When Englishman Ben Coates moved to Holland* he began making a list of ‘Crazy Dutch Liberal Policies’. He soon gave up because there were just too many of them to count: ready availability of cannabis and euthanasia, prostitutes given sick pay, moped riders without helmets, lots of nudist beaches, and so on…Why The Dutch Are Different sets out to examine how the country has come to be so open-minded. Coates’ technique is to intersperse a page-and-a-half, say, of his own experience (enjoying a chilly river trip, following a demo, waiting in a crowd of children for Sinterklass – more of him later – to appear) with a similar length passage on wider issues (Dutch history, politics and culture, essentially), and to keep flipping between the two. It is an unimaginative approach, but works for many of his chosen subjects: his chapter on the Dutch ‘Golden Age’, cut with his thoughts on a tour of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, is particularly revealing and informative, for example. However, his reflections on the international influence and intrigues of Dutch football, while watching a match, don’t add up to much more than a cut-and-paste trawl of the life of Johan Cruyff. Back to Sinterklass: a sort of Father Christmas who looks like a bishop, he has a little helper, Zwarte Piet. Nothing so very remarkable about this – except that Black Pete allows Coates’ liberal Dutch friends and their children to ‘black up’ and wear afro wigs – and not think anything of it. Coates is amazed by this but finds it is not up for discussion. Even the Dutch find some things off limits – in this case, the racist implications of blackface are ignored or denied. (Interestingly, the other thing you can’t say anything negative about is divisive politician Pim Fortuyn, murdered in 2002). Coates is quite good on the challenges of multiculturalism and his general conclusion is that the Dutch think their liberality has tipped too far, in an era of mass immigration and economic stagnation. It may not be quite as simple as that: Coates is a former Tory lobbyist so knows a bit about the art of persuasion.
*Holland or Netherlands? Don’t worry – even the Dutch appear to use them interchangeably