Jewish World Review April 20, 2001 / 27 Nissan, 5761
Our highways just became a little
WANDER the highways of this sprawling and
complicated nation of ours, and you will be
delighted not just by the distinctive scenery of the
different states -- the mountains of Colorado, the
plains of Nebraska, the farmlands of Ohio, the
ocean views of California -- but also by
something else that has always been a quiet
source of entertainment:
The license plates -- and the words that are on them.
Each state has the option to put whatever words it wants on its license plates
-- words that sum up, in a quick phrase, what it is about the state that
separates it from the rest.
The United States has, with some justification, been accused of becoming
increasingly bland, homogenized. A land of identical malls and chain fast-food
restaurants, where it's sometimes difficult to discern whether you're in
Missouri or Vermont or North Dakota.
But the license plates. . . .
The license plates have maintained their personalities -- and, more to the
point, they have maintained the personalities of their states.
Thus, in Alabama, the license plates tell you that you're in the "Heart of
Dixie." In Louisiana, the plates tell you, you have arrived in "Sportsman's
Paradise." Montana is the "Big Sky" state; Missouri, its plates tell you, is, now
and always, the "Show Me State"; Idaho has "Famous Potatoes"; Delaware
is "The First State"; Alaska is the "Gold Rush" state; Wisconsin is "America's
Dairyland"; South Carolina is blessed by "Smiling Faces, Beautiful Places." . .
You get the picture. Each state tells the rest of the world: We're unique.
We're unlike anywhere else. And the places where the states do the telling is
on their license plates.
Which brings us to a fellow by the name of Mark Barry, who was driving
along the other day, and pulled up behind a car with Pennsylvania plates. And
on the bottom of the Pennsylvania license plate was this stirring phrase:
That's the slogan that is now on the license plates of Pennsylvania motorists:
the state's Web site address.
"We have done this because it is part of Gov. Tom Ridge's technology
initiative," said Joan Zlogar of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Driver and Motor
Vehicles Safety Administration, when we asked what was going on here.
"The governor wants to showcase Pennsylvania as a leader in technology."
Thus, out with the old -- what Pennsylvania plates used to say was "Keystone
State" -- and in with the new: the lyrical, poetic "www.state.pa.us."
"The governor sees a license plate as a moving billboard," Zlogar said. "A
free advertisement for the state."
The idea is that, if people click on to the state's official Web site, a vast
storehouse of information will be made available about tourism, history,
commerce, sightseeing. . . .
"People can take note of the Web address on Pennsylvania license plates,
then go to their computers and see our state," Zlogar said.
Of course, the argument can be made that the ideal way to see a state is not
by going to one's computer, but by going to the state. That's what has always
been so enchanting about the old-style license plates: They tell you a
particular state is like no other. They make you want to go take a look.
Connecticut, its license plates tell you, is the "Constitution State,"
Massachusetts is "The Spirit of America," Illinois is the "Land of Lincoln,"
Kentucky is the "Bluegrass State," New Hampshire is where you "Live Free
Or Die." . . .
Pennsylvania boasts that its license plate is the first in the world to use a Web
site as a state slogan.
But it probably won't be the last. Which is the problem here. There is nothing
special about the idea of a Web address; a Web address, even one that
features snappy words (which state Web addresses don't), is, in the end,
dreary. A Web address is static, unemotional, ultimately dry. It's everything
you don't want on a license plate.
And when other states begin to follow Pennsylvania -- when the colorful and
quirky slogans on the license plates go away, to be replaced by the Web
addresses, begging for hits. . . .
Well, how will you really know where you are? You can always look out the
window, of course. But you can't look out the window when you are looking
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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