BY MATTHEW HERBERT
I recently moved to suburban Virginia, USA, and I do not fit here. Not at all.
Logic tells me this could be for one of three reasons:
- I do not fit in the suburbs.
- I do not fit in Virginia.
- I do not fit in the USA.
There are many potential variants of these these propositions. My discomfort is probably the result of a tangle of factors. Wisdom says: wait for the rough edges to wear off. There are happy humans around you: they can’t all be misfits.
I blogged a couple weeks ago about the main reasons for my discontent: my new environment is set up to herd humans into a dead-end life of car-driving and money squandering. If you enjoy piling into your car for the fifth time on any given day to travel a few miles to buy a piece of junk from a big-box wasteland roamed and staffed by zombie cretins, well, voila–the perfection of mankind exists right in my neighborhood. Come check it out.
If, however, you wish to do something noble or decent, like walk somewhere useful or look upon a public space of even minuscule appeal, you are–to put the point as politely as it deserves to be put–shit out of luck.
There is an antidote to my unease, of course. As I I told my wife the other day, adult humans can and do get used to anything. This idea is from Camus, and he was right. Even in Europe’s 20th-century death camps, prisoners conversed, got in petty squabbles, had secret love affairs. A few survived, like the fabled frogs, in water that was insensibly being brought right up to the boiling point. Like the frogs, they got used to it without becoming uneasy.
Mutatis mutandis, this will happen to me too. I will, in all certainty, wake up one bright suburban morning in the not-too-distant future and discover that, like Winston Smith, I have given up the fight and learned to love my tormentor. I will have forgotten my dreams of being able to walk anywhere useful or to shop without brooking idiotic harangues for my personal data.
Well and good for grownups, I suppose. We will survive, albeit with diminished dreams. But if Camus is right about us adults, surely it is Whitney Houston who is right about our children, and herein lies a deep problem. I believe that children are our future. What if my placid surrender to a life gravitationally fixed to the bogus, the tawdry and the wasteful denies my children a life spent in mindful pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful? Have I not done them an irreparable harm by giving up?
Here is the thing I can’t get past. Very recently, my children could do the most amazing thing. Each one could walk out the door, point her nose in the direction she wished to travel and then by god go there. It might have been a bike, a bus, a streetcar, or her own God-given feet that propelled her, but there she went, free as you please, chasing her dreams. She would return with tales of friendly camaraderie, joyful loafing, and city charms unbidden.
The child who can do such things is, without even trying, developing the autonomy commonly attributed to adults. In other words, she is growing up. What she doesn’t know (yet) is that it takes a certain kind of world–a world fitted out to abet humans in the natural expression of their desires–to enable this miracle.
The way we must treat our children here in suburbia, though, is a cruel satire on the idea of freedom. Children must be transported from one protective bubble to another to get anything done. And the transporting must also be done in a bubble–the family car or a school bus–never in the fresh, open air or by any public means. In Virginia, schools are required to provide bus service to children living any distance from the school, even if they live just across the street and could easily recognize the face of a friend standing on the school’s front stoop.
This farce is performed under strong institutional pressures. Parents and schools alike demand the bubble system. Policemen oversee it. Traffic engineers assume its sanctity. The schools’ grounds are laid out to reinforce it. (One of my children’s schools would easily satisfy the U.S. State Department’s high demands for an embassy compound’s physical unapproachability, or what it calls “setback.” That means no sidewalks, no public transportation stop, and and hundreds of feet of unused space to buffer against a potential car bomb. The only thing missing is the blast wall. The armed security guard is present here in suburban Virginia, as s/he would be at a foreign embassy.)
In case you think I am indulging in uninformed speculation, I assure you I am not. I have already engaged parents, school officials, political activists and traffic engineers on this topic. I have gathered information, outlined a plan of resistance, and already achieved some (meager) results. A shiny new crosswalk now exists leading from my subdivision to a swimming pool. It crosses five lanes of traffic. It is not perfect, but it does enable an attentive 14-year old to walk to the pool instead of asking his parents for a one-minute car ride.
I asked the county traffic engineers for the crosswalk, and, after determining it would not excessively infringe the rights of King Car, they made it happen. It constitutes a mere millimeter of progress in a struggle that calls for miles of great, swooping advances–bike lanes, crosswalks, overpasses, underpasses, pedestrian lights, and other outlandish ideas from the radical left. I get the dull sense that one crosswalk every six months just might just be the pace of future progress.
Try walking here: a too-typical suburban “walkway”
What elicits hot, desperate tears, though, is the depth of ordinary citizens’ ignorance of the travesty being perpetrated on them. When one explains to them that it is possible for children to walk to school, once receives a blank, imbecile stare. It is as if one just explained to a goat that geosynchronous satellites orbit the Earth, and this is what makes enhanced telecommunications possible. One weeps.
In closing, I’d like to return to my three-part guess at cause of my complaint, the part where I treasonously conjecture that the idea of a free human being just might clash, not just with something in suburbia, not just with Virginia, but with the basic setup of our beloved country itself.
Although I haven’t made the case in detail (maybe a topic for another day), I hope I have at least outlined an argument that suggests, by driving our kids from one bubble to another, we dramatically limit the scope of their freedom. In so doing, we bring them into a social world made up of buffers and protections that mock the notion that America is the land of the free. We are training our children to be fundamentally unfree and to accept their condition as normal. To speak directly to the Whitney Houston problem: we are proliferating an anti-libertarian model of American citizenship. This model is one in which highly regimented institutions collude to intervene in our public lives, protecting us from making basic life choices, starting with crossing the goddamned street.
And what of the home of the brave? It turns out to be another cheap joke. Right up to the age where we can legally enlist our children in the military and send them to trumped-up foreign wars to be maimed or killed, we treat them like babies. Why? Because life is too scary. The streets teem with psychopaths.
There are real dangers out there, but they are mostly of our own making. What the streets actually teem with are cars, driven by distracted people on smart phones, many of them carrying–not just driving–lethal weapons. The police guarding our children know in the backs of their minds that every encounter with a citizen could escalate instantaneously to a gun battle, and they are driven by this pervasive fear to a chronic state of trigger happiness.
Fear. This is what drives the decisions of everyone complicit in the travesty I now inhabit. Principals and school boards fear losing a pedestrian student to a car accident while crossing the busy street in front of the school. They designate their institution a no-walk school. (I am not making this up. One of my children’s schools is deliberately set up to quell the idea that it can be approached by walking. It has the official designation of no-walk.)
Fear drives the parents who every morning and afternoon crowd the roads approaching the school just so they can drop off and pick up their children. The safety bubbles must exist! In the pursuit of safety, the phalanx of parents each day exacerbates the unsafe conditions that lead the school officials to repel walkers in the first place.
Fear also drives the traffic engineers who have determined that certain roads are too dangerous to be crossed by pedestrians. The idea that such roads can be made safe does not enter their calculations. My impression so far is that the traffic engineers, sensible people for the most part, might be led to think humanely on this point, but their mindset is entrenched by the interlocking fears of the parents and schools involved. It all works together.
Our myths tell us we are a nation of lions. We stood up to the world’s most powerful empire and won our freedom through raw courage. Since then we’ve gone from strength to strength, showing the world what a truly brave country can accomplish for its citizens. Nonsense. Washington may have crossed the Delaware, but we, his progeny, can no longer cross the street. Or, to be more precise, we are no longer permitted to cross the street. We accept the bland, presumptive authority of a system that says our world just cannot be made safe for play, self-locomotion and purposive behavior, traits that define humanity and have been honed by 70,000 years of evolution.
Moving, I find is like grieving. Anyone who has lost a loved one can recall the kind assurances made by people around us promising that we will emerge from the deep pain of loss to accept a new world in which only memories of the late loved one exists. The first response to this counsel is rejection. We may have to accept the loss of the departed loved one, but we do not have to accept a new self that makes this accommodation.
Moving is like that, or at least it is for me. I may ultimately have to accept that public space here is denuded of the things that make it possible to walk with dignity or purpose, but to let go of my old self, the one who expected these things and taught my children to do the same, seems not just like a loss but a betrayal.