Automobility and the good life

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From Frank W. Fox and Clayne L. Pope, America: A Study In Heritage

Nothing made the Good Life better—or worse—than the automobile did. To the Consumer Society it provided everything that Aladdin got out of his magic carpet and a lot of what he got out of his magic lamp—including trouble.
In the beginning, motorcars were regarded as curiosities—playthings for the wealthy. But when Henry Ford made them both cheap and depen-dable, they quickly transformed so-ciety. The car changed the house by adding a garage. It changed the city by multiplying its streets and causing them to be paved. It changed rural living by bringing urban stores and amusements within driving distance. It changed the concept of travel with inexpensive motels and drive in res-taurants. It fashioned new enter-tainment in the Sunday afternoon drive and the Saturday night cruise. It revolutionized social mores by intro-ducing short skirts for female drivers, drive in movies, and the pastime of "parking." It consolidated education by means of school buses, stream-lined the postal service with rural free delivery, and souped up law en-forcement with the high speed chase. Labor leaders complained that it emptied the union halls, and ministers, that it emptied the churches.
Automobility had its emotional side, too. Auto racing became the sport of thrills and chills; and people who felt small and helpless in the modern world could get behind the wheel and make themselves powerful. Cars, according to the psychologists, be-came objects of art, phallic symbols, and projections of the inner person-ality. This became all too clear in the 1950s when the young began to use automobiles for self-expression. They painted their cars odd colors, re-moved the exterior chrome, and redesigned the undercarriage so that mufflers cleared the road by no more than two inches. This made the car impractical to drive but no matter. The point was not to drive it but to wax and polish it endlessly, gazing into its deep lacquered finish like Narcissus.
Cars made the suburbs possible. Dad could scoot off to the office on the boulevard while Mom piled kids and groceries into the station wagon and headed for Little League. In time, of course, the kids had to have cars too; no sense being stuck at home. The single-car garage became the double and then the triple. Houses began to look odd—a garage with attached dwelling.
It was not the only thing. The cars themselves looked odd, with massive grills, wrap-around windshields, and spaceship-like tailfins. The boulevards looked odd. They were filled with gas stations, used car lots and drive-in fast-food places, and they were littered with dented hubcaps and broken tape cassettes. The traffic looked odd. There was so much of it and it moved slower and slower every year. Even the air looked odd. You couldn't see things at a distance any more, and it made the eyes itch and burn. The problems compounded. Cars were falling apart before their time. People were mortgaging away their lives just to remain mobile. There was no place to park. The highway death toll mounted into the tens of thou-sands, then the hundreds of thou-sands. Freeways were blighting the landscape with multitiered concrete monstrosities, and even these couldn't handle the traffic. Commutes of twenty and thirty minutes lengthened into commutes of two and three hours. Los Angeles, symbol of twen-tieth-century America, was becoming the city that everyone loved to hate.

And then, one day, a small group of Arabs figured out that the auto-mobile had become America's Achil-les' Heel. It was no longer anyone's plaything but everyone's vital neces-sity, and they, the Arabs, could choke it off at the carburetor if they wanted to. And given the world situation, especially in the Middle East, they decided they did want to—just to see what would happen. It was the beginning of the end for American automobility—and perhaps for the American Good Life.

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