Friday, September 4, 2015

The Four Freedoms

Monrovia, California

September 4, 2015

Hello friends.  In 1941, as the U.S. was nearing its plunge into the already-raging Second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt made a speech in which he declared the existence of Four Freedoms, which the peoples of the whole world should be able to enjoy, and which, by the way, they weren't enjoying much of at the moment outside the U.S. and a few other countries.  These four freedoms were Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.  Roosevelt was trying to nudge us into more active participation in the war, a participation that at that moment seemed painfully far off to the British and the other beleaguered countries that became our allies or were eventually released from German or Japanese bondage.  Some time after Roosevelt's speech, in soldierly fashion, Norman Rockwell got out his brushes and turned the Four Freedoms into covers for the Saturday Evening Post, and the rest is history.

Having recently returned from a month in Europe, traveling through several of the countries that were under siege back when FDR gave his Four Freedoms speech, I have had occasion to consider that these freedoms have been achieved in those countries to a great degree.  Speech is generally free, or as free as anyone wants it to be.  People can worship as they please, or in the case of most Western European countries, not worship at all, unless they're Muslims, in which case they worship altogether too much.  Freedom from worship seems to be the highly laudable goal toward which Western Europe is moving, or was at least before the scourge of conservative Islam reared its ugly head.  Churches in the great capitals are often beautiful historical artifacts, and fortunately little else.  And there is comparatively little want or fear in Western Europe today, at least in the economic sense.  Want in the sense of famine or even hunger isn't a prominent factor, notwithstanding the great numbers of beggars outside the train stations.  Fear of political repression, although always a possibility where the not-too-distant past has been so full of wars, inquisitions, genocides, and pogroms, at the moment isn't much of a factor.  In general it's a continent where the economic stance of even the mainstream political right wing would make many Democrats in the U.S. blush at their own stinginess toward their fellows.  Fear of terrorism from radical Islam still exists, I grant you, but most Europeans of today bravely face that threat in the most mature way possible, namely, by trying to live their liberal and tolerant lives with a minimum of rancor.

I know I have just made some rather broad generalizations, my fellow Americans, but on the whole it's undeniable that the particular Four Freedoms spoken of by Roosevelt have been achieved in Europe to at least the same degree as they have in the United States, and that's great.  Indeed, Europeans enjoy much greater freedom from the fear of gun violence on the part of both law enforcement and random nutbars than we do here.  However, we in this country still enjoy several freedoms not entirely accepted throughout the otherwise affluent and socially advanced nations of which I speak.  I would therefore like to take this opportunity to have a little fireside chat with you about a new (if more modest) version of the Four Freedoms, inspired by my recent visit to Great Britain and the Continent.

The first is Freedom to Pee.  Throughout Europe today there is a phenomenon for the most part not present in the United States, and that is that when one goes into a public bathroom, especially in a train station or a museum, and often in a restaurant, one is expected to grease the already greasy palm of a slatternly matron or crusty old dude, or to put coins into a vending machine to obtain a token, or go through a turnstile, or whatever, all for the privilege of taking a leak.  Not everywhere, mind you, but frequently enough that it behooves the traveler to keep some pocket change handy at all times for such a contingency.  Our public bathrooms may not always be as clean as those that cost money, but by God they rarely cost anything.  You might say, in defense of our neighbors across the ocean, that the paid bathroom attendant positions give individuals at the margins of society an opportunity to make some money and help to keep the areas clean; but I would argue that a better use of public funds would be for the national train systems and other public places to hire people for a living wage to clean the bathrooms rather than placing them in extortionate positions outside lavatories where people, due to their need to go to the bathroom, are at their most vulnerable.

The second is Freedom from Caffeine Deprivation.  The European idea of a cup of coffee is closer to the thought of a cup of coffee than to an actual receptacle containing the beverage.  A couple of sips and that's it.  All for the equivalent of four to six U.S. dollars.  You might be under the impression that espresso and dark roast coffee have more caffeine than light or medium roast coffee, but you'd be wrong.  It's all about the same. Starbucks, that overpriced product of American ingenuity, is the only refuge from coffee stinginess the poor Europeans have, and they love it, mostly I'd guess because Starbucks provides you with a decent amount of brew, and a better value, ounce for ounce, than a restaurant does, which is ironic considering that in this country the opposite is true.  In the UK the coffee is slightly more plentiful, but since they're mostly tea drinkers, they tend to make their coffee so weak and insipid that it pretty much tastes like tea.  Apart from Starbucks even a 12 ounce cup of coffee is impossible to come by, and the free refill doesn't exist, as if those things were simply aspects of the grotesque American tendency toward reckless overindulgence.  So the Europeans muddle along on far less caffeine than we do.

The third is Freedom to Be Cool.  Air conditioning as we know it is painfully lacking in most hotels and private residences in Western Europe.  This has a great deal to do with the fact that many buildings in Europe are old and do not have central forced air heating, and hence lack the capacity for central air conditioning.  The task of retrofitting buildings is far too expensive, which leaves less effective window units as the only alternative, assuming you have the type of windows into which you can fit such units, which most buildings do not.  Furthermore, in Europe getting anyone to come and do a job at your house in an inexpensive and timely manner is, apparently, an almost unattainable feat.  In the cities at least, the idea of tackling a project on a do-it-yourself basis, so common in the U.S., doesn't seem to occur to the average middle class European.  At any rate most people, from habit since time immemorial, just put up with the heat.  Buses are notoriously hot and stuffy, usually equipped with tiny dormer windows that let in precious little fresh air and almost no relief from the stifling and rank atmosphere of bodies that are often noticeably free from deodorant.  When a heat wave hits, the elderly die in droves.  Western Europe has given us many of the most important scientific advances of our time--in mechanics, medicine, chemistry, and architecture to name just a few areas.  But it has been painfully slow to address the issue of personal comfort with respect to heat and humidity.

And finally we come to the fourth freedom.  This one I call Freedom from Ridicule.  Europeans are a fairly tolerant people (except when they go on fascist bloodletting terror-trips every other generation or so).  But that does not mean they really like what anyone else does, or how they talk, or dress, or conduct themselves.  A small continent filled with several dozen countries and as many separate languages and cultures cannot, it seems, exist successfully without each country and culture looking down its nose at all the rest.

The English are far too polite and reserved to say so, but when they look at a foreigner they're thinking, "Who is this daft wanker, and why is he talking that way and when is he going to leave?"  They tolerate their former colonials from the Middle East and the Subcontinent (and also the Italians), because, devoid of things like kebobs, curry, and pizza, English food would be inedible.  As for the Scandinavians (and by that I mean the Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes--essentially one people speaking three different dialects) they most definitely don't need either you or your money.  It has been a thousand years or so since anyone in Scandinavia seriously thought about anyone else, and that was only to kill, rape and pillage.  Now that they've gotten all that out of their systems, they're fine with just staying home.  When visitors come they do muster some crisp, detached politeness.  Unlike the British they don't even value other people's food, remaining content, as they have for millennia, with fish and cheese.  The French regard anyone who isn't French with a mixture of pity and contempt, cut them off when they try to speak their language, and then look past them to the next customer.  And the Belgians, well, they're just boorish and rude, in a quaintly medieval way.

Most, if not all, Europeans tend to blame whatever problems they might be having at the moment not on themselves, but on whichever group of foreigners is currently intruding on their otherwise happy lives.  I will grant you that in this respect they are not unlike Republicans in the U.S.  Everything that's happening that's wrong is because of foreigners.  However, the big difference between Europe and the U.S. is that in this country people don't generally remain foreigners for long.  We are a country of immigrants, none of whom can claim that God gave us this land (excepting the Native Americans, who do think just that, while conveniently forgetting that they too arrived here from somewhere else and spent many thousands of years moving around and slaughtering one another before the white man arrived).  We Americans may hate others, but we're not united enough, ethnically, to engage in collective ridicule of them.  In America, if someone sticks it out long enough, and has children while situated in this country, at least those children will be citizens, entitled to all the privileges that the law allows.  (The glaring exception to all this is African Americans, but that's a subject for another speech.)  The idea that belonging can be attained, taken pretty much for granted over here, isn't a foregone conclusion Over There.  You want to be Swiss or German or Austrian?  Such a desire is understandable from the point of view of the Swiss, the Germans, and the Austrians, but good luck if you aren't one of them.  And good luck to your spouse and children and your children's children, unto the third and fourth generation.  Once a foreigner always a foreigner.  That's because the European countries aren't just countries.  They're cultural and ethnic bastions.  In fact, they were that long before they ever became countries in the modern sense.  Things are changing in Europe, albeit very slowly.  In the meantime, they indulge in the continental pastime of ridicule, the anodyne alternative to outright bloodshed.

These modest proposals are not meant as criticisms or condemnations, but as ways to improve an already richly varied, often beautiful, and always fascinating part of the world.  And with that, my friends, I bring my little chat to an end.    

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