Last week a story ran in The New York Times about the popularity of the Hummer H2, which quoted Rick Schmidt of the International Hummer Owners Group as saying that the H2 is “a symbol of what we all hold so dearly above all else, the fact we have the freedom of choice, the freedom of happiness, the freedom of adventure and discovery and the ultimate freedom of expression.”

Zac Peskowitz

Whether used for adventure, expression or otherwise, the massive, military-esque Hummer’s smaller (though still very big), suburbanite-friendly version, the H2, has been a huge success. SUVs have been all the rage for the last few years and the trend has been making them increasing monstrous. The H2 is not only big, it looks more like some kind of military vehicle than something you’d take to the grocery store.

Naturally, the H2, guzzling more gas than hardly anything before it, quickly became a target of SUV critics.

There have been complaints about SUVs for a long time, primarily involving the danger the vehicles pose to passengers in normal cars and their heavy fuel consumption. These criticisms were largely ignored for many years, but recently the opponents of SUVs, while scoring few victories on actually reigning them in, began to gain a higher profile. The release of numerous safety reports giving SUVs low marks or highlighting their danger to other cars, coupled with the suddenly salient argument that our dependence on foreign oil was undesirable, gave opponents of SUVs a boost, providing them with more public exposure and support.

Many SUV enthusiasts reacted not by arguing against their critics on the merits, but by accusing them of trying to take something sacred away from people; not just a type of car, but choice, freedom, happiness and other principles one usually hopes aren’t dependent on what you drive. SUV opponents got in some good whacks too with commercials tying SUVs’ high gas consumption to funding terrorists, though their contention is far more logical than arguing that our “freedom of adventure” would be damaged by having to drive more fuel efficient cars.

I think it’s safe to say people don’t generally drive SUVs for practical reasons, which is probably especially true of the H2. The Ann Arborites I see driving them around probably don’t need to ford many rivers in their cars. So why do people drive them?

Part of it is just that it’s the hot product of the moment. A fair number of people, however, seem to believe they’ve done something remarkable (and worthy of comment in The New York Times) by buying a particular car. And some are viscerally hostile to criticism of SUVs. The Detroit News, reacting with horror to suggestions that high gas consumption aids terrorists, memorably ran an editorial titled, “End Terrorism Against SUVs.”

Possibly explaining the hostility, a Hummer dealer explained to The New York Times that the H2’s appeal is “testosterone.”

And with a war going on and testosterone running high, some have come to consider their choice of vehicle some kind of act of patriotism. “Those who deface a Hummer in words or deed, deface the American flag and what it stands for,” explained Rick Schmidt.

While I doubt many SUV owners, even drivers of the mighty Hummer, would buy that, a feeling of power, “testosterone” as the H2 dealer put it, may be a large part of SUVs’ appeal. Suburbanites, trained by the local news to fear that household items will kill them, by the national news that their children are about to be kidnapped and by the government that the only thing standing between them and death by chemical weapons is plastic sheeting, may get a small but much desired sense of power from nasty looking cars. Driving an H2 can give stressed out soccer moms a little chance to feel like they’re the ones storming Baghdad.

Whatever the reason for people’s affection for SUVs, that attachment is what people like Rick Schmidt play on by suggesting the debate over SUVs is about freedom – that if someone’s trying to keep you from having something you want, they must be violating your rights. But we’re not allowed to buy a lot of things. This isn’t about rights, but rationally considering the costs and benefits of SUV ownership.

As an aside; claiming that criticizing Hummers violates American values is just one more extension of the conservative habit of characterizing whatever their position is as the patriotic one. Remember the decision of the Republican hack who runs the Baseball Hall of Fame to disinvite Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins because of their anti-war stance? I keep hoping other people will eventually find one of these arguments ridiculous enough to finally discredit the practice of trying to shut people up with patriotism.

Cuniffe can be reached at pcunniff@umich.edu.

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