the other is respecting the mother’s reproductive choice.

    So if progressives are not willing to empathize with the other’s point of view or to even entertain certain unpleasant realities, we are not doing either side any favors. We must be willing to listen and to really understand what others are feeling and be willing to work together to find pragmatic and respectful solutions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.