Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Just spent a few days in Amsterdam researching scenes for the new Rain book, Requiem for an Assassin. Amsterdam is a beautiful city with a lot to recommend it: historical architecture, charming canals, great public transit. You have to be careful about impressions formed in a single city over the course of 72 hours, but my sense is that there's a strong sense of national identity here. I like the atmosphere. The people are friendly, but there's business in the air -- maybe not the kind of uncut capitalism that supercharges Saigon, but enough to make the Netherlands one of the EU's most thriving economies.

The economic dynamism exists side by side with (or despite? because of?) the country's famously practical approach to drugs and sex. As an American, I find it odd to stroll by women displaying themselves in windows like produce in a supermarket, or to see people doing bong hits in coffeehouses, but the cohesiveness of Dutch society and the strength of the Dutch economy suggest that western civilization won't be doomed if the government gets out of the idiotic business of prohibiting the use of drugs and the sale of sex.

(Did John Rain indulge himself in any of Amsterdam's coffeehouses, you ask? Read Requiem for an Assassin, out on June 26, and find out... ;-))

But Amsterdam holds lessons larger then the desirability of ending prohibition. The very success of the Dutch model -- in contrast with the dramatic failures of America's "War on Drugs" -- makes me wonder why, in the 21st century and with so much evidence to the contrary, America goes on clinging with rigor mortis determination to an obviously failed policy.

Probably part of the answer lies in our Puritan roots. Sex and drugs feel good (then-drug czar -- and nicotine addict -- William Bennett tried to deny it about drugs, but come on, why else do people like them?). Maybe the Puritan underpinnings of our collective unconscious say, "Pleasure... bad! Must prohibit!" Or something like that.

But I think there's something else going on. Sometimes we're not good at separating ends and means, objectives and tactics. When we don't like something and wish we didn't have to deal with it, the means we choose become at least as important as our objectives. We wish people wouldn't use drugs, so we make them illegal. We wish people wouldn't buy and sell sex -- ditto. We wish Castro hadn't come to power -- embargo (can anyone think of other examples? There are a ton, but enumerating them would make for a very long post. But hints: war on terror, AIDS prevention and condoms...). In all these examples, the primary benefit of the chosen policy is to make us feel virtuous, uncorrupted, uncompromising. Meanwhile, the stated objectives of the policies -- eradicating drugs and prostitution, deposing Castro -- go unmet. In fact, the policies achieve perverse side effects, empowering criminals, undermining elected governments in Latin America, and empowering Castro by providing him with an excuse for his own economic failures.

(What was that typically deliciously dry phrase The Economist had about the Castro embargo? "Forty years is a long time for a policy to fail.")

We need to remind ourselves that the policy and its objectives are not the same thing. Then we need to pick realistic objectives (for drugs, I would define the objective as a level of national use low enough to have no material impact on society as a whole). Finally, we need to choose the policies most likely to achieve those objectives, rather than the ones that primarily benefit our narcissistic desire to feel holier than thou.

You don't have to be in favor of drugs, prostitution, or Fidel Castro to want to end prohibition, decriminalize the sale of sex, and end the embargo on Cuba. In fact, your personal feelings on any of these subjects ought not even to be relevant. What matters is the result that's best for society, not the policy that's best for our egos. Holland gets this. Why can't we?


Anonymous said...

I was in Holland way back in the day (1977) on my first honeymoon (my 1st wife’s family was Dutch) and I remember having long discussions with her great uncle (a guy who ran a handicapped village in Osterbeek—amazing stuff, really). While I was amazed at how Holland took care of its people (especially their elderly, who they feel should be rewarded, not discarded, for putting so much into society), Uncle Williams was amazed at all the waste in America when he had visited here the year before in 1976. Specifically, the food on plates that was shoveled into the garbage. This was right after getting my political science degree when I was still very liberal (a socialist really), and I didn’t understand (I still don’t) how this country (USA) doesn’t have national health insurance, etc. Uncle William explained to me (and now it makes more sense), that Holland is a very small country by comparison and that handling such things is much easier because of its size. On the other hand, now that almost 30 years have gone by, Holland has its own set of problems regarding immigration and, more specifically, Muslims.

I still don’t understand why we have drug laws that defy logic (I’m all for legalizing drugs/always have been) … prostitution ditto (the liberal still in me, I guess) … but I have done a 180 on some other issues like unions (of which I was once a member). I don’t have a problem with unions so long as they aren’t run like the UFT in New York (where not only are incompetent teachers protected, so are those who sexually hit on their students). You just can't fire them, it seems.

It will be interesting to see how Holland handles their immigration problems over the next few years. Sometimes freedom has to have it’s limits (as some here believe in the southwest).

Ali Karim said...

Hi Barry -

Great Post - I fell in love with Amsterdam after reading Alistair MaClean's PUPPET ON A CHAIN and Ian Fleming's DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER and have visited Holland many, many times both business and pleasure. I usually visit twice a year on business.

Amsterdam is a city that has such stark contrasts between the canals that snake behind the Hotel Kariponolsky [Dam Sq], where the red-light district is, with the coffee bars, strip clubs et. al. and then the wonderful people, buildings and heritage, the art and Diamond market, the flowers, - Amsterdam is just a wonderful city - great that Rain is spending a bit of time there.


Mark Terry said...

The U.S. policy on drugs, prostitution and Cuba all come down to a lack of practicality, I suspect.

I remember an interview by a senator who surprised me with his candor on the "War on Drugs." Why not legalize, he was asked.

He kind of sighed and said, "If you have a policy of 'no tolerance' then you have to make them illegal. Otherwise you have to change the 'no tolerance' policy and the country has shown no signs of wanting to do that."

I wish I remember who he was, because I'd probably vote for him. The U.S. seems very willing to say "this is the correct course of action, so we will continue it" even if that course of action doesn't work. I don't understand our Cuba embargo at all. All we've really done with it is turn a potentially economically successful country just off our shores into a third world dictatorship. I'm hard pressed to figure out why administration after administration continues with a policy that has so clearly failed to do what it started out to achieve.

The whole discussion reminds me of conservatives' insistence on not teaching birth control and the use of condoms because they argue it will encourage teenagers to have sex. What planet did these people come from? Teenagers and everybody else are bombarded with sexual images and are far more interested in sex than most adults (hard to believe). Since I have a public health background, I'm far more of a realist, which is to say:

People will have sex no matter what you tell them to do, therefore you should teach them to do so safely to prevent pregnancies and the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases. Period. I just don't get the arguments against it. It seems so pie-in-the-sky.

Maybe part of the issue is a belief that if you're not against it, you're for it. (Like terrorism, no? Isn't that what GBW said? If you're not with us, you're against us?) The question then is, is it possible to allow things you disapprove of (drugs, prostitution, communism) without condoning those things?


Mark Terry

JD Rhoades said...

Holland gets this. Why can't we?

Money. A lot of people's jobs--good solid government jobs with good benefits, not to mention lots of power--depend on the Drug War.
Then there's control of great big budgets by anti-drug politicians, bringing them more power and influence (and great bullet points for their campaign literature).

What's the quote? It's hard to convince a man that something is true when his paycheck depends on it not being true?

Barry Eisler said...

Rob, for some reason your comment wouldn't post. So I'm pasting it in here:

"Rob Pugh has left a new comment on your post "Amsterdam":

"Actually, I am in favor of drugs and prostitution... but not Castro. On him I'm ambivalent. Oh well, 2 for 3 isn't bad. The sad thing is that American politics is driven by ego, so the idea that we'd be able to separate policy from ego, well... it's just highly unlikely. Love the Rain books, keep up the great writing! Love the blog, ditto."

Anonymous said...

Barry Wrote: "As an American, I find it odd to stroll by women displaying themselves in windows like produce in a supermarket, or to see people doing bong hits in coffeehouses, but the cohesiveness of Dutch society and the strength of the Dutch economy suggest that western civilization won't be doomed if the government gets out of the idiotic business of prohibiting the use of drugs and the sale of sex."

I'm confused here. Is this what you are suggesting would be better here in the U.S. of A than what we have now, sex and drugs out in the open?

Anonymous said...

I forgot Cuba ... totally absurd (the embargo) ... just dumbness that has snowballed far too long and through way too many administrations. You'd think the momentum would've died by now. Somehow, like the mess Iraq has become, bad stuff has it's own inertia.

Anonymous said...

Whoever pulls the plug on the Cuban embargo guarantees that his/her political party will loose Florida in the national elections for years to come.

Anonymous said...

I think the time has come for one or both (certainly a third party) to let go of Florida (or just stop playing to any one constituency). Florida didn't lose the election for Gore ... it could be aruged that Tennessee did (his home state) and one or two other periphery states (not to mention letting his campaign be run by reactions to Saturday Night Live skits).

It's beyond a single state's important (Cuba is). The embargo is pointless.

Not to mention those cigars, brother ...

Anonymous said...

Is the legalization of drugs best for society? Or best for those who now use illegally and want to do away with the stigma of having to do illegal buys on the street? In my mind, we already have one 'legal drug' causing havoc with humans as young as 12...alcohol. Until this country can make sure drivers no longer drive drunk and teens no longer die from alcohol overdoses how can we believe legalizing other drug use would be any different? Yes, it might stop the deaths from tainted heroin, cocaine or marijuana, but will it stop people high on anything from hash to LSD from endangering the lives of others, either by automobile or other weapon? Legalizing drugs won't necessarily stop drug-related crimes. I certainly don't want to (knowingly)trust my life to a pilot or shuttle driver whose breakfast was a line of cocaine. Or walk down the street and be assaulted by an addict who needs money so he or she can run into the local 711 for a fix.
Perhaps what works for some (and if Holland has it all under control I applaud them) in a small way is not such a good idea for this society of instant gratification seeking citizens.
Just my own personal opinion...and I would legalize marijuana for medical use by the way (if it isn't already).

Papigiulio said...

Hi Barry,

thanks for visiting my website. Actually the government is trying to illegalize the cannabis usage in Holland now, or at least working on a law that forbids it.

But they tried it many times before. I think Holland needs the legalislation, because the law would cause riots and its one of our great tourist attractions, thus brings money in the drawer.

I for one don't use cannabis...DID tho, maybe John Rain will use it in your last book and then gets into a fight while being stoned hehe. Looking forward to reading your books ^^

take care