Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Back to the future

I week ago, I came back frm Amsterdam. I arrived there on the eve of the Spain-Netherlands final game of the World Cup, and the whole city was overcrowded, euphoric, and draped in orange. The most striking sight I saw, however, were dozens of open-air portable urinals throughout the downtown area. Those were lined up not just on the edges of the Museum Square where the giant TV screens were set up, but also on other city squares, canal bridges, etc. - and were put to good use by mostly young men. I guess this is sound, pragmatic public policy, reflecting Holland’s famously utilitarian spirit – most of the male fans were carrying cases of Heineken, so they needed a convenient place to pass all that liquid out if they were not to pee on trees (which some did anyway). Such open-air urinals have also been deployed in Denmark, Britain, and a few other countries. In one Chinese city, the locals shunned the unfamiliar facilities, so municipal officials were instructed to use them in order to set an enlightened example. The whole issue, however, has another curious aspect. There are all these writings coming out about the erosion of the modern state and a return – politically – to the Middle Ages. I guess the return is also cultural. Several ages ago, people freely ate with greasy hands, belched, passed gas, urinated and did other things in public or semi-public settings. Then they gradually developed more “civilized” attitudes, at the core of which was an acute sense of embarrassment. That uncomfortable feeling drove such bodily functions underground, into an intensely private cocoon. Now all sorts of previously private activities are out in the open again, without any discernible sense of embarrassment or awkwardness. Any resistance or hesitancy, like in that distant Chinese city, will be whittled away. And most would see this as progress – a laudable pealing away of silly taboos and inhibitions.