On not playing well with others: guest essay

Here's a contribution by fiction-writer and essayist Dirk van Nouhuys, a regular reader of the blog. He calls it

Cars & Freedom

Cars Mini by Stephen Bayley
The other day I was watching an American football game. A commercial came on showing a company of redcoats, that is British infantryman of the 18th century, assuming their positions to fire facing a charge. The camera shifted to the oncoming opponents. They were black pickup trucks, Dodge Rams, and driving the lead pickup truck was George Washington. Before the onslaught of streamlined and patriotic iron the redcoats fled. A resonate voiceover declared, “There are two things America has right: cars and freedom.”

A day or two later I found myself behind a Dodge Ram in traffic. It displayed three bumper stickers. One was for the NFL team I had been watching. One was an American flag in an extremely ornate setting, which suggested the label on a Budweiser bottle. The third read, “Doesn’t Play Well with Others.” For those who don’t know, this is a note stereotypically sent home from school with the report cards of surly and narcissistic children.

It seems to me that the voiceover was more wrong than right. These are two things America in important senses has wrong. First about cars: Americans have the idea that they should be an order of magnitude faster and more powerful than they need to be, and thus consume an order of magnitude more than necessary of the world’s resources and pollute the air proportionally. The American trucking industry, which after all does deliver the goods, figures 10-20 Horsepower per ton. That means that a reasonable horsepower for a private car is about 20. They run around 100 and more. Of course America is not alone in this self-destructive urge to build fast and powerful cars, it really originated in Europe, and is being embraced, sadly, all over the planet.

Freedom is a more complex issue, as we all know. What ‘freedom’ means ranges at least from childish anarchism to the idea in some theological contexts that true freedom is willing to do what God (or the state) has required one to do. But one thing that Americans consistently have wrong about freedom is that it is orthogonal to cooperation. In practice Americans often employ cooperation as a means to a sensation of freedom, for instance on the highway, where Americans report they often feel most free, yet observe an elaborate set of cooperative rules, written and unwritten, which allow them to survive in their powerful machines without killing themselves and others beyond reasonable measure. That important and self-defeating American ideal of freedom is perfectly summed up in the third bumper sticker, “Does not play well with others.”

— Dirk van Nouhuys

P. S.  Happy New Year

No comments: