August 2, 2009

Straight talk deeply ingrained in Dutch culture

Filed under: General by Branko Collin @ 3:31 pm

Why are the Dutch so impolite? The German-born historian Christoph Driessen proposes a couple of hypotheses in yesterday’s NRC (Dutch).

The Calvinist is interested in the essence of things. Everything else is unnecessary. In that view politeness is quickly seen as hypocrisy in the Netherlands.

The republican form of government of the Netherlands [from 1581 – 1795, Branko] may also have led to a very direct and uncomplicated form of contact. In other countries, manners were largely determined by the aristocracy—hence the word courteous. […] One of the leaders of the republic, Johan de Witt, was mighty enough to oppose the Sun King [Louis XIV, Branko], but when he tried to wear a gold and silver garment to underline that position, instead of the simple black every other Dutchman wore, the troops he tried to inspect jeered and laughed at him.

Considering the Dutch saw themselves as burghers before they became Protestants, I am guessing the second hypothesis may carry the larger weight. Unfortunately, Driessen does not expand on why the republic was such a successful idea in the Netherlands long before it became popular in other Western states.

The historian also points out that since other countries like Germany are letting go of class-based societies, the Dutch head start may actually turn into a disadvantage. Unlike people from other countries who now also learn how to talk straight when needed, the Dutch cannot easily reverse gear and use politeness to sugar coat unpleasant messages, as they have not been brought up in a culture of politeness. Driessen suggests that children could be taught manners in school to remedy this.

(Drawing of a Goop by Gelett Burgess, from a 1903 children’s book on manners.)

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July 11, 2009

Calvin’s 500th birthday luxuries sell briskly

Filed under: History,Religion by Branko Collin @ 11:27 am

The granddaddy of the War on Fun must surely be Jean Cauvin (1509 – 1564), the French protestant priest who is seen around these parts as more influential than Luther himself. The man was a big believer in hard work and no (earthly) reward, so it is perhaps odd that the trinkets that are being sold in honour of his 500th anniversary are selling like hot cakes.

Brabants Dagblad reports (Dutch) that a small lake of Calvijn jenever has already been sold (500+ bottles), and that the 25,000 print run of the Calvijn glossy has completely sold out. The exhibition about his life in Dordrecht has so far attracted more than 60,000 visitors. It is unknown if all these people gorged themselves on nectar and ambrosia right after, but there are ten restaurants in Dordrecht that offer special Calvin meals. Perhaps just a pea on a plate, who knows?

Novelist Maarten ‘t Hart points out delicately in NRC Handelsblad (Dutch) that some of the rules of sobriety of Calvin derive from Roman stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger, who did not like music and dancing (“[there is] a time to dance”, Ecc. 3:4) and other exuberances, such as wearing anything other than dark clothes (“Let thy garments be always white”, Ecc. 9:8).

Meanwhile, in the same paper (Dutch) liberal politician Boris van der Ham points out that the celebration of 500 years sobriety is also the celebration of 400 years resistance against the Calvinist philosophy. The States of Holland had a session in 1608 in which theologian Arminius pleaded for the free will of people: “And so I think that man tries to think well, want well and act well.” But Van der Ham also points out that the Dutch reputation as being straight-shooters to the point of being rude is firmly rooted in Calvinism. “In other countries ‘sins’ were often allowed in a don’t-ask,-don’t-tell way, here the curtains were drawn wide open. […] If other countries sometimes look with bewilderment at our freedoms, it’s not because of the freedoms themselves, but because we are so open and honest about them, in what is essentially a Calvinist way.”

(Photo: Calvijn Dordrecht.)

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