Holland: Reflections on the Dutch Model, and Why Some Smaller Cultures Do So Well

Amsterdam is clearly one of the great cities of the world, and Holland one of the most successful countries. With only 16 million people, two-thirds of the country would be underwater were it not for the system of dams and pumping stations. The Dutch obviously have to cooperate with each other to survive. Reflecting that ethos, Amsteram is a precisely organized place with separate facilities for pedestrians, bikers, trams, cars, and boats on the many canals. You have to be very careful to respect the rights of the other “user groups,” but the Dutch have achieved a city that is not completely car-centric. The number of bikes is overwhelming, and they are aggressive, so perish the poor jogger who gets in their way!

Gasoline costs $6 to $7 a gallon, which discourages some driving. The fleet of cars tends to be much smaller in size than American cars obviously. We don’t see any pickups or Suburbans. The government also imposes stiff registration fees. One taxi driver told us it could cost $150 a quarter to register a high-end Mercedes. So these are the ways the Dutch try to manage the automobile, and their overall energy consumption.

The city works well, with street cleaners and garbage trucks making carefully choreographed stops. There is even a guy with a small truck who picks up the garbage from the many small garbage cans and replaces the plastic bags. Imagine that happening in New York City!

It’s interesting to see how the Dutch have assimilated foreigners. Many of the people picking up garbage or sweeping the streets are dark-skinned, many of whom are Moluccans from Indonesia, or Surinamese, or Africans. There is also a smattering of Muslim people and they are easily spotted by the fact that the women are wearing veils over their heads, but not the complete face-covering burkas that women in Saudi Arabia or Afganistan wear.

We went on a boat ride in the canals organized by a friend of Rita’s son, Joshua. She was a Vietnamese who grew up in Holland and got her law degree here. Another friend was Indian who was also born here. A third was a young man from Molucca, whose grandparents had immigrated from the Dutch colonies, the East Indies. A fourth was a German who had been born in Holland and raised here. All spoke fluent Dutch. That was the lingua franca. And of course, they spoke English too, as easily as everyone in Holland seems to.

The Dutch require that foreigners learn the Dutch language if they are to get their residency and citizenship papers. In the United States, we offer English as a Second Language instruction to our immigrants, but there are many million people in the United States who speak only Spanish or Chinese. They exist in entire sub societies. The Dutch policy seems to prevent that from happening, at least in the same way.

Yet the Dutch are clearly the Dutch and they have maintained a strong sense of identity. Even though they learn English, German and French in school, they are fiercely proud of their language, which includes sounds that are completely alien to other European languages. Their guttural sounds are reminiscent of Hebrew. And even though we see some interracial marriages, when we ate one night at a very Dutch oriented family restaurant near our Hotel Rembrandt, nearly everyone had blond or red hair. A separate gene pool has survived, intact.

There are points of tension between the Dutch and their guests. The government has banned face-covering veils worn by some particularly conservative Muslim women because the garments flout the Dutch way of life and culture. There is a right-wing politician, Geert Wilders, who is promoting a backlash against the immigrants. Yet it seems that overall, the Dutch have found a way to make a diverse society function.

Another irony is the contrast between the liberal and conservative impulses. The Red Light district is identified on maps and is quite open. There is no attempt to hide it. And marijuana and hashish are easily available in coffee shops. Buying it and smoking it is completely legal.

Yet the Dutch are profoundly conservative in other ways. The terms “Dutch treat,” “Dutch uncle,” “Dutch oven” and others imply a people who are very tight with their money. And as I said, they have a strong sense of confidence in their separate identity.

In that sense, the Dutch remind me of other small, advanced societies I have visited such as the Koreans, the French Canadians, the Finns, and perhaps even the Japanese. When people have a strong sense of cultural identity, and they believe in cooperating with each other, they can create technology and wealth in a way that larger, more fractured societies cannot do as easily. Each of these cultures have their heroes whom they worship (for the Dutch, these include Rembrandt, Van Gogh, etc.) and a very vibrant media and cultural scene in their own language.

One stark contrast: at certain times, the Dutch have been very open to others, yet at other times, they have not protected their minorities. That’s a sweeping perhaps superficial observation, but it’s based on a visit to the Portugese Synagogue, where Portugese Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition were able to re-establish a Jewish community. Yet the Dutch could not, or would not, protect the Jews during World War II. They have made a point of maintaining the Anne Frank museum as an example of how they protected the Jews, but a visit to the museum of Dutch Resistance shows that the Jews were essentially wiped out during the Nazi occupation. And some parts of Dutch society wanted to try to cooperate with the Germans. There was even a Dutch National Socialist Party. History is indeed complicated.

In economic terms, the Dutch used to be a trading nation based on their holdings primarily in Indonesia and South America. Today, they have major world financial institutions (ABN Amro and ING), major beer companies (Heineken and Amstel), electronics companies (Philips) and energy (Royal Dutch Shell.) It is a wealthy nation and there are no signs of the European crisis that I keep seeing mentioned in American headlines. I’m surprised by the number of start-up companies I see in the fields of entertainment, media, fashion, marketing, film, and the like. There is a real economic vitality to the place, based in part on the city’s ability to attract talented foreign expatriates from all over the world.

Rather than lamenting the death of Europe, as is popular in the American media, I think we need to learn some things from the Europeans. The first is that we need to do a better job in easing our dependence on energy, so the creation of a city structure that accommodates more bicycles and alternative forms of transportation in major American cities very smart. I think we could learn something from how the Dutch try to integrate foreigners without losing their sense of identity. We could learn about how the Dutch and others maintain such vibrant economies in the face of so many global uncertainties. And I think there might be something to learn about the importance of vital institutions in the media and culture. We Americans have done a poor job of insuring that we have a high quality national debate and a coherent sense of national identity. Those traits, however, are key to establishing and preserving national wealth.

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