Cars and Freedom

by Patrick J. Deneen on August 15, 2010 · 24 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

“Here’s a couple of things America got right – cars and freedom.”

Actually, it’s doubtful we’d have the fortitude to engage, much less defeat, an imperial power today. We are titillated and distracted subjects of an empire more complete and encompassing than the British could have imagined. We enjoy too much the purported freedom that comes (among other things) from driving our cars (fueled by satraps and emirates) and watching self-congratulatory commercials to care about the real freedom of self-government. Commercials like this seek to ensure that our enslavement remains totalizing.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar John Médaille August 15, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Worse than the ad is the fact that ads like this work well. Advertising is our unique contribution to literature, albeit and anti-literature, one designed to direct us not to virtue and the common good, but to vice and individual passion. It is our real educational system, one that teaches us how to be good (and complacent) consumers. I do believe that colleges and high schools should have a module on “how to watch and analyze commercials.” The commercial works because in some sense we don’t really watch them, at least not with our conscious minds. But if we engage them consciously and deliberately with our minds and our talents as literary critics, the skills that we were supposed to learn in literature courses, their power fades away.

“Are you talking to the TV again?” my wife calls out. “Yes, dear. Talking back is the best defense.”

avatar T. Webb August 15, 2010 at 7:56 pm

Thanks for your comments on this advertisement. I saw it the other night, and it honestly has bothered me for days.

avatar Alan August 15, 2010 at 8:32 pm

Russell Kirk, in a memorable and trenchant phrase, called the automobile a “mechanical Jacobin”. How he managed to look ahead multiple decades and see the ruin that would be caused by this terrible technology, I do not know. But he did, and I applaud him.

Dr Medaille: “if we engage them consciously and deliberately with our minds and our talents as literary critics, the skills that we were supposed to learn in literature courses, their power fades away.”

Here here!

avatar Cecelia August 16, 2010 at 2:18 am

when I saw the ad I too started ranting at the TV- te obliviousness of so many in this country is mind boggling

avatar David August 16, 2010 at 9:19 am

I hope it is a good thing that my heart is so changed as to feel instant repulsion by this advertisement. I trust you all have not made me a double son of hell.

avatar Zac August 16, 2010 at 10:23 am

You people WATCH television? Or worse: the advertising?

I’m not sure who is worse: those who consume this rubbish, or those who waste their time complaining about having to watch it! Your ‘enslavement’ will ‘remain totalizing’ as long as you have that boob-tube plugged in.

avatar John Médaille August 16, 2010 at 10:29 am

Zac, I don’t think that it is television that is the problem; the television is in itself a marvelous invention. The problem is television programming, which seeks to program not the television but you; it’s purpose is to convert you from being an active citizen into being a passive consumer, buying and discarding products on cue. Even our politics become a disposable product, tailored to fashions but discussing no real issues.

The solution is to become your own station manager, programming the TV from VDR, CD’s, Netflix, etc. Once you are in charge, you can tame the TV, and once again become a citizen.

avatar Zac August 16, 2010 at 5:34 pm

Hello John-

I’m glad you were able to tame it. Try as I might, I just can’t get the images I want to show up on the screen, so I’ve given up and adopted a banjo instead. At least I can reason with a banjo. And programming the thing is a lot more fun!

Mechanical Jacobin, indeed!

avatar Rob August 17, 2010 at 2:59 pm

I like cars and find them to be a useful invention.

As with most goods, it is their overuse that is the problem.

avatar David August 17, 2010 at 3:10 pm

The problem is that your use, or abuse, isn’t defined just by you, but rather by the community that must reshape itself to accommodate you. A sufficient number of enthusiasts and downtown main street gives way to freeway off-ramp strip mall. Annihilating local culture and forcing others who would otherwise forgo the beast to alter their fiscal disciplines to meet the new necessary precondition to participate in commerce.

Useful? bah, humbug.

avatar Rob August 17, 2010 at 3:21 pm

David: Cars can be be accommodated (and have been in some places) without “paving over paradise,” without “annihilating local culture and forcing others . . . to alter their fiscal disciplines to meet the new necessary precondition to participate in commerce.” Such results are a function of the overuse of the automobile, not intrinsic to the automobile itself.

You might well say the same thing about computers, no? But then we would be engaging in a hypocrisy that pricks the conscience all too sharply.

It is quite timely that Ray Bradbury only today proclaimed (here: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/herocomplex/2010/08/ray-bradbury-is-sick-of-big-government-our-country-is-in-need-of-a-revolution-.html) that we have too many machines and, in what is destined to become the next great meme, that we have “too many internets.” Ray Bradbury, the purveyor of science fiction, he who in the same article demands that we pursue our technics and civilization even further to the moon and to Mars! The problem isn’t that we have machines or that we have the internet. The problem is that we have “too many” of them, that we overuse them, that, instead of mastering technology, we have allowed technology to master us. As John says so truly (with all due deference to Neil Postman’s observation that the problem actually is the medium itself), master the television and it can be a worthwhile gadget; do not let the television master you. Like televisions, cars are a neutral machine that, if used properly, are a tool. We have obviously taken the matter too far. Heidegger wrote something about it, you will recall. Our civilization would be inherently no better or worse if we abandoned either the car or the internet. For one who excoriates so resoundingly vapidity of the superficial trappings of our culture, you seem to be all too convinced of the salvific power of eliminating these mere trappings.

As for the advertisement, it is amusing (etymologically, it is “without thought”).

avatar David August 17, 2010 at 3:36 pm

You may prick me sir, and you will find I bleed as well as any man. Hypocrisy is a badge I wear quite proudly. As a rhetorical device it may gain you some satisfaction but little progress against my point.

Cars may indeed be used properly; however, they are not. Let us not speak in hypotheticals, but what has historically occurred. Where are such towns who use them properly? And do they few exist by intent? And do they face a continuing battle for their very existence? Cars have done the very violence you dismiss to almost every corner of this country to fulfill the desires of their enthusiasts.

So have computers. I use both a car and a computer, along with many other distasteful things, but I am not hindered from calling them an evil, merely because I have little choice but to cooperate with the tyranny of enthusiasts. (All of you remind me of Mr Toad.) Computers repair some damage caused by TV and AC, but only by trading demons.

Even a broken watch is right, as they say, twice a day:
“If you own a machine, you are in turn owned by it, and spend your time serving it.” — Marion Zimmer Bradley

avatar Rob August 17, 2010 at 4:00 pm

The downtown area of my current city is a district that has consciously, admirably, and victoriously created a mixed-use area that welcomes multiple modes of transit, and authorities are eagerly discussing the possibility of permitting even more modes (namely, commuter rail). All such modes have equal access which they use abundantly, creating an attractive and efficient urban core. If my city can do it, others can. Most people use cars here, but cars do not use the people or own the city, for the most part (except, unfortunately, on its distasteful exurban fringes).

Unless that machine is an atomic bomb, it is difficult to comprehend how one can deem a technology or tool inherently evil or distasteful. The problem, as it most always is, is human rather than mechanical. It is extrinsic to the tool. Machines are worthless hunks of metal unless we do something with them. The problem is that we often use them for ill–for our own ill!–and allow the machines to use us. But notice that word: such can only happen if we allow it. You are correct insofar as we have permitted this to happen in America to a frightening degree and in a wide array of realms. You are wrong insofar as you think this result is inevitable or intrinsic to gadgets themselves.

avatar David August 17, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Forgive me if I stepped too far. I would certainly not claim that evil exists necessarily in potentiality. That would lead me to Monergism where I most definitely do not want to go (not to mention that such a discussion is off-topic as far as east is from west).

However, I might be willing to have it said, that what is for one man a mere temptation is a necessity for a community of sufficient size. That is, as your community grows the preponderance of circumstance would seem to indicate that not only will someone give in to temptation, but that sufficient numbers will to degrade the common good.

This is why we don’t put beer stores next to schools, or allow (or why we did not allow until recently) pornography on the public airwaves. We recognize that you personally, or any man well-formed moral actor, might withstand all manner of corruption, but such influence is poor public policy and no basis for virtuous civics.

My own employer trusts me with access (as a system administrator) most sensitive. Yet I am not allowed by policy to handle cash transactions on behalf of the institution. No one is except the cashier. It is not because I would corrupt, but rather that enough would corrupt to cause a negative outcome.

avatar Sam M August 17, 2010 at 10:00 pm

To my mind the best effort to grapple with the full-scale cultural impact of the automobile was Tom Wofe’s legendary Esquire article about Junior Johnson. I implore you to read it:

http://www.esquire.com/features/life-of-junior-johnson-tom-wolfe-0365

Wolfe, a Southerner himself, seemed to celebrate the role cars played in destroying the ways of the Old South.

I know. Place. Tradition. All that stuff. But while mobility has its perils, so does the lack thereof. It’s really fascinating stuff, exploring as it does the role of myth, corporate power, fashion, etc. Seriously. Read it. If it had been published yesterday instead of 45 years ago, it would still be spot on.

avatar D.W. Sabin August 18, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Now, if they would have busted out a few kegs, lit some Webers and started a wet t shirt contest with Ben Franklin officiating, I’d say it would have been a strong advertising vehicle.

I did like the notion that the British and Continental Army were ever engaged within an arid sagebrush, Pinyon and juniper clad mountainous landscape but its a moronic television ad, one of millions, blaring away for a witless culture of rubes born by the minute.

That the zeitgeist would countenance an ad that is almost apologetic in tone, claiming the few things we got right were cars and consumer liberty is potentially depressing but really now, its advertising , like some oaf who approaches somebody 75 pounds overweight and grins and proclaims “my, you look great, did you just lose some weight”? Who really pays attention to this stuff besides the people making enormous sums for foolish concepts?

Go to tag sales, buy old television sets for 10 bucks a piece, plug them in and when you see something faintly idiotic, which will be often, keep a 12 gauge pump action shotgun nearby and blast away, pumping another shell in the chamber as the sparking telly bounces onto the floor in order to hit it again as it moves…you know, to keep it sporting.

After all, what is Detroit supposed to make a commercial on? The fact that their bail-out money was being repaid with other bail-out money?

avatar Rob August 18, 2010 at 4:21 pm

David (and other detractors of the automobile), wishing for a world in which the car or air conditioning or the internet don’t exist is like wishing for a world in which Hitler or Napoleon were never born. Whatever the world and the subsequent course of history may have been like had they never thought to emerge from the womb, they did, in fact, see fit and the events connected with their existence occurred irreversibly. Would the world have been better or worse? Ultimately, such speculations are mere nostalgia and entertaining thought-experiments, not viable methods of approaching the world. You cannot refill Pandora’s box. The punishment of Prometheus did not involve figuring out a way of returning the gift of fire to the gods because it can’t be done. Our goal as front-porchers should not be to moan longingly for a time before cars but to integrate these ineluctable creations into a more communal, salubrious framework. Here, too, in the bowels of the internal combustion engine some good can be found.

Cars, AC, computers, and “internets” are brilliant fruits of human imagination and techne. They can be used for good or evil. In many cases they have been used for the latter, to be sure. The car, when employed properly, is a remarkable tool for mobility, independence, and efficiency. When used evilly, it consumes our lives and incomes, and reconfigures our infrastructure in the ugliest way possible. The internet is a wonderful tool for the propagation of knowledge (and discussion, as we see!). If used evilly, it is also the world’s largest emporium of pornography and vapid discourse.

If you are inclined to regard these helpful inventions as “corruptions” and “temptations,” be prepared to apply your logic to food, drink, sex, money, books, and any other appurtenance of human life. Be prepared to wish them away as well. They are all good things when employed properly and in moderation. But they are also the material companion of sins both mortal and venial. They too are the root of temptations–and, I warrant, temptations far more destructive than whatever corruptions the automobile is lisping serpent-like in our ears. More appropriate, it is not they–not cars and not food– in their material existences that are corruptions and temptations, but particular uses of them that endanger our souls and communities.

avatar David August 18, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Rob,

You continue to defy my limited powers of communication in this medium. There is clearly a disconnect between my expressed position and your characterization of it.

Let me try this again. I enjoy the fruits of a great many technological advances. I like that I did not die or become crippled from polio as a child. I also like that I can turn on my AC and escape the heat (where I grew up we spent much of the summer near or into the triple digits). Apart from a few fond memories of my childhood, which are personal and don’t sway my philosophy, I have absolutely no use for nostalgia or talk of golden ages.

I do not wish to go back to the way things were at any particular point in history. I even question the largely accepted agrarian preferences of FPR.

None of this precludes me from the awareness of the damage done by so much progress, from the negligent misuse of tools by the masses or the deliberate crimes of utopianists who believe the power of tools gives them the right to power over men’s hearts.

It is preposterous to exclaim that since there is both general good from tools and specific goods that I have experienced, I have no valid commentary on their short-comings, dangers and debacles. This is like saying that a movie critic cannot say negative things about a movie he just saw, because after all he watched it.

It is vitally important, in fact, that there be a robust criticism of all things novel. Nothing that cannot stand the scrutiny of many vicious editorials should be allowed to supplant the sacred ways of life mankind has perpetuated since civilization’s dawn.

One of the dangers I realized when I first starting reading FRP is that conservative thought, could easily become conservatism. It too can be ideolized, idolized and abstracted to a set of precepts, or rules. You end up with cardboard cutouts of real places and things–flat, bearing only the image of the past. Some might even remember my early comments asking vainly, “How can one even be conservative and live in modern times?”

The question comes from the systemization of conservative thought. Frankly, systemization is the root of philosophical evil.

Our lot is to work with what we’ve got, and insofar as it is good to fight to keep it. Everything stands to get a good whollop of skepticism. And limits imposed wherever they can to dike up against the flood.

Sure, bring on the cure to cancer, but not by experimenting on our unborn. If you do it anyway and a cure results, I won’t keep my mother from it though I fully recognize the hypocrisy in this. Conservatives are full of contradictions, paradoxes and hypocrisy. This is not evil. Rather we are full of this because real life is full of this. Only abstracted mental mind-scapes, dreams of progress and those who wish to change the world can avoid such complexity, because they work with fantasy as their essential element.

P.S. I’m no Gnostic either. Please do not even hint at accusing me of heresy (though I don’t think that was your intent, it could be extrapolated from your final remark).

avatar Rob August 18, 2010 at 5:15 pm

David:

I did not intend to accuse you of heresy by any means. In any case, it appears that ultimately we agree on the fundamentals of this question. If that be the case, my statements are directed not so much to you as to a general idea that occasions itself on this website quite frequently. Thanks for your response and for this discussion!

avatar David August 18, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Rob,

Now you’ve gone and become all agreeable. I’ll have to put you back on my pipes and park-bench list. When I make my national tour, we’ll have an afternoon of it.

I’m glad for a good disagreement, but enjoy it passing into camaraderie as the sun passes out of the afternoon. Evening time is for food and fellowship.

avatar Zac August 18, 2010 at 6:16 pm

It appears I’ve missed the latest conversation train by an hour – that’s what I get for not driving to the station in a Dodge Challenger – but if I might add a couple of harmless pennies before eating something myself: as a detractor of AC and DC (Dodge Chargers?) and TV, I feel I must note that my preference of bicycles over cars and cold iced tea over AC and banjos over TV seems to stem less from what Rob might call an attempt to refill pandora’s box, and more from mere aesthetic preference (is that so wrong?). I simply prefer championing a world where a complete lack of cars is the ideal, and, on a personal level, prefer to avoid these things MOST of the time – any easy task here in Madison.

But just for biting’s sake: I think a car-free city…country…world… is quite possible. Of course you can’t ‘undo’ the invention of the automobile, but a mind changed once can be changed twice, and if it’s a question of using our tools properly (or not at all), convincing people to do so is all that’s required. If we once didn’t have cars, we can, potentially, once not have them again. If pandora’s box needs filling, I’ll at least make the attempt.

…amid fresh tomatoes…

avatar Rob August 18, 2010 at 7:14 pm

I suppose it depends upon whether your aesthetic preference is the best aesthetic preference. Personally, I don’t think a world utterly devoid of cars, AC, and TV would be inherently and objectively better or preferable. I think it would be preferable if we moderated our use of these things in our culture–and such would be an attainable goal to boot. Creating sustainable communities, building meaningful relationships, interacting more often with the real rather than the virtual world–these are all desirable goals, but I do not think their attainment is helped (indeed, I think it is hindered) when we pursue them with the fanciful ideal of a [fill-in-the-blank]-free world.

In any case, if you’re the Zac I know, you’re quite a fan of your iPhones and iPads and iGadgets. Even if you are not the Zac I know, I am acquainted with many who construct the same hermetically sealed chambers in their lives: dependent upon the technology they flaunt in one hand, while eschewing other (arbitrarily selected?) technologies with the other hand which is busy clutching homegrown tomatoes and lemonade. How are you making the aesthetic choice? Why one and not the other?

David, please announce when you are making your tour. I know of several park benches nearby that I would be glad to share!

avatar Zac August 19, 2010 at 12:34 pm

I don’t see how pursuit of a [car]-free world could be a hinderance to sustainable communities, &c. Could you give a few examples?

Having grown up Mennonite in an area highly-populated with Amish, I’ve witnessed very successful and very serious attempts at pursuing the ‘fanciful’ ideal of a [fill-in-the-blank]-free world – and without sacrificing sustainability and meaningful community. On the contrary, these fanciful ideals seem to be what makes Amish communities so successful. I’ll grant, however, that they do depend on many modern conveniences, directly or indirectly, and that at times their attempts to avoid technology are just that: arbitrary avoidance.* (Sometimes it boarders on ridiculous!) But they lack cynicism, and their lifestyle choices, though not perfect, are that much more admirable than my own thanks in part to their ‘fanciful’ (and conservatively driven) ideals.

Incidentally, which Zac do you know? I have little interest in iAnything – so maybe it’s a case of mistaken identity. Do I share names with another commenter on FPR, or, do you happen to know a Zac in Madison? By chance, I happen to know a Rob who once lived in Madison.

I’m also acquainted with some straw men (perhaps we know the same ones) who arbitrarily pick and choose their technological demons in mad flights of fancy… usually by rolling a dice or bidding fortuna’s wheel spin. I consider all of my preferences to be ‘objectively preferable’ – including eschewing technology I personally dislike; my own aesthetics being the best, naturally. I bike everywhere because it’s clean, it’s good for my health, it gives me a feeling of intentionality, it connects me to my place, it’s not as dangerous as a car, it doesn’t require as much* oil as a car to operate, and, because I enjoy it. Why a bike and not a horse? I have my reasons and you’ve got yours – or maybe you don’t, and so what?

*Despite what some straw men may claim, total avoidance of all modern technology is rarely achieved; these days a Braeburn can be as high-tech as a Mac (though one of these apples is much more useful), and cyclists can be and usually are petroleum-reliant, powering their bodies with food grown and delivered by way of gas-powered machines. It’s all fine by me, of course. I’m not on a crusade to eradicate cars. But I happen to draw my line of ‘in moderation’ closer to no-use-at-all, which is a good thing, because it keeps me sharp and makes my life feel nice.

avatar Justin Eggleton April 18, 2012 at 12:30 pm

The best thing about this page is the YouTube clip at the beginning. After that, kinda downhill…

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