New Books Depict Car Culture at a Turning Point

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Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry's Road from Glory to Disaster
By Paul Ingrassia
Random House, 306 pages, $32

Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on Our Lives
By Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez
Palgrave, 272 pages, $34

Automobiles dominate our economies, our cities and our popular culture. As these new titles make abundantly apparent, they also tend to imbue their makers and owners with either delusions or arrogance that can lead to dangerously misguided decision-making, both behind the wheel and in corporate boardrooms.

Paul Ingrassia's book is by far the more entertaining of the two. Occasionally folksy but consistently gripping, Crash Course reads like a thriller as it tracks the machinations and in-fighting in the boardrooms of the (former) Big Three auto companies.

As a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former Detroit bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, Ingrassia is superbly qualified to tell this history, which serves as something of a sequel to his 1994 book Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry, co-written with his WSJ colleague Joseph White.

With Chrysler's bankruptcy and the Obama administration's bailout of GM serving as very recent backdrop, Ingrassia does an admirable job of explaining the seemingly inexplicable: how a once-mighty industry self-destructed.

He shows that the hallmarks of Detroit's collapse were both endemic and long-standing. The same insular mentality that produced the hideous Edsel and the lethal Corvair would make the auto executives dismiss Japanese innovations and emphasize SUVs long after Americans began seeking more economical alternatives.

Management was also so leery of riling the United Auto Workers that the resulting contracts and benefit packages were, he argues, outrageously generous, and included such notorious provisions as the "jobs bank" that paid members 95% of their regular salary for not working at all.

As Ingrassia tells it, the colossal failure of the automakers was inexorable, the need for new strategies glaringly obvious.

Yet the breathtaking arrogance and sense of entitlement on the part of these executives were unshakable, culminating in their disastrous attempt to beg Congress for billions in federal dollars -- after arriving in Washington in their own private jets.

In the end, of course, only Ford would manage to reorganize itself unaided. From the resulting wreckage, however, Ingrassia believes that a more balanced and sustainable American automotive industry will emerge, one with multiple automakers producing a more diverse mix of vehicles.

This need for a more balanced transportation environment also underscores Catherine Lutz's and Anne Lutz Fernandez's powerful and sobering Carjacked, which examines the many unanticipated consequences of car culture.

No mere "anti-car" manifesto, Carjacked is an anthropological study of what the authors refer to as the "car system," of which the automakers are merely one element.

A professor of anthropology at Brown University, Catherine Lutz has previously examined other facets of American culture, including military bases and National Geographic magazine.

Her sister and co-author Anne is a former marketer and investment banker. They have assembled a fascinating and disturbing portrait of something we accept as normal -- indeed essential -- but which has, in many ways, betrayed much of its original promise.

According to the authors, we live within a full-blown car ideology integrating such potent elements as freedom, individuality and sexuality.

The power of this ideology is such that we routinely and thoughtlessly endanger ourselves and our loved ones, drain our fortunes and tolerate a profoundly unjust society so that we may participate in the car system.

True to its authors' anthropological lens, and much like Katie Alvord's Divorce Your Car! (2000), the book focuses on our relationship to the automobile, and how it affects us.

The authors interviewed over 100 drivers, most of whom we hear from only briefly. Nevertheless, these informants relate such familiar stories and perspectives that many readers will likely identify with them.

It is that much more upsetting, then, to read of the devastating toll our car system has taken on the lives of many of these informants, whether through personally surviving a crash or losing friends or loved ones.

The point of Carjacked isn't that we have to give up the car, only that we need to re-examine our relationship with it. Instead of relying on automobiles for all our needs -- to say nothing of our sense of self -- we need to achieve a greater balance by developing and using more healthy, appropriate and socially equitable alternatives to them.

Taken together, these two books depict our car culture at a turning point, both in terms of the purpose and scale of the automobile industry, and in how we use -- and understand -- its products as individuals and as a society.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 6, 2010 H10

Michael Dudley is the Indigenous and Urban Services Librarian at the University of Winnipeg.

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