Friend of the Friendless

Noise, Vibration & Harshness

It’s not easy being part of a downtrodden minority. I’m speaking about the community of politically left-leaning car enthusiasts. We get it from both sides.

Many of my more extreme fellow travelers on the left end of the dial disdain any interest in cars, much less full-blown habits like mine. Automobiles, they’ll tell you, are vulgar, polluting, mechanical expressions of the will to power and male sexual insecurity, hence emblematic and highly beloved of the patriarchal, capitalist war machine.

“Well, duh!” I reply. But cars are useful, sometimes essential, and often a lot of fun.
Critics on the right brand me and my kind as freedom-suffocating communists, because we like cars but believe the law ought to require that air and water be clean, that cars be safe, and that manufacturers who break these rules or are found guilty of gross negligence in the design and manufacture of dangerous machinery and fuels ought to be held accountable.

That these beliefs are anti-car and un-American have been articles of faith among carmakers and many car-enthusiast publications since the 1950s. By then, the emergence of serious smog in Los Angeles had tipped off scientists to the existence and persistence of automotive air pollution. That’s when the voices for air-quality control and auto safety started to emerge. I believe such voices were sensible, prudent, and perfectly American. The idea of lobbying against seatbelts, as the domestic industry mostly did, strikes me, on the other hand, as truly un-American.

I ought to add, confusingly, that I took a silly Internet test recently that plotted me on its XY-graph as far left yet strongly libertarian, as close to the right-wing nut jobs as the moderates and left-wing nut jobs with whom I also sometimes agree. Keeping my score off the libertarian right vector of the graph was the fact that I mostly support emissions and safety regulations. They didn’t ask, but I favor things like traffic lights and stop signs, too, which are also intrusions on personal liberty but worth the sacrifice.

Now that the technology enabled by extreme computational power has made the modern car so much cleaner and safer, most previous opposition to regulation has been revealed for what it was: largely unfounded and hysterical. But that doesn’t mean the grumbling has stopped, and frankly, I’m not sure why.

If you unspool a lot of the antiregulatory verbiage, you find at its core a heap of lingering resentment over things like the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency. Many of us can imagine a petrochemical industry allowed to satisfy its shareholders’ every whim almost as easily as we can see the approximately 87.4-percent free-to-do-whatever-they-want world that the “regulated” petroleum businesses suffer through today. The idea of a planet without regulation is silly and plenty scary. If that makes me a lefty, I can live with it.

The following story might help you visualize the awkwardness of my particular place in this world: Dusk had fallen one cool, crisp New York evening in the fall of 1986. Less than twenty-four hours earlier, I’d pitched the editorial board of the progressive newsweekly, The Nation, on a story idea. As I stood the following night with a friend on then-down-and-out East 6th Street, a group of the magazine’s editors appeared, strolling toward a nearby watering hole. They came across us standing in — occupying, if you will — the street. But rather than caucusing for an antinuclear rally, my friend and I were busy recycling — or, more precisely, stripping — an abandoned Opel 1900 wagon of useful parts.

My pal rode an old Indian motorcycle around town and was an active member of the Beer Party, perhaps this evening an overactive member, more listing than leaning and overly talkative. So, awkward. Especially seeing as the cops had shown up immediately before this group happened by. My friend tried to contextualize the moment. “Attica, Attica!” he ventured, but the faux lefty war cry fell flat. They stared blankly in our direction, then moved on, nodding disapprovingly. Then as now, the right-minded, left-winged gearhead’s lot is a lonely one.