AND NOW, the most politically incorrect statement I'm likely to make all summer: Automobiles are wonderful, and solo driving is, too. Show me a land where the vast majority of people drive to work alone, and I'll show you a land that is prosperous, liberty-loving and democratic.
I know, I know. Cars pollute. They kill people. They burn up fossil fuels, promote suburban sprawl, wind up in dumps as rusting hulks, clog city streets, are expensive to insure, deepen our trade deficit with Japan, and sustain that modern scourge, the used-car salesman.
All true. But I say again: Cars are good. That is why, despite their drawbacks, we love them so much. Car-hating busybodies hector us to use mass transit and force us to pay billions of dollars to subsidize it, yet we prefer to drive. In 1990, more than 86 percent of us drove to work. Only 5.3 percent commuted on mass transit -- and that was less than in 1980. "Growth in driving," groans the Conservation Law Foundation, an anti-car environmentalist group, "has far outstripped growth in population and jobs."
So it has, and for reasons that go beyond the mere usefulness of cars. It is great to have a car when you need to get to the office or take the kids to soccer practice. But there is more to automobility, and to our national passion for it, than that.
Widespread ownership of cars is a profound reflection of the American way of life. I don't mean just in the "baseball-hot-dogs-apple-pie-and-Chevrolet" sense; nor even in the Jack Kerouac "On the Road" sense of American restlessness and motion. At the deepest level, our cars are a tangible expression of our most important values. Freedom. Choice. Privacy. Individualism. Self-reliance.
It's no accident that automobile ownership has always been so limited in communist countries or that the few cars made in them have usually been so crummy. Totalitarians don't like cars because they make it harder to control people's comings and goings. If you've got a car, you can go (within certain limits) where you please, when you please, with whom you please, by any route you please. If you've got a car, you're autonomous. Despots hate nothing so much as individual autonomy.
The automobile is an emblem of the good life that Americans take for granted. It is an attribute of wealth routine even among our poorest citizens. Nearly all of us drive and have cars; few of us think about how diminished our culture would be without them. But to those who live in unfree societies, a car is a treasure to be coveted and dreamed about.
"I will never forget the American film made from Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath,'" wrote the Soviet author Lev Navrozov in his 1975 autobiography. "The author and the filmmakers wanted to show the life of the poor in the '30s. The poor rode about in trucks. The Russian audience stared. Even a small, dingy car 30 years old is a status symbol here, as high as a yacht in the United States. But the ownership of a truck" like the one the Joads drove to California was a sign of prestige as unimaginable to most Soviets as "the ownership of a fleet of dirigibles" would be to an average American. What Steinbeck intended as a "wrathful message of poverty" Soviet audiences perceived as a fantasy of opulence.
In the midst of the Depression, Will Rogers cracked: "We'll hold the distinction of being the only nation in history that ever went to the poorhouse in an automobile." It is a distinction, one to sing about. There is no end of American songs celebrating the glory of owning or driving or fooling around in a car. Aretha Franklin sang about her "Pink Cadillac," Prince about his "Little Red Corvette." Commander Cody had a "Hot Rod Lincoln," the Beach Boys a "Little Deuce Coupe" and a "409." Who ever rhapsodized about the delights of mass transit?
(The Kingston Trio didn't. "Charlie on the MTA" is about a guy trapped on the subway, doomed to "ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston" because he was short a lousy nickel. Message: Subways are hellacious. Charlie should have saved his nickels and bought a Mustang.)
The more we cherish our cars, the more the bureaucrats, planners and environmental extremists labor to get us out of them. Parking freezes, gasoline taxes, bus lanes, annual inspections, car pool regulations, pedestrian-only zones, speed traps -- whatever adds to the burden of owning an automobile, the anti-car zealots are for. Whatever enhances our autonomy -- our ability to take ourselves where we want to go, without needing the government's permission -- they are against.
Don't underestimate the intensity of the zealots' antipathy toward private cars. "We need bicycles and we need buses," demands environmental crusader Bill McKibben in a recent New York Times piece, "and we need to make them seem as marvelous as Miatas." Vice President Al Gore, the nation's zealot-in-chief, denounces cars as a "mortal threat" to the nation's security, "more deadly than . . . any military enemy."
The 100 million of us who get behind the wheel every day had better be on guard. The car-haters aren't fooling around, and they're not going to give up until Big Brother takes the T-Bird away.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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