Cars and the Power Cult
I’m going to get me a car
And I’ll be heading on down the road
Then I won’t have to worry
About that broken-down, ragged Ford
—Chuck Berry, “No Money Down”
The automobile is the Empire’s most popular machine. As the name of this machine indicates, it is a means of self-mobility, which is the Empire’s most popular activity. To be moving, to get away from and go after—this is what Americans do. And they like to do it on their own. They like to have their hands on the wheels of their own mobility machines. Chuck Berry’s songs are full of the idea that, with a fast car, your problems are solved. Moving, rambling and rolling are ingrained in American pop culture. To get over it, get on with it, get passed it, let it go, go for it, get ahead, “go, go, go”—the American idiom abounds with mobility metaphors. It boils down to a popular notion that you can leave your sorrows behind and follow your dreams. Who cares if, inevitably, you will arrive and have to be somewhere? Who cares if your problems will abide and your dreams will materialize into another tedious reality? The temporary amnesia of movement is what counts—the escape-pursuit paradigm that mobility is the solution.
I grew up in the California suburbs. Bicycles, roller-skates, skateboards, minibikes, motorcycles and cars were the primary media of my peers’ ambitions. I started driving at the age of fourteen. Driving to impress was programmatic. Good, fast driving was an expression of competence, independence, uniqueness. Driving swiftly through dense fog on windy coastal-range roads was recreation. I graduated from college and began living in big cities, where owning a car was more problematic than necessary. Still, by that time, I’d already owned several cars and was destined to own several more. By the time I owned my last car, a Chevy van, I was indifferent to driving: I could live with or without it. Then I did something that changed my opinions about driving: I drove that shitty Chevy across our vast, abject Empire to make a move from one city to another. Three-and-a-half-thousand miles’ worth of movement, ten days’ operating a motor vehicle, mechanical problems every other day and thirty-plus near-lethal misses later, I arrived, miraculously, alive.
Ever since, I have found driving to be repugnant, even in a good car. I am amazed that people aren’t dying all over the place, that they manage as safely as they do, that auto accidents are only the fifth-largest cause of death in the Empire. Now I don’t own a car and hope I’ll never have to. When I have to drive, here’s how I do it: I rent, I insure, I buckle-up, I signal, I check mirrors, and take every precaution and advantage inside and outside of the car. Most of all, I abide by the laws. I don’t drive, I survive.
But danger isn’t the only thing I hate about driving. There’s the meaningless labor of the thing. There’s simply no enjoyment in operating a motor vehicle. It’s boring. You can’t enjoy the view or carry on anything but a side-of-the-head conversation. And it’s just about the most expensive and environmentally destructive way to put yourself and others in peril.
Automobile culture itself is obnoxious and senseless. Cars are the gaudiest fashion items in existence. Designwise, they’ve abandoned balance and the clean line. Nowadays, cars have ungainly rears and narrow, beaky noses—like plastic avocados on wheels. Not only are they predominantly ugly, but the uglier they are, the more their drivers take pride in them. Power is the priority. Of all the fashion items on the market, cars are the most demonstrative of power because they must perform. A literature professor once told me that a powerful performer always gives the sense that there is power in reserve. Because power in reserve is potential—not what is but what could be—the cult of power manifests itself in items that embody superfluous potential. This is most obvious in the SUV. This beastly vehicle, swilling gas, destroying roads and lives, this ungainly, polluting and treacherous juggernaut, is driven precisely by those who must display their potential—luxury-car consumers.
It was a bad day when power became fashionable and took precedence over design, function, maneuverability, safety, economy and old-fashioned common sense. It was bad for the whole world because the cult of power insinuated itself into the Empire’s foreign policy. It became the imperial style. There are, of course, all kinds of power. But the kind I’m talking about is physical: torque, mass, inertia, endurance—muscle-bound humans and muscle-bound machines. When such power is at the modern barbarian’s command, guess what happens? Does it stay in reserve? Of course not. The natural law of power is that its exercise is the proof of its existence. The barbarian wants to prove what he’s got. So he goes sailing down the freeway at 90 mph, encapsulated in crashing guitar and drum noises, changing lanes with demonstrated superiority to turn signals and laws, blind to everything below the side windows of his ponderous snatch magnet, proving to himself and the victims of his egotism that he can perform. The use of “American might” by our prodigal barbarian Emperor is just another example of the power cult, the squandering of potential to show the world what he’s got.
I went out one day to buy a truck
I saw one that looked so huge and big
When I got that sucker on the road
I was looking down at everything
And I really liked that
Everyone obeyed me
I thought, This is power
Like a religious hour
—Iggy Pop, “Knucklehead”
© Copyright 2005, Jan DiVincenzo. All rights reserved.