A recent midday drive through Coxen Hole reminded me how much you can tell about people by how they behave behind the wheel.
First, heading up Main Street past the cruise ship dock, I signaled a left turn and stopped to wait for a break in the oncoming traffic. A taxi driver behind me leaned on his horn angrily, as if I had no right to turn left. Remembering my Los Angeles driving skills, I let loose an obligatory obscene gesture, obscured by my tinted rear windshield, then executed my turn – ironically onto the road leading to the Methodist Church.
After completing my errand at the church, I was trying to merge onto the main road from the Petrosun parking lot and was blocked by a long line of barely moving cars approaching a police checkpoint. Since nobody would stop to let me in, I remembered my New York driving skills and stuck my nose into a gap, assuming other drivers would make room for me. But a tour bus driver decided to play slow-motion chicken, advancing within centimeters of my front fender to try to squeeze me out. I forged ahead nonetheless, believing I had as much right to the public roadway as he did.
To my amazement, the bus driver pulled alongside me, blocking oncoming traffic, slid his passenger door open and proceeded to berate me in Spanish for a full minute. I’m sure this gave the cruise ship passengers he was transporting a favorable impression of the island. The police, 15 meters in front of us, did nothing. Me, I just kept looking straight ahead, remembering two lessons my father taught me: 1) never argue with an imbecile, and 2) if you crawl into the mud to wrestle a pig, you’ll both get dirty, but the pig will enjoy it.
Not half an hour later, after having lunch and dropping off a friend at her house, I was executing a three-point turn to return to my office when a pickup pulled up so close to me, and refused to back up, that I had to drive into the opposite gutter to get around him.
As I left the gridlock of Coxen Hole behind and drove back toward Sandy Bay, I thought to myself, “This means something.” It’s not just about common-sense rules of the road. It’s about decency. We define ourselves as a people by how we treat each other, especially by how we treat people we don’t know personally. It’s about civility.
Civility means more than just good manners. It means taking into consideration how our actions affect others, including those we don’t know and may never meet. It’s the basis of the rule of law.
By now regular readers of this column know I studied economics in graduate school. I once attended a full-year seminar at Harvard with a world-renowned professor who was studying the link between economic development and the rule of law. He found the link to be strong. He said there was a continuum of law-abidingness among cultures. At one extreme were places like Germany and Japan, where he said, exaggerating only slightly, that a pedestrian approaching a “Don’t Walk” light on a deserted street at 4 a.m. would stop and wait, even if the light were malfunctioning and kept him there past dawn. At the other extreme were places where, if you stop at a red light and there are no cars in the intersection, you’ll get rear-ended, and the other driver and all bystanders will say you’re the one at fault, because you stopped when you could have sped through.
The places where people wait for the lights to change tend to do better economically, and in many other respects.
The importance of this point was driven home for me a few years later when I was living in China. I picked up a book at an airport bookstore to read on a flight and practice my Chinese. It was titled Why is America Great? It was written by a Chinese man who had lived for a time in Boston. His answer to his own question surprised me. What impressed him most about US society, in contrast to China, was that most Americans obey the law and pay their taxes, not because they’re afraid of getting caught, but because they think it’s the right thing to do. A recent poll supports his point. Despite all the anti-government and anti-tax rhetoric pervading US politics recently, 85 percent of people said paying taxes was a duty and cheating on tax returns was wrong.
Of course there are plenty of Americans who cheat on their taxes, some in a big way. And Americans get angry, rude and aggressive in traffic as well. My oldest son learned his first curse words riding in my back seat on vacation when he was two. As my Harvard professor pointed out, societies fall along a continuum in this regard.
However, it’s been my experience in most places I’ve lived and driven in the US, including Los Angeles and New York, that when people are stuck in a gridlock and there’s no traffic cop present, eventually they start alternating and letting one car through at a time in each direction so they can all get home (unless of course Members of Congress are present).
In contrast, the first place I drove a car regularly abroad – in pre-Chavez Venezuela – drivers stuck in a similar situation would just honk their horns at each other, and nobody moved forward. Neither did the country. (I don’t know how they drive under “Bolivarian socialism.”)
Which sort of place do we want to be?
If all goes according to plan, people should be reading this column during Semana Santa. There will be lots of visitors on the island … and lots of traffic jams. But people are supposed to be thinking about Christian charity that week. Perhaps we can take a pause for Holy Week and think about how we can make the island a more civil place. It starts small. But the payoff is huge.
I used to ride the subway to work every morning in Washington. It was always uncomfortably crowded and often broke down, producing a lot of grumpy commuters. Every once in a while I got a conductor who would get on the public address at each stop and in an almost mechanical voice urge passengers to kindly and patiently let each other on and off. “Courtesy,” he would say, “is contagious.” Amen.