This project began in 2005 when I left a note on a Hummer. I am embarrassed about it still and only disclose the contents because I think it reveals something important about how dramatic I can be and how polarized we can all become, politically. I left the note in the door handle of the vehicle in the parking lot of Officemax. It read: Dear owner of this vehicle: It is because suburban Americans drive Hummers that Middle-Eastern men fly airplanes into our buildings. Your greed has consequences. I told a graduate student, Jacob, about this and he was angry with me and our conversation led me to a deepened awareness of the situation and of my action. I am predisposed to think of the Hummer as a manifesto on four wheels and not just a consumer choice. I have found that the people who drive these vehicles do not by and large see it this way. I devised this project to allow me to talk to these people, to bridge the gap between us and to push myself to be more compassionate.
I selected this resistant population to explore my ability to utilize diplomacy and friendly conversation to discuss issues of ethics and politics with members of the population who I normally inclined to judge and with whom I normally maintain a certain angry, self-righteous distance. I also was curious to test the limits of the use of gift-giving as a tool for opening otherwise closed doors of social interaction. The gift in the Hummer Project is a drawing.
I seek out Hummers in parking lots of shopping malls within several miles of my home in Memphis, Tennessee and sitting in the parking lot I race to draw the vehicles (using charcoal on paper) before the owners return from their shopping and drive off. When an owner approaches their vehicle I offer them the drawing in exchange for a fifteen minute recorded conversation. I focus the conversation on issues of ethics and politics related to the Hummer.
I begin the conversation by explaining the project. I tell the participants that I heard a radio program featuring the author Danielle Allen, who claimed that the key to the function of a democracy is the existence of conversations between strangers, particularly if they are discussions of subjects about which the participants disagree. I explain that my upbringing, among the liberal, environmental culture of Northern California, has prepared me to be quite judgmental of Hummers and that I have to work hard to not see those who drive them in a two-dimensional manner. I go on to say that the idea of having conversations with such people is an attempt to overcome my self-righteousness and to connect with people with whom I would otherwise be unlikely to connect. I find myself, in these conversations working hard to achieve a balance between my attempts to assuage the nervousness of the Hummer owners by pointing out some of the logical inconsistencies of those who oppose Hummers and conceding points I might otherwise argue with; while at the same time, trying to argue with them enough that both of our positions might evolve or change.
Here are two examples of conversations about Hummers:
Subject Three, July, 2005
Parking lot at Davis Kidd Shopping Plaza
Excerpt. Subject is in her mid-twenties, Caucasian, blonde hair, high-heels, scoop-neck dress. She explains that she purchased her Hummer because she is about to try to start a family and wants her child to be safe.
Me: Heres the question that I have that is an ethical dilemma about SUVs in general, and not just Hummers, which is that if you drive one with your kids in it, your kids are much less likely to suffer a fatality in an accident, but another person in their car is more likely to suffer a fatality if they collide with your car than if they collide with a smaller car, so what you trade for your kids safety is you trade another kids safety.
Hummer Owner 3: So then they should all drive SUVs. I mean in my personal life my family will come first. And thats the way it will be. And if I was to have an accident at least I know that my family will be safe, and someone else cares the same as I feel about my family then they will probably try to do the same for theirs. But to me if something is meant to happen, its going to, if you die in a car accident, whether you are in a Hummer, a Jeep, a convertible, or a motorcycle. We have motorcycles so I contradict myself on that.
Me: But the kids wont ride on the motorcycles.
Hummer Owner 3: No, not if I can help it.
Me: The other thing, in addition to the safety issue, that I think fuels peoples resentment towards Hummers is the military factor. And thats one thing that concerns me, that in some of our movies, violence becomes cool, becomes stylish, and if our military vehicles start becoming stylish, maybe thats another way that were slipping and letting the military become cool or pretty.
Hummer Owner 3: Once again, thats opinion. And you know, everyones got one. And my thing isI know if you are against war or for war or whatever, everyones got a different opinion and its going to happen no matter what opinion we have or not. Were not the one in control. We cant stop it. I mean there are so many different groups of people that believe one thing, believe this, believe that, and unless we all get together and believe the same thing its not going to work. Well all just sit around with our own opinions. Thatll be it. Its our opinion.
Me: Do you get together with people, or are you active in politics?
Hummer Owner 3: Not really. I can argue with people all day long and I have no idea what I am talking about. Ill get mad, Ill make my opinion, Ill say what I think and I have no idea what I am talking about and when I dont know what I am talking about I dont need to be talking about it. Ive learned to not mention it, not even bring it up. I dont know, its just that to me theres so much dirty stuff in every type of political thing. Obviously theres a lot of wrong.
Hummer Owner 4, July, 2005
Parking lot at a Mexican Restaurant, Memphis, TN
Excerpt. Subject is in his mid-thirties, white, brown hair, casual dress. Wife and kids are in the vehicle waiting patiently.
Hummer Owner 3: Ahh, what youre saying is that because these are on the road it puts other people at risk if theyre in an accident?
Me: Right, I mean maybe in a way you are trading your safety for those who you might be in an accident with.
Hummer Owner 3: Yeah I guess you could put it that way of course, but the tractor trailer is on the road too, and thats part of commerce, you know getting goods from one place to another as opposed to railroad or planes or what have you. So there are items on the road that are much heavier than these vehicles are, it just so happens that as far as passenger vehicles, these are one of the heaviest. Yeah, so I dont think theres anybody out there that wouldnt trade their familys safety for another. I dont know why you would do that. I mean as far as a father and a husband or whatever I am looking after my family which I would imagine whoever owns that vehicle, theyre looking out for their family as well. So I dont know if you could view that as a negative.
Me: For me the jury is still out I am a little unsure of that. Its like if you are on a ship and its sinking, and you have a limited amount of life-vests youre going give them to your kids right.
Hummer Owner 3: Its the whole ancient thing, women and children first.
Me: Yeah, but I guess, if you were using the metaphor, and I am not sure this is appropriate, but if you were using the metaphor, would you grab life vests away from a family to give to your kids?
Hummer Owner 3: I dont know. I dont know. Its a good question. You wouldnt know until you were put in that situation. . .
Me: But I guess what the question is, is that a part of the reason that I am doing this project is that a Hummer seems like a very political purchase, as opposed to some other cars. I know that a lot of the people that I speak to about it are not specifically. . .
(Mitchell, a student of mine) Is that your car?
Yes it is. Hi Mitchell. That was a student of mine from the University. A lot of the people who purchase it they dont say I am going to buy this because it makes a political statement.
Hummer Owner 3: I wonder if its such a hot item because Schwartzenegger in California, who you know obviously governor, high profile figure is. . . happens to be an advocate and a fan of Hummers.
Me: And hes also mister macho and . . .
Hummer Owner 3: Yeah, I mean I dont know if thats whats driving the liberals to be so anti this vehicle. But you look at the Chevrolet Tahoe and its not much smaller and probably consumes a little bit less gas.
Me: So I think that youre right that some of it the connection to something like Schwartzenegger. But for me a part of it is that it was a military vehicle that was slightly adapted to be a, or maybe largely adapted to be a passenger vehicle and part of the reason that it is stylish or feels appealing aesthetically might be its connection to our idea that the military is cool and that we kick ass. . .
Hummer Owner 3: Not necessarily for me, seriously, it was all about safety for me. We had a lexus sedan before this and with bigger and bigger vehicles that are on the road, I mean this is not the only big vehicle out there and there are bigger private passenger vehicles out there.
Me: But if you were hit by this in your Lexus sedan you wouldnt fare very well.
Hummer Owner 3: Right we wouldnt.
Me: Did you research vehicle safety before you bought this?
Hummer Owner 3: No, I didnt I just looked at gross vehicle weight. When fully loaded this thing weighs out at eight thousand pounds. Its a heavy vehicle. Thats what I looked at. I looked at two little boys, people get in accidents, what are they going to fare better in. And that was my decision. It wasnt political. I dont care what Schwartzenegger buys or what he promotes any more than I care what the Kennedys buy and support.Its not left or right for me its about what I feel about the safety of my family.
Me: We were talking a moment ago about the political connotations of a vehicle that has an impact on our oil dependency. Do you see your purchases as having a political impact?
Hummer Owner 3: No. I dont really. I think . . .
Me: Lets say that you could get bananas at a grocery store that came from Cuba, or bananas that came from Costa Rica. And if you knew that buying those bananas from Cuba was supporting Cuba would you buy the ones from Costa Rica instead?
Hummer Owner 3: Oh well yeah, thats a . . .Weve got an embargo thats been going on with Cuba for many, many years.
Me: Say they were to drop that.
Hummer Owner 3: Well then it wouldnt matter
Me: So, its funny, where you draw the line in this kind of thing is very interesting. I mean some people I know will not buy any packaging they only buy their food in bulk so they dont have wrapping and dont make more trash. And I dont do all that. And some people that I know research and get a hybrid and they are really into their hybrid, because it has minimal impact on the environment.
Hummer Owner 3: Right.
Me: And in that spectrum is me and in that spectrum is you.
Hummer Owner 3: Right, right.
Me: How do you draw that line? How do you decide about the environment, or are you concerned about the declining of, or the changing of the environment?
Hummer Owner 3: I dont know that anyones made a compelling argument on one side of the fence or the other. I just think regardless of what I do, or what you do, things are going to continue on the way they are going to continue, because of whoevers in the office. If you dont like the way things are going or the direction the country is heading or whatever, you make a vote every couple of years and hopefully your guy is in there and things change to your liking. Otherwise things are just going to happen.
Me: See its part of my position that when we purchase things, we vote, and its one of the most powerful ways we vote. If a thousand people start buying Chinese lawn chairs then our politics follows that, which is that China becomes, its trade, well maybe not a thousand people but as the nation shifts to buy more and more stuff from China our international politics start, we kind of give China the blessing on their labor practices.
Hummer Owner 3: Imbalanced trade is what you are getting at.
Me: Or not even just balanced of trade, but labor practices in China, or say you buy something that you know. . .China may not be the best example. . .but if there is a place that is making the shoes with slave labor, child labor, you might say, well I am not going to buy these shoes, I am going to buy this other pair even though they are slightly more expensive. . .
Hummer Owner 3: Oh, thats a good point, yeah.
Me: So its kind of political. You are voting in a way by buying something.
Hummer Owner 3: Yeah, but as far as I know, this is an American-made car, it [Hummer] is owned by General Motors, based in Detroit, thats America still.
Me: And I was straying away from the Hummer, I was just thinking about when I purchase tennis shoes, these shoes are an exception, Ive been buying New Balance Shoes and they used to make all of their shoes in the US, but now a lot of them are made in China and now I look for the models that are made in the U.S. because I like supporting American companies and stuff like that.
Hummer Owner 3: Right
Me: And so I am aware when I buy my shoes that its a political vote in a way, its putting my resources somewhere and saying I support this or I support that.
Hummer Owner 3: Yeah, youre right, I guess that kind of reeling it back in to the immediate issue you know to summarize, to wrap it up, its more or less a safety issue more than anything else. when I went to decide what kind of car I was going to buy I decided on what car my family was going to be the safest in if they were involved in an accident. Really and at the end of the day that was it.
Me: The question that Ill end with and I am not sure where I stand with it, what to make of it, is that there is safety in car accidents and then there is safety in our general political environment. Are our kids going to be fighting in wars, is terrorism going to continue to be as much of an issue because of the Middle East, or would it be less so if we are less dependent on foreign oil.
Hummer Owner 3: Right.
Me: And I think that people go through different phases of how they feel about things, largely related to their kids. So when we have infants, who are so vulnerable, the thought of car accidents is so horrific.
Hummer Owner 3: Hummer Owner 3: Well my parents died in one so maybe that was a big motivator. . .
Me: Yeah thats powerful. . .
Hummer Owner 3: So I guess you know, youre right I guess everyone. . .
Me: It might be that when your kids are seventeen foreign policies and war and stuff will be more of an issue on your mind because you are thinking about their friends going off to war. Because I know people, a kid who I was in the Boy Scouts with is now a sniper in Afganistan now so it was more on my mind when he joined up and stuff like that.
Hummer Owner 3: Sometimes people kind of view themselves as out on an island as well where they are worried about their immediate situation and not so much the trickle down effects of geopolitical stuff so I dont know.
Me: Well I appreciate it, youve been real open with me and. . .
Hummer Owner 3: Thanks for the picture and I hope this helps with your research.