One of the rhetorical strategies of the economic right’s cultural politics is to associate the free market with individual pleasure, aesthetic beauty, and technological progress, while associating the public sector with the oppression of the crowd, the spartan ugliness of “civil service issue,” and general associations with low-quality, outmoded, cheap machinery. Nowhere is this better seen than in the rhetorical debate over public services.
In the media, the visual and sensory contrast is made very obvious: the car, a luxury commodity associated with wealth and prestige, is an extension of your (now much cooler) person, it’s fast and futuristic, and it’s well-designed and new (as a matter of fact, it’s Audi’s concept car for an electric sports car). There’s a reason why you never see traffic in car commercials; it would spoil the illusion. By contrast, the dominant media image of mass transit plays up its worst qualities as a social nightmare: it’s crowded, claustrophobic, there’s no privacy and people and bumping into you, it’s noisy and smells terrible, maybe it’s dangerous, you’re getting delayed again, this is what you take to get where you have to go, not where you want to go.
And part of the cultural work of the left in championing the cause of the public must be to counter-act this kind of imagery. Because the public can and should be beautiful.
Meditations on Berlin:
This last August, I had the good fortune to travel to Berlin for 10 days. And one of the many things that caught my eye was the fact that, in the land of the autobahn and BMW and Volkswagen, how amazingly abundant and diverse public transit is in Berlin. You can zip across the city in the U-Bahn subway, you can get a wonderful view from the elevated S-Bahn, if you’re taking a regular commute you might use one of the bright yellow trams or the plentiful buses, and there are bike paths and cheap rentabikes everywhere. Besides the obvious utility of this redundant network – U-Bahn for speed, trams for a point-to-point commute, S-Bahns from one central spot to another, and bikes and buses for points in between – there’s the sheer aesthetic pleasure of it all.
In Berlin, the public authorities clearly made huge investments, not merely in making a transit network that functions well, that’s fast and reliable and short waits between trains, but also in making a public institution that’s a pleasant sensation to use. The city’s stations, like the Hauptbahnhof to your left as designed to be visually stunning as well as a meeting point for three separate rail networks, and the trains are new and clean,the views from the S-Bahn are beautiful, the doors open easily with the press of a button, and especially to a lifelong New Yorker, the whole thing runs almost silently.
And there’s no reason why we can’t have this kind of public service in the U.S. Granted, you have to have functionality first. The New York City public transit system may be noisy and quite often visually unappealing, but it gets you from point A to point B quickly any time of the day or night. By contrast, the D.C Metro is aesthetically superior to the New York City subway (the cars are newer, the rolling stock runs much quieter, etc.), but its network isn’t really as robust as New York City’s is. Amtrak, for example, I would argue (again as a lifetime user) has huge deficiencies in both functionality and aesthetic quality.
Rebutting Mad. Ave:
As we fight to improve the funding for mass transit in America, therefore, we also have to work on the individual and collective aesthetic experience of using the systems we fund. In order to pull people out of their cars, it’s not just going to take $5 gasoline and five hour commutes; we’re going to have to appeal to the senses as well to cents.
And if the car has been made into an object of status and pleasure, there’s no reason why the same can be true of trains as well. After all, in the 19th century, the Pullman sleeping car company made train travel synonymous with luxury -indeed, the very name of the Pullman “palace” car was designed to turn a vehicle for travel into a luxury hotel. Pullman trains had, in addition to the usual first class, second class, and third class seating areas, sleeping areas with full size bathrooms in first class, luxury dining cars, smoking cars, billiard and library cars, even rolling bars. While none of that should deny the struggle of the African-American porters who fought for union recognition, or the car builders who Pullman ruthlessly abused in Pullman’s company town, the point is made that there is nothing about the technology of rail travel that means that it can’t also be made into an object of status and pleasure – but this time, something that belongs to the people, that the entire public can enjoy.
All of which means that in considering the aesthetic work needed, advocates for public mass transit need to both emphasize the advantages of mass transit – it’s fast, there’s no traffic jams, you can relax and read or watch movies or work or watch the scenery without having to watch the road, the fact that it’s a green way to travel – and deal with the disadvantages – the lack of privacy, the issue of noise and smells, the cleanliness. In Robert Caro’s the Power Broker, he writes movingly about the basic inhumanity of the commute. And in talking about the mass transit commute, what he emphasizes is the way in which under-financed public services can create a kind of stress pollution, where the noise and the heat and the smell and the cramming in of thousands of bodies causes people to build up the same kind of anger that we associate with “road rage,” but here it’s anger manifested at the public, at the crowd, at the masses. This kind of anger has a political use – it can drive people to vote against mass transit and in favor of highways, because they associate highways with media images of riding at top speed in a gleaming new convertible and mass transit with a subconscious misanthropy.
As I’ve expressed before, I’m a huge believer in mass transit. But beyond that, I’m also someone who is a partisan of the public over the private – I don’t like the idea that pleasure and beauty should be commodities, that speed and comfort should be the privilege of the wealthy. Because ultimately what this fight is about is the public square and the common green – whether they should be made beautiful as a source of enjoyment for all but also an expression of a collective aspiration for a better world, or whether they should be chopped up and the pieces sold to the highest bidder.