Tolerating Intolerance

Yesterday I wrote about the liberal approach to sex ed to be found in The Netherlands and how this has resulted in world-record low rates of pregnancy and STDs in young people. The Netherlands also often is cited as having close to the lowest rate of abortion among all nations — I think Iceland edges it out by a decimal point — while allowing liberal, legal access to abortion.

Today we read in the International Herald Tribune that the problems caused by Muslim immigration into The Netherlands is causing the Dutch to re-think their liberal ideals of tolerance.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the Netherlands had lived through something akin to a populist revolt against accommodating Islamic immigrants led by Pim Fortuyn, who was later murdered; the assassination of the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, accused of blasphemy by a homegrown Muslim killer; and the bitter departure from the Netherlands of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali woman who became a member of Parliament before being marked for death for her criticism of radical Islam.

Now something fairly remarkable is happening again.

Two weeks ago, the country’s biggest left-wing political grouping, the Labor Party, which has responsibility for integration as a member of the coalition government led by the Christian Democrats, issued a position paper calling for the end of the failed model of Dutch “tolerance.”

Naturally, this story is being celebrated by The Usual Mouth Breathers on the Right as a sign that Europeans are wising up to the evils of allowing brown people with funny accents to live among them. One goes so far as to predict this position paper is the beginning of the end of the European Union.

A genuinely liberal culture is a rare thing. The default position of human civilization seems to be some form of authoritarianism. The challenge to any liberal society is to maintain liberal ideals even while factions within that society are undermining them (e.g., Freepers). Is that possible? Is there a middle ground between using authoritarian government to enforce cultural “norms” and standing by smiling while one’s country is taken over by thugs? Does being liberal mean having to be a patsy?

To me, the absolute foundation of liberalism is the value of human equality and all its permutations — civil liberty, social justice, equal protection under the law. For this reason, liberalism can accommodate cultural differences, but it cannot tolerate intolerance. Historically, genuine liberalism has not flinched from using the power and authority of government to protect civil liberties from whatever thuggish forces violate it.

This is where liberalism and libertarianism part company. In its passion for “small government,” libertarianism is perfectly happy to chuck civil liberties out the window. It is no coincidence that probably the most purely libertarian political document America ever created was the Confederate Constitution, the ultimate purpose of which was to ensure protection of the institution of slavery.

And I still believe much libertarian antipathy toward “big government” was kick-started by the showdown between federal troops and segregationists in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957. But a liberal nation cannot tolerate racial discrimination.

We should be clear that multiculturalism is not the problem. The United States always has been a multicultural nation, right-wing revisionist history to the contrary. Conservatives cherish a mythical past in which all America (except for a few fringes, of course) was populated by English-speaking Anglo Saxons. This was never true. In the 19th century, English was rarely heard in large regions of the country. I’m not talking about city neighborhoods; I’m talking about vast stretches of territory across many states. In big chunks of the upper Midwest, for example, German was far more commonly spoken than English. During the Civil War, some Union volunteer regiments were German speaking, and Lincoln had to appoint German-speaking officers to lead them.

Much of what is distinctive in American culture — music, food, language — in large part comes from African American influence. The Southwest had a thriving Latino culture before the first Anglos showed up. There have been ethnic Chinese in the West for more than 150 years. And, of course, native Americans were here first.

Human history can be seen as one vast multicultural dance. Various cultures are forever moving, mingling, changing. Sometimes a culture can be isolated for a time, but never forever. Cultures that are isolated too long become stagnant. On the other hand, expose some European Crusaders to Middle Eastern arts and sciences, and the eventual result is the Renaissance.

Although Islam seems to encourage authoritarianism, Islam is not necessarily the problem. An article in today’s Christian Science Monitor describes Muslims and non-Muslims living harmoniously together for generations in Cambodia. The articles describes a society in which Muslims are thoroughly integrated, even though the nation is more than 90 percent Buddhist.

“Integration” is the key word, I think. In other Buddhist nations, such as Thailand, Muslims are not integrated, and there is perpetual violence.

But let’s go back to The Netherlands. What happens when people with an authoritarian cultural orientation move into a non-authoritarian, liberal society? Messy and ugly things happen, that’s what. The Dutch are going to have to find their own way through this problem, but the issue before them is how to protect liberal values without violating liberal values.

The message, seems to me, is We don’t care how you worship, and we don’t care how you dress, but you may not oppress or forcibly coerce other people, including those in your own communities. And if you can’t live with that, you will go away and live somewhere else.

The other half of a liberal counter-offensive against illiberalism is to encourage integration and, to be sure those Muslims who are trying to fit into Dutch culture are given help if they need it.

The mistake made in many European countries — France in particular comes to mind — is that they’ve adopted a policy that discrimination against the ethnic newcomers doesn’t exist, even though it does, and they’ve taken no pro-active measures to enable integration and fairness. As a result, Muslims in France are ghettoized, alienated, and have little hope they can work within the system to better their lives.

It’s nearly always the case that there is conflict and enmity when cultures collide. However, the only constant in human civilization is change. Human societies cannot be frozen in amber, nor can they remain healthy walled off from other human societies.

At the same time, the cultural strife being experienced in The Netherlands is not a sign the liberalism has failed, so we must give up on it and revert to authoritarianism. I think it’s a sign that liberal societies are rare, that they are constantly under threat from authoritarianism, and that it takes work to maintain a liberal society. But the work does pay off in the long run.

6 thoughts on “Tolerating Intolerance

  1. These are tricky distinctions, but given a little contemplation I think I grasp them.

    An example of the libertarian approach: in Texas, a Christian-based cult (the FLDS), believes its religious freedom extends to passing ownership of women from husband to husband like used cars, and actually or statutorially raping minor girls. When a judge removes endangered children from this environment, the state determines they must be returned.

    I doubt the state would have been as “libertarian” with Muslims behaving the same way. Hmm. I think that’s “intolerantly inconsistent tolerance of intolerance.”

    I’d make a poor libertarian; I get nosebleeds trying to follow their logic.

  2. One definition of libertarians might be “authoritarians who like to keep the power of authoritarianism as local as possible.” But, yes, the Texas example is a good one. According to the “small-government uber alles” types, removing children from an environment in which young girls and women are systematically being kept in sexual bondage is just a kind of weird liberal overreaction to everyday life. But when Muslims oppress young girls and women and keep them in sexual bondage, it’s bad.

  3. I lived in Holland for a short time. Yes, they consider themselves extremely liberal and fair-minded, but it struck me at the time that it’s quite easy to be that way (at least as far as multiculturalism goes) when you’re 99% white. Some of the things said in polite company, especially about black people, just made my skin crawl (coming from a Southern California upbringing where we really ARE a melting pot).

    It didn’t help that I was there around Christmas. Just look up Santa’s sidekick, Zwarte Piet.

  4. it’s quite easy to be that way (at least as far as multiculturalism goes) when you’re 99% white.

    I don’t doubt that is true, and I also don’t doubt one of the reasons the U.S. is such a flaming looneybin is that many people are pushed into accepting more diversity than they are ready to accept. But ready or not, the industrialized nations are becoming more diverse and multicultural, and that cannot be stopped. We can either fight it (and fail) or learn to work with it.

  5. One of the more repulsive features of wingnutism is the attempt to demonize the entire Muslim religion and the Koran. In their reality, an increase in the number of mosques is proof of sinister intent. They will usually dance around formally connecting the dots, but the global ‘War on Terror’ is a global war on Islam, even if they won’t declare it explicitly.

    For those of us who are ‘liberal’, the religion of Islam is not a threat, but the antisoicial actions of fundies who want to impose their viewpoint on siciety IS a a threat. (In this context, Islamic fundies differ from Christian fundies only in degree.) The crime is not in a set of beliefs but a commitment to – or support of – violence & intimidation as a means of imposing your beliefs on portions of society who do not subscribe to those beliefs.

    So it may be in poor taste to draw a cartoon which is a commentary on how Mohammed would view terrorism, it’s not a crime. Burning down the newspaper that prints the comic IS a crime more serious than the damages, for it’s an attempt to gag ALL the press and assume to a religious order complete veto power over what may be said about that religion. Christian fundies have also adopted terrorist tactics of violence, intimidation, vandalism, arson against abortion clinics to the point where medical professioonal must literally put thier life on the line to practice legal medicine in some parts of the country.

    For a governemment who is committed to justice, the challenge is to make the distinction totally clear. In the way jobs & housing is made available (or blocked), and the manner laws are written, to the way police are allowed to enforce thse laws, to the manner the court hands down verdicts – the commitment to prosecute antisocial actions – NOT to prosecute membership to a minority religion – has to be the obvious goal.

  6. I agree with what you say, maha, and unfortunately, PseudoNoise has a good point about racism in Europe. But I do think that LGBT Europeans are right to be concerned about fundamentalists moving in and voting against their hard-won freedoms. If Muslim immigrants can accept gay and lesbian people living alongside them, more power to them. They should be welcomed with open arms. But turning away those who think gays should be put to death is not necessarily racism. Europe has seen what having a large population of hateful (in our case, Christian) fundamentalists has done to the US.

    This is my first post here. Thank you for your wonderful blog.

    Mike 🙂

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