Years ago, as one of my friends was finishing up a semester of study in Delhi, we decided to spend a month traveling in India together. Although I haven’t traveled a lot, it’s clear that experiencing other places and cultures gives you a different view of your own.
Comparing the life you know with other worlds makes you identify what you love about your own country, and think about the things we could do differently or better.
One of the things I remember about India is the traffic. To venture into traffic was to venture into a world of chaos. Each day started with the sounds of distant car horns, followed by others, until the din of automobile horns was deafening, everywhere. Roads didn’t necessarily seem to have lanes; instead, drivers snaked their way forward wherever an opening appeared. Traffic was not limited to automobiles —instead, the massive, crawling entourages included scooters, bicycle rickshaws, elephants, colorfully painted trucks with groups of people riding on top, camels, entire families on a single motorcycle, live pigs being transported on mopeds, bicyclists carrying loads the size of a small house. Even in the cities, monkeys scampered across the tops of slow-going vehicles. People walked freely in the traffic, begging or selling food or merchandise. While the traffic generally moved in a single direction, there would always be someone attempting to go the opposite way, like a salmon swimming upstream.
It was amazing.
It was amazing to imagine cities of millions, which seemed to have no traffic system of any kind. It was amazing to imagine any place tolerating a traffic system that was so erratic, uncontrolled and dangerous. India was a British colony until 1947; I would have expected India to have inherited a traffic system with more order. I tried to imagine imposing traffic rules on millions of people who were used to being completely unregulated, and couldn’t even imagine how it could be done.
The Indian traffic system certainly provided maximum individual freedom. It was entertaining — you could never guess what you would see when you ventured out. It was inefficient — there were times when I swore I could have walked across a city more quickly. And it was dangerous. I saw two fatal accidents and many near-misses during my month in India.
As Americans, we tend to accept traffic regulations such as seat belt requirements or mandatory auto insurance, but the traffic chaos in India made me think about our own characteristic resistance to having the government impose rules or tell us what to do. We live in a country where citizens are famously independent — it’s a hallmark of being American. We — myself included — don’t appreciate being told what to do. We are resistant to the idea that the government can restrict our freedom. Depending on our particular point of view, the government has no business restricting our access to or use of public lands. The government has no business implementing protections for workers (or perhaps no business implementing regulations protecting business interests at the expense of workers). The government has no business requiring us to wear masks, or close down businesses or to restrict gatherings or our freedom to worship as we please —not even temporarily, not even to prevent transmission of a contagious and deadly virus.
The government certainly has no right to impose restrictions on our gun rights.
In America, we have rights — and our individual rights so deeply define our national identity that many consider it un-American to even think of restricting them. But what if those individual rights conflict with the common good of our communities?
Sometimes I think that American resistance to the idea of government regulation creates a situation similar to the traffic in India.
Sometimes, I wonder whether America doesn’t have just a different kind of traffic circus, with many of us so focused on our individual rights that — like the drivers in India — we never even stop to consider what would be best for our communities as a whole.
Anne Morrison is a La Grande resident and retired attorney who has lived in Union County since 2000. Thinking Out Loud is her monthly column for The Observer.