Analysis Experiences

Is Amsterdam Tolerant?


I have a superpower. This spring break, I discovered that I can land a plane using only my mind.

You see, my classmates and I had joined Dr. Doyle on a trip to Amsterdam as part of his class, HIST 3317 (From Persecution to Affirmation: Sexual Minorities and Human Rights). Let’s be frank: more than the Richter Fellowships or the extra scribble on our diploma, the biggest draw to the Honors Program is the free class trips. Ours took us to the capital of liberalism and tolerance: Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

The Bulldog, established in an aging canal house a block from Amsterdam’s Old Church in the Red Light District, prides itself as being the city’s first coffeeshop. From it—and many others—wafts the hazy reek of pot smoke that lingers in the air along the city’s winsome canals. See, a distinction arose last century between cafés and coffeeshops. Cafés could serve alcohol (which flows nearly as freely as Amsterdam’s canals), so regulators and scrutinizers trained their eyes on them. Coffeeshops, in the meantime, developed in the shadows and became hotspots for hotboxing.

Cannabis isn’t legal in Amsterdam, despite popular belief. Instead, it’s bound by a Dutch cultural notion called gedogen which just barely translates into English as “tolerance,” only because it’s more concise than, “We don’t like this, and we’re looking the other way.” Nobody but tour guides really talks about the cannabis or the prostitution—both of which are only enjoyed by tourists anyway. A police officer who catches you carrying a bit of cannabis won’t reproach you, and honors students who returned to our room high as kites would never be rebuked, but there’s a darker side to gedogen: prostitutes, performing perfectly legitimate work, will often be laughed out of banks when asking for loans. As one former prostitute told our class, nobody puts prostitution on their résumé.

The environs of The Bulldog, stretching south from the Oudekerksplein, are Amsterdam’s largest red light district. A few splinters are scattered elsewhere, but along De Wallen, women in scant, exotic dress look to meet the gaze of more pleasant clients. I had the pleasure of tasting a former prostitute’s apple tart as she led us around the area, showing the window where she worked as a teenager, hoping to buy herself a puppy. Mariska Majoor, now out of the profession, runs the Prostitute Information Center (PIC), which advocates for the rights and dignity of Amsterdam’s prostitutes. Mariska fears that the municipal effort to shutter the ruby-lit windows will push prostitutes from the safety of their private rooms—furnished with sinks and panic buttons, and protected by sturdy doors—toward vulnerability on the streets.

The plight of prostitutes and the city’s refusal to allow new coffeeshops shows the fragility of gedogen. The class heard more about this in Rotterdam, where we met Jamaican, Iraqi and Egyptian refugees persecuted for their homosexuality. There’s a strong sense of self–versus–other in the Netherlands. Cultural and ethnic groups (the country has all but banned the word “racial” because of its association with the Nazi regime that caused the country a still-open wound in World War II) live in relative isolation, which pushes the gedogen notion from mutual tolerance to mutual endurance.

Yes, the Netherlands’ prominence in human rights is crowned by the Hague: the nation’s seat of government (Amsterdam is the nominal capital, as provided by the Dutch constitution) and the Peace Palace, a post-WWII international endeavor to prevent the need for future conflict. (My, didn’t that work well?) The Peace Palace houses the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the International Court of Justice, an opt-in organization and the judicial branch of the UN. The US shied away from its involvement the ICJ in 2005 after having lost two cases for failing to observe international consular access laws.

The trip to the Netherlands illuminated so many issues that are often understated: the line between tolerance and endurance, propriety and fairness, the enduring legacy of war, and the United States’ rejection of international justice. But didn’t I promise you the story of my superpower? I discovered it on the return flight. The left hemisphere of my brain erupted into the most debilitating pain in my life. The plane’s doctor, portly and stretching a blue St. Andrews T-shirt to its limit, told me that there was a 99% chance that I was fine, but a 1% that it was something serous, so he’d already asked the pilot to drop the kerosene and land in the nearest airport. Dr. Doyle, ever precious, stayed with me as I was afforded the dignity to walk off the plane, rather than lying in the stretcher the paramedics had bought. We made an unplanned trip and spent the night in Shannon, Ireland after having halted a transatlantic flight over an aneurysm that never came into fruition.

This article was written by Arya McCarthy. Click here to see more of Arya’s work.