“Shorto conjures the anything-goes spirit of contemporary Amsterdam, with its pot-smoking and red-light districts, from the city’s fascinating past as a major port city. Amsterdam, to Shorto, was not only the first city in Europe to develop the cultural and political foundations of what we now call liberalism—a society focused on the concerns and comforts of individuals, run by individuals acting together, and tolerant of religion, ethnicity, or other differences—but also an exporter of these beliefs to the rest of Europe and the New World. Shorto’s brilliant follow-up to his previous book on Dutch Manhattan (The Island at the Center of the World) is an expertly told history of a city of new, shocking freedoms and the tough-minded people that developed them.” ~ Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
Everyone knows that Italy is a mess. But how much of a mess? An op-ed in today’s New York Times by Corriere della Sera journalist Beppe Severgnini focuses on tourism, but one might see the state of the tourism industry as Italy in miniature:
“The Italian Tourist Board spends an astounding 98 percent of its budget on salaries, with basically nothing left for its actual job of tourism promotion.”
“Until recently the Campania regional authority had a palatial New York residence on Fifth Avenue.”
“Metaponto, in the Basilicata region east of Naples, has a five-track, marble-clad rail station, paid for by $25 million in European Union funds. But the last train out is an 8:21 a.m. express to Rome. If you want to go anywhere else, you have to take a bus.”
“Since World War II, the government has poured $550 billion into the Mezzogiorno, to no avail. By almost every measure, it is actually worse off relative to the rest of the country than it was 60 years ago.”
In December 2012, Shaun Donovan, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was on vacation in Berlin when he decided to detour to the Netherlands. He wanted to get a firsthand sense of the famed Dutch approach to water management. Hurricane Sandy struck six weeks before, and in the aftermath, President Obama asked him to lead a task force, whose objective was not just to rebuild but also to radically rethink the region’s infrastructure in light of climate change.
In the Netherlands, a man named Henk Ovink offered to be Donovan’s guide. Ovink was the director of the office of Spatial Planning and Water Management, meaning, essentially, that it was his job to keep the famously waterlogged country dry.
Geert Wilders, the flamboyantly anti-Muslim agitator of Dutch politics, headed into yesterday’s election with the expectation of becoming the country’s biggest party. Instead, lo and behold, he actually lost seats. Maybe as a reaction to the shock of the turnaround (he had been so confident that he appeared at a rally with the Rocky theme song playing), he stepped over a line he’d never crossed before. He has always been happy to bash Muslims: their holy book, their way of life. But this time he led his supporters in a chant against Moroccans. Targeting a specific nationality of legal immigrants is bold new terrain.
Sometimes a sound, an explosion from out in the world, dislodges a thought. Broken from the brick of the mind it becomes accessible as a thing of itself. There is a raw physicality to this occurrence. A thought is shaken into existence by a violent shudder in the material world. It may nevertheless not have clear edges. It may be at the same time instantly and vividly observable and of unknown contours and depth. It is about something, surely, but the nature of its referent is such that it unfolds. The structure of the thought, then, can be thought of as akin to a building covered in doors. Opening a door leads to a room. There are doors in most of these rooms. They lead to other rooms. Some doors lead back to the exterior. From here, you can observe some of the shape of the building, but you realize that its shape, its exterior feature, does not give you insight. So you open a door again.
Gert Wilders, the golden-haired golden boy of the Dutch far right, now leads the largest political party in the Netherlands. Often the growth in popularity of a radical politician comes with a softening and mainstreaming of the message. Not so here. Wilders said last week, while campaigning in The Hague, that voters should choose for “a city with fewer taxes and fewer Moroccans.” There seemed to be more Dutch outrage over the fact that another politician likened Wilders’ comment to Hitler than over the extremist’s extremism itself. Next Wednesday is the election for local offices.
Artist Guy Laramee turns books into landscapes. If you’re looking for an insight into the state of the physical book, his rendering of the Encyclopedia Britannica is the ultimate, given that it stopped printing in actual books last year. Otherwise, you can just ponder.
AMSTERDAM: A HISTORY OF THE WORLD’S MOST LIBERAL CITY
By Russell Shorto
Finally, this delightfully eccentric history looks at Amsterdam. For many, the first thing that comes to mind is marijuana, but Shorto ably demonstrates how Amsterdam is generally more conservative and far more influential than the lax drug laws (or rather, lax enforcement of drug laws) imply. Amsterdam is truly the birthplace of democracy and specifically liberalism that is such a feature of the US and New York City in particular. Ranging over centuries, Shorto captures everything from his own connection to the city to the excitement of Spinoza’s bold thinking. With vivid tales from history, he shows how and why Amsterdam became such a unique and fertile ground for capitalism as we know it. (For one thing, it was literally created out of swampland by pounding log after log into the ground until a base was formed that could be built in. God made the world but man made Amsterdam and that land built by sweat wasn’t already controlled by a monarchy or other ruling class.) Shorto brings to life a survivor of the Nazis who played with Anne Frank as a child, the truly eccentric characters that proved “crazy” is a virtue in this society to the Amsterdam of today. Eye-opening and entertaining, it’s popular history of the best sort.