One of the hallmarks of the American experiment has been freedom of movement. Facing a vast, largely unoccupied continent, the pioneers headed west at the first opportunity, pushing the boundaries of first the colonies and then the new nation inexorably over the mountains, across the plains, past the mighty Rockies, and finally all the way to the Pacific.
James Fenimore Cooper gave this distinctly American ethos a memorable literary incarnation in the form of Natty Bumppo, the fictional hero of the Leatherstocking Tales—the most famous of which is The Last of the Mohicans, but whose titles also include The Pioneers and The Prairie.
Ever westward was Hawkeye’s motto, and Cooper’s novel both codified existing American sentiment and made it aspirational as well; whenever civilization in the form of Aunt Sally encroached, a Real American like Huck Finn simply lit out for the territory, as he does at the end of the first great American novel, Huckleberry Finn:
But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.
But an American didn’t always have to go west in order to escape “sivilization” or even just to seek his fortune in wild and woolly places. Everybody knows the opening three words of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, but to really understand this greatest of all American novels, you need to know the first three paragraphs, the first of which includes this memorable declaration of belligerent American independence:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.
These days, Real Americans don’t much go to sea to relieve the damp, drizzly Novembers in our souls, but we do like to fire up the muscle Mustang or the F-150 truck with the gun rack and head out on the open road, following our noses and letting the trade winds blow us where they may.
Or at least we used to like it. But with the advent of the abomination known as the “self-driving car,” one of our most precious freedoms is now in jeopardy.
I mean, who asked for this? Communists? Women? (I know, same thing, voting-wise.) Sob sisters, pantywaists, geeks, pencil necks, and nancy boys? I suspect them all. It’s bad enough to climb into the cockpit of a new car these days and be confronted with a home entertainment center on wheels, complete with giant video screens that don’t do a damn thing electronically a 1934 Packard couldn’t do manually back in the day when men were men, women loved them for it, and we had the culture to prove it.
Now what? A “self-driving” car is an oxymoron, in the same way that “paying for a tax cut” is. Someone or something is going to be driving that car, and the whole point here is that it ain’t going to be you, brother.
For while you may at first think you are directing the destination of the vehicle, the fact is you’re a passenger in a computer-controlled mobile living-room whose every move is dictated by Big Brother, whether directly or remotely. It’s bad enough now, when the computers in your car can rat you out to highway checkpoints, and your Bluetooth-connected cell phone broadcasts your whereabouts to every law enforcement officer in the county.
But once the “self-driving” car juts its snout into the marketplace, and tries to drive out the you-driving cars, whom do you think is going to be calling the shots? In quick succession, say hello to the road-mileage tax and ever more vehicles on the roads, given that no one will have to qualify for a vision-tested or skills-tested drivers’ licenses anymore.
Be also prepared for restrictions on where and when you can be chauffeured around in robot-propelled comfort; which kinds of gasoline you may purchase, and when; and with whom you may someday be forced to share your vehicle as the cars are pre-programmed at the factory to respond to commands from elsewhere, including checking IDs. We used to want God to be our co-pilot; instead, we’re going to get Google.
So buy that car you’ve been fancying—you know, the one with a functioning steering wheel, accelerator, and brakes; the one that goes where you want it to, more or less—while you still can, because an unholy alliance of national-security TSA types, social justice warriors, and tech nerds are bound and determined to take it away from you. We can’t have folks mucking about inside of Fortress America, free to go when and where they please, without so much as a by-your-leave. From King of the Road to a sack of spuds, suitable for carting, in just a few postwar generations: welcome to the world of the Emasculated American Male.
What could possibly go wrong with a technological marvel like this? Edgar Rice Burroughs told us in Thuvia, Maid of Mars:
He had been but testing an invention of his own with which his flier was equipped—a clever improvement of the ordinary Martian air compass, which, when set for a certain destination, will remain constantly fixed thereon, making it only necessary to keep a vessel’s prow always in the direction of the compass needle to reach any given point upon Barsoom by the shortest route.
Carthoris’ improvement upon this consisted of an auxiliary device which steered the craft mechanically in the direction of the compass, and upon arrival directly over the point for which the compass was set, brought the craft to a standstill and lowered it, also automatically, to the ground . . .
“In aggravated cases, that is when the obstructions are many, or of such a nature as to deflect the bow more than forty-five degrees in any direction, or when the craft has reached its destination and dropped to within a hundred yards of the ground, the mechanism brings her to a full stop, at the same time sounding a loud alarm which will instantly awaken the pilot. You see I have anticipated almost every contingency.”
The forward servant pushed almost to the flier’s side. His eyes were narrowed to slits. “All but one,” he said. “Come,” urged the Prince of Helium. “Speak!” The man hesitated. It was evident that he regretted the temerity that had made him the centre of interested observation. But at last, seeing no alternative, he spoke.
“It might be tampered with,” he said, “by an enemy.”
So just in case you think things can’t get any worse, think again: “Airbus is looking towards a future of pilotless planes.”
We’ve seen this movie before, and we all know how it ended.