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In 2010, I found myself working in Noida, India – a modern pop-up city on the outskirts of Delhi.
Narendra Modi, a lifelong political operative, was angling to become the 14th prime minister of India. One of the more unusual planks of his platform was the aspiration to put a toilet in every home. (At the time, about half the homes in India didn’t have indoor toilets, and those that did were predominantly in cities or their surrounding sprawl.)
Who wouldn’t want to have a toilet?
It turns out that approximately 500 million of the electorate did not.
Odd, that. Anyone who’s ever visited an outhouse at summer camp or a port-o-potty at a music fest would most certainly choose a private and sanitary toilet over an outdoor alternative. So one would think.
But while Modi’s moonshot made sense to me, it didn’t to a half billion people.
I was surprised at the quiet skepticism expressed over Modi’s gambit. In conversations with taxi drivers, restaurant servers, and hotel staff, I learned that many rural Indians questioned why anyone would want to do that thing indoors … where one eats and sleeps … where the children play … where one meditates and prays. Their position was that there were indoor things and outdoor things. That thing was definitely an outdoor thing.
I concluded: not everyone wanted to have a toilet.
* * *
My work took me from India to Prague – where coincidentally 99% of homes had indoor toilets.
Over the ensuing months, I got to know my workmates well. Most of them were in their late 20s and early 30s with their parents being in their late 50s and early 60s.
Living and operating out of a hotel room for the better part of a year, my colleagues sometimes invited me to their homes on the weekends to relieve my monotony. Sunday dinners often included extended family thus gave me access to people who had begun their adult lives under communist rule and were completing them under liberty. (Remember: the Czech Republic broke away in 1989.)
Having grown up the grandson of people who had fled the grip of tyranny in Poland and Ukraine in the 1910s and ’20s, I relished those weekends … I was eager to learn what their early lives had been like under Gustáv Husák, the long-time First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. It had to have been brutal … suffocating. So one would think.
This cadre of middle-aged, post-break-up Czechs, however, didn’t agree. They pined for a less frenetic, less complicated life. Things like career management, social mobility, and home ownership were overwhelming to them. Late in the evenings, encouraged by Karlsbader Becherbitter – a preferred digestif – and the many beers before it, they’d confided in me that the new way wasn’t as comfortable as the old way. And if given the chance to turn back the hands of time, they might.
I concluded: not everyone wants to have liberty.
* * *
This week, in reaction to the terrorist incursion into Israel, former ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told CNN’s Jack Tapper, “… there are so many of these people who want to be free from this terrorist rule, they want to be free from all of that …”
(She isn’t unique in using this assertion to justify her position. Bush the senior drew the same connection. Clinton said something similar. W used it. And had I been paying attention, I’d probably have found Obama standing on similar ground. It’s the halcyon call of all Western elites and parties.)
For decades, the West has justified its interventions in foreign affairs using precisely this reasoning: all people want to be able to speak freely, to pursue any vocation, to worship anything or nothing at all, to assemble, to assemble and complain while assembled, to expect decorum and fairness from police and justices, and to suffer no punishment greater than the gravity of the infraction, e.g., no getting tossed off the roof of a building for holding hands with another man at a theater. So one would think.
But not everyone wants a toilet in his home.Published in