Liberal Boundaries



The Dutch have always been good at pushing new boundaries of “liberal.” Now two Dutch hospitals are pushing further on the boundaries of abortion. Abortion is legal in the country, but restricted by, among other things, the time of the pregnancy: it is legal up to 24 weeks. Researchers in Amsterdam and Rotterdam say they have found that doctors are performing abortions later than 24 weeks but not registering them as such. They say a significant number of pregnancies that result in several medical conditions that affect the life of a child are only apparent later, and thus argue that the abortion time limit should be lifted altogether.

A Liberal Quiz




My new book, a history of Amsterdam, which will be out in the U.S. and U.K. in late October, is about not only that European city but an idea: “liberal.” In advance of its publication, I invite anyone who is interested to take a little quiz about the city and the concept it helped give birth to. I’ll reply to anyone who cares to guess the answer.

Which one of these is false?

1. AMSTERDAM was the home of the world’s first stock exchange and the place where the concept of “shares of stock” was invented.

2. The first gay marriage was celebrated in AMSTERDAM. 

3. During the 17th century, one-third of all books published in the entire world were produced in AMSTERDAM. 

4. AMSTERDAM is where John and Yoko celebrated their honeymoon and had their “Bed-In for Peace.”

5. Prostitution is legal in AMSTERDAM; the city’s prostitutes pay taxes, and for them the cost of condoms is considered a legitimate tax deduction. 

6. It’s legal to buy marijuana in AMSTERDAM’s famous coffee shops.  

7. Forty percent of all transportation in AMSTERDAM is via bicycle, and bicycles are so common that cyclists can ride right through the Rijksmuseum, the city’s landmark art-and-history museum.

8. All of the above statements are directly tied to AMSTERDAM’s role as the birthplace and epicenter of all things liberal

Amsterdam in Amsterdam




My history of Amsterdam had its world launch this week in the most appropriate place. The Dutch edition is out a month before the American and British. Lots of media, posters, stacks in bookshop windows, and good, toothsome interviews with Dutch journalists over the many meanings of “liberal” and to what extent any of them still apply to the city. And, so far, positive reviews: “Everything he writes comes to life,” Monique Berger said on the TV program De Wereld Draait Door. “Shorto has uncovered the common thread in the mentality of Amsterdam” (Vrij Nederland). “It’s a wonderful book” (Het Parool.) Nice, nice!

Is the Pope Catholic?



Seriously, it’s fascinating, and the whole world seems to be atwitter, that Pope Francis is doing and saying so many un-Pope-like things. In particular, today papers are gushing about this bit from his lengthy interview:

“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”

Note, however, that Francis goes on in the same answer to say that “the great benefit of confession as a sacrament: evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace.” In other words, he is saying homosexuality is a sin, something for which confession is required in order to cleanse the soul.

Crying Wolf



U.S. intelligence briefed counterparts in Europe on chemical weapons in Syria, and apparently showed their hand. But the Dutch aren’t ready to buy it. Officials say they see no firm evidence. Frans Timmermans, the Dutch Foreign Secretary, said, “The past has taught us that we must not automatically accept what other countries tell us.” A clear reference to Iraq and “weapons of mass destruction” days.