When I was 17 I took Advanced Placement European History with Jeff Boni at Columbia High School. I ended up getting a 4 (out of 5; 3 is passing) on the AP exam and considered myself to be a very learned individual when it came to everything that had occurred in Europe after the dark ages and before 2001. In reality, I knew very little other than how to pass one test and it took me a full year to learn that. Had I actually wanted to learn about Europe’s History I would have done what I did today because it was much more effective and interesting.
I got up early for a free walking tour of the city with a group called New Europe (whom I highly, highly recommend) and was treated to a phenomenal tour guide and a lot of fascinating information. Our guide put everything I had seen in the city into context by framing our tour around the question “Are the Dutch progressively tolerant or opportunistically capitalist?” He constructed his argument out of different historical sites and events around the city. I will do my best to do this phenomenal walking tour justice with a brief synopsis.
The Dutch are willing to tolerate just about anything as long as it satisfies three conditions:
1. It must make money for the government.
2. It must not hurt anyone else.
3. It must be done privately.
These guidelines provide logic to Amsterdam’s madness. Legalizing prostitution allows the industry to be taxed and regulated, thus benefiting the local population and protecting the workers. Marijuana is illegal but that low is intentionally not enforced because the sale of marijuana attracts tourists, can be taxed (though it is not labeled as weed on tax returns it just shows up as “other” or gets lumped into another larger category like coffee), and can be consumed privately and discreetly. For centuries Amsterdam was known for its religious tolerance and attracted many Jews, Muslims, Protestants, and Catholics. Even when Catholicism was outlawed, Amsterdam authorities allowed Catholics to live and practice as long as they did so behind closed doors. We visited a home whose attic had been converted into a church and whose mass was attended by over 150 people. It’s a city full of well-known secrets.
Our walking tour took us past the Jewish District, churches within the red light district (an unusual thing until you remember that the church used to sell indulgences to absolve you of your sins, meaning that if you were a church and you wanted to make a ton of money, you should be as close to the sinfulness as possible; it’s like having a Dairy Queen outside of a weight watchers), the East India Trading Company (the first publicly traded company in the world), a weigh house, and some famous statues accompanied by stories of Dutch independence. We spoke about the Nazi occupation and both the Dutch’s complacency and rebellion against the German regime, touching again on the issue of capitalism-fueled tolerance. We ended at the Anne Frank house with a bit of history that surrounded the before and after of the now famous story. It was a very dense but rewarding three hours.
I got further into the Amsterdam culture by hanging out at the Gay Pride Parade. Similar to most other cities, the parade is a wild, debaucherous affair, but different from most other places it is done on boats through the canals rather than floats through the streets. Naturally, I had a ton of fun with everyone else celebrating the 12th anniversary of Holland’s legalization of gay marriage. Think about that: gay marriage has been legal in this country for 12 years and we’re still debating it in the States! I thought we were supposed to be leaders of the free world. Come on America, get with it!
I spent the evening watching the Olympics and rooting (too) loudly for the Americans. I also rooted for the Dutch. It felt like the right thing to do.