Obama Shows Us What Is Wrong with Our ‘Nation Awareness’

Obama shows us what is wrong with our “nation awareness.”

About twenty years ago a Dutch embassador in Washington, addressing an amazed company of journalists, sketched the gloomy scenario of the falling apart of the United States of America.

The dominance of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture(WASP) was fading. New population groups were emerging: latinos and Asians, but they were not striving for integration. Blacks, regretfully, would never be integrated. It was the ambassador’s opinion that such a country could not be saved in time. Also because in large parts of the country English was hardly spoken any more.

Said ambassador would undoubtedly have thought it impossible that twenty years later a black man would be elected president. Nor would he have suspected that this election everywhere was seen as proof that integration in the U.S.–unity in diversity–would be possible. No multicultural drama, but a step in the direction of a country capable to support a common ideal. Like Obama said in Grant Park last week: ”In this country we rise and fall as one nation”.

Unity in diversity seems an impossible task (and real harmony may never be achieved). But it can, even though Paul Scheffer, who, in 2002, claimed the opposite when he crushed the multicultural dream of many Dutchmen with his essay, claimed that this dream had become a ‘multicultural drama’. And in his footsteps population groups announced that the multicultural nonsense of the left-leaning Church should be abandoned. Unity in diversity, yes. But then a unity based on a ‘leading culture’ that others had to adapt to.

It seems that these ‘culturalists’ have misread Scheffer, as they could have determined from the book he wrote about America. In the NRC/Handelsblad of last Saturday he summarizes again, and his conclusion is crystal clear: a black man in the White House means the end of ethnic sectarianism, and it is high time that we do the same in the Netherlands. And he points to the importance of having a collective ideal, a collective “nation awareness” that is more than the sum of ethnic and religious ideas.

Obviously there is a lack of that in the Netherlands and it is not hard to see why that is so. Unlike in the U.S., our concept of “national pride” often does not go further than the occasional victory of a soccer club. Otherwise there is irritation, or we make fun of it, like the time when Balkenende was calling for a VOC-mentality. The party or politician who refers to our flag is often suspected of power-grabbing. The Netherlands was a land of pillars, where every pillar had its own “nation awareness;’ when the pillars disappeared, nothing replaced them. The presence of so many Muslims made us realize our lack of an awareness of “nation.”

In his story of last saterday Scheffer shows how the circle can be broken. In the U.S. also, a multitude of cultures were and are important, because of the divergent origins of the population. But this divergence is tempered by the optimistic belief that you can overcome differences by focussing on a shared future. It is not easy, as was obvious in the initial distrust of Obama, even in his own camp. But he succeeded by making an appeal to everyone’s citizenship and a common feeling: this country is ours, all of us.

And now, the Netherlands.

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