DIARY OF A JOURNEY THROUGH EUROPE (Part III)
by Theodore Dalrymple (Feb 2006)
We cross into Holland from Germany, but the only way of recognising when we have done so is the change in advertisements from German to Dutch. Nothing else marks the border: no flags, no border posts, no signs bidding us welcome to the country.
I feel ambivalent about this. (Is ambivalence permitted in the modern world?) On the one hand, the lack of borders is convenient to travellers, while on the other it removes the savour of travel. It makes you feel that you have neither departed nor arrived. And while the absence of officially-held and sponsored nationalism is welcome, after all the devastation that it caused in the Twentieth Century, it might also betoken a lack of pride or patriotism that renders a country, and the entire civilisation it embodies, vulnerable to or defenceless against its enemies. If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else believe in you?
Excessive national pride is unattractive, of course, for it dishonestly conceals alike the virtues of others and one’s own vices; but an absence of national pride has the opposite effect, with equal dishonesty concealing one’s own virtues and the vices of others. As in all things, a balance is required. This is an uninteresting conclusion, perhaps, but - as Bertrand Russell once said - there is no reason why the truth, when found, should be interesting.
Besides, there is a curious paradox in the anti-patriotic doctrine of multiculturalism. Those who most celebrate cultural difference, at least in the abstract, are unwilling to defend any cultural aspect of themselves in which they might differ from people of another culture. It is as if they wanted to dissolve their identity - which, of course, they hate - in a kind of great cultural soup which will, in the end, render everyone the same. What starts out as the celebration of difference ends up as the imposition of uniformity. And I am sure that when multiculturalists talk, they are thinking of fusion cooking.
Our destination is Amsterdam, where I am to talk briefly at a conference. It is not easy to say where Amsterdam begins and ends - as a Dutchman once said to me, Holland is virtually a city state, where open spaces are parks rather than countryside. Certainly in the south of the country you are never out of sight of towns and cities. Yet in the spaces between them, Dutch agriculture and horticulture are probably the most productive in the world. Large areas of the country are under polystyrene; they purvey generally anaemic and tasteless tomatoes and strawberries to the rest of Europe, often at strange times of the year. Artificial heating and lighting, chemicals and the supply chain have abolished seasons as far as fruit and vegetables are concerned. There is a time and place for everything, and the time and place for everything is here and now.
I can’t make up my mind whether this represents a triumph of human ingenuity or a loss of pleasure in the rhythm of life: or, of course, both. Certainly, no child will any longer greet the arrival of the strawberry and raspberry seasons with the intense and palpitating excitement that I experienced as a child. On the other hand, when I see Chilean raspberries for sale in the middle of December, I can’t resist them.
Who cannot admire the architecture of Amsterdam? It is grand and elegant on the one hand, but on a completely human scale on the other. We stay at an intimate but luxurious hotel on the Heerengracht, facing the canal along which the domestic vernacular architecture must surely be among the most beautiful ever devised anywhere in the world. Unlike so many modern architects, the builders of these houses were not inviting the passer-by to recognise their originality, but creating urban harmony. The expression of their egos were subdued by a larger purpose, rather than the other way round. No doubt that is one of the great advantages of a religious compared with a secular temperament.
Of course, seventeenth century Amsterdam was not built with the motor car in mind. In the centre of the city, along the canals, you can easily find yourself stuck behind an unloading van or truck for half an hour, unable to go forward or back. This is one of the prices you have to pay for the perpetual availability of everything everywhere. And then, when finally you find a parking space, the bureaucrats get you: you have to pay Euros 13.80 for the parking meter, neither more nor less, no change given and no other amount accepted, with immediate wheel-clamping in operation if you don’t pay (The car next to ours was clamped). But who goes around with Euros 13.80, exactly, in coins? Surely only a bureaucrat, sitting in an office with nothing to do but devise tortures at a distance for the citizen, could ever have thought of such a sum.
Incidentally, the parking meters in Amsterdam accept credit cards, but only Dutch ones, proving that there are still limits to European integration. National sovereignty is not quite dead.
Sad to say, but the moment you leave the canals of Amsterdam, the population of the city, including a large number of foreign tourists (among whom the British are by far the worst) who have come because of the city’s reputation for relaxed licentiousness, do not present an attractive sight. They look like barbarians who have conquered a civilised city whose original inhabitants they have replaced after a general massacre. There is little by way of refinement to be seen, and everyone is dressed in an exaggeratedly casual way. Everyone is shopping - what on earth for? - and going in an out of stores that pump rock music into the atmosphere like poison gas. You - or at least I - want immediately to flee. Luckily, there are some excellent second-hand bookstores near my hotel, where I pick up an irresistible book entitled Dreiser in Russia, published in 1928. It ends with the unintentionally hilarious words:
Sleep well, Ilitch [ie Lenin], father of a new and
possibly - how shall we say? - world-altering force.
How fortunate, you, its chosen if martyred instrument.
How fortunate indeed.
The conference lasts all day and is open to the public who come to listen to our philosophising about the good society. Among the participants are two Parisian intellectuals who manage to convey the kind of ineffable superiority to everything around them that certain aristocrats once managed to convey, at least to Hollywood directors. My wife, who is French, says that they - the Parisian intellectuals - remind her of all that she left France, or rather Paris, to avoid.
There are some very distinguished people on the various panels, some world-famous, but the Dutch member of parliament of Somali origin, Hirsi Ali Hassan, who made the film Submission with Theo van Gogh, who is now under such threat of death that she cannot sleep two nights at the same location, and who is in the audience watched over by several bodyguards, asks a simple question that professors, thinkers and writers who have studied the matter all their lives cannot answer. ‘How,’ she asks, ‘do you extend your social solidarity to people who don’t want it?’
A tricky question, that, which a distinguished professor, looking shifty, answers with what a friend of mine calls verbal mashed potato. Hirsi Ali Hassan repeats the question, in the hope, I suppose, that the professor has misunderstood it and will now answer in words of less than seventeen syllables. In the end, of course, the question goes unanswered, at least in any intelligible way.
One of the things that the conference teaches me is that security services are fallible Sitting between Hirsi Ali Hassan and the crown prince of a European kingdom is a well-dressed middle-aged woman with a large bag. She looks the height of respectability and no one expresses any anxiety about her.
Near the end of the conference, she stands up to ask a question - or rather, make a speech. (It is a law of human nature that if you throw a panel discussion open to questions from the audience, at least half of the speakers from the floor will seize the opportunity to express an urgent opinion that has been buzzing about in their brain like a wasp in a jar, irrespective of whether it has anything to do with the matter in hand.) As soon as the unfortunate lady starts to speak, it is evident that she is quite mad. On reflection, her large, undisputed bag is large enough for several deadly weapons. She could have eliminated a crown prince and a member of parliament at one fell swoop, quicker than the hovering bodyguards could have got to her. It is rather disturbing.
What is the moral of this story? I hesitate to draw it.
I stay an extra day in Amsterdam because the Dutch Ministry of Justice has asked me to speak to its civil servants about the concept of criminal responsibility. It is in The Hague, and I am driven there in a black Mercedes which makes me feel very important. It is amazing how quickly you can lose touch with reality.
In the audience for the talk is the Dutch Minister of Immigration, Rita Vandonk, whom the French newspaper, Le Monde, describes as the most hated politician in Holland ie by far the most popular. I have never spoken to a minister before, at least in such a capacity.
My talk goes well, and the audience asks questions afterwards. It pains me to say it, because generally I disdain bureaucrats and officials, but the questions are highly intelligent, searching without being rude. I mentioned the riots in France in my talk, and one young official in the audience, of mixed race, tells me that he has a cousin in one of the banlieues where the rioting is taking place. This cousin’s car was burnt, but he told the young official by telephone that if all the car burning helps to improve the situation, then he doesn’t mind having lost his car. The young official asks for my comments.
I reply that the French insurance companies, no doubt having been leant on by the government, have agreed to pay compensation to those whose cars have been burnt - though legally-speaking, they wouldn’t have to because all insurance policies exclude civil disturbances as a grounds for compensation. If the insurance companies had not agreed, perhaps the cousin’s attitude would have been rather different.
I’m entirely convinced by my own answer. After all, the human mind is capable of infinite rationalisation. If the insurance companies had not agreed to pay compensation for burnt out cars, then no doubt the cousin would have blamed capitalist insurance companies for his loss rather than les jeunes who actually burnt his car.
After my talk, a very friendly official takes me round the ministry. He shows me one of the most famous windows in all Holland, that of the Minister of Immigration’s personal office. A chip was found in it, and it was assumed at first that the chip was caused by a would-be assassin’s bullet. Such is the state of fear in Holland now - compared with only a few years ago - that everyone automatically assumes the worst. Indeed, a pall of fear has settled over the whole country.
Forensic tests showed that the chip was caused by a stone, probably thrown up by a passing vehicle’s wheel. Still, who apart from a madman would have thought ten years ago that a Dutch minister’s life was in danger?
The official points out of another ministry window to a residential area nearby. He tells me that immigrants and descendents of immigrants live there. Many of them receive unemployment benefit, which they supplement by growing cannabis. Their unemployment benefit is perhaps Euros 1200 per month, supplemented by Euros 5000 per month for the cannabis. They are set up in the business by dealers, who immediately replace their equipment if they are raided by the police (and subsequently fined Euros 1000).
The Ministry of Justice’s dilemma is this: if it comes down heavily on the cannabis cultivation, or alternatively if the cultivation of cannabis is permitted and taken over either by commercial farmers or the state itself, the population of the area will resort to crime (I should perhaps say other, worse crime than growing cannabis). On the other hand, if it allows the present situation to continue, all incentive to work normally and legally - for, say, Euros 2000 per month - will be destroyed and the population permanently demoralised.
Ah, the dilemmas of liberalism: where would we be, what would we have to think about, without them?
Next day, we drive to Belgium, a very strange country.
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