Friday, February 17, 2006

Road Rage



I spent last weekend in Los Angeles and down the coast to Carlsbad in San Diego County. I spent the previous 35 years of my life in this environment and, I have to tell you, change is taking place! The golden hills of coastal California are etched now with ever-broadening scars, endless tracts of three thousand square foot houses built fifteen feet apart on the treacherous hills, basking in the golden sun, sometimes alight with wildfires as this past week and weekend as Anaheim Hills burned smokily into the coastal basin. But that was not the most noticeable difference. The freeways were the telling sign of change.

"The 405" calves off from Interstate 5 north of the City of Los Angeles, soars down the San Fernando Valley and across the Santa Monica Mountains past UCLA and the Getty Museum, plunging into the basin at Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevards to rush southward past Howard Hughes and Westchester, LAX, through the refineries, then Long Beach, into faceless Orange County and cities without soul or substance eventually to rejoin the mother road at the El Toro "Y." During non-peak hours the ambient speed in the "diamond lane" for cars with passengers is 85 mph, the regular lanes ranging from 85 down to a demure 65 for cars about to careen onto off-ramps. The 405 speed limit is not posted and has not been for years!

The 405 is an experiment, to be sure. The rest of the world, save Europe's larger cities, would scarcely understand the social compact that exists on the 405. It is an agreement to behave in a certain way, to respect momentum, to be conscious of activity in one's own lane six cars ahead and in other lanes as well. It is fundamentally an agreement to shed one's independence in favor of destination. Occasionally, though, there will be a Volvo or socially similar vehicle, usually 1980s vintage, driving at 65mph and not an fraction more. Sometimes you will encounter two traveling abreast creating a running roadblock for the teaming thousands behind them. They achieve a quiescence, of course, but at the expense of the goodwill of thousands. The urge to yell "mutherfucker" out a window at these Volvofascists is apparently irrepressable. And so, to the chaos of thousands of independent wills bound irresolutely to a common understanding of the fragility of freeway existence is added the bitter spice of road rage.

My daughter, an attorney never late for a deposition, was driving. We were hurtling south past Torrance about to encounter the South Bay Curve and its inevitable slowing, where entropy increases as centrifugal forces pushing drivers' rear ends out of their seats and against doors or center consoles cause the wavelike slowing down, an inchworm effect that in thirty years (we simultaneously hoped aloud) would be computerized thus eliminating the inconvenience entirely. It was then that a slow epiphany rolled over me in my strained perch in the Passat's suicide seat.

America is not a freeway country, despite the solemn and substantial commitment to them. No one lives on freeways; no one even breathes normally on freeways lest the fumes significantly shorten one's life. No, we live on Elm Streets and Chestnut Avenues. We are surface folk and we do not like significant change. We don't like long, variable radius curves, long hills, or blind alleys. We love our cars—Angelinos especially—because they are the agency of our imaginations. They take us to the mall, the theater, the mega-mart for groceries, and so forth. We have our paths and routes, and when we must we shed our personalities and dive onto a freeway to get somewhere more quickly, but we don't like it and don't feel right until we are back on "surface streets."

Surface streets ply through obscured views. You are generally confined to a local area, its houses, buildings, stores, factories, or the immediate rural locale. You do not get to see as far as you do on the freeway and you do not notice that there are way more people out and about than just a few years or even months ago. On the freeway you cannot help but notice, and the immediacy of there being ten thousand (it seems) cars all going 85 in the same direction brings a moment of panic that even NASCAR fans experience. There are just too many of us! This cannot work out!

Road rage is an epiphenomenon of the broken social compact. Statistics will tell you that after a certain number of cars in each mile of freeway the odds of finding a compact-breaker becomes 100%. Compact breakers not only endanger our lives and destinations, they represent a larger truth. That truth is that the city, the state, and the nation now seem less viable than once they were under the old assumptions. But might it not be that we have not assembled our thoughts and coalitions to meet the challenge of large numbers and heterogeneity? Is it possible that freeway driving is a metaphor for political life?

Democrats, being the more heterogeneous of coalitions are particularly vulnerable to fractures of the social compact. How big a freeway or political party can we bring ourselves to drive these days if our destination is to be social and economic justice for individuals? The stretch of The 405 through Seal Beach, for instance, carries California Route 22 along for several miles and it is fourteen lanes wide, not counting shoulders and on-ramp/off-ramp merge lanes! Is this not a situation where the original freeway social compact has become obsolete? If so, how do drivers negotiate this flood, this avalanche of automobiles, this torrent of differing purposes?

Republicans don't have the same freeway problem, because they promise only a ride. They do not even try to obscure your fear of terror, minorities, economic ruin, Chinese, Arabs, etc. They do not promise a fix or goal, just a ride. Democrats on the other hand need goals, need to produce good works, minimum wage supports, medical care, income security, a level playing field for all races. Can Democrats do this honestly with so many lanes and cars hurtling past?

I think it is possible, but we have to rid ourselves of the compact breakers, the DLCs, the pantywaist drivers who become frightened and reflexively slow down. Freeways speeds of 85-90 are not only possible, but necessary. They move far more traffic than speeds of 55 and 65. Cars are better than ever and road surfaces are good and signs are clear and intelligently placed. In other words, liberals and progressives, we have imagined a system that works, we only have to have the courage to use it.

Join the 84%(!) at MoveOn.org who voted this week to expel the DLC from the Democratic Party. Ditch Evan Bayh and the conservative fifth columnists, the traitors to the cause, the pluto-democrats and everything they stand for. The real Liberals and Progressives in the Party can stand on principle and win. Just watch!

James Richard Brett

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