Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Lemon Named Excess

Much as the play and film "A Streetcar Named Desire" was a eulogy of a bygone U.S. class and ethnic social structure, the decline of Detroit automakers and the culture they spawned perhaps deserves a new work of art, one titled "The Lemon Named Excess."

In his 1948 play, Tennessee Williams pit Blanche DuBois, a faded lady of the Old South that was really a stand-in for the entire WASP Brahmin class, against the vigorous rough-and-tumble Stanley Kowalski, emblematic of the rising industrial, urban and white "ethnic" immigrant class. Today, we might pit Walt Kowalski (a coincidence?) from Clint Eastwood's recent film Gran Torino and its evocation of the pollutemobile, the umpteen-lane highway and the sprawling smogopolises with their white-flight suburbs, against what ... a figure and lifestyle yet to come.

Behind every fortune lies a crime, remarked Balzac, and behind the apogee of the combustion-engine vehicle lies a seldom recounted scandal.

Between 1936 and 1950, for example, Federal Engineering Corporation, Firestone Tire, General Motors, Phillips Petroleum, Mack and Standard Oil of California, and acting through a cutout holding company called National City Lines, conspired to destroy 100 electric streetcar transit systems in 45 cities. The cities include Detroit, New York City, Oakland, Philadelphia, Phoenix, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Tulsa, Baltimore, Minneapolis and Los Angeles. (All this was once brought out in court.)

Add to that the gargantuan federal and state subsidies to highways and oil production over the past decades.

Now, at long last, the rapacious auto companies are on their knees and big oil is at last seen as a threat to our security and even our future existence. This is not the time to help them. This is the time to nationalize the car industry and transform it into the engine of new, pollution-free vehicles produced by a public enterprise devoted to serving the general public.
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