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AAA: The Automobile Addicts of America
3/22/2011 7:51:37 AM
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As a life-long 'writer-in-training', I have (with regret) only recently stumbled across two writers I greatly admire for their remarkably erudite, yet target-specific eloquence. These two are authors Mark Helprin ('Winter's Tale' and 'Digital Barbarism', among others) and Christopher Hitchins ('Love, Poverty, and War', 'God is NOT Great', and 'The Portable Atheist', among many). Although I can never hope to achieve a similarly graced state of elevated literary reflectivity, they certainly set a high standard to emulate and aspire to. As you may have guessed by now, this brief paean to these inspiring authors has little to do with my intense dislike of the Automobile Association of America (the subject of this blog), but I thought I'd squeeze it in anyway. If you aren't a God-fearing Christian, try them on for size; you'll probably discover, as I did, a whole new level of compelling cogency in their works. Aloha mai e!
AAA: The Automobile Addicts of America
One of the privileges that advancing age confers upon one is the ability to criticize aspects of our culture, both broadly and narrowly, without anyone giving it a second thought. After all, curmudgeonhood is a justly earned status among those with advanced age, although I grant you that there are superiorly endowed and disarmingly humorous curmudgeons (60 Minutes’ Andy Rooney comes to mind immediately) and there are…at the other end of the spectrum…those not unlike myself, who are simply frustrated by the fact that the world doesn’t conform to our personal interpretation of reality and need to vent the resulting accumulation of vile vapors every now and then. Only the truly talented and most eloquent curmudgeons are entitled to bear the appellation ‘polemicist’, whilst the lesser graced amongst us must be satisfied with the ‘C’ word.
Fortunately, as I hit my stride at the midpoint of my 6th decade of observing life as a member of American society, finding suitable targets to unload upon becomes vastly less challenging than trying to avoid wetting the toilet seat while micturating in a (human) kennel that houses both setters and pointers. Two of my personal most favorite contemporary targets (non WC type) are the AARP and AAA (the American Association of Retired Persons and the American Automobile Association), the former a massive lobbying organisation that ostensibly champions social, economic and cultural issues benefitting ‘senior citizens’, and the latter being that sprawling automobile insurance corporation that has traditionally been known as ‘Triple-A’. [Note: for our World War veteran friends, this is NOT a reference to ‘Anti-Aircraft Artillery’.]
The AARP welcomes anyone over a certain age (50) to join as a member and on the surface of things the idea seems appealing enough: become a member of AARP and it will fight for you and your fellow ‘seniors’ across a broad spectrum of important issues that significantly affect the quality of your life as you disappear into that numbed state of haziness euphemistically known as the ‘Golden Years’. The reality of AARP that eludes just about everyone is that like the larger labor unions who represent the best interests of millions of dues-paying members, AARP is actually a massively impersonal lobbying machine that has taken on a near autonomous political life of its own. In that capacity it reflects the interests of its individual members with the same stunning efficiency that our legal system manifests in protecting the welfare and safety of crime victims…PRIOR to their becoming victims (that is to say, not at all).
I am not a member of the AARP nor do I ever intend to join the organisation, since I know all too well how mass advocacy groups tend to fly off on juggernaut style tangents (like powerful workers' labor unions) of impulsive inertia. I further resent being type-classified as a ‘Senior Citizen’, much preferring to regard myself as merely an ‘older individual’ (but that’s an admittedly fine point of little consequence here). The fact that the term ‘Senior Citizen’ itself is redolent of that political correctness taint (doubtless a legacy of the same suprasocial coalition who came up with that 'diversity is our strength' oxymoron) that I find so repellent no matter where it shows up, is likely a bit more relevant (but not by much).
Now, if an organisation like the AARP (or the AFofL/CIO, for that matter) actively solicited and acted upon the actual wants and wishes of the organisation’s members free from any temptations to actively preformulate the group’s agenda, independent of said membership, I’d probably feel less antagonistic to the group; but I am too familiar with the dynamics of smoothly PR-lubricated advocacy organisations to allow myself to make that simple leap of (equally simple and almost always unjustified) faith. The fact that AARP annually spends millions of member dues on socializing (read: ‘brainwashing’) its own members to adopt a certain attitude or outlook on issues it has seized upon is an alarming enough indicator of implicitly untoward activity, as I perceive things. Another red flag is the heavy reliance that groups like this place upon the great number of legal ‘hired guns’ that are marshaled and commanded in most lobbying efforts. Although an almost unavoidable evil in today’s highly litigious American culture, it is no mystery that powerful legal forces, working for corporate interests that hew less to higher ethics and more to the financial bottom line (brought to bear by underlying political will), are an extremely unhealthy and unnatural aspect of an economically driven culture gone bad. Once upon a time the ancient concept of ‘law’ focused principally upon higher moral and ethical foci, but in modern America, ‘law’ has become merely a prostituted lesser adjunct of corporate will and usually stinks as badly as a low-class brothel resident (after you peel off the brightly colored, alluring plumage). But enough about the AARP; let’s focus rather on a seemingly more innocuous fixture on the American scene, the American Automobile Association (or ‘Triple-A’).
The American Automobile Association began back in the very early 20th century (1902) as a social and service organisation formed for the purpose of supporting horseless carriage drivers in an age when horse and buggy transport and the rail system constituted the national norm; ‘motorists’ were at that time viewed by the average person as somehow being of a somewhat socially anarchistic bent (it’s true, you know…they were looked upon that way, back then in the early days when the new fangled ‘motorcar’ posed a radical threat to equine powered convention). As the automobile continued to evolve in the early 1900s, so did the AAA, using its non-profit status as a ‘social club’ to provide a wider and wider range of support activities for the benefit of its members, and continually developing newer and better ways of justifying its existence.
Over the succeeding decades, AAA became increasingly involved in its advocacy on the behalf of members with regard to political and legislative matters having an impact on motorists. This included political lobbying for better roads, improving fueling facilities (petroleum fuel distribution) and supporting increased safety for both drivers and pedestrians. It also included sanctions for auto racing, which at that time was completely wide-open and unregulated new sport. Early auto racing, with the likes of such colorful characters as champion driver Barney Oldfield competing, was an extremely dangerous activity. There were few rules in auto racing and safety features like protective helmets and seat belts were absolutely unheard of. Race cars were ungainly vehicles that achieved victory principally through use of bigger and more efficient motors installed in inherently unstable and collision-prone wheeled chassis designs. It was a common practice in those early days for a mechanic to ride with the driver, since breakdowns were frequent and an extra set of hands proved helpful when things stopping running smoothly. Higher speed was the continually sought after goal and all other considerations were sacrificed in that quest (safety and wisdom among them). Naturally insurance for such risky activities came to be viewed as desirable and AAA was right there to meet the need (how convenient).
As early as 1902 an AAA board was created to serve as a validating group for a race in New York City and co-sanctioned the Indianapolis 500 Race and many other national championships from 1902 through 1955. By the mid-fifties, there were still amazingly few hard and fast rules regulating auto racing safety, interestingly enough, and seat belts were still not required in racing, although some rudimentary form of protective helmet was usually worn by drivers. Race cars had already begun to reach lethal speeds on often poorly designed tracks that had not been laid out safely. The AAA Racing Board was substantially involved with subsidizing the 1955 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans when a spectacular racing catastrophe took place there that claimed at least 85 spectators killed and twice that many injured. In the course of that race a Mercedes Benz magnesium-bodied 300 SLC racecar went off the track at high speed and exploded into flaming debris that showered the tightly packed crowd. Considered the worst racing accident in the entire history of auto racing to this day, that tragedy prompted AAA to protectively disengage itself from auto racing altogether (a decision also made by Mercedes Benz that endured for over 30 years) by setting up a separate affiliate organisation named the United States Automobile Club to handle auto race sanctioning (this group later became heavily involved with NASCAR).
Despite that disastrously unhappy association with automobile racing, a significant amount of the organisation’s other activity benefitted the entire nation (as for example during wartime), when public safety campaigns became major concerns of AAA. Pursuant to that and as a matter of consequence, automobile safety became a key aspect of both AAA’s image and active agenda. All of these involvements of AAA were, for the most part, commendable and well-directed and continue in much modified form to this day.
However, as American society continued to develop in the 70s, 80s and 90s, it started to become clear to the more environmentally prescient among us that the private automobile, formerly looked upon as a wonderful new innovation that offered Americans increased options for enhanced personal freedom and recreational opportunities, had itself become a looming environmental threat to public health. As millions and millions more automobiles began to choke the roads and highways producing vast amounts of atmospheric pollutants from their internally-combusted gasoline engines, the automobile quickly revealed itself to be a major contributor to a radically diminishing quality of life and a source of significantly increased health concerns to Americans.
Throughout this period, and seeming to be disdainfully unheeding of the new environmental movement, AAA continued to advocate unrestricted public reliance upon personal automobile transportation while the more enlightened had already recognised the dire need for less-polluting, alternative means of transportation (particularly increased mass transport options, such as bus and rail alternatives). When the first real gas scarcity crisis of the mid 70s occurred, instead of recognizing the handwriting on the way that spelled out ‘unhealthy reliance on fossil-based, non-renewable, unsustainable energy resources’, AAA persisted in using its status as chief high priest for its motorist worshippers to keep automobile fuel dependence unrestricted. In essence, AAA was saying it considered unrestricted personal use of the automobile (and consequent use of its petroleum fuel) as an almost a God-given right and that no interference with the existing auto-culture would be brooked or tolerated.
Deliberately ignoring the dirty little truth that underlay Americans enjoying the lowest gasoline prices in the entire world, AAA joined together with the automobile manufacturers, the oil producing corporations, and even to some substantial extent with the Federal Government, in a common effort to keep Americans addicted to the artificially low fuel costs America had been induced to take for granted. The fact is that without all the automobile (and oil) industry’s massive economic subsidization, the average American motorist would have been paying almost two to three times as much for fuel as they then did at the pump. Only after several more decades had passed did this unofficial and unstated policy grudgingly undergo change to the point where today AAA supports environmental efforts to an extent never previously even considered. This was undoubtedly not as much due to pangs of inherent ethical conscience on the part of the AAA’s Board of Directors as much as it was due to Federal mandated regulations passed by Congress that forced higher environmental compliance on all commercial industries concerned (the oil companies as well as the automobile manufacturers and motorist co-dependent groups like AAA).
In the past several decades, AAA’s original social aspects of the organisation have dropped off and dissipated, and the group has become instead known mostly for its direct motorist support in the form of motorist roadside service and its automobile insurance policies. Through a network of affiliate groups across the nation, AAA provides its members with emergency highway services that include all forms of basic road repair (fixing flat tires, providing emergency fuel, towing services, et al). In addition, it prepares a comprehensive (free) road map service for members and also offers a range of discounted rates available through organisations and businesses that are linked to the group by mutual agreement. To its credit, there’s no arguing that the AAA range of roadside services is the best in the nation and that this support constitutes an extremely useful and valuable benefit to all AAA member subscribers. The principal and most lucrative money-maker for AAA remains, however, its auto insurance program, with millions of American motorists subscribed as both members and insurance policy holders.
All of this history serves, however, merely as window-dressing backdrop for one particular contemporary aspect of today’s AAA that I choose to take issue with, an aspect of AAA that I find personally annoying, irritating and highly off-putting. By that I refer to the AAA’s official publication ‘VIA’, a slick formatted magazine that AAA provides at an additional $2 a year charge to all of its members (the charge is included in annual member dues). VIA, put out monthly, may be regarded as a sort of smaller and less consequential SUNSET MAGAZINE (another magazine I find objectionable, for reasons having to do with upper income status pretensions). Undoubtedly inspired to some extent by SUNSET’s philosophy, VIA provides a monthly selection of roughly three or so travel and vacation articles, usually each limited to a page or two, in which a formularised description of some scenic travel destination is presented. The rest of the magazine is given over to regular ‘department’ features that deal with auto-related concerns, as well as a ‘Travel Guide and Marketplace’ section at the end that runs six or seven pages in length. This last feature consists of small, colorful advertisements for hotels, motels and vacation destinations that do a remarkable job of making a pig’s ear look like a silk purse (in my opinion) in the span of a mere column inch or two. Looking them over, I most expected the insert for an Oahu (Hawaii) resort to say “Come enjoy the authentic island Aloha spirit: watch our lovely young girls swivel their hips for you in the ancient manner and later spend as much of your hard-earned cash to help support locals as possible (then…get BACK on the plane and GO HOME!).”
As one might expect, VIA strives to be as politically correct as possible across its entire spectrum (that being the litigiously normal standard these days), with remarkable effort being made to avoid anything that might be considered controversial or subject to diverging interpretation by anyone who is not yet totally brain-dead. The words ‘safe & smarmy’ come to mind. Reading over the choice of words accompanying these advertisements, one stumbles over ‘intimate’, ‘charming’, ‘picturesque’, ‘delightful’, ‘secluded’ and ‘elegant’ and words of similar excess with just about every other step. What one doesn’t trip over are other equally appropriate words like ‘expensive’, ‘extravagant’, ‘costly’, and ‘waaaaay overpriced’ that would likely obtain as descriptives, just as effortlessly. All of this is an excellent example of how modern PR-bullshitery has overtaken reality in the eternal quest to draw the suckers in and suction off their money. In that sense, things haven’t greatly changed from the days of the Coney Island sideshow days when P.T. Barnum used similarly fanciful allegories to draw the rubes in to see his exotic marvels…just the techniques, the word-smithery, and the means of reaching the targets have changed appreciably, as marketing science has advanced to an artform.
Reading over some of the travel articles, it doesn’t take long to see how they all follow the same bland formular approach of making some God-forsaken and little remote dust spot on the map appear to be the absolutely ideal place for a family to visit and enjoy (read: part you from your money). Anything associated with Walt Disney is a recurrently favorite theme, since who (except an irritable old curmudgeon who’s always going on about something, eh?) could possibly hate all that wonderfully kitschy, schlocky doting on things Mickeyish and Goofyish, replete with all those clever Disney character costumes (worn by hot, sweaty and absolutely bored to tears employees, doubtless). Given the uniformity of the light-heartedly smarmy (mom &) pop culture material that VIA features on its pages, it doesn’t take much imagination to visualize the editorial mindset that dictates these parameters to its potential VIA freelancers.
As for the regular departments that VIA features (full of dandy little helpful hints on how to keep your car running in top shape!), the usual fare bears a marked resemblance to an ABSOLUTE IDIOT’S GUIDE (for the truly stupid): “To keep your car running smoothly, remember to check your oil and keep the radiator filled! Keep your tires inflated properly and slow down while driving in foggy conditions! It’s also a good idea to use your windshield wipers when it rains and turn on your headlights after dark!” Reading through these admonishments to what we must assume is a radically dumbed-down average individual who is unable to think for himself, one can’t help but wonder if AAA mistakenly hired an out-of-work, disgruntled NASA scientist with a really wicked sense of vengeful humor to write these things. Either that or VIA’s editorial opinion is that one mustn’t unnecessarily challenge one’s readership with potentially more perplexing advice (like “Use the proper weight of oil appropriate to the season.”) so as to spare them the unnecessary pain of thoughtful reflectivity.
Here’s an actual gem lifted from the pages of a recent VIA issue: “MYTH: The trick to staying safe on the road is to avoid bad drivers!” REALITY: “Motorists are their own greatest danger; most fatal car crashes involve just one driver!” Wow. I mean, OMG! That’s so utterly profound that it brings a tear to the mind’s eye. Regrettably, that’s about as rocket science-like as things get in VIA, but it’s a wonderful example of the mediocrity that AAA passes off as ‘helpful public interest tips’.
I could go on a while more, but I think the point comes across easily enough. The content of VIA is like offering a free piece of pie to a morbidly obese person, or a free hit of MJ to the terminally toked-out. Most of it is simply a self-serving aggregation of absolutely negligible written fluff to dupe AAA members into thinking that they are actually getting some worthwhile monthly reading material in addition to their (admittedly valuable) road service benefits, insurance policies and free maps.
Chief among the most questionable aspects of VIA is its inclusion of occasional articles on the purported value of today’s increasingly sophisticated and highly technical new car features. I refer to engineering systems that compensate for lack of driver skill by augmenting (and/or correcting) driver responses to challenging driving conditions. Anti-skid braking is one such technical system that many cars include now as ‘available’ (read: extra cost, non standard accessory). The subtle disservice done by these driver skill augmentation systems is that they tend to ‘allow’ drivers who are perhaps marginally skilled at driving to operated their vehicles more safely. While the idea is a good one in theory, actual experience has shown that there’s really no adequate substitute for actual driver skill, training and experience. While compensatory systems tend to help cancel out bad judgment and inept handling by unskilled drivers, they also permit/encourage poor drivers to depend so heavily on these augmentations that they get in too deep, too quickly, by relying on them totally and utterly, all the time. A particularly good example of this deleterious effect may be seen in all-wheel drive vehicles. While an all-wheel drive system confers greater levels of traction and higher driver confidence in bad conditions, many drivers consequently become so unconcerned with bad conditions, as a result, that they take on unacceptable risks that they would not previously even consider. As these blithe souls quickly find out, even the best automatic systems are not completely fool-proof and when one puts a fool behind the wheel those limits are rather quickly surpassed, all too frequently with catastrophic consequences.
Of course automatic systems also substantially increase the cost of a new car, but as long as advertising and marketing efforts can persuade the consumer (gullible rube that he tends to ever be) that buying into them is in one’s best interests (think ‘increased safety’), this somewhat cheap and dirty approach to enhancing road & highway safety will continue appreciably unaltered and drivers will not be encouraged to sharpen their basic driving skills unassisted.
Back in the old days, drivers were either skilled or they were not. As a result, those who survived their untoward experiences behind the wheel became better drivers; those who were not died as a consequence of their actions, thereby helping clean out the human gene pool of all those marginal chromosomes skulking about in human DNA that cause such daily annoyances in our public life. Today, the poorer drivers amongst us are performing at perhaps an artificially higher level than they would otherwise, thanks to auto-everything technology advancement philosophies, but most of us won’t know it until the driver of a 4WD vehicle going too fast cuts off a semi-truck & trailer on a steep mountain road in a snow-storm, causing an accident that he had been lulled into believing that his new state-of-the-art 2011 Geewhizzmobile would actively prevent.
However, VIA couldn’t be as candid or frank as these circumstances may warrant in getting the message across to their public because there’s always the possibility that Mr. AAA-member in good standing might get his nose slightly out of joint by something said in an article like that and switch to Allstate (or State Farm, or Progressive, or Geico, etc.). Perish the annual profit bottom line thought! God forbid that AAA would ever dare to suggest that at least half of its subscribers shouldn’t be behind the wheel of a car anyway! And who says the Emperor isn’t wearing clothes? We say he is, so neener-neener to you, folks!
At any rate, I am myself not a member of AAA, so I am spared the necessity of having to cull VIA from my mailbox each month and use it for fire kindling (I am also spared the ordeal of having my personal information gleefully shared with all AAA's many business associates and affiliate groups). Most of my friends and comrades are not quite as fortunate and regularly subject themselves to the mental mini thought conditioning massage that a read-through of VIA constitutes. They’re probably also among those who are at this moment sitting down at a tourist-choked luau at the Oahu resort I mentioned earlier, forgetting to watch the skillful hula hands in favor of eyeing the lovely hula hips they were admonished by the native kanaka (local) NOT to oogle.And SUNSET MAGAZINE, that other un-favorite slick magazine on my list? I’d better leave it for another polemic broadside, but suffice it to say here that despite my intense dislike for SUNSET and its unconstrained obsession with lavish and high-status material lifestyles, I finally yielded to the inevitable and bought a subscription to that magazine for my wifely unit, who unfortunately does not share my extreme antipathy for it. In fact, she thinks it’s wonderful.
But please, don’t tell any of my radical friends. Oh, the shame, if word were to get out!
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