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Bastion of freedom

American explores the roots of the world's most liberal city

People cross a bridge in the centre of Amsterdam.


People cross a bridge in the centre of Amsterdam.

Canada's recent Supreme Court ruling on prostitution has people once again looking to Amsterdam. That city's approach to the sex trade — and to the marketing of marijuana — has long been regarded as a sane model for all cities.

In his lively and lucid new book, American Russell Shorto shows how Amsterdam, where he has lived for several years, developed a successful form of liberalism back in its golden era, the 17th century, and has continued to foster it right up to the present.

A prostitute advertises in a window in Amsterdam's red-light district.


A prostitute advertises in a window in Amsterdam's red-light district.

Shorto's best-known previous book is The Island at the Center of the World (2004) about the Dutch origins of New York's Manhattan.

Though its population is only 800,000, Amsterdam continues to be a favourite destination of tourists, known not for its grandeur but its charm. Shorto injects his personal observations and wit into his narrative, making this an immensely readable and charming history.

Shorto notes that De Wallen, Amsterdam's central red-light district, has become a regular stop on tourist itineraries. It "is a sort of alternate-universe Disneyland, noisy and with a certain ragged cheer, visited not only by drunken male tourists but also by couples strolling arm in arm and even families."

This and several smaller red-light districts feature townhouses with picture windows displaying prostitutes dressed in bikinis or other scanty attire.

Prostitution was legalized in 2000, but prior to that, Shorto notes, it fell "under the curious Dutch classification gedogen, which means 'technically illegal but officially tolerated.' " The same term is applied to coffee shops that have hashish and marijuana on the menu.

It was in the early 1100s that a few hundred farmers built earthen dikes to make settlement possible on what was once vast river delta and is now Amsterdam. Many Dutch writers have cited "the historic struggle against water as formative to a cultural ethic of co-operation," one which at the same time is committed to valuing the individual.

The essence of Dutch liberalism can be seen in this statement: "We demand our personal freedom but we have to work together."

Many see May 1578 as the date the modern Amsterdam was born. It marked the end of Roman Catholic leadership and the advent of Calvinism at a time when the Reformation was transforming religious belief in Europe. But part of Dutch liberalism more and more involved "freedom from religion," to the point where today only five per cent of Amsterdammers claim to belong to a Christian church.

Shorto shows how Amsterdam became one of the world's busiest ports, the Dutch navy coping with a lengthy war with Spain, and Dutch merchant ships turning Amsterdam into a world-trade powerhouse. Indeed, one could credit the Dutch East India Company with introducing Europe to Asia and Africa, and vice versa.

Amsterdam's stock exchange, which began in the early 1600s, lays claim to being the world's oldest. The dramatic increase in trade helped bring about cultural advances; in the mid-17th century, there were 100 publishers in Amsterdam and an amazing 400 bookshops.

Liberalism can be seen in the paintings of golden-era Amsterdam artists; they did portraits not of kings and popes but of herring wholesalers and flax merchants. Most famous of the artists was Rembrandt, whose work is seen to be characterized by individualism.

The French philosopher René Descartes called Amsterdam home for a while -- his ideas led to the enlightened concept of democracy. And there was Spinoza, who advocated the separation of politics and religion and said "democracy is of all forms of government the most natural and most consonant with individual liberty."

This notion was reinforced by English philosopher John Locke, whose influence greatly increased after he moved to Amsterdam. That influence extended to Thomas Jefferson's writing of the American Declaration of Independence.

Amsterdam was also the home of Aletta Jacobs, who in the 19th century became one of the first female medical doctors in the world. She was a pioneer in contraception and in the fight for women's rights.

The Netherlands managed to stay out of the First World War, and Amsterdam hosted the 1928 Summer Olympics. But Nazi invasion in 1940 forced the country into the Second World War.

Amsterdam's large Jewish population was threatened and ultimately decimated. Most famous of the city's civilians was the teenage Anne Frank, whose diary written during Nazi occupation was found in 1946 and published a year later; over 31 million copies have been sold worldwide.

Amsterdam's liberalism made it a mecca for hippies (the "counterculture") in the 1960s, culminating in John Lennon and Yoko Ono's weeklong "bed-in for peace" at the Amsterdam Hilton in 1969.

Amsterdam continues to be renowned for its quality of life. Two examples: its distinctive townhouse architecture and what is "probably the most sophisticated urban bicycle system in the world."


Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer whose latest novel is called Dating.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2014 G5


Updated on Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 8:12 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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