I have always felt a white-hot hatred for those Harley clowns, in their clown costumes, who gratuitously rev their stone-age V-twin engines as you sit outdoors trying to have a conversation. The only proper response, I believe, would be for some good Samaritan with a baseball bat to walk up and test the efficacy of those little Nazi hats they call helmets.

The new thing is modern V8 muscle cars (Chargers, Challengers, Mustangs and Camaros) with exhaust cut-outs. They are deafening, and they are everywhere where I live in San Jose (which is not one of the genteel areas). They are also illegal, of course, but we no longer enforce laws in California. Nor, apparently, in New York. For those not satisfied with inflicting low-level hearing loss, a special Platinum Asshole feature is available on the aftermarket. It alters the engine’s spark and fuel map to deliberately induce explosive backfires that sound like a 12-gauge shotgun at close range.

Julie Aitken Schermer, a professor of psychology at Western University in Ontario, Canada, conducted a study of people who modify their cars to make them louder, using a standard inventory of psychological traits. She was expecting to find narcissism, but instead she found “links between folks with a penchant for loud exhausts and folks with psychopathic and sadistic tendencies”. “The personality profile I found with our loud mufflers are also the same personality profiles of people who illegally commit arson,” she told a reporter. These are people who have a hard time with “higher-order moral reasoning with a focus on basic rights for people”.

The New York Times has taken notice of this trend. It seems one Miles Hudson, a 20-year-old man-child, has been terrorising downtown Seattle in the wee hours, making it his special mission to disturb sleep with his Dodge Hellcat. “Entire neighbourhoods are angry and sleep deprived,” a resident wrote to their local council member. One woman claimed that she lived with PTSD and woke up in fear because the backfiring vehicle sounded like gunshots outside her building. “This is the first time in 13 years that I’ve started seriously considering moving out of downtown,” she wrote. Another wrote in after 6am, saying the tiger-striped Hellcat had been revving up and down streets for two hours. “What will it take for this to end?” the man wrote.

Mr Hudson told a reporter at The Seattle Times in March that the city needed to focus its attention on other problems. “There are way bigger issues than a black man with a nice car who makes noise occasionally,” he said. His car is indeed nice, if by nice you mean expensive. It lists from $97,000-111,000. “No disrespect, but I feel like I’m doing my thing,” he told the officer who stopped him and recorded the interaction on his body cam.

The city has been super understanding of Mr Hudson’s need to do his thing. To watch the bodycam footage of the cop who pulled him over is to get a window onto Blue America, 2024. It is like watching a Hindu farmer trying to coax a sacred cow out of a rice paddy, without laying hands on it, speakin harshly to it, or otherwise running afoul of the Brahmins who insist on the cow’s protected status. The cop is real chummy. “Remember the last time I pulled you over?” He tries to ingratiate himself with the entitled twat by informing him that he is an ASE certified master mechanic, as well as a policeman. It appears to be an attempt to establish common ground: I can appreciate your car. Essentially he offers a change of jurisdiction, from that of the public authority to that of a shared subculture.

“To watch the bodycam footage of the cop who pulled him over is to get a window onto Blue America, 2024.”

But this gesture is lost on our sacred cow, who can only repeat that he has 700,000 Instagram followers for his exploits. The cop tries to cajole him into perhaps taking his car to a race track. “I’m just saying… Just consider it, bro,” the policeman says. The cop’s deference is nauseating. At no point does he rise to the occasion and speak with authority on behalf of the common good. It turns out you don’t need to defund the police, you just need to delegitimise the idea of law itself, if by “law” you mean rules of civilised behaviour that apply to all.

The French writer Renaud Camus, known for his controversial “Great Replacement” theory, also coined the term nocence to capture what is going on here. Removing the negative “in-” from “innocence”, he left a word that meant nuisance or harm. He went so far as to form an “anti-nuisance” political party called In-nocence, making explicit what we all know: that the fabric of the world is torn by the small acts of cruelty and unconcern that make everyone else retreat from public space. This can have an unfortunate resemblance to conquest.

Camus’s concept of nocence responds to the French experience of mass immigration, crime and intimidation. He draws attention to the emotional labour required of the French in urban life: essentially that of not-noticing. In the cosmopolitan cities of the West, the field of petty harms is allowed to expand due to a code of propriety that requires suppressing one’s awareness of patterned behaviour, as well as a good-natured readiness to surrender one’s own claim to public space. Such readiness is a point of moral virtue for liberals, but it creates a vacuum into which more aggressive energies rush. This process of displacement is ultimately a spatial phenomenon, so it is perhaps not surprising that a geographer should be the one to spell it out.

Christophe Guilluy, whose analysis based on his understanding of how housing markets interact with larger social and economic developments enabled him to predict the rise of the Gilets Jaunes has been brought to the attention of English-language readers by Christopher Caldwell. Caldwell informs us that the vast stock of public housing, around five million units, built after the war, “is now used primarily for billeting…  immigrants and their descendants, millions of whom arrived from North Africa starting in the 1960s. In the rough northern suburb of Aubervilliers, for instance, three-quarters of the young people are of immigrant background.” As a new bourgeoisie has taken over the private housing stock, poor foreigners have taken over the public, serving the metropolitan rich as a kind of taxpayer-subsidised servants’ quarters. Public-housing inhabitants are almost never ethnically French; the prevailing culture there nowadays is often heavily Muslim.

Guilluy, who has spent years in and out of buildings in northern Paris (his sisters live in public housing), is sensitive to the way this works in France.  Public housing is an economic resource that, more and more, is getting fought over tribally. Guilly speaks of a “battle of the eyes” fought in the lobbies of apartment buildings across France — who will drop his gaze to the floor first?

But what could such face-to-face moments of ethnic tension have to do with ambient nuisance, such as noise, that is not directed at anyone in particular? Camus writes that “Nocence, of course, is pollution in the ecological sense of the term”.

One might suppose that the coincidence of such ecological harms with demographic upheaval is a function of transience and diversity. Where there is no common culture, there is little sense of a common good. On this view, the same people who act anti-socially while living in a place they do not regard as their own would likely not do so in the communities they came from. English tourists are notorious for public drunkenness, for example.

But also, norms of behaviour differ across cultures, and one can transgress without meaning to. When the “ugly American” goes abroad and shows that he is culturally obtuse, we rightly censure him. To apply this same censure, however, to foreigners on our own shores — indeed merely to use the word “foreigner” — is to risk scandalising liberals. To be a good liberal requires interrupting the natural symmetries of hospitality.

The problem is that such unilateral hospitality tends to inspire contempt in peoples that don’t share the West’s preference for out-groups. And this introduces something new. Quite apart from being obtuse or not caring about local norms, making a nuisance of oneself may feel good as an expression of both personal and cultural aggression.

San Jose, 60 years ago, was 96.7% white. In the 2023 census, 23.9% are designated “White alone”. What follows is likely to be controversial, so I feel it necessary to engage in some pre-emptive throat-clearing on the topic of immigration.

My neighbourhood is mixed and largely Hispanic. I am on good terms with my neighbours. I let the little dog who lives next door shit on my Astroturf lawn because there is nowhere else for it to go (their yard is paved). I live across the street from a tire and suspension shop. The owner, Javier, speaks just enough English that, combined with my paltry Spanish, we can conduct basic transactions. But the guys working for him don’t speak a word of English. This has not been an impediment to good relations. Several of them have done me small favours and expressed their regard for my own automotive projects, which tend to spill out onto the street. I have been known to do the occasional mini-burnout in front of their shop in my hotrod VW. It is probably amusing to them, compared to 30-yard patches of rubber they lay down with their deafening V8s.

The challenges of immigration in the US are quite different from those in France, where a thousand-year-old clash of civilisations has been revived. It is often said that immigrants from Catholic Latin America are culturally on the same page as the West  — not long ago you would hear people on the Right express hope that Latin American immigrants would be a force for cultural conservatism. There is something to this. Most immigrant parents seem morally healthy, relative to the decadent “luxury beliefs” of white progressives in the Bay Area.

But also (and don’t blame me for noticing), extremely loud muscle cars are popular here primarily with Hispanics. It is clearly a macho thing, out of step with the retiring character of progressive white masculinity.

There is certainly an Anglo (or rather, Scots-Irish) version of vehicular nocence, as exemplified by diesel pickup trucks “rolling coal” (that is, deliberately belching clouds of black soot) such as you encounter in the South, where I lived for many years. This is a political gesture. I take such trucks to express a simmering hatred, perhaps tied to fantasies of a Confederate reconquista against the “rich men north of Richmond” and their Prius-driving janissaries. That is, against those viewed as colonisers who prevailed in the War of Northern Aggression (as the American Civil War is sometimes referred to in the South). Like Mr Hudson with his Hellcat, they are applauded by their followers on social media.

But in the South Bay where I live, the cacophony of unmuffled V8s has its own context and meaning. Around Cinco de Mayo (but not only then), you see big Mexican flags flown from vehicles, reminding me of the Confederate flags I would sometimes see flown from trucks in Virginia. You also see a lot of billboards for Modelo beer, which have a consistent theme — they are for the “fighting spirit”. The role model for Anheuser-Busch, on the other hand, is the transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney . Unsurprisingly, Modelo has replaced the American brands as the number one selling beer.

In La Dépossession, Camus writes about “testosterone” encompassing traits that are both biological and spiritual. These traits are unevenly distributed — there are “differences of virility” — and introduce inequalities that “very frequently belie or attenuate, when they do not simply overturn, social and political inequalities”. Camus proceeds: in France “there is a pronounced and very obvious testosterone inequality between the groups in question.” Likewise, the non-Hispanic whites, upper-caste Indians and wealthy Chinese, who populate the upper tier of the South Bay’s feudal tech economy, have largely washed their hands of any involvement in the maintenance and repair of their own homes or the shared infrastructure, handing it over to Hispanics. The material “challenges of existence” that Camus refers to — the challenges tht make men hard — are almost exclusively the preserve of guest workers of uncertain legal status. In keeping with his point about rival inequalities, these poor men do not seem to view the wealthy and soft-handed as superior. Quite the opposite. Their earned hardness is admirable, but it also introduces certain asymmetries, and with these come opportunities for a kind of conquest.

In July 2020, the French establishment was in a fuss after interior minister Gérald Darmanin used the term ensauvagement to describe how public space in France was becoming less civilised. Louis Betty, an American scholar of contemporary French thought, explains that the term was coined by writer Laurent Obertone some years earlier. The cause of ensavagement, according to Obertone, is “the domestication of the French public, especially of its elite”, writes Betty. To be domesticated is to be over-socialised. And, conversely, agressive nuisance is, “in Obertone’s telling… a phenomenon of under-socialisation” wherein the “under-socialised”, who are “incapable of controlling their aggressive impulses”, are “abetted by an over-socialised overclass” for whom violence is just “an abstraction”. In fact, the over-socialised class “compete with each other to show who can be the most lenient toward the under-socialised”. This “moral competition”, responsible for the judicial system’s unwillingness to punish criminals, is “a cause of further ensavagement”.

This dynamic seems to describe Seattle’s halting ambivalence about holding Mr Hudson to account for keeping dozens or hundreds of people awake at night. Obertone’s use of the term “under-socialised” also jibes well with Camus’s idea that the default condition of human beings is one of mutual nocence. Civilisation rests on a social compact of non-nocence whereby “[e]veryone commits to being a little less himself”, in Camus’s words, in exchange for the benefits of ordered liberty. We might say that the over-socialised have committed to a competitive ethic of being as little oneself as possible, a sort of ethical potlatch in which one suppresses those natural responses to insult that are typical of a healthy animal with a defined territory it intends to keep.

The correlation of loud exhausts with sadistic tendencies can take on a collective meaning, if competition in sonic harm becomes a status game within a group. But aren’t the members of this same group annoyed by the assholes among them, just as I am? I like to think so. There may, however, be a cultural difference in sensitivity to noise. It is said that Mexico is a very noisy place. And conversely, as someone engaged in intellectual exertions, I am perhaps especially sensitive to disturbance. But I don’t think I am alone in this. Indeed, if we view such exertions collectively as well, we can note that art and science have been developed to a high level only in societies that have achieved reciprocity in non-nocence. This is an achievement it is possible to lose.

On a Saturday night I lay awake in the wee hours, unable to escape the noise. In such a state, one’s mind turns in various directions, including towards guerrilla actions on the propaganda front. I believe I have hit upon one that would be effective. Picture a billboard with two attractive Latinas. In the background is a guy with a Dodge Challenger. One girl whispers in the other’s ear. They are laughing. The speech bubble reads, in Spanish, “The louder the car, the smaller the dick.”

I believe this would put a stop to the noise overnight. How much would it cost to rent a dozen billboards?

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