The Netherlands…the land of sex and drugs? How did the Netherlands get this image? And what did Dutch politics have to do with it?
Dutch politician Boris van der Ham has just published a book called De Vrije Moraal (Free Morals), all about the history of legislation concerning sex, drugs and alcohol in the Netherlands. In researching this book, he has scoured transcripts from political and social debates in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries and, in doing so, has dug up some interesting historical inconsistencies.
When Van der Ham was young he travelled throughout Europe. In doing so, he was confronted with the preconceptions other Europeans had of the Netherlands. “It’s an amazing country, no freaking morals!” someone said to him. This was ﬂattering, in a way, but it also made him feel a bit uncomfortable. No morals? That’s not really what the Netherlands is like. The Dutch don’t live like rock stars, most have very normal lives without really strange sexual lives or any drug habits. Should the Dutch therefore be proud of their image?
Van der Ham also shows how the image of the Netherlands in the United States has made a 180 degree switch over the last hundred years. Now, American TV-anchors and politicians like Cal Thomas, Bill O’Reilly and Rick Santorum, like to paint the Netherlands as a devilish country, something America should never strive for. But one-hundred years ago the Dutch were known for their tidiness, piousness and diligence. American school books were decorated with drawings of exemplary Dutch scenes; something American should strive for.
Another interesting inconsistency is that most people think that back in those days all laws were very strict and that this strict block of rules only started to be stripped down in the sixties. But that isn’t actually the case. Most laws that were stripped down in the sixties, such as birth control, abortion etcetera, actually only dated from a few decades before. Until the end of the 19th century the Netherlands actually had very loose laws concerning, sex, drugs and alcohol. These ‘loose’ laws were based on the code pénal instated by Napoleon in the beginning of the 19th century. They were based on the fact that church and state were to be separated and that; therefore, religious attitudes should not be reﬂected in the law. Not until the beginning of the 20th century did this start to change, only to be changed again during the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies.
Many people also think that the government must have been strictly against the production of drugs throughout history, only to alleviate some laws concerning cannabis during the seventies. But this too is not the case. The Netherlands was actually very much in favour of drugs like cocaine and derivatives of opium before the Second World War. Why? It’s all about the money. The Netherlands played a signiﬁcant role in the trade of cocaine from their colony in the East Indies, now called Indonesia. In 1900 the Netherlands even founded a cocaine factory! Meanwhile the United States were starting on the path that would lead to their ‘war on drugs’, but none of the European partners were very interested in joining this ﬁght, as they had colonies that produced these drugs and didn’t want to lose the revenues won by this. Not until after the Second World War, when the Netherlands lost their colony Indonesia, did they change their mind and chime in with the US on the importance of ﬁghting drugs. This was not only because of the loss of Indonesia, but also because they were yearning for American Marshall Aid, and knew they needed to adhere to US policy in order to get their share. Indeed, all about the money.
But the historical inconsistencies don’t stop there. In many debates held in the Dutch parliament about a century ago it was continuously stressed that the introduction of birth control to the market was absolutely out of the question. No way would that ever happen! Subjects such as homosexuality, pornography, drugs and alcohol led to much less emotional debates than the issue of birth control, and it seemed to be a relentless taboo. Nevertheless, in the sixties, this was the ﬁrst issue that succumbed to the demands of the sexual revolution.
After going through the most interesting political debates on sex, alcohol and drugs throughout the years, De Vrije Moraal continues with a contemporary philosophical discussion on free morals. The most important questions are: When is a person really free? Are you really free when you are addicted to drugs? Or are you then a slave to your addiction? But shouldn’t you also have the right to run risks? Should the government really make their country fool-proof? And even if they should do so, can the government ever save their people from harm? Isn’t it the
most important that people are educated enough to make their own decisions? But even then, don’t certain groups of society run more risk than others warranting extra protection? Should youngsters receive extra protection? And if so, which age should be chosen?
The list of questions goes on and on and Van der Ham answers these questions thoroughly. But in the end the most important answer is: keep on asking questions and keep your eyes wide open. It isn’t about ideological blindness or about shrugging your shoulders at abuse. Having free morals isn’t easy, as you need to be critical of these morals at all times.
Sanne van Oosten, www.bloggerswithoutborders.com