That’s how America used to work. And it’s exactly how America must never work again.
Automobiles, television, and a grid of roads going everywhere. That was the holy trinity of both 20th century economics and modern civil religion. That was the three-headed god which we genuflected to with our financing plans, sacrificed to through an international oil industry, and the imagio dei into which we allowed ourselves to be born again. For some persons this morning, GM’s bankruptcy filing is like hearing that Jesus’ bones have been unearthed in Jerusalem. The foundations of their lives, as they knew them, are crumbling.
Nothing is permanent; that’s the primary lesson from this which must be embraced again and again. Just because a few generations of Americans grew up with Chevys, aspired to Cadillacs, lusted for awhile over GTOs, then settled for their father’s Oldsmobile, didn’t mean- it turns out- that GM was the end all and be all of the American GNP. And because GM was so familiar to all of us, we all have the ability (we think) to figure out what went wrong.
Why did Americans by the millions go sneaking off to trysts with Toyota, Datsun, and Honda? The answers we have are all- in part- valid ones. Because GM (and the other American automakers) held such sway in America, and because we were all its willing victims and supplicants for almost a hundred years, we all have the right to have answers, too. We are all kind-of experts on the auto industry.
So, here’s what I think: Hummers didn’t kill GM, but they were the final tumor. Like the smoker who won’t stop smoking and then pours the family fortune into a final two years of chemo-drenched half-life, GMs arrogance toward the American consumer finally caught up with it. They claimed car and truck buyers wanted big muscle cars. And when a company controls huge advertising dollars, it can make its misbegotten notions seem true, for awhile. Scare enough men into believing their virility is dependent on massive horsepower, and corporate wishful thinking will prevail, for awhile. Kill off the 1st American electric car- the EV1- because of narrower profit margins, while forcibly inserting Hummers onto the roads by making them the internal combustive equivalent of Viagra, and sales projections will maintain the illusion of an erection, for awhile.
And the kind of dull, but harmonic and dependable music of Toyota, Nissan (now), and Honda played on. And plays on, still.
I still want a Cadillac SUV. I do. That’s a desire I have learned; it is not a desire I was born with. The idea that such a vehicle will enhance my life is a false one, I know that- I really, really do. But GM had psychologists, behaviorists, and -who knows?- maybe even spiritual advisors all figuring out ways to get their vehicular seeds into the soil of my very American, very consumer-oriented mind and soul. And they were successful.
That’s the part of American business which must be re-examined. Have we been brainwashed, or taught? Are we cajoled, or informed? Are we being pushed, or led? Advertising is much, much more than something which interrupts reruns of ‘Seinfeld.’ It has redefined who we, as humans, understand ourselves to be and, because that image in recent decades has been a false one, it was inevitable that we would run into a brick wall.
GM’s bankruptcy is one of those brick walls. There have been others, of course. And there must be more.