There’s a lot of disgruntlement if not downright hate these days in America. On Facebook, strangers snipe at each other. Old friends “un-friend” each other based on political preference. Talking heads trade insults on cable “news.” The angry acting out isn’t new: Four years ago New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told an interviewer on public radio “hate has become the currency of this nation. We hate, therefore we are.” The facts bore him out: The FBI had just documented a 16-year peak in all types of hate crimes.
Which brings me to some of the ways people use prejudice and personal attack as forms of identity, here in the West. In Idaho, where I’ve lived for over nine years, big diesel pickup trucks are a way of life — even for folks who live in Boise and probably don’t need them for hauling.
Before the 2016 election, I began noticing more and more big pickups with full-sized American flags mounted in the rear cab. Soon after, many of those trucks had a full-sized Confederate flag mounted on the opposite side. I asked a man who works on diesel engines why he thought so many guys in big pickups were flying the Confederate flag, here in Idaho. After all, this was the West, not the South.
“They’re just giving the finger to this f***ing politically correct government,” he said.
If that were true, then American flags as protest to Obama should have stopped once Trump was elected. Instead, there were more flags than ever before the 2020 election. I’ve come to see the flag flying as a form of personal identity.
I asked an African-American friend how the flags made him feel. “Intimidated and unwelcome,” was his reply. But they intimidate me, too, and I’m white.
Others use their trucks as weapons of aggression. I drive a 15-year-old little red sporty Japanese car. Back when I lived in southern California, the sunroof was open almost every day. In Idaho, I still like to open my sunroof on nice days. Funny thing is, even though the air here is theoretically much cleaner than it is in Los Angeles, I nearly always end up having to close it. Perhaps because my little red car is definitely not an “Idaho car.”
When somebody in a big diesel pickup equipped with “rolling coal” sees me, he inevitably speeds up, passes me, and then steps on the brakes. As I near his tail, a giant cloud of toxic black diesel exhaust blows out, and if I haven’t already shut my sunroof, I’m going to be inhaling it. What drives his aggression and gives him pleasure about harming me?
In 2017, Idaho State Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, introduced a bill to prohibit the practice of modifying diesel engines to increase the amount of soot and smoke belching from tailpipes. The bill failed to pass, but thanks to the Clean Air Act, rolling coal is already illegal. In Idaho, however, don’t expect much enforcement.
Unless there’s a state law, most Idaho police won’t issue tickets for rolling-coal pollution violations. The bill would have made it a misdemeanor, but the state senate decided that public health was less important than the right of angry drivers in diesel trucks to blow smoke into our faces.
I’ve also heard from bicycle riders who say they’re sitting ducks when trucks pass by while belching out black smoke, and that this is a particular problem on rural roads. It seems to me there was a time – not that long ago – when this would have been considered rude, if not downright dangerous.
The people who spew hate on the Internet or peddle conspiracy theories on Facebook, who wave flags all over town, or who blow smoke in our faces, all say they are expressing the freedom to be themselves. They are proud to be “politically incorrect.”
Last week at my local gym, a man strode angrily up to the front desk to complain about the rap music playing that day. “Turn off that f*#%in’ music and put on some rock ‘n roll!” he insisted. The staffer at the front desk was Black. After a moment of deer-in-the-headlights shock, he quickly complied.
You know what politically correct means? It means nothing more than good manners, and manners are sorely lacking these days.
Crista Worthy is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She writes about travel, aviation and wildlife from her home in Idaho.