I just got back from two weeks in Spain and one thing I learned is that you can tell a lot about a country from its public bathrooms.
Public bathrooms in the U.S., as compared to those in Spain or the Netherlands, put the lie to what Dick Armey said, as reported in the encomium to his de facto leadership of the tea-party movement in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine:
“Europe is governed by a concern for the collective…That’s what they care about. What makes us different is that we begin with the liberty of the individual. We got it right, and they got it wrong.”
Not exactly, Mr. Armey. Sure some things are better in the good old U.S. of A. than in Europe, but not everything.
Consider the public restroom. Now I have been in some execrable bathrooms in Italy and France, but my last two trips abroad were to Spain and the Netherlands, and in both countries the stalls in public bathrooms were almost everywhere individual rooms with real locks and even door knobs; and when they were mere stalls, the stall walls ran all the way from floor to ceiling. Even in the one or two public bathrooms in which there was wall space at the top or the bottom of stalls, it was never more than 3 or so inches, not enough room for someone with a wide stance to insinuate his foot and calf into his neighbor’s stall. And in both countries, the toilets were always well stocked and very clean—even in bus and train stations.
Seems to me that at least in Spain and the Netherlands, there is public respect for the individual reflected in the privacy they give everyone to do what is a very private action for most people. In fact, most people feel at least some small twinge of humiliation when sitting in stalls with walls shorter than they measure and feet visible just inches away. Or imagine high school students in so many public urban high schools today, who have to sit there without a door. Of course, children can avoid the humiliation of no door merely by going to a private school.
Now what happened in Dick Armey’s land of the individual that has led to our awful small and unprivate stalls? My hunch is that builders hired engineers to put together standards based on what was the least expensive way to give a wall between people sitting in the bathroom. That means developers and building operators lowered costs.
In the United States, individuality means “every man (and woman) for him (her) self,” or put more mechanistically, the opportunity to make as much money as possible for yourself by any means possible.
By contrast, the collectives running Spain and Netherlands foster individual self-expression, dignity and privacy.
I’m not saying that Europe is better in all things, but that Armey is wrong to say that we have a superior society. We could learn many things from the Europeans, such as mass transit and walking to get around in cities and on-time, high-speed trains to get between cities.
And one thing that we can learn from Spain and the Netherlands is that individuality is more than a matter of equal economic opportunity.