A Car Named Desire: Liberty and the Automobile Have a Strangely Intimate Relationship

By Hill, Stephen | New Internationalist, November 1993 | Go to article overview

A Car Named Desire: Liberty and the Automobile Have a Strangely Intimate Relationship


Hill, Stephen, New Internationalist


FROM the vantage point of the sky, several thousand feet above the earth, they look like a trail of ants -- ubiquitously swarming, travelling in a line single and double file, hunkered down in metallic exoskeletal frames. Indeed, they are the insects of the modern industrialized world -- the automobile.

Automobiles swarm all over the globe and its various ecosystems, from the Trans Amazonian highway, splitting the jungles of Brazil, to Desert Storm tanks tearing up the fragile Arabian desert, to stealthy Land Rovers carrying murderous poachers across dry African savannahs, searching for illegal bounty. Indeed, automobiles of one sort or another have made inroads into the furthest human reaches, from the powdery dust of the moon to the frozen tundra of the Antarctic. They have allowed humans to boldly go where humans had never gone before.

No wonder cars loom large in the psyche of industrialized countries as one of the embodiments of the Western ideal of liberty. And the terrain of this liberty is wider than mere geography, as the simple urgings of any hot - rodding teenager can testify: a 'hot set of wheels' purring beneath their love seat and the windows rolled down letting 'the wind whip back their hair', as in the popular Bruce Springsteen song Thunder Road. Human aspirations in the post - war world have been mirrored by the automobile and its promise of liberty. The car arouses thrills and chills and the freedom of the open road. It promises the unfenced frontier, now that the last outpost of the American West and the Australian Outback have been settled. The plodding covered prairie wagon in search of a staked claim of land has been replaced by the electrifying prospect of a souped - up, racing - striped automobile, roaring down the highway -- the 'safety valve' of our world.

Advertisers glamorize and manipulate the unique place of the automobile in the modern psyche. Look at the slogans from these recent ads: 'Infiniti. It's everything that's possible.' 'Yukon/GMC Truck. Makes the most of the 99 percent of the earth that lies unpaved.' 'Mazda. Get off the beaten path without leaving the town.' 'BMW. The Ultimate Driving Machine.' 'Chevrolet Corvette. The Heart and Soul of Performance, Power in the Hands of a Few.' 'Get Your Hands on a Toyota -- You'll Never Let Go.'

Advertisers aren't the only media moguls with a finger on this pulse. The popular celebration ofthe automobile as heroic chariot of liberty is due in no small part to Hollywood and the movies -- from James Dean to Thelma and Louise. The screech of tyres, the getaway chase scene, smooching teenagers in the back seat of their parents' car with the radio blaring rock - n - roll, hitchhikers on the road to anywhere -- all are familiar celluloid images etched permanently in the memories of millions. And as the teens grow into adults, their measure of success becomes one of having a split - level bungalow in the suburbs or a cottage in the country, a good job in the city or town, and lots of horses under the hood to make the trip. Reality begins to mirror the fantasy and vice versa, in a convoluted interplay of choices.

It's not a big mystery why the automobile should be so closely linked to liberty. The ability to be mobile and to travel at will is the end product of a long democratic march. It used to be that only the rich could afford to be mobile; political representation in eighteenth - and nineteenth - century democracies were often limited to those who had the leisure and the financial means to travel great distances to the legislature -- not always a mean feat. Now the ability to get around in a car is a sine qua non of modern life, as essential to one's maintenance as eating, drinking and breathing.

Both liberty and automobiles are theoretically available to all, but in fact 'for sale' to the highest bidder. Exalted status is connoted by the ownership of the 'right' automobile, such as a Mercedes, Rolls Royce, Cadillac or a Jaguar. …

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