Life Among the Cloggies
The City of Amsterdam
By Tom Regan
Three couples linger in the elegant lobby. The men wear expensive wool suits, their white silk shirts open to the navel, the better to display the gold medallions on their gold chains. Two of the women wear fur coats that flow to ankle length; the third, a fur cut just below the knees. All three wear tight-fitting jeans, and each takes deep, random drags on their long, slender cigarettes. The couples talk animatedly, leaning suggestively into one another, the men whispering into the women’s ears, eliciting gentle laughter. Through the hotel’s revolving door a portly man enters with a buxom platinum blond half his age (he in black tux; she drenched in a long, silver fur). “No, no baggage. Just a room.”
“Of course,” the porter replies.
In the reading room next to the lobby a 20-something man sinks ever-lower into an overstuffed leather chair, slowly turning the pages of a magazine featuring full frontal nude photos of three teenage girls seductively posed beneath a bright red headline proclaiming “YOUNG. FREE. SHAMELESS.”
One thing’s for certain, Toto. We’re not in Kansas anymore. We’re not even in Fayetteville.
DUTCH NATIONAL CHARACTER
Unlike the legendary Atlantis, buried somewhere in the briny deep, the city of Amsterdam rose out of the water because a few good men thought they had a good idea. No one knows exactly when, but some time before the thirteenth century some fishermen decided to dam the Amstel River. Thus was born the city-on-the-dam-of-the-Amstel, what today we know as Amsterdam. Romulus and Remus probably had a better idea of Rome’s future than the anonymous dam builders had of the city they founded.
Amsterdam, Holland’s national capital, cannot be understood without understanding various features of Dutch national character. First and foremost is a collective commitment to individual freedom, a commitment with deep historical roots. When the papal armies of the Inquisition were going about their business of torturing and executing all those thought to be in the grip of heretical beliefs, non-Catholics looked for a safe haven. They found it in the Netherlands. Six centuries later, when Jews were no longer safe in Nazi Germany, many (as was true of Otto Frank and his family, including his famous daughter, Anne) emigrated to their neighbor to the west. When it comes to individual freedom, the Dutch park the autocratic rule of the church and the state at the curb.
“Social libertarianism” perhaps best describes the prevailing contemporary attitude. Far more than his English descendants, the Dutch have embraced the spirit of John Stuart Mill’s famous principle of liberty: People should be free to live as they choose so long as what they do does not wrongfully harm anyone else. In the words of Klaas de Vries, a Socialist Member of Parliament, Holland is “a self-regulatory society; it is not governed by speeches from above. We allow as many people as possible to be themselves. Some call that anarchy; we call it civilization.” Thus the famous Dutch acceptance of gays and lesbians; of legal prostitution and pornography; of legalized euthanasia and legalized drug use. A few days in Amsterdam have been known to test the limits of Americans who pride themselves on being “liberal.” Of all the cities in the western world, the city-on-the-dam-of-the-Amstel, where it is not the least bit unusual to find a sex shop located next door to a McDonalds, best exemplifies Pat Robertson’s idea of Hell.
The Dutch also have a keen sense of national history. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Holland’s Golden Age, this small country, approximately the size of the state of Maryland, was among the most powerful nations in the world, with Amsterdam home to both the Dutch West India Company and the Dutch East India Company. The buildings housing the original offices of the two companies have been preserved, as have the canals, bridges, mansions and simple houses dating from the Golden Age, a reminder of Holland’s past days of glory on the world stage. As an ad for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines boasts: “Most people only get to visit great works of art… The Dutch get to live in one.”
Holland is also a nation that boasts the painters Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Van Gogh; a nation in which Jews were granted full civil liberties as early as 1796; a nation that repulsed Napoleon’s conquest; a nation that remained steadfastly unaligned throughout the first World War and declared its neutrality during the second, only to have Hitler’s forces occupy it anyhow. The Dutch live and breathe their history and, with certain notable exceptions, take pride in it.
A final national character trait is discussion. The need to discuss ideas — any ideas — seems to coarse through the veins of every cloggy (a name inspired by clogs [wooden shoes], and used to refer to the Dutch collectively). When Vito Corleone asked Mafia Family Heads to “come, let us reason together,” he spoke like a true Dutchman. While it is an exaggeration to say that the Dutch would rather talk about ideas than actually do anything, they aren’t inclined to do something without first debating the options. Over. And over. And over. Case in point: it took the Dutch four centuries to agree on the design of the national flag which, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the same as the French tricolore, only turned sideways. More recently, in 1996 the German government presented a special prize to Dutch employers and union workers for their ability to “talk things out.” What some observers describe as “the traditional sobriety of the Dutch” takes a dim view of Dionysian spontaneity and impulsiveness.
Amsterdam today is a bustling city of approximately eight hundred thousand. Visitors who expect to find a homogenous population of blond, fair skinned cloggies, the women all decked-out in their Dutch Boy Cleanser-best, the men standing around in blue denim suits with their fingers in dikes, will be surprised to find every shade of humanity, from all over the world, everyone of whom, it seems, speaks impeccable English. If you say “Goedenavond,” they say “Good evening.” If you say “Dank u,” they say “You’re welcome.” It doesn’t take long for linguistically challenged tourists to learn to leave their Dutch phrase books in the hotel room.
Amsterdammers can wear you down with their good manners. Have a question? Just ask. Need directions? No problem. When an American asks a tram conductor how to get to one of Amsterdam’s many museums, the conductor, instead of explaining the nuances of tram-travel, replies, “Come with me.” It’s the long way round no doubt, but the conductor gets you where you want to go. Not able to have breakfast at a restaurant reserved for a special gathering of Lebanese, the manager takes pains to direct lost patrons to a cafe just up the street. To think that the Dutch settled New Amsterdam, later to become New York City, gives one pause. Maybe it’s the waters of the Amstel (or the popular beer that takes the river’s name) that explain the differences.
A notable exception to the Dutch’s reputation as “gentle pacifists” involves fietsen (bicycles). Of the 15 million bikes in Holland, you’ll find 600,000 in Amsterdam alone. Bikes are to the streets of the capital what roaches are to houses in Florida. They’re everywhere! And the people who ride them mean to assert their right to do so. Special lanes (fietspad) are restricted for bike use only, and pity the poor pedestrian who forgets or is ignorant of where people are permitted to walk. Riders of all ages display an unwavering desire to scare the hell out of anyone who would even think to challenge their authority. In Amsterdam, “nice bike rider” is an oxymoron. Assuming you survive the inevitable and numerous encounters with Amsterdam’s plague of fiesten, the city opens up to you in all its richness and diversity. Liberty? There’s more than you’ll find anywhere in America. A sense of history? You can’t turn a corner without walking into it. And as for discussion, be prepared to be a good listener. Amsterdammers do love to talk.
“Fight for Your Rights”
Amsterdam is synonymous with freedom, especially among young people. In the summertime, youth flock to the city, like swallows to Capestrano. It is said that the young come here to do openly what they are forbidden to do back home. For the majority who make the journey, as was true of Cheech and Chong when they wallowed their way through the movie they made about their visit, a good part of what this means can be summed-up in two words: Smoke dope.
It takes American tourists a few days to crack the code. There are so many coffee shops throughout the city you’d think you were in Italy. But “coffee shop,” it turns out, does not mean coffee shop. What it means is: place-to-buy-dope.
The Dutch make what looks like a big distinction between soft and hard drugs. Marijuana and hashish are considered “soft.” Other drugs – most notably, cocaine, crack, heroin — are considered “hard.” Only limited amounts of soft drugs are legal. Which doesn’t mean that you can’t secure larger amounts of the soft ones or that hard drugs can’t be found. It’s just that it takes a bit (but only a bit) more effort to find what you’re looking for. And even when users break the law, the Dutch authorities are famous for looking the other way. Gedogen, which we would translate as “tolerance” but which in this context means something more like “allowing what is illegal to occur without enforcing the law,” is among Holland’s principal and most jealously guarded virtues.
Rasta Baby is the name of a conveniently located coffee shop. An enclosed glass extension, large enough to seat four tables, juts out from an old building. You walk through the bright enclosure into some serious darkness. After your eyes adjust, you can make out the shapes of five people (three young men and two young women) at the bar; three other guys are seated in a corner. Large prints and paintings of animals (there’s a lion, a tiger, an elephant and more) adorn the walls. As befits the approaching Christmas season, the muted lights above the semi-circular bar are alternating red and green.
The whole of Rasta Baby, even the glass enclosed extension reserved for the more timid among us, is thick with both a sweet smell and an acid smoke that assaults the eyes. But it’s not the smell, and not the smoke; it’s those animal prints and the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers blasting away on the sound system (“Fight for your rights! Don’t give up the fight!”) that make this coffee shop different from the hundreds of others in the city.
Choosing a drug in one of Amsterdam’s coffee shops is like selecting a meal. “Here’s the menu. What would you like?”
“Let’s see, I think I’ll have the spinach salad (no bacon or egg, thank you) and a…. Whoa! What in heaven’s name is that large stogie-like thing that man is smoking?”
It turns out that two of the young men at the bar are with the two young women. They are the first to leave, making a happy commotion as they depart. The three young men seated in the corner leave soon thereafter. The one in the lead stumbles into the front door as he tries to push it open. A mistake. The directions, in both Dutch and English, clearly declare “Pull to Open.” You can hear his head as it bounces off the glass.
His two friends, no steadier on their feet than he is, start to giggle. Collecting his composure, their friend looks over at the three tourists seated at one of the tables. He grins sheepishly, pulls the door open, and leads his still-giggling companions out into the night air. A lone man remains seated at the bar, the ash from his stogie-like smoke a faint dot of red light in the darkness. It is said that the coffee at Amsterdam’s coffee shops is better than what you can get at Caribou’s and Starbuck’s.
Dutch tolerance of youthful experimentation with drugs is being tested by a phenomenon known as House Parties. These are all-night dance marathons fueled by techno music and XTC (“Ecstasy”), an illegal amphetamine that dehydrates even as it stimulates. Several deaths have been reported among the mainly 16- and 17-year-olds who dance til they drop.
In addition, Holland must bear the weight of criticism flowing from its European neighbors, who fault the easy accessibility of drugs in Holland as one of the main reasons for their drug problems. For their part, the Dutch, even as they agonize over cases of youthful overindulgence, give no indication that they plan to change their drug policies anytime soon. With hundreds of thousands of first-time drug offenders in prisons throughout the United States, including many caught possessing as little as one ounce of marijuana, we Americans give little indication we plan to change our drug policies any time soon either. Deplaning at Washington’s Kennedy Airport after the flight home from Amsterdam, among the first to greet you is a drug-smelling Golden Retriever.
Has the legalization of soft drugs made for a worse drug problem in Holland than the one we have in the United States? Not in Jerry Falwell’s wildest dreams. Has it made the hard drug problem go away? Not by a long shot. Catch the metro at the central train station and you’ll come face-to-face with hard druggies, both buyers and sellers.
The same is true of the compulsory tour every tourist takes of Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District, located along some of the city’s oldest and most picturesque streets. Most of the men who go here (and almost all those who roam these streets are men) probably don’t notice the architecture.
Imagine: It’s evening. You’re walking along Franklin, Hillsborough or Ninth Street, only instead of small shops and restaurants behind the glass windows you pass, there’s something else, something even Leslie Nielson’s Mr. Magoo couldn’t fail to recognize. Those figures standing or sitting in those brightly illumined four-foot-by-eight-foot windows are unmistakably very scantily dressed young women who look as if they all share Dolly Parton’s mammary genes. And those young women are not attempting to escape your notice or find something to cover themselves. Quite the contrary, each beckons to you — to you, mind you — using gestures beyond mere suggestion, inviting you, imploring you to make her the happiest woman in the world, as only the full measure of your manhood can do…. if only you would but cough-up the necessary money (as little as USD$25 along some streets). The unrestrained display of female carnality venting itself in these rows and rows of windows, lining blocks and blocks of the city, makes the goings on at Thee Dollhouse look like a sewing circle hosted by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
While business peaks at night, places of business are open 24 hours a day. Prostitutes rent their window and adjacent room for eight hours at a time. Shifts alternate. A woman might work midnight to eight in the morning one week, eight to four the next, four to 12 the next, then back to midnight to eight, and so on. Though not visible in the windows, it is said that male pimps run the show, are always on hand, and will thrash you within an inch of your life if you dare to step up and take a picture.
“There’s an easy way to test that hypothesis,” I think to myself. “Snap! Flash! Done!” Then I imagine the next morning’s paper: “Pieces of the dismembered body of an American academic were found floating in the Amstel River late last night after…. ” Prudence restored, I leave the work of a cowardly “photo-journalism” for the early morning of another day, the streets all but deserted, the windows empty and unlit.
Amsterdammers insist that the Red Light District is for tourists; people who live in the city, they say, don’t go there unless visiting friends need a tour guide. That’s probably true of most residents but hardly true of all. The District attracts a rough crowd, that’s for sure. But if you live in Amsterdam and want hard drugs, the District is a natural place to hang out. Drug dealing is open and seems easy.
Americans who have a hard time accepting the idea of legalized prostitution will have an even harder time comprehending the Rode Draad (Red Thread). That’s the name of the prostitutes’ union. The idea is to bargain collectively with the government over certain benefits (for example, sick leave, social security, retirement). Practitioners of the world’s oldest profession, like every other special interest group in Holland, want their rights respected. Remarkably, there are plenty of Amsterdammers who agree.
Among those who do not are some feminists, whose opposition is not hard to understand. It’s doubtful whether Playboy or Hustler, say, remotely approach the depth and breadth of the commodification of woman one finds in these rows of garishly lit windows, where choosing which woman to screw requires the same sophisticated epistemology as selecting what lobster to boil. It would take a Camille Paglia to discern feminism’s finest hour along these streets and alleyways. For anyone with the slightest tendencies towards feminist sensibilities of a different kind, a walk through the Red Light District is like a descent into Hell.
MUSEUMS: THE BETTER KNOWN
Amsterdam boasts several outstanding museums. The Rjksmuseum (National Museum) showcases some of Rembrandt’s most famous paintings, including one of his many Self-portraits and his Night Watch, a massive 10 foot by 14 foot work that occupies an entire wall in one the of museum’s large galleries. Among the outstanding Vermeer’s are Woman Reading a Letter and The Milk-Maid.
Not associated with the National, but important historically, is Rembrandt’s House, situated around a corner from Rembrandt’s Place, a modest, inexpensive cafe. None of Rembrandt’s most important paintings are on display. The rooms at once too tidy and clean, it is as if even the dust of his presence has been vacuumed away, leaving visitors with no sense of how or where he worked, only that he lived and painted here before financial difficulties forced him to leave. Still, just climbing the same stairs as the great man can draw one closer to the troubled presence behind the face he painted so often.
A short walk from the National is the Vincent van Gogh Museum. First opened in 1973, its simple contemporary lines mark a sharp contrast to the busy, ornate Gothic of the National. Here you find the largest collection of Van Gogh’s work in the world. The permanent exhibition walks you through the tragic life, from the years when the yet-to-be-painter contemplated following his father into the ministry, to the last years before his suicide, at 37, when he could no longer paint in the vibrant colors of his most famous paintings because their brightness aggravated his worsening mental condition. The overall effect is transforming. Even familiar paintings are seen in a new light.
The Jewish Historical Museum (Joods Historisch Museum) covers several thousand years of Jewish history, with particular emphasis placed on the Jewish presence in Holland, dating from the end of the 15th Century, when Spanish and Portuguese Jews fled the religious persecution rampant in their countries. Before securing full civil liberties, Jews were excluded from the guild system and most (but not all) Jews lived in or on the margins of poverty. Beginning in the 19th Century, however, Jews in Holland played an increasingly important role in every phase of Dutch commercial and cultural life.
The Nazi invasion of Holland in May of 1940 threatened the very survival of Jews living there. Of the estimated 140,000 Jews in Holland at the time, 100,000 were deported to death camps throughout Europe, and an estimate 12,000 Jewish-owned businesses were liquidated or sold, in the name of the Third Reich, without the owners’ consent.
The Museum presents Dutch gentiles in a favorable light. And there is no doubt that many gentiles risked their life to help Jews during the Nazi occupation. But there is also a growing acceptance of Dutch complicity, of Dutch guilt. What became of Jewish-owned property when Jews who survived the war returned to claim it? What did the government do to compensate those Jews whose worldly goods were taken from them by erstwhile gentile “friends” or whose homes and furniture were used as firewood during the wretched winter of 1945? To their credit, non-Jews living in Holland today, unlike their immediate predecessors, no longer avoid the moral logic of these questions.
An exhibition of Frederic Brenner’s photographs is on display. In them he attempts to capture the multifaceted nature of Jews in America. You could bet a dime to a dollar that people couldn’t predict what Brenner presents. Oh, there are some photos that include “big names” like Milton Bearle, Betty Friedan and ol’ Mayor Koch. But there’s also “Spiritual Gathering: Navajos and Jews,” “Singles Weekend in the Catskills” and “Gay and Lesbian Families.” Two stunners are “Jews with Hogs,” a picture of more than a dozen Jews, looking tough, mounted on their Harley-Davidsons, and “Nice Jewish Boys,” a photo of a moving company by that name, the large white van occupying center stage, the movers (there are 20 in all) spread out in the foreground, everyone of them either Hispanic or African American.
Brenner’s photographs challenge social stereotypes of what it is to be “a Jew” and, at the same time, pose a question about the rapid changes taking place within the American Jewish community. How much change can a religious tradition tolerate before it ceases to be the same religious tradition? A provocative question, but Brenner’s photographs offer no answer.
MUSEUMS: THE LESSER KNOWN
Less well known than the National, the Van Gogh and the Jewish Museums is the Sex Museum. Not bashful, it promises everything, a boast not even the Wilt Chamberlains who walk among us could contest.
After paying the four guilders (about two dollars), interested museum-goers are first greeted by an ad for the S & M Club Doma, billed as “The Most Exciting Club in the World.” Customers can select from Private Sessions, Group Sessions or Shows. A female mannequin, scantily dressed in a leather bra and leather g-string, glares down at you, leather whip in hand. Beside her sits a none-too-fully dressed male mannequin. Leather is the rule here, too, including the straps that bind him to the chair. Both male and female are adorned with studded leather bracelets and necklaces. For his part, the chap in the chair seems to be enjoying himself.
The Doma’s address and phone number are featured prominently. “Hmmmm,” I think to myself. “What’s a guy to do?”
“I’m trying to reach the S & M Club Doma.”
“Yes, that’s us. How can we help?”
“I was wondering about reserving a session.”
“Private or group?”
“Well, I’m just visiting your city and….”
“You think that’s best?”
“Yes, no question. We have a very special private session designed especially for tourists.”
“S or M?”
“Ah, I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“What role would you prefer: S ? Or M?”
“Oh, I see, yes, well, ah, what about…. I mean, is it possible to, you know, do a little of both?”
“That’s very adventuresome. A little of both.”
“I mean, if that’s okay.”
“At Club Doma, sir — and you must believe me when I say this — everything is okay.”
Familiar strains of music wrest me from my Mittyesque-minute. The Christmas season is upon us and Nat King Cole can be heard singing “Merry Christmas.” He’s just got to the point where he intones: “Santa’s on his way. He’s loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh.” Whoever wrote those lyrics must have had Amsterdam’s Sex Museum in mind. Talk about toys and goodies.
The museum consists of four narrow floors devoted to its subject. The positions depicted are enough to make you reach for an ice pack and some Advil. When researchers recently announced that men who have sex twice a week live significantly longer than their testosterone challenged peers, they could not have been thinking of the copulatory athleticism displayed here. The bodily contortions alone would drive you to an early grave. Or at least to the chiropractor. Often.
Every medium is represented. Painting. Sculpture. Engraving. Wall-hangings. Furniture. Comic books. Playing cards. Glassware. Wood. China. Even pastry, with one cake decorated with a (shall we say?) female motif, another unmistakably male in its inspiration.
The lengths (and I use this word advisedly) to which men through the ages have gone to explore the female anatomy leaves little to the imagination. Beyond the obvious, who could have possibly thought of such creative uses for such familiar items as vegetables, kitchen utensils and all manner of tools from the work-shop? Ancient Greece and Rome. India, China and Japan. The islands of the Pacific Rim. Europe. Russia. America. Even the Inuit. All times and places have their voice, and all seem intent upon saying the same thing. In the minds of some people, sex is the one, the true, the pure performance art.
The museum isn’t crowded. Maybe a dozen people is all. With the exception of a teenage girl with two boy friends, the museum-goers are all men. We make it a point not to look at one another. Not meaning to include one’s self, I imagine each of us thinking you’d have to be some sort of weirdo or, worse, an historian to be prowling around a place like this.
Worn-out from ogling the pyrotechnics of the boudoir, it is something of a relief to relax in another of Amsterdam’s easily overlooked cultural jewels: The Museum of Torture. Just a short walk up the Central City’s main street, admission is about twice what it is at The Sex Museum, but the holdings are easily twice as interesting. Mainly they consist of torture devices used during the Inquisition. Some are familiar. Thumb screws. The Rack. The Iron Maiden. Others are totally new. For example, the Skull Cracker. This nifty little device was modeled after a nut cracker — you know, the sort where, when you turn a knob, pressure increases on the nut until the shell cracks open. The difference is, during the Inquisition, it was some heretic’s skull that wanted cracking.
Having had enough sex and torture for one day, I start down a flight of stairs leading to the main door. Just as I begin to descend, two guys and a girl are starting up. Seeing me and (presumably) recognizing the gray haired man they had seen only a little while before in The Sex Museum, they beat a strategic retreat, letting the old geezer pass. After all, I imagine them thinking to themselves, you’d have to be some sort of weirdo or, worse, an historian to be prowling around a place like this.
Animal rights is a contentious issue. It polarizes individuals and groups, hardens attitudes and diminishes the opportunity for respectful dialogue. Unless, that is, you’re in Holland, where animal rights suits the Dutch just fine. The wider the differences, the more there is to discuss.
The Dutch have a national organization (Nederlandse Vereniging Van Dierexperimentencommissies) made-up of representatives of 30 committees charged with the task of reviewing research proposals that call for the use of nonhuman animals. Although the scientific merits of the proposals are relevant, these committees focus primarily on the ethics of the protocols brought before them. Their central question is, “Can this proposed research be justified ethically?”
This same question was the central theme of a mid-December weekend course on the ethics of animal experimentation, jointly sponsored by the umbrella organization of Ethics Committees and several Dutch pro-animal/anti-vivisection societies. Since the focus was on ethics, the organizers thought it appropriate to invite a trio of moral philosophers, two Americans and an Englishman, each representative of contrasting positions.
One of the Americans gives the opening presentation. He first explains the difference between being a reformist (someone who wants to retain a certain practice while at the same time endeavoring to make it more humane) and an abolitionist (someone who wants to abolish a practice, no matter how “humane” it might become). He cites debates about the morality of capital punishment as an example of how reformers can disagree with abolitionists. The same is true, he says, of the issue regarding humanity’s use of nonhuman animals for purposes of scientific research.
That said, the speaker puts his abolitionist cards on the table, arguing that just as it is wrong to violate the basic moral rights of some humans in order to advance the good of others, so it is wrong to violate the basic moral rights of nonhuman animals in order to advance this same purpose. It’s not larger laboratory cages for animals that ethics requires; it’s empty cages.
If the Dutch Ethics Committees acted on the first speaker’s principles, they’d turn down every proposal brought before them. This is good news for the pro-animal folks in the audience but hardly what the researchers want to hear. You don’t have to be Carnac the Magnificent to know the answer to the question, “Is there a single researcher in the room who agrees with this guy?”
The second speaker, the English philosopher Michael Leahy, promises to provide welcome support. Using nonhuman animals in research is a no-brainer, according to Leahy. Not only do these animals lack rights, they have very little moral standing. Why? Well, it turns out that, on Leahy’s view, moral standing depends on whether you can use language, something he assures the audience no nonhuman animal can do. Is it all right to eat animals? Hunt them for sport? Trap them for fashion? Slice-and-dice them in the lab? You bet. According to Leahy, there’s virtually nothing you might want to do to an animal that would be wrong if you did it.
The promised support doesn’t go down well. For one thing, researchers don’t see themselves in quite the same league as hunters and trappers. For another, Leahy’s views have some unwelcome implications. This becomes clear when he is asked whether doing research on human beings who are linguistically deficient is morally okay. Leahy hems and haws, in the British way, but it’s clear he’s lost his audience. The last thing pro-research attendees want to hear is that using rodents and rabbits in their research is morally on a par with using human babies.
Tom Beauchamp, who teaches at Georgetown University and is affiliated with that university’s Kennedy Institute of Ethics, bills himself as occupying the rational middle ground. While Beauchamp thinks that many of the research proposals the committees approve should be turned down on ethical grounds, he also thinks that some research using nonhuman animals, aimed at benefiting humans, can be ethically justified. One can almost hear a collective sigh of relief from the researchers in the room. Alas, it proves to be short-lived.
There’s just this tiny modest proposal Beauchamp wants to see implemented. Since these Ethics Committees are supposed to be Ethics (and not, say, Biochemistry) Committees, some of the people on them really should be trained in the discipline. And because there should be a fair distribution between committee members who are researchers and those who are ethicists (by which Beauchamp means something very close to “people with advanced degrees in moral philosophy”), Beauchamp proposes that Dutch Ethics Committees consist of no less than three researchers and three ethicists – a proposal that strikes the researchers in attendance as being about as realistic as heating Holland with a Bunsen burner.
Outside the lecture hall, discussion brews in the Dutch way. People who hold diametrically opposed views ask courteous questions of one another; dine together; pick up the tab at the bar. If it all seems a bit too mutually respectful for an American visitor, the fault lies in the visitor. The “Dutch way” of discussing differences has brought about an end to using dogs and cats from shelters in research, as well as an end to specific toxicity tests using “animal models.” Would that the same could be said of animal use at research facilities in the Triangle?
Exploring the limits of Dutch civility, an American engages a Dutch researcher in conversation. Doesn’t he think the philosophers have been a huge disappointment — the one saying stop it all (now); the second, do whatever you like (to anyone who can’t talk); the third, do what you propose (so long as you can get approval from an impossible committee)?
The question elicits a long, thoughtful pause, then this answer: “No, I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed. I’ve been engaged in research for more than 30 years, and this is the first time I’ve ever stopped to think — I mean really think — about the ethics of what I’ve been doing. What I’m still doing. So, no, I’m not disappointed. On the contrary, I would say my eyes have been opened.”
These remarks are followed by another long silence, so long it would be natural to think the researcher is finished saying what’s on his mind. But then, in true Dutch character, he adds, “There’s so much to consider. So many questions. So much to discuss.”
A NECESSARY PILGRIMAGE
263 Princesgracht. You enter the famous house at street level. Today you find a small lobby housing a ticket booth; in times past it was where workmen ground spices. On the floor above, Otto Frank and his partners had their offices. Walk to the end of the main hallway and you find yourself facing the famous bookcase. Behind it, you climb the stairs leading to the Het Achterhuis (literally, “the house behind,” but usually translated as “the Secret Annex”). Here you find two rooms and a bath; on the floor above, one open room and, adjacent to it, an ante-room, the size of a walk-in closet, with a ladder leading to the attic above.
You walk these floors and climb these stairs with a mixture of blood rage and terrible sadness. These are the rooms where eight Jews hid for more than two years in a vain effort to escape the insanity of Hitler’s Nazi Germany — the rooms where the young Anne Frank (she was just past 13 when the Frank family went into hiding) wrote her famous Diary. In it she writes of her wish “to write something great,” “to go on living after my death!” About the diary itself, she observes that “neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a 13-year-old schoolgirl.” Little could she have understood that The Diary of a Young Girl, with more than 25 million copies sold, in 55 languages, would be the work that fulfilled her youthful longing for literary immortality.
Nothing you read, not even the Diary, prepares you for how small the rooms are. The rigid, narrow limits of the universe Otto Frank and the others inhabited helps you understand why tempers often flared over the smallest detail and why the effervescent Anne, with her quick, wild mood swings, and despite her best efforts to act “grown-up,” would be the source of most of the domestic quarrels. Who can blame her for wanting (as she writes) “to be an honest-to-goodness teenager,” “to ride a bike,” to have “conversation, freedom, friends”? But who can blame the older people for finding her “chatter-box” ways, in these cramped quarters, an annoyance? A weekend with in-laws, lodged in split-level comfort, is enough to bring many of us to our emotional knees. The wonder of it is, no one in the Annex was physically assaulted or killed. The Diary is many things. Throughout its pages we watch a young girl repeatedly fail to enter a loving, respectful relationship with her mother even as she all but worships her father. By the time she’s 15, Anne Frank breaks not only with her mother but with all that her mother represents, celebrating, as she does, “women’s rights,” positioning herself with those feminists who see that “modern women [unlike her mother] want to be completely independent.” If she survives the war, she declares, she’ll “achieve more than Mother ever did. I’ll make my voice heard.”
Moreover, like a female Job whose belief in God is challenged by the injustices that befall her, the Diary is a testament to religious faith, not because of, but in spite of, the evidence. “God has not forsaken me,” she writes (prematurely, perhaps), “and He never will.” And these pages also contain the story of a young woman’s awakening to her sexuality, first denying, then affirming her consuming desire to be held by another, kissed by another, loved by another.
But Anne Frank’s Diary also contains scathing indictments of Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) party and of Germans in general. “Those terrible Germans have oppressed and threatened us for so long,” she confides; they have made of the Annex’s inhabitants “Jews in chains, chained to one spot, without any rights.” Nowhere is Anne Frank’s writing stronger than when she takes up the theme of Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis. Commenting on what is happening to Jews outside the Annex, for example, the entry for October 9, 1942, (she is still 13 when she writes this) includes the following.
Today I have nothing but dismal and depressing news to report. Our many Jewish friends and acquaintances are being taken away in droves. The Gestapo is treating them very roughly and transporting them in cattle cars to Westerbork…. It must be very terrible at Westerbork. The people get almost nothing to eat, much less to drink, as water is available only one hour a day, and there is only one toilet and sink for several thousand people. Men and women sleep in the same room, and women and children often have their heads shaved…. The Germans are generous enough when it comes to punishment…. Fine specimens of humanity, those Germans, and to think that I’m actually one of them! No, that’s not true, Hitler took away our nationality long ago. And besides, there are no greater enemies on earth than the Germans and the Jews. A little more than a month later, November 19, 1942, we read the following.
Countless friends and acquaintances have been taken off to a dreadful fate. Night after night, green and gray military vehicles cruise the streets. They knock on every door, asking whether any Jews live there. If so, the whole family is immediately taken away. If not, they proceed to the next house…. In the evenings when it’s dark, I often see long lines of good, innocent people, accompanied by young children, walking on and on, ordered about by a handful of men who bully and beat them until they nearly drop. No one is spared. The sick, the elderly, children, babies and pregnant women — all are marched to their death…. And all because they’re Jews.
Then, some time in April 1944, the Diary addresses Jewish persecution throughout history.
Who has inflicted this on us? Who has set us apart from all the rest? Who has put us through such suffering? It’s God who has made us the way we are, but it’s also God who will lift us up again. In the eyes of the world, we’re doomed, but if, after all the suffering, there are still Jews left, the Jewish people will be held up as an example… We can never be just Dutch, or just English, or whatever, we will always be Jews as well… Through the ages Jews have had to suffer, but through the ages they’ve gone on living, and the centuries of suffering have only made them stronger. The weak shall fail and the strong shall survive and not be defeated!
Those who know Anne Frank only through the 1955 play based on the Diary, or the later movie based on the play, know less than half of who she was and what the Diary remains. Worse, some of what they “know” distorts rather than reflects the truth — the Diary’s truth. Anne Frank does not depict a universal struggle between good and evil. Rather, she describes a particular evil (Nazi Germany) and its merciless attempt to destroy a particular group of people (Jews). Neither the Pulitzer Prize winning play nor its cinematic adaptation is faithful to the Diary in these respects, which is why neither is faithful to the obligation to understand why Anne Frank and six million other Jews lived and died as they did.
Indications are that the newly mounted Broadway revival of the stage play risks minimizing the singularity of Nazi atrocities. Natalie Portman, who plays Anne, is receiving rave reviews for her “adorable performance.” She is quoted as saying that she finds the Diary “funny, it’s hopeful, and (Anne) is a happy person.” As for the play’s moral logic, Portman sides with the universalists. “You want your message to reach as many people as possible. You don’t want to say ‘Don’t do this to the Jews’ but ‘Don’t do this to anyone’.”
Portman’s interpretive stance might make marketing sense but it needs to be resisted. The problem with turning the Diary into a universal morality play is that what was done by the Nazis was not done to “anyone.” It was done to Anne Frank and millions of other Jews (and, let it be added, to members of other groups deemed “inferior,” including Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals). To pretend otherwise is to distort the moral heart of what Anne Frank saw, what she felt, what she wrote and, finally, why she died. If the day ever dawns when it becomes politically incorrect, in the pages of this magazine or elsewhere, to condemn the Nazis for being the moral monsters that they were, we will have slid down the slippery slope of moral complicity ourselves.
No one knows who alerted the authorities, or why, but on August 4, 1944, a Nazi SS sergeant, accompanied by members of the Dutch Security Police, entered 263 Prinsengracht and arrested Anne Frank and the other seven people who had been in hiding with her. Anne and her older sister, Margot, were first sent by train to Westerbork, the dreaded transit station in northern Holland. From there they were shipped to Auschwitz, then to Bergen-Belsen, near Hannover, Germany. Because of the camp’s unsanitary conditions, a typhus epidemic claimed the lives of thousands of prisoners. Some time in late February or early March, 1945, first Margot, then, a few days later, Anne, died, their naked corpses buried in a mass grave. Had she lived, she would have turned 68 last June.
Anne Frank’s zest for life (her “idealism,” her “spirit”) was no match for the evil of Bergen-Belsen. A videotape that replays at the Anne Frank House includes an interview of Hannah Pick-Goslan, a girlhood friend of Anne’s and herself a camp survivor. Though separated from one another by a fence, the two had opportunities to talk. Pick-Goslan recalls that “It wasn’t the same Anne…. She was a broken girl.” Bergen-Belsen was expert at that: breaking people. “Hier ist kein Warum” (“Here there is no Why”), a remark attributed to a camp guard, sums up the illogic of a universe where morality no longer makes any difference. Like the flame of a candle in a tornado, Bergen-Belsen extinguished Anne Frank’s zest for life, her vaunted spirit, her enthusiasm, her “happiness.” To borrow words from Ray Bradbury, used by him in a different context, the Nazis at Bergen-Belsen “buttered their plain bread with other people’s pain.” Otto Frank, the only camp survivor among the eight who hid in the Secret Annex, would have us put the past behind us. “What happened cannot be changed,” he is quoted as saying. True. But neither should it denied, ignored or diminished. The Nazis were particular people who committed all but incomprehensible evils against particular people. If other people were to do the same, they would be no less evil. To that extent, all evil is “universal.” It’s just that, while Adolph Hitler was in power, it was the Nazis who were the very personification of evil, and Jews who were their principal victims. If we can’t learn these simple truths from Anne Frank’s Diary, and her senseless death, she will have written and died in vain. To climb those stairs behind that bookcase with a mixture of blood rage and terrible sadness is one small way of saying she did not.
My wife Nancy and I sit in another elegant hotel lobby, both of us weary, not yet fully ready for the trip back home. No furs this morning, thank God. Outside it’s raw cold, but nothing compared to two days before, when the temperature plunged below zero centigrade, with winds gusting to 25 miles an hour, thanks to a Siberian Clipper howling westward out of Russia. A bouncy, smartly dressed young woman, the hotel manager, approaches. “Did you enjoy your stay?” she asks. That smile of hers could light up a room. She is so full of herself, so effervescent, she makes Robin Williams look like he’s on valium.
We have to explain that we hadn’t stayed in this hotel, that we’re waiting here because the KLM airport shuttle stops just outside. “Is that okay?” we ask, “our waiting here in your lobby?”
”But of course!” the manager says. “You’re very welcome to get in out of that terrible cold!” I seem to remember her shivering, like a polar bear shedding water, before scurrying-off to procure a hotel brochure, soon thrust into our hands with a kind of giddy enthusiasm.
After we express our thanks, the manager asks, “First time in Amsterdam?”
“Yes, our first time.”
”What do you think of our great city?”
In her state, we know we better be at our ebullient best. “It’s great!” “Yes, truly great!”
“Will you return?”
“We hope so.” “Yes, we hope so!”
“Well, perhaps the next time we’ll be fortunate and have you as our guests!” She extends her hand, shakes ours vigorously, flashes that smile, bids us a good journey and bounces off. Still in our robot-state, we feel as if the Siberian Clipper has passed our way again.
Outside, waiting for the shuttle, we have time for one last look at the glow of Centraal Station, the vibrant heart of the city-on-the-dam-of-the-Amstel. We’ve seen so much, done so much, learned so much and, we know, missed so much, even when it was right before our eyes.
We tourists always run the risk of seeing forests and missing trees. We see the “big stuff” and overlook the details. Yet it’s in the details that the true character not only of the Devil but of a city and a people are to be found. That’s why it takes years of living together before we get to know someone or someplace.
Children see details better than grown-ups. Maybe it’s because they’re built lower to the ground. Whatever the reason, I was reminded of the perceptiveness of the young when a Raleigh neighbor related a story about a friend of his who took his 6-year-old son on a stroll through the Red Light District. Having been born in Amsterdam himself, the father wanted his son to share some of the same experiences he had had in his youth. The tour finished, the father asked the boy, expectantly, what he thought. “Well,” the lad replied. “The girls should dress better. And someone needs to wash the windows.”
It’s that last observation — “someone needs to wash the windows” — that makes me wonder what else of Amsterdam I saw but didn’t observe, since (my numbed attention focused elsewhere) I sure as heck didn’t notice the dirty windows.
Fact is, though, if ever I return to Amsterdam, as I hope someday I will, I’ll skip the Red Light District and won’t be able to check on whether the windows are any cleaner. Seeing is believing, that’s for sure, and when it comes to the Red Light District, I’ve seen enough. There are more important details to look for in this open, beautiful, welcoming jewel of a city. What’s crucial is to remember the wisdom of children and look for them.