University

RUG Americans wary of borrel with US Ambassador

Who wants to party with Pete Hoekstra?

American staff and students have been invited to a private borrel with US ambassador Pete Hoekstra on October 9. Many feel conflicted about going. ‘We don’t have to throw a damn party for this guy.’
By Megan Embry

When PhD Student Graham Lea first opened the email inviting him and other RUG Americans to a private borrel with US ambassador Pete Hoekstra, he was excited. ‘How cool is that? The guy who represents my interests abroad wants to spend time with me and the other Americans here.’

But then he did a little background research on Ambassador Hoekstra and discovered that the situation was more complicated than he wanted it to be. ‘It’s my understanding that he has said some pretty erroneous and hurtful things. So then I felt conflicted.’

RUG spokesperson Jorien Bakker says that responses to the borrel have been ‘very positive’. But several Americans who spoke to the UKrant say that the prospect of partying with Pete Hoekstra makes them a little uncomfortable.

What’s the problem?

Lea isn’t the only American who had to do a quick google search on Hoekstra. What little most people do know they remember from the flurry of media coverage detailing his early missteps when he first took office in 2018.

Pete Hoekstra was born in Groningen, moved to the US as a child, and served as a Republican congressman for 18 years. He also served as Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee from 2004 to 2007. He was tapped for the role of US ambassador to the Netherlands by President Trump in 2017.

He quickly came under fire for false claims he had made back in 2015 about the ‘Islamist movement’ taking over the Netherlands. ‘There are cars being burned. There are politicians being burned. And yes, there are “no-go” zones in the Netherlands.’

Hoekstra denied that he had ever called reports of his claims fake news

Later, Hoekstra called reports of those claims ‘fake news’. When presented with video evidence that he had said those things, he denied that he had ever called them fake news. When he took office in 2018, he refused to retract the statements or even comment on them. Expat news sites in the Netherlands have since occasionally indulged themselves by referring to Hoekstra as ‘Lying Pete’.

This aside, RUG Americans say they have other reasons to feel conflicted about partying with Hoekstra. They worry about his disdain for the press, his history of opposition to gay marriage in the US, and the language he uses to speak about immigration.

Bharath Ganesh is a political geographer in the journalism and media studies department. He studies how politicians use coded, racist, and anti-Muslim language to win influence. He says Hoekstra has used similar language constructions in past interviews, ‘suggesting that Europe is being plunged into chaos via stealth Jihad, or that muslims are only here to take over the country’.

This isn’t about no-platforming

Even so, Americans don’t think the university is wrong to let Hoekstra visit. In fact, he was just here for controversy-free event last month hosted by SIB. He has also agreed to a public interview before the October 9 borrel for an SKLO event with the theme, ‘Understanding the Other’. Hoekstra will be the main guest.

‘I think there might be situations where no-platforming makes sense, but a visit by the duly-named representative of the US interests in the Netherlands certainly isn’t one of them’, says assistant professor of International Relations Greg Fuller, who will be interviewing Hoekstra. ‘Especially when he is going to subject himself to public questioning. That’s good – that’s what we want.’

Assistant professor of journalism Scott Eldridge has no problem with Hoekstra visiting, either. Working with global partners is ‘the realpolitik of a big university’, he says. ‘But when it comes to ways to do that, a borrel isn’t on the list for me. The lack of clear boundaries may put people who are here working on visas in an awkward position where they feel that speaking their mind is not in their best interests.’

It’s about no-borreling

Faculty of Arts project leader Courtney Schellekens agrees – the context of the event matters. As a member of university communications, she worries it would be a bad idea to challenge Hoekstra at a borrel. ‘I think the university should definitely platform controversial people, but only if it is an appropriate context to ask hard questions. That’s not an obviously appropriate thing to do at a borrel.’

She expressed those concerns to the university in an email. The university replied that it is important for the RUG to keep good contact with the US through the ambassador: ‘That does not mean, however, that his views reflect the values of the university.’

Ganesh doesn’t want his presence to legitimise Hoekstra’s views

‘I get that’, Courtney shrugs. ‘But there are other ways to keep good contact. This university has kept good relations with the US for 400 years. We don’t have to throw a damn party for this guy.’

Ganesh says that he’s just going to sit this one out. He thinks staff and students should avoid participating in an event that ‘honours a politician with Hoekstra’s record’. He doesn’t want his presence at the borrel to somehow legitimise Hoekstra’s views or tactics.

‘This is what will happen: we will pack a room with academics and snacks, and we will exchange all the required niceties, and there will be this larger impression that we are all just fine with it.’

‘It’s an informal event, not a debate’

Assistant professor Clare Wilde, who studies Islam in the Faculty of Theology and Religious studies, says she is going. She wants to use the borrel as an opportunity to question Hoekstra about things is reported to have said about Islam. ‘I do feel morally obligated to say something about that, if he is willing to engage in that kind of conversation.’

But she isn’t sure how best to bring the subject up over bitterballen.

‘I guess I could break the ice with this’, she grins, pulling a game called ‘Quran Challenge’ down from her bookshelf. ‘That’s nice for a party, right?’

RUG spokesperson Jorien Bakker says ambassadorial borrels are totally normal, appropriate events. The university recently held a lunch for the ambassador of Denmark. It has also hosted officials for South Korea and the ambassador of Germany.

‘This borrel isn’t mandatory, it’s an invitation’, says Jorien. ‘If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to.’ She stresses that RUG employees who do choose to attend should not be afraid to speak their minds. ‘We have freedom of expression here – that’s very important to us. Yes, the borrel is an informal event, not a debate. But if you want to speak out, then speak out.’

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