Most of life is habit. We like to think that we think and choose. Economists have made a religion out of this assumption. But in daily life, what we think, say and do is pretty much what we thought, said and did yesterday, and the day before. Is there anyone out there who could not predict how the Wall Street Journal editorial page would come out on a given issue, or the clerics in Iran for that matter? Most of us are less extreme versions; but still the mechanism takes over, and the grooves run deep.
Dictators and corporate marketers know how to use this to their advantage. Monsanto knows that if it gets genetically engineered seeds into the food chain, people will accept them sooner or later. Genetic engineering will become a new normal. The mental grooves will take shape around it, as will the practices of the food industry itself. PR can create an enabling mental atmospheric to ease the process. And once done it will be hard to reverse. Habits are easier to make than to break, as the old saying goes.
So too with government. Turn the screws bit by bit, and most people won’t notice. Start quietly by mining data from personal telephone calls, and people will come to accept the fact of government snoops in their lives. This is how they take our commons. A little here, a little there, and pretty soon we forget that we ever had it. How many people even think about going swimming in the Potomac River in Washington, DC any more, even in the sweltering heat? How many turn on a TV and feel outrage that commercial channels dominate the air?
It’s just the way it is. They wanted us to get used to it, and we did.
Along that line, have you noticed what is happening to the national parks? The Administration increasingly is charging us Americans to use them, which is a little like charging us to use our own back yards. The magnificent redwoods in the Muir Woods just north of San Francisco used to be open to the public for free, like Golden Gate Park in the city, and Central Park in New York. Then in 1997 the Park Service instituted a “demonstration program” that included a “trial” fee of $2.00 a head.
Soon the trial fee became permanent. Then it went to $3.00 in 2001. Next year it will go to $5.00 and then to $7.00 two years later. A bit here and a bit there, and pretty soon we are talking real money.
Myself, I have no problem with parking fees, or fees for Hollywood production companies that commandeer a park for a movie shoot. (See my colleague David Bollier’s item on this a few days ago.) But twenty-eight bucks for a family of four to spend a few hours in a national park? And right after Congress has lavished enormous tax cuts on people who spend their vacations in private villas on the Mediterranean and ski chalets in Jackson Hole?
It’s no mystery where this is going. Once people get used to paying to visit their own parks, they will come to think of them as just another thing to pay for. The psychological bridge to privatizing them, as many on the political Right would love to do, will become that much shorter.
This is happening throughout the federal government. In Washington, the Park Service now is charging school groups, wedding parties and the like for using the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building for group photos. It’s not the Park Service’s fault. The agency is getting pressure from Congress and the Administration to bring in more revenue, so the stock speculators and trust fund babies can have their tax cuts.
That leaves the school kids and parents who take their kids to see the redwoods. Actually that moment on the Capitol steps might be the most instructive for the school kids who get their pictures taken there. They’ve read their civics texts, but now they see how Washington really works: Pay to play.
There’s a hope side to this story though. The psychology of habit works also in reverse. The more habituated we become to a dismal norm, the more the exceptions stand out, and the more capacity they can have to galvanize change. It’s the Rosa Parks effect; one brave lady sits in the front of the bus, and all hell breaks loose.
That came to mind when I read a story in the Boston Globe (May 29th) about a proposal to hold a swimming race in the Charles River in Boston. The Charles is not a place one associates with swimming, at least at the Boston end. In the 1960s and ‘70s, rowers on the Harvard crew teams had to get tetanus shots if they got cuts. “There would be these rainbows of muck and horrible fumes,” a coxswain recalled, “and it would make your eyes burn.”
But now, after twenty years of clean-up efforts, and $4.5 billion spent, swimming has become thinkable again. The plan is for a one-mile race in September, off the Esplanade, which is a few blocks from the Public Garden. There still are caveats. The race will be delayed if there’s a heavy storm, because these overwhelm the sewage system and pour muck into the river. Swimmers won’t be permitted to touch the bottom, which still is toxic.
Plus, the water won’t be clean enough for general swimming for another ten years. Still the very thought of swimming in the Charles makes the spirit rise. City kids would have a place to escape the summer heat. Office workers could take a cool dip after work. Think what it would mean for tourism, if the city could offer not just the Commons and Fenway and Paul Revere’s house, but a beach as well.
Once the genie of hope is out of the bottle it is hard to put it back. The Berlin Wall fell that way. The enclosures around our commons can fall that way too.