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The world from the road

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The other week I drove from Rhode Island to Virginia for a surprise 70th birthday party for a sister. It had been a long time since I had driven that far, and so I relearned a lot.

I noticed more than I have for a long time that American and other cars are much better now than in my driving heyday, in the '60s and '70s, when I'd think nothing of jumping into my VW "Bug'' after work at 10 p.m. and driving four hours to go skiing the next day. Back then, you'd see far more cars broken down on the side of the road, or with flat tires. You almost never see a hood up and steam rising from the radiator these days. Tires are now so much sturdier that you rarely hear of someone having a flat; many drivers don't know to change them.

And it's hard to believe how I found some obscure addresses on back roads before the invention of GPS! It seems all the more magical because its directions are sometimes counter-intuitive. Savor American know-how!

Sometimes.

The telecommunications revolution (which includes the lovely tollbooth EZ Pass) has eroded face-to-face contact and personal service, increased inattention, strengthened self-absorption and, all in all, made American life less gracious, if often much more convenient (except for those whose good jobs it has killed).

You see this nastier nation on the road, where not signaling when changing lanes while texting or talking on a cell phone in high-speed tight traffic are rife. On the East Coast, this barbarism reaches a daily crescendo on the Washington Beltway, jammed with greedy, self-important and/or anxious Beltway Bandits -- of the public and private sectors --- feeding off the Feds' funds and power.

Perhaps the growing immigrant population also has something to do with the vehicular chaos in some places. A lack of English written-language skills makes it hard or impossible to understand signs and comprehend traffic regulations.

The increasing unpleasantness of driving reflects the ever-growing harshness, crudeness and ignorance in American culture as heard on the radio in the echo-chambers of talk-radio stations and the charmless, mindless music so similar to the noise of other "artists'' on the radio as to be immediately forgotten.

Driving from Providence to McLean, Va., also shows you some public-policy successes and failures. For instance, the states that have highway tolls to help maintain their transportation infrastructures tend to have better roads than those without.

After starting out in Rhode Island, with its Third World roads and bridges crumbling because of myopic and provincial governance, I rolled across Connecticut (which might reinstitute tolls) through heavily tolled New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland with their much better roads. How long will the lobbyists hold up Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo's plan to charge truckers highway tolls to help pay to repair the damage they do?

Then there are some surprisingly nice highway service areas - especially in Maryland. They help create a local atmosphere to which you want to return.

Since driving, especially on Interstates, is mostly boring, I station-surfed on a lot of news and talk shows that encouraged many Americans' evasions of reality.

For instance, you hear a lot of arguing about "income inequality'' that rarely includes one big and true explanation: Business executives and boards are far less willing than a few decades ago to share with lower-level people the money their organizations make. They're much more selfish than they used to be.

The other is denouncing all those who want to restrict immigration from Muslim nations as "bigots.'' Well, some of these people are indeed bigots. But ignoring the pathologies of, well, extreme bigotry, tyranny, suppression of women and homosexuals, corruption and so on that are pervasive in so many Islamic nations doesn't help either.

Clearly there's a problem among many Muslims of refusing to accept modernity's social, political and economic innovations, personal liberty, tolerance and other qualities that characterize Western culture. We needn't be timid about defending those things, which have produced the greatest prosperity in history and explain why mass emigration these days goes one way - to the West.

As Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, a moderate Sunni Muslim, bravely said: "We need a religious revolution.''

In any event, next time I'll take the train. Reading is more productive than listening.

Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com) is a Providence-based editor and writer. He's a partner at Cambridge Management Group (cmg625.com), a former finance editor of the International Herald Tribune and a Fellow of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy.