The San Francisco Chronicle early this month featured a story touching on the state's budget woes, but it no sooner opened the subject than it falsified it – simply by allowing the grammar to enter that we call
passive voice. The journalist's first sentence made genuflection to the governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as one who "has been forced to deliver tough budgetary medicine . . .."
Common folklore in California designates Arnold the Hummer Governor –
and only partly because it was he who got General Motors to super-size the SUV as behemoth of our internal combustion culture. God Bless Arnold: the people of the Golden State love their cars and SUVs. So they love their mega-sized celebrity as governor for his bulking Terminator persona, perhaps, but more so that it carries over into
his Hummers. He owns several, all of them steroid versions of the fantasy excesses his celluloid roles have celebrated. Californians love their Arnold because all his Hollywood life and his campaigning for governor added up in one seamless promise: Arnold would keep car-oriented sprawl culture sacrosanct.
Yes, he promised to make tough choices towards the state's multi-billion-dollar deficits, but everybody knew these would involve no policies – ever – to curtail the love suburban Californians have for lives alternatively blissed-out in speeding freeways, running red lights, exchanging middle-finger
communication with fellow drivers, and ritually joining in the immersions our non-religious only see as gridlock and ten-and-twelve-lane traffic jams. Arnold knew.
The millions who commute into and around and around sprawl culture typically do so
in single-occupant-vehicles. Doesn't matter if the car is ground-hugging two-seater or roll-over-guaranteed SUV: most drivers drive alone. It's key to the holiness of it all. If car culture in reality doesn't fulfill the television-advertised images of being alone on the open road, it's no problem: everyone knows the commercial images
not as jokes – that would be cynical! – but as more vital witness to the true soul and deepest aspirations of the honest-to-God individual American. Like Thoreau at Walden Pond, like Emily Dickenson in her Amherst rooms, like Ishmael at the end of Moby Dick, Nick at the end of The Great Gatsby, and Frederic at the end of
A Farewell to Arms, the quintessential American craves being alone. Thus today the souls of suburban sprawl find their truest quality time as that spent ritually alone, all in the communion of pretending to be going somewhere in their mechanized, motorized privacy capsules.
(Love-making never particularly made it in American culture because that joy too often calls for partners, and sustaining the complications of that.)
Arnold understood. In his first action as governor – as he
promised – he revoked recently increased license fees on Californians' cars and SUVs. The state needed these monies. The recalled governor could well justify the car license tax increase, too, because it wasn't really so much an increase as a return to fifty-plus years' previous rates – state officials had only cut them a few years
earlier, due to '90s prosperity that had started kicking-in then-excess revenues. But car drivers of the state saw the return to previous license rates as infuriating invasion of what they'd come to see as another of their entitlements. Polls showed that virtually every single voter in the election bringing Arnold to power knew to the
penny how much one's car license tax would be increasing if Arnold weren't elected.
The Hummer Governor wasn't "forced" in any passive sense to bow to the local gods. His fellow Californians could read him perfectly and they knew he, like all in
sprawl culture felt fully and uncompromisingly entitled to the vast infrastructure that allowed them their strip malls, cul-de-sac subdivisions, shopping malls, highway interchanges, office parks, entertainment reservations, and more shopping malls. Many attended churches that told them what they wanted to hear: that they were special –
that Americans were preeminent in all the world's history – superior to all other tribes by obviously measurable stats of Gross National Product. It was the number one job of public officials to recognize, preserve, and promote such God-given entitlements. In California especially, bundles of Cold War spending on aerospace, missile
technology, and other military programs over years swelled an ever-imported sprawl culture till its white, suburban beneficiaries came to take for granted that "others" always would pay for their public spaces. Thus Arnold also promised in his campaign – it was as easy for him to do as to acquire another Hummer – that he would never touch
the state's Proposition-13-fixed property tax levels – which even his economics advisor, Warren Buffet, called ridiculously low compared to the rest of America. Arnold kept that promise, too. The costs of the privileged in their cul-de-sac subdivisions and shopping malls continued to be floated by everybody else having to pay
disproportionate fees to subsidize the electrical, water, sewage, postal, forest-fire-fighting, and all other utilities buoying sprawl. And Arnold further sanctified his rich friends and the subsidiary upper-middle classes by guaranteeing never to touch their most-privileged state income tax brackets.
The Hummer Governor made these choices because it was easier for him to cut programs for the poor and the under-privileged. He cut back on health clinics. He cut into funds for the state's K-12 schools, colleges, and universities. In fact, on the same day that the San Francisco local paper ran its
article with its first sentence excusing Arnold for having "been forced" to make his choices, a more prominent, front-page article described what had happened to the 7,600 students who had just been denied admission to the University of California system, even though they'd qualified for admission. These 7,600 had received notice that
they should instead take classes for two years in the state's much less expensive (more adjunct-taught) community college system, and then transfer to the UCLA, U-Berkeley, Davis, Santa Barbara, Irvine, and dozen other campuses. In droves the students said no. 6,243 out of the 7,600 decided to go elsewhere – many leaving the state
entirely for the finer schools around America not beset by cutbacks as California was promulgating.
The journalist who imagined the Hummer Governor as having "been forced" to his choices signaled how well passive voice lets all of us pose as mere
figures in larger dramas over which we imagine we have no control. It excuses us as non-accountable cogs in gigantic systems. Thus bureaucrats learn to evade responsibility: "the report was studied," "the situation was investigated," "it was determined." In the hard sciences, passive voice has some honest role, where it allows us to see
actions without regard for particular actors ("the water was measured," "samples were taken"). But in all other areas this grammar mainly serves dishonesties. It leaves room in the end only for the script that we all might be but loners. It frees us from having to look to the sides – to make lateral connections – much as it focuses
typical California highway drivers into looking nowhere other than into one's ever-reduced, ever-isolate tunnel vision.
As drivers, we want the world simple: just give me my road signs, my exit ramps, and my forever and forever cheap gas. We
don't want to know where the gas comes from or what it really costs in long-delayed consequences. We don't want to know how our federal government has a truly sordid history of propping up the cruelest dictators in the world – just to prolong our getting our gas cheap and to increase profits for the fossilized corporations that underwrite
our politicians' ethics. We don't want to know about the hatred we have fomented among peoples of the world who see their dictatorial regimes unaccountable to them but, instead, corrupt, nepotistic, murderous, and cruel. We don't want to know how we've propped up these dictators with our military arms, how we've trained their secret
police in torture techniques.
In most places where we have gotten our cheap gas – Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia, and Nigeria – we have subsidized the dictators, their minions, and their families to enjoy the commercial culture
we enjoy, while letting the rest of the populace stew. Thus have grown their fundamentalists, demagogues, and imams of hatred and holy war. And while our corrupted allies may enjoy our materialism in return for oil pipelines flowing, and landscapes and environmental systems degraded, and mass social change and migrations, our tunnel
vision does not allow us to see any of this.
It doesn't matter whether we learn tunnel vision from the landscape architecture of our limited- access highways, with all eyes straight ahead only, or that we learn the same imagination in our schools, where work in
any one department forecloses connections to all others. The effect is the same. We have the proud drivers alone in their SUVs. We have the proud academics isolate in specializations. And we have the rest of us with too little imaginative models but to follow in their tracks – except that of course Essaying Differences
says we could do the reverse.