Thursday, May 29, 2008

When knowing Dutch would come in handy

In general, I've gotten along pretty well in Holland without speaking Dutch. I can now read "menu Dutch" and understand a few words in conversation. I miss reading a daily newspaper and I often feel left out in the daily news because I can't understand the local news (with the very attractive young male newscasters with flowing curly hair and open shirts!!). But its when I'm watching tv (mostly US tv shows with Dutch subtitles) that I really wish I knew Dutch.

I was just watching a commercial where a young guy at a breakfast table takes a banana and pretends to shoot all his family members. He starts going crazy and machine gunning all of them. His family sit there kind of awkwardly and then the screen dissolves to.... a warning about the dangers of video games? an ad for an insane asylum? no. An ad for the Dutch Army. I am dying to know what the commercial says! "Can't wait to kill people? Join the Dutch Army!" "Afraid your son will turn into a homicidal maniac? Enlist him now in the Dutch Army!" It makes me nervous because of media portrayals in the US of Columbine massacres and other schoolboy shootings.

I guess the Dutch Army are in Afghanistan now so there's a good chance that you can join up and shoot people but when I think of the Dutch army, I think of an anecdote my mother told me. In the 70s, we were stationed in Belgium at NATO. My mom told me you could always tell the Dutch army men because they were allowed to have long hair and beards and pierced ears - they just had to pull their hair up in a hairnet. One of my friends from way back was in the Dutch military when they still had mandatory service and he told me funny stories of cycling drunk and drilling with WWII guns - leaving a kind of quaint nostalgic feeling about European military culture. Now that I've been here a year, I have met a few former Dutch military guys at MSF (the non-violent way to go to remote locations and live in violent areas) so I know they aren't all peace and love but its still hard to shake that image of a peace loving Dutch man dressed up to play military in my head. The Dutch Army even has a big float in the Gay Pride parade.

But the 70s Hippie ethos of peace and love and tolerance is not completely accurate for the Netherlands anymore. I've heard rumblings that the city has become increasingly intolerant of squats and junkies and open drug abuse. They've closed down a number of coffeeshops or restricted licenses for new ones. There is talk of closing at least 1/2 of the windows in the famed red light district.

On Saturday, I ran down the street to my grocery store to pick up some stuff for the weekend and as I rode my bike down the street, I noticed that the street was closed off at the end. There were riot police out and the police dogs were barking and snarling at people. The water cannons were on the street along with three or four buses. For more info on this, go here. Sitting all over the street at the end were a bunch of young punk kids. The kids were wearing the traditional uniform of Black Flag patches, Doc Martens, hoodies, ripped jeans, bandanas, that weird ear piercing where you have a giant hole in the middle of your lobe, and tattoos. But most of them looked rather clean and wholesome (that Dutch rosy cheeked complexion and the blonde hair) and very very young. 18 or so. I asked what was going on and one of the kids told me that they had a birthday party at their squat the night before and the police came to close it down because it was too loud. He said when they came out to "negotiate" with the police, the police swarmed in and evicted all of them. He said "Everyone thinks that the Netherlands is cool because you can smoke weed but its not true. The police don't care and they'll come out and kick your ass because they can." And in the Saturday afternoon sunlight, it did seem a bit extreme to use riot police to evict young anarchists.

Its interesting. I'm reminded constantly how much more violent the day to day life in the USA is. I feel much more comfortable walking down the streets late at night here than I have in any place I've lived in the US. The number of deaths due to guns is much much lower here. There is purse snatching in the tourist areas but many of the neighborhoods safe completely safe to walk about in late at night. I don't get nervous when the cops go by me like I do when a typical bullying South Carolina highway patrol man does(mostly because they are so cute on their matching bicycles and the female cops often wear braids - plus its hard to speed on a bike so I'm not nervous that I've done anything wrong). Yet the Dutch have a long military history - from their battles against the Spanish and the English to their colonization of Indonesia to participating in the Korean war and the current Iraqi invasion. Their battles to maintain control of their colony in Indonesia were particularly brutal with mass graves and allegations of torture in the post WWII years of the late 40s.

From what I've read on the web, the Dutch haven't really come to terms with the way they subjugated Indonesians (despite their love for Indonesian food). It reminds me that for all its faults, the US at least has an open culture where one can freely criticize our government and discuss our outrage about Guantanomo Bay and the outrageously wasteful and destructive war in Iraq in the media, in the streets, in our schools. I can't imagine a Moroccon, Indonesian or Surinamese descended Dutch person as the leader here. It was considered news worthy that Nicholas Sarkozy, the president of France was of Hungarian descent. The US is no more violent, really, than any other country. The European nations have a bloodier history because they've been around longer. And the Dutch still need to appeal to violence obsessed video gamers to join the military, I guess. Because they still have wars to fight.


  1. You are wrong about the army commercial. At the end of it you see a text which says suitable or unsuitable, and this kid was rated unsuitable, don't know why you try to blackmail my country. And about those hippies, they live in a house that belongs to somebody else...we call them Krakers in the Netherlands. When the police searched that house they found nummerous guns and other weapons. Do some research before you put something on the net.

    Greetz Bram

  2. Well there you have it... my first comment from someone I don't know! I should write about the Dutch army more often. The point of the post was that I don't speak Dutch so I wish I knew what it said. Blackmail your country? I love your country! Interesting that the police found a bunch of weapons in that house. Would appreciate a link to any news on that.

  3. Anonymous12:17 PM

    Apparently this person fails to see the point of your post, which I think is a pretty interesting view on violence and how it manifests itself in your current environment. Anyway - one of your point was that "outsiders" aren't allowed to criticize holland and this person seems to have taken personal offense and therefore has proven your point!

  4. Great post. What you say about America is so true. So many of my American blogging colleagues are cool environmental activists with an open mind and a good heart. There is a segment of Dutch society that is and always was xenophobic, but the vast majority are open. Most Dutch people hate violence and prefer dialogue.

  5. Sorry about the word blackmail, wrong choice. But your post was on violence,,,and this comercial basicly says when you're violent there is no place for you in our armed forces... next time use a dictonary;)furthermore you are allowed to critize my country, we dutchmen do it all the time. I cant find an article in english about the recent violence in Amsterdam between the police and the "Krakers". Here is an article in dutch:

    Greetz Bram

  6. Anonymous3:09 PM

    You've got a lot more experience than me living in places other than the US, so I certainly defer to you, but I'm of the opinion that a propensity to violence is just part of human nature. We are a violent species. (I'll leave it smarter folks than me to argue about evolutionary or theological reasons why that is so.) The biggest problem in the US these days, IMHO, is the easy access to guns. And while we've always had guns in the US, the free and easy access to particularly high powered guns is mostly a phenomenon of the last 30 years or so.

    Take the murder case my office prosecuted three weeks ago. Two young men get into a beef about a young woman they've both dated. This is the kind of thing young men have been arguing about forever and that not too long ago would have ended up in a fist fight at worst. But being South Carolina these days, one guy pulls out his 9 millimeter semi-automatic handgun and the result is that one young man is dead, another young man will spend the next 40 years or so of his life in prison and two families are devastated.

    Unfortunately, the majority of the homicides I've handled in my career are like this. Take away the guns and at worst you would have ended up with some scrapes and bruises. If we were really serious about controlling crime around here we would enact serious gun control. Of course, you lived here, so you know how likely that is to happen. It's easier for the politicians to just build more prisons.