The Virtue of European Tolerance

Rick Steves: Exploring Europe, exploring travel as a political act

09.01.09 | 10:23 AM ET

Haarlem, Netherlands (iStockPhoto)

I am hopeful that Europe can overcome the challenge of its new ethnic mix because of its proven track record for pluralism. While Europe has no shortage of closed-minded, knee-jerk opinions, most Europeans consider tolerance a virtue to be cultivated.

At the leading edge of this thinking is the Netherlands. Historically, this corner of Europe saw some of the most devastating Catholics-versus-Protestants fighting in the religious wars following the Reformation. They learned to be inclusive, welcoming Jews when others wouldn’t and providing refuge to religious refugees (such as our nation’s Pilgrim founders). And, as a major maritime power during the Age of Discovery, the Netherlands became a gateway to Europe for emigrants and immigrants (and their ideas) to and from all over Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Based on lessons learned from their history, it seems the Dutch have made a conscious decision to tolerate alternative lifestyles.

When I’m in the Dutch town of Haarlem, I’m struck by the harmony and compromise people have worked out between tradition and modernity, virtuous lives and hedonistic vices, affluence and simplicity. People live well—but in small apartments, getting around by bike and public transit. While the frugal Dutch may keep the same old one-speed bike forever, they bring home new flowers every day. The typical resident commutes by train to glassy skyscrapers to work for giant corporations in nearby office parks, but no skyscraper violates Haarlem’s downtown cityscape, which is still dominated by elegant old gables and church spires. In Haarlem, the latest shopping malls hide behind Dutch Renaissance facades. Streets are clogged with cafe tables and beer-drinkers. The cathedral towers over the market square with its carillon ringing out its cheery melody as policemen stroll in pairs—looking more like they’re on a date than on duty.

Two blocks behind the cathedral, a coffeeshop (a place that legally sells marijuana) is filled with just the right music and a stoned clientele. People, enjoying a particularly heavy strain of marijuana, stare at their rolling papers as if those crinkly critters are alive. Others are mesmerized by the bubbles in their bongs.

And down by the canal, a fairytale of cobbled lanes and charming houses gather around a quiet little church, creating a scene right out of a Vermeer painting. But this neighborhood is different. Lonely men, hands in pockets, stroll as they survey prostitutes who giggle and flirt from their red-lit windows.

I recently happened upon a gay pride parade in the Netherlands. The entire gay community was out, it seemed, doing its flamboyant best to share their particular love of life. The streets were lined with tens of thousands of straight and more conservative Dutch people. I happened to be observing from the curb surrounded by what seemed like a senior center out on a field trip. I was struck by how all the leather, sex toys, and delirious mooning from a long line of slow-moving flatbed trucks was seen simply as entertainment and a celebration of freedom. Try as they might, all that in-your-face gay hedonism couldn’t shock the straight and elderly crowd of onlookers.

That’s European tolerance for you.

Rick Steves

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. He is the author of Travel as a Political Act.

11 Comments for The Virtue of European Tolerance

Lindsay 09.01.09 | 10:47 AM ET

I so need to go there :)

pam 09.01.09 | 2:39 PM ET

I’m a fan, Rick, but this is too general. I don’t think you can paint the scene you witnessed in at the pride parade as a picture of “European” tolerance. You had the good fortune to be in a a community that was open minded and appreciated this particular display of diversity. But other places aren’t so forgiving.

I still remember the awful billboards in Vienna a few years back during an election year—they openly bashed Austria’s immigrant population. That’s only the tip of the iceberg and it was in a large urban area with a mixed population. It’s awesome that Holland presented a multicultural face on your visit there, but European tolerance as a European quality?  I’d argue that it’s a regionalism more than a continent wide quality, just like it is in the US.

grizzly bear mom 09.01.09 | 4:47 PM ET

I see travel writers have no become political activists against guns and for legalizing marijuana. 09.03.09 | 11:25 AM ET

Great article from Rick Steves.  Compared to the U.S., Europe is a little more open-minded and tolerant as Rick pointed out in his article.  Some countries will cling to their conservative, “old school” ideas and ways of life, but others like the Netherlands are more open-minded.  For example, recently there was a report about Gypsies and the discrimination they suffer in countries like Hungry and Romania.  This is ironic because the people in those countries enjoy Gypsy music, food, etc…Go figure.

David 09.03.09 | 6:55 PM ET

Rick Steves is fair-minded and perceptive.  I hope he is right about Europe, but I fear that at the moment the odds are against him.  Like the Dutch, he is trying to be too nice.  Europe’s population is aging and it is not replacing itself.  To pay for the good life that they have voted themselves they are forced to accept Muslim immigrants, more or less on the immigrants’ own terms.  They are tolerantly accepting a population that rejects tolerance.  Europe now basks in a happy Wiemar summer.  Life in Europe is good.  But someday soon they may find themselves disposed in their own country.  I fear some serious nastiness is in the cards.

Mary Arulanantham 09.04.09 | 1:10 AM ET

A friend who travels frequently to Amsterdam informed me that immigrants to the Netherlands are made to sit through a short presentation on Dutch tolerance. The message is a kind of “I’m ok, you’re ok” but if you want to make a fuss because your conservative or fundamentalist views don’t let you accept that I’m ok, then go home. Not a bad concept. My parents always told me to play nice. Enforced tolerance is not an oxymoron.

David 09.04.09 | 8:44 AM ET

Mary, Enforced tolerance is not an oxymoron in ordinary usage, but it becomes one when you deal with a sovereign, which is what the immigrant becomes when he becomes a citizen.  As a citizen in a modern liberal state he is entitled to seek the enactment of any sort of regime he wants.  This is, after all, how the present liberal regime came about.  Anything made by democracy can be unmade by the same process.  Liberalism has enough problems working within the shared values and assumptions of a common culture.  Cultural diversity in a liberal democracy is a new thing and we have yet to have enough experience to be confident how it is going to work out.

Cochin Blogger 09.07.09 | 1:47 AM ET

Regarding David’s comments on Muslim immigrants, it wasn’t too long ago that Jews were talked about in similar terms. Is the Muslim the new Jew?

Matt 09.08.09 | 3:19 PM ET


[full disclosure: I am an agnostic, non-practicing Jew, but a Jew all the same]

You’re comparing latkes to baba ghanoush. Theo Van Gogh was murdered because of Muslim intolerance in Amsterdam. Muslims staged violent protests——over a CARTOON.

Who were their counterparts during the Weimar era among the Jews? The Muslims are not the new Jews. Jews are not ‘cool’ so it’s always in style to dump on them without having to worry about the consequences. It goes back thousands of years and in my humble opinion it will probably continue to go on as long as there still are Jewish people around to be maligned and even persecuted again. 

When a Muslim commits a terrorist crime or a Muslim government uses barbaric methods to enforce Shariah (sp?) or oppresses the human rights of its female citizens, it’s always safest to say that these people are only “a few extremists” etc., etc.  And even though there are scores of Muslims who don’t fit this description all over the world, they don’t speak out to condemn this type of behavior nearly enough if at all. The ones that do are the real outliers. There are minor acknowledgements that these incidents did in fact result in the deaths of innocent people—with asterisks attached that lead to what are basicaly justifications for these crimes against humanity (‘on the other hand…’) 

The Muslims that act on this kind of violent intolerance number higher than the “few extremists” that make up ... I don’t know, wackos in America like Timothy McVeigh, or the Weathermen, who people who were indeed on the fringes of the right and left respectively.

Cochin Blogger 09.09.09 | 2:10 AM ET

[full disclosure: I’m an agnostic who is neither Jew nor Muslim.]

All I implied is that the scale of prejudice against Muslims today is beginning to rival the scale of the prejudice that was reserved for Jews earlier. Nothing more, nothing less. Your post, I’m sorry to say, only strengthens my contention.

Greenhousecarol 10.21.09 | 6:34 AM ET

My partner and I agree with your perspectives on global travel, Rick. Your voice adds a much needed depth to discussions on travel, tolerance and the changing world. I appreciate your political and social commentary, and we heed your travel advice, too!

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