PW Best Books 2013: ‘Amsterdam’ by Russell Shorto
Alex Crowley — October 24th, 2013
Leading up to the November 1st publication of PW’s Best Books of 2013, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100. Here’s the latest post:
Just a few days ago I finished reading Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City, the last in a pile of potential best books through which I’d been making my way. Sometimes it’s clear from the off that a book is special, and that indefinable sense took hold quickly here. Shorto had an inkling of an idea, but it was one that needed exploring rather than something already concrete or definitive. So exploring we go…
Shorto’s premise, in brief, is that the growth of the city of Amsterdam mirrors the development of principles “of what we call liberalism: an ideology centered on beliefs about equality and individual freedom that is the foundation of Western society.” Why Amsterdam specifically? He notes how before there was even a notion of “Dutch” national identity, Hollanders (and Friesians and Gelderlanders and other provincials of the “Low Countries”) had developed a geographically-specific, collectivized existence quite different from the feudalism that defined the rest of Europe in the late Middle-Ages. They lived upon land reclaimed from drained bogs and marshes, the making of which not only demanded a great deal of unity, but also fostered a great sense of pride in its accomplishment. The land didn’t belong to a feudal lord, but was literally made by the people. It was their land to do with as they saw fit.
I’ll save you from any further spoilers and leave the remarkable development of the city of Amsterdam to Shorto, for he turns a somewhat obscure story of water management and international trade into an enthralling tale of radicalism and tolerance of strange and otherwise anathema beliefs and ideas. But what’s worth focusing on is Shorto’s notion of the collectivist origins of individualism, as it seems to be a notion missing from contemporary American notions of individualism. Here, for better or worse, we celebrate that “rugged” strain of the pioneer and the self-made “hero”. It’s a mythical conception at best and dangerously misguided at worst.
Whichever way you want to look at it it’s a major influence on our current American political climate in which a vocal segment of the population rails against any sort of collective endeavor whatsoever, labeling it “socialist” and un-American. Part of me feels that Shorto, who has adopted Amsterdam as his home and has lived there nearly a decade now, has sharpened his eye in this position of “exile”. He’s written us this lengthy letter saying, “Hey, here’s where your cherished ‘individualism’ comes from, and if you stop working together, you’re going to lose it.”
He shows quite clearly how, in the course of its development, when Amsterdammers lost their notion of the collective endeavor, they not only suffered the indignities of intolerant rulers, but lost their position in world affairs.*
We worry today, at least some of us do, that the economic system we enjoy is moving in an unsustainable direction, that it’s leading us back towards a manorial system of feudal lords (who own capital and the means of production) and serfs who scrape by through undignified labor that only serves to exalt the self-appointed lords.** I think it’s clear from Shorto’s work (and I don’t feel an ideological agenda on his part, that’s mostly my own interpretation) that if notions of individual liberty are to flourish, it requires a diverse, tolerant population of people who value unorthodox ideas and have space to take risks with those ideas.
And to finish, a core element of Shorto’s narrative revolves around his interview sessions with an elderly Amsterdam Jew and Holocaust survivor named Frieda Menco (she was a childhood acquaintance of Anne Frank and her story is just one of many amazing ones here). Frieda notes at the end that, “Life is absurd. It has no meaning. But it has beauty, and wonder, and we have to enjoy that.” Perhaps the promise of the liberalism that Amsterdam gave the world is that, in moving whole populations out of a medieval, feudalist worldview, in which archaic institutions defined the parameters and expectations of life, it hopes to provide people with the means to make meaning in their lives and experience the beauty and wonder the universe holds.
*He also shows that, from the beginning, capitalism was prone to extreme corruption and financial markets egregiously manipulated, necessitating constant regulation. Hey, they were just like us!
**Excuse me, my Marxism is showing.