A long-read from an American living in Amsterdam, who’s trying to make sense of his country from afar — one he sometimes hardly recognizes. An essay intended to provoke personal reflection, challenge entrenched views, explore fresh perspectives, and inspire hope in a possible way forward.
It is the third Tuesday of September in this rat-f’d Year of the Rat.
Officially still six days from the autumnal equinox, it is the unofficial last day of summer, a final blast of sun and heat before the season turns, and with it the short days of winter which loom just around the corner.
It’s 30 degrees (86F) at 5pm, and after my last zoom call, it’s time to shut the laptop and head out for a power-walk through the nearby sun-drenched Vondelpark to stock up on some vitamin-D and get some steps in.
The park is pumping. Everybody is out.
Amsterdam-style 2020 culture prevails. Half of the humans are already in “enjoying-the-moment zone,” while the other half are busy coming and going to get there and do the same.
A second wave of COVID anecdotally is in the air — later to be confirmed in the data from the days which would follow.
Still, not a mask to be seen. Less than token effort with physical distancing.
The Vondelpark during commute hours is a daily thoroughfare for bicyclists. Thousands fly through on their fiets. Not a helmet in sight. Decorum is ensured thanks to deceptively cheerful bicycle bells which twinkle hostilities at those who drift from their lane.
On this midweek September evening, the park is 100% inhabited by locals. Nary a tourist peloton to be seen.
Bikers whiz. Walkers strut. Runners weave. Picnics everywhere. HIIT classes building glutes. Dogs off leash. Clouds of weed smoke waft — betraying the local narrative that only tourists partake.
The low-judgemental vibe in the park is as intoxicating as the THC.
It strikes me as remarkable how unremarkable it all is. The effortless feeling of belonging is gripping.
Amsterdam has long been the continent’s haven for liberalism.
The trading port established during the Dutch gilded era has brought the world’s cultures together through its free-trade and open markets for hundreds of years.
Great traders, the pragmatic Dutch learned the best way to get along with everyone: Live and let live. The result is an extremely high tolerance for the practices of others, tempered by a society governed by highly conforming behavioral norms.
There’s practically an unofficial Dutch national uniform. White shirt. Blue pants. Brown shoes. Brown belt. Wavy hair.
So-called doe normaal culture reigns. The two-word phrase in Nederlands acts as a universal behavioral arbiter. Doe normaal essentially means “be normal.” Quit causing a scene. Do your thing, just don’t drag anyone else into it.
Should someone create a scene, the two-word quip usually is enough to take care of it.
This cultural anchor in part helps explain why one of the most well-educated societies on Earth shuns the bike helmet. No, it’s not that the Dutch hair products act as a substitute. It’s about doe normaal. I’m not bothering you, so leave me be.
What makes this liberal pragmatism work so well is it’s combination with a very strong cultural norm to conform. Behavioral conformity is the ideal partner to an open-minded society.
Soft drugs? Legal.
Anything goes because everyone behaves anyway. Those who deviate can expect to hear the telltale tring-tring of a bike bell, chiding them to get back in their lane.
Which sheds light on the free-wheeling spirit I felt as I toured the Vondelpark that evening. The vibe in the park was authentic and local. It felt contagious. It’s one of my favorite parts about life in “liberal” Amsterdam.
I float through and admire the scene. The well-behaved collective is comprised of individual characters as you look more closely.
I notice a motley crew of six non-conforming misfits who have informally gathered sitting along a bridge, feet dangling. I’m reminded of the island of misfit toys in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. This is their spot. They belong. And it’s all good.
Nearby, a young adult leans against a tree, lightly strumming a guitar, singing softly and pleasantly enough to be ignorable.
A hippy chick sways to the beat of a tune loud enough for only her to hear — unabashedly executing an unmistakable series of choreographed dance moves on an otherwise empty picnic blanket. This was her jam. Dancing as if no one was watching.
And yet, there she was, in direct line of sight of no less than 200 strangers, each doing their own thing, ostensibly all heeding her little attention, and caring even less.
The dancer got me wondering. Could I pull that off? Would I? Have I? I have! Where have I ever felt so unfettered and utterly unselfconscious? Widespread Panic at Red Rocks. Grateful Dead at the Silver Bowl. Phish at the Mandalay Bay.
Getting my overbite, slightly out-of-beat, bad-posture funky groove on.
No one judging. Everyone doing their own thing. Where everyone belongs.
Where everyone belongs.
The insight hits me hard, as I took in the scene in the park.
Humans crave authentic belonging. All of us.
It being exactly seven Tuesdays before my fellow Americans were scheduled to go to the polls in the highest-stakes election of my lifetime, my thoughts leap to the other pervasive (non-COVID) topic of the day — the looming redux of the Civil War in America, 160 years later.
The American life I’m familiar with is anchored in being a member of a combination of (overlapping) communities. School community. Neighbors. Book clubs. Poker groups. Alumni networks. Friend chats. Social media friends. Organizations. Churches. Clubs. In each such community, individuals are made to feel they belong, largely on the strength of common affinity.
That we all want to belong is not the revelation.
The revelation is the alienation between reds and blues is the result of a toxic cocktail made of two ingredients:
- Their respective cultures of belonging are at odds with each other
- Each has a blind spot which triggers the other
First Toxic Ingredient: Opposing Cultures of Belonging
Blues are loose. They identify as a fragmented and loosely unified federation of interests and beliefs — unified by principles, values, and orientations which are largely but not uniquely pointed in the same direction. I guess you can call that left. Fundamental to the blue camp is a big tent, with room for all comers. Directionally aligned, views range widely. Loose alliances form.
A unifying belief within the blue federation is all are welcome to join. People have freedom to love who they want, worship how they want, and live how they want. Our doors are open. Bring your best curry to the community pot-luck dinner and please note my preferred pronouns. A tapestry of loose connections — individually under-represented and against long odds — the tribe coalesces and roots for each other. To support each others’ just cause, whatever it is, even if they don’t always agree.
Reds are tight. They are close-knit. Fiercely loyal. And, damned proud of it. They love the home team. All the better when the home team is a huge favorite to win. Everyone wears the colors and flies the flag. Reds host the best tailgaters with the full spread. At the stadium. At the mega-church. At the school fundraiser.
A unifying belief within the red tribe is all are welcome to join in. Our doors are open. Come on down! Bring the whole family. To belong is to join in. To demonstrate loyalty. Pay respect. To belong is to conform.
To not conform within the reds means to be judged. And banished to the out-group.
But, make no mistake, there is pressure to conform in the blue culture too. To be enlightened. To be green. To be gender fluid. To never offend others. To be politically correct. To not consume animal proteins. To use the right pronouns. To correct for bias. To be woke.
To not conform within the blues means to be judged. And risk being placed in the out-group.
Same same. But different.
Blues judge those who conform into the red culture — particularly disenfranchised groups like women, working poor, and people of color — as blind, deaf, mute, and positively dumb.
It infuriates blues to hear them parrot predictably rehearsed talking points, so often against their own self-interest. Blues want them to see the veneer of the cult they are stuck inside. Hoping they will somehow glimpse the classic signs of Stockholm Syndrome.
Forget taking a sideways glance at the enchanting quarterback from the other team, let alone daring to question why ours kneeling at the end of the game is to be celebrated, while theirs taking a knee during the anthem induces cardiac pain.
Red rover, red rover send Ashley right over. Don’t forget your blue ribbon potato salad and brisket.
Reds get triggered, too. Reds want the blues to pipe down, quit making a fuss, and show respect for those who precede them. Blues are like bratty untamed children who have bad manners. They lack class and nuance and are so self-centered. Everything is about them! Quit standing out and join the flock.
Reds don’t want anyone telling them they should feel bad about staying close to their crew. And for God’s sake quit telling us which bathrooms to use.
From the red perspective, why should we celebrate those who choose to deviate from the mean? Those who are not rooting for the home team, are against it. Can’t you see you are being selfish? Your deviant noise is distracting and making us weak. Step in line and start pulling your weight.
Forget hoping you will make no drama at the family picnic, let alone dare not to make a fuss with your biodegradable cutlery, alternative proteins, and free-range-fair-trade-gluten-free BBQ sauce.
Is it wrong to assimilate in order to belong?
During the tail-end of a seven-year stretch living in Asia, in 2016 I cashed in hard-earned frequent flyer miles and made a 72 hour dash from Singapore to Las Vegas for a pair of epic Phish shows and boys weekend with my hometown crew.
While ostensibly open to all, the jamband live music scene is in fact remarkably uniform. Wealthy, whitey, waspy.
With a headful, and halfway through the first song, I scanned the crowd and marveled at the profound lack of melanin in the throng of 12,000 disparate bobbing heads.
“Hey” I said, with big eyes, leaning into whichever homogeneous ear was closest, “Look how white everyone is!” I exclaimed in genuine shock. He was confused that I was confused.
Have you been to a Phish show? It’s like a trekkie convention mixed with a computer science show. Nerds galore.
A sea of pasty white nerds shaking their bones.
The stark obviousness of it was lost on my (white) friends who hadn’t spent the prior 5 years living in Asia the way I had — where my Caucasian children were featured on our Singapore school’s website as tokens to showcase its own ethnic diversity.
Yet, in that moment, I couldn’t deny the delicious satisfaction from drinking deeply from the fountain of belonging.
Gravitational forces which bring like-minded people together are exceptionally strong. The fastest path to belonging is to find and join people who share a lot in common. Belonging comes so easily with others who share affinity.
I am no stranger to how good belonging through common affinity feels.
One of the most intimate moments of my life happened on a pedestrian Monday night when I was 18 years-old in 1987 in a funky smelling “commons” room in Durham, North Carolina. A perfunctory and largely administrative Monday fraternity chapter meeting turned suddenly into something rather different when one of the 60 “brothers” unexpectedly called for a so-called “Good of the Order” — an obscure chapter governance mechanism which opens the floor to any and all to speakers in a round-the-circle free-reign format.
GOTO was not completely unheard-of, and was sometimes seen as a procedural nuisance which allowed the disgruntled a dramatic way to air dirty laundry. But, on this Monday night Sloane unexpectedly kicked off proceedings with an intense yet intimate fifteen minute meandering soliloquy revealing an unprompted string of heart-felt feelings to the utter silence and rapt attention of our peers.
A tone of vulnerability was set, and others subsequently followed with a sprawling range of stories and reveals which were unprecedented for a group of 17–20 year old boys in the 1980s. The masks came off.
It was past 3am Tuesday morning before the room concluded its full around-the-horn trip. To this day, I remember the deep intimate feelings of closeness we shared with that group in sitting through 5+ hours of story-telling and soul-baring.
It was a moment of true belonging.
Second Toxic Ingredient: Duelling Blind Spots
What is the relevance of these two personal stories?
Having also experienced the invigorating brilliance of the magic of when different worlds serendipitously collide — I am embarrassed to admit my comfort zone is so… comfortable.
I’ve experienced spectacular joy which comes from being outside of my comfort zone and from the thrill of new and surprising experiences. “Variety is the spice of life” as my beloved Dad has long professed.
My own experiences, even as a blue thinker inclined to chide conformity, force me to reckon with and appreciate the validity of affinity-based belonging. And challenge my own beliefs and biases.
Which leads me to the second part of the mixology of the toxic cocktail: Add two dashes of blind spots.
The red blind spot: “Everyone is welcome to join does not mean everyone has to join.”
- If you are not with me on right-to-life, how can I trust you on taxes?
- Those who are not with me, are against me.
- But, if you are with me, then I know we think alike.
- This leads to groupthink.
- Which perpetuates a fixed mindset.
The reds’ blind spot comes from the requirement to exclusively cheer for the home team, no matter what. Loyalty demands it. Reds can’t see this blind spot. Anyone can join. Come on down. If you don’t want to join, that’s your problem.
Reds act superior (and come across as narrow-minded, self-serving, and myopic) as they believe their culture of belonging is open and inclusive, without seeing how exclusive it actually feels to those not wanting to conform.
The blue blind spot: “Our tent is big. There is room for everyone. Terms and conditions apply.”
- If you are not even vegan, where are you on fricking fracking?
- I’m more woke than you.
- I judge your character and your leather shoes.
- I can’t even hear your ideas or views.
- You are canceled, because you are unenlightened.
- This leads to groupthink.
- Which perpetuates a fixed mindset.
The blues’ blind spot is the exclusivity of the “big tent.” Blues can’t see it. In their eyes, all are welcome. So long as you are right. (I mean left). Come on in. If you aren’t enlightened enough to enter, that’s your problem.
Blues act superior (and come across elitist and out of touch) as they believe their culture of belonging is open and inclusive, without seeing how exclusive it actually feels to those outside looking in.
If Amsterdam’s superpower has been as a beacon for liberalism, America’s superpower has been its global leadership as a beacon for inclusive belonging.
Think Ellis Island. Or, Emma Lazarus’ poem inscripted on The Statue of Liberty:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
These words are not about religion or charity. They are about inclusion. The words are saying America is the Island of Misfit Toys. Where Herbie can be a dentist. Where a train can have square wheels on its caboose. Where cowboy’s can ride ostriches. Where everyone can belong.
The blind spots are both about a lack of inclusion. Both sides think they are more inclusive than the other. Neither is.
I love the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games as teams majestically parade into the stadium in alphabetical order. Afghanistan. Albania. Algeria. Andorra. I love watching the joy of each nation’s athletes proudly strut around the stadium, waving their home flag with huge smiles, proudly donning their local garb.
When the Americans inevitably enter the stadium, it is impossible not to be dazzled by striking visual diversity of the USA delegation. Truly a rainbow of ethnicities in bold contrast to the homogeneity of the vast majority of the other nations. Each waving tiny American flags, proudly representing our country.
This is the “great” part of America which has gone missing. Our lost superpower of being a place where everyone belongs.
How do we get this superpower back?
The unproductive and unnecessary judgement of others is our kryptonite.
As such, perhaps the Dutch have a key to unlocking the puzzle in doe normaal.
We have to make room for the differing cultures of belonging by reducing our judgment and allowing others to do their thing, notably when it doesn’t drag others down.
If reds want to have their exclusive country clubs or Harley Davidson rallies at Sturgis, blues must not judge. If blues want to whoop it up at Burning Man, drink kombucha, and build support networks for transgenders at risk, reds must not judge.
Importantly, for their part, revellers must leave others alone, never inflict harm, and avoid projecting their values onto others without consent. Don’t tread on me.
A strong America does not come from becoming a melting pot as a single unified culture. We are strongest as a kick-ass all-you-care-to-eat buffet — a full smorgasbord of global cultures. Individual states who are united.
Free to be original. Unjudged. Stronger together. Therein lies the magic. This is the secret sauce.
To rebuild this inclusive federation of humanity, where everyone can belong, we have to stop judging and stop bullying others into embracing our own preferred ways.
Blues must proactively get off their high horses and preemptively volunteer their shit also stinks. To make room in the tent for those who are not as woke.
Blues must embrace doe normaal and not vibrate or get triggered when others conform in their traditional line-dances, even when they seem old-fashioned or out-of-step.
Reds must stop trying to convert everyone to drink their red kool-aid. And pushing their agenda onto others through the dynamic duo of courts and churches. Do your thing, but doe normaal with respect to proselytizing. Go ahead and revel in tradition and accept originality and make room for alternative ways of thinking.
Reds must embrace doe normaal and not vibrate or get triggered when others celebrate their individuality and get all Footloose.
Only then can we get back to being a place where huddled masses can breathe free, not just yearn. In an even bigger tent which is actually inclusive.
Together we enter the Olympic stadium, to the cheers from the crowd, waving our tiny flags with our sparkling toothy smiles.
Just doe normaal, America. But, always remember, it cuts both ways.
Let’s get back to being a place where everyone belongs. Where anyone is free to get their funky groove on.
And reclaim our superpower. America’s superpower.
Brad Porteus tends to take three times longer than he needs to to make his point, adding tangental side-bar stories as he goes. If his meandering style doesn’t drive you completely mad, there is a lot more where that came from. Check here on Medium or the complete set on porteus.com.