Amsterdam as Cradle of Liberalism

By Iyer, Pico | International New York Times, January 2, 2014 | Go to article overview

Amsterdam as Cradle of Liberalism


Iyer, Pico, International New York Times


In "Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City," the author Russell Shorto explores the city that "has influenced the modern world to a degree that perhaps no other city has."

Amsterdam.A History of the World's Most Liberal City. By Russell Shorto. Illustrated. 357 pages. Doubleday. $28.95.

The Dutch in the 17th century, Russell Shorto informs us at a characteristic moment in "Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City," were on their way to becoming "the greatest shipping nation the world had ever seen." Amsterdam's canal ring was "the greatest urban feat of the age." In fact, Mr. Shorto says, Amsterdam more or less gave us the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Enlightenment and the stock exchange. The United East India Company, put together in Amsterdam, was "unique in world history," Mr. Shorto writes. It "remade the world." It inaugurated "the beginning of consumerism, which, for better or worse, is surely a component of liberalism."

Phew! That's a lot; many places might pay handsomely to receive such enthusiastic support. In 2004 Mr. Shorto gave us his often eye- opening book "The Island at the Center of the World," describing how the Dutch helped create New York; now he fills in the other side of the story and tries to show us that "liberalism was born" in Amsterdam, which "has influenced the modern world to a degree that perhaps no other city has." This in spite of the fact that liberalism, as Mr. Shorto admits, "is a diffuse concept" and carries "seemingly opposite meanings in the United States and in Europe." If liberalism means both right and left, making money and not doing so, individualism and communalism, it's perhaps no surprise that all roads in Amsterdam led to it.

The author's method in his new book is to take us on a very brisk tour across the highlights of Dutch history, from the Golden Age and tulips to the legalization of squatting in 1971, from Rembrandt and Spinoza to John and Yoko staging a bed-in at the Amsterdam Hilton. Much of this has little to do with Amsterdam or with liberalism, but no matter: One minute we're reading about the transformation of the herring industry, and four pages later about Martin Luther, whose theses "set off a tidal wave that rolled 400 miles due west and crashed head-on into the medieval town walls of Amsterdam."

So much has to be packed into so little space that quite often one is left with the feeling of ingesting an entire turkey with every mouthful. Charles V, we are told, "had fought off Ottoman encroachments, sailed the Mediterranean in swashbuckling campaigns to rid the sea of pirates, personally sent off Magellan, Cortes and Pizarro on their voyages, managed Spain's South American colonization, extended his dominion to the Dutch provinces, through Germany, and across Italy, and in pretty much every way worked to hold up the pillars of the medieval world order: monarchic power, domination by the Catholic Church, feudal land management, divine right, mercantile colonization and obedience to authority along the strict metaphysical lines of the great chain of being."

The effect, inevitably, is of an old-style documentary, at once sonorous and excitable, that someone has mistakenly set on fast forward. And the long sentences are not exactly Jamesian. In a single chapter we have scales falling from the eyes, "a chiseled visage" and "the glories and writhings of the individual. …

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