Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Roar of Our Engines

While the media and political hacks argued earlier this week about whether or not Chrysler's two-minute halftime Super Bowl ad starring Clint Eastwood was meant to be a veiled endorsement of President Obama, I was struck by an altogether different question: Is this really who we want to have telling us who we are?

Because so many people have seen the ad, because it is so effective and powerful, and because there's been so much chatter about it, it's worth examining it more closely. What stories does the ad evoke? What does it say about who we are? Is this really who we are? Is it who we want to be? Is this how we see ourselves? Or is it just how the Chrysler corporation wants us to see ourselves?

Many favorable responses to the ad have streamed by in my Facebook newsfeed. It has generated lots of enthusiasm. In a tweet on Sunday night, Michael Moore referred to it as a "sermon":
And Clint, the consensus is u done a good thing standing up 4 Detroit--& your sermon seemed 2 b a call 2 give O his "second half." #sellcars
The story the ad tells is one we like, one we've heard often, one we want to believe. It is optimistic in a bootstrappy kind of way. It appeals to our sense of national pride. That it's Clint Eastwood who delivers the message is in fact an important part of the message. Mr. Eastwood conjures visions of everything from Rowdy Yates in Rawhide (if you're old enough) to Dirty Harry (even if you're not old enough) to Walt Get-Off-My-Lawn Kowalski in Gran Torino (2008). He's tough. He's manly. He's in charge. If he's on your team, you feel safe, protected, secure. If he's on the other team, you're screwed.

While Eastwood is saying "we all rallied around what was right and acted as one," we see a series of black-and-white still shots of families and then we move on to color shots of families in—surprise!—cars and trucks. When he says "because that's what we do," we're watching a dad drop his son off at school. Because, you know, it would have been so much less cool for the kid to walk or take the bus. As Eastwood is saying "we find a way through tough times, and if we can't find a way, then we'll make one," all the images are of people either in vehicles or loading them. By now the viewers are eating this stuff up with a spoon. We're tough! We're determined! We can do it! Ruh!

As Eastwood asks "how do we win?" we return to footage of Dirty Harry Mr. Eastwood. We see a close-up of him as he says, "This country can’t be knocked out with one punch [mouth almost closed, teeth clenched, exuding defiance, determination, grit]. We get right back up again, and when we do, the world's going to hear the roar of our engines."

The roar of our engines. This is what the entire ad has been leading up to. We are America. Hear our engines roar. We are car people. People of the road. We have a collective love affair with the automobile. That this has been true ever since Henry Ford rolled the first Model T off the assembly line makes this a story that is readily invoked. It's one we all know deep down and by heart. We are all of us a part of this story.

Chrysler isn't just trying to sell you a car in this ad. It's reinforcing our identity as a nation of car lovers.

Perhaps, though, it is time for us to turn a corner, to go down a new road. Might we be so bold as to develop enthusiasm for other, better ways to get around? Could we call on our collective ingenuity to transform ourselves into a nation smitten with public transportation?

I lived for a brief time in Amsterdam, where you can go to a nearby train station—without ever checking a schedule—and be assured that in no more than fifteen minutes a train will be departing for any Dutch city you care to visit. And the return trip will be just as easy. It's fast, convenient, inexpensive, and even fun. I loved that. I miss that. I long for that.

Building more and better public transportation networks in and between our cities would create jobs and reduce congestion. They would be safer, less harmful to the environment, and more readily available to everyone. They would be a collective enterprise that would benefit not only those of us who need to get around but also those of us who breathe. Think of it. With a really good public transportation system, we'd need fewer auto repairs, have fewer car accidents, spend less on gasoline. Very likely even our insurance rates would go down.

Improving our public transportation could also mean a metaphorical transformation, a change in how we see ourselves. As people of the car, each of us moves around separate from everyone else. We are isolated and on our own. As a public transportation nation, we would get where we're going together. That would be a new story that would be a gift not only to ourselves but to our children and to the planet.

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