The Golden Age is over

For some time, right-wing alarmists in the U.S. have been complaining that the culture of political correctness has run amok. So imagine their despair to find out this weekend that the disease has, apparently, spread. On Friday, word spread that the Amsterdam Museum has banned the phrase “Golden Age” (in Dutch, Gouden Eeuw) from all exhibits and displays. The reason: the term doesn’t take into account that the golden years weren’t golden for everyone.

The Laughing Cavalier, by Frans Hals. Guys like this were on top of the world during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th Century.

Up to now — and let’s be honest, still now — the term “Dutch Golden Age” is the one phrase that instantly brings to mind the paintings of Rembrandt and Vermeer, the science of Leeuwenhoek and Huygens, the city that gave rise to capitalism and the folly of Tulip madness. And, of course, Spinoza. When I talk to people about the novel I’m working on and I say it’s set in 17th Century Amsterdam — blank stares. If I say, “the Dutch Golden Age,” they suddenly get it.

But the museum has a point, too. Because all those amazing things were underwritten by the Dutch West India Co. and the Dutch East India Co. And those massive enterprises were engaged in the spice trade in Asia and the sugar trade in the Americas. These conglomerates were rooted in colonialistic aspirations, and in the Americas especially, that meant the business of kidnapping and selling human beings.

Past perfect tension

When we consider the past, it’s natural to do so using the perspectives and values of our current times. After all, they are the only values and perspectives we personally know. But anyone who has taken some time to scratch the surface of history knows that these values change over time, and given enough time, they can change drastically.

Former headquarters of the Dutch West India Company. Credit: Amsterdam Municipal Department for the Preservation and Restoration of Historic Buildings and Sites.

For instance, Amsterdam today is known as an open-minded haven of humanism. It wasn’t always the case. In the 1700s, the city went through waves of murdering gay people in the midst of a moral panics. People change; so do the mores of whole cultures.

That doesn’t mean we’re wrong to be shocked by way things used to be. I was ashamed to learn how Amsterdam’s Jewish community treated the black people who lived among them, often as Jews themselves. It is deeply embarrassing to me to know that people who shared the same faith were shunted off into the back tiers of the synagogue, and even in death were segregated to different parts of the cemetery — among many other humiliations. No amount of “that’s just the way it was” takes the sting out of it.

But the people living in the 1600s didn’t have the benefit of our perspective. They were locked into their own time. Among them, vanishingly few had the foresight to envision a world where men and women could be co-equal, where Native Americans could live peaceably among newly arrived Europeans and where black people were entitled to live freely and with dignity. The few with the vision to see these things were considered outlandish.

Should the people of the 1600s, then, be judged for not having our perspective? To be honest, I don’t know.

It seems plain to me that even using texts of their own time, you could arrive at the conclusion that chattel slavery is an evil that should be. In fact, that’s what people a few centuries later would eventually do armed with little more than their bibles and their own sense of compassion.

At the same time, education then wasn’t what it is now. Cities like Amsterdam did have public education, but it was more basic than what exists today. Universities existed only for the elite. Life was harder, and many people were too consumed with basic survival to spend much time thinking about more complicated things.

The people who operated the cavernous slave castle in Elmina, who captained and sailed the deadly slave ships, who made their living from the auction blocks and profited directly from the labor of human beings they owned, who tore apart families and felt no remorse as they wrenched children away from the arms of weeping mothers — these people should have known better. Anyone with a heart, anyone with a soul would have known they were were monsters.

Old Woman Selling Eggs, by Hendrick Bloemaert. How much do you suppose she knew about the Trans-Atlantic slave trade?

A fishmonger on the streets of Amsterdam? The farmer’s wife in Zeeland tending to the home and six children? The butcher’s apprentice rising before dawn to provide his village with a steady supply of sausages? The Americas were remote to these people. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade was abstract to most of them.

There was no television to show them the abject cruelty of slavery, or movie theater to depict it for them. The first newspapers were starting to be printed, but how much ink was spilled in sympathy to the plight of enslaved people? Were there even books being published to let people know about the true evils of the slave trade that underpinned their society?

I don’t know that I can easily convict the everyday citizen of the Dutch Republic — not in the 1600s, not in that so-called Golden Age.

All that glitters is not gold?

So where does that leave us today? Is “Golden Age” something that should be ditched, along with so many other terms that have been set aside as being insensitive and misguided? Or does it serve a purpose that merits keeping it around?

School Class with a Sleeping School Master, by Jan Steen. According to this, public education has always had its challenges.

First, I am heartened that the conversation is happening at all. Europe, America and other “western” countries still have a lot of reckoning to do before we set the record straight in regards to our past acts. And far too often, this conversation is only done grudgingly, if at all.

Honestly, I don’t know enough nuance about the Netherlands to assess how well the conversation has gone there. I do know that the tradition of Zwarte Piet have given many people, especially black people, pause here in the U.S. And I am very curious how well the Dutch have come to terms with their role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade — and especially curious how black Dutch people feel about this.

I’m not casting aspersions here. I am very disappointed with how well my own country has done this. The same people crying about states taking down the Confederate battle flag and statues of Confederate generals because it is “erasing history” are the very same people telling black people to “just get over” the legacy of slavery because “it is in the past.”

The U.S. has been slow to have this discussion as well. As I noted last month, a historical fort I first visited as a child has made a monumental change in the way it portrays the relationship between the Native American Ojibwe tribe and the English military occupying the fort and the uprising that happened there. The changes are much more humanizing for the Ojibwe and, as a result, present a much more nuanced picture of the history. And this is a great thing! It’s not just a good thing for political correctness, being sensitive or whatever you choose to call it. It’s a great thing for history, because history is always much more complex than one simple storyline.

Holding a master’s degree in counseling, I also know this much is true: the effects of trauma won’t go away until that trauma is confronted and dealt with. And I can’t think of anything more traumatic than centuries of chattel slavery followed by Jim Crow, segregation and the everyday terrorism of white supremacy. Things will not get better until we are serious about confronting our past.

And this is why, to be honest, I don’t really think there’s much to be gained by ending the use of a phrase like “The Golden Age.” The words “Golden Age” aren’t what are hurting anyone. Nor are those words preventing anyone from talking about or learning about the evils that were done in the name of wealth, profiteering and supremacy. On the other hand, “Golden Age” is a phrase that is easily understandable to people who wouldn’t otherwise know that the 17th Century was the time period when Amsterdam was booming. And once you get them in the door, you can tell them that much of this boom came at the expense of people who were being viciously exploited.

A phrase like the Golden Age makes history more accessible. And god help us, we need to be talking about our history more if we want our future to change.

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