The Rise of the SUVs: Fascist Values on Ever-Larger Treads

They roll on impact; they dent when dinged; they wobble like the dinosaurs they burn in their fuel tanks. Under the hands of a chattering cellphony they loom like sudden icebergs. No one can see through or around them. Why would anyone spend what could pay off a ranch house in Kansas to buy an SUV?

Look in the rear-view mirror.

The station wagon appeared here and there in the 1940s, and although convenient -- all the extra room in the back -- they sold marginally well until the 50s, when sales boomed right into the 80s. Minivans then became the family thing on wheels.

But the '40s saw a parallel trailbreaking: the military jeep of WWII. Shortly after the war this four-wheel-drive vehicle merged with the station wagon into a trucklike conglomeration that gained eight cylinders in the early 70s. From there it was a short drive to the minivan-modified Suburban, the Blazer, the Expedition, and the ever-larger monster machines that now occult their lesser fellows on the freeways of our decade.

Regarded metaphorically, the SUV is a mechanized citizen-soldier, a fusion of those propagandized traits that Mussolini insisted belonged together and did his best to unite. Born of mobile stock both familial and military, they have evolved to resemble armored personnel carriers, humvees, and battlefield tanks. They are frankly intimidating.

Look in the rear-view mirror of your little Neo at the huge glinting shadow rushing up on your back bumper like a treaded juggernaut built by Skynet. Blur your eyes and you can almost glimpse treads underneath, a gunner on top. Where's the white flag when I need it? Never mind, I'll pull over; and with an ominous WHOOSH and a whining of angered rubber flashes by -- Arnold Schwarzeneggar wielding a shotgun? George C. Scott on his way to collide with Rommel? No: a blank-eyed man in a pressed suit, or a harried mom with five kids in the back. For the length of an errand, anyone can be Patton in an SUV pushing through traffic like shit through a goose (pearl-handled revolvers must be purchased separately).

Little wonder that fears of global warming or of disappearing fossil fuels fall on phone-deafened ears. Drivers seduced by flashy ads whispering about power and control want those, and badly, and who wouldn't as civil liberties are rolled back on all fronts and vague warnings of terrorist attacks keep the public in perpetual low-grade panic? Those who can't feel safe anymore, who look back on the good old days of Gilligan's Island and the Cold War, will eagerly purchase the appearance of safety -- the torque, the air conditioning, all that metal backed by plastic -- even if it costs them more than driving something smaller but safer.

Few study Greek mythology these days -- after all, it takes quantifiable time from more tangible subjects like math -- but a brief reflection on Nemesis, the deity who addresses unheeded imbalances, suggests that the rush toward ever more tanklike vehicles will eventually reach some sudden crossroads. What will await the driver there, or the runaway economy that encourages unlimited expenditure, no one can say at this turn of the road. What will give? the unfree freeways? the dinosaurs? the atmosphere? the plutocracy that supports itself through chronic infusions of anger and terror?

Impossible to know, but on one point the ancient stories agree: Every extreme calls forth a reckoning, and the gods help you if your foresight is blocked by the patriotic window decals that occlude your hindsight even now: Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.

Craig Chalquist, M.S. is a cofounder of the Cornerstone Counseling Center in California and a contributor to various journals.

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