I love Amsterdam. I’ve loved it ever since I first visited it in 1997, and when I moved there from New York a year later, after three more visits, I was still bewitched. Not until I’d lived there for several months did I grasp that this beautiful city, which had played such a pivotal role in the development of the modern concept of individual liberty, faced a serious threat from a certain pre-modern, liberty-hating religion to which I realized I’d been paying insufficient attention. I haven’t lived in Amsterdam for fourteen years, but I’ve returned to it many times, and I’ve witnessed the dire consequences of its steady, and increasingly manifest, Islamization. I still love it, but I tread more carefully now on those cobbled streets; and precisely because I do love it, I worry about what’s happening to it.
Russell Shorto also professes to love Amsterdam. A longtime New York Times Magazine contributor, he’s lived there since 2008, serving (until recently) as director of the city’s John Adams Institute, which, according to its website, seeks to reinforce Dutch-American cultural ties by hosting talks by “interesting American thinkers and writers…such as Al Gore, Toni Morrison, Jesse Jackson, Jonathan Franzen, Madeleine Albright, Spike Lee, Paul Auster and Francis Fukuyama.” (Don’t worry: as its website is careful to underscore, it’s not the kind of “’patriotic’ organization” that “waves a little American flag and tries to promote America.”)
A few years back, Shorto wrote a book about the Dutch influence on New York City – and, by extension, on the entire U.S. Now he’s written a book called Amsterdam: The History of the World’s Most Liberal City. It’s receiving the kind of adoring reviews in the usual places that strong suggest that, whatever its other merits or demerits, it doesn’t vigorously challenge any mainstream-media orthodoxies about the current state of affairs in Europe. When I read Janet Maslin’s review in Monday’s Times, one sentence, in particular, jumped out at me. Shorto, Maslin wrote, “cites two contrasting approaches to tensions between Islam and the West: the radical position of the outspoken Somali-Dutch feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and a two-man Muslim-Jewish team of leaders who tilt toward conciliation.” “Radical”? “Outspoken”? These are the two adjectives Maslin chooses to describe the courageous, principled Ayaan Hirsi Ali? Also, I knew which “two-man Muslim-Jewish team” Maslin was referring to: the Jewish half of the team, Job Cohen, is the man who, while mayor of Amsterdam (2001-2010), urged “accommodation with the Muslims,” up to and including toleration “of orthodox Muslims who consciously discriminate against their women. (As I asked in my book Surrender:“Where would he draw the line? At forced marriage? Wife-beating? Rape? Honor killing?”) Plainly, I needed to take a look at Shorto’s book, and pronto.
And so I did. Most of the way through, it’s not a bad book, although its contours and highlights will be familiar to anyone who’s read earlier histories of the city. Shorto explains, as other writers have done before him, how Amsterdam’s position as a hub of international commerce bred a culture of tolerance that, over time, spread far beyond its precincts, helping to lead the Western world out of the Middle Ages and into modernity. Hence, he argues, we should regard Amsterdam, more than France or Britain or anyplace else, as the cradle of the Enlightenment – the place where the medieval world of nobles and serfs first began to be transformed into the world we know today. It’s no stretch, indeed, to describe Shorto’s book as a celebration of free-market capitalism as the foundation of modern freedom: “while feudalism held sway elsewhere in Europe,” he writes, “people in these low-lying provinces were protocapitalists” whose innovations in business and trade would liberate economies around the globe.
It’s curious, then, that instead of using the word “freedom” or “liberty” or “capitalism” in his subtitle, Shorto uses “liberalism,” which obliges him to explain, early in the book, that he’s not talking about the statist, social-democratic values that go by that name in America today, but, rather, about the ardent belief in the individual’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that is at the heart of America’s founding documents. Why, then, not just use the word “freedom” or “liberty” or “capitalism” in his subtitle? Could it just possibly be because, in the cultural-elite circles Shorto apparently moves in, no one is viewed with more contempt than a cheerleader for capitalism, and a subtitle that spun “freedom” or “capitalism” in a positive way would come dangerously close, in the eyes of New York Times book-review editors and their ilk, to sounding like (horrors!) Ann Coulter?
Shorto spends a lot of time pondering – as I did, too, when I lived in Amsterdam – what can, at first blush, seem like a paradox: how, as he puts it, can a people with such a “collective sensibility” be, at the same time, so “tied to what we think of as extreme individualism”? His example of this paradox: generations ago, the Dutch came together in communities to construct dikes and reclaim land from the sea – but instead of deciding to own and cultivate that land communally, they opted to parcel it out among themselves. But this isn’t really as much of a paradox as it appears: the more you look at such behaviors on the part of the Golden Age Dutch, the more they bring to mind American pioneers who, for instance, got together to raise somebody’s barn. What we’re talking about here are voluntary, grass-roots initiatives driven by a genuine communal need, not projects imposed from on high by some distant, all-powerful authority – although, yes, this openness to collective activity eventually made it easier to persuade the Dutch to buy into social democracy. (Shorto, for one, certainly buys into it: he considers the Netherlands “freer” than the U.S. because its government pays him a child subsidy plus an annual sum of vacation money equivalent to eight percent of his salary; it doesn’t seem to occur to him that all that cash isn’t falling down from the skies but is pinched from the pockets of childless self-employed people some of whom undoubtedly earn far less than he does. Just saying.)
Shorto’s book is mostly history, but also contains personal passages in which he tries to explain his enthusiasm for the city. Some of them resonate with me pretty strongly. Visiting Paris, he observes that its
grandiosity is to Amsterdam’s canal house cityscape what mythological figures are to ordinary people. Amsterdam relates to who we are today: it is, in a sense, where we began, we as modern people who consider individual human beings to be more important than institutions. These sleepy canal-side streets, with boats moored on one side and gabled brick houses on the other: this is the cradle of our focus on ourselves. It can’t help but seem charming to us.
True, and nicely put. Then again, as I wrote myself when I visited the City of Lights while living in Amsterdam:
Paris is built on a scale that makes Amsterdam, by contrast, seem insubstantial, a toy town, a train set….You couldn’t replace those delicate-looking old canal houses with buildings of any size: they’d sink. The city is built on land that is only barely land. The whole place – unlike Paris – is one step from being a total illusion.
Paris reminded me, I wrote, “of what a city can be; I’m reminded that I’m a New Yorker.” Which brings to mind the character in The Fountainhead who says he’d “give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline….The sky over New York and the will of man made visible. What other religion do we need?” All of which is simply by way of saying that Amsterdam may be modernity’s cradle, but New York is its apex, its crowning achievement.
Shorto’s book contains so much that’s smart and engaging that one is especially appalled by his take on the trials and travails of the Netherlands today, because he quite obviously knows better. The first hint of how he’s going to handle these issues comes early on, when he tells us about his kid’s babysitter’s relatives in Morocco, who had trouble securing Dutch tourist visas because immigration authorities thought they might try to stay on illegally. Reading this, I was pleased to know that the Netherlands, after decades of massive and incredibly damaging illegal immigration from Islamic countries, was taking serious steps to try to get it under control. Shorto, however, professes to be outraged that “a city famed historically for championing the notion of tolerance now seemed to be charting odd new frontiers of intolerance.”
Okay, one thinks. So it’s going to be like that, is it? And, indeed, so it goes. Recalling his first days in Amsterdam in 2005, he writes that “immigration was the big issue….After years of relative openness, Amsterdam…now wanted to close the doors. People with white skin were talking bluntly and angrily about the unwillingness of nonwhite newcomers to integrate.” Not until he’s managed, in this wily way, to place firmly in the reader’s mind the suggestion that racism was in the air does he acknowledge that the Dutch people’s concerns about integration weren’t race-based. Moving on, he claims that “anti-immigrant talk has since died down” (well, the “talk” definitely spiked after Theo van Gogh’s murder in November 2004, but I wouldn’t say it’s “died down” when viewed over the long haul), but adds that “the underlying issue – how and to what extent Western societies should welcome immigrants – remains.” Again, the issue isn’t immigration generally; it’s Islam. But Shorto doesn’t want to go there.
When the time comes to mention Geert Wilders, Shorto doesn’t identify him as a champion of the Dutch liberty that he’s been celebrating throughout these pages but, on the contrary, reviles him as – what else? – a “golden-haired far-right” leader of “the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam movement” who “preaches a gospel of intolerance of outsiders.” Shorto is no kinder to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose frank talk about the religion of her birth catapulted her into the Dutch Parliament but ultimately – in one of the most disgraceful episodes of modern Dutch history – spurred the cowardly political establishment, including her own party’s leaders, to turn against her, revoke her citizenship, and drive her from the country. Yes, admits Shorto, Hirsi Ali was “a near-perfect advocate for Amsterdam and its liberal tradition,” and, yes, “[r]eligious absolutism has been a huge force for ill,” and “we all need as many Voltaires – and Spinozas – as we can get.” You can hear the but coming, and you know exactly what form it’s going to take: “But Hirsi Ali’s attack on Islam itself, and on all who practice it, was too much for me.” Of course it was! For a New York Times Magazine contributing editor, and an aspiring member of the Dutch cultural elite, it’s permissible to rap “[r]eligious absolutism” in vague, general terms, but it’s verboden to venture any specific criticism of the one faith that’s far more absolute than any of the others, and that represents a colossal menace to the Dutch liberty that Shorto claims to cherish so dearly.
“In the Netherlands,” he continues, “where she didn’t shrink from the attention but used it to further her strident attacks on Islam, she became too controversial to be endured.” Let’s set aside the snotty word “strident” and the suggestion that Hirsi Ali’s an attention hog (he goes on to call her a “fashionista”), and go straight to the question: exactly what is Shorto saying here? The sentence seems deliberately ambiguous – written in such a way that it’s impossible to be sure whether Shorto approves or disapproves of the fact that, in today’s Netherlands, anyone who refuses, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali did, to compromise Enlightenment values one iota will be deemed “controversial” and read out of polite society (or, if possible, kicked out of the country) for having “gone too far.” Certainly Shorto seems eager to avoid facing up to the fact that when the Dutch establishment kicked Hirsi Ali to the curb, it was betraying the same Dutch heritage of liberty that of which this book is supposedly a celebration. You’d think the saga of Hirsi Ali would be front and center here – that Shorto would recognize it as the ultimate illustration of just how imperiled Dutch liberty is in this era of rampant Islamization and rank appeasement. But – again – Shorto doesn’t want to go there.
Contrasting sharply with his mendacious smearing of Wilders and Hirsi Ali is his depiction of the aforementioned Job Cohen, whom he portrays as a veritable wonder-worker, a “conciliator.” But “conciliator” isn’t the mot juste. Try “appeaser.” Or, if you like, “dhimmi.” Alas, Shorto does such a slick job here that if you didn’t already know the real history, you could easily end up convinced that Wilders and Hirsi Ali are bums and that Cohen’s a hero. Shorto is exceedingly skilled at juggling the facts to make his heroes – and his case – look good. It’s a shame, because this book, with a few small but significant changes, could have amounted to a stirring defense of the Dutch legacy of freedom and an indictment of the political and media establishment that has sold it down the river. Instead, Shorto has chosen to toe the establishment line. No big surprise there, I guess. Not only is he a Times stalwart who knows what’s fit to print and what isn’t; by book’s end it’s clear that he’s won a prime spot on the lap of the Dutch elite that he’s not about to risk losing. His acknowledgments pages are a glittering catalogue of that elite, up to and including “their Royal Highnesses Willem-Alexander and Máxima,” whom he thanks “for the courtesies they have extended me at various points over the past eight years.” Ugh. Willem-Alexander, of course, is the recently crowned king of the Netherlands – the man who, back in 2007, publicly (and quite improperly) chided Geert Wilders, an elected Member of Parliament, by saying: “Speech is silver, silence is golden.” Jerk.
Oh, well. There are two basic choices for a writer in Shorto’s position: you can be a truth-teller, or you can be a courtier. He’s made his choice – and, it appears, is reaping the rewards.
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