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Culture

Reacting to the Dutch elections: 'Politicians shouldn't play with the concept of national identity'

Arnon Grünberg is a Dutch author living in New York. Relieved by the election results, he discussed with DW some of the current problems his home country is dealing with.

DW: Mr. Grünberg, many Dutch citizens decided to follow the populist politician Geert Wilders. Was it out of anger?

Arnon Grünberg: Anger probably played a role, but most importantly insecurity - and not only on an economic level. Apparently, many Dutch people no longer know who they are. When I grew up in Holland in the 1970s and 80s, secularization was not as advanced as it is now. Affiliations were very clear at the time - you either voted for the Catholics or the Protestants, or the Social Democrats. That changed recently. Many people feel incredibly insecure. And Pim Fortuyn jumped in to fill that void, followed by Geert Wilders.

Where does the fear of losing one's own identity come from?

When you don't know how to define, "Who am I? Who are we?" that leads to insecurity. To blame that on globalization and neo-liberalism only would be too easy. It's related to much more than just money or jobs. Most of the Netherlanders actually lead a comfortable life.

We had these two murders, Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and Theo van Gogh in 2004. There have been terror attacks all over the world. And politicians kept talking about "foreign infiltration," of a "Muslim threat" or of millions of Africans allegedly coming over - and that was the case before this election as well. When such things are repeated too often, then people start believing them. Nevertheless, a strong majority of the Dutch didn't vote for the extreme right.

Arnon Grünberg (Frankfurter Buchmesse) (picture alliance/dpa-Zentralbild/A. Burgi)

Author Arnon Grünberg

You say that economically speaking, things are better than ever in the Netherlands. But doesn't this boom also leave many people behind - who then tend to believe the promises of the extreme-right, nationalists and populists more easily?

Of course, there are also losers. The Netherlands is definitely not a paradise, but it would be too easy to say that people vote for the radical right for economic reasons. Most of the PVV voters come from the middle or lower-middle class - there are even professors among them. They are afraid of becoming the next losers.

You are a multilingual intellectual, but you're also Dutch. How do you answer the question, "Who are we?"

There are many answers. I'm an author, I'm a Hollander, I live in New York and so forth. Additionally, even in a small country like The Netherlands there are great differences. In Limburg in the south, the situation is completely different from the one in Amsterdam in the North. Regional identity is important. It's also not as dangerous as when politicians play with the concept of national identity and revive nationalism.

The identity question should not be resolved by politicians. It should be answered by the people themselves, in their families, in their sport clubs, in church, wherever. It's not the duty of politicians to tell us who we are.

Book cover Arnon Grünberg Muttermale (Kiepenheuer & Witsch)

His latest novel published in German, "Muttermale"

Which answers can be provided by artists? Your new novel, "Moedervlekken" [Eds. which means "birthmarks," not translated in English yet] is about empathy, but also about paying attention to the suffering of other people. Would you say that Dutch society has lost its ability to empathize with others?

Yes. The question is also, who are those others. The Netherlands used to be very international and was concerned by what would be happening in other countries. Nowadays, many Dutch people - not only those who have voted for Wilders and the PVV - think we need to show solidarity with ourselves first, that we should be at the center of attention. America first, but then the Netherlands second [Eds.: an expression that was made popular through a viral comedy video after Trump's election]. It is a dangerous trend.

Solidarity and empathy don't stop at the border. One can't say, it stops east or south of Maastricht. It wouldn't be human. But if there's still something left of humanist values, of the belief that all people are equal, then it's dangerous to say: "Africans or war refugees from Syria are not as important humans as we are. We've deserved our destiny."

You write a daily column in the Dutch newspaper "De Volkskrant." You held the opening speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year. Can you understand the isolationist tendencies in many countries?

I can somehow understand them, but it isn't a solution. We see that with Trump in the US, that people of the lower class who voted for him were betrayed by his actual policies. The same thing would have happened here with Wilders had he been elected or potentially with Le Pen in France.

It would also be wrong to destroy everything that exists to build something new. There are many things that should be preserved. And we should fight against the destructive drift of the extreme right - or even the extreme left in the Netherlands.

How can authors, artists and intellectuals influence the country to avoid the worst?

That's difficult. No one should overestimate their own influence. Still, as an intellectual author, one has the duty to clearly say: Wilders is not right, there are many other solutions. I don't know if that helps, but it's the only thing that can be done.

 

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