Its 7 am and traffic is bad. Much like sitting in a traffic jam, paying attention to what traffic tells us about our society sounds mundane. Yet traffic is a social space unlike many others. It is a place where members of different social classes are thrown together in momentary, unavoidable and revealing encounters.
In the main, gated communities, office hierarchies, and private spaces are just some of the ways wealthy and poor members of society are kept apart. Yet in bumper-to-bumper traffic—impromptu public spaces not designed specifically for any one-class group—the physical proximity of cars shatter social distance, and stir awareness of class hierarchy.
A simple example is any person stuck in a traffic jam who notes the type of car someone drives, or whether the person is even travelling by private car or by taxi. This observation about economic and social status is a daily scene where society’s class hierarchy and socio-economic differences become visible to each of us.
Traffic isn’t only an encounter between economic classes; it also one between genders, and it tells us about particular problems women face. In maxi and route taxis, as first-hand accounts and news reports constantly demonstrate, women face the potential to be sexually harassed.
Thanks to owning their own cars, many women from the upper and middle classes can, to a degree, avoid the gauntlet of taxi encounters. Yet, stopped in traffic, a female driver or passenger of any class can experience forms of harassment. These range from improper gazes and verbal comments to sexist behaviour and stalking.
Due to the design and height of their vehicle from the ground, women who can afford SUVs have a slight advantage, removing themselves from some of these gazes and forms of harassment. Another example of how class advantage plays out in traffic jams.
In the creation of instant marketplaces where people can hawk goods to a slow-moving conveyer belt of potential customers, daily traffic jams also speak to our local hustler culture. And before you ask who really buys those fluffy dice—just one of many items, from food to car parts, on offer—these improvised marketplaces continue to grow.
Interacting with such vendors is another example of the cross-class encounters on our traffic-jammed highways. Walking and running after cars they might never own, highway vendors are doing what capitalism always does where previously no market existed. Making one. The brief cross-class encounter becomes an organic site of commerce.
The segregation of traffic into Priority Bus Route and those who are not allowed on it highlights privilege within our society. And within some of those vehicles which travel on the PBR are a few people in luxury cars with chauffeurs that allow them to read papers and get work done.
This is a privilege the vast majority of our society does not have. In contrast to the economic and political elites on the PBR, many low-income workers find their lives put at daily risk when foremen or friends encourage them to travel to work in a tray or in the back of trucks. While such travel is against the law, those who are vulnerable economically may have little choice in how else to travel to work, and do what they must.
And there are also those extra special people in our society, those with political power, and how they beat the traffic. At the very, very, top some are completely exempt from traffic because they have access to helicopters.
A select larger number can get a path cleared in bumper-to-bumper highway traffic or stop all traffic, which creates longer delays for the rest of us. Put most simply, when those with political power want to get somewhere—and all their journeys are not of immediate political business (they have to eat and sleep like the rest of us)—traffic avoidance is a metaphor of the inequality between political elites and general citizenry.
Traffic reflects something of who we are as a society. It is a cultural expression. At the bottom of my brief and partial anthropology of traffic on Trinidad’s highways is a simple reality—the need to improve our public transit system. We condemn our society to inertia and persistent inequality if the only attempt to improve our traffic problem is more roads, more private cars, and a few water taxis.
We need a public transit system unlike any seen in the Caribbean before. And we need it yesterday. Making travel more efficient, safe, and equitable is an investment in a fairer society.
Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine
The particular tragedy of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people is that nobody seems to have learned anything. Israel itself was brought into being partly as a belated and guilty attempt by the world community to help compensate for its complicity in, or at least its inability to prevent, the catastrophic crime of the Holocaust. Of all people, the Jewish people ought to know how it feels to be persecuted en masse, to be punished collectively and to be treated as less than human. For the Israeli state and the collective of often unlikely bedfellows who support it so unquestioningly throughout the world to pursue and support the inhumane treatment of the Palestinian people – forced so brutally off their land in 1948 and still under attack today – to be so blind to the idea that injustice is injustice, regardless not just on whom it is visited, but by whom as well, is one of the defining iniquities of our age, and powerfully implies a shamingly low upper limit on the extent of our species’ moral intelligence.
The solution to the dispossession and persecution of one people can never be to dispossess and persecute another. When we do this, or participate in this, or even just allow this to happen without criticism or resistance, we only help ensure further injustice, oppression, intolerance, cruelty and violence in the future.
We may see ourselves as many tribes, but we are one species, and in failing to speak out against injustices inflicted on some of our number and doing what we can to combat those without piling further wrongs on earlier ones, we are effectively collectively punishing ourselves.
Our beloved brother, son, friend, and partner Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Friday in his Brooklyn apartment. We are in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing.
Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable—these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.
Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.
Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.
Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.
Aaron’s funeral will be held on Tuesday, January 15 at Central Avenue Synagogue, 874 Central Avenue, Highland Park, Illinois 60035. Further details, including the specific time, will be posted at http://rememberaaronsw.com, along with announcements about memorial services to be held in other cities in coming weeks.
Remembrances of Aaron, as well as donations in his memory, can be submitted at http://rememberaaronsw.com
The problem of distribution, sharp enough in the Britain of the ’30s, is far worse for the world as a whole. A billion or so people live in destitution, and billions more are poor by any reasonable standard. Nevertheless, for the first time in history, our productive capacity is such that no one need be poor. In fact, more people are rich, by any reasonable historical standard, than are poor.
Even more strikingly, perhaps, more people are obese than are undernourished. And this is not true merely in terms of basic nutrition. Right now, the world produces enough meat to give everyone a diet comparable to the average Japanese person’s. This amount could be increased by replacing grain-fed beef with chicken and pork, a step that would also reduce carbon emissions. With another 50 years of technological progress and even a modest effort to aid the poorest onto the path of rapid growth already being followed by most of Asia, poverty could be eliminated. The vast majority of the world’s population could enjoy a living standard comparable, in material terms, to that of the global middle class of today.