I chose Amsterdam as the main setting in my Nederlander series, because I love the city.
I’m reading a fascinating non-fiction book, Amsterdam, by Russell Shorto, a history of the world’s most liberal city, and I thought I’d share a bit about it today.
Shorto looks beneath the picture-book beauty of the city into it’s rich history which formed the roots of our liberal western civilization.
“Amsterdam is the same size as Columbus, Ohio (that is to say, modest, at 800,000 inhabitants), and it lies on the same latitude as Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (that is to say, remote), yet it has influenced the modern world to a degree that perhaps no other city has, and its imprint on the United States in particular goes to the core of the American identity.
…Amsterdam is famous for one thing (besides canals, and cannabis cafes, and prostitutes): the tattered ancient, much-misunderstood word liberalism. Amsterdam is, by most accounts, the most liberal place on earth.” (Russell Shorto, Amsterdam, Doubleday, New York, 2013, p. 16)
But “liberalism” is not an easy concept. It’s a term that’s had many connotations through the years, so the book is also a study of the roots and meaning of liberalism.
“Historically, then, liberalism involves a commitment to individual freedom and individual rights, and not just for oneself but for everyone, every human being who breathes the air. And liberalism’s roots are intertwined with those of Amsterdam. ” (Russell Shorto, p. 18)
“…ideas have histories and origins; they are embedded in people and their struggles, their bodies, their physical or emotional turmoail, their hunger for new fashions and flavors, their yearnings to be free from whatever they may feel bound by.
“…a remarkable number of forces came together in Amsterdam in the century or so beginning int he late 1500s that would spawn a new way of thinking about people and their relationship to one another and to the state. The story of the city’s golden age is one history’s classics, on the same level of vividness and import as the story of the American Civil War or the classical period of ancient Greece. The city’s rise was so sudden it startled even those living through it. The elements and individuals that constituted it are iconic, but more than that they are linked: there are natural tendons connecting the founding of the world’s first stock market, the development of secular art with Rembrandt and his contemporaries, the crafting of a ground breaking official policy of tolerance, the fostering of an atmosphere of intellectual freedom that brought thinkers from all over Europe and that created the world’s most dynamic publishing center, and the physical transformation of the city: the digging of Amsterdam’s famous canals.
“Underlying all these various breakthroughs–conceptual or physical–is the unleashing of the individual…” (p. 19)
I’m looking forward to reading more of this book.