Avoidable Contact #81: Won’t someone think of THE ENVIRONMENT? ’Cause I’m not gonna do it
I’m a big fan of hypocrisy. No, really. Neal Stephenson did a pretty good job of summarizing my thoughts on the matter in his novel The Diamond Age, like so:
“That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code,” Major Napier said, working it through, “does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.” “Of course not,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It’s perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved—the missteps we make along the way—are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.”
So yeah, I’m a total hypocrite. I will sit in the car with my son and tell him not to do a hundred things that I’ve already done and (usually) gotten away with. I once gave my little brother a lecture on financial responsibility two hours after putting a whole race car on my American Express. If you show me any of these “Cannonball” or “Bullrun” videos from recent years I will turn my nose up like someone opened a year-old sack of garbage, knowing full well that in my twenties I considered it no big deal to pass cars on the freeway shoulder with a speed differential in the low triple digits. Be patient with me, dear reader; I’m on my way to becoming a better man, but it’s hard work. “Da mihi castitatem et continentam, sed noli modo,” Augustine wrote. Lord, let me give these pleasures up—but not yet! Keep in mind, this man was a saint, which I am certainly not.
I hope the above makes it plain why I’m not accusing the many auto-industry critics of the delightful new Ram TRX, reviewed and photographed by our own Andrew Trahan last week, of mere hypocrisy. I could forgive that. It would be normal. Rather, I’m accusing them of something between stupidity, which they cannot help, and malice, which is a different, and less forgivable, quality. These people criticize the mighty TRX not because of what it is, but rather because of who they are. I’ll explain.
There’s been a lot of hogwash about how the TRX is a “political statement” and how it represents a betrayal of the bailout and how it is a fascist attack on the environment and whatnot. This comes as a tremendous surprise to those of us who simply see it as the logical matching of two LEGO pieces in the FCA box, namely the Ram 1500 and the Hellcat engine. These same writers would have you believe that FCA’s strategy to, as they say, “Hellcat all the things” is a sign of moral or intellectual bankruptcy, when it is in fact simply a response to legitimate customer demand. I don’t recall these weenies getting upset when BMW put the “big six” in the E28 5 Series to create the lurid and tail-happy 533i/535i/M5, but there are two reasons for that:
0. Most of them are too young to remember that;
1. As far as they’re concerned, this sort of monkey business is okay for some people but not for others.
These critics have no issue with, say, the existence of the BMW M8 Competition or the Lamborghini Aventador SVJ. The Ram TRX, on the other hand, is a sin against humanity in their eyes, because the average middle-class Texan might get a 96-month loan on the thing and use it to tailgate their four-cylinder rustbuckets while they’re driving to the comic book store for another round of “Funko Pops.” Apparently carbon dioxide is what the Greeks called prosopolemptes, a judge that decides the facts of the case on the social class of the people involved. (Those of you who didn’t pull the ripcord out of this column at the mention of Augustine may recall this word from Acts 10.)
If this is hypocrisy, it’s an odd form of hypocrisy by proxy—but it’s not, it’s envy. The autowriter feels fundamentally detached from the Aventador owner; that’s just someone who became magically rich via an avenue that doesn’t bear much thinking about, such as starting a business or making a smart investment or learning a skill that is valuable on the open market. The TRX fellow, on the other hand, is their neighbor, or the fellow down the street, or the lady who takes the same route to work as they do. Therefore it’s possible to envy them. That’s a powerful emotion and it leads to one of three actions, in order of increasing ease:
0. Work harder and get your own TRX.
1. Chill out about it.
2. Decide that the TRX is an affront to humanity and the environment and therefore has to be made illegal so that it doesn’t oppress you with its 700-horsepower prosperity.
999 times out of 1000, it’s gonna be the last choice and we all know it. Everyone occasionally feels this way. Club racers have it woven into the fabric of our nervous system. My first wife used to get angry with me because she had to wake up at 7:00 and I didn’t wake up till 9:30. Then I got a job at Honda that had me waking up at 4:30 every morning and she got angry with me because I was home from work at 2:30. These are normal human emotions—but as with so much else in life, you can’t have any greatness of spirit until you clamp down on that stuff. As a Radical PR6 owner, I am hugely envious of Radical SR8 and SR10 owners. I assume they made the extra money by trading “blood diamonds” and I have no trouble saying so in the paddock. Meanwhile the fellow with an old ITA Neon—I mean, that’s also me, but play along for a minute—assumes that I bought the Radical by trading conflict diamonds, when in fact all I did was put it on my Amex two hours after lecturing my brother about fiscal responsibility.
Which brings us to the malice/stupidity part of this. It takes a unique combination of malice and stupidity to think that your situation is the perfect state of life, the Golden Mean to which we should all aspire. Yet my colleagues have no trouble adopting this mindset as easily as they’ve learned the process of elimination. (Hat tip to Orson Scott Card.) I heard a podcast the other day where someone was griping about Elon Musk flying around in a Gulfstream G650. In the course of the conversation it was revealed that both of the people on the podcast had previously flown on a G650 themselves: “You can stand up in it! It’s great!” I hate to say it, but once you have enough G650 flight time to have an opinion on the aircraft, you’ve lost any moral footing from which to criticize Elon Musk for how often he flies on a G650.
If you’re childless and you drive a four-cylinder trashwagon (nothing wrong with that, I’m a recovering Saab 9-3 owner myself) and you think that the TRX is just such a wasteful environment-killer, you might want to consider that entire families get around in Thailand using the Honda Grom, which makes your 26-mpg wagon look like a Lamborghini LM002 by contrast. Those families in Thailand, in turn, are heavily envied by the families on foot. The ownership of an entire 125cc motorcycle to transport just three children and a spouse must seem wasteful when you’re carrying durian fruit to market one at a time with a child on your shoulders.
This is not to say that reasonable limits can not, or should not, be set on some aspect of personal consumption—to say otherwise is the infamous “fallacy of the beard.” The environment probably can’t stand the prospect of every person on Earth using a privately-owned Boeing 747SP for the morning commute. It seems unlikely, however, that the icecaps are just fine with my Silverado 6.2 (or my Honda Grom) but not fine with your Ram TRX (or your Silverado 6.2). If you fly private ten times a year, it’s ridiculous for you to call someone an eco-terrorist because they’re flying 200 times a year.
In other words, I’m tired of people using ostensibly admirable qualities like “concern for the environment” or “economic justice” as Halloween masks to hide their own personal envy and malice. If you hate the fact that Billie Joe down the street can swing an $85,000 truck and you can’t, just say that. Stop acting like you’re a Knight Templar of the environmental or social Crusades. Augustine has a few words on this as well, something like “Quo a me fugerem non erat.” My high-school Latin hasn’t gotten any better in thirty-five years, but it translates into something like “You can’t get away from who you are.” Even if that person is someone who can’t afford a Hellcat-powered truck. And for those of us who kinda-sorta think we could get one of our own, if we save up long enough and have enough things fall our way? Then the answer is simple. Lord, please cleanse this polar-bear-strangling truck from the showrooms—but not yet!