It’s all about undercutting the very idea of the public good.
If you want a peek into the conservative id to understand Republicans’ fears of mass transit, just check out this piece written last year by Washington Post columnist George Will bashing high-speed rail projects:
“Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons—to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.
“To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they—unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted—are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.
“Time was, the progressive cry was ‘Workers of the world unite!’ or ‘Power to the people!’ Now it is less resonant: ‘All aboard!’”
Most of this is absurd. Progressivism isn’t the same as collectivism, and I don’t know anyone on the liberal-left who is determined to undercut people’s sense of “adequacy.”
But Will is, in a way, right: The car encourages people to develop an overinflated sense of autonomy while mass transit illustrates how we are all, in fact, connected to and reliant on each other.
Driving down the open road is the most American expression of freedom. Wrapped in your own little steel carapace, blasting your music, pushing past the speed limit, you can feel like the master of your universe. The delusion of grandeur (to turn Will’s phrase on its head) is perfect. Unless you remember that the road you’re driving on was built and paid for with taxes. Or until you hit the inevitable traffic jam. (Notice how car commercials always show the new car model on empty streets — a fantasy if there ever was one.)
Riding the train, the subway or the bus is, of course, an entirely different experience. First of all, you have to share space: you can’t blast your music and sing along. You have to — yes, gasp — show deference (Will’s word) to other people. Maybe that’s annoying. But it’s also the basis of civilization, learning to get along with other people.
This doesn’t “diminish individualism.” But public transit does show the power — the necessity, even — of individuals working together. Mass transit requires many people working together to make it work. The rubbing of elbows and the sharing of seats proves that we’re all connected. Public transit, you could say, is human ecology at its best.
Public transit shows that we’re all in this together. And for many Republicans — who seem bent on taking us back to a Hobbesian war-of-all-against-all — that’s reason enough to oppose it.
This post was originally published by the Earth Island Journal.
Photo from cliff1066 via flickr
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