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That being written . . .
The Prius Party and the F-150 Party
Here is some news that may not exactly rock conservative circles: Several versions of the Toyota Prius hybrid automobile have been discontinued, and there are rumors that Toyota is considering the discontinuation of the model as a whole. Prius sales have been in decline for some time — down by 23 percent in 2018 — and the 2020 facelift may not be enough to revive the O.G. mass-market hybrid, first sold in 1997.
The Prius is one of those cultural totems — right up there with Birkenstocks, organic kale, and yoga classes — that conservatives associate with a certain especially obnoxious brand of well-heeled consumerist progressivism. In Texas, where I live, you don’t need a “Beto for Senate” bumper sticker on your Prius: “Prius” may as well be Latin for “Beto for Senate.” (The hardcore true believers in my very lefty neighborhood still have “Beto for Senate” signs in their yards, not “Beto for President” signs. These political hipsters were into Beto before he went mainstream.) You can recite the litany of abuse: “Prius-drivin’, soy-latte-drinkin’, Sanders-votin’ wastes of space.”
I share the contempt for Robert Francis O’Rourke. But the Prius is a work of genius, a genuine landmark, and, almost inevitably, a victim of its own success: The Prius has been so successful that its hybrid technology has been mainstreamed. The Prius C will be replaced by an updated version of the . . . Toyota Corolla, a car that has been with us since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. There are hybrid models up and down the lineups of Toyota and Honda and other economy-minded marques, but also available from makers ranging from Jaguar to BMW to Porsche, which offered a monster hybrid supercar at a price of just under $1 million as well as hybrid versions of many of its less exotic vehicles. A great many things are up in the air right now for American businesses, but Ford is even planning to introduce a hybrid version of the F-150 — the anti-Prius — using those electric motors to increase its torque and towing capacity.
Hybrids are, in fact, a little passé. The real action now is in all-electric vehicles: Here’s Ford’s prototype electric truck towing more than 1 million pounds. My usual Home Depot haul could be towed pretty easily behind my Harley-Davidson (if I had a trailer, which would be weird, although I’ve seen it), and I cannot think of any reason I’d need that kind of power. But do I want it? Allow me to quote Dick Cheney, who once was asked how many guns he owned: “More than I need, fewer than I want.”
(I am confident that Dick Cheney, like Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones, knew to say “fewer” rather than “less.”)
I don’t need to tow 1 million pounds. I don’t need the fuel economy offered by the Prius, either — gasoline is pretty cheap. Nor do I need much of the other high-techie-tech offered by the Prius. (In fact, I kind of dislike some of that stuff: One of the things I like about the older Mini Cooper I sometimes drive is that there is no center screen, no ersatz iPad in the middle of the dash, just a big speedometer. I like uncomplicated vehicles: One of the things I do not like about the current top-of-the-line Harley-Davidsons is that they have everything from cruise control to GPS to sound systems and are basically one toaster oven short of being a Winnebago on two wheels. That’s no knock on Winnebagos, but that’s not what I’m looking for in a motorcycle.) But if we all start limiting ourselves to what we need, then we are going to see a bigger economic crash than the coronavirus downturn. Many of the ordinary features of modern economy cars (automatic transmissions, air conditioning, power windows) were once conveniences, indulgences, and toys for the mega-rich. If you are driving a recent-model Honda Civic, you have a better car than Howard Hughes ever did. You don’t need all that. (Howard Hughes’s 1953 Buick had some nice custom touches, though, including an amped-up electrical system that could be used to jump-start airplanes.)
It is beyond necessity, but, as anybody who has driven one knows, the Prius is simply a terrific car — and, like many other groundbreaking products, it is a car that made other cars better. If I were Elon Musk, that would be my worry about Tesla, which proved that electric cars could be simply awesome cars rather than virtue-signaling acts of consumerist penance. Even with all that capital and the oodles of creativity to which Tesla has access, it is easier to prove the concept than to compete with Toyota and Volkswagen.
Yet we occasionally are blinded to great things because we associate them with un-great things. Some conservatives associate Whole Foods with the rich progressive snoots who lecture you about your privilege rather than with, say, the first-rate ribeyes you can buy there. (If there is any food item less progressive than a ribeye steak, I don’t know what it is: The ribeye is the F-150 of dinners.) And many of us associate the Prius with those rich progressive hectoring snoots at Whole Foods, and turn up our noses at one of the great wonders of the wondrous time in which we live.
But this is America, where you are what you buy. And that holds true for cars, too. Automobile preferences and political preferences are predictably correlated: Hatchbacks are Democratic, pickup trucks are Republican. Priuses are Democratic, though not as Democratic as a Subaru Outback (NB: different researchers come up with slightly different numbers), while the F-150 may as well come with a Ronald Reagan hood ornament. (Somebody make some of those and I’ll buy one.) I suspect that lefties overlook the F-150 for the same reason conservatives sneer at the Prius. The F-150 really ought to be considered a modern design icon, right up there with the Eames lounge chair and the Rolex GMT. But its cultural resonance is not on the same frequency as that of people who typically like Eames chairs and use the term “design icon.” Yet surely the F-150 is one of the great examples of something that expresses the thinghood of the thing itself, one of those rare collisions of aesthetics and utility that make an object truly iconic. It wasn’t the first pickup truck and it probably isn’t even the best one being made (in Texas, we like our Texas-made Toyotas), but it is to pickups what the Levi’s 501 is to jeans.
As I was saying to Jay Nordlinger the other day, one of the things that left me with a conservative sensibility rather than a libertarian one (even though my politics are on the very libertarian end of conservatism) was my desire to defend art and literature (and that great nearly lost cause, education) from the relentless politicization that these fields underwent in the 1980s and 1990s. There is a great deal of conservatism in Shakespeare, and some of our great writers were consciously conservative (T. S. Eliot comes to mind), but I do not want Brideshead Revisited to be understood as a great conservative novel any more than I want the works of Ernest Hemingway to be understood as the cultural property of the Left. (Although with the hunting and the womanizing and such, Papa may no longer be welcome in the faculty lounge.) Some of my favorite writers had good politics (Tom Wolfe) and many of them (Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace) did not. In some cases, I have made a point of not learning too much about the lives of writers and artists I admire and whose work I enjoy. Moby-Dick can speak for itself. (And Benito Cereno . . . ?) So can Dante and the Chrysler Building.
And so can the Prius.
Words about Words
A classic but always worth revisiting: Fewer generally is for countable things, less generally is for uncountable things. You may have more or less gasoline in your tank at any given time, but if you drove the aforementioned Prius, then you will use fewer gallons of gas per year than if you drove instead, say, a GMC Yukon XL. You probably have fewer vices than I do and make fewer mistakes, and, therefore, have less trouble in your life, and less irritation. You can have less regret and fewer regrets — the former is a general condition that cannot be quantified, while the latter are numerable discrete facts, e.g.: Dwight Eisenhower once said his two greatest regrets were sitting on the Supreme Court.
Angry Twitter person “Woko Haram” (@Pythagasaurus2, and it’s that “2” at the end that really says everything about Twitter) writes: “Its [sic] increasingly evident there is little distance in the view of the [sic] hoi paloi [sic] between woke liberals and Kevin Williamson.”
Where to begin? Maybe with sic. “Sic” is a Latin word meaning approximately “thus,” which is used to indicate something that you believe or know to be wrong in quoted material. For instance, if someone wrote “He explained it thusly,” you might sic them, because “thusly” is a made-up word and an illiteracy in that “thus” already is an adverb and so does not require adverb-izing with an “ly” at the end. (“Thusly” is thought to have begun its career in English as a parodic example of bombastic speech.) In modern journalism, with its frequent quotations from social media and other unedited and illiterate sources (such as The New Republic), sic is very handy to have around: You don’t want to pass on something illiterate as though it weren’t, but you don’t want to go editing quotations any more than you have to, either. (Everybody handles editing quotations a little differently: Do you leave in every “um” and “uh” in the interest of accuracy? I do not.) So sic is helpful.
There is as well the old its/it’s issue, which usually is a typographical error made by people who actually know better. (But not always.) But “the hoi polloi,” beyond the spelling troubles of @Pythagasaurus2, is interesting. Sticklers will resist “the hoi polloi” for the same reason I object to “advocate for” — that it is redundant. Hoi is a definite article, basically Greek for “the,” and so “the hoi polloi” reads “the the many,” which of course you do not want. (Polloi is from the Greek polys, as in the English prefix poly: polygamy, polynomial, Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, etc. Polycarp = “much fruit,” not “much fish.”)
Home and Away
Here is my NRO essay on why you should use any extra reading time you have on your hands right now to tackle Middlemarch:
George Eliot’s Middlemarch advertises itself as “A Study of Provincial Life,” but it has a great deal in it that might be of interest to Americans who just right now have some extra time on their hands for reading: medical progress and medical quackery, political progress and political hackery, Christian zeal and Christian zealotry, thwarted travel plans, stifling domestic situations, financial distress and bad debts, an overbearing rich guy nobody really likes, and a pending election. It also has some of the most intelligent observation and sharpest prose you will encounter. Go have at it.
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I have led a very fortunate life and have very little of a personal nature to complain about. One of the worst periods of my life was a period of extended unemployment (or underemployment, I suppose — I was never entirely without a job for more than a couple of days) in my early thirties. I went from making a pretty comfortable six-figure income to making about half that and then to making a good deal less, scrambling for work. After having been editor-in-chief of three newspapers, I was working on the copy-editing desk of my hometown newspaper back in Lubbock, Texas, and grateful to have the work. I had trouble paying my bills and almost no money to pay for relocating (to Washington, a very expensive city) when I was offered another job. There are millions of people losing their jobs right now, and many of them without the resources and benefits that I had. There are people who want to work but cannot because of extraordinary circumstances beyond their control. Beyond the obvious public-health necessities of the current crisis, helping those people through this time and getting them back to work and self-sufficiency as quickly as we can should be our top priority. This is a terrible time for a great many people, and we must help all we can, as much as we can, as intelligently as we can.
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