I doubt that anyone outside the Netherlands has ever heard of the island of Terschelling. That’s probably because only Dutch, present company excluded, ever go there.
You know that because everywhere you find nary a sign or a menu in any language other than Dutch, and you never hear English spoken unless someone is responding when you, as a non-néerlandophone, attempt to communicate with them.
On the mainland English is spoken as often and as easily as in Edinburgh or Los Angeles. But on Terschelling the second language is not English but Frisian, which is closer in sound and grammar to Old English, or Anglo-Saxon. It is said that some Terschellingers can trace their ancestry all the way back to before Roman times, which is why they rarely befriend or engage (except to collect tourist dollars) summer visitors to the locale.
In an age of disruptive social and economic change, Terschelling seems like a remote island history forgot, even though ironically one can trace the beginning of the process of globalization to what happened on the island itself in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
According to Dutch historians, Terschelling was the point of embarkation for so many of the larger cargo ships bound for the New World. The waters at the port of Amsterdam were not deep enough for these large boat to moor, so goods were transported from the mainland to the island, then transferred to the ocean-going vessels.
The Dutch were the quintessential merchants of the early modern era, hauling by sea all types of goods from one corner of the planet to the other, all the while in their role as master accountants building up the financial structure that would later become the dynamic fiscal template for the emergence of industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century.
It was the same enterprise that generated the slave trade, which up until the Napoleonic wars used the island at times to send off ships loaded with captives who had been originally obtained and shackled in Africa, then sold to Europeans for deployment in the colonies. As historians Sven Beckert and Edward Baptist have remarkably documented, slavery was never some kind of moral aberration or cultural atavism on the part of overseas plantation owners, but the motivating and driving force of European expansion and economic growth up until the mid-nineteenth century.
Scholars such as Baptist also have noted that the American Civil War, which turned out to be the last stand of the mobilized global chattel slave industry, was not fought because so much of a new moral sensibility on the part of Western industrialists about the rights of Africans and African-Americans, but because the new wage bondage of white, European industrial workers had become a much more efficient means of amassing wealth and generating capital (an insight Marxists advanced a century and a half ago).
Nowadays only ferries carrying tourists from the mainland arrive and leave from the harbor at Terschelling. The vast majority of these tourists are working class Dutch families from the Friesian parts of Northern Holland. Whereas in the major cities of the Netherlands white Europeans are now a significant minority, during my entire week on Terschelling I saw only one person of color, and that was obviously the adopted child of an iconic, blue-eyed, blonde-haired, rosy-cheeked Dutch family.
Once the gateway to globalization, Terschelling is now its backwater. But during several conversations I had (often in halting or broken English) with the locals, or with visitors from the Friesian mainland, it became evident that I was experiencing from a remote Dutch island a cameo sketch of many of the political contradictions and anomalies that seem to be convulsing the West during this summer of our discontent.
The most telling conversation I had the whole week was the guy wearing a Trump hat with the now familiar inscription “Make America Great Again.” He was not American (he had asked a friend in the States to buy and mail the hat to him), but he said he really admired the United States and believed that only when that country was “great” once more would the world be safe and prosperous again. He was drawn to Trump, not because he was angry at the present state of affairs like so many of the latter’s American aficianados, but because he was entranced with the Republican nominee’s in-your-face, kick-em-back irreverence and incivility with its working class bravado. Trump’s finger on the nuclear button bothered him, but he downplayed that common anxiety with the now all-too-familiar “but it’s really just reality TV” kind of rationalization.
Another curious exchange happened with one of my taxi drivers. Taxis are ubiquitous on the island, and they are the only means of transportation unless you want to walk or ride a bicycle. Rental cars are banned for environmental reasons, and this backwater of lily-white, European-style Archie Bunkerism is probably more progressive than even cities such as San Francisco when it comes to enforcing the “green” life style.
As we climbed into the yellow cab, the driver, who was probably in his late 20s, asked me how I liked my “new woman president.” I reminded him that Hilary Clinton was not yet president. Like Trump, she had only been nominated. He seemed crestfallen, because that was apparently the impression he had received from whatever limited interaction he had with American media. He kept saying it was a “shame” that she still had to duke it out with Trump, because “a woman wouldn’t start a nuclear war.” Then he launched into a rant about Islamic immigration to Europe and the fact that there had been a slew of recent violent terrorist attacks in Germany the previous week committed by “those people.”
Ironically, it was almost the same conversation I had on countless occasions the week before with various Austrians, Germans, Brits, and even two Slovenians I hung out with in Vienna. Trump’s presumed “racism” never came up. In fact, his anti-Muslim stance was applauded by one highly educated individual I talked with.
But the prospect that, when elected, Trump might immediately start a world war was a dark fear shared by virtually all my interlocutors. At the same time, the anticipation that he might make peace with Russia because of his implied admiration for Putin seemed — paradoxically — even more terrifying to many of these individuals. The Slovenians were bursting with pride that one of their own might eventually become first lady, but the nightmare of a “Russian takeover” of Eastern Europe appeared to outweigh that perceived plus in a Trump electoral victory.
My week on the island of Terschelling was not planned as an occasion to report globally on “news from nowhere.” My son, who is a Dutch-American dual citizen and his family, chose the island as a nearby spot to get away with the grandparents to the “beach” in the same fashion New Yorkers might spend some time during August on the coast of Maine.
But it turned out to be a surprising opportunity to acquire a fresh perspective on how perhaps Americans, caught up in their own self-confirming and self-righteous story lines during this latest supposedly “apocalyptic” presidential election cycle, ought to view themselves. Two things slowly came into focus for me, as I rode my bike around the dunes and nursed a drink starting out at the wide, windy beach from the open deck of a popular tourist site named “Heartbreak Hotel” complete with its own life-size statue of Elvis.
The first realization was that Europeans, for all their ambivalence about America and American politics, see it as the indispensable bulwark of civilization, much as their ancestors viewed the caesars in Rome, even during the dark ages when Rome had become but a shadow of its once, grandiose self. Whether we like it or not, America has become the outsize symbol of global order and stability, and the fear that we might relinquish that role, either because like the “Trumpistas” we are tired of fighting and paying for foreign wars, or like the “Sandersistas” we believe America has become so corrupt it can no longer morally maintain such a privilege, is too horrible at least for those on the other side of the pond to imagine.
The second realization was that the concept of “Eurocentrism” is much more nuanced, and far more Eurocentric, than I had imagined. In the familiar academic formulation the notion is usually couched in terms of white European colonialists — and of course white slavers — who destroyed non-white, non-European societies and cultures for the pursuit of profit while imposing their own world view and values on a subjugated population. But a brief discussion in Vienna with a West African cabdriver who was also a university student gave me a slightly different perspective.
When I told the cabdriver that I was an American in answer to the almost routine question of where I came from, he of course started gushing about wanting to go to America some day to realize his dreams of economic independence and political freedom. He had been driven years earlier from his homeland by wars and tribal conflicts and found his way through the usual covert migration routes to Europe.
Because he was Christian, he also identified himself now as “European,” and recited the usual litany I heard often about the dangers of welcoming too many “Muslims”. “Race” was not an issue at all for him, but religion was, and he was highly critical of EU politicians who racialized what he felt was an impending life-or-death struggle for the soul of Europe, his newly adopted “home”, between the “true” faith of Jesus and the “false” ideology promoted by the partisan of the Prophet.
In Terschelling the issue of race did not matter, of course, because it was the most racially homogeneous place on earth I had ever visited. If race had been an issue, there would have been significant support in the region for the notorious Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who has become internationally famous for his hard stance against all non-white immigration to the Netherlands. But a map of political preference patterns shows the opposite. Northern Holland historically was always a citadel of radical labor movements, even Soviet Communism.
And it is the defense of working class solidarity against the perceived use of immigrants by “the big capitalists”, as my taxi driver called them, to undermine organized labor that seems to have been the real target of his impassioned harangue. For him with his limited, as well as strange and distorted, knowledge of American politics it was Clinton who was the champion of the one thing that mattered for him – the triumph of the proletariat! I didn’t have the heart to tell him otherwise.
During my week on a remote Dutch island I finally learned that whatever “grand narratives” we Western intellectuals hold so dear about globalization, multiculturalism, neoliberalism, race, and religion have about as much durability and staying power as the sand dunes that are constantly blown together and worn down by the ceaseless and relentless North Sea gales and deposit their tiny grains of gritty detritus in the eyes and nose of that iconic American statue of Elvis that overlooks the Heartbreak Hotel.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver and managing editor for Political Theology as well as the author, or co-author of at least twenty books. His most recent books include Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis (IVP Academic, 2016) and Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015). He is also Senior Editor of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory and co-founder of the Global Art & Ideas Nexus. A full bio and current activities can be found on his website at http://www.carlraschke.com.
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