In the United States and Britain and several African and Caribbean countries, woke activists have successfully lobbied for statues of historical figures to be torn down and historical buildings and monuments to be re-named. But the Dutch government has decided to go even further and re-name their entire nation.
By next year, the country called “Holland” and also known as “The Netherlands” will officially use only the latter name. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained that the Netherlands needed a “more uniform and coordinated approach” to national branding. She said: “We want to present the Netherlands as an open, inventive and inclusive country.”
What’s odd about this justification is that the country has been the Mecca of tolerance and openness, not just for years, but for centuries. The Dutch Golden Age lasted from 1609 to 1713, when the nation was the wealthiest, most creative, and certainly the freest place on Earth. As writer Timothy Ferris notes in his book The Science of Liberty, Dutch tolerance for free thinkers made their country a refuge for endangered philosophers, such as Descartes and the skeptic Pierre Bayle, while the Dutch themselves produced Erasmus, Grotius, and of course Spinoza.
Dutch artists were among the most admired and innovative in the Western world, creating new styles of painting which celebrated industriousness and science itself, as in Vermeer’s The Lacemaker and Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.
The historian Jonathan I. Israel wrote: “Visitors continually marveled at the prodigious extent of Dutch shipping and commerce, the technical sophistication of industry and finance, the beauty and orderliness, as well as the cleanliness, of the cities, the excellence of the orphanages and hospitals, the limited character of ecclesiastical power, the subordination of military to civil authority, and the remarkable achievements of Dutch art, philosophy, and science.”
Here’s the thing, though: most of these visitors would have called this country “Holland”, not “Netherlands”. Technically speaking, it is true that Holland is just the largest region in the country. But that region also defined Dutch culture and identity. It is home to the capital city of Amsterdam, the government headquarters at The Hague, and Rotterdam, Europe’s largest port –which are all iconic of Dutch national identity.
Why, then, does the Dutch government think a re-branding exercise is needed? It seems that politicians want to shift the focus from certain norms which are linked to Holland’s (but, apparently, not the Netherlands’) international image, such as its recreational drug culture and the red-light district of Amsterdam.The Dutch innovations in oil paints were invented in the 17th century by the still existent Old Holland Oil Color Factory, not “The Kingdom of the Netherland Factory”, and this centuries-old habit of calling the nation Holland has persisted so strongly that the Dutch government’s international websites for tourism and trade are – at least until a few months from now – “holland.com” and “hollandtradeandinvest.com”.
In other words, the very elements which created the Dutch reputation for freedom and tolerance are now perceived as inimical to the nation. But who is pushing that perception? The rebranding exercise has been approved by the government, the Tourism Board, and the Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers. Were the Dutch people themselves consulted before this decision was taken?
If so, an opinion survey from What does the Netherlands think? suggests that the issue might not have arisen. That poll found that 74 percent of the Dutch believe that civil servants should not worry about the way the country is called abroad, with just 20 percent approving their involvement in the issue.
On the other hand, these findings might have made no difference to the policy-makers. After all, in this 21st century woke world, the preferences of ordinary individuals are being more and more sidelined, because the elites, whether from Britain or America or the European continent, don’t think that people can’t be trusted to have the right opinions. That’s why the Dutch government has decided that it can only promote the nation’s inclusiveness by sidelining its own history, its own values, and its own citizens.
By Kevin Baldeosingh, a Trinidadian newspaper columnist and author. He has written three novels and several non-fiction books on policy issues, parenting, and media practice.