This is "the American way": to be free to consume, even overconsume. Of course the rest of the planet wants to be like us; we are the fattest nation on Earth. Human beings are genetically predisposed to want to grow large, flower as best they can, and reproduce. Thrift had its moment, but it has yielded to the animalistic desire to overcome death by becoming huge. The SUV, that symbol of American irresponsibility, embodies all of those values. It is enormous. It is an expression and embodiment of wealth, power, and comfort. And it holds lots of kids.
When liberals whine about how bad SUV's are for the environment (or how unconscionable it is that they are exempt from automobile fuel economy standards), they are thus failing to understand the deep, primal needs that underlie SUV consumption. The Left wants us to do without what we want, in the name of some abstract (and for most, novel) moral-economic good. "Whatever. Get real," the Right says. And this is believable, because what is Real is what we know to be true: we all want the biggest house, car, penis, breasts.
Moreover, while the freedom to overconsume is conscious, the denial of responsibility that it entails is entirely suppressed - not even denied, but marginalized to the point of invisibility. There are no downers in Bush-Cheney-land: no thought of future generations, no responsibility to the working poor, no consideration of nature. Nothing other than self-aggrandizement in its quickest, most venal, and most animalistic form.
Let's look at the SUV not as an environmental choice but as a psychological one. In order to forgo the SUV, an individual has to make several unnatural decisions: that her own comfort is less important than the well-being of the planet, that actually she might learn to be comfortable in a smaller car – who is going to make such decisions? And more to the political point, who wants some "politician in Washington" to take the SUV away? It's like stealing a part of the soul.
Many on the Left really would like a world without SUVs, just as the Right would really like a world without gays. Yet, as we shall see in the next section, the Right's moral oppressions afflict only a minority. The Left's economic ones affect a majority. This is why the moderate left is trapped. Everybody talks about hope, but only the Left really needs it for its message to cohere. Hope is the opposite impulse to fear: it asks for risk, and promises that in the unknown lies not death but rebirth.
Our educational system, however, is hardly about personal empowerment. It teaches conformity and materialism: sit in rows, speak when appropriate, rank yourself according to popularity as expressed in clothes, cars, etc. Our economic system reinforces these values: what is the corporate world but the dog-eat-dog social hierarchy of American high school, now replayed in the "Real" world.
Throughout, American rhetoric preaches the exact opposite message of American reality. For example, we supposedly value individualism, but so many expressions of individualism are forbidden (the use of drugs other than alcohol and nicotine, for example; or non-standard sexual practices; or having taste in music or fashion that deviates more than a little from the mainstream) that the Holden Caulfields of the world still have ample occasion to point out how phony it is. We are told to Just Do It, but just doing it means consuming a certain brand, not engaging in an act of spontaneity that might destabilize rules based on fear.
This is not mere hypocrisy. Rather, the function of American ‘individualism' rhetoric is to mask the exact opposite tendency which undergirds our societal system. Capital, not entrepreneurship, reaps the largest rewards – yet it is the individual entrepreneur who embodied the ‘American dream.' Farm subsidies go to a few huge mega-corporations, but the ‘family farmer' is the image we are fed. The list goes on and on. The boundaries of ‘success' are so tightly demarcated (around economic and family lines for all but a few), American ‘individualism' is a subterfuge. A lie.
The Spiritual Foundations of Bushism
Sex and the Golem
How Jewish is Modigliani?
Steel and Glass
No Matter What, I Wish You Luck
Our 500 Back Pages
Zeek in Print
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From previous issues:
The Virtue of Mediocrity
The Warm, Impossible, Wall-less Summer World