A few years ago our German friend Gerald visited with us on his way to an extended hiking holiday in Alaska. He’s smart, perceptive and analytical, so it’s always fun, and sometimes painful, to get his take on us Americans and our America. (For the record, he’s a good sport and takes his share of digs from Beth and me about the myriad quirks of life in Germany.)
Gerald sat in the passenger side of our car as we toured. Whenn he noticed the warning on the side mirror that says “Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear,” he looked at me in wonder, his expression begging for an explanation. The same thing happened when we stopped in a convenience store. He bought a lighter for his upcoming camping trip, read the warning sticker out on the Bic out loud, and flashed me the same look. I came up as empty as before.
During this same visit that Gerald wondered aloud, “I don’t know why Americans are so proud of this place.” So many places he’d been were so shabby. “Your roads, airports, trains—they’re like a poor country’s.”
I had no argument then. Still don’t. Our public infrastructure has only worsened since that visit, and I blame it on bottled water.
Well, not bottled water per se, but in my lifetime it sure seems like we have devalued the idea of public space and common interest. It’s like Gordon Gecko from Wall Street has won.
So bottled water. Apart from the idiotic waste in transporting it, packaging it, getting rid of the packaging—and the fact that it’s often not any higher quality than tap water, there’s something more insidious about it. Making water a consumer purchase begins moving away from the idea that clean water is in the public commons that belongs to all of us, and that we all have an interest in keeping it clean and available.
When water is a purchased good on an individual level, it becomes something different altogether. Clean water becomes another thing that some people can afford to have and others can’t. And the ones who can afford it aren’t as likely to be interested in keeping lakes and streams and public supplies clean. We’re not there yet, but I can see it from here.
This every-person-for-him/herself dynamic is playing out everywhere—public schools, public transportation, public spaces like airports. And Amtrak.
We have the money in this country to have the best rail system in the world, the best airports, the best roads. And no hungry people. That tells me something isn’t working.
If we want these things to be better, they will be. We have the money, if we remember the “we” part.
I have a notion about what’s not working, and I’m working on it. In the meantime, as long as we’re talking about Amtrak and the broader ideology around it, read this New Yorker piece. Please do. (Thanks Lydia!) Here’s an excerpt:
We all should know that it is bad to have our trains crowded and wildly inefficient—as Michael Tomasky points out, fifty years ago, the train from New York to Washington was much faster than it is now—but we lack the political means or will to cure the problem.
Please read it. And vote. And don’t watch TV News. And remember, we’re in this together.