“Amsterdam” in Seattle



Russell Shorto’s ‘Amsterdam’: the roots of a tolerant city
Russell Shorto’s “Amsterdam” looks at the history, politics and spirit of what is arguably the world’s most liberal city.

By Michael Upchurch
Special to The Seattle Times

‘Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City’

by Russell Shorto

Doubleday, 354 pp., $28.95

This finely spun and illuminating history of Amsterdam explores both a city and an idea. And writer Russell Shorto is well-positioned to investigate both.

He’s an American who has lived in Amsterdam for the last five years.

He’s also the author of “The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America,” a book examining how American diversity and a significant portion of American freedoms had their roots in the colonial settlement on Upper New York Bay more than 400 years ago.

“Amsterdam,” in a sense, picks up where “Island” left off, by giving a millennium-long overview of the country that was the source for the values of colonial New Amsterdam. Shorto has an ardent appetite for understanding all he can about his new home, and he’s especially alert to how the physical fabric of Amsterdam’s city center holds the memories of figures and events from centuries past.

He starts 1,000 years ago with the physical creation, through drainage and dam building, of the land where Amsterdam is now sited. He then moves through the Netherlands’ wars against Spanish rule and its years of religious strife.

He dwells on the Golden Age of the 1600s, when the ever-expanding city produced artists and thinkers who still astound us — Rembrandt and Spinoza, to name just two — and when, for better or worse, it invented the world’s first speculation-driven (and crash-susceptible) publicly traded stock market. During these glory days, when the city was a center of free speech that gave refuge to dissidents from other countries, an estimated half of all the books published in the world in the 17th century were published in the Netherlands.

Shorto also chronicles the decline of the city in the 18th century following destructive wars with Britain, the disastrous Nazi occupation during World War II and the turn the city took in the 1960s when, as one Dutch writer observes, “The counterculture became Amsterdam’s dominant culture.” The book brings things up to the present day, when debates over multiculturalism and assimilation are tense and unresolved, especially when it comes to the country’s Muslim immigrants.

Through all these glories, disasters and moments of cultural drift, the notion of what’s “liberal” (a word that over the centuries, Shorto notes, has been “mercilessly pulled in various directions”) was taking shape. Shorto cannily locates the conservative strain in Dutch character (“better to legalize and regulate an activity that will happen anyway”) that gave rise to what the rest of the world sees as the liberal door thrown wide open, whether you’re talking policies governing birth control, prostitution, gay rights or access to drugs.

Where did this hybrid of freedom, tolerance and pragmatism come from? Shorto believes there’s one answer: water. In working together to create land literally from scratch, the Dutch naturally developed a strong communal spirit. At the same time, that land belonged to its creators individually, in marked contrast to other European countries where feudal systems applied. One consequence: Far less of an aristocratic-authoritarian hand steered Dutch economic and government policy.

Shorto is a marvelous picture painter in words as he makes these points. And that makes “Amsterdam” a pleasure to savor on many levels.

Michael Upchurch is an arts writer for The Seattle Times.

Is It Wrong to Make Someone Else’s Blog Post My Blog Post?



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.

the mythical individual



It’s so satisfying when a reviewer pulls out of your book exactly what you hoped you were putting into it, and restates it in a way you never thought of:

…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.”

Best New Books of the Week (HuffPo/PW)



“Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City” by Russell Shorto (Doubleday)

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.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/21/best-new-books_n_4135892.html?ir=Books

“Amsterdam” reviews starting to roll in (pub date is tomorrow)…



A History of a City and Its Liberal Ideas

by Ann Levin, Associated Press

No guide to Amsterdam is complete without a mention of tulips, canals and legalized pot and prostitution. In Russell Shorto’s engaging new history of his adopted city, he, too, touches on these well-worn subjects.

But Shorto is more interested in exploring how a city of 800,000 souls — roughly the size of Columbus, Ohio — “has influenced the modern world to a degree that perhaps no other city has.” He argues that it has done so because over the centuries, through a combination of collective action and self-seeking individualism, Amsterdam has come to embody the most cherished ideals of Western democratic society, including tolerance, diversity and civil rights.

When Shorto writes that Amsterdam may well be the birthplace of liberalism, he doesn’t mean “liberal” in the sense that it’s used in American political debate. He’s referring to “a commitment to individual freedom and individual rights, and not just for oneself but for everyone.” He means liberalism in its original sense of “free,” from the Latin word liber.

Shorto’s attempt to understand Amsterdam feels urgent, in part because he recognizes that these values are threatened today. “While liberalism is one of our most precious cultural possessions,” he writes, “it can also be overstretched, belittled, squandered.”

But “Amsterdam” isn’t just a book about big ideas. It features a lively cast of characters, both famous and obscure, including Erasmus, Spinoza and Rembrandt. And it brims with the sights, smells and sounds of a nearly thousand-year-old bustling, mercantile city.

Bicycling through his neighborhood with his toddler son strapped to the handlebars, Shorto notices a “white cleanness … a rinsed quality” to the morning light. He describes the “deep, icy, impetuously heaving waters” of the nearby North Sea. A few chapters later, we’re back on the waterfront, this time to witness the return of a fleet from the East Indies, laden with more than a million pounds of pepper, cloves and nutmeg, “packed with exquisite care into the hulls.”

Shorto’s previous works include a well-regarded book on the Dutch origins of Manhattan. It’s fitting, then, that for his latest effort he burrows back even farther — to investigate the European civilization that sent forth its emissaries to the New World to lay the foundation for modern-day New York.

Countless books have been written about Holland’s capital city, from prosaic tourist guides to scholarly tomes. At 300-plus pages, Shorto’s relatively modest contribution stands as a sparkling addition to the lot.

The Best Possible Cover



Gary Gutting in todays’ New York Times:

Many liberal Catholics have been encouraged by Pope Francis’s comments about sexual ethics in a recent interview… Unless the pope is prepared to reject the hierarchy’s absolute condemnation of these actions and revise the official teaching, his comments reflect merely changes of style and tone. These are welcome as far as they go, but they fall far short of the reform needed if the church is to fulfill its fundamental aim of bearing witness to the truth.

I’d go considerably farther than that. I’d say that this Pope is potentially the best possible cover for the reactionary forces within the Vatican. The Catholic Church hierarchy is committed to its hidebound stances on sex and sin. How better to shield itself from criticism than to have a front man who pays lip service to the political correctnesses of the day? That doesn’t mean that Francis himself is only acting; but it could mean that his sincerity is a useful screen.

Just Part of the Microbial Stream



Michael Pollan retweeted a remarkable blog post by Jeff Leach about his time following tribal hunters in Tanzania. They capture a zebra, kill it, gut it, then wash their hands with the contents of the stomach. Then:

While I was fascinated by the microbe-laden stomach contents being used as hand scrubber – presumably transferring an extraordinary diversity of microbes from the Impala gut to the hands of the Hadza – I was not prepared for what they did next. Once they had cleaned out – by hand – the contents of the stomach (“cleaned” is a generous word), they carved pieces of the stomach into bite-sized chunks and consumed it sushi-style. By which I mean they didn’t cook it or attempt to kill or eliminate the microbes from the gut of the Impala in anyway. And if this unprecedented transfer of microbes from the skin, blood, and stomach of another mammal wasn’t enough, they then turned their attention to the colon of the Impala.

Leach says the hunters do this with all animals: they immerse themselves in the microbial stew. He goes on to say:

Rather than think of ourselves as isolated islands of microbes, the Hadza teach us that we are better thought of as an archipelago of islands, once seamlessly connected to one another and to a larger metacommunity of microbes via a microbial super highway that runs through the gut and skin/feathers of every animal and water source on the landscape (for those of you keeping up with your homework, this is Macroecology 101). The same can be said for plants and their extraordinary diversity of microbes above (phyllosphere) and below ground (rhizosphere) that the Hadza, and once all humans, interact with on a nearly continues basis.The Hygiene Hypothesis – or Old Friends Hypothesis, if you prefer – posits that a great many diseases (specifically autoimmune diseases) result from a disconnect with the natural world and its myriad of microscopic life. Microbes and other tiny things that once trained our immune system to distinguish between friend or foe and even Self. Our children are no longer born in the microbe-rich dirt, but rather hyper-sterile rooms where even the air is scrubbed with mechanical systems.

On Being Anne Frank



Thank you, Gypsy Scholar, for the thoughtful read:

Russell Shorto on Liberty and Individuality

In the guise of a travel article, “The Ghosts of Amsterdam” (NYT, September 27, 2013), Russell Shorto pens a lovely, meditative piece on the intimate connection between liberty and individuality, concluding with thoughts on the symbolic meaning of Amsterdam triggered by a walk taken there by him and his daughter:

Eva and I walked past the Anne Frank House . . . and found a canal-side cafe. Of course, our walk had been in part a typical parental ploy to instill something meaningful in a child. I asked Eva what she thought about it. She answered by saying, “Have you read Oliver Sacks? He’s amazing.”

I instantly recognized the non sequitur as a classic teenage gambit to thwart parental pedagogy, but it still worked. I was disoriented: surely it hadn’t been that long ago that she was enthralled by “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” Since when had she grown up to become a reader of neuroscientific case studies? Who was this person?

Then I recalled something that Otto Frank had written. He was the only member of the family to survive the war. He’d been stunned when he read the diary that his teenage daughter had left behind, and said it made him feel that he had never really known her.

What surprised him, was, I think, the very thing that made the diary an international sensation. It vividly displays both what Amsterdam’s history has always been about and what the Nazi occupation so vibrantly threatened: the mysterious complexity that is the individual human being.

This girl who would soon have the life crushed out of her represents not just the others who died without leaving words behind, but all of us. She showed us what human individuality is. And she did it, surprisingly enough, in the same way Rembrandt did: by painting a portrait.

As her father was shocked, and embarrassed, to discover, her diary reveals a full, deep, complicated person, who insists on continuing with her adolescent’s journey of self-discovery even as the swastikas paraded by outside: “It’s funny, but I can sometimes see myself as others see me. I take a leisurely look at the person called ‘Anne Frank’ and browse through the pages of her life as though she were a stranger.”

If ghosts who represent stages in the rise of individual freedom still haunt the streets of Amsterdam, making the city itself far greater than the sum of its museums and tourist sites, for me the spirit of this girl stands out above all the others because, in addition, she showed how fragile that freedom is.

At a time when theocratic views pressed upon the world by fanatics who would murder, and have murdered, to kill liberty and individuality, we should reflect deeply on Shorto’s words . . .

Losing Our Religion



There’s a new poll out today that shows American Jews are secularizing at blinding speed. Before 1970, only 17% of Jews intermarried with non-Jews; today (excluding the Orthodox) that number is 71%. Two-thirds don’t belong to a synagogue. This nicely coordinates with recent data on American Christians. An extrapolation of the 2007 Pew Research poll suggests that 125 million Americans don’t attend any church. And even that number is skewed because the survey is based on those who say they attended at least once in the past year. Meanwhile, the most rapidly growing religious segment is the “nones”–those who identify with non-religious identification. Where only 2% said “none” in surveys in the 1950s, that is now 20%. For those who believe that religious affiliation has been more a force for harm than good, these are heartening numbers.