No Fixed Abode: Honda Odyssey and the Era of the Imperial Child
Here’s a free lesson in life that you can use everywhere you go: corporate “morality” is almost always both flexible and highly subject to local gravitational influences. How else to explain the red-white-and-blue-painted previous-generation Camry, festooned with traditionally American imagery, that greeted visitors to the Detroit show on Monday? Maybe Toyota had two of them ready to go after the election, the way that T-shirt manufacturers prepare for both Super Bowl winners. Presumably the other Camry was a triple livery; the first third would have been a rainbow flag that called to mind both and the middle third would have been totally Islammed-out with the star and crescent just like my old Pakistan Express race car, and the trunk area would have paid tribute to the movement while also tipping its fedora to written consent in triplicate for all sexual encounters.
Ah, but if wishes were fishes they would have served cruelty-free salmon at the meeting of the Electoral College. So the various pampered-but-oh-so-woke “journalists” attending the NAIAS were forced to taste the salt of their own bitter tears streaming down their cheeks as every manufacturer with even a token presence in the United States waved the red (imperialist), white (racist), and blue (sexist) flag in their press conferences.
Naturally, Honda sent one of the strongest messages; it’s arguably the most American automaker on the God Emperor’s green earth and the bulk of the cars it sells here were designed, engineered, and built in the USA.
The new Odyssey doesn’t buck this trend; to the contrary, it embraces it, right down to the new U.S.-sourced 10-speed transmission. But it’s also at the very vanguard (pardon the pun) of another, equally important, aspect of the zeitgeist. Let’s call it The Era Of The Imperial Child.
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a child riding in the fully-equipped version of the new 2018 Odyssey. Before you enter the vehicle, the seats will be arranged for your maximum convenience. Every effort has been made to make your environment as quiet as possible and to isolate you from all unpleasant noise. You may have your seat placed right next to your friend, or be separated from your fussy sister by a full empty seat’s width. You’ll have a selection of media available to you at all times. Using your smartphone, you can send music to the entertainment system, but you can also choose to consume the movie of your choice by yourself. At any time, you can call up a screen letting you know how far you’ve traveled and how far away your destination is in both time and distance. If the driver needs to talk to you, they can briefly interrupt your movie to give you a message. Your health and well-being will be continually monitored via video.
Some of you who are not children will find the preceding description oddly reminiscent of business-class air travel. I don’t think that’s an accident. We are an increasingly stratified, socially-immobile society, and nowhere is that more evident than in the queue for a commercial flight. The Honda Odyssey, in Touring Elite form, is already a remarkably expensive vehicle, ringing the cash register for $46,000 or more; its customers are upper-middle-class individuals who are accustomed to business-class upgrades and the peculiar perks that come with them. Why shouldn’t their children have a similar experience on the road between the private school and the soccer-coaching facility or the stable where their dressage horse lives?
“So what?” you say. “Rich kids have always had it easy.” This is true enough, although any child with extensive experience at an English public school might disagree with the word “easy.” Let’s say instead the children of the comfortable have always been isolated from the slings and arrows of everyday fortune. Yet it was not always quite this blatant. The rear-passenger accommodations in the finest Chevrolet Kingswood Estate were really no different from what you found in the cheapest Chevelle wagon. There was a non-trivial distinction in the minds of manufacturers both domestic and foreign between the needs of wealthy children and the needs of wealthy adults who wished to ride in the back seat. The latter got the individual velour chairs of a Cadillac Talisman; the former got a vinyl bench in a Vista Cruiser. This sort of discrimination was the norm well into the Eighties; I can well recall the day my father brought his ice-blue 1981 Century Wagon home. The front seats were thick velour with individual armrests. Brother Bark and I were banished to a formaldehyde-scented flat bench that could melt your skin in a second during the summer.
It would be difficult to point to the precise moment child-pampering became a major feature of passenger automobiles. Maybe it was the day that you could get dual sliding doors in something besides a Nissan Stanza Wagon. Perhaps it was when the first factory-spec DVD players arrived. If you like, you can point to the conversion-van phenomenon as the beginning of the trend, but even at the absolute apex of velour vanning there was just a whiff of “Not Our Kind, Dear” about the stripe-festooned products of Elkhart, Indiana. Many were the upper-class sprogs who, trapped on the searing-hot back bench of a Saab 900 Turbo five-door, cast an envious glance or two at the smiling kids tumbling out of an Explorer conversion in the Pizza Hut parking lot. It would be another 20 years until it would be socially acceptable to get a van chock-full of passenger-entertainment features, and by then those Saab-sentenced children had children of their own.
How felicitous by contrast is the life of the new Imperial Child in the new Honda Odyssey! He or she is already lucky, of course; he has very few siblings compared to his ancestors, so he receives a disproportionate amount of everything from parental attention to trust fund mojo. His parents have taken care to live in a neighborhood free from annoying poors, unless they are deliberately slumming in a “diverse” downtown center, at which point they take care to send him to a private school where the only diversity comes from a carefully-curated and homeopathically-tiny selection of scholarship minorities. Unless he makes a very serious life mistake during the very few unsupervised moments he will experience between now and his 25th year, he is virtually guaranteed a place in the American junta, working some vaguely-defined job in the financial or political sectors that offers breathtaking compensation for very little effort.
And how silently, how smoothly his Honda Odyssey Touring Elite Business Class Edition or whatever they’ll call it slides by the proles in vehicular steerage! The squabbling Jesus-freak over-populators crammed cheek-by-jowl into pre-owned domestic-brand minivans, the black kids tumbling unbelted in the back seats of Mitsubishis and Pontiacs, the “undocumented” Mexican children who roam the SuperCabs of blue-smoke-trailing F-150s. Does he even see them, or is he completely occupied by his video game, his animated sequel, the pop track he’s peremptorily uploaded to the Odyssey’s central brain?
Yet something is missing, some undefined lack that tickles his backbrain in the parlor silence. For a moment, he looks ahead and sees his parents locked in a conversation of their own, perhaps captivated by their own media. Separate but equal, near but distant. If they have anything to tell him, any wisdom to impart, any affection in their hearts they have not already redirected to their own imperial selves, it will not filter through this electronic curtain of distractions to him. His parents will forever be strangers.
They are the true beneficiaries of the Honda Odyssey, you see; these parents have paid to be free of their children, to extend their own imperial childhood past the 20s they were promised for themselves and the 30s they mostly took as dessert to the main course of collegiate self-obsession before reluctantly commissioning a pair of designer babies and enduring a pair of high-risk pregnancies. Having been given everything already, they are reluctant to give any of it back. The business-class model is by their command, their dearest wish. They have reduced their spouses, and their children, to the status of mere fellow passengers. Isolated, protected from each other, traveling together, but traveling alone just the same, that supreme luxury, to focus on myself. Myself. Me. I.
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I'm a big fan of yours, JB, but I think your premise is horse exhaust. Everything is remarkably better and more affordable than it was 35 years ago. The VCR hadn't been invented, your house had drafty single pane windows, reliability meant you might have your car in the shop only once or twice a year. It was a big deal for my parents to buy me a coat when I was a kid, had to last 2-3 years. Now I can buy my kid a warm coat for 25 bucks. I can buy him a really fashionable coat because he's so freaking special for less than a bill and I have a supercomputer in my hand and I use it to post stupid comments.
This was a fantastic read, Jack. Just the right amount of personal cynicism and actual truth to be unsettling!