In a TedTalk that has been viewed literally millions of times (including, last week, by my students here at Windesheim), Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of “The Danger of a Single Story.” “The single story,” she reminds us, “creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
The First Story: Welcome to Holland
One of my students told me about going to a concert in Rotterdam, a major port city on the coast of the Netherlands. The artist strode onto the stage, crying out, “Hello, Amsterdam!”
Rotterdam (population 623,652, or more than twice the size of New Orleans) is most definitely NOT Amsterdam (population 821,752). The city is probably best known for its modern architecture; the historic city center was destroyed by the German luftwaffe on May 14, 1940, four days after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Not only did the bombs reduce most of this industrial city to rubble, they also destroyed the resolve of the largely unprotected Netherlands, a country that had expected to remain neutral in World War II, as it had during the first World War. Upon receiving an ultimatum that the next target would be Utrecht (a beautiful city of medieval structures and canals that is also at the physical center of the country), the Netherlands surrendered.
(Rotterdam is connected to the American “Pilgrim” story by being the home of the “Pilgrim Fathers Church,” whence sailed a number of Protestant dissenters who later ended up on the Mayflower, after their ship the Speedwell started taking on water. But “The Pilgrims” is a single story for another day.)
The geographic synecdoche of “Amsterdam” is perhaps connected to another story that similarly takes the part for the whole: “Holland,” a quaint country of tulips, wooden shoes, and windmills. This story makes great gifts, which you can find on display at Schiphol airport, as well as all the souvenir shops in Amsterdam, the Hague and Delft, and even on my keyring.
And, like so many stories, in some ways, it is true. The Netherlands — “Holland” — has stunningly beautiful flowers; when I first walked into my apartment two weeks ago, I found that my colleagues at Windesheim had sent me a stunning arrangement. My friend Henmar sent me an exquisite bouquet of tulips. And outside my door, despite the cold, little purple flowers, each with an orange center, are beginning to grow. The flowers, in fact, are tangentially connected to the wooden shoes: Henmar’s husband, last summer, took a photo of me, trying on his gardening klompen. My students, however, almost universally wear sneakers, while my colleagues opt for boots.
As for windmills (windmollen), although many have now been replaced by electricity, steam, or the far more modern windfarm model , the traditional windmill was not just a picturesque feature on the landscape but a symbol of Dutch identity, representing both the conquest of the sea by the denizens of this low-lying country, and also — as in Jacob van Ruisdael’s 1668-70 Mill at Wijk bij Duurstade — hard-won struggle for independence during the 80-years war with Spain.
Windmills and tulips and shoes — oh my! There is nothing wrong with this story, except that it denies the complexity of this mixed-market advanced economy that has the thirteenth highest per capita income in the world, that hosts the international criminal court (in The Hague, not Amsterdam), and that has some of the world’s highest rankings in freedom of the press, personal freedom, and happiness.
Indeed, as the first country to legalize same-sex marriage (2001), along with its liberal policy toward marijuana and the sex trade, The Netherlands is often celebrated as the poster child of tolerance. But that’s another Single Story. Tot ziens — see you soon — for that one.