I frequently drive through Eastern PA and New Jersey, usually on my way to New York City or New England. Much to my dismay, rest areas along the Interstate highways are often closed, either for repair or for no apparent reason. Now, I’ve always planned long distance car trips based on the number of rest areas between my point of departure and destination rather than count on specific exists off the Interstate highway. In fact, the importance of rest areas cannot be overstated. Not only do they provide comfortable places for calls of nature but they also offer the opportunity to rest, to stroll after driving for several hours, and to buy some caffeinated beverages for staying awake at the wheel.
These can be life-saving services for drivers who are traveling long distances. I would think, therefore, that state governments who financially and administratively control these rest areas would want them to remain open twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.
But it is naïve, even idealistic, these days to believe state governments would have such concerns. What drivers like me are really beholding are the globalized austerity measures that developed nations are increasingly practicing. Rest areas obviously have a very low priority when the name of the game is to cut back on discretionary, as well as entitlement, spending. And of course there’s no constituency or well-funded lobby/interest group fighting to restore funding for rest areas.
The same can be said, on a much more serious level, about the de-institutionalization of psychiatric patients. States seek to close mental hospitals and facilities to save money, even if mentally unstable men and women have to be thrown out in the streets to fend for themselves.
Most voters are not going to consider psychiatric facilities and rest area facilities as issues when deciding for whom they are going to cast their vote. Indeed, politicians can win more votes by saying they are going to balance the budget—without, of course, raising taxes on the wealthy.
So as I drive through the bucolic parts of PA and NJ, I now have to plan on a new reality: many rest areas I’ve counted on in the past for a welcome break from driving will now be closed. Yet America is a country full of people who are constantly on the move. Is it not a sign of a civilized society to cater to the safety and comfort of its people?
Perhaps fast food restaurants like McDonald’s are happy. I suppose many drivers and families will stop there and order food they’re probably better off not eating. Health care bills may go up, but at least our governors and state representatives can boast that they saved a few shekels by closing rest areas.
I’m tempted to suggest that we all engage in non-violent disobedience the next time we see a rest area closed. Why not relieve yourself outside the locked doors of the facility? Perhaps at night, when we won’t be noticed.
And then I recalled our latest societal problem: the total surveillance state. Plenty of money for that! With cameras everywhere, doubtless the authorities will catch us literally with our pants down. We’ll end up on a list for sexual predators and deviants simply because we had a full bladder. Perhaps we’ll even get to enjoy “free” lodging in America’s privatized prison system. Plenty of rest there.
And so it goes in Amerika in 2013.
Richard Sahn is a professor of sociology and an at-large contributor to The Contrary Perspective.