Between the Lines: The UK Observer's Paul Harris on The Decline of The US Auto Industry

This image was lost some time after publication.
This image was lost some time after publication.

A decade or so ago, a left-leaning English newspaper writer could insinuate himself into the heart of America s liberal elite, send anti-American diatribes back to his champagne socialist admirers, and nobody on this side of the pond would be any wiser (so to speak). In these days of the Internet (and CSI), a hack can t get away with anything. So when professional Bush-basher Paul Harris decided to tell the UK Observer s audience How the US fell out of love with its cars , it was inevitable that his outlandish thesis would fall foul of US pistonheads. Autoblog s readers recently had a go. Now, it s our turn

For John McVeigh, making cars was not just a job; it was his shot at the American Dream. He had left Glasgow a young, wide-eyed man at 21 and ended up in Detroit, lured by the huge factories churning out the cars that defined 20th century US life.


Straight out of the box, Harris signals his intention to piss on America from a great height. Not only does he immediately trot out the bog standard liberal cant about the death of the American dream , but he feels compelled to find a Scottish-born worker to illustrate the betrayal to come. In other words, he s doubling-up: the USA didn t just screw its own, it screwed one of ours. (Granted, the English love Scots almost as much as they love Yanks, but you can t blame the guy for trying.)

Oh wait, Mr. McVeigh wasn t screwed. Oh no, far from it.

He started on the factory floor and rose through the ranks. When he retired in 1989 he was part of the management; he had brought up four good children and lived in a nice house in the suburbs. His neighbours' life stories mirrored his.

But after a week in which Ford laid off 30,000 workers and shut 14 factories, McVeigh knows his story is now part of history, like the homesteaders or the goldrushers, a way of life his grandchildren will never know. He winced at the news. 'You can't do what I did now. It just could not happen again,' he said in an accent still coloured by his Scots childhood. The statistics tell a bleak story of economic disaster that has seen a whole corner of north-east America dubbed the Rust Belt.

That s the problem with anti-American polemics: the facts keep getting in the way. Mr. McVeigh s wincing at the fact that his grandchildren won t be able to work on an auto assembly line for $140k a year (all in) isn t exactly the same as watching your shoeless children dying of rickets. Still, you ve got to admire Harris steadfast (if clich d) determination to humanize US auto industry stats before delving into specious sociology. I won t bore you with the numbers graphs. Let s get right to the nasty bit.

The US car industry is lurching into terminal decline. It means a fundamental part of America has died as well. Nothing has come to symbolise the American century more than the American car. It began with Henry Ford and the Model T and went right through the tail-finned monsters of the Fifties and the hot rods of the Seventies.

Ah, Harris hidden agenda reveals itself: using the Big Three s declining fortunes to prove that the American century is dead. Rule Britannia! Or is that Eurozone Uber Alles? And by the way, if the American century is dead, what century would that be? Cause I don t get the feeling that America s influence has declined since the fall of the Berlin wall through to, say, last Friday.

Now comes the hard part: proving his point. Harris begins by displaying the usual British ambivalence towards American culture; loving it even as he hates it. To wit:

American cars were about freedom, sexual liberation and sheer confident patriotism. For young Americans a driving licence and their first Chevy or Ford was the most important rite of passage into adulthood. The car gave birth to other American icons: the motel, the advertising billboard and the diner. They were all children of the road.

Of course, the car still defines a lifestyle. Americans still buy cars by the millions, whether they are in gridlocked LA or in the middle of Kansas miles from the nearest town. But what does it mean when a country's cultural heart is now made in Japan? Or Korea? Or Germany?


Here s a perfect example of what the Brits call moving the goal posts ; setting up one premise (the death in question relates to the decline of Detroit s Big Three) and then changing it (it s a reflection of America s attitude towards automobiles in general). You could also call the technique lazy or cheating or complete twaddle, but I couldn t possibly comment.

Just for fun (or to justify expenses), Harris takes us for a metaphorical trip to the Cadillac Ranch. On the plains of Amarillo, artist Chip Lord calls his nose-diving Caddies a white trash dream come true (a direct lift from the website) and then a sign of the decline of the American empire. [By email, Mr. Lord says Harris misquoted him.] After revealing that Lord drives a Honda, Harris feels the need to redefine his terms, again.

The thrill used to be all anyone cared about. American cars had names such as Mustang, Charger and Javelin. They were about moving forward, at speed and damn the consequences. The size of the engine and the roar it made cruising down the road were all that mattered. The American car was the ultimate expression of the self.


Reading between the lines, Harris wants us to see America s extinct land yachts as a symbol of the country s recklessness and, of course, stupidity. In case we didn t get the point, Harris asserts American cars were the best in the world because America was the best in the world. The statement clearly implies that American cars are no longer the best in the world because America sucks.
To which the only possible reply is fuck off. But I m getting ahead of myself. Here, finally, is the nub of Harris erstwhile argument:

America's tempestuous affair with the car has become a passionless marriage. Americans still need their cars, but the world has changed and they no longer really love them.


As I ve already dropped the f-bomb, I ll simply say that this asinine statement is so obviously and wildly inaccurate that it would take an obscure, deluded liberal academic — preferably tenured — to make anything like a plausible defense of its logic. Good thing Harris found Rob Latham, a popular culture expert at the University of Iowa.

In fact, Mr. Latham is Iowa s Associate Professor of English, American and Sexuality Studies. The educator specializes in vampires, cyborgs and, um, sex. (His essay The Big Space Fuck: Sex and Science Fiction in the 1960s and '70s" has just been accepted for publication in the seminal journal Queer Universe: Sexualities in Science Fiction.) Although Latham s website has automotive backgrounds, none of the work cited — and there s a small, strange universe of it — touches on car culture.


I digress. Or not, for Mr. Latham s predilection for sci fi appears to be at front of his mind, even when [inadvertently?] trying to shore-up Harris preposterous nonsense.

Latham says his students no longer see their cars as an essential expression; their Toyotas and Hondas are just vehicles. They boast of iPods or computer games, not their 'wheels'.

'They are like walking cyborgs with all these things attached to them. Cars have become functional. They are not statements anymore. Electronics are,' he said.


I think you get the picture. If not, Harris would like you to know that Latham saw Thelma and Louise. And while this fact doesn t seem to have impinged on Latham s mind, it presents a suitable excuse to make one final attack on America before slinking off into whatever social set sees fit to embrace its sworn enemies.

The Age of the American car is passing into nostalgia. Latham once studied a slew of road movies from the early 1990s in which old American cars were nostalgically treated. The most famous was Thelma and Louise, in which two put-upon women find freedom in an open-top T-Bird. At the end of the film, the heroines hold hands and drive off the edge of a cliff.

It is a fitting image for the death of a slice of the American Dream. After decades of the car being so much more than just a mode of transport — of symbolising industry, art, freedom, sex, a triumphant America — it has now become simply a way of getting from A to B.


The same could be said about Harris exploration of a culture of which he is clearly, totally and willfully ignorant: it s just a way for him to get from A (America is fat, evil and dumb) to B (America is fat, evil and dumb). Some of you may wish to secure Harris email address and disabuse him of this notion. Meanwhile, remember: eternal vigilance is the price of truth.


[Jalopnik s Between the Lines column parses the rhetoric of the automotive industry, and the media that covers it, from the point of view of that kid at the back of the class with ADD, a genius IQ and a thirst for mayhem.]


How the US fell out of love with its cars [The Observer]

Between the Lines: Jeremy Clarkson on the Bugatti Veyron [internal]