Wal-Mart presents a realistic picture of fatherless childhood

Holiday commercials are starting to appear in TV and radio.  I love to look at them for clues to the current state of things. 

For example, one of the TV commercials that Wal-Mart is running for the 2010 holiday season is a cross-cut between two families Christmas morning, the kids opening the presents under the tree to the sound of Andy Williams’ 60s version of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”  In both families there are no fathers, only mothers. 

Wal-Mart hit the nail on the head of course.  Across the country, almost 50% of all children under 18 live without fathers in the home, and among the working poor (you know, people who work at Wal-Mart) and the poor, the percentage is even higher.  

You have to commend Wal-Mart for publicly recognizing this demographic group, which is so large as to beg the question, what represents normal in the contemporary family?  Of course, the good feeling that the single mother is able to create for her fatherless children on Christmas morning all depends on buying things, another example of the attempt of the U.S. news media to turn our emotional lives into a series of commercial transactions.

Another holiday commercial that reflects American trends in a very twisted way is a radio spot for proflowers.com that recommends in a very ordinary radio voice with not even a hint of campiness that men who want to watch football this Thanksgiving should give their wives or girlfriends a dozen roses and thereby weasel out of the requirement to help prepare the meal and clean up.  It must be meant tongue in cheek, but the announcer sure sounded pretty serious.  To those who have heard the spot and are considering buying the flowers, let me suggest that whether you buy them or not, you would be prudent to help your significant other in the kitchen.

Before signing off, I wanted to recommend Katha Pollitt’s essay in the November 30 issue of The Nation on the Democrats’ craven capitulation on abortion funding in the health care reform bill.  Exactly my view. 

The New York Times’ version of the American turkey-roasting experience: we’re dumb and it gives us the sweats.

In this past Sunday’s “Week in Review” section, New York Times’ food writer Mark Bittman describes the shared emotions of millions of people when approaching the task of cooking the sacred and sacrificial bird of late November.  Does Bittman describe an experience of joy?  Or the satisfaction of completing an important family task?  Or reverence for a tradition?

No, what Bittman says we Americans feel when roasting a turkey is extreme anxiety in our efforts to “become The Next Food Network Star or, just as difficult, the fantasy version of your grandmother.”

Here is some language Bittman uses to make the reader feel the anxiety of having to roast a turkey is a terror similar to what Polanski made people feel in “Repulsion” (in his pre-child molesting days):

  • “But Thanksgiving is a special challenge, one where panic, insecurity and worry…” (Note, too, the incorrect use of “where,” since a challenge is not a location.)
  • “It’s scary and it’s a lot of work…”
  • “Perhaps even more stressful…”
  • “Put this all together, along with your own sense of inadequacy…”
  • “Everyone is aware of the stress of Thanksgiving…”

The “you” that is either written or employed throughout the article stands for all of us: for “you” the collective whole of the (middle-class) American experience, and for you the individual reading the piece.

But in fact he makes it up.  His question at one point is “when did performance anxiety and guilt become prerequisites for offering family and friends nourishment…?”  It never did.  It’s something Bittman made up to sell the ideological subtext, which is both subtle and multi-pronged.  Let’s go to what I think are the key paragraphs for understanding the subtextual prescription of the article:

“Perhaps even more stressful is that in your role as The Modern Cook, you may feel obligated to make certain your food is politically and environmentally correct, or that you’re using only the “best” ingredients.

“Your grandmother did not have to worry about this; a turkey was a turkey. Your turkey, however, must be free range and organic, and your sweet potatoes should be heirloom and local.  Not only should you pick your own pumpkin, you should process it yourself (while hearing the voice of Martha Stewart say that she would never throw away the seeds — such a tragedy that would be!), and not only should you make your own fudge, but you should use the appropriate (fair trade and high cocoa content) chocolate. It’s a wonder you’re not making your own marshmallows, though Martha thinks perhaps you should.”

In other words, your anxiety comes down to the fear of failing to live up to today’s suddenly higher standards in food products and preparation.  Those standards actually reduce to a few important principles:

  • Use organic and locally grown produce
  • Cook from scratch as opposed to using cans and mixes.

Note that Bittman’s examples exaggerate in a semi-satirical way that makes the action seem ridiculous and yet representative of the principles:

  • Use sweet potatoes that are not just organic, but also heirloom
  • Pick your own pumpkin
  • Make your own fudge (an item that I can’t remember ever seeing at a Thanksgiving groaning board!).

The subtext, never stated, is to go ahead and use canned gravy and frozen string beans.  What is stated is that we should just take a deep breath and realize that everyone is going to love you no matter how the meal turns out.  So what the article does is spin an anxiety which it assumes that most cooks will have, and then tells you to slough off the anxiety by ignoring two very good precepts of healthy and environmentally sound cuisine which he presents in their most extreme and therefore absurd incarnations.  It’s not the judgment of others or long-time open family disagreements that makes you anxious at Thanksgiving, no it’s those damn foodies!

Creating anxiety in the reader is a prime function of both advertising and the “how-to” features of reporters covering fashion, food, fitness, home furnishings, investments, college selection and house gadgetry, since the way to assuage the anxiety is usually to buy something.  Virtually every time a feature story in a U.S. magazine, website or newspaper or radio or TV show talks about anxiety, it will offer the purchase of a product or expertise as the solution. 

Bittman’s article appears to go against this grain, but in fact by demeaning organic and locally-grown as the cause of anxiety (and as examples of the commercialization of emotions), he subtly argues for a different set of products and services that won’t give people the sweats.  He therefore transfers the anxiety from a social situation to a set of goods and services, which creates his deepest level of ideological subtext: that our emotional life should be and is played out through buying things.

Note to readers: Paul Sheldon points out that I should have left Boston off of the list of low-cost, medium-sized cities in my last blog entry.  Thanks, Paul, for the clarification.

The not-so-hidden ideology of a “Best Places” list: if it’s in a city it can’t be good.

Business Week has published a list of the best places to raise children and surprise, surprise, the Top 10 are all small suburbs or rural towns except for Honolulu.  All these suburbs are without mass transit and most have very low minority populations.

The Business Week Top 10 for raising children includes:

  1. Tinley Park, Illinois
  2. Arcadia, California
  3. Warner Robins, Georgia
  4. Honolulu, Hawaii
  5. Quincy, Massachusetts
  6. Woodbury, Minnesota
  7. Tonawanda, New York
  8. Beaverton, Oregon
  9. Clarksville, Tennessee
  10. San Marcos, Texas

Here is what BusinessWeek says about the criteria that guided its selection of the best places to raise kids: “Tinley Park, with its top-rated schools, low crime, beautiful parks, relatively affordable houses, and easy access to jobs, is the winner of BusinessWeek‘s Best Places in America to Raise Kids,” and “Safety, along with school test scores, air quality, and affordability, were weighted especially highly in this year’s calculations.  But we also considered job growth, diversity, and amenities such as museums, parks, and theaters.”

An analysis of this list of criteria, plus the criteria that BusinessWeek didn’t use, will reveal that behind the construct of the survey was an ideological predilection towards middle-class suburbs.

Let’s start with disputing the claim that diversity was a criteria:  According to the latest U.S. census report, seven of the top 10 places for raising children have African-American populations of less than 3% (with one of the other three having an African-American population of 5.53%).  Six of the 10 locations have Hispanic populations of less than 5% (with one of the other four having a Hispanic population of 6.03%).  None of the top 10 have anywhere close to the U.S. average for both African-Americans (13.4%) and Hispanics (14.8%); it’s a case of either/or or none.  So much for diversity.

Now let’s look at some squishy criteria, that is, criteria for which there is room for interpretation: safety; schools; and nearness to museums, parks and theatres.  In the case of safety, we are caught in a battle between superlatives versus absolutes.  Yes, location X may be safer than location Y, but that does not mean that location Y is not safe.  We already know that test scores are not an adequate measure of school performance, and we also know from the many absurd school ratings that have come out in recent years that it’s possible to cook school ratings on ancillary factors.  As far as museums go, how can Tinley Park rate highly unless you say that being only 25 miles from the Chicago Institute with no reasonable mass transit option for getting there counts as being close to a museum?  How can you count Warner Robbins as great for museums unless you equate (and I would say conflate) the Macon Museum with the Milwaukee Art Museum or the Carnegie in Pittsburgh (let alone the L.A. County Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art)?

In short, there is plenty of room for manipulation in each of these broad categories.  It seems odd then that the list appears to be drawn up by mall developers, suburban real estate agents and car dealers.  It’s mind-boggling how similar the places in the top 10 are to each other, from dependence on malls and chains to emphasis on single-family housing and the automobile.

Here are some factors that BusinessWeek did not consider and which I, at least, think are very important for raising children:

  • Mass transit:  Mass transit makes children more independent at an earlier age.
  • Walkability to commerce and public places:  Again, children who can walk to places are more independent earlier.
  • Average commute to jobs: The less time mommy and daddy spend commuting, the more time they can spend with the kids.
  • True diversity, which I believe teaches children what the real world of work and commerce is going to be like.
  • Immediate access to cultural resources like theatres and museums:  The closer you are to these resources, the more you will use them, and so this factor should give weight to how far a community is from museums and to the quality and stature of those museums. 
  • Size of daily newspaper:  The daily newspaper is still the window on the world and a bigger one creates a bigger window.
  • Access to hospitals and health care: Needs no explanation.

I would find the BusinesWeek survey far more believable if it included a few low or medium cost cities which I know to be quite livable and wonderful places to raise children, such as Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Boston, Portland or Seattle.  As it stands, the BusinessWeek survey is a fine piece of propaganda that reinforces the myth that the suburbs are the best places to live (and that cities are bad places to raise children).

From a news plotline trend, a practical tip for both journalists and PR writers.

I know I’m late to this trend, but it seems to me that there has recently been an enormous increase in the number of news stories in which the essence of the plot reduces to someone caught doing something very bad or very good on video or cell phone camera, which then goes pandemically viral on the Internet.  I know this trend started a decade ago with the infamous Paris Hilton videos, but I think that there has been a sudden uptick recently in the number of these stories that the media finds of interest.

Take the November 18 New York Times, which has two stories in which the scenario involves a video of someone doing something offensive going viral:

  • Lead story of the international section is the racist video of South-African blacks eating stew that some college boys had pissed in, which happened last year and led to riots.
  • Lead story in the sports section of a female soccer player caught on video two weeks ago yanking an opponent’s ponytail and seeming to throw a punch at another’s head.

In both cases, the news is of a feature variety, which means that it is not absolutely necessary to cover these events, just as it is necessary to cover hard news, such as, let’s say, President Obama’s trip to China or Sarah Palin’s chat with Oprah.  And in both cases, the event is not the news, but the reaction that came through a storm of downloads.

Are these stories a permanent part of the landscape? Or will the newsworthiness of a viral video end up a fad, much like the following generic stories which for very brief periods of time dominated feature news coverage:

  • The fact that a celebrity started tweeting.
  • The launching of the website of a prominent organization or company.
  • A celebrity communicating with people via Facebook.
  • A Ford vehicle driving over another previously unblemished part of the Amazon. (For more on this media phenomenon, see the recent Fordlandia, Greg Grandin’s very intriguing book on Henry Ford’s plantation city in the heart of the Amazon.

My prediction: Although the frenzy will die down, the story of the video gone viral will remain a staple for journalists for as long as people can post and watch home-made and bootlegged videos and photographs.  Although the plot uses technology, it is not about technology, but about grassroots outrage or delight, and that’s always newsworthy.

Following the generic plot lines of media stories may seem like an academic pursuit, but it has very practical applications in the world of both public relations and journalism. The job of the PR professional is to figure out how to make the story and messages of the organization attractive enough for the news media to want to cover them.  If you recognize a trend in media plotlines and can fit your subject into one, you have a better chance of success than a less strategic arrangement of the information.  And imagine yourself a journalist, with a deadline and no idea how you are going to cover the company or the event to which you have been assigned.  If you have a bag of plotlines, you can always ask questions until an answer fits one of the trendy (or even tried-and-true or homiletic) scenarios, and then write away.

The argument by anecdote: every demagogue’s best friend

Argument by anecdote is when you prove a point with a story.  It is a very compelling argument, because people like stories about other people more than they like cold, hard facts.   Too often, though, the argument by anecdote is used when the facts are stacked heavily against a position.  If you don’t have the facts, tell a story.  People will believe the anecdote because it demonstrates what they themselves believe to be true.  That’s why you’ll find more arguments by anecdotes proffered by those on the losing end of the “facts” battle.

It worked for Reagan, with his tales of welfare queens and small businesses frustrated by big government.  In a way, the “Willie Horton” ads of Bush Sr. were an argument by anecdote because studies have always shown that early parole invariably works to bring down the rate of recidivism; it just didn’t in this one anecdote.

If you listen carefully for arguments by anecdotes in what Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck say, you will find that, like most demagogues, they both make frequent use of them to support their positions.  For both, the argument by anecdote often takes the place of a racial stereotype or statement, especially when discussing poor people, Moslems or President Obama.

Now I’m bringing up the argument by anecdote for a reason.  There was a classic if crude example at the beginning of a weirdly disjointed article by columnist Ralph Reiland, which I saw in the November 16 issue of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

First the facts, here are reports of four of the many recent studies that have concluded that the U.S. takes worse care of its citizens than other industrialized nations and charges them more to do so.  Our infant mortality rate is higher, we die on average at a younger age, our doctors don’t send as many preventive reminders to patients, fewer of our doctors use electronic medical records, we pay more for health care…on and on and on it goes, a sad litany of surveys that show we spend the most and get the least in the way of health care: 

Now Mr. Reiland believes that the U.S. health care system is the best in the world and that the health care systems in other countries such as England are disasters.  The facts are against him, though, so he resorts to an anecdote of someone living in Great Britain who had two appendectomies in one month and is now in constant pain.  There is no explanation, as Reiland fills the second half of his column with other topics. 

But no explanation is needed.  By this time, people of all views understand that an anecdote about health care in Britain or Canada will likely be about a disaster and will be a living, breathing testament to the fact that we in the U.S. can thank our lucky stars that we have our healthcare system and not that of these other nations.

The politics of selfishness trumps decency once again

The Associated Press did its own poll about the attitudes of the American public when it comes to health care and health care reform.  The results demonstrated once again that the politics of selfishness reigns supreme in the United States today and that we’re still in the age of Reagan, in which self-interest trumps all other concerns.

When asked if they liked or disliked a proposed ban on rejecting applicants to health care plans because of preexisting conditions, 82% said they favored the ban…that is until the question was posed to include the statement that it meant that they would probably have to pay more for their own health care insurance.  Then, the number in favor of the ban on preexisting condition clauses fell to 42%, while those who opposed a ban rose to 31%.

To exemplify this attitude, the A.P. article on its own survey quotes:

“Well, for one, I know nobody wants to pay taxes for anybody else to go to the doctor — I don’t,” said Kate Kuhn, 20, of Acworth, Ga. “I don’t want to pay for somebody to use my money that I could be using for myself.”

Kate, let me ask you a few questions:

  • Do you know whether or not you paid more for your health care last year than if you didn’t have insurance and instead paid retail fees to the doctor for every call and procedure?  Who paid the difference?
  • Who paid for your public school teachers and your books, assuming you went to public school?
  • Who paid for the road in front of your house that’s paved? Or the road to the mall you no doubt frequent?
  • Who paid the part of taxes that you or your parents didn’t pay because you got a tax break on the mortgage and taxes on your house? Remember that if you lived in a bigger house than others, the value of the taxes that others had to pay in your place was greater.

The question is what defines a just society, a society which upholds the morality of the Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, Wiccan and other unnamed religions?  In a wealthy society, just like we all pay for roads that only some use and schools that only some go to, isn’t it just and ethical to also pay so that everyone can get quality medical care?

Now that I’m off my high horse…I’ll point out that the premise of the question—that allowing preexisting conditions will raise everyone else’s insurance—is probably not so. 

Remember that if everyone is covered, insurance companies will no longer be putting themselves at an economic disadvantage by accepting high-cost customers that competitors reject.

Another Darwinian fairy tale gives us old time religion in our jeans. Or was that genes?

The latest “Week in Review” in this Sunday’s New York Times has one of the most odious examples in recent memory of what I call Pop Darwinism—inferring a basis in genetics or natural selection of behaviors that the writer wants to proffer as the norm, e.g., women want one mate while men like to spread it around.

This week’s Darwinian fairy tale comes from a Times science reporter Nicholas Wade who has authored a book on the evolution of religion.  Now he may give a fuller explanation of the myriad of assertions that he presents as facts in his book, but all we have in the Sunday Times is the article titled “The evolution of the god gene,” in which Wade states as a factual truth that, “Religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning that it exists because it was favored by natural selection.  It is universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland.”

In staking the claim that religion is in our genes because of natural selection, Wade offers no expert testimony, no proof, nothing but a carefully constructed history of religion as a genetic attribute, in that pop science-and-psych writing style of the hypothetical conjecture.  

He tries to get around his lack of facts with an elaborate rhetorical ruse at the beginning of the article.  He leads into his various assertions about the natural selection of religion with the findings of two archaeologists in the Oaxaca Valley that lend “a remarkable insight into the origin of religion.”  After giving a one-paragraph tour of the findings, Wade writes, “This and other research is pointing to a new perspective on religion, one that seeks to explain why religious behavior has occurred in societies at every stage of development and in every region of the world.”  He never explains how, never connects the research he cites with his main or ancillary assertions.  He then proceeds to write approximately 300 words of fanciful conjecture about the genetic origins of religion, again with no expert citations. 

Later on Wade does reference two very prominent scientists when he is making a case for natural selection sometimes favoring groups instead of always favoring individuals. Of course the truth or fiction of this later point has no relevance to a discussion of religion as a genetic attribute.

Perhaps the most intellectually specious parts of the essay are the occasional barbs at atheists who Wade imagines are feeling mighty uneasy with the idea that religion is hard-wired into our genetic code: “For atheists, it is not a particularly welcome thought that religion evolved because it conferred essential benefits on early human societies and their successors.  If religion is a lifebelt, it is hard to portray it as useless.”

Wait up, Nick, you’ve got the wrong definition of atheism.  Atheists believe that there is no god.  Some may find religion useless, but finding religion useless does not define an atheist. 

I would have had no problem with Wade’s article whatsoever, and in fact would have found it an enjoyable confection with my Sunday morning tea, if he had liberally sprinkled his statements with three words, “I believe that…”  For example, if he had prefaced “Groups fortified by religious belief would have prevailed over those that lacked it, and genes that prompted the mind toward ritual would eventually have become universal” with “I believe that…,” it would still sound like hokum but at least Wade would not be duplicitously presenting his earnest spinning of the origins of religion as scientifically valid fact.

To Those Lost Souls Who Are Saving Too Much and Could Be Spending More

Kicking around the Internet this week is a Friday, November 6 Bankrate.com article by Marilyn Kennedy Melia titled, “Could you be saving too much?

The premise of the article is that “About 10 percent of the population is accumulating too much retirement savings in the sense that they could have saved significantly less and still retired with enough resources to continue in the lifestyle they enjoyed during their working life, estimates Harvard University economist David Laibson.”

The rest of the article is a tedious repetition of the messages of a hundred other articles on retirement planning—the ways to save for retirement and the large numbers of people with inadequate savings, some 60% says the expert.  The article never returns to explain what people who are saving too much should do, but it’s right there in the ideological subtext.

The hidden message: That people who save more than they will need for retirement are missing the opportunity to spend money, which after all, is the way to happiness, contentment and sexual satisfaction.  So if your financial planner says you’re saving more than you need for retirement, think about taking up golf or at least buying the equipment and clothes, joining a country club or two, or maybe taking that trip you never wanted to go on to Las Vegas.  You can always trade in your car every year or two.   Don’t miss out on the thrill of the spend, ye of little faith who save too much!

Praise and Blame is Harder to Assess than You Think

Whenever Congress talks of raising taxes on the wealthy, as in the current House bill on healthcare reform, people complain that it isn’t fair for the government to take a greater percentage of wealth from people who are successful.  Inherent in these statements is the belief that at least in the U.S., if you earned it, it’s because you deserved it: you worked harder or came up with a smarter idea.

In any free market society, all values over time reduce to the lowest common denominator of free exchange, and that’s money.  And that goes for success as well.  In the U.S., we learn that to seek money is one of the greatest goods and that those who have more money or earn more money deserve to be praised and do not deserve to be punished through higher taxes.

I would assert that for virtually all people who have or have earned large sums of money, factors other than personal virtues, including the infrastructure of the society in which you live, are more responsible for your success than anything you do yourself.  My argument of course is that if you didn’t contribute that much to your own wealth, then to take more of it away from you to help people who weren’t so lucky is a proper role of government.  Maybe my own brand of weirdness deforms my perceptions, but I think that to most people, redistribution of wealth from the lucky to the unlucky sounds a whole lot better than redistribution from the wealthy to the poor.

But first I have to prove that most of success is luck and therefore deserving of no great praise or reward.  In doing so, I’m going to simplify (but hopefully not distort) the ideas that Daniel N. Robinson, a philosopher who teaches at Georgetown, expressed in Praise and Blame: Moral Realism and Its Application.

Here’s my short version of Robinson: There is more luck than individual effort in all success.  For example (and I’m sure I’m deviating from Robinson is some of what I list), here are some types of luck that contribute more to success than hard work:

  • Mental or physical talent with which one is born that some would call god-given.  If you have it, you will be able to do something naturally that most others have to struggle to learn.  No matter how hard others work, they will have trouble keeping up with the talented person.  But keep in mind that there is less real talent, or genius, around than most people think.  My point is if it’s god-given, you did nothing to obtain it.  Even if you work hard to hone that talent, someone with less talent could work just as hard.  Wouldn’t he or she be just as deserving of praise, and reward?
  • Social-economic standing of your family:  Over the 200+ year history of the United States there has been very little social mobility—which means people moving up or down from the class in which they were born—and recent studies show that there is less mobility today than ever before.  Rich families can pay for lessons, send kids to specialty camps, pay for private tutors and educational consultants, contribute sums to prestigious schools, call friends of friends of friends to introduce children to influential people in their chosen careers and finance business or artistic ventures.   Middle class families can do some of these things and poor families very few, if any.
  • Family’s Emotional Situation:  The individual has no say in whether he ends up in a loving, stable family or in a family of drug addicts.
  • Secular conditions, referring to the social and economic conditions of the era: Imagine turning 20 in 1950 when the economy started booming and there was a dearth of qualified engineers?  Or in 1970 when you could draw a low draft number and end up in Viet Nam? Or living in L.A. in the 30s when it was rapidly growing into the entertainment capital of the world? Would you rather be an African-American today or in 1850?  Would you rather be an astigmatic math genius during the days of hunting big game or today?
  • The value society puts on your talent: Bankers, attorneys, neurosurgeons, professional athletes, business owners—all these people get paid more than high school teachers, players in classical symphony orchestras and plumbers, who may work as hard and be just as talented in their field.  That’s called the luck of the draw.  A plumber could work just as hard as an investment banker does and make far less money.  Does that make you less praiseworthy than the banker?
  • Just plain old “luck” luck, such as the luck to be in an intersection 10 seconds before or after an accident or for your professor to bring you onto his long-term research team.

Robinson also spends pages demonstrating that those whom we blame—the bad guys—aren’t all that bad.  I recommend getting a copy of Praise and Blame, but be forewarned, Robinson writes in a precise, but tortuous prose that considers every aspect and condition of the topic of the sentence, engages in complicated thought experiments and references the thoughts of other philosophers on the topic.  It’s a hard read, but worth it.

If you want real-world proof that luck has as much to do with success as personal attributes such as hard work, select any profession and spend a week collecting the names of those under 30 who have been quoted in mainstream news media.  Then check their backgrounds and see how many are children of prominent people in that or another profession, or went to a prestigious college or come from an upper middle class or wealthy background.

I don’t want to demean successful people.  For one thing, it would be hypocritical of me, since I strive for success and enjoy the measure that I have achieved.  Yes, successful people often work hard.  Yes, they deserve to be singled out.  It’s okay to have winners and losers. 

Buy we shouldn’t forget that so much of success is a matter of multiple kinds of luck, and in a real sense, society bestows success on successful people.  So when the government wants to tax rich (successful) people to make sure that nobody dies or suffers because of a lack of access to proper health care, then people with money should embrace the idea of giving back a small part of what society and that irrational chaotic force called luck have given us.

You can tell a lot about a country from its public bathrooms.

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.