29 February 2012

Going Dutch: An insider's view of the 'happiest' country in the world


Going Dutch: An insider's view of the 'happiest' country in the world
Tuesday, February 28, 2012

When I'm in Utrecht, a city founded by the Romans, I stay in a house that was built in 1412 on a street that's about as wide as an open umbrella. Like many Dutch, I walk or travel by bicycle, parking it with thousands of others at the train station, where a quick commute will take me to Amsterdam in less than a half-hour. Utrecht is centrally located -- a gem of a city whose canals are lined with little shops, bookstores and countless outdoor cafes. Actually, this describes most Dutch cities; Utrecht's main claims to fame are its cathedral (with the Netherlands' tallest tower), its many hidden medieval gardens or "hofs," its wonderful early-music scene, quirky public art (a flying saucer atop the train headquarters!) and, of course, its history (the Treaty of Utrecht).
The city is a curious mix of old and new, with buildings and vistas unchanged for hundreds of years, and with bleeding-edge software design companies (Utrecht is the computer game capital of the country), high fashion and futuristic stereo equipment. I'm sure that the air has calories, filled as it is with the aroma of butter-rich bakeries, the world's best fries sold by outdoor vendors, deep-roasted coffee and the cuisine of countless cultures. And yet somehow, the Dutch remain lean and tall (at an average height of 6 foot 1, they are the world's tallest people), taking it all in stride. It's one of the most relaxed and well-balanced cultures that I've experienced.
For Fox's Bill O'Reilly, however, the Netherlands represents everything that is wrong with Europe. Tolerance, an open society, a more expansive range of personal freedoms than those enjoyed in the U.S. -- these factors, say Mr. O'Reilly and his co-hosts, have led Amsterdam to become a cesspool of corruption, crime and anarchy. The Dutch, after all, allow soft drugs, prostitution (Amsterdam's red light district is a major tourist attraction) and euthanasia. Worse, it's all coming here to America!
Dutch citizens posted widely circulated rebuttals on YouTube, arguing through statistics: Americans are twice as likely as Dutch to have tried marijuana; the U.S. murder rate is almost five times higher; and Americans are 16 times more likely to suffer drug-related deaths than their Dutch counterparts. The Dutch strategy seems to be that openness and regulation work well together. Drugs and prostitution, they say, are better regulated than exploited by criminals. One might add that in 2011 the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ranked the Netherlands the "happiest" country.
While the Netherlands is known for its free and easygoing lifestyle, it emerges paradoxically from a deep tradition of regulation and collaboration. With close to 25 percent of its land and 21 percent of its population below sea level, the Dutch learned long ago how to regulate water. The canals, waterways and polders that keep the country habitable not only attest to engineering prowess, but also to a highly evolved system of coordination and control. The Begijnhof, a medieval enclave of tiny houses hidden in the busy center of Amsterdam, is a reminder of long-standing Dutch commitment to collaborative ventures. Often religious in origin, these clusters of still-surviving medieval row houses attest to the community's support for the elderly, the infirm, orphans and widows, anticipating social policies that have been maintained into the present. Unlike the current American debate that pits social responsibility against capital development, the Dutch saw the advantage of joining both together. Using pooled labor and capital, the Dutch people expanded their landmass. Using pooled assets, the rising middle class bought stock in the Dutch East India Co., enabling them to share this first multinational corporation's profits in global colonization and trade since 1602.
Today, Dutch-owned companies such as Sara Lee, Nielsen Media Research (the TV ratings folks), Unilever, ING Bank, Philips and Shell carry on that tradition. Together with the Dutch tax shelters used by holding companies for U2 and the Rolling Stones, Prada, Nike and record label EMI, the message is that the Netherlands is great for business. Social responsibility and profits are not incompatible. Maybe that's part of why the Dutch are so happy.
The European socialism so feared by the American Right has resulted in a nation with a first-rate infrastructure, whether in terms of public transportation, health and education, or industry. The Netherlands contains some of Europe's top universities, yet tuition is next to nothing ($2,250 per year). Its medical care is among the world's best, using a system that combines reasonably priced commercial insurance with state regulation. Investments in the arts and quality of life abound. It's not only home to the Van Gogh Museum, the Frans Hals Museum and Rembrandt's house, but also the Russians opened a branch of the Hermitage there. While experiencing recent recession-related cutbacks, the Netherlands has managed to maintain an extraordinarily rich cultural life. (And a point of pride: Its athletes, especially in speed skating, soccer and women's field hockey, regularly top the world.)
Somehow, the Dutch have managed to reconcile the irreconcilable. A tiny country with few natural resources, they have built a sprawling global empire. (They are the third-largest investors in the United States.) An emphatically modern culture, with state-of-the-art architecture and infrastructure, they have managed to keep their historical cities intact, complete with weekly outdoor flower, cheese and fish markets. A refreshingly liberal land, it tolerates soft drug use in its "coffee shops" (if it's coffee you're after, go to a cafe) and even provides free heroin to hardened addicts. Despite, or perhaps because of this, it has a dramatically smaller percentage of drug users and drug-related problems than countries like our own. Not bad for a place usually associated with wooden shoes, windmills, tulips and cheese.
The Dutch were, of course, early settlers in the U.S. (and in one of their poorer deals, traded Manhattan to the British for Surinam!). Thanks to their American Colonies (and the Glorious Revolution in which the Dutch invaded England and left a lasting cultural impression), they left behind a legacy that we can still see in our architecture, gardens and city names (Brooklyn, Harlem, Hoboken).
Today, the Dutch influence lives on, as much through Dutch multinationals as through television ("Big Brother!" "Fear Factor!" "Extreme Makeover!"), design (Droog), music (from gabber to DJ Armin van Buuren), beer (Heineken, Grolsch) and architecture (Rem Koolhaas).
A trip to the Netherlands reveals a very different culture, and one that doesn't get exported much. Besides the art, music and architecture, old Dutch cheeses, Dutch pancakes (thin, pan-sized and with the bacon cooked right in) and some of the world's best junk foods make the place very comfortable ... and distinctive.
Civility is deeply ingrained in the Dutch spirit, and the Netherlands remains overwhelmingly (and comfortably) middle class; a place where the police and the tax collector give second chances; and a place where personal freedom and social responsibility are seen as two sides of the same coin. I hope that Bill O'Reilly's dire prediction comes true -- we could use a little bit of this civility in the good old USA.

William Uricchio is director of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. He also heads the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab in Singapore. He also is the brother of PG SEEN Editor Marylynn Uricchio.

First published on February 28, 2012 at 12:00 am


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