As Ortega y Gasset pointed out in Revolt of the Masses (1929), when people lose all trust in ruling institutions and sources of authority—even when such criticism is deserved—things can rapidly deteriorate. People become unmoored and unhinged. There is brooding anger, fear, and frustration in the streets.
Recently, ten thousand people convened in Amsterdam for the “March for Human Solidarity” to protest the Dutch coronavirus lockdown and vaccine passports. They were forcibly dispersed by baton-wielding police. Our progressive mayor had declared the protest illegal, claiming that the organizers refused to respect social distancing rules and planned a violent confrontation. Bans on demonstrations in Amsterdam are extremely unusual: The city prides itself on its tradition of free speech and the constitutional right of any group to be heard, from anti-Israel demonstrators to far-right anti-Islamic groups.
The riot police announced ahead of time that they would strike on the day of the protest, arguing they are exhausted by the “constant war of attrition” with the anti-lockdown protestors, and that they are understaffed and outnumbered. But in the end, they did show up to break up the demonstration. Viral videos on social media depicted violent scuffles; one showed a man getting mauled by a German Shepherd from a police canine unit. The U.N. special rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, described the footage as “one of the most disgusting scenes of police brutality I have seen since George Floyd.” He urged for police officers to be “prosecuted for the crime of torture” and announced an official U.N. inquiry.
Shocking as these images are, it is unwise to jump too quickly to conclusions based on short video clips that leave out perspective and context. For instance, we don’t see what the protestors were up to before the police took action and how they ignored multiple urgent police summons. Moreover, Melzer mistakenly tweeted footage from a different demonstration that took place last year. Furious police unions formally pronounced a “vote of no confidence” in this U.N. official, although what that means is unclear, since such functionaries are not elected. But something is brewing. A few weeks ago in Rotterdam, terrified policemen cornered by a crowd shot several protestors in the legs. These events are almost unprecedented in the Netherlands.
One thing that complicates things for the police is that these protests attract such a motley crowd. Police are used to dealing with black-booted antifa anger and organized unwashed squatters, but many of these protestors appear to be kindly grandfathers, middle-class parents, small business owners, aged hippies. “I don’t think we should stop living because we are scared of death,” one protestor told me. A professor of literature, furious about a proposal to ban unvaccinated students from attending university, is calling for an underground university to be set up for the noncompliant, akin to what existed in Eastern Europe under communism. Hopefully, it won’t come to that. Other forms of civil disobedience are also emerging. Some mayors are refusing to enforce the rules, and some theaters, museums, and concert halls are defying the lockdown by opening as hair salons in protest.
Until recently, coronavirus rules in the Netherlands have been relatively mild compared with those in Italy, Austria, or France. But after Omicron emerged, the Dutch government wanted to take a stronger stance and enforced a new lockdown. Now we have the only lockdown in Europe. Everything has been closed since December except essential shops, although the government recently announced that stores can soon reopen under certain conditions. Of course, intelligent people can disagree about the best approach to the pandemic. However, sensible criticism of coronavirus policies is often mixed up with wild conspiracy theories. And feckless extremists continue to provoke the police.
The protestors are united by a profound distrust: in the government, the elites, the World Health Organization, and authorities in general. In the Netherlands, public trust in the government is traditionally very high, compared to Southern Europe. But oddly, Spaniards and Italians are much more willing to accept stringent rules enforced by the state, whereas many Dutch refuse to comply, though most do so relatively quietly.
Meanwhile, a new political party has emerged in recent years that actively revels in spreading mistrust, while giving credence to all manner of conspiracies. The Forum for Democracy started out with a broad nationalist platform opposing expensive climate-change policies, but is now exclusively focused on COVID-19. Its leader has admitted that its primary aim is not to gain a majority in parliament or to form a government, but to fuel outrage as the only way to dislodge the elites and prepare the cultural scene for radical change. A judge recently ordered him to stop comparing coronavirus rules with the Holocaust. Some supporters have taken to wearing yellow stars on their clothes as if the unvaccinated are being discriminated against like Jews during the Nazi occupation. Revolting indeed. These supporters claim that they are “breaking” a left-wing monopoly on using the Holocaust for emotional blackmail of the right, but this is wrong. The Yeats line comes to mind: “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
The Forum for Democracy recently launched a magazine for the party’s youth. They want to galvanize cultural resistance against dominant progressive ideologies, calling for a pan-European revival of traditionalism. So far, so good—one might think. But which tradition? They appear to have faith neither in Christ nor in Christianity. One of the magazine’s writers has argued that the remaining churches of Europe have been “infiltrated by humanism” and nothing much can be expected of them. The magazine contains all the tropes of the far (pagan) right: essays on Nietzsche, the Übermensch, and the natural rule of the strong over the weak; on Dugin’s “fourth ideology”; and on Kali Yuga, the dark age from Hindu mythology. Even Julius Evola, who hated Christianity and considered it an alien and “Semitic” superstition, is mentioned.
All of this points to a distorted and diseased understanding of Western civilization. Just when genuinely conservative, Christian voices so desperately need to be heard, the new generation—so hungry for meaning and transcendence—is being given dark esotericism. Rather than doubling down on the politics of safety, we need a politics of home that points toward the permanent things.
Diederik Boomsma is a member of the Amsterdam City Council.
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