Visual pollution? In billboard war, motorists enjoy hubbub of options

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Scenes such as this one in the Middle Valley part of Chattanooga are plain-ole eyeball magnets. Billboards and placards tell of human effort and ingenuity.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press’ coverage of highway billboards (“Georgia’s billboard jungle[;] Law allowing sign companies to clear-cut public land under fire,” A1) leaves me bemused. Billboards arguably are “sky trash” or “litter on a stick,” as beautification advocates say.

But are they not also an exciting part of city and public life, a gabby diversion on the highway with its long gaps between exits?

David Cook is skeptical. In his column (“Road more traveled and less trashed,” B1) he suggests billboards are no better than a used-up fast-food sack tossed from passing car. But “sky trash” on grand scale is part of civilization. Billboards are strategically placed and designed to tell us about goods and services awaiting us. They get attention, they  communicate. Along the nation’s commercial bloodstream — the federal interstate highways — billboards are a lubricant between national economy and local.

Their very nature, crowding in on me, explains why I love the city, and why I travel. City life lets us see what men are doing, to yield to their calls, to be open to their bravado and the plenty of their shelves, to be enlivened by the stimulus of American ideals.

Breathe in the strong air of liberty

I live in the city for the very delight of seeing ads for carpets or Coke squabble for notice, even ones I see every day.

It takes grace to appreciate — or at least accept — merchant billboards and signs. Better that we tolerate these silent heralds with cheer than to huff upon our rights. Making war against billboards, as cities such as Knoxville have, offends a property right in free speech and the right to make a living by lawful means. Having to endure “visual pollution” is not being made victim of a tort. If I extend grace to others, I am able to be won by billboard jostlings. I become, if you will, open. I absorb the staccato of words and image because they tell of me human industry. In cacophony I perceive human effort, the variety and genius of others.

To our unhappy lovers of beauty, I recommend the virtue of forbearance. Esthetes who complain about billboards are prone to favor resort to a wearisome remedy — the art of prohibition. That’s all we need — a ban — one more lawful activity put under heel. Our cultivated friends might want to be careful pursuing limits to freedom, especially if they come off looking priggish and precious. In contrast, ordinary supporters of these liberties may be more manly and more liberal in the end.

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