Road to perdition

For Hampshire Life
Published: 1/11/2019 10:41:40 AM

Well, we’re queuing up for the next presidential election now that we’ve entered the foyer of 2019. Sigh. Much has been written and lamented about the schisms that exist here in the U.S. and beyond, and I suspect that that noise is just going to get amplified now the election season seems to have started. It’s hard to ignore the urgent dramas. It’s how we do things now.

With all the conflicts playing out in all versions of our modern common spaces, it’s hard to imagine that we even know how to deal with each other cooperatively anymore. Have we moved beyond the need to be a larger community and, instead, become a collection of individuals competing only for ourselves and mic drop moments? That certainly seems to be the case if you go by the glowing blue-light portals in our hands or on our laps. Despair and resignation are not unreasonable reactions to the way we conduct “discourse” these days.

I have been nursing these thoughts, among others, as I drive. The insulated confines of my truck are where I ruminate. The road is my thinking space. I drive a lot. I have imaginary debates with easily vanquished opponents, or I ponder everything from the proliferation of road-kill squirrels to the regressive nature of property taxes. More than once I have noticed anxious eyes in rear-view mirrors staring as I wait in line for a red light, assertively arguing with my windshield.

It was while I was driving, however, that I was reminded that we have cooperative systems where we almost all accept and conform to the rules regardless of our politics, moral standards, upbringing or station in life. The most obvious institution (if I may call it that) where we behave (more or less) as a group is that enormous socialist conspiracy woven deeply into the fabric of our entire nation: the roads.

The streets, avenues, lanes, highways and thoroughfares that connect our communities are so ubiquitous that we tend not to notice their profound influence on our lives. We take for granted that they exist, and we navigate them abiding by universally accepted rules. And, in the aggregate, it works and works well given that it is a human system filled with … well … humans. No matter who we are or what we drive, we have complied with regulations dictating our conduct. From anarchist to hedge fund manager, for instance, we all drive on the right side, stop at red lights and enter intersections using caution.

I’m sure that we’re predisposed to obey the rules because self-preservation requires that if we’re going to zip around in these massive contraptions with the potential to destroy property and life, we have to do it with some sense of trust and an assumption of cooperation. When you're driving 50 miles per hour on a road where the only “safe” separation between you and oncoming traffic is a fading yellow paint strip and a blind faith in the drivers’ respect for the concept of mutually assured destruction, you can start to appreciate how critical this social contract is.

To get a sense of the significance of that synergy, just think about how treacherous it is to push a relatively benign shopping cart around a grocery store mid-Saturday. If our rules of the road didn’t exist and we relied on the supermarket model of traffic management, we’d be either doomed or housebound.

You’re not likely to encounter too many vehement fights about the absurdity of right-hand drive or rants against the oppression of being required to stop at a light. Not to say there aren’t forums on the internet where you could witness such opposition. It’s just that the wags there are likely to be culled from the herd when they act on those convictions. And while we’re talking about it, can we all admit that no one has ever changed a mind or won an argument on the internet? Never. Not once. So why bother? That’s energy and time you’ll never get back. The internet took it, and someone monetized it, and you just end up fuming and now it’s 3 a.m.

Anyway, I take heart from the fact that we still do have fundamental social contracts. If someone in a Prius with “COEXIST” and “Namaste” stickers can share the same road with a Dodge Ram 3500 sporting a peeing Calvin decal and “rolling coal,” then maybe there’s a reason for hope. Some hope. Maybe. Meanwhile, it seems worthwhile to reflect on the fact that if we can all manage to function and survive the physics insanity that is driving, then our other differences can be accommodated in a similar fashion on the once dubbed “Information Super Highway” to assure that everyone gets to where they want to go relatively intact. It’s not a high bar, but it is a start. 

USA. Namaste.

Bill Dwight is a Northampton city councilor and a pie wrangler at the Florence Pie Bar. 

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