The Dutch way of managing the unmanageable; Conformist Nonchalance
Marc Chavannes: Marc Chavannes has been NRC
Handelsblad's Paris correspondent since 1993. He was London
correspondent from '83 to '87.
For that, clearly, is the result of the Netherlands' chronic lack of international newsworthiness: only those facts that seem to confirm an existing prejudice have any chance of making the foreign media. The stereotype in question is the Netherlands' seemingly casual tolerance of experiments with the trio of drugs, abortion and euthanasia. What the Netherlands does in these cases, to the dismay of many, is gedogen. It is no coincidence that this word is untranslatable. What it really comes down to is that the Dutch consciously allow what is officially prohibited. The point being that these things are generally prohibited elsewhere as well, but that they happen there regardless, unsupervised.
A quick search of the World Wide Web allows us to refine the image of the Netherlands as the Mecca of gedogen. Abortion is clearly less of an issue than it was in the seventies and eighties. In any case, the Netherlands no longer leads the way. UN statistics show that the Netherlands has the lowest abortion rate of a number of industrialised states: 98.5 per 1000 births, compared to 214.6 in France, 225.1 in the UK and 337.9 in the US.
In the US, the search phrase gedogen takes us to the Seattle Times and 'The slippery slope in a flat land of tulips'. It refers to 'Holland, the acknowledged world leader in euthanasia'. It claims that 900 to 1,000 people are 'helped to die' against their will every year, and that more than half of all deaths are euthanasia cases. Shock, horror - and no hint of further investigation. A distant cliché is safer than a more refined truth closer to home.
French search engines invariably respond to the phrase gedogen by producing articles on Dutch drugs policy. The French correspondents in the Netherlands ably complement their president's soundbites. The editorial and letters pages are particularly susceptible to radical simplifications of reality. Their solutions to the drugs problem generally depend on an absolute faith in prohibition, a logical translation of the French fascination with authority. Gedogen is anathema, but as much if not more is 'overlooked' in France, which has significantly higher proportions of drug addicts and AIDS deaths.
On the question of tolerance, the British take an intermediate position, also when it comes to drugs policy. The Economist made gleeful use of the word gedogen on 12 October 1996 to explain the twists and turns of the Dutch policy. It recently emerged that research into medicinal uses for cannabis could only legally be carried out in Britain, albeit with seeds imported from the Netherlands, the world leader in cannabis production. The British had been pragmatic enough to license such research, whereas the Dutch authorities had become cautious and refused.
Then again, the English would never go so far as to design custom street furniture for the prostitution industry. In the Netherlands, these public permissiveness zones are unlikely to cause any great public out-rage, if only due to the fact that they have been given a practical, rather technical name: afwerkplek, another untranslatable term meaning something like 'fixing spot' or 'finishing room'. In fact, they're even made in two shapes and sizes, depending on whether the customer has taken the car or the bicycle to come looking for lust.
Call it prudish or prudent, the fact is that this type of realism is a bridge too far for the British. While gedogen in the Netherlands is simply a way of regulating public impotence, the British have taken their society to task. Not by organising more symbols, but by abolishing laws and civil servants. The all-powerful state was a thing of the past, a fiction exploited for too many years, and do-it-yourself was the new creed. The newly-elected Labour Party has seen no reason to disagree. The core of Thatcherite rhetoric turns out to have convinced not just the Conservatives. Last week, the socialist Education Secretary proudly announced how many businesses had invested in improving quality in education. Eighties' right-wing slogans be-come nineties' left-wing reality. Or is it simply the British way of keeping the unacceptable acceptable, in this case the poor quality of state education?
Each nation has its own need for self-respect. Over the centuries, rational strategies have been devised to keep the unmanageable pronounceable, formulas to maintain the fiction of law and order. The methods are no secret, but one can choose to ignore them. Those who exercise or seek to exercise power generally have a vested interest in pretending that everything is under control, and that is why it really is a pity that the international media pay so little attention to the Netherlands.
One of the characteristics that the would-be virtuous Dutch admire most in themselves is their penchant for openness. They even leave the curtains open in the evening. No need for secrecy, even in 'how we deal with dilemmas'. Wrestling with the drugs problem has become a national psychoanalysis session. 'Really tricky, banned by international treaties and so under Dutch law, but we don't really believe in banning things that are going to happen anyway, we want to stop people switching from soft drugs to hard drugs. OK, so we'll just gedogen the sale and personal use of soft drugs, but not the trade in it.'
Officials smile modestly. Critics prefer the word hypocrisy: no sale without trade. But the national consensus remains: 'Public health is more important than being macho and not solving anything. We don't live on an island, so we can't legalise soft drugs, let alone hard drugs. Then again, we don't want the French and German politicians to come and lecture us every time they have an election year.'
'Some countries are corrupt, others have a proper Mafia, the Netherlands has gedogen', the sociologist Hans Adriaansens wrote in the Utrecht University newsletter. National sins come in all shapes and sizes, but it would be overly simplistic to see gedogen as a typically Dutch national weakness, without putting the alternatives into perspective. The alternative to Mafia is no Mafia. The alternative to corruption is honesty. The alternative to gedogen is making tough, just laws and seeing to it that they are strictly adhered to.
Almost no country on earth can manage that. Two weeks ago, the French parliament passed a law extending the hunting season for migratory birds and waterfowl by almost two months over and above a EU directive. The purpose of the directive is to give the creatures a chance to breed, and so to make sure that there are enough to shoot next year. Nevertheless, the Greens were the only ones to vote against the law. All the other deputies gave in to the narrow-minded nationalistic lobby of 'Chasse, Pêche, Nature et Tradi-tion'.
After years of gedogen, France has resorted to legalising a practice which continues to contravene European law. According to Newsweek (22 June 1998), 'We don't think that France is a nightmare; we just think that it should be more like Holland'. If they really mean that, they have drastically underestimated European countries' need for territorially defined symbols of nation-al identity. Following this American advice is the last thing France wants to do, for the simple reason that actual differences are becoming increasingly hard to find.
'Gedogen is delayed toughness and therefore a politics of evasion and cowar- dice', wrote H.J.A. Hofland in this newspaper on 8 October 1997. He was referring to the ongoing discussions about Schiphol, the national airport and currently the country's most important conflict zone. Schiphol is growing so rapidly that noise pollution affects millions of people. Luckily for them, noise pollution limits have become increasingly strict over the years. But then again, the Dutch can't afford to let their airport lose ground to competitors by refusing to let it grow. They don't want that, and a new policy of gedogen is born.
Meanwhile, many of the areas in which the Netherlands enjoyed an international reputation for tolerance have witnessed a backlash of one sort or another. Local residents have complained about prostitution often enough for local authorities in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and other cities to force it increasingly into narrowly defined zones of gedogen: small bits of no man's land where the authorities' deliberate tolerance is just about tolerated by the local population. People are increasingly militant about the negative impact of the drugs trade and casual street violence. Politi- cians talk about 'zero tolerance' and sit back, confident that they have adequately caught the public mood.
All the stories about Dutch tolerance had to be taken with a grain of salt anyway. One thing is certain: the Dutch have always had to be inventive, confronted as they were with the task of completing the Creation in a land of wind and water but very few natural comforts. Add to that the fact that the Dutch are born with a quasi-sentimental ideal of resistance (against Spanish, French and German oppressors) and the fact that everyone believes in a slightly different God, and the choice is clear. Accept chaos or forge compromises until everyone is blue in the face. The latter solution has become second nature.
No wonder that the façade of tolerance so often conceals a reality of indifference. It never becomes excessive, however, because the natural inclination to conform is so great. That's a disadvantage if you care about originality and individualism, but it's extremely effective in terms of organisation. At the end of the eighties, a number of people read somewhere that checked trousers made you look cheerful and relaxed. Within months, several hundred thousand Dutch men between the ages of 30 and 65 had become proud owners of checked leisurewear trousers. Conformist nonchalance allows us to manage the unmanageable in that overcrowded experiment called the Netherlands.
Each country has its own tricks for dealing with public impotence. Let us hope that gedogen does not suffer the same fate as apartheid, for tolerance is something to be treasured. Sometimes it results from principle but more often it is simply the only viable solution that doesn't unduly delay normal business. The Dutch have always been a practical people. After all, they even tolerate Chirac.
Infographics: 1. Income: The regions with a high population density are also the richest, with the exception of cities like Rotterdam and Amsterdam, which suffer from a lack of development in nineteenth-century and post-war neighbourhoods. The central government now attempts to target inner cities areas with focussed subsidies and specific policy; 2. Population density: Population density in the Netherlands is by far the highest in Europe. Most people live in the major cities (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht), in the coastal area, along the Meuse in Limburg and in the province of Noord Brabant; 3. Agriculture: Except for the coastal regions and the Veluwe, the Netherlands has no major nature reserves. In most municipalities, more than 75 percent of the land is used for agriculture. The rest is mostly used for housing, industry and infrastructure; 4. Below sea level: Most of the Dutch live below sea level. The Neth-erlands is well known for its constant battle with the sea. After the 1953 floods, which left large parts of Zeeland and Zuid-Holland submerged and thousands of people dead, the government began a public works program designed to secure those parts of the country most at risk. This program, the Delta Works, was completed last year with a large water barrier in the New Waterway; 5. Waterways; 6. Motorways; 7. Railways: The Dutch government likes to stress the importance of the Netherlands as a hub for international transport. The port of Rotterdam and Amsterdam Airport are seen as the main pillars of the economy.