The City at the Center of the World
Russell Shorto’s ‘Amsterdam’
By PICO IYER
Published: December 26, 2013
The Dutch in the 17th century, Russell Shorto informs us at a characteristic moment in “Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City,” were on their way to becoming “the greatest shipping nation the world had ever seen.” Amsterdam’s canal ring was “the greatest urban feat of the age.” In fact, Shorto says, Amsterdam more or less gave us the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Enlightenment and the stock exchange (though Antwerp’s stock exchange building is 80 years older). The United East India Company, put together in Amsterdam, was “unique in world history,” Shorto writes. It “remade the world.” It “pioneered globalization and invented what might be the first modern bureaucracy.” It inaugurated “the beginning of consumerism, which, for better or worse, is surely a component of liberalism.”
A History of the World’s Most Liberal City
By Russell Shorto
Illustrated. 357 pp. Doubleday. $28.95.
Phew! That’s a lot for a city currently as populous as Columbus, Ohio; many places might pay handsomely to receive such enthusiastic support. In 2004 Shorto gave us his often eye-opening book “The Island at the Center of the World,” describing how the Dutch helped create Manhattan; now he fills in the other side of the story, and tries to show us that “liberalism was born” in Amsterdam, which “has influenced the modern world to a degree that perhaps no other city has.” This in spite of the fact that liberalism, as Shorto admits, “is a diffuse concept” and carries “seemingly opposite meanings in the United States and in Europe.” Economic liberalism, after all — the free-market capitalism to which he alludes above — is almost exactly what social liberals often deplore. If liberalism means both right and left, making money and not doing so, individualism and communalism, it’s perhaps no surprise that all roads in Amsterdam led to it.
The author’s method in his new book is to take us on a very brisk tour across the highlights of Dutch history, from the Golden Age and tulips to the legalization of squatting in 1971, from Rembrandt and Spinoza to John and Yoko staging a bed-in at the Amsterdam Hilton. Much of this has little to do with Amsterdam or with liberalism, but no matter: One minute we’re reading about the transformation of the herring industry, and four pages later about Martin Luther, whose theses “set off a tidal wave that rolled 400 miles due west and crashed head-on into the medieval town walls of Amsterdam.”
So much has to be packed into so little space that quite often one is left with the feeling of ingesting an entire turkey with every mouthful. Charles V, we are told, “had fought off Ottoman encroachments, sailed the Mediterranean in swashbuckling campaigns to rid the sea of pirates, personally sent off Magellan, Cortés and Pizarro on their voyages, managed Spain’s South American colonization, extended his dominion to the Dutch provinces, through Germany, and across Italy, and in pretty much every way worked to hold up the pillars of the medieval world order: monarchic power, domination by the Catholic Church, feudal land management, divine right, mercantile colonization and obedience to authority along the strict metaphysical lines of the great chain of being.”
Three pages later, just as you’re trying to catch your breath, you read, of Dutch power: “It was in the hands of herring merchants and cloth traders, men who owned soap works and timber yards and shipyards, the regents who sat on town boards, who were nominated to their governmental position by those same wealthy men of business, the members of the water boards of each community, and the dijkgraaf, literally ‘dike count,’ who had overall responsibility for the never-ending task of managing the damming and rechanneling of water, and which is still an important position in the Netherlands.”
The effect, inevitably, is of an old-style documentary, at once sonorous and excitable, that someone has mistakenly set on fast forward. And the long sentences are not exactly Jamesian. In a single chapter we have scales falling from the eyes, “a chiseled visage” and “the glories and writhings of the individual.” Indeed, in a single clause we get “chivalrous decorum, thudding hooves and roisterous bonhomie.” The looseness of the language seems to speak for an imprecision in the thinking. Philip II, we learn, “was a man of his time, preoccupied with the trappings of the past yet dealing with forces of the future.” I’m not sure if any man of any time could be described very differently.
Here and there, we are given interesting tidbits: There’s a nice capsule summary of Jan van der Heyden, the contemporary of Rembrandt, who invented streetlamps, founded Amsterdam’s fire department and was a painter of repute; and, as in his earlier book, Shorto tells us how a Jesuit visitor to Manhattan in 1643 counted 18 languages and dialects in a settlement with barely 500 people — though the facts were a little different before — and describes how the place was then called Amsterdam in New Netherland and featured gabled townhouses, two windmills and a canal.
The author grows more confident as he nears the present, when he’s drawing not from history books but from the testimony of those he’s met, like an 86-year-old Auschwitz survivor who grew up with Anne Frank. Besides, he’s wise enough to concede that liberalism and tolerance are not the same thing, and that maintaining the second “would forever be a challenge” in the Netherlands. At the heart of his notion of Amsterdam’s liberalism is the principle of gedogen, which has less to do with turning the other cheek than with turning a blind eye. Thus coffeehouse owners must pay taxes on hash they sell, even though their goods are technically illegal.
This begins to explain how the “Republic of Amsterdam,” as some still call it, can flourish in what even Shorto calls a “bland monoclass” of conservatism and bourgeois values; it’s an island in the center of a nation, perhaps. At his best, Shorto’s primer to the town he’s called home for more than five years is “a reasonably pleasant combination of whimsy and stolidness,” to cite his description of the Amsterdam style of architecture.
The problem is that Shorto’s grand ideas seem to be superimposed upon his material rather than to flow out of it, as if he had his thesis before he had any facts. And where in “The Island at the Center of the World” he gave zesty life to fresh research, here he tries to marry quite familiar history with some dangerously sweeping contentions. The core of his argument seems to be the notion that Amsterdam both gave unique freedom to the individual and patented a rare mix of individual enterprise and community spirit (though some of us might discover this in Confucius 2,000 years before). “I do find it compelling,” he writes of Matthijs van Boxsel, that he “and other Dutch writers see the historic struggle against water as formative to a cultural ethic of cooperation that created a society strong enough for it to impel, curiously, a commitment to value the individual.”
If that sounds confusing, the other formulations of the book’s central idea are even more so. And much of the reasoning does not repay close scrutiny: “Amsterdam was an oligarchy,” we’re assured, seven pages before being reminded of “the egalitarian nature of Dutch society.” Thomas Jefferson drew from John Locke, we’re told, and Locke spent five years in Amsterdam, so Amsterdam deserves some credit for our pursuit of happiness. When we read that “probably more than any other major philosopher, Baruch Spinoza is looked to as a guide by serious thinkers today” — would that it were so — and that he was “the first true philosopher of modernity” as well as “the first and maybe the greatest philosopher of liberalism,” we may begin to suspect that the superlatives are a way of repeating, at top volume, the claims that Shorto has failed to prove, as if quantity of argument could make up for quality.
The oddity of “Amsterdam” is that it is at once too narrow and too unfocused. Since Shorto almost never looks outside Amsterdam and the Netherlands, his claims for their distinctiveness become self-fulfilling. Throughout the book, there’s no sustained consideration of any other city — apart from Dutch Manhattan — and when Shorto ventures as far as Paris, it is to find its “grandiosity” a “little silly” next to Amsterdam’s canals. It would have been helpful to acknowledge, however briefly, Bangkok or Beirut or San Francisco or Havana, none of which, in my experience, is a slouch when it comes to loucheness, or to looking the other way; if liberalism is taken to refer not just to a philosophical principle but to the freedom to do what one likes, there are many places on earth more lawless and wide-open than Amsterdam.
The deeper problem, for those of us interested in the city from afar, is that Shorto’s rather rosy take on familiar material has to compete with much more rounded and unillusioned perspectives of Dutch-born locals like the veteran journalist and historian Geert Mak. His “Amsterdam,” from 1995, is far richer and more sophisticated as a narrative — and more stylish even in translation. It has the wryness to note, on its very first page, “Our political debate is about as exciting as a wet sponge” and “Our avarice is legendary.” Much of the city’s liberalism over the centuries, as Mak argues, was the result of economic desperation and misery.
And Ian Buruma’s “Murder in Amsterdam,” from 2006, is a typically supple and searching examination of the shadow sides of tolerance, including all the ways it can lead to its opposite. The flamboyant gay politician Pim Fortuyn, Buruma notes, was killed in 2002 by an animal-rights activist; and nearly two years later the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who made a film with Ayaan Hirsi Ali about the oppression of Muslim women, was shot and stabbed in the street by a Dutch Muslim of Moroccan descent. Having spent the first 24 years of his life in his father’s country — he still carries a Dutch passport — Buruma has a stake in thinking seriously about whether “freedom of speech” simply leads to public vilification of Muslims and Jews.
Shorto acknowledges some of this as his book draws to a close and suggests, for example, that the Dutch could accommodate themselves to the Nazis in part because for years they’d maintained a “pillar system” that left Catholics, Protestants, socialists and liberals segregated from one another. But what he continues to talk about is how his beloved city enjoys “probably the most sophisticated urban bicycle system in the world” and became “the spliff center of the universe.” (Take that, Tangier, Varanasi, Vancouver and, for that matter, Mars!) By the end, he’s suggesting that the very fact that “a larger percentage of Jews here were killed than almost anywhere else” during World War II might be one of the building-blocks of Amsterdam’s contemporary liberalism. One shudders at the implications.