What's in a culture - part I

What's in a culture - part I

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Well-travelled blogger Michaela Smith, who knows that "natives of any country in the world don't take kindly to critical comment or even advice from foreigners", comments on Princess Maxima's recent speech.

On 24 September, Princess Maxima presented the report Identification with the Netherlands, issued by the Scientific Council for Government Policy. In her speech, Maxima stated there's no such creature as 'the' Hollander. "The' Dutch identity doesn't exist any more than 'the' Argentinean", according to the princess. Even though she made an intelligent, realistic, and tactful plea for a shift in attitude by the Dutch away from what separates the various social groups towards emphasis on what unites them, this one-liner prompted a veritable barrage of comment and complaint, discussion and diatribe.

'Maxima is insufficiently integrated to understand the more subtle aspects of Dutch society' said a spokesman for the Bond van Oranjeverenigingen (Union of Orange Associations) while Ella Vogelaar, Minister for Housing, Housing Areas and Integration defended Maxima by saying that her statement is being interpreted one-dimensionally and that self-evidently, the Dutch are not clones of one another. Last night, the PM said that Maxima's statement had simply gone down the wrong way with people opposed to multiculturalism.

If there's one thing I've learnt from my nomadic life, it's that natives of any country in the world don't take kindly to critical comment or even advice from foreigners. My American friends, though intelligent academics and critical thinkers, suddenly grow very 'long toes' when I voice my views on American foreign policy. I get an almost standard reply 'you don't know what it's like to be attacked".

After 18 years in the UK, while researching government education policy, I was told to go back to where I came from if I didn't like the way things were in Britain. My blog on the Royal Family prompted similar comment "you foreigners have no right of speaking. You don't understand".

Maxima, exposed to plenty of input and experience in countries other than her native Argentina, will not and cannot ever be 'fully' integrated in the sense required by the spokesman above. We're all of us the product of our own cultures – Maxima is no exception – to the extent that we (can) arrive in a new place staunchly believing things to be better back home. Only after many years of immersion into another society do we begin to understand that things are merely different, organised according to non-transferable local circumstances, and not necessarily better. In other words, it's us migrants who learn and change our beliefs accordingly. Uprooted, we develop a personal culture based on experience rather than blind loyalty. It's us who blow the wind of change, not the settlers who have no calibration tool for their beliefs.

But even if we are very successful in adapting to our new country, we have no roots there so cannot go the whole hog and end up somewhere in between – at the personal cost of losing our comfortable place back home though not really belonging to the new culture either. So what exactly is this thing called culture?

Defining culture

I think a culture is best defined as a belief system, an unwritten, unspoken, entrenched consensus on what's important in life and how things are done, that all of its members subscribe to.


Beliefs can be anything, from the  inconspicuous and trivial details a tourist wouldn't even notice, to the large public morality that makes even a casual visitor love a country so much that he wants to live there or hate it with such a vengeance that he never wants to set foot there again. A Dutch example of a trivial belief might be that a washing machine should go in the bathroom or loft and has no place in the kitchen. The Brits on the other hand are amazed to find light switches and sockets in Dutch bathrooms. The Dutch eat pies and cakes with their morning coffee or afternoon tea, while the Brits have them for dessert. These small things, any immigrant can get used to in no time at all. They don't make or break successful integration. The opposite is true for the more dominant beliefs, the ones that define a national identity and determine whether or not a newcomer fits in.


Seeking the good life

In The Netherlands, there is a clear consensus, a dominant belief system even - on how to live, no less. Possibly ensuing from the post-WW II reconstruction years, it is a linear, one-dimensional view of being born, getting a good education, a good job, a good husband or wife, good children, a good pension and a good death.

As people who tread this straight and narrow can be seen very clearly indeed to have a 'good' life, this notion has come to underpin the entire Dutch society and is at the core of the Dutch identity. And what's wrong with that? For one, 'a good life' tends to be defined in terms of purchasing power and it is from this that the Dutch derive their self-analysis of individualism. Next, people will do anything to protect their wallets.

Not surprisingly, the 2004 Transparency International global corruption barometer mentioned Norway and the Netherlands as the Western nations with the most corrupt private sector. Furthermore, as position and income – by extension one's performance at work - aren't open to criticism, Dutch society isn't open to change. Also, the apple cart's being upset by influences - immigrants and their 'norms and values', EU Directives, UN Treaties - that aren't exactly non-Dutch in defining 'good' in non-monetary terms like quality, integrity, transparency, equality and the like but that definitely require a rethink of the core identity. So the Dutch are closing ranks. Finally, the systems designed to uphold the national identity – education, health and law – are creaking at the seams.

I'm somewhat amazed to find myself in agreement with the Princess, not on the point of the absence of an identity but on the larger message of the Dutch urgently needing to embrace diversity. Even more amazing is that I almost agree with Balkenende, for once, though, being rooted in the Dutch culture himself, he can no more recognise that the Dutch belief system leaves no room for multiculturalism than the Dutch can acknowledge that a foreigner might have a more objective view. Downright shocking is that I agreed with Wilders last week! He more or less said in parliament 'rather a lion for a day than a sheep all my life'. But that's another topic.

Part II on this subject – the Dutch education and legal systems or how a society destroys itself from within – will follow soon. 'What's good about the Dutch?' will appear on my personal blog.

11 October 2007


Reprinted with permission from oh-brave-new-world.blogspot 

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