Earlier this week, I wrote about the General Motors XP-75 Eagle and the idea that GM might have engaged in a relatively small bit of realpolitik during said plane’s conception and gestation. I’ve been writing for TTAC long enough to have a fairly accurate sense of how the B&B as a whole will regard whatever I write, but in the case of this article my guesses about what I’d find in the comments section were completely and thoroughly mistaken. I’d like to address them as part of larger concerns I have about the future of writing and criticism on the Internet, and I will do so in what you’re about to read.
But first, let’s talk about the way the Japanese treated prisoners during World War II, shall we?
The incident is still fresh in my mind, but it happened some sixteen years ago, at an auto parts store in Hilliard, Ohio. My wife and I had gone into the shop to find some parts for my ’86 Vanden Plas and on the way out I saw an older man struggling with some heavy boxed items. I offered to help and he accepted reluctantly. As we trudged across the parking lot I noticed that his entire body appeared to be crooked. He walked at an angle, shuffling and dragging a leg. We arrived at his Nissan Stanza wagon, parked in a non-handicapped spot far from the door, and he opened the right-side slider. It was an early one, already well past a decade old, tired but clean.
“Hey,” I said, “I remember these. Sliding doors on both sides.” At the time it was a very unusual feature, perhaps unique in the early Eighties when the “Prairie” tall wagon arrived in the United States bearing the Stanza nameplate.
“Yes,” my new friend replied. “Good car. I have thirteen of them. Nine of ’em are running right now. Good car.”
“Did you say thirteen? Thirteen Stanza wagons?”
“That’s right. You see, I…” Then he stopped and looked at me for a long moment. I was in my twenties at the time and didn’t understand the look, but I understand it now, because I’ve given it a few times in the years since then. It was a look of evaluation. He was deciding whether or not to spend his time on me. He was deciding whether or not to tell me a story. For that long moment he was Anubis, weighing my heart as we sweated under the Ohio summer sun and my wife loaded our own boxes into my car. Then he decided to continue.
“I was captured,” he exhaled. “In the Second World War. By the Japanese. Do you understand what that means?” Indeed, I did understand. At the age of eight, I had snuck my father’s copy of John Toland’s The Rising Sun from his bookcase. Past my bedtime, crouched on my bedroom floor next to the night-light, I thrilled to the explicit descriptions of the Bataan Death March, the island-hopping campaigns, and the flight of the Enola Gay, long after Mom and Dad thought I was safely asleep. I knew who General Wainwright was and I knew the failings of the Brewster Buffalo. I had an idea of what was being suggested. I had an idea of the clash of concepts involved; a nation of people who helped the other man up at the end of a tackle and a nation of people for whom the notion of self did not include anything as humiliating as surrender, locked in a war that began in foolish optimism and would end with the bodies of children burned beyond recognition in the atomic flame. I nodded and said nothing. He continued.
“For a long time, I hated them. It made me sick. Hating them. Now, I always could fix a car, and my daughter bought one of these and asked me to fix it. When I took it apart… well, I liked what I saw. They make sense. And no junk in them. So many cars are just junk. These are solid cars. I started fixing them for other people, and when those people were ready to let ’em go I took ’em. Have some land. Took a few that didn’t run, too. I’m retired. Gives me something to do.” The proper thing for me to do at this point, I sensed, was to say nothing. So that’s what I did.
“For a long time, I hated them. But I took these cars apart, these Datsuns. You know what? It’s funny. I didn’t hate the people who made these. Sometimes I look at something and I realize I know just what they were thinking. It makes sense. You understand? It makes sense. I feel better, working on ’em. Good, dependable cars. Now I know what you’re going to say,” and he knew more than me, for I planned to say nothing, “you want to maybe know how much I’m asking for one. But I don’t have one for sale right now. Sold a few, don’t plan on selling any more.”
There were a few pleasantries after that, but he was clearly in a hurry to return to his Stanzas and I had tasks of my own. I wrote his name and number on a scrap of paper, intending to call him some time. And that scrap was stacked with other papers and one day surely that stack was taken to the garbage and that was that. I don’t remember his name. I don’t know anything else about him. Don’t know where he was captured, when he was released. I don’t know if he came back to the victory-flushed United States a broken man outside as well as inside. I don’t know if he shuddered in his dreams and woke up in the dead of night with the terror fresh in his mind and his mouth dry like sandpaper. His story is opaque and gone. Still, I told what I had of the story dozens of times in the years afterwards; the crippled veteran who found peace repairing Stanza wagons. I would imagine he is long gone now. I would like to believe that his final thoughts had nothing to do with what he suffered. Perhaps he thought of his family, his friends, or even of the procedures involved in swapping out the starter in those transverse Nissans; the script of wrench and hand and effort, told again and again across a fleet of faded boxes in an Ohio field, preparing them for a day of use that probably never came, a phantom squadron abandoned at its post.
Before we settle too much into that comfortable idea, however, let’s consider an alternative. Let’s say he was just some ornery old bastard who liked to spin a yarn. He was annoyed at the kid who got in his business and dragged a bunch of shit that he was perfectly capable of carrying himself out to his wagon and then stood around expecting to be thanked or something. Looking at that kid, he detected a certain gullibility, a willingness to be deceived, and for reasons of his own he set out to tell me the most stupid and ridiculous story he could imagine on the fly. World War Two! Torture! Stanza wagons! Some old hick under a fourteen-year-old piece of crap, banging away with a set of old wrenches and swallowing transmission fluid accidentally in the name of redemption! He must have laughed all the way home. A fleet of wagons in a field! Only an idiot would believe it, I tell you, and that kid just swallowed it right up! Oh Christ! Hand me a beer.
Or here’s another idea: it never happened at all. I was sitting around at the New York Auto Show, having a couple of shots of Ketel One courtesy of Kia Motors America and waiting for the arrival of one particularly coltish and sullen young girljourno, and I decided to make something up so I could sell it to this website and recoup part of my eye-watering bill for parking a rental Dodge Caravan in an underground lot for thirty-six hours. Makes perfect sense. The readers complain that I’m being too harsh on GM? Let’s throw ’em some red meat! The Bataan Death March! Men dropping to the side of the road and being beaten to death by the surviving members of an army that was already waist-deep in the blood of innocents by 1941! A nation of sword-wielding savages who had their asses kicked all the way back to Tokyo by American steel, the P-51 Mustang, the Jeep, and the M-1 Garand! And it’s all tied together in the character of a peaceful-warrior type, offering forgiveness through his own efforts, a Christlike figure really, too good to be true but you might swallow it because face it, you (and I) are part of the same general demographic that’s allowed Gawker to herd them through the gates of Kinja like so many stupid cattle led up a spiral pathway of least resistance to the killing box and the knife and the hanging carcass and the resulting product served at five hundred degrees to some self-satisfied marketing type at a Manhattan restaurant, we aren’t half as bright as we think we are.
Who knows? I know, but I’m not telling. Consider this: even if the original story is “true”, that doesn’t mean that it is factually accurate. The man telling it was seventy-something years old and he told it to me before some of you were old enough to read. You could fly an XP-75 Eagle through the gaps in that chain of custody, couldn’t you?
Any story — any story — is broken and incomplete by its very nature. It is a distillation. It is not what Douglas Hofstadter called a “natural transformation”. Not all of the information is retained. It’s what the kids call a “codec” or a “compression”. When you buy an MP3 from Amazon you’re getting a distillation of the 44.1Khz track that is itself a distillation of what the equipment picked up and transferred to the computer, that original sound itself being adulterated and twisted and echoed and lost in all sorts of little ways after leaving Robert Plant’s vocal cords or the speaker cone of Jimmy Page’s Supro recording amp. You can never get any of that back. It’s lost.
This concept is difficult for some modern readers to grasp. They think that there’s a single hard truth at the center of everything, a 0-60 time or curb weight, and that it can be measured and extracted. They also expect that anything that upsets or confounds their comfortable preconceptions will be “balanced” with an appropriate amount of sweet-tooth pap tailored by a thousand expert systems to their own cherished ideals. Was the XP-75 Eagle a deliberate and cynical attempt by General Motors to profit from the war? Perhaps. Does that mean that a story on the XP-75 must be “balanced” with a discussion of concentration camps or a panegyric to the General’s massive and acknowledged legitimate contributions to the Allied victory in World War II? No. Grow up and get over yourself.
Too many of the blogosphere’s readers are looking for what I call “sucks and rocks”. They refuse to permit a word or an opinion or a review to have a nuanced meaning. Like a Photoshop filter set to “posterize 2″, they immediately replace each description with “sucks” or “rocks”. They read this:
While the CTS Coupe’s appearance is tailor-made to generate controversy, it’s also a very “honest” coupe. Nearly every panel is different. The doors open electrically, as with a Corvette. I disagree with this; I think a solid handle would impart a quality feel, which is just as important as aesthetics. While the automatic may be faster around the ‘Ring, in the real world it’s easily confused and on a track of less epic proportions it requires constant attention from the steering-wheel-mounted control buttons.
The rest of the car is standard CTS-V: controversial interior made more so by the addition of the (recommended) Recaro buckets, center stack that has been replicated everywhere from LaCross to la Cruze, not-quite-convincing stitched-leather dash. I drove a 3.6 direct-injection V6 automatic on the way home from Monticello and in many ways preferred it to the V. If you want an automatic, the six is a much better dance partner and it’s far cheaper
and they reduce it to
While the CTS Coupe’s appearance sucks, it’s also a very “honest” coupe. The doors rock, as with a Corvette. I disagree with this; I think a solid handle would not suck. While the automatic may be faster around the rocking track, in the real world it sucks and on a track that sucks it sucks.
The rest of the car is standard CTS-V: sucks interior made more so by the addition of the (rocks) Recaro buckets, center stack that sucks, not-quite-rocking sucks dash. I drove a 3.6 direct-injection V6 automatic on the way home from Monticello and it rocks. If you want an automatic, the six rocks and it’s far cheaper
Having reduced everything to black and white, they then argue viciously against the reduction. They set up straw men, rush them headlong, then struggle mightily in their grip. Nothing short of a full-throttle, unequivocal endorsement of their personal beliefs will satisfy — and why should it, when they can get just that from outlets ranging from the Huffington Post to ClubLexus? Why should they trouble themselves with anything else?
I spoke to a lot of journalists at the New York Auto Show in the past two days, and I heard concerns like these repeated again and again. Many of my fellow writers have decided to surrender to the zeitgeist; they write articles in which everything rocks for the people who want to hear that, and they write articles where everything sucks once in a while just so the Deltas who make up their reader base don’t bother to wake up and stop taking the soma. I was told again and again that the future is in single-interest websites like “1Addicts” and AudiWorld where the readers vomit the naked soul of their bellowing ids into a forum and the resulting pap is stirred strongly and fed back to them in feature articles gravid with undisguised OEM input.
I refuse to believe it. I won’t yield to that idea. I believe in you, the reader, and I’ll continue to do so. You could say that my stories are like a row of old Stanza wagons; outdated and faded, invisible on the street in the face of flashy new content zooming by, hopelessly dependent on the reader’s willingness to look under the hood and really think about what’s going on in there. Still, I’ll continue to tinker with them, swapping out parts, improving them where I can, a phantom squadron, my own labor of love, forever and ever, Amen.