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The cultural and civic virtues of the Netherlands


Saturday morning finds me sitting at my desk in my third floor apartment in Amsterdam, while snow falls outside.  Any plans I had of going out have been postponed, while I enjoy the fine art of doing nothing.  I have been contemplating of late, all the things which I have been enjoying about Amsterdam in my time here.  It does not seem to rain as much in Ireland, and roads seem less slippery in the snow.

For some centuries now the Dutch have managed to cultivate a culture of civic virtue which seems to work very well.  After gaining its independence from Spain the United Provinces soon developed an urban culture which was ahead of its time.  Numerous paintings on display in public galleries show the officers of civic guards at this time.  These paintings were commissioned by the officers themselves, who took great pride in their role of keeping city streets safe.  Rembrant’s Night Watch is probably the most famous of these, but other examples abound. 

After reading a great article by my friend Paul, I was reminded of the obnoxious and intimidating behaviour which seems to abound in Dublin during both night and day.  This is left to an under resourced police force to deal with, while ordinary citizens are often too intimidated by gangs of loud drunken youths.  Benjamin Roberts, in Sex and Drugs before Rock ‘n Roll, describes how Amsterdam had a problem with this in the 17th century.  This anti social behaviour was not exclusive to any one class, but Roberts does make note of rambunctious students who behaved in an aggressive and uncouth manner while under the influence of alcohol.  (Roberts, P75-89)

Amsterdam, like Dublin, abounds with bars and citizens of both sexes and all ages enjoy a drink or two.  However there seems to be very little of the same aggressive drunken masculine behaviour which so despoils the inner cities of Britain and Ireland.  Should one come across such behaviour here, it will be most likely to occur in the Red Light district, which is a magnet for hedonistic backpackers.  I walked past a police station nearby one Saturday as some loud British men were being arrested, and a local passerby caught my eye.  He let out a wry chuckle, and commented on how it always seemed to be British people getting into trouble.

I could not help but ask myself why Amsterdam seems like a much more orderly and civilized society than those I have lived in previously.  Both were former British colonies, with a seemingly higher degree of social inequality, and a culture of aggressive macho posturing which seems to suggest that consideration and empathy are considered to be impediments to success and respect.  That is not to say that those societies do not contain many kind and considerate individuals.  They do.  The Irish in particular are renowned for their friendliness and quite rightly so.  South Africa has produced a plethora of Nobel Peace Prize winners, and yet is bedevilled by violent crime.

It seems that former British colonies, from the United States to Australia share some issues.  There is no doubt that the two examples I have quoted are very economically successful, even as they grapple with their own social and economic issues.  However these grew up in a culture which was red in tooth and claw, owing much to a social utilitarianism which would borrow the writings of Darwin to deadly social effect.  Herbert Spencer, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, would coin the term “survival of the fittest.”  He took this observation of the natural world and made a deductive leap into observations of human society.  Naturally this argument was a boon to the wealthy entrepreneurial class which had come of age in Victorian Britain, even while millions lived in abject poverty in British slums.

Once this ideology was exported to the Empire, it became more complicated even if it was not possible for Social Darwinism to become more repulsive than it already was.  Darwin’s theories have become notorious for being wedded to numerous baleful political theories, which also include the racist diatribes of imperialism and fascism.  This is nothing new, as any Irish history student will know when faced with Thomas Malthus Essay on Population and the woeful British response to the Irish potato famine.  That a million could die of starvation because the ideals of political economy dictated a limited response was reprehensible.  Worse still was that the British administration of the time considered the Irish as British subjects.  When Ireland was a template for British imperialism, what could those who were far more visibly and culturally different expect?

Darwinism, of course, is the one nineteenth century idea that we still endlessly debate.  It attracts the ire of religious fundamentalists for questioning the literal translation of their texts, a concept which troubled Charles Darwin himself.  While the use of his theories for the racist cant of Nazism and Imperialism has been rejected, the idea of survival of the fittest still seems to resonate with preconceived ideas of political economy which considers ruthless individual laudable.  In the doom and gloom of our current global situation, with the twin problems of climate change and economic depression, we need to start thinking of something bigger than ourselves.

The Netherlands, as a trading nation on the North Sea, could be doubly threatened by these global calamities.  The sea has been both a threat and an opportunity for this small low lying nation.  Much of it has been reclaimed, with effort involved in meeting this mutual threat doing much to create a sense of community among the Dutch.  That the sea provided an opportunity to trade and brought them great wealth did not detract from a strong sense of community.  We should also not forget that this was a country which had enormous inward immigration throughout its Golden Age.  I often think of these issues when I sit in a warm cafe or bar in Amsterdam, observing how polite people are and how they quietly go about their business.  One hopes that the threat of rising sea levels do not destroy their marvellous way of life.

Perhaps the adage about the Chinese character for crisis consisting of the words for threat and opportunity might be true.  We might steal a page from the behaviour of the Dutch elite during the Golden Age, and spend a proportion of our wealth on institutions and infrastructure for the good of society.  They may not have been saints, but they understood that rampant unchecked social inequality has awful long term consequences.  Their efforts at building dykes and draining land were likewise ingenious and made with the intention of long term benefits.  I suggest that we therefore need to rethink our political orthodoxy of ruthless individualism in favour of more sensible long term ideas.  Otherwise our self absorbed individualism might descend into a noxious mix of anarchy and apathy, and when the time comes to do something it will be too late.


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One Comment
  1. Michael permalink

    Very thought provoking article. I cannot help but try and square the circle of why Ireland is as peculiarly aggressive as it is. It seems to me that the Catholic ethos may not sit so well with an inherently anarchistic population. The “Irish Genius” (as we sell it from Oscar Wilde through Guinness to Father Ted) is a big “fuck you” to pretension and procedure. This, of course, doesn’t play very well on the world stage so the adoption of more normative behavior is merely a facade to cover up and reign in the chaos beneath the surface. I’m coming to the conclusion that the morbid individualism of the last 10 years or so seems to be a collective group-think adoption of a cursory reading of Ayn Rand. I don’t want to labour the point and link the social policies of the Irish Government of the 80s and 90s with the Reagan/Greenspan/Thatcher doctrines but there does seem to be a very half-hearted “suck it and see” attitude to social policy on the part of the Irish. I would fear the failure of the great economic experiment of pure monetarism will hurt the Irish more than most as there is a shortage of intellectual wriggle-room in the great ‘what now..?’.
    Back to Catholicism and the conformity imperative has been immeasurably damaging to sovereign thought while on the other hand a reactive “anything goes” attitude to this has left a country struggling to behave like Gordon Geko while at the same time pull a Pontius Pilate when the shit hits the fan.
    So the “noxious mix of anarchy and apathy” is already evident on the streets of Dublin. I’d be inclined to add aggression to the alliteration as well.

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