Signs of the times: billboards, property rights, and the Enlightenment

Billboard: making fun of puny states since 1845

I’ve noticed on the highways between Austin and Medina a creeping excrescence of billboards. They pop up even in and near Johnson City, so close to the LBJ Ranch, which was the home of Lady Bird Johnson, the force behind the 1965 Highway Beautification Act which sought to dismantle the fungal proliferation of billboards along scenic American roadsides.

Can you guess that I will never, ever, under any circumstances buy or use anything advertised on these blights on the beauty of the Hill Country?

To be fair, I rely on the signs along interstates indicating the availability of gas stations at particular exits. Indeed, as someone who tends to coast into a station on fumes, I count on those signs. (When I was still driving a Suburban, I once put 42.3 gallons into its 40-gallon tank. Knowing about those two secret extra gallons was dangerous for me. Once, with four kids in the Suburban at the scorching height of an Austin summer, I pushed my luck a little too hard and actually ran out of gas, which was when I discovered that power steering and power brakes won’t work if your engine isn’t running. This is information you should probably have before you’re headed toward a busy intersection with a truckload of children.)

And one August I drove through the Great Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina and saw along those spooky, beautiful winding roads a series of enormous public service announcements broadcasting the dangers of meth use and obesity. I was impressed, wondering about the depths of a community horror that announced itself to all passersby. I don’t know if those signs actually saved anyone’s life, but they most certainly told me something I didn’t know about the area through which I was passing.

But now I’m done being fair. I hate, despise, and loathe billboards on rural byways; since their inception they have advertised—indeed, flaunted—not only goods but also the basest, most cynical side of American culture.

The rise of the automobile, particularly in the 1920s, brought on the first wave of the plague. The first responders against it were the ladies who belonged to garden clubs, led by Elizabeth Boyd Lawton, and the Outdoor Advertising Association of America routinely ridiculed them as “the scenic sisters.” They were mere women, and wealthy at that. What did they know about the rough-and-tumble necessities of the business world? Why, billboards were just part of the vigorous energy that made America its aggressive, masculine, successful self. Even so, the association worried enough about the clout and persistence of these women to plant spies in their garden clubs.

Most of my information about this battle has come from reading reviews and excerpts of a surprisingly interesting book entitled Buyways: Billboards, Automobiles, and the American Landscape by Catherine Gudis, a history professor of at the University of California, Riverside. She charts the apparently inexorable and very canny tide of the outdoor advertisers, who have been able to read the landscape of American culture and politics even as they flood its roadsides. They ensured that Lady Bird’s Beautification Act was full of loopholes, the most significant of which left underfunded a provision calling for compensating landowners required to remove noncompliant billboards erected on their property. Nor did it impose any height restrictions, which helped create the giant, visually invasive “monopoles” with which we’re so familiar today. The billboard industry has grown into a hugely lucrative global multimedia force dominated by three companies: Viacom, Lamar Advertising, and Clear Channel.

At the heart of the struggle between anti- and pro-billboarders is the question: who owns the view? If private landowners want to put up a forest of monopoles, who am I to tell them not to? Maybe it’s a rancher or a farmer trying to scare up some much-needed cash. I’m sure there are all sorts of compelling reasons for leasing your property to the outdoor advertising industry. It’s your right, isn’t it?

I’m starting to get impatient with the idea of individual rights as the trump card, as if there were no further discussion possible after the pronouncement, “It’s my right to do X-Y-Z.” Don’t get me wrong: I’m not for a moment thinking of throwing out the Bill of Rights. But like any other historical document, it’s reflective of the conflicts and limitations of the culture from which it emerged, the European Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, which according to the ever-helpful Wikipedia “broke through ‘the sacred circle,’ whose dogma had circumscribed thinking,” has had an extraordinarily long and, in my opinion, occasionally unhealthy shelf life.

In an essay entitled “Why Should I Inconvenience Myself?” Mary Catherine Bateson, professor emerita of anthropology and English at George Mason University, examines the possibility that the scientific discoveries of the recent past call into question the whole notion of the autonomous individual and the concomitant ethic of based on individual rights. She writes: “These ideas have been pivotal in Western culture, and yet they support behaviors that have led us to environmental emergencies that threaten much of life on Earth.” It’s time, then, to envision anew what it means to be a person.

I feel sure that Bateson is right because she’s providing ballast to an intuition that came to my most unscientific mind years ago: that our selves aren’t things we have, but are rather gifts given to us in the constant interactions we have with other beings, both human and nonhuman. Says Bateson, “I have come to believe that the idea of an individual, the idea that there is someone separate from relationships, is simply an error. We create each other, bring each other into being by being part of the same matrix in which the other exists.” If this is so—that my individual self is not something sealed in a Ziploc bag I got when I was born, but rather a communally created and continually changing work of art—then that puts the whole idea of individual rights in a different light. My individual rights can’t be asserted against the individual rights of anyone (or maybe even anything) else because I don’t actually have an individual self. I suspect we in the West tend to think of ourselves as something we own rather than as something we have been given, something that ties us, in some mysterious way, to its givers.

We occasionally assign rights to what Bateson calls “charismatic megafauna”—some mammals and birds we empathize with—but we don’t tend to hear much about, say, insect rights (especially from Texans overrun with roaches). She adds:

We don’t generally speak about the rights of plants. What is more serious, perhaps, is that we do not hear about the rights of oceans or marshes or jungles, which are treated as containers (habitats) for the species that capture the imagination. Yet arguably these too are living systems of which the vertebrates that inhabit them are parts. We make an effort to protect the whales; but if the plankton in the oceans are destroyed by changes in acidity, the food chain will collapse, not only for the whales but for other species as well. On this account, rights may belong more appropriately to systems than to individual species.

Bateson proposes an ethic built not on an equality-based system of symmetrical rights but rather on an asymmetrical rhetoric of stewardship or responsibility, which “may extend more easily to entire species or habitats than equality does.” In fact, we may have to junk the idea of equality and “claim a certain superiority in order to embrace responsibility as an alternative to irresponsible exploitation. An enlightened anthropocentrism is potentially practical.” She recognizes the potential for paternalism and infantilism inherent in this system but also points to the embedded corrective in it: when we learn to recognize differences among species and systems, we have the opportunity to learn that humans flourish only when they interact with a wild, profuse array of other systems.

It’s time to dismantle those habits of thinking and being that reinforce our self-sufficiency, that pit my rights against my neighbors’ rights, whether my neighbors are individual humans or whole ecosystems or future generations, since the distance between us is an illusion. This isn’t an easy task, especially for a people who so value independence. (Secession, anyone?) But if we’d rather die than acknowledge our interdependence on the natural world, then we probably will.

I admit it: I’ve driven away at breakneck speed from my first paragraph, but I’ll try to loop back, maybe even try to find a scenic road to go down. I hate the rising tide of those huge monopole billboards, especially near Lady Bird’s old stomping grounds, because they represent a way of seeing and using the world that respects nothing but its own illusory self, that values nothing more than short-term economic self-interest over long-term flourishing. They represent a devolutionary force that degrades beauty, which I declared in my last post (must be true, then) to be as necessary to human existence as food, air, and water. It may be personally inconvenient to change those habits that allow us to think that we stand on our own two feet. We may have to stop and ask people for directions and help, maybe rely on or call forth the kindness of strangers. We may have to be imposed on by others. Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Gentlemen, we must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” I like to think that today Franklin, a quintessential product of the Enlightenment but an iconoclastic and inquisitive intellect, would expand his remark to include not just gentlemen but all people, gentle or not, and maybe all species.

What we’re reading
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Martin: Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954–1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes

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8 Responses to Signs of the times: billboards, property rights, and the Enlightenment

  1. Leslie says:

    Oops, your warning comes too late for me. I had some Ziegen Bock at the Missions game last night–celebrating Metro Health’s Por Vida program… It was that or Bud. Mea culpa! (it was good though…)

  2. Leslie says:

    Clarifying: the Missions and Metro Health are in San Antonio. This is a truly cosmopolitan blog.

  3. Tony Jowett says:

    Wow Heather,
    what a super piece, it will give me a lot of thoughts!
    Very much appreciated!

  4. Isa Catto Shaw says:

    Now you should have been speaking at the Aspen Environmental Forum. This is a move forward! Always proud to be your sister by the way.

  5. MM says:

    I am thrilled to see the protest against the lit billboards, but don’t focus on only rural roads. And don’t forget the new craze towards the scrolling or flashing digital signs. Take a look at Hwy71 between Austin and 281, it is a travesty and getting worse. Now we have double-decker signs. I applaud the idea to ban the businesses participating in the blight, and to let them know it. Of particular interest is any business that shines all night at the top of the posts, while reaping the benefit of a hill country setting, such as a vineyard or a “green” builder.

    Speaking of individual rights, the lit billboards affect long-time residents that now see the glare. Those residents may be struggling to hang on to family property, have paid property taxes for decades, and now the value of their land is diminished. One individual that allows the placement of a billboard has affected many more individuals and property values within sight. Most of the billboards I see are either on vacant property or commercial property.

    And don’t get me going about schools that are lit up like a spaceship all night and all summer……………

  6. Louisa says:

    Billboards are synonymous with the death of the stars to me. When I was growing up, my dad and I spent hours star-gazing from the roof patio of the old ranch house. Outside of the house and the distant, dim outside light of the ranch manager’s home, the stars were the only illumination. On a clear night you could see deep into the universe.
    Fast forward 30 years, and the stars were gone – lost in the light from Austin (over 60 miles away). But the golden arches on the McD’s billboard on 281? Clear as day. Another small, overwhelming death.

  7. David Lackey says:

    Just got around to reading this blog in regard to the unsightly billboards. Just to let you know that billboards have been banned in Bandera County since late in 2005. State Rep. Carter Casteel sponsored a bill in the last regular sesseion of the legislature in 2005, which passed, banning new billboards in Bandera County (home of Madroño Ranch).

    • Les says:

      Too bad the other Representatives in Hill Country counties don’t have the guts that Mr Casteel showed. We bought our land here in 1999, and even then the night skies reminded me of the views that I used to see in Northern Arizona. We were delighted with the apparent vigor that the people living here showed for preserving our beautiful heritage. Now, we see fewer stars than we used to see in a suburb of Kansas City. I firmly believe that individual property owners do not have the right to destroy a natural resource for thousands of other property owners.

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