Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Double Dutch

I spent most of the last week in the Netherlands, getting back just in time for the US Pond Hockey Championships on Friday. This is my sixth, maybe seventh trip to that country in the last four years. A few quick observations:

- While I was sorely disappointed that my travels cause me to miss both the NFC and AFC Championship games, I have to admit that being out of the country for Obama's inauguration was something of a relief. I wasn't able to escape Obamamania entirely, as CNN International and the BBC did their best to fuel the hype.

And it was a bit of an eye-opener to realize just how much coverage the event received outside the country. On Tuesday night, a bartender--knowing we were Yanks--asked if we had a chance to watch it. We told him that we did not and he informed us that it had been broadcast live on three different Dutch television stations.

As Americans, we were asked early and often what are thoughts on Obama were. Sometimes the questioners were surprised by the response, especially at dinner one evening when another American explained to one of our hosts that Obama was far more popular in Europe than America. He related that while probably ninety percent of Europeans approve of Obama, opinion in America was more divided. He also reminded her that 46% of the country had voted against Obama, a fact quickly forgotten amidst the inaugural excitement.

It was also a good reminder of the place of America in the world. While it's easy these days to speak of American decline and loss of influence, the fact remains that there is really only one country in the world whose leader people in every country of the word care about. Do people in the Netherlands give a darn whether Brown or Cameron leads the U.K.? Probably not. Or which party boss is currently running China? No, because it doesn't really matter. But the President of the United States matters. Because the United States matters. Still.

- In my previous trips, whenever the topic of global warming came up, I found my Dutch colleagues to be earnest believers. They would often chalk up unseasonable warm temps or excess rains to man-made warming with little sign of doubt. But recently the country went through a cold patch that brought a little snow, ice on the roads, and for the first time in many years frozen canals. By the time I arrived, most of the canal ice had melted, but while it was around people had been able to break out their long blades and get some skating in. And when we discussed the weather on this trip, I noticed that when global warming was mentioned it was aired with a more skeptical voice. The sarcastic voice you often hear in Minnesota when people talk about global warming in January.

- One of the highlights of this trip was hitting a pub in Wageningen that offered a selection of over 300 beers. Now, I've been to a lot of bars in the U.S. that have a great selection of beer, but the cool thing about this place was that I was only familiar with maybe 15-20 of their offerings. The window into the world of European beer--especially Belgian--that we have in the U.S. is a very small one. It was nice to have an opportunity to explore the depth and complexity of that world if only for a short time. I particularly enjoyed a glass of Choufee N'ice, a winter beer with complex flavors that doesn't taste overpowering even with its 10.2% alcohol content. A little Googling has revealed that this beer is available in the States too. I'll keep on eye out for it locally.

- I did not have a chance to talk Dutch politics at all these time around. If I had, I would have liked to know what my Dutch colleagues think about this:

Washington, DC and Copenhagen, Denmark: A Dutch court yesterday ordered the criminal prosecution of Geert Wilders, Dutch parliamentarian and leader of the Freedom Party (PVV), for his statements--written, spoken and filmed -regarding Islam. The Amsterdam Court of Appeals has deemed such statements "insulting," declaring that they "substantially harm the religious esteem" of Muslims.

Clearly, the effect of this Dutch court order is to set new limits to public debate in Dutch society, in this case about the highly controversial but nonetheless crucially important subject of Islam. This makes the prosecution of Geert Wilders an unacceptable breach of the sanctity of freedom of speech in Western society.

Having ordered a criminal prosecution for the opinions of a duly elected leader of a legitimate political party, Dutch authorities have dealt a devastating blow to political expression. While Dutch prosecutors prepare their indictment and Geert Wilders' future hangs in limbo, who in The Netherlands will dare discuss political and cultural matters related to Islam--Islamic law, Islamic integration, Islamic crime, Islamic policy--openly, freely and fearlessly? The chilling effect is instantaneous. If, indeed, Wilders is ultimately convicted, free speech will cease to exist in the heart of Europe.

You don't have to agree with what Geert Wilders says about Islam to agree that he has a right to say it. The Dutch government's craven caving to Muslim pressure groups does indeed bode ill for the possibility that the people of the Netherlands will ever be able to have an open and honest debate on the matter.

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