Monday, May 4, 2009

Old vs. New Amsterdam

Yesterday's Sunday NYT Mag piece from Russell Shorto about social democracy in the Netherlands caught my eye because of my recent trip to Amsterdam as well as my fascination with 'how it works' in other countries.  Although thin on analysis and relying more on anecdotal quotes than hard nosed assessments of what works and doesn't in the Dutch social welfare state, the piece fascinated with its level of detail about childcare and vacation benefits as well as the history behind the consensus mentality there. 

I was reminded about pieces we ran in The New Republic years ago about the whole issue of national character---is there one, and how does it manifest in social and economic practices, large and small, in each country.  Is anatomy (in this case, topography) destiny?

Shorto's historical perspective was fascinating---how Dutch consensus emerged from the need to 'drain the swamp' in the lowlands from very early times.  And how this spirit of cooperation, essential for successful settlement, became ingrained in the national mentality.  Such an interesting contrast to the Italian model---a country and people I adore but who seem to specialize in ripping into themselves over the failure to agree about national purpose.

The article finally arrives at one of the real downsides to living in a place like the Netherlands. And I've seen this in Japan, too.  The aching sameness and conformity and lack of innovation, the unwillingness to stand out.  Both countries, interestingly, have excelled at commerce and  international trade but not at invention.  Reminds me of a funny dinner conversation Jase and I had in Amsterdam as we tried to name famous Dutch writers, dramatists, actors, scientists or political leaders we admired, finally resorting to the web browser on my Blackberry to come up with the answer that, frankly, there are none known outside of Holland, aside from artists like de Kooning and Van Gogh we all know.

We have our problems in New Amsterdam and elsewhere in the US, yes even deep, intractable problems.  For me, the issue is not about tax rates and socialism vs. capitalism, but something unique that determines who we are---something gained in our rough and tumble get it done upwardly mobile striving society.  We're not better, but we sure are different over here.  Wouldn't have it any other way.




1 comment:

  1. please help me figure out "how it works" in Nepal....oi