Disney Pixar’s 2006 animated hit movie Cars highlights a foundational idea behind the many problems plaguing America in its recent history. While this went over my head as a kid who simply enjoyed the vibrant and well-animated story, it is extremely clear upon revisiting the film that this point is intentional and well made. Hidden behind an easy-to-watch children’s movie following the misadventures of the up-and-coming stock racer Lightning Mcqueen is a truly poignant story of manufactured American decline. As Lightning’s road trip from what is presumably middle America to California for the tie-breaking race of the piston cup is derailed by his mistaken trek onto the original highway system of the United States, we are given a finely aged commentary on the hollowing out of American towns, their culture, and their economy in the name of efficiency. As Lighting comes across the now decrepit Radiator Springs during his travels on the once-famous route 66 we are brought into the very real world of the countless gutted American small towns that are essential centers of American prosperity that have now been pushed into economic hardship and cultural despair by elites who forgot the essential bedrock of our country in their pursuit of a poorly thought out grand picture. 

This development or more accurately destruction began in the early 20th century with FDR prompting research into the creation of a standardized highway system but was not realized until 1956 when Eisenhower signed the interstate highway act, many Americans at the time did not know it but this was the start of a death sentence for the American way of life. FDR and Eisenhower sought to pass by what they saw as the inefficient system of our naturally and locally developed roadways and to create a top-down infrastructure system that would revolutionize America. As Cars explicitly and expertly shows, the picturesque and vibrant small towns that dotted the original highways across the country were cast aside in the name of intellectualized pipe dreams. A phenomenon too common in American life nowadays found its roots here, the interests and developments of the people being scrapped for the grand schemes of our so-called experts. The common good and the natural balance of the many facets of American life were trampled on in the name of perfecting one narrow attribute determined to be important by people who had no real understanding of the way transportation and the country more broadly fit together. 

Now we see this happening everywhere from architecture to airplanes, trade, and even in a sense public health, whether the interstate highway system was a canary in the coal mine telling of similarly thoughtless planning to come or whether it was a blueprint for further mismanagement we cannot say. What we can say though is that Cars perfectly highlights the consequences of this disintegration and devaluing of the interests in small-town America. In the movie, we see the seeds of fragmentation of people and communities and the creation of an unnatural uniformity done all in the pursuit of one singular focus (in this case efficiency) at the expense of all others. Another seemingly more appropriate artistic take on this happening exists in the paintings of Edward Hopper who is famous for depicting people brought together in a technical sense by the standardization of America but more importantly, separated in a much more real sense by the interpersonal gaps resulting from the artificially concocted culture of modern America. The most exact depictions of this are his paintings of people alone and isolated in seemingly grand but truly bland hotel rooms, his hotel by a railroad is a great example. These paintings and the forgotten town of Radiator Springs in Cars put a fine point on the products of this so-called connection system, with the establishments and values that people naturally connect over cut off from the wellspring of American life the symbiotic relationship of the people and these irreplaceable connection sources created not from algorithmically generated fads, marketing, or unnatural desires is shown. As these ideas of natural development, locality, community, and the ability of the average person are abandoned in a tangible realm other more theoretical connections follow suit. America does not need to give up on its advancement but maybe it should re-learn a lesson put fairly well by Sally in Cars “Cars didn’t drive on it to make great time, they drove on it to have a great time”. Instead of trying to craft the perfect society from some ivory tower, we should allow our development to proceed naturally from the local level as it successfully did for so long.

Featured photo via pixar.fandom.com

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