On the Road in My Mechanical Jacobin
For all their destructive potential, cars can also provide a distinctly American freedom.
As I neared the end of my freshman year of college, my sister and I started laying out plans for a weeks-long cross-country road trip. We were going to start south down the coast from Massachusetts, turn west to catch some sights in Texas, then pivot north until we reached Yellowstone. That was really the purpose of the trip: to see firsthand the beauty of our country’s less tame Western reaches. I had never been past Ohio, and haven’t to this day; I don’t think she’s made it any farther.
It’s probably good that we never went; we would have killed each other. That wasn’t our reason for bailing, though. We didn’t have a car. Well, we did have a car: a beat-up Ford our grandfather had passed down when my sister and our brother turned 16. But if it had made it to Yellowstone it would not have made it back. It has since gone the way of all metal.
So I spent that summer in Basic Training and she spent it doing… well, I don’t know, something, probably, I never asked. And I stayed immobile. When I got back from Fort Benning I barely had enough money to buy a sandwich, much less the American-made auto I really wanted. Besides, my girlfriend drove a Range Rover.
For as long as I could, I spun it as a principled position. If anybody broached the subject, I would just babble something about Russell Kirk and mechanical jacobins. They uproot people from places. They demand the reconstruction of our physical communities to such an extent that they no longer exist on a walkable, human scale. This deracinating, anti-conservative effect only serves to advance the hegemony of capital and to further alienate it from the level of human society. Such machines, given their superhuman potentiality, can never actually be subjected to the human will, but will come to dominate man instead while leaving him with the illusion of control. I never did don a cape, though.
It was a good run. I bought a car last month.
It was inevitable. I had obligations that required me to travel, and the only reasonable way to do it was by car. Still, I couldn’t help feeling like I had betrayed my principles—not to mention Russell Kirk, and in Russell Kirk Month no less.
Even worse, I liked it. There is a kind of exhilarating freedom that you feel behind the wheel of a car, and it’s multiplied a hundredfold when the car is actually yours. I put a couple hundred miles on it (and only one scratch) in the first week after buying it alone.
I confessed my sins to a friend I met for drinks earlier this week. I even went so far as to ask him for his thoughts.
We were meeting in Cambridge, which has weathered surprisingly well the coming and going of 15 generations of academics. It has roads, of course—I have now decided that the proper answer to the anti-libertarian quip “Who will build the roads?” is “Nobody, inshallah“—but it has largely retained its character as a walkable community. This means, of course, that it’s a pain in the ass to drive in.
But that is as it should be, my Cambridgean friend announced. Walkable communities should stay that way. It is in these places that a car would be a mechanical jacobin, that it would run roughshod over well established paths of life.
But that does not mean there is no place for them. At the risk of sounding moronically obvious, they do a decent job of connecting one place to another. Just this week, I drove from D.C. up to Massachusetts, then down to Pennsylvania. Without my car I wouldn’t have had that freedom, and I wouldn’t have been able to spend the holiday with family. One of my best friends is getting married in North Dakota this summer, and his brother and I made plans this week to drive out to Fargo for the wedding. These clanking monsters can make our world smaller, and that’s most definitely a good thing. The open road serves a purpose. The problem is when it tries to cut through Cambridge.
On the subject of weddings, my barside confessor told me about one he attended last summer somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. After the nuptials, he and a companion decided to drive down along the coast to…somewhere. I think Los Angeles, maybe. I promise I was listening. There was some big car show in California that weekend, and as they twisted their way through the mountains they watched as a parade of classic sports cars gracefully passed them by. “When you’re traveling through Big Sur in the summer,” he said, “those are the times you want a tight-handling ’65 Jaguar as you wind around the bends.”
“Now, of course, that wasn’t me,” he then admitted. “I was driving a Kia rental.”
I can’t blame him for that. The automobile is an American invention, and it retained its American associations at the peak of its coolness in the ’60s and ’70s. It was one of the last things we did well. (Yes, I know Jaguars are British. Just let me make my point.) But the Pontiacs and Chevrolets of the automotive Golden Age are decidedly a thing of the past.
Now, American cars are crap. (Have you tried to change the oil filter on a Ford lately? You might as well take the whole damn thing apart.) A Kia will get you twice as far. A Honda can be maintained with half the effort. A Hyundai (like the one I bought) is more reliable and more affordable than any American counterpart.
This is a sorry state of affairs. Of course, nothing is made here anymore. But there is something particularly unseemly about the offshoring of the automotive industry. It is not by accident, and not just because of its origin, that the car was once considered a distinctly American thing. If a car at its best and at its fullest is a car on the open road, then of course it belongs here. Half of America is open road.
There is no Big Sur of Europe. You can see more (and more varied) natural beauty here than anywhere else in the world without ever crossing a single border. You can drive over mountains, along two oceans, through deserts and over plains and into the depths of primordial forests. You could do it all on foot, I suppose. But it would take you a while.
So I’m glad to have my mechanical jacobin; I’m not sure an American life can be fully lived without one. I’ll do my best to keep it out of Cambridge. But maybe I’ll take it to Yellowstone some day.