When In A Hole, Stop Digging

For many Americans, cars are as potent a symbol of freedom as guns are, even if they have similarly destructive consequences. Photograph by René Burri / Magnum

An interview with the author of one of the books reviewed in the linked essay below is effective motivation to read the entire review of both books:

How to Quit Cars

They crowd streets, belch carbon, bifurcate communities, and destroy the urban fabric. Will we ever overcome our addiction?

The Honeymooners” (1955-56), the greatest American television comedy, is—to a degree more evident now than then—essentially a series about public transportation in New York. Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) is a New York City bus driver, deeply proud to be so and drawing a salary sufficient to support a nonworking wife in a Brooklyn apartment, not to mention a place in a thriving bowling league and membership in the Loyal Order of Raccoon Lodge. His employer is the Gotham Bus Company, which seems to be the sort of private-public enterprise that, like the I.R.T., built the subways. He and his best friend, Ed Norton (Art Carney), who works in the sewers, make daily use of the subway and bus system, which was designed to whisk the outer-borough working classes into light-industrial Manhattan. Neither the Kramdens nor the Nortons seem to own an automobile. When Ed and Ralph go to Minneapolis for a Raccoons convention, they take a sleeper car on a train.

What’s striking is that no one watching in the fifties needed to think about any of this. Public transportation was the self-evident bedrock of working-class life. Yet it was also in the mid-fifties that the hipsters and beatniks and rebels feverishly celebrated the car and the burst of autonomy, even anarchy, it offered to postwar life. In Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” the car was the vehicle of liberty for the bohemian kids of those working-class Brooklynites. Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” pities those “who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on Benzedrine / until the noise of wheels and children brought them low,” while dreaming wetly of the glories of the open road, which leads to sex, possibly with an idealized version of Neal Cassady, subsequently memorialized as Kerouac’s irresistible Dean Moriarty. Cars are for poets and outlaws, the subway for the intimidated and the enslaved.

Kramden and Norton vs. Kerouac and Ginsberg: today, everything has flipped. Public transit is now the cause of the reforming classes, and the car their villain. The car is the consumer economy on wheels: atomizing, competitive, inhuman—and implicitly racist, hiving people off to segregated communities—while the subway and the train are communal zendos. Good people ride bicycles and buses; bad people ride in ever-bigger cars. Capitalism, not Dean Moriarty, is in the front seat.

Read the whole review here.

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