The last time I was in Berlin, Brian Ladd’s Ghosts of Berlin was my invaluable key to the contested city’s palimpsestual history. I’ve reviewed his new book, Autophobia, in this weekend’s New York Times, and I’ll no doubt be referring to it again here. Review here or after the jump.
November 16, 2008
By TOM VANDERBILT
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Love and Hate in the Automotive Age
By Brian Ladd
Illustrated. 227 pp. The University of Chicago Press. $22.50
“We can’t build our way out of congestion.” For years this has been the rallying cry against the continuing accommodation — either in the federal budget or the local landscape — to the exigencies of the car. Typically, it is brandished by mass-transit partisans or stubborn slow-growthers and routinely rejected by the road lobby (pave, baby, pave!), right-tilting think tanks and, if you pose the question at rush hour, at least, the average driver.
The quotation above was recently uttered, however, by a spokesman for a state department of transportation, typically among the most eager layers of asphalt. The state in question? Michigan, home of the American car industry — for which roads are as essential as pastures to ranchers. If this reads like an apostasy, it also looks like part of a larger withering of faith. Detroit is having a cataclysmic year while bus and train riderships exceed capacities, the once unsurpassed American road network is in vast disrepair and in countries from Japan to England, fewer people are undergoing the adolescent ritual of getting a driver’s license. With unpredictable gas prices and soul-deadening traffic, the car has certainly lost some of its luster, lending credence to the words of an English observer: “From being the plaything of society,” the car “has come to dominate society. It is now our tyrant, so that at last we have turned in revolt against it, and begun to protest against its arrogant ways.”
The only problem with this incipient revolt is that these words actually date to 1911, the shaky toddler years of American motorization. That they could have been uttered in 1973, or perhaps yesterday, is what animates Brian Ladd’s “Autophobia.” People have been predicting the death, or at least severe retrenchment, of the car virtually since its invention. But while the literature may be filled with books like “Dead End,” “Car Trouble” and “Autokind vs. Mankind” — among many others — the roads are filled with ever more traffic. The car, since it began, has seemingly been driven by Beckett: It can’t go on, it goes on.
This raises the question of what, a century on, there is to say about motorization and its discontents that hasn’t been said before. But for Ladd, author of the masterly study “The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape,” the work of “Autophobia” is precisely about looking again at what has been said, by whom and for what reason, and why none of the voluminous critiques of the car — by any number of estimable figures — seem to have much mattered. He does this with equanimity and scholarly aplomb (particularly on the European response to motorization), and for a slender volume, this book has a lot under the hood.
Early on, Ladd notes, the fault lines were clear. A wealthy few had cars, and they drove them ruthlessly, generally haranguing and disrupting the people in their paths. Other automobiles were less a risk than were local farmers’ guns. And in one astonishing case in Germany, a couple was beheaded as they drove upon a wire stretched across a road in protest. There were “two strands of rural complaint,” Ladd writes, “both with a conservative tinge: the poor peasant’s resentment of the highhanded rich motorist, and the outraged good taste of educated people who enjoyed their quiet sojourns in the countryside.”
As the automobile and its charms began tempting the masses, boundaries began to blur. Woodrow Wilson’s famous warning that the car would instill “socialistic feeling” in the United States yielded to the fomentations of Adolf Hitler: “The automobile” must “be stripped of its class-specific and therefore divisive character. It must cease to be a luxury and become a practical device!” Cars, Ladd astutely points out, were politically unsettling: “The automotive metropolis offered liberation from old constraints, yet the car’s defenders were increasingly those who called themselves conservatives. Its critics were the ones demanding both the conservation of natural resources and the defense of the traditional city.”
Throughout the car’s life, Ladd argues, its critics have often “failed to appreciate the depth of the automobile’s hold on ordinary people,” reaching for conspiracies to help explain the ubiquity of car culture when the answers seem far simpler. The car, beyond any symbolic power, is usually the fastest — if far from the healthiest — way to get around. But this itself contains a point that the car’s boosters, Ladd argues, often ignore — a so-called path dependence. Once you started to make room for the car in the landscape — doing things that made the car “an easy, convenient, even necessary, but not always wise choice” — it was hard to turn back.
“Autophobia,” Ladd observes, is “an obscure psychiatric diagnosis of ‘fear of oneself,’ ” rather than a fear of cars, though today there may be no distinction. Cars are a good thing — which is why critics have failed to stem the tide — but we have had no easy way, or much will, to treat the problems of having too much of a good thing (which continues to give critics grist). “The democratization of driving has meant that we can all aspire to be petty tyrants of the road,” Ladd writes. “In the end, the driver’s sense of sovereign mastery and the bystander’s perception of inhuman arrogance are two sides of the same coin.” Like the preacher in “The Night of the Hunter,” we may have the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on our hands, but those hands seem firmly on the steering wheel.
Tom Vanderbilt is the author of “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us).”
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