When a public official from Rotterdam, the Netherlands, authorized the dismantling of a piece of the historic bridge known as De Hef last February, it didn’t seem like a big deal. A shipping company, Oceanco, had applied to be able to move a huge and very luxurious superyacht from the shipyard where she was under construction to the open sea, and it would be a matter of days. He did not imagine that his permit would cause a huge city scandal that soon ended up in newspapers around the world: the reason was the owner of the yacht, the founder of Amazon Jeff Bezos.
The people of Rotterdam, and the Dutch in general, did not like that concession to the third richest person in the world, with an estimated fortune of 160 billion dollars. Even if removing the bridge in itself would not have been a great sacrifice: the train has not passed it since the 1990s, and cars and pedestrians use the newer one that passes alongside it. It was a question of removing the horizontal structure that connects the two steel towers, Oceanco would cover the costs, and things would be back as before in a day or two. But for the citizens and the administration of Rotterdam it was a matter of principle: “What can you buy with all the money in the world? Can you bend every rule? Can you take the monuments apart? ”Former city councilor Stefan Lewis asked the New York Times. After extensive protests, the permit was revoked in Oceanco, which will now have to find another solution to deliver the superyacht to Bezos.
“It was an opportunity to see Dutch and American values in a hard head-on collision,” wrote The New York Times, which recently reported on how the whole affair was perceived in the city. On the one hand there was Bezos and above all everything he has come to represent in recent years, in which he has become a sort of global supervillain for many people due to Amazon’s business model and the way it treats its employees and those of the companies he works with. On the other hand, there was a society, like the Dutch one, which prefers “modesty to eccentricity, community to the individual, integration to emergence” summarized the New York Times.
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Ellen Verkoelen, city councilor and local leader of the 50Plus party, which represents the interests of retirees, explained that for the Dutch, “behaving normally is crazy enough, and we think that the rich are not behaving normally. Here in the Netherlands we don’t believe you can be rich the way it works in America, where there are no limits. We think: be normal. That’s enough. ‘ On her own, Verkoelen also thinks that Oceanco’s request was not so anomalous: but after hearing the protests of her citizens, she understood the reasons for the discontent.
This relationship with wealth is somewhat of a Dutch characteristic, somewhat analogous to that widespread in other Northern European countries and more generally throughout Europe, where individual enrichment and success are seen in a very different way than in the United States. United. To explain the reactions to Bezos’ request there are reasons linked to Calvinism, a Protestant confession that preaches frugality and self-discipline, virtues that are still very popular despite the fact that the Netherlands is one of the most notoriously secular European countries. “Calvino teaches that you are responsible for your money, which means you have to give it to charity, be generous. Work is a divine calling for which you are held accountable. It is considered bad for society and for the soul if you flaunt it, ”explained James Kennedy, professor of modern Dutch history at Utrecht University.
This does not mean that there are no billionaires in the Netherlands, or that social inequalities are not marked, and that the gap between rich and poor is not widening as in the rest of the West. But, the New York Times notes, it is considered a matter of pride for a prime minister to ride a bicycle to work, and even the royal family maintains a relatively sober lifestyle.
In short, they were not the best conditions for the citizens of Rotterdam to make life easy for a multi-billionaire who wanted to move a 500 million dollar boat. When Lewis learned of the clearance he called the deputy mayor’s office, who knew nothing about it. From there the word began to spread, and the indignant and provocative headlines about the privilege granted to Bezos began to accumulate. It was Oceanco herself who eventually withdrew the request, perhaps fearing vandal retaliation.
Now it is not known how the shipping company will move the yacht, because it seems that it is very inconvenient to make it go elsewhere. However, you will not be able to pass through the De Hef, one of the symbols that the residents are most fond of. It is one of the very few historical structures – dating back to 1927 – that survived the devastating bombings of the Second World War. A few decades ago there was talk of demolishing it: but there were so many protests that not only was it preserved, but it was also declared a national monument in 2000.
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