25 November 2007

Band of Drivers

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks used popular music as a metaphor for the way that our society has fragmented. Hearkening back to some nostalgic era in which many people crowded together in large stadia with poor acoustics to suffer through performances by musicians who could, in many cases, only be seen with powerful binoculars, Brooks states that “the era of integration gave way to the era of fragmentation. There are now dozens of niche musical genres where there used to be this thing called rock. There are many bands that can fill 5,000-seat theaters, but there are almost no new groups with the broad following or longevity of the Rolling Stones, Springsteen or U2.”

I don’t disagree with Brooks’ underlying point: our society does indeed have ever-greater distinctions between smaller clusters of people. Well beyond the old, basic economic levels – the poor, the varying degrees of bourgeois middle-class, and the wealthy – we now have five or six levels, ranging from the non-working poor to the working poor, from the debt-plagued to the debt-free, and from the merely rich to the phenomenally wealthy. Along ethnic lines, the scenario is also different: while many traditional distinctions hold, intermarriage and inter-ethnic child birth have (thankfully) helped blur what had been too-easily-drawn lines, used more often to separate us.

The problem with Brooks’ argument is: music has always been segmented, with different styles appealing to various audiences drawn around class or ethnicity. So-called “classical” music was largely written for elite audiences in the previous four centuries, and generally remains the taste of an elite now – even as opera, originally a medium for the masses, has also moved to the realm of the classical. Jazz, that all-American creation, pulled whites into a distinctly African-American musical style, but for much of its early years did so while those same white folk actively worked to sustain segregation of the races. Citing the Stones or Springsteen or U2 as examples is also somewhat absurd: they represent the exception, not the rule, in their creativity and their longevity. To the broader question of “segmentation,” my guess is that musicians like Snoop Dogg and Sean “Diddy” Combs (whose first albums appeared in 1993 and 1997, respectively) might disagree on the finer points of whether they are able to fill large stadia – and whether they attract audiences just as broad and diverse as those of the Stones or U2. And The Beatles, any fan of rock will recall, gave up touring and live performance completely in 1966, because stadium were such terrible venues for concerts.

If he wanted an issue around which to explore our social fragmentation, Brooks might have looked at cars and driving instead. Like music, cars are also about class: what you drive (or, in the early years, whether you drove at all) says a lot about who you are, what you can afford, and your values. The same is no less true today, but the common thread that once held all of us drivers together – respect for the rules of the road – has largely vanished. The nostalgic calm that once reigned on our Eisenhower-era highways, the natural beauty of millions of people whooshing smoothly from place to place, respecting the rights of those around them to reach their destination safely, is gone. Suffering through travel on a holiday weekend is a perfect reminder of the near lawlessness that reigns on our streets and highways.

At issue here is not speeding; nor is this about global warming and the pollution caused by cars, or about the big car versus little car debate, either in terms of fuel efficiency or danger-upon-impact. This is about the more basic question of whether people know how to drive, whether they understand why the rules are there, and whether they care about the consequences of breaking them. Here, our society is definitely fragmenting: small groups of law-abiders are surrounded by larger clusters of dangerous law-breakers, each with their own, special talents.

There are the tailgaters, of course, but often over-looked are the n’er-do-wells who play with them: the dawdlers, people who hang out in the passing lane at what they consider a comfortable speed, oblivious to those behind them. Worse than the tailgaters, however, are the BaSPs – the blind-spot passers – who insist, whenever things are not going their speed, on passing slower traffic on the right-hand side of the road. Up until a few years ago, I would have said that BaSPs are the most terrible of all, because these cretins forcibly change the normal flow of traffic, and zig-zag in ways that make driving more dangerous for others.

Still, a more terrible type of driver arrived with the cell phone and other digital devices, and while almost all of us who drive have, at one time or another, likely used such items while driving: we should not. In New York City and other urban centers, idiots merely walking down the street prove themselves farcically inept at paying attention to those around them; hurtling forward at 60 miles per hour, wrapped in 2 tons of metal, while entertaining such distractions should be significantly more illegal than it is. Thus, another two clusters are those who insist on using their phone while driving, and those who do not.

Worst of all are the deniers: those of us who act as though we never commit any of these misdeeds. Alas, this is the one area in which we are most definitely unified: we are a nation in denial. That one little concept actively helps us to overcome whatever other segmentation may be taking place in the society around us.


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