Netherlands: The View from Dam Square

Nick Martens contrasts a typical scene in Amsterdam’s Dam Square with a picture of the plaza during a protest.

Dam Square, at the heart of Amsterdam, belies a tension that subverts the city’s reputation as laid-back and fun-loving. On a normal day, the stone-paved plaza represents everything that Amsterdam is supposed to be. Odes to the city’s heritage enclose the space: the preposterously phallic National Monument faces the Royal Palace, a grand neoclassical stalwart. A respected museum, an upscale department store, and a classy hotel lie around the square’s perimeter, along with a smattering of restaurants and souvenir shops. There’s even a wax museum whose website promises the opportunity to “confess to Pope Benedict.

The scene was calm as I traipsed around the square yesterday. Groups of teenagers lounged on the monument, practicing their bershon expressions. Tourists milled about, scurrying to dodge the phalanx of cars, trams, and bicycles buzzing past on a bisecting street. Some children had chosen to commune with nature by wandering into a mass of pigeons, and I was touched by the sound of their laughter as diseased pests perched on their little forearms.

The featured attraction that day was a performance group I’ve dubbed “Amsterdam’s Hodgepodge of Incompetent Living Statues.” Six costumed men stood atop boxes in a scattered formation near the center of the square. None seemed to realize that the entire point of a living statue performance is to remain perfectly still (as still as, oh I don’t know, a statue) because they constantly reached down from their perches to awkwardly rest their hands on tourist’s shoulders for snapshots.

A bejeweled Neptune with an imposing codpiece was the group’s most elaborate member, and commanded significant attention. The Grim Reaper also appeared popular, drawing on support from the disaffected-teenager demographic. Only Caesar looked the part of an actual statue, with immaculate marble-colored robes and makeup. The brightly-colored Rastafarian had abandoned any pretense of statue-ness as he conversed with a group of stoners, and the Franciscan monk in a black mask and white facepaint looked sad and lonely without a single onlooker. And then, of course, there was Darth Vader.

Last Saturday, this air of easy-going fun in Dam Square was displaced by outrage and anxiety. Angry Dutch words boomed from a stage at the foot of the Palace (which only rarely serves any official function). Older pedestrians, fear obvious on their faces, skirted the fevered crowd around the stage. The police looked on, their expressions far more sober than when leaning against vans around nightlife hotspots. The crowd, for their part, seemed indignant and determined, unperturbed–perhaps even invigorated–by the cold fog.

The event was a demonstration against Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who serves in the parliament on an anti-immigration platform. Specifically, the protest opposed Wilders’s intent to release a short anti-Islam film called Fitna. As this New York Times profile describes, Wilders is an outrageously outspoken figure, best known for his ridiculous bleached hair and inflammatory rhetoric. Since I arrived at the beginning February, the whole city has been on edge about his film and what reaction it might elicit. One need look only as far back as the Danish Muhammad cartoons to see how easily this situation could get out of hand.

The demonstrators must have been disappointed when Wilders loosed Fitna onto the internet yesterday. Given that the first Hostel was set in Amsterdam, it should come as no surprise that Wilders has co-opted the central philosophy of American torture porn: shock over substance. The film opens with the infamous cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, which proves to be the most nuanced commentary in Fitna’s fifteen-minute run. Wilders fills the remaining time with scenes of brutal violence, radical speeches, and chilling newspaper headlines, inter-spliced with passages from the Koran. To say that the film looks like it was produced with iMovie would be to libel Apple’s developers, and this amateurish production cheapens the horrifying images that Wilders trots out one after another.

It’s not my place to comment on the delicate and complicated issue of Islam in the Netherlands, but the frivolity of Wilders’s film seems obvious regardless of one’s political leanings. The hatred he portrays among radical Islam is widely known, and he presents it in a way that is guaranteed to incense an obviously reactionary group. Now, provoking a reaction can be a worthy effort, especially in religious discourse, but to do so with no purpose than to rattle cages is mindless, and in Wilders’s substantially publicized case, blatantly self-serving.

I’d love to dismiss Fitna as patent nonsense and think of it no more, but the fact that Theo Van Gogh was shot dead in the streets of Amsterdam three years ago for producing a similarly controversial film fixes some disquiet in the back of my mind. And, while it’s nice to think of Dam Square as a space dedicated to simple amusement, I’m glad that when reality sets in Amsterdam can fill its center with dissenting voices.


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Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.