This morning much of the nation’s news outlets are devoted to the demise of General Motors, which represents the fourth largest bankruptcy in U.S. history and the largest of any industrial titan. Perhaps most entertaining of all the articles is P.J. O’Rourke’s onanistic fetish piece about horsepower and the "masculinity" emblematic in the growl of American muscle cars, in which he bemoans the passing of the automotive giant as the emasculation of the American Dream.
Horses and horsepower alike are about status and being cool. A knight in ancient Rome was bluntly called “guy on horseback,” Equesitis. Chevalier means the same, as does Cavalier. Lose the capitalization and the dictionary says, “insouciant and debonair; marked by a lofty disregard of others’ interests, rights, or feelings; high-handed and arrogant and supercilious.” How cool is that?
Hmm, maybe my understanding of the word cool is different from his, but a person behind the wheel of a five ton machine that can do 120 miles per hour who is "marked by a lofty disregard of others interests, rights, or feelings; high-handed and arrogant and supercilious" should not have a license. And the ersatz masculinity that a car gives you could probably be replaced with real masculinity by a few sessions with a good therapist for less than the cost of monthly payments on a vehicle you won’t be happy with in a few years (planned obsolescence is one of GM’s best products).
Fortunately not all the opinion pieces this morning were stuck in reverse. The always chippy and typically annoying Michael Moore wrote in the Huffington Post that he was thrilled to find that he and the rest of American taxpayers were the new owners of a car company. As a part of the now enormous board of directors of the company, he has a few demands of management, firstly to stop making cars.
"The things we call ‘cars’ may have been fun to drive, but they are like
a million daggers into the heart of Mother Nature," he says. "To continue to build
them would only lead to the ruin of our species and much of the planet."
Moore goes on:
Just as President Roosevelt did after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the
President must tell the nation that we are at war and we must
immediately convert our auto factories to factories that build mass
transit vehicles and alternative energy devices. Within months in Flint
in 1942, GM halted all car production and immediately used the assembly
lines to build planes, tanks and machine guns. The conversion took no
time at all. Everyone pitched in. The fascists were defeated.
So what would it take to turn General Motors into General Locomotives? Woefully undereducated in the world of choo-choos, particularly fabrication, I didn’t realize that GM not only made trains, they were the largest manufacturer of locomotives for nearly half a decade. The Electro-Motive Division (EMD) of General Motors was a pioneer in diesel engines from the 1930s until the 1970s, when they were challenged for supremacy by General Electric. In 2004, GM sold its EMD division to two equity stakeholders, Greenbrier Equity Group and Berkshire Partners LLC.
Of course, those were ponderous armored diesel engines meant for hauling freight and withstanding impacts from stationary objects at all the grade crossings they encounter. We’d need lighter, faster, and (dare I rob a word from O’Rourke) cooler trains. Trains that capture the imagination of today’s youth the way GTOs and Camaros did for the baby boomers. And we’d need Eisenhauer-like train track infrastructure investments on par with the Interstate Highway system, which would mean more like $8 trillion than the $8 billion Obama wrote into the stimulus package.
I certainly hope this marks a new direction. We should see something a whole lot more sustainable for our additional $30 billion investment in GM than an E85 Chevy Suburban that gets 18 mpg instead of 12.
The O’Rourkian man-on-car love seems like a lot of misspent testosterone:
I myself have something old-school under a tarp in the basement garage. I bet when my will has been probated, some child of mine will yank the dust cover and use the proceeds of the eBay sale to buy a mountain bike. Four things greater than all things are, and I’m pretty sure one of them isn’t bicycles. There are those of us who have had the good fortune to meet with strength and beauty, with majestic force in which we were willing to trust our lives. Then a day comes, that strength and beauty fails, and a man does what a man has to do. I’m going downstairs to put a bullet in a V-8.
Rest in Peace.
Update: A few days after this story came out, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm suggested to Vice President Biden and USDOT Sectretary LaHood that they build trains and light rail in former car factories. Hat tip to Infrastructurist.