Wednesday, March 16, 2011

George Will: Driving a Wedge

On February 27, Newsweek published a column written by George F. Will titled "High Speed to Insolvency: Why Liberals Love Trains", in which he lambastes the Obama administration for proposing to build (and fund) a nationwide high-speed rail network. Will goes on to ridicule "liberals" for supporting taxpayer-subsidized passenger rail service in general. While Will repeats many of the shibboleths that commonly trip off the lips and pens of all passenger rail opponents (it will  drain our public treasuries, nobody will ride them, people prefer to drive, etc.), he goes a step further by presupposing an ideological divide over the issue. It's "liberals" who want trains, and, further, the real reason these "liberals" want trains is to use them to modify the public's behavior. These seditious "liberals," after all, want to "[diminish] Americans' individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism."

It's quite unfortunate that Will would frame his complaint in ideological terms, because doing so only drives another wedge between Americans. The simple fact is that those of us who want to see a nationwide passenger rail network re-established believe that restoring rail transportation in the USA is a practical necessity. We don't want trains for ideological reasons; we're only seeking solutions to pressing transportation and energy problems.

Will's argument that train travel would somehow lead the American public to embrace collectivism is extremely weak. I wonder whether, during the heyday of rail transportation in the USA in the early 20th century, anyone thought that trains were leading people down the socialist track. I wonder if the commuters waiting for the Metro in DC, the subway in New York, the T in Boston, or the Metra in Chicago experience pangs of worry that their support of public transportation is subverting American values. And since air travel, like train travel, forces passengers to abide by timetables and only takes people to predetermined destinations, I wonder if air travel might already be corrupting our individualism the way Will maintains that rail travel would.

The facts are these, in case Mr. Will is interested: we have a serious energy crisis and an even graver potential crisis. Petroleum resources are depleting worldwide, and new reserves aren't coming into production fast enough to offset the rate of depletion. Fuel prices are once again on the rise. Many people can't afford to operate their automobiles now, and it's likely to get worse. The civil unrest in the Middle East threatens to disrupt the flow of petroleum and, thus, torpedo our global economy (This column by Michael Klare details how, historically, oil producing nations that have gone through political or social upheavals never return to their previous level of production). In this age of energy instability, do we really want to say no to rebuilding our passenger rail capabilities?

Of course, George Will can disagree with the Obama adminstration's high speed rail plan if he wishes. (Even some rail advocates, most famously James Howard Kunstler, believe "high speed rail" is a pipe dream and that the money would be far better spent, not to mention go further, if we used it to rebuild a standard-speed system.) Will has the right to disgree with taxpayer-funded rail transportation altogether. But if he wishes to oppose passenger rail, he ought to give us his real arguments. In the Newsweek column, Will dismisses the arguments offered by rail advocates as "flimsy" and claims they point to an ideological purpose. I'm sorry to tell Mr. Will, but that doesn't work. He need to answer our arguments; if they're really as flimsy as he maintains, he should have no trouble whatsoever countering them. But because he offers us his ideological red herring instead, I suspect that he doesn't really have any substantive rebuttals to our reasoning.


  1. I can tell you what that rebuttal would look like, and it doesn't make things any better.

    Assertion: Trains are a necessary response to a dwindling energy supply.

    Rebuttal: Energy supplies aren't really dwindling. The "energy crisis" is just a liberal hoax. Obama is trying to destroy the economy to turn America socialist, just like Carter tried to do.

    Assertion: Many people can't afford to operate their automobiles now.

    Rebuttal: That's not my problem. I have to pay for my own gas. The government shouldn't be putting a gun to my head to take my hard-earned cash away. You just want to redistribute gas from my tank to the tanks of other lazier, less successful people.

    I don't think Will is trying to deliberately obfuscate the issue with a red herring of ideology. I think that's genuinely the filter through which he views the world; he sees people as making decisions based on ideological feelings and partisan loyalties, not on numerically supported data.

    Interestingly, I think we can draw some conclusions about the psychology behind Will's own ideology here. In expressing a fear that riding on a train will somehow force him into collectivism, he expresses a social anxiety. In conservative American mythology, there's an archetype of "the rugged individualist," the Marlboro man who retreats to the isolation of rural America and stocks up on ammo to fend off liberal scavengers that he imagines will one day try to overrun him.

    There are (at least) two ways to see this archetype. Conservatives see such a person as brave, independent, strong, beholden to nobody. But another, just as valid way to look at him would be that he's an unsociable hermit running away from civilization because he's deathly afraid of people and doesn't know how to get along well with others. He's a dangerous sociopath who's best left alone. He can stay in his retreat and we'll leave him there, because frankly, he doesn't have anything anybody wants and nobody wants to deal with him.

    Whether we're talking about the conservative bastion of racially, culturally, religiously homogeneous rural America, or its affluent imitator, the suburban gated community, we see this archetype inspiring the behavior of the residents. It's these fearful, hostile recluses, withdrawing from a diverse society, who are most threatened by the idea of standing shoulder to shoulder with others on a train. They're afraid, and a giant SUV parked in a lily white community in the middle of nowhere--4-wheel drive so it's not even confined to roads--is the symbol of what makes them feel secure.

  2. frijolito:

    You may be right that Will genuinely believes ideology to be the driving force behind support of passenger rail, but even if his playing the ideology card isn't technically a red herring, the result is the same: he doesn't offer us any logical, reasonable arguments for scuttling the rail projects, and he doesn't even try to counter or rebut the arguments of the rail advocates. All he can say is that they're 'flimsy.'

  3. I think frijolito hits the nail on the head. Will sees the world through the lens of his ideology, so he assumes that everybody else does so as well. He probably doesn't even realize the extent to which he is actually talking about himself. It's called projection, and it's a well-known psychological coping mechanism. You blame others for doing what you don't want to admit you're doing yourself. It's why so many gay bashers are closet gays and so many philanderers are on the "family values" platform. It's not really deliberate hypocrisy; it's just a deep lack of self-awareness - ironic for a professed rugged individualist like Will, but that's the whole point.

  4. And these so-called individualists forget how, historically in the U.S., communities got together to work on projects for the betterment of all--from barn raising, to schools, to trains (yes!), to all the countless civic endeavors that enhance the quality of everyone's life.

    Will substitutes name calling/labeling for rhetorical skill--a sure sign of a weak intellect. He also denies climate change. How did he become a columnist? Perhaps it's time to retire.

    And he's never taken the Acela between DC and New York? And wouldn't, on principal?

    Re trains in general: At one time trains were a public/private project. In Chicago builders would help pay for a new train line to their new developments--it was a prudent and profitable thing to do. What would Will do with that concept? I guess the Chicago bosses were "liberals," lol.

    Even now, desirable living spaces here are advertised as being "near the el." Not high speed--but we need to strengthen the entire train network, and our country is so vast we really do need high speed. I look forward to traveling that way. One might think forward-looking airlines would start looking into high-speed trains in order to get a piece of the action.

  5. Adrian, you hit on one of the big issues with tax dollars and transportation. Those who oppose spending tax money on trains complain that the fares are subsidized by government. Well, yes. But the government subsidizes all other forms of transportation, including the one the anti-train "individualists" hold dear: automobiles. In fact, the taxpayer subsidy for roads and highways is enormous. I wonder if they would be so excited about auto transport if they had to pay the full cost of highway maintenance through user fees and tolls.

    In the case of auto transport, the taxpayers pay for the roads and highways so that private people can drive their own vehicles on it. In contrast, with passenger rail, the rail lines, in most cases, are privately owned and the taxpayers help pay for the government to operate trains on these private rail lines.

    In the case of air transport, it's even more bizarre: there the taxpayers pay virtually the entire cost of the infrastructure: airports, the air traffic control system, the radar system, etc., so that private corporations can try to profit by operating their airliners.

    The notion that we should subsidize roads but not trains goes back to the 1920s when the auto companies began influencing our politicians.

  6. One more thing, Adrian: you might be right about George Will; maybe it really is time for him to retire. He used to be really sharp, and I used to enjoy reading him, even when I disagreed with him. But in the last two-three years he's lost his touch.

  7. "He used to be really sharp, and I used to enjoy reading him, even when I disagreed with him. But in the last two-three years he's lost his touch."

    I agree. How old is he, anyway?

  8. According to Wikipedia, he was born in 1941. He's been with the Washington Post since 1974. And he's a huge baseball fan (something my wife, likewise a big fan) appreciated about him.

    Here's an interesting tidbit about him, from Wikipedia: "Will was born in Champaign, Illinois, the son of Frederick L. Will and Louise Hendrickson Will. His father was a respected professor of philosophy, specializing in epistemology, at the University of Illinois."

  9. Well, far be it from me to say that 70 is too old. I just wish Will would give it a rest. He's not doing himself or his cause a service by becoming so narrow and rigid. This, after all, is a man who used to stand up to the right on gun control. I've noticed this pattern elsewhere as well; the old "big tent" that the Republican party claimed to represent has been replaced by "my way or the highway." The conservative columnists who interest me are those who, like David Brooks, are willing to think for themselves. Will no longer does

  10. i hope it goes to ten bucks a gallon