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Sunday, November 13, 2005

On Transport, Ideology, and Progress: Some Thoughts Prompted by Gaunilo

I began responding to Gaunilo's fine thoughts in the comments for my last post, when I realised I had begun a new post altogether. Here is the post, retaining some of the elements of response, because I am too tired to redo it all.

Gaunilo:
Yeah, your friends -- and mine, when I articulate the idea -- have a point. But it's not the point they think they have. It's not that America is so big that it couldn't work, it is that we have consistently, since just after World War 2, worked to construct our built environment so that it couldn't be navigated by anything but automobile. In 1929, 1939, it would have been almost unthinkable that you would need at least one car for every adult in your family: there was routinely more public transit as a percentage of overall traffic, and population centers were focused on public transit hubs (the suburb with the train station near the center of town, the neighborhood with an el or subway station near shopping, etc.) It's not that America couldn't be like that, we've just decided -- for whatever godless, selfish, vain reason -- that we don't want to be like that.

And I think you are right, Gaunilo, to describe it in terms of a deep, almost primal attachment (again, post World War 2) to our cars, maybe in the same way we are attached to our guns. Fetish might be too weak a word, but it indicates some of the unhealthy and irrational attachment. Car ownership has been plunged deep into our psyche, such that to be an American and not have a car (or be able to have a gun) is almost unthinkable, a violation of our fundamental identity, except for small outposts such as New York City, Boston, much of Chicago, the Bay Area -- but then, there are quite a few who wouldn't consider those archetypally American cities, either.

The thing that really burns me up -- not that you asked! -- is the refrain I hear from some Americans that it is only a matter of time before Europe gets it straight and becomes like us, bags the services, labour unions, public transit, etc. This is wrong for so many reasons: cultural ignorance, for one. One person once said to me in an offhand way, but entirely seriously, that were it not for Quebec, Canada would just simply join the US. Another person once said to me in all seriousness "Why doesn't England just dump their Queen and come into the twentieth century?" Failure to grasp the integrities of other cultures is not unknown for Americans. These sorts of things that I have mentioned above, including transportation options, are crucial to the European self-image (like England with the Queen), and to give them up would be almost unthinkable.

(To make my presuppositions clear, I don't believe that any given cultural icon is self-justified.
I am assuming that the Queen, as an icon of British life, and the car, as an icon of American life, are not morally equivalent. I am not a knee-jerk defender of the Queen, but I would say that the effects of uncritical automobile usage have had a much more profoundly negative effect on the world and future usage should be re-thought.)

But it is also offensive because it paints America as self-evidently the pacesetter for the world, as if to say a country can gauge its success by the degree to which they look like us, because we have progressed further than anyone else. Everyone else, to be in the game, has to play 'catch-up'. But this is wrong. It seems to me that "progress", if that describes anything, is much more patchy than simply one nation or people self-evidently embodying it, and the rest of the world following suit. This, frankly, is a dangerous ideology and a substitute for thought, because it justifies not only blindly following whatever policy is in place, but also viewing any alternative with suspicion. This kind of ideology is found in the US, but also lurks in the UK, France, China, Argentina, Iraq, you name it. Just when the globe has shrunk enough through communications, we have decided to turn inward. True progress, when there is any, requires discernment, risk, and thought, not marching along a safe and self-evident pathway.

It might be easy to shrug it all off, but I think that the history of 'progress' ought to make us think long and hard. It is Remembrance Sunday here in Britain today, and it has been a common refrain that in the last sixty years, our supposedly modern and enlightened times have been able to produce only 26 days -- 26!! -- on our planet without war somewhere. Apparently, we aren't even able to take off Christmas Day on a consistent basis. And a disproportionate number of the victims of war, especially in this timeframe, are children and other noncombatants. You don't need to be a pacifist to ache for more days of peace, and for children to be able to grow up untraumatised.

The point that I am trying to make is that so many major, life-changing decisions are made unthinkingly (and often for us rather than by us), from building sprawling car-dependent suburbs, to assuming that other nations are wrong if they are different, to going to war against the threatening 'other', and that these decisions end up being profoundly harmful to others and ourselves. It seems to me that it is a vocation of being human to actually think about these things, and keep the other in view in doing so. (Maybe you can call it a plea for a humane education.)

4 Comments:

Blogger Orwell61 said...

Jason:

I'm enjoying your blog, so I'm hoping you'll keep at it.

As someone who lives in Quebec, I got a kick out of the suggestion that "were it not for Quebec, Canada would just simply join the US". It's not the first time I've heard the idea, but the U.S. doesn't have a monopoly on ignorance of other countries: we Canadians hold all sorts of bizarre opinions on our southern neighbours.

Apart from that, I think your target might be a bit too narrow when you write that "so many major, life-changing decisions are made unthinkingly (and often for us rather than by us), from building sprawling car-dependent suburbs, to [...]".

I'd like to suggest that the problem is bigger than that. It's not just that these big decisions are made unthinkingly, but that 1) they aren't made all at once, but in a long chain; and 2)we can't possibly foresee all the consequences of our acts.

When North Americans were building our forward-looking, progressive society all through the 20th century, who could possibly have imagined the impact all those cars and roads would have on our common life? The car and its culture were promoted as positive goods, and we liked it. We still do.

In how many cases do decision makers and the populace grasp the full implications of public policy decisions? I can't even manage this in my own life, never mind spreading it across the scope of an entire culture. ;-)

Monday, November 14, 2005 3:30:00 AM  
Blogger Doug Wood said...

"But it is also offensive because it paints America as self-evidently the pacesetter for the world, as if to say a country can gauge its success by the degree to which they look like us, because we have progressed further than anyone else. Everyone else, to be in the game, has to play 'catch-up'."

Accepting the position that America is the pacesetter, from a selfish standpoint, it may do us Americans well to remember that no country, no person, no corporation, etc. has remained the leader forever. When you ignore your customers, your neighbors, your competition, or your citizens, eventually someone figures out how to eat your lunch. Otherwise, I'd be British, strike that, I'd be Roman, in any case, you get the idea.

(And even Bill Gates, who has made money off of darn near every man, woman, and child in the industrialized world, knows enough to be worried about Google!)

Monday, November 14, 2005 1:49:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Orwell61:
Thanks for your comments; I'm glad you're enjoying Gower Street.

(By the way, I've always thought that 'Blog Quebecois' would be a great name for a Quebecois blog. There is one that uses that name, but it's not quite what I would expect.)

And, yes, I sound perhaps like I'm picking on America, and perhaps I am because they're my people, but we have no monopoly on ignorance, I am sure. (The combination of ignorance and unparalleled power might be something worth being frightened of, though.)

You are correct in what you say about our situation being the result of a long chain of events, and the results often being unanticipated. I was trying to allude to this in saying that "True progress, when there is any, requires discernment, risk, and thought, not marching along a safe and self-evident pathway.", but you put it more plainly and directly.

Moreover, I don't wish to simply make the people who favoured cars over public transport (or whatever issue we raise) into moral scapegoats, as if we can blame them and be alright. If what you and I are saying about 'progress' is true, then we cannot know in advance, in exhaustive detail, how projects will turn out. This is 'moral luck' writ large, no? And yet we must act, we cannot wait for all possible information before acting, for we would be paralyzed. (In the specific case of car usage, though, the people behind it were not all innocent, when you look at the ways that the auto industry, petrol industry, tire lobby, etc. worked against interurbans, etc. -- the PCL situation is a paradigmatic example. But this doesn't seriously qualify the larger point we would make here.) If it is true that we cannot foresee all possible outcomes (much less actual outcomes) then that mitigates personal moral responsibility.

But it may not mitigate corporate (i.e. communal/national/etc.) responsibility. By this I mean simply that if the first generations that got us moving in the direction of over-reliance on autos are not (particularly) morally culpable, that does not mean that subsequent generations are off the hook, when the implications of such practices became clearer. Even if we inherit practices, that does not make them self-evidently good.

Which returns me to the constant implied refrain of nearly everything I say: we could be different.

Thanks for your comments, orwell61, I look forward to more good thoughts and interaction.

Doug:
Great to see you back in the Street! Empires wax and wane, I agree; although it seems to me that the extent to which they wax corresponds with the extent to which human possibilities are constricted, as everyone simultaneously despises and tries to be like the '500 pound gorilla'.

And yes, Bill Gates owns 20% of everything. But always remember: if we didn't have walls and fences, we wouldn't need Windows and Gates...

JF

Monday, November 14, 2005 11:24:00 PM  
Blogger Gaunilo said...

Jason,

Thanks for the response on my humble little screed! You raise some good points here; the thoughts on 'progress' are especially relevant to me at this point; indeed, I'm so immersed in postcolonial readings right now that it's spectacularly difficult not to launch into a full disquisition.

But one thing immediately apropos of your thoughts is the very pervasive nature of the (meta)discourse of 'modernization' in Western society - as if every society were to take a fixed path of 'progress.' It's a narrative that lies behind The Wealth of Nations, Hegel, and Marx alike. It enables us to talk paternalistically of a 'third world' and write their histories as histories of modernization. And with the post-WWII advent of pax americana, we're busy doing just what you say - urging the rest of the world to 'catch up' and 'get it straight' like us. (Of course, if they'll 'catch up' and ignore things like the Kyoto Protocol like we did, we'll all be in great shape.)

Yet I still wonder where this bizarre fetish comes from. Is it WWII and the baby boomers? The interstate system after all is named after Eisenhower. With your reading on the new urbanism - which ties in here as well - you're better poised to speak to that than me.

Anyway. Fascinating thoughts.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005 5:09:00 PM  

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