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Stand-ins for HumanityStand-ins for Humanity

Stand-ins for Humanity

He was, it seems, surreptitiously using the stand-ins to make it appear he had multiple passengers in his vehicle, thereby justifying his use of the reserved HOV lane.

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Stand-ins for Humanity July 13, 2015  |  By Peter Stockland
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A man has reportedly been busted for driving with a carload of mannequins on Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway.

He was, it seems, surreptitiously using the stand-ins to make it appear he had multiple passengers in his vehicle, thereby justifying his use of the reserved HOV lane.

In a rather curious touch, he put an old Montreal Expos cap on one mannequin’s head, which just might have been the giveaway. Another dummy in a Leafs hat would have passed as perfectly natural in the GTA.

Though the culprit will be $85 lighter courtesy of a fine for misusing the multi-passenger vehicle lane, former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford weighed in with his support using characteristic candor.

Admitting he often “bobs and weaves” in and out while driving alone and “watching for the cops” over his shoulder, Ford said: “These HOV lanes are a disaster.”

Nuance not being a notable Fordian trait, it’s worth fine-tuning his comment a bit to get to the core of the catastrophe. It’s not the HOV lane per se that is the problem. It’s the underlying belief that led to their creation in the first place. It’s the ironclad conviction of the dirigiste class that a theoretical good can be made to trump ingrained behavior without addressing the causal reality of that conduct.

Carpooling, for example, is held to be one such good. If we can just get more people in each car, and ipso facto reduce the number of cars on the road, we’ll all get where we’re going faster, and have happier lives in the bargain. Even those diehard advocates of the idea who are willing to cop to its abject failure still insist it is a good theory badly practiced. But as the savant David Frum pointed out many years ago, a theory that is bad in practice is actually a bad theory to begin with. It is a theory that neglects to take reality into account.

The theory of carpooling fails to take into account the very structural reality of the places where we live, and even more importantly the way those structures dictate how we live through the creation of possibilities that become expectations that become obligations the become ingrained conduct. It fails to take into account that the very need for a theory of carpooling is itself a response to the radical transformation of North American landscapes, cityscapes, and life itself that has been with us for almost a century now.

We don’t just need HOV lanes to get us where we’re going faster. We need them because of where we are now compared to where we once were; what we are now compared to what we once were. The transition—transformation—did not happen by accident. It’s the aggregate outcome of both immensely complex, detailed planning decisions and a large, abstracted theoretical (though by no means undirected) vision of how modern human beings should live.

Highly intelligent theorists and practitioners alike came to believe that the changes we’ve undergone would lead us to the best of all possible worlds. They fiercely propagated and fought for that belief, embedding it in every aspect of our collective existence: physical and habituated. Most of the rest of us were essentially along for the experimental ride, acquiescent as mannequins.

Why? Well, as Saul Bellow puts it so magisterially in his 1992 essay "There Is Simply Too Much to Think About": “People who have the best of everything also desire the best opinions. Top of the line. The right sort of right thinking, moreover, makes social intercourse smoother. To differ is dangerous.”

Resistance, where it does occur, has always been more furtive than merely futile. (See Rob Ford above.) For too long it also came, unfortunately, in clownish garb, not dummies in Leafs hats, but bohos sporting Birkenstocks and inverted fright-wig beards. All too often the devotees of, say, legendary urban theorist Jane Jacobs needed a whole lot more practice to even begin to be taken seriously outside the Ivory Tower or the activist collective.

That is what makes the addition of nothing less than the Pope’s voice to the discussion represents such a remarkable moment in the rumbling. Serious critics and drive-by quibblers alike have castigated Pope Francis’ new encyclical Laudato Si for its refusal to deify free-market capitalism and its insistence on asking whether the filthy and inefficient burning of carbon is really how humanity wants to propel itself into the future.

Furiously picking nits with specifics, they tend to miss the encyclical’s deeper general message, which is not about negligent exploitation of fossil fuels but rather about our reckless exhaustion of what it means to be human.

"There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology," Francis writes.

We live in an environment of omnipresent theoretical fixes, he argues, that fail to take into account the reality of human failings and, crucially, authentic human needs. What, the Pope asks, do we need to be fully human. More, what of that do we need back that the theorists and planners and dirigistes of modernity took away from us?

The answer will decide how we proceed into the future, indeed, whether we will proceed into the future, or whether we will end up as mere stand-ins for humanity.

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