The political left has been awful at trying to make sense of so-called “consumer” issues. Not least among its failures has been an almost complete botch of the all-important topic of cars-first transportation. With exceedingly few exceptions, would-be car critics have swallowed and adopted the ruling “consensus” claim that the main driver of the reign of the automobile in the United States has been the nation’s “car culture,” rather than the power of corporate capitalists.
To the extent we have gotten anything else out of the left, it has been the Roger Rabbit conspiracy theory, which holds that General Motors, Firestone, and a handful of other corporations conspired to destroy light rail public transit in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. The basis of this story is the 1974 report of staff attorney Bradford Snell to the U.S. Congress. In his report, Snell retold the tale of how GM and its partners used the National City Lines bus corporation as a shell for acquiring and tearing out light rail lines across the country.
Today, Russell Mokhiber once again rehashes this tale over at CounterPunch, while also noting that Bradford Snell is nearing completion of a history of General Motors.
Mokhiber is upset that NPR recently ran a story mentioning the National City Lines legend and called it a “conspiracy theory.” To Mokhiber, that is a woeful understatement:
In fact, the destruction of the nation’s electric mass transit system was perhaps one of the most egregious – and underreported – corporate crimes of the century.
In saying this, Mokhiber not only maintains that there is something wrong with calling Snell’s story of a single cabal ruining urban rail transport a conspiracy theory, but also comes mighty close to lying about the outcome of the 1949 trial of National City Lines on which Snell centered his alt-famous report. Mokhiber quotes Snell on the issue of whether the NCL principals were convicted of conspiracy:
“It is not a theory,” Snell said. “These are not ‘unproven allegations of conspiracy.’ It has been settled judicial fact for more than half a century. Beyond a reasonable doubt, as affirmed by the federal courts, and after denial of further review by the Supreme Court of the United States, it is an established and incontrovertible fact that General Motors, Standard Oil of California, and Firestone Tire conspired to replace electric transit in cities throughout America in order to effect a monopoly in the sale of buses and related products.”
But what Mokhiber and Snell do not mention is that conspiracy to monopolize “the sales of buses and related products” was the second and clearly peripheral charge considered by the Chicago jury that heard the NCL case. The main charge was conspiracy to destroy light rail systems. On that count, the jury acquitted all defendants.
I’m not mentioning this to imply that GM and its partners never maneuvered against rail transport. They and other car-related corporations and even the whole “business community” certainly did that, despite the jury’s verdict in that 1949 trial.
But it simply will not do to keep claiming that the Roger Rabbit story is anything like an adequate basis for understanding where cars-first transportation came from, and still comes from. It came and comes from the taproots of corporate capitalism, not from from some mere back-room deal, however interesting and important such deals have been. The problem we face is a lot bigger and deeper than some secret 60-year-old manipulation.
And, meanwhile, lying about the relevant facts is a damned slippery slope, too. Not only can the left ill afford to get caught with its hand in the cookie jar, but we just don’t have time for such games. We need to assemble and publicize the real, full story of how we got to our present, exceedingly perilous spot. In that effort, I certainly look forward to receiving some major help from Brad Snell’s forthcoming book on GM. But Snell’s wider theory of cars-first transportation is, despite its simplicity and cartoon ease, seriously misleading. Conspiracy theory is not enough. Our problems are deeply institutional and historical, not mere mis-reported (or not mis-reported) jury verdicts.