Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Climate change and aesthetics

A writer I know through my job came in to see me today.  The conversation turned, for reasons having nothing to do with Pres. Obama's announcement of new standards for auto emissions--though the subject did come up eventually--to cars.  Chrysler 300s, in the interest of full disclosure.  My writer friend has one, as does a dear colleague of mine, and, for that matter, as did then-Senator Obama until, realizing the liability it would become in a national race, he traded it in for a Ford Escape hybrid.  Again, in the interest of full disclosure.

Even fuller disclosure:  I lack the appropriate taste, apparently, to appreciate such cars.  They smack of illicit display, ill-wrought gain, greed, insecurity--what we used to call, though more with Corvettes and Jags in mind, penises-on-wheels but also on steroids.  In a word, or two, bad taste.  Call me a snob.
Paul gave me some insight into why some people like them, describing it as a redneck thing, meaning a culture that includes him (and my dear colleague, but obviously not the President, whose liking for them would seem to have more to do with the phenomenon of Cadillacs in black culture) and definitely not me.  Not that either Paul or I can afford, say, a Prius, which he finds ugly and I find fascinating, or a Volt, which even he finds snazzy. 

Paul's comment stuck with me as I read at lunch of how folks in rural parts of the country will have a hard time affording that undiluted icon of redneck culture, the pickup truck, especially large ones, except for their businesses.  Obama's reform of the auto industry will change the aesthetics of the American road.  We will see more eccentric designs like the Smart car, fewer appeals to our baser instincts of ostentation.  Mind you, Chryslers 300s and Ford F-150s will stay on the road till they die, hopefully soon, but Pres. Obama has given new life not only to the careers of automotive engineers, especially those with ideas about batteries and hydrogen and such, but also to car designers.  

One wonders where the ripples from all this will go.  Will opulence in clothing become passe?  Though a largely nostalgic part of me hopes not--along with the Gauthier's and Lagerfelds of the world, not to mention Michelle Obama's American designers, all of whom one suspects will survive financially--the notion of down-sizing cars suggests a new era of rational modesty, or at least a hint in that direction.  Imagine the audacity of it, to use one of the President's favorite words.  

Think of it in retailing terms as the ultimate add-on, that suggestion a retail clerk makes after you've decided to buy what you really wanted in the first place, except this time the add-on really does you some good rather than merely pad the retailer's cash-register.  In this case we have, first, personal austerity in the wake of the meltdown; second, smaller, lighter more fuel-efficient cars the automakers will have to find a way to make inexpensive to appeal to the new austerity, and finally, clothing and all sorts of other "necessities" trimmed down to accommodate newly strapped-in budgets.  

If Pres. Obama seems radical to some, his radicalism smacks loudly of good old fashioned desert monastic values like humility and modesty, what he often references as the Kansan common-sense of his grandparents.  And yet as I write this an image comes to me of a well-known and very diminutive Taiwanese Buddhist nun tooling around New Haven, CT in the early '90s with joyful abandon and questionable driving skill in her car--an outsize and even then quite old black Cadillac convertible.  Maybe this change won't come as easily as it might seem, after all.     

1 comment:

  1. Your piece reminded me of harrowing rides I once took with my ninth grade English teacher who at 4'10" drove a huge LTD convertible. It seemed to me that she had difficulty seeing over the dashboard but had the confidence to pass trucks full of farm animals on narrow country roads. She represented all that was bold and remarkable in life to me, then and now.