For more than a century, the De Wallen, or “walled,” district of the Dutch city of Amsterdam has been famous for its tolerance of vice in the form of brothels and hash bars. Not surprisingly, the neighborhood is one of the city’s major tourist attractions. Nearly one-third of the city’s visitors reportedly consider the De Wallen district a “must see.”
However, the licentiousness of the district doesn’t necessarily reflect the lifestyle of most Amsterdamers. According to Closed Curtain author Bruce Harris, the majority of Dutch citizens and Amsterdam residents consider themselves fairly reserved. Rather, their liberal attitude toward De Wallen is an expression of the Dutch concept of gedogen, loosely translated as “official tolerance” of that which should not be encouraged but cannot effectively be forbidden.
There may be something to this gedogen business, according to Marc Chavannes of the Institute for Government Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. “The Netherlands is the Mecca of gedogen, and it may be having a positive impact,” he says. “On abortion, for example, the Netherlands no longer leads the way. UN statistics show that the Netherlands has the lowest abortion rate of a number of industrialized states: The Dutch have always had to be inventive, confronted as they were with the task of completing the creation in a land of wind and water but very few natural comforts. Given that the Dutch are born with a quasi-sentimental ideal of resistance (against Spanish, French, and German oppres-sors) and everyone believes in a slightly different God, the choice is clear. The Dutch can either accept chaos or compromise until everyone is blue in the face, so the latter has become second nature.”
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, July-August 2007.