There is a great Devo song, Jerkin’ Back and Forth. Ostensibly, it seems to lament the distance and strife within a romantic relationship… “I know I let you tell me what to do… you were confident you knew best. Now thinks aren’t working like you want them to… your confidence is what I detest.” But then the song goes on to illustrate the experience of that failed relationship… “You got me, looking up high… You got me, searching down low… You got me, I know you know… You got me jerkin back and forth!”
I was sitting in my car heading west on Chicago Ave at a quarter to 5 in the evening… and making good time from the Loyola campus just north of Downtown Chicago to Forest Park when it occurred to me what the song was really about–all the lyrical imagery pointed to one thing. I already had it in my catalog of jest to recount my empathy with a ton of rumbling steel… seriously, few could handle the wheel and city traffic like I could. I had cut my teeth, irresponsibly, on vodka and pizza delivery with an unhealthy dose of nihilism. I learned the size of my car in metric… down to the millimeter. And could squeeze into openings so tight the illegality was unquestionable–I was well practiced at being a little prick, in traffic, and, I am sure, elsewhere.
Driving skill in a city like Chicago–where trucking and commuters try to mix like a rancid vinaigrette–is like the meat and potatoes to the daily serving of naked lunch. I once caught myself pissing into a thirty two ounce cup 20 min from the end of my commute the former contents of which, the carbonated sugar water, I had purchased and drank as I entered the “expressway”, at the beginning. And as I felt the relief of that draining I realized… I still wasn’t home yet! And looking around at all the other commuters, I thought… “What the fuck are we doing! We sit in this same traffic jam EVERY FUCKING DAY!” But it wasn’t until that trip home on Chicago Ave, when Devo was playing on my tapedeck, that I realized… All the imagery pertains to the experience of sitting in bumper to bumper traffic. This song isn’t about the breakdown of a romance between two former lovers, but the tyranny of our relationship with the car!
“You tell me people like to suffer; you tell me that’s the way it is…” the song continues, “You said that things are getting better; you said I should accept all this.” But then the revelation, “You think it’s funny, but what I say is true. The reason that I live like this… Is all because of you, You, YOU!”
The metro sprawls into suburb and that space is largely determined by the need for a minimum of 32ft wide streets, and the need for parking, and the need to alleviate congestion… and so the sprawl spreads. And to handle that space needed to be traversed to arrive daily to work… the car becomes even more necessary for basic participation in society. Along with all of it’s peripheral adjunct… insurance, driving school, gas stations, petroleum states, traffic courts, the DMV and don’t forget the scumbag mechanic who charged your neighbor $1200 for a brake job on a 5 year old car! (But the guy isn’t so bad, he lowered it to $900 when the bill came due) But let’s not forget the drive thru dining and the bigbox malls where the green space is easement like after thought between the acres of vacant treeless parking lot and an economy that siphons the wealth of the entire community to far off accumulations leaving behind a worker pool honed to perfection to fulfill it’s role tending the cash register after two weeks of training–and consignment to a life of renting from landlords who house people little better than kennels do dogs. But in order to pay for that car, it’s fuel, upkeep and repairs… you have to bring in so much money and therefore have to work so many hours little matter the arrangement!
But how did we get here?! After WWII we went from being an economy in economic crisis, or “depression”, to being the only nation on the planet with a modern industrial capacity whose infrastructure was unmarred by war. And the nation providing not only corporate guidance and service to aid with reconstruction, but the loans to pay for it to boot! We were so flush with wealth that in the late fifties there was no end to the need for engineers in sight. Universities created curriculums to figuring out how to convince people to buy what they never knew they needed. The single family home and the suburbs as we know them today were born and still the average worker, as rich as he might feel, was still being filched out of his and her fair share. And the thieves still couldn’t steal their unfair share fast enough… they needed help! An entirely new political constituency was born to support this national and soon to be international fleecing, the modern investor. Finally, everyone had money enough to put the money where their mouth was… the fat cat’s pants pocket–only that wasn’t his pocket, bub, and you’re not whistlin’ dixie.
And to add to all this theft and marketplace power brokered malfeasance, such as wages in steady decline since the 70’s and the occasional cannibalization of your less savvy investors by their bigger player counterparts as bubbles burst from time to time… we have the necessity of owning a car–and don’t talk to me about public trans or leasing–woefully underfunded and over-priced.
But at a certain point in our history, our oldest (up to that point)–and probably wisest, most competent–president made the decision, rather than more fully developing a national rail system, to, instead, develop the national system of highways. In this he set us on a course which linked our future and sense of national character with the car–we would all learn to empathize with at least a ton of steel on a daily basis. And so the inception of the ‘Big Three’ in Detroit was paved. And in his farewell speech to the Nation, he gave us a clue as to why he decided as he had. He warned us of the influence of an industrial Goliath with little to counter it’s influence over the polity and the Nation. His warnings about the dangers of the Military Industrial Complex have become enshrined in our national consciousness, unfortunately, like most things which are enshrined, their true meaning eludes us to greater and greater degree with every passing moment. You see, corporations might be hyper-efficient at what the do, but that is largely because their scope of responsibility is so narrow and they have every incentive in pursuing their limited, and yet cavernous ambitions. They naturally have the ear of any politician wishing to seek or keep office, they hold the key to the dreams of any would be employee, and they compartmentalize their conduct to the point of thoughtless, zombie-like, momentum. It is completely within the realm of possibility that an overbearing industry whose profits are determined by conflict would steer the nation into conflict merely to generate profits! This was Eisenhower’s warning even as we were slipping headlong into an inevitable war in Vietnam.
Eisenhower’s answer was elegant and profoundly insightful as to the limits of his office and the workings of our society and psychology. He opted for a course which would have every viable consumer in the country driving a car within a generation. Creating a society of nomads and an industrial Goliath powerful enough to match the influence of the Military Industrial Complex. Even now, aside from the citizen driver, the single most common employment for men from state to state is truck driver. My assertion is, that today, we have our ‘Fast and Furious’ mentality, our reliance on the car as foil to that industrial monolith whose incentive to send us to war was all but unchallenged. It is a sad irony that the worst political regimes and the context for war and conflict throughout the world is now over Oil.
As for the lover in the song, Jerkin’ Back and Forth… he isn’t even home yet.