California and the Car

I feel great anxiety for these people, because I do not think they know what they are in for. In its mortal dependence on two liquids–oil and water–that no individual can easily produce by his own energy (even together with family and friends), the life of this area only shares the fragile quality of all life in the great urban concentrations of the motor age. But here the lifelines of supply seem to me particularly tenuous and vital. That is especially true of water, which they now have to bring from hundreds of miles–and will soon have to bring from much farther away. But equally disturbing to me is the utter dependence on the costly, uneconomical gadget called the automobile for practically every process of life from birth through shopping, education, wokr, and recreation, even courtship, to the final function of burial. In this community, where the revolutionary force of motorization has made a clean sweep of all other patterns of living and has overcome all competition, man has acquired a new form of legs. And what disturbs me is not only that these mechanical legs have a deleterious effect on man himself, drugging him into a sort of paralysis of the faculty of reflection and distorting his emotional makeup while they are in use–these things are not too serious, and perhaps there are even ways of combating them. What disturbs me most is man’s abject dependence on this means of transportation and on the complicated processes that make it possible. It is as though his natural legs had really become shriveled by disuse. One has the feeling that if his artificial ones were taken away from him, he would go crawling miserably and helplessly around like a crippled insect, no longer capable of conducting the battle for existence, doomed to early starvation, thirst, and extinction.

One must not exaggerate this sort of thing. All modern urban society is artificial in the physical sense: dependent on gadgets, fragile and vulnerable. This is simply the apotheosis. Here the helplessness is greatest, but also the thoughtlessness. And the thoughtlessness is part of the helplessness.

But alongside the feeling of anxiety I have at the sight of these people, there is a questioning as to the effect they are going to have on, and the contribution they are going to make to, American society as a whole. Again, this is not conceived in terms of reproach or criticism. There is really a subtle but profound difference between people here and what Americans used to be, and still partly are, in other parts of the country. I am at a loss to define this difference, and am sure that I understand it very imperfectly.

Let me try to get at it by overstating it. Here it is easy to see that when man is given (as he can be given only for relatively brief periods in exceptional circumstances) freedom both from political restraint and from want, the effect is to render him childlike in many respects: fun-loving, quick to laughter and enthusiasm, unanalytical, unintellectual, outwardly expansive, preoccupied with physical beauty and prowess, given to sudden and unthinking seizures of aggressiveness, driven constantly to protect his status in the group by an eager conformism–yet not unhappy. In this sense southern California, together with all that tendency of American life which it typifies, is childhood without the promise of maturity–with the promise only of a continual widening and growing impressiveness of the childhood world. And when the day of reckoning and hardship comes, and I think it must, it will be–as everywhere among children–the cruelest and most ruthless natures who will seek to protect their interests by enslaving the others; and the others, being only children, will be easily enslaved. In this way, values will suddenly prove to have been lost that were forged slowly and laboriously in the more rugged experience of Western political development elsewhere.

–George Kennan, diary entry for November 4, 1951, Pasadena, California. From George F. Kennan: Memoirs 1950-1963.

Here at Kedey Island I am temporarily dependent on a car for the first time since I was seventeen. I don’t like dependence, and dependence on rides in a dirty great hunk of metal that I can’t drive myself makes me particularly uneasy. The car has beenĀ identified with freedom–at least up to now–but to me it is bondage. The canoe that I use to get to the car, on the other hand, is just fine. Self-propulsion, that’s the key.

One thought on “California and the Car”

  1. BTW, that’s the most accurate depiction I’ve heard so far, regarding California’s fragile relationship with the real world. Thanks!

    The day of reckoning he’s talking about hasn’t come yet; but if the big one doesn’t come first, the eventual skyrocketing gas prices will do it, I’d bet.

    (By the way, the wierd thing about California’s push for Electric Vehicles etc., is that Southern CA residents at least couldn’t care less what their cars run on, as long as they’re cheap and the freeways are subsidised. So gas will rule for a while yet. Plus any concessions to the environment are way off the menu while the state is broke.)


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