Reflection Square 2

Those maverick Dutch and their annoying common sense

Part 2

Last month we reviewed some of the ways in which the people of the Netherlands have coped over the centuries with three of the major challenges to their security and comfort: the threatening sea, the harsh climate, and the - at times - intimidating neighbors.

In this concluding part we examine some other aspects of life in the Netherlands that demonstrate or contribute to their practical, problem-solving mindset. And we look at areas where the 'Dutch touch' has been less successful.

The Dutch apparently abhor noise. Announcements on public transport and other public places are kept to a minimum, and there are no blaring loudspeakers at tourist spots to guide visitors, or shouting hawkers in front of stores to entice customers. Background music in café's and restaurants is fairly common but you certainly won't be greeted with the loud cries of Welcome! or Thank you! customary in Japan. The use of cell phones is permitted on public transport (except in the 'silence compartments' of the trains) but you are expected to do so without irritating others – a 'rule' that is frequently 'bent.'

A well-polished doorknob on
an Amsterdam canal house

Cleanliness and neatness are proverbial Dutch traits, though you might not see much evidence of it in the big cities where graffiti, dog droppings and careless littering are constant problems. Away from the cosmopolitan population centers the picture is very different. People living in the smaller towns and villages still mind 'what the neighbors think' and are proud to keep their front porches well swept.

The country is largely free from corruption in politics and the bureaucracy. The Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International ranks the Netherlands among the seven countries with the least corruption, along with New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland and three Scandinavian nations (Japan ranks 17th, on a par with the US and the UK). In the Dutch case, this circumstance is probably due to the generally limited role - and expectation - of 'authority' compared to countries where authority reigns supreme and greasing officials' palms is a way of life. Personal accountability is high, making it hard to hide behind group-based mores or claims of 'usual practice.'

It is rare to see beggars or homeless persons on Holland's streets. (Those that one does come across often are drunks or drug addicts.) This is no doubt due to the country's long-established comprehensive social security system for virtually all legal citizens. The safety net covers not only fulltime employees but also those working part-time or under temporary contract. There has been, and still is, a problem with squatting - the occupation of an empty building (or part of it) and using it as residence. Until recently this was legal in principle, but as of June 2010 it has been banned by law.

A flower-bedecked bicycle in Amsterdam

Holland is known for its widespread use of bicycles for commuting, shopping and recreation. Even the well-to-do will often leave their luxury cars at home to get some healthy exercise and exposure to nature on their bikes, a habit that may well have helped the Dutch to become the world's tallest race (average height 182.9 cm). Bike lanes and parking facilities are ubiquitous, and you can also take your bicycle on the train.

Generally healthy eating habits with plenty of homegrown fruits and vegetables, dairy products and fish, and the growing availability of organic foods - now also in the major supermarkets - may be another reason for the relative wellbeing of the Dutch, as must be their predominantly positive attitude to life. Visitors sometimes find the portions served too large, but they apparently suit the strapping Dutch. And while obesity in Holland is a growing problem, at around 10% it is still in the lower ranks of developed nations. (The US leads the pack at 30%, while in small-portions Japan only about 3% of the people are classified as obese).

The Dutch even have an original approach to sport. They invented what became known as Total Football, where a player who moves out of position is replaced by another member of the team, thus retaining the team's intended organizational structure. In this fluid system, no player is fixed in a nominal role; anyone can be successively an attacker, a midfielder and a defender. The only player fixed in a nominal position is the goalkeeper. Total Football didn't gain them the World Cup, but it surely attracted a lot of attention!

Can't the Dutch do anything wrong then?

So far, it's all good news. But what if any are the drawbacks of the Dutch way?

There are several. The fiercely protected democratic rights and think-for-yourself tradition complicates Dutch politics, which is marked by a large number of parliamentary parties - eleven at present. On account of the proportional representational system of voting, no one party ever garners enough votes to rule the country by itself. Coalition politics - a novelty in Britain - has been the Dutch way for decades, and this frequently results in extensive horse-trading before decisions are reached.

Rijksmuseum Amsterdam:
protracted renovation

Even outside politics, the Dutch tradition of allowing 'inspraak' (participation in decision-making) does at times cause interminable delays. A glaring example of inspraak gone mad is the ongoing logjam of competing interests in the renovation of Amsterdam's famous Rijksmuseum, as illustrated in a 2008 documentary that earned international acclaim. The renovation, approved in 1999, is not expected to be completed until 2013.

A more serious consequence of the assumption of self-reliance is the unfortunate observance of a multicultural approach to immigration. Along with several other European nations, the 'guest workers' from mostly Turkey and North Africa were originally hired on the assumption that they would go home after completing their contracts. Assimilation was therefore not an issue.

When most of the workers stayed on and brought their families, they became immigrants and naturalized Dutch citizens. Yet government policy was not adjusted to reflect this changed reality. Political correctness and traditional Dutch tolerance combined to continue the principle of multiculturalism, with the result that the country now harbors several large minorities of non-Dutch descent whose values differ significantly from those of the native Dutch. This has led to increasing strains in society which, combined with the effects of the ongoing economic recession, have boosted the ranks of right-wing, anti-immigrant (read: anti-Moslem) voters. Their political power has grown to the point where for the foreseeable future no government will be able to function effectively without taking their views into account.

Summing up

In all their diversity the Dutch appear to be a well-adjusted people. Problems are aired, not suppressed. Common sense rules the day, not ideology or religion, and government powers are limited. The rule of law is well-established: Holland and Sweden ranked high in a recent report by the World Justice Project which measures such matters as clarity of law and accountability of officials under the law. Wealth is shared, through the social welfare system, and people also look after each other. National pride is implicit, not flaunted. The Dutch see themselves as both individualists and internationalists. The aftermath of the failed multi-cultural approach to immigration presents a serious challenge to Dutch society and government. It is to be hoped that solutions will be sought through gradual integration, not exclusion.

'Heb je geen paard, gebruik dan een ezel' is an old Dutch proverb. (If you don't have a horse, then use a donkey.) It reveals the Dutch belief that there always is a way.

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© 2010 Hans Brinckmann