sphagnum moss, dark water, and politics
Sunday, February 23, 2003
You know the story. It’s the plot of countless kiddy and teenage movies. The ones about the outsider, the ugy ducking, the picked-on kid whose worth in revealed in the moment of crisis, redeemed by a instant of formulaic grace. He’s the one with glasses and an unfortunate nickname who steps up to the plate at the bottom of the ninth - with two outs and bases loaded - hits that magical homerun, is carried off on cheering shoulders. There’s a twist this time, though - he’s an S.U.V.
Both the Philly Inquirer and the New York Times (among many others, I’m sure) have run articles this last week on how SUVs have redeemed themselves after the big snowstorm, ferrying people to hospitals and making neighborhood pizza-and-toilet paper runs. They describe the owners’ sweet vindication," and rehabilitated reputation in the face of Hollywood celebrities, terrorism-connection attack ads, and "What Would Jesus Drive?" activists. The NY Times has a ready answer to that question - "in a snowstorm? . . .maybe an SUV." The Inquirer’s take on folks who protest SUVs as as a bloated, relentlessly consuming, environmentally destructive culture? "Those people obviously never had to work in two feet of snow."
Of course, both papers treated the subject as a harmless, fairly amusing local fluffpiece, but - pretending it was serious journalism - both the SUV issue and anti-SUV criticism were seriously misrepresented. Yes, anti-SUV sentiment can be fairly heated and overly personal; yes, SUVs are, to turtle-wax poetic, struck in a mire of critical synecdoche (where a part stands in for the whole) that’s rough even with four-wheel drive. I would almost agree with the Times letter writer who claimed that SUVs are scapegoats - except scapegoats are generally understood to be innocent victims. SUVs aren’t.
This is a concept that seems to slip right by an awful lot of people. We’ll dismiss the allegations that SUV critics hate fun, need to boost their self-esteem, or -as Woody Hochswender claimed in an Feb 16th Times op-ed - are blaming America for Sept. 11th as clearly favoring rhetoric over reality. The snowstorm articles don’t fair much better, though. We get a bit on gas-guzzling, a mention of environmental problems, a reference to the WWJD-activists, and even, in the Inquirer, an brief explanation of the Detroit Project’s geopolitical ad campaign. For the Times, Anti-SUV people are those Hollywood celebrities, Jesus-freaks or "environmentally sensitive children." The Inquirer offhandly dismisses them as folks too sheltered or privilaged to have any contact with the day to day difficulties of real life (yes, I know, they’re just trying to make a funny, but does humor have no influence?).
There is no discussion of the safety issue, which is both a major explanation for SUVs’ popularity and probably the best, most practical platform for criticizing them. Hochswender - once he’s through branding Arianna Huffington as a terrorist-loving traitor - actually does address this. He insists that the whole rollover business is merely a matter of personal responsibility. He chooses not to roll over. This isn’t entirely without merit, especially given the psychological basis for bad SUV driving. Nevertheless, it sounds a lot like driving safety talk before the age of seatbelts. He also insists that in the evident of an accident he can’t control - "if some drunken driver veers across the center divider" - he would prefer that his nine-year-old son wasn’t in a flimsy Corolla. Since he is choosing not to roll over, that might make actual, as well as hopeful sense. Of course, then there are those other, Corolla-riding nine-year-olds who might fall victim to what auto manufacturers euphimistically call compatibility problems, such as SUVs’ unfortunate habit of skipping over the hoods of cars or smashing victims’ heads in side impacts.
Overall, to quote from a letter I sent off to the Times:
. . . despite strong feelings and overheated rhetoric, the issue has never been about whether S.U.V drivers are bad people. It’s about the fact that most S.U.Vs - as currently built - are dangerous gas-guzzlers, harmful to people, the environment, and yes, even our national interests. S.U.Vs may have saved lives as they ferried doctors and dialysis patients to hospitals this week, but according to studies they have helped cause thousands of extra deaths over the last few years.The morally resonant SUV-as-symbol approach - standing in variously for bloated, exploitative consumption or whatever values are seen to be expressed by, as one Times letter writer complained, dangerous behemoths "mostly driven by very thin women who seem always to be on the phone" - has been very effective. On Feb. 13th the auto industry finally admitted that SUVs are unecessarily dangerous to other drivers and promised to work together to make voluntary safety standards. I’m not the biggest fan of industry-crafted voluntary standards, but at least it’s a start. The Times attributed this move partly to pressure by National Highway Traffic Safety administer Runge and McCain, but also "years of criticism of S.U.V.’s."
I don’t know if this level of mobilization could have been achieved by merely reasonable arguments, especially in the face of carefully crafted appeals to customers’ deep-seated feelings - the anti-SUV camp’s opposite number, an irrational nexus of power, freedom, and safety (an earlier, much more comprehensive Times piece quotes a 41-year-old mom who says of her Chevy Suburban that it "gives you a barrier, makes you feel less threatened). In her reply to Hochswender’s inuendoes, Huffington argues that her provocative ads were "intended to push the envelope and grab the viewer by the throat, to break through the information overload clutter and spark a national conversation." They definitely have done so.
Now, however, I would suggest we need to start shifting more towards the practical and the pragmatic. Huffington made the switch from SUV to hybrid Prius, but I bet that for most people lively rhetoric has little effect on their position and behavior. At best they wear a little guilt lightly and engage in serial justification (sometimes quite reasonably); at worst it deepens divisions. Instead, we should actually work towards unity and compromise, saying: SUV’s aren’t protecting you or your children; they’re putting them in danger, along with other people and their children; the freedom and independence you are enjoying today is being stolen from tomorrow. BUT instead of appearing to heap blame on drivers’ heads, stress: we should have safe vehicles that can get around in the snow, vehicles that can get a bunch of kids from place to place without flipping over or guzzling as much gas as is under the entire Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. . . To quote a Democratic political consultant and SUV-driving good samaritan in the Times snowstorm article
"Should we blame S.U.V. owners when obviously these things have some merit — they are useful tools at times like this?" Mr. Parker asked. "Or should we be calling for better fuel-efficiency standards?"Instead of being presented as anti-fun, anti-independence, anti-safety (ha!), anti-practical needs, stress: Detroit can give us these things; we demand that they do. We demand that they stay on track, we demand that they do more.
Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t also try to encourage folks to question whether they really need even a reformed SUV, the value of consumerism, and even the domination of the auto . . .
I may be overstressing reasonableness and rationality when we should just take a shame-and-shun route. I hope not. . . And it’s a bit late for the social norm route . . .
posted by Dan S. on 6:07 PM | | link
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