How the Quiet Car Explains the World

With "How the Quiet Car Explains the World," Ta-Nehisi Coates has become an old white dude.

With “How the Quiet Car Explains the World,” Ta-Nehisi Coates has become an old white dude.

I’m sitting in the quiet car of an Amtrak train making my weekly voyage up top. There’s a rule that prohibits loud talking and digital devices. Cell phone usage is also prohibited. There are signs at the top of the car labeled “Quiet Car” with the rules prominently displayed. “Quiet Car” is scrawled on the outside, also. The conductor, at the beginning of the trip, announces over the intercom, “If you can hear this you are in the quiet car…” and then explains the rules.

As I write this someone’s digital device is going off. The woman apparently can’t figure out how to shut it off. She does not want to repair to another car to figure this out. She wants to do it here in the quiet car. She is not alone. Somewhere around 75 percent of the time that I’ve ridden in the quiet car, somewhere has decided that there is a cell phone conversation they must have, or a song that they must play so that all can hear its melody blaring out the headphones. Two weeks ago, one group decided to grab some beers and make a party of it.

These people are almost always dealt with by a conductor or other passengers. But I’ve never quite been able to figure out why they come to the Quiet Car. It’s not a matter of not knowing the rules, so much as a matter of not caring. It’s almost as if the offenders regard the regular cars as a public lavatory, and the Quiet Car as a private bathroom where they may repair to handle their shit.


It is not unlike what I’ve noticed here when commenters arrive and complain about the prohibition against threadjacking, the deleting, or moderation as a whole. The Internet is filled with comment spaces,  most of them only barely regulated. But that is not enough. One must have the right to talk however one wants, here, specifically.
I think what we have here is a working definition of an asshole — a person who demands that all social interaction happen on their terms. Assholes fill our various worlds. But the banhammer only works in one of them.

The redacted portion is an anecdote, which has an insightful footnote, both of which re-establish that he’s not an old white dude. So, apparently, people having no sense of public is an annoyance that transcends racial boundaries.

FILED UNDER: Race and Politics,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tony W says:

    On a related note I watched an old episode of “Leave it to Beaver” last night. Let’s just say kids behave differently today and leave it at that.

  2. Tsar Nicholas says:

    There’s an old white dude in all of us.

    As far as Zombieland not having any sense of courtesy, or even decency, it’s part and parcel of our catastrophic decline. Bad education systems. A retarded media. Hollywood.

    The Hippie generation was bad enough, but after spending the 70’s in further drug and alcohol-induced hazes in the 80’s they became parents. Look around at the ensuing generation. Have you ever interviewed one of them for a job? No bueno.

    Rampant consumerism. Lack of discipline. Hyper-secularism.

    We had three separate wealth manias in less than 30 years. The suburbs became spoiled rotten. McMansions. Housewives day trading tech and telecom stocks. College students flipping rental houses, without knowing the differences between amortization schedules and Amaretto. Being skilled at Texas Hold ‘Em became more important than grades and resumes.

    The left’s various agendas not only became de rigueur in pop culture circles they became all but mandatory.

    A dumbed down, fatuous and altogether selfish public is a pretty ugly animal. And politically speaking it has actual consequences, the negative ripple effects of which can last decades or, far worse, even become systemic and thus for all practical matters permanent.

  3. Fog says:

    “I would ask you to trace the process of our moral decline, to watch, first, the sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the rapidly increasing disintegration, then the final collapse of the whole edifice, and the dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them.”
    -Titus Livius (20 BC)

    Tsar, when people say your arguments are old, they really mean it.

  4. @Tony W:

    Let’s just say kids behave differently today and leave it at that.

    The real kids in the 50s didn’t act like that either. It’s more a case of fictional children behave differently.

  5. rodney dill says:


  6. Franklin says:

    Not to mention … Eddie Haskell, who only pretended to be polite to adults.

  7. stonetools says:

    Make the quiet car the quiet car electronically by installing a cell phone jamming device on the car. Problem solved. Relying on old fashioned notions of politesse and decorum just doesn’t work in today’s world. I call that being realistic. Dunno if that makes me an old white dude or not.

  8. rodney dill says:

    @stonetools: phone jamming only solves one or two of the problems of noise, but it is a good start.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Rudeness seems to be the default setting for a significant % of the population, but I have to say that on a 1-10 scale of rudeness, Americans only rate a 3. Spaniards hit a 9. Even my wife hates her former countrymen.

  10. Liberal Capitalist says:

    It makes one wonder…

    Does Tsar Nicholas understand the definition of irony?

  11. Liberal Capitalist says:


    Make the quiet car the quiet car electronically by installing a cell phone jamming device on the car. Problem solved.

    That, and a TV OFF blaster.

    I cannot STAND forced TV blaring away in places where it is not really necessary.

    An electronic security blanket for some, but not for me, thanks. Conversation is not dead, given the chance to flourish.

    I had something like this for a while, it solved the problem:

    Consider it my modern-day sabot.

  12. wr says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: What the Tsar is trying to say is that he agrees there are complete jerks who feel compelled to hijack any thread on any topic to rant about their particular hobby peeves.

    Oh, wait. He’s not trying to say that. He’s demonstrating it.

    And tragically unaware of all the layers of irony…

  13. wr says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: “Does Tsar Nicholas understand the definition of irony? ”

    Yes. In exactly the same way that Humpty Dumpty understood the definition of glory.

  14. Trumwill Mobile says:

    @rodney dill: I am pretty sure they legally cannot jam the phones. I can’t remember why, but it has come up in the context of movie theaters. Something about jamming rewuiring the use of a frequency owned by the company whose signal you are disrupting?

  15. JWH says:

    @Trumwill Mobile: I don’t know if there’s a law of some sort or not, but if I understand it, this kind of thing goes back to pagers in the 80s and 90s. Basically, you have a lot of people — particularly doctors and individuals in certain areas of government — who need to be on call even when they’re not physically at work. The best way to get such people is to beep them (or call them today). Quiet in a movie theater is a good thing, but you really, REALLY don’t want a heart surgeon to not get his page until after the movie’s over …

  16. rodney dill says:

    @Trumwill Mobile: Yes I’m pretty sure that is the law nearly everywhere in the US, I was only acknowledging that it would be a good start to quiet the noise, aside any legal implications.

    Just have a jammer cause a 911 call to fail and I’m sure you could have all sorts of lawsuits.

  17. JKB says:


    Pagers and cell phones have vibrate mode. And if you can’t feel it vibrate on your belt or in your purse, stick it down the front of your pants. Problem solved, except for the moaning.

  18. rudderpedals says:

    @rodney dill: This. Intentional jamming is almost definitely a violation of the Communications Act of 1934 in all states. If he catches you Uncle Charlie can try for a 5 figure fine/forfeiture.

  19. rodney dill says:
  20. stonetools says:


    I’m pretty sure that there can be legal and technological solutions for these. For example, the heart surgeon would just have to travel on the regular car or remind himself to check his messages at intermission or whatever. These aren’t insurmountable obstacles.

  21. rodney dill says:

    @rudderpedals: Actually stonetools brought up jamming, I was pointing out mainly that it wouldn’t solve all the problems. I didn’t address that it would have to be made legal first to allow it to occur.

  22. anjin-san says:


    Why not just ban the threadjackers here? It’s a handful of people, and they lower the quality of the site significantly.

    Problem solved.

  23. Al says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    Tzar exists to produce prototype posts by which all other posts must be compared when applying Poe’s Law. Posts are simultaneously uploaded to this site (which is quite an honor, really) and etched onto a 90% platinum/10% iridium sheet in multitude of languages. These sheets are stored in a special environmentally controlled vault in France. Scientists at sites like The Onion regularly compare their posts to these prototype posts in order to understand how many people will take their stories seriously.

  24. rudderpedals says:

    @rodney dill: Well you brought up the 911 question so I’m thinking how can I dial 911 from a burning movie theater if there’s jamming? I think you’re right anyway that jamming isn’t a good answer.

  25. rudderpedals says:

    @rudderpedals: For cellphones or Skype terminals it’d be cool if instead of jamming venues requiring quiet could transmit a dummy wifi station beacon id of NORING or something and then all devices in range would simply drop to vibrate or no ring mode while receiving the beacon.

  26. Dazedandconfused says:

    Get off my lawn.

  27. stonetools says:

    Oh well, if jamming doesn’t work, let’s just give someone an electronic shock if they are caught using their cell phone in the quiet car without justification. I’m open to a variety of solutions.
    I think its clear that expecting people to be polite and considerate ain’t working. It would be the best solution, but then I’d like to ride to work on a winged white unicorn too.

  28. M. Bouffant says:

    So, apparently, people having no sense of public is an annoyance that transcends racial boundaries.

    Is anyone reminded of Bill O’Reilly’s surprise that people in a restaurant in Harlem weren’t all screaming “Bring me my iced tea, m-effer?”

    P.S.: There’s only one “race,” the human race.