Freeway Isolation and Gas Bag Inflation – Tom Rossi
California is an interesting place, politically I mean. Geographically, there is a whole lot more land area where conservatives are in the majority. It’s in the areas of concentrated population – the Bay Area, Los Angeles – where people tend to vote in their own favor (to whatever degree possible) rather than in favor of corporations and the super rich.
This week I drove deep into conservative territory – central California, where agriculture is king. All the radio stations change as you head into the San Joaquin Valley and there’s not so much variety. Faced with the total lack of any kind of jazz music, I found myself listening to none other than the big gas-bag himself – Rush Limbaugh.
It had been a while since I last was subjected to Rush (it really burns my butt that the name of one of my favorite rock bands is now synonymous with cretinous drivel) and I listened for most of an hour. I have to admit, I was smiling and laughing pretty much the entire time.
On this particular day, Limbaugh added the Center for Science in the Public Interest to his usual vilifying rants about President Obama and the terrible things he does to America. Debating the details of his blithering blather aren’t really important. It’s not important to have a long discussion with a four-year-old about why one plus one is two and not three.
But this was “call-in day” when listeners can call in and profess that they agree that one plus one is three. I wondered how the callers could take this stuff so seriously and even enjoy it – and not sarcastically, like me. Each caller started with something like, “I love your show” or “I’ve been a fan for years.”
While my mind drifted and I watched the cars around me, going down the freeway, I began to think about how cars tend to separate us from each other.
In most areas of California, people spend huge proportions of their lives in cars, much of that time alone. But it’s not just that they are alone; it’s that they are isolated. Their thoughts, sometimes spoken out loud to the empty seat beside them, are unchecked by any social interaction.
When you are isolated, you can easily go down a narrative path that is neither algorithmic nor logical, but there is no one to point that out.
During the 2008 election circus, if you were on the road, alone, and you heard some genius on AM radio say that Barack Obama is a terrorist, and you didn’t think of this question yourself, there would have been no one next to you to ask, “What does that mean? Do these people think that Obama would plant a bomb in the White House? Or on Capitol Hill? Is that really what these people think?”
I grew up in a car town, surrounded by other car towns. There was little public transportation and I almost never saw anyone walking. People drove their cars everywhere, all the time, then drove directly into their garages, never having to suffer the burden of actually talking to their neighbors.
It’s easy, in these circumstances, to feel separate and dependent only upon yourself and your family. It’s easy to start thinking that the “others” are only competition for what you want: money and resources of various kinds. It’s easy to think of yourself as a downhill skier rather than a member of a hockey, basketball, or football team.
Something strange happens when you literally rub shoulders with your fellow astronauts on spaceship Earth – they actually begin to feel human.
It seems that isolation from a wide sample of people, whether in fact due to time spent in cars or something else, correlates better with voting habits than does any other factor except possibly wealth. If you look at the map, from the 2004 presidential election, of where people voted Democrat versus Republican, Democratic voters were located in places with high population density – New York City, San Francisco, Miami, Denver, Seattle, Baltimore, etc.
Ideas, opinions… thoughts of many kinds cry out for discussion. We are a gregarious species and we work better together.
Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.
Thought your connection between cities with higher interaction between people (public transportation system) was very interesting. Just returned from a city without and felt people didn’t even know the names of their neighbors. Went to the 24 hour fitness there – totally different experience to SF. No one talked, smiled, or even made eye contact. Their headphones were their isolation cars you mentioned.
You’ve hit on THE big change in our social lives – technology. I think it was mainly cars for many years, but now, as you say, it’s headphones, and maybe cell phones also. Cell phones allow you to stay in great communication with your little circle, but that’s pretty much all. Many people may not have members of their close circles who really challenge their minds. Heck, they might only talk about Survivor or American Idol and not much else. I guess that’s OK. I sometimes wish these people wouldn’t vote, though. Maybe they don’t.
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