Thoughts on the Netherlands, freedom, and social control

Travel is always good for one’s perspective. You see the world, and your own life, anew. My recent travels to the Netherlands (and Iceland) did just that.

The Netherlands is small, resolved, and involved in the grand experiment of controlling and mastering the environment.

There are new cities, recently constructed on reclaimed sea land, that attempt to create an optimum living environment for relatively high-density human population — new downtowns that are, essentially, outdoor malls, but with the aesthetic awareness that uses textures and angles and colors to break up the geometric, hard edged monotony of contemporary urban life; small touches like sidewalk trash receptacles that drop their contents to a central waste location for collection and periodically “flush” themselves; planned communities of modern row houses set among large expanses of forest and green space.

There are massive engineering projects, like the movable sea wall that closes off the Rotterdam harbor with two great gates that are meant to keep out a devastating storm surge, and there are the smaller, everyday realities like a culture of bicyclists who take their road behavior as seriously as we freeway drivers in the States take ours (I know; I got chastised by a woman for taking a casual left turn that caused a chain-reaction stoppage of other bicyclists who were traveling swiftly and intently behind me).

In short, it is a society with an overall vision of what constitutes the civic good, and a tolerance for individual behavior so long as it does not contradict that civic good. But there are severe penalties for violation of expected civic norms, like improper carrying of passengers in the cargo area of a van, or scofflaw attempts to ride public transportation without paying.

It is a real contrast to our contemporary American experience, where the legislation of morality is paramount, but civic freedom is considered sacrosanct. We can drive around talking on cell phones, weaving in and out of traffic, in cars that have are never inspected on tires that can be in any condition; we can recycle if we want to, pretty much build where and how we want to, throw up franchises and strip malls with no regard for traffic patterns or the aesthetic effect on the environment. About the only place where the civic good is seen as more important than individual freedom is in our newfound commitment to stopping smoking in public places. Otherwise, personal rights dominate over public responsibility in almost every situation. Attempts to change things in this regard bring forth frantic cries of “Nazi Germany” and “Social engineering,” while the real movement toward Nazi Germany is taking place in the usurpation of our freedom to live unobserved and unscrutinized by phantom elements of our ominously secretive current governmental regime.

It saddens me to see the direction my country is going, and it enlightens me to see what is taking place in the countries of others. The Netherlands has its problems, but at least governmental intrusion into people’s politics and bedrooms is not among them.

I am, as always, proud to be an American, but it is because our country is so large, so full of potential and optimism, and so rawboned and welcoming of new ideas and new ways to see the world. If we would continue to be the great country we are, we should continue to celebrate these virtues and look more at how other people live their lives and how they have confronted the challenges and opportunities that their particular environment provides them.

That would allow us to stay great — not photographing and fingerprinting every tired foreigner who comes through our airports on their way to see the country that they have been told is “the land of the free.” But that is a story for the next post. Stay tuned.

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