An era of liberal backlash
Over the past half year, the Dutch government has reduced the number of legal prostitution businesses in the Red Light District. Amsterdam city officials see their duty to deliver their city from sleaze, even as they scrap a 100-million euro business. The official line is the concern over human trafficking and illegitimate operations linked to prostitution. But skeptics see the sudden enthusiasm for gentrifying Amsterdam as nothing more than greed, where the city is buying up real estate with public fund, and will most likely make some good money by selling or leasing out properties later.
The moral crusade is spreading, where talks of preventing soft drug sales to tourists and limiting the consumption of such to locals has turned into reality. It looks like the whole drug-tourism trend will come to a quiet close in the Netherlands, supposedly putting an end to drug-related crimes, including smuggling and trafficking.
It is interesting to ponder why the Dutch adopted the legalization of pot in the first place in the 1970s. That was the time when heroin was fast becoming the hard drug of choice in the underground scene. And the legalization of soft drugs was introduced to separate the legal soft drugs market, and the illegal, hardcore drugs market. It then allowed the government to regulate, and, effectively, tax, the soft drug market. Similarly, prostitution was legalized so the government could more effectively monitor, and control the entire trade. To put it cynically, government became the ultimate pimp.
Prostitution and the “red light district” in Utrecht
The red light district area in Utrecht is one of the most interesting ones I’ve seen all across the Netherlands. In small towns, it’s not uncommon to see a turn off a regional highway, where a number of parking stalls are set up for quickies with some ladies of the night picked up close by. In Amsterdam, the infamous district is full of tourists and gawkers. But in Utrecht, it is most definitely open for some real business.
The area is more or less embedded in a residential district, across the street from a Home Depot-like hardware store. If it’s not for the scores of cars lining up to get in on a Friday night, the cul-de-sac that leads you into the area is totally unremarkable. If you follow the slow succession of cars along a two-way round-about, you will be confronted with a number of houseboats lined up along the canal, each displaying a working girl in scantily-clad lingerie. The working ones will have the curtains closed. Otherwise, they are sitting on a stool, facing the street and the streaming cars and potential clients, chewing gum, smoking a cigarette, filing their nails or talking on a cellphone.
The side of the street across from the water is lined up with parking spaces. A client that spots someone he likes can easily park the vehicle, walk over to the houseboats and negotiate. A few musclemen scatter along the street with ear pieces, whom will doubtlessly throw you out should anything happen to their assets.
The entire experience of cruising along a scenic canal, complete with prostitutes, is bizarre. Not because it’s so extraordinary, but because is so ordinary, organized, and sterilized. Check out the canal, boats, and steady traffic below.
On having your opinion and know when to shut up
To me, the power-that-be high above is fair. What it gives with one hand, it takes away with anther. The Dutch are gifted with the expectation to think for themselves, but without the dose of modesty that dictates when such privileges should be indulged upon, and when it should be curtailed. It is blessed with the live-and-let-live liberalism reminiscent of its history, but at the same time constrained by conformity extended through cultural or government control.
This is readily apparent in school, where students are admitted to the university program of their choice, regardless of ability. This may very well explain, in part, why a 4-year bachelor degree can drag on for a decade at times. In classrooms, one may have to endure debate and discussions that move with circular logic and little insight, postulated by eager participants that may or may not have read the materials discussed on hand. All the while, teachers will stand idly by, nodding thoughtfully at arguments that do little to facilitate and stimulate subject depth, possibly thinking about their grocery lists. Because after all, everyone’s entitled to their opinions, right?
In the workplace, most expatriate managers have all grimaced and suffered at the hand of their opinionated Dutch subordinates and colleagues. Every minute decision must be consulted by all levels of the department or organization, which means the Dutch workplace, even more than usual, is mired in meeting after meeting. It is most definitely not kosher to say something along the lines of “it has been decided” or anything resembling “just do it”. Rest assured that every detail will be subjected to some kind of prolonged debate before a watered-down solution is proposed to placate all.
Putting this into the context of social affairs, this fervent belief in individualism means nobody will mind your business. In times of religious prosecution and division, this ensured peaceful co-existence. And in contrast with the preachy and moralizing Americans, the Dutch insist upon the idea of tolerance by conveniently confusing the concepts of “getting along” with brutal indifference. It’s just as well, the quarrelsome Dutch, each entitled to his or her opinion regardless of merit, may find this look-the-other-way approach the only feasible path to co-existence.
In recent years however, facing widely perceived failure in integrating its Muslim immigrants, the government is taking more and more matters of individual religion and social practices into its hand. This may seem contradictory to the Dutch’s live-and-let-live mentality, but behind the light veil of Calvinist individuality, a deep undercurrent of conformity rules and unites Dutch society. For all the “freedom” enjoyed by the Dutch, it is countered and neutralized by high social expectations, and government interference in all aspects of one’s personal and financial life too numerous to count on this particular blog post.