“People who shuttle between cultures are very, very hard to describe”

Lisa Jardine’s new book Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland’s Glory (HarperPress, 2008) opens in 1688 with the coup that put Holland’s William of Orange on the throne of England. The “Glorious Revolution,” the British historian and biographer argues, was not a revolution at all, but a Dutch conquest. She proceeds, through personal and public documents, to trace the bonds between the two countries: connections of commerce, political asylum, intermarriage, and artistic, musical and scientific exchange.

Like her American counterpart Russell Shorto, Jardine believes that, although the Dutch “handed on” their political and cultural supremacy to the English, their notions of religious and ethnic tolerance persist to this day in European culture. Interviewed by phone from her home in London, she saw the question about Dutch tolerance coming from a mile off, and answered it almost before I asked.

As a public intellectual, you’ve dealt with a lot of issues that are hotly debated in the Netherlands, from the ethics of embryology to the question of why women don’t win literary prizes. About the question of tolerance—
I do believe—and call me a romantic—that the Netherlands continues to set a better example of tolerance than other European nations. And to the extent that Europe is tolerant, you might want to reflect on whether that tradition is Dutch.
I know perfectly well where the Netherlands finds itself now; I spend quite a lot of time there. But even so—you know, there’s a sort of note of triumph when the rest of Europe points its finger and says, “You see, even the Dutch can’t manage.” Because the Netherlands appeared to stand for inclusion and tolerance, other European nations were only too happy to see her falter. But whether that’s a stumble or an actual change, I think we have to wait and see.

In writing about cultural exchange, did you think about your own background as the child of immigrants?
Yes. My father came from Poland and my mother from Latvia, as economic migrants to Britain. It gives me a particular way of seeing European culture. Europeans have so much in common that I find it increasingly perplexing that we still put in place narrow boundaries: “Dutch culture,” “English culture.” The more you delve, historically, the more you discover a constant two-way exchange, going back as far as you can reach.

The nation is a fairly late invention. Do you think we’re emerging from a nationalist period into a more international one?
I do. And I think it’s good to recognize that this is not the first time it’s happened. We’re gradually starting to realize that nationhood doesn’t do justice to the way Europeanness has existed over a long period of time.

There’s one figure in particular you say was regarded as a “turncoat” for his dual loyalties. Can crossing borders also be seen as negative?
That’s why I struggle with Constantijn Huygens, who’s a major character in my book. It’s very difficult to classify someone who has made an impact in more than one country more than once. Until we can stop thinking in these channels of individual countries, it will be impossible to write a biography of him.

Because you don’t know how to look at him as a character?
We have very conventional ways of looking at people. They involve a birthplace, a childhood, an education, a career, a marriage in that same community or not very far away—it’s a steadiness of focus. And people who shuttle between cultures are very, very hard to describe in that way. What to one person seems like an inspired innovation can seem to others like a betrayal.

I got into difficulties when I wrote a piece for radio about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, at the time at which she left the Netherlands. I continue to receive two sets of e-mails: one set from people who regard me as her champion, and another from people who say, “You see, she turned out to be a very bad thing after all.” And I know there’s no way of reconciling those two.

Where should inspiration come from at this point? Should we keep looking to the Netherlands as an example?
Well, one of the themes of my book is that the Golden Age is over three centuries gone, and yet Dutch cultural influence pervades Europe and beyond. And I suppose in the end my hope for any group is that their greatest achievements, in art, literature, music, gardens, spread widely like a net, part of what holds us all together.

Holland has not been “great” for 300 years, but look how pervasive she is, look how important her attitudes and beliefs. We’re going to be there too, and I would be quite happy if that was where Britain stood in 300 years’ time.

On June 19, Jardine will read at the John Adams Institute, with Shorto moderating.

Amsterdam Weekly, June 12, 2008.