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Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission, has the ability to make anyone with some sense of national identity or pride cringe. His recent remarks reducing nationalism to a force that can only directly oppose democracy and propagation of EU supranationalism as the only solution for the future is little more than an empty and restricted view that singlehandedly dismisses the positive forces of nationalism. Nationalism in Europe tends to automatically be equated with the dangerous nationalisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This negates the opportunity to explore the positive attributes available in the socio-political spectrum of nationalism.
The force of nationalism or, more specifically, ‘multicultural nationalism’ has arguably contributed to a relatively stable democratic transition in a previously divided country like South Africa. This is demonstrated by the inclusiveness of multicultural nationalism with its potential to reimagine a nation by redefining an ‘us’; it gives diverse groups of people a sense of shared purpose for the future, a feeling of home, and a definition of who we are with respect for our past and present, and our values.
Rainbow Nationalism of post-apartheid South Africa
Multicultural nationalism was most effectively expressed in the Rainbow Nationalism of post-apartheid South Africa, which in the immediate years following the democratic transition in 1994 became something of a civic religion. A caveat does apply here: this once powerful civic religion has since lost its initial impetus amidst growing socio-economic unease but its lasting impact on the historic consciousness of the nation is undeniable. It has left its mark on a population differentiated by race, culture, religion, and language.
Despite its apparent failings as a thin veneer plastered over the deep crevices of division which have marked the country’s past and present, it has succeeded in creating a shared multicultural national identity that, despite the many inequalities that exist in South African society, does create a palpable sense of unity.
Cultural, racial, and religious identities
Its echoes were heard during the 2010 FIFA World Cup hosted in South Africa, the death of the nation’s greatest hero – Nelson Mandela – in 2013, and more recently in the social media response to an ‘outsider’ attack on the country’s athletic darling, Caster Semenya. The message was clear and came from a multiplicity of voices: you don’t mess with one of ours. Whenever needed, regardless of race, culture or religious identity, the varied people that make up South African citizenry call them themselves South African.
In the Netherlands this sense of a shared national identity appears to be eroding rapidly. Any remnants of national pride and values are systematically being replaced by a relentless supranationalism accompanied by the politically correct abstract concepts of multiculturalism and diversity which threaten Dutch sovereignty and national cohesion by emphasizing the differences between citizens instead of celebrating what we have in common. This places cultural, racial, and religious identities before that of a shared, national identity and thus chips away at the nation itself and any sense of shared vision for the future.
If the imagined national identity of Rainbow Nationalism, informed by a multicultural nationalism, was able to take hold and be effective in such a short period of time in a country with such a recent traumatic past, which lessons can we, in the Netherlands, take from this? Should we aim for multicultural nationalism or should we redefine it as multicultural patriotism – a more positive concept in a European context with its emphasis on a love and admiration for the nation’s values?
In the Netherlands, not all citizens consider themselves Dutch or find ‘Dutchness’ a problematic concept. So where should we start searching to reclaim a Dutch national identity that says Dutch first and foremost? Where and what are our shared national icons and symbols, our shared historical experiences, moments in time that we can call on and say: “That is when we were united”, “those were the moments that we stood together as a nation?” More succinctly, we need to (re)locate a usable past to create a vision for a shared future.
Power and efficacy of public holidays
Such an approach however does require certain criteria for conflicting values or ideas not to frustrate its outcomes. The concrete plans as outlined by the Dutch political party Forum voor Democratie (Forum for Democracy, FvD) in their Wet Bescherming Nederlandse Waarden (‘protection of Dutch values act’) which states five fundamental values that every Dutch citizen should ascribe to, are, arguably, a good starting point. It would form a solid foundation from which to build a multicultural nationalism as advocated by the leader of FvD, Thierry Baudet, in The Significance of Borders: Why Representative Government and the Rule of Law Require Nation States. The modern nation is a composite artefact with a rich variety of cultural resources. Thus, as a diverse and pluralist society, we need to (re)discover our monocultural core, as Baudet argues.
‘In the Netherlands little opportunity for expressions of national identity which are quickly labelled as ‘fascist’, ending all reasonable discussion’
But once those values have been ingrained, how do you keep people excited and involved and remind them of their importance to the nation? The South African solution was simple yet effective: reconfigure the spatio-temporal landscape. More succinctly put: national holidays all-year round – rebrand the old ones, add a few new ones, and celebrate the past, present, and future of the nation. While this may come across as somewhat frivolous and contentious, an outsider should not underestimate the power and efficacy of public holidays. This is most strongly enacted on National Heritage Day in South Africa when fires are lit across the country and everyone shares in the cultural culinary tradition of the braai (‘barbecue’). These holidays, whatever the average citizens decides to do with them, provide fertile ground and opportunity for celebrating and entrenching national identity.
A Dutch multicultural nationalism
If shared national traditions can once again be found, championed, and celebrated in the Netherlands, a new brand of ‘Dutchness’ can be imagined and created if the space for this is indeed provided. The current socio-political landscape in the Netherlands and Europe leaves little opportunity for expressions of national identity which are quickly labelled as ‘fascist’, ending all reasonable discussion. A simple suggestion of singing the national anthem at schools in the Netherlands caused enough furore to have the debate silenced. In contrast, the national anthem is sung at schools in South Africa without any threat of dangerous expressions of nationalism running rampant.
We are at a critical juncture. While we can still look back with some critical reflection on our past and select the moments and shared values that make us Dutch, we need to treasure and nourish those elements instead of relinquishing all sense of national identity in favour of a supranationalist ‘identity’ that is simply not tenable. A Dutch multicultural nationalism or, perhaps, patriotism is essential. A strong set of patriotic values will preserve our sovereignty as a nation and enhance the stability of any elected government, strengthening its mandate, and positively contribute to the legitimacy of our representative democracy.
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