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Kennan on California and the Car

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  • Andie Miller
    I feel great anxiety for these people, because I do not think they know what they are in for. In its mortal dependence on two liquids-oil and water-that no
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 13, 2004
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      "I feel great anxiety for these people, because I do not think they know
      what they are in for. In its mortal dependence on two liquids-oil and
      water-that no individual can easily produce by his own energy (even together
      with family and friends), the life of this area only shares the fragile
      quality of all life in the great urban concentrations of the motor age. But
      here the lifelines of supply seem to me particularly tenuous and vital. That
      is especially true of water, which they now have to bring from hundreds of
      miles-and will soon have to bring from much farther away. But equally
      disturbing to me is the utter dependence on the costly, uneconomical gadget
      called the automobile for practically every process of life from birth
      through shopping, education, wokr, and recreation, even courtship, to the
      final function of burial. In this community, where the revolutionary force
      of motorization has made a clean sweep of all other patterns of living and
      has overcome all competition, man has acquired a new form of legs. And what
      disturbs me is not only that these mechanical legs have a deleterious effect
      on man himself, drugging him into a sort of paralysis of the faculty of
      reflection and distorting his emotional makeup while they are in use-these
      things are not too serious, and perhaps there are even ways of combating
      them. What disturbs me most is man's abject dependence on this means of
      transportation and on the complicated processes that make it possible. It is
      as though his natural legs had really become shriveled by disuse. One has
      the feeling that if his artificial ones were taken away from him, he would
      go crawling miserably and helplessly around like a crippled insect, no
      longer capable of conducting the battle for existence, doomed to early
      starvation, thirst, and extinction.

      One must not exaggerate this sort of thing. All modern urban society is
      artificial in the physical sense: dependent on gadgets, fragile and
      vulnerable. This is simply the apotheosis. Here the helplessness is
      greatest, but also the thoughtlessness. And the thoughtlessness is part of
      the helplessness.

      But alongside the feeling of anxiety I have at the sight of these people,
      there is a questioning as to the effect they are going to have on, and the
      contribution they are going to make to, American society as a whole. Again,
      this is not conceived in terms of reproach or criticism. There is really a
      subtle but profound difference between people here and what Americans used
      to be, and still partly are, in other parts of the country. I am at a loss
      to define this difference, and am sure that I understand it very
      imperfectly.

      Let me try to get at it by overstating it. Here it is easy to see that when
      man is given (as he can be given only for relatively brief periods in
      exceptional circumstances) freedom both from political restraint and from
      want, the effect is to reder him childlike in many respects: fun-loving,
      quick to laughter and enthusiasm, unanalytical, unintellectual, outwardly
      expansive, preoccupied with physical beauty and prowess, given to sudden and
      unthinking seizures of aggressiveness, driven contstantly to protect his
      status in the group by an eager conformism-yet not unhappy. In this sense
      southern California, together with all that tendency of American life which
      it typifies, is childhood without the promise of maturity-with the promise
      only of a continual widening and growing impressiveness of the childhood
      world. And when the day of reckoning and hardship comes, and I think it
      must, it will be-as everywhere among children-the cruelest and most ruthless
      natures who will seek to protect their interests by enslaving the others;
      and the others, being only children, will be easily enslaved. In this way,
      values will suddenly prove to have been lost that were forged slowly and
      laboriously in the more rugged experience of Western political development
      elsewhere."

      -George Kennan, diary entry for November 4, 1951, Pasadena, California. From
      George F. Kennan: Memoirs 1950-1963.
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