Monday, September 17, 2007

The New York Military Tradition and the Death of a Car

It was interesting to read last week that Gen David Petraeus grew up in Cornwall-on Hudson, in Orange County, adjacent to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Petraeus is of Dutch descent, through his father, a Dutch immigrant. If not of New Netherland stock, he is definitely the most political significant person of Dutch ancestry from the Hudson Valley since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It seems to me that there have been a lot of prominent New York State generals as of late. Before Petraeus there was Colin Powell, Bronx-born and raised. And if we expand our geographic scope a little, to speak of a Mid-Atlantic military tradition, there’s New Jersey-native Norman Schwarzkopf, who with Powell led US forces in the Gulf War.

This is a break from past practices. I can’t say I’ve done a comprehensive search, but as I far I can tell with the exception of the hero of the Battle of Saratoga, Horatio Gates, very few New Yorkers can be found among the famous generals of America’s major wars. (You military buffs out there correct me.) For most of the 20th and 21st centuries, the leading American generals have been primarily southern or mid-western. To be sure, most of the generals attended West Point, and some lived for a while in New York State, including Robert E. Lee, one-time commander of the military post at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, or his enemy in arms U.S. Grant, who went bankrupt on Wall Street and wrote his memoirs in the Adirondacks, or Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was president of Columbia University when elected president, but very few prominent generals have been “genuine” New Yorkers.

Why the recent “surge” of New York generals in prominent positions? It’s hard to say. Certainly both Powell and Petraeus are both bland and telegenic, well educated and well spoken, and do not, like, say, Patton or McArthur, come across as crazy, or likely to lead a coup against civilian authority. They try to project an image of calm, and, if I may use the term, of quiet manliness, a sense of masculine confidence and power. They are people who want us to trust them, very models of modern four-star generals.

This brings me to my car, our poor green Honda Civic, Greenie, which died this past weekend, Its motor and heart were still strong, but its brakes gave out. We purchased it the first day we moved up from New York City to Rochester, eleven years ago. (You can’t survive here, or at least can’t enjoy a middle class life style, without a car.) I was 40 when we bought it, the first car I ever had ever owned. You never forget your first. Oh, it was nothing fancy, unprepossessing and lovable, with manual windows, no digital read-outs, no GPS. It was a sturdy car, reliable, and ran well without problems during Rochester’s severe winters. But the contemplated repair was too expensive, and it had to be replaced.

Ever since the famous attack ad in the 1960 presidential election, “would you buy a used car from this man?,” it has been clear that there are profound affinities between the act of purchasing a car, and the functioning of democracy in America. They want to sell you something, and they will say whatever they need to, or can get away with, to make the sale. They want you to trust them, and that is the most dangerous illusion of all. As Hillary Clinton said of Petraeus’s testimony, to accept it requires “willing suspension of disbelief,” a leap of faith. For car salesmen and our presidents, because we think we have to go through the process, we leap far too often and too high.

Car salesmen have far more knowledge about their products than average consumers, and we were probably below average, leaving us to ask witless questions, easily parried with the complacent confidence that we really couldn’t tell whether or not they were telling the truth. Free markets, like political democracy supposedly requires equal distribution of information to be efficient, but they generally don’t work t because information is imperfectly distributed, and hoarded by those who would benefit by its imperfect distribution. The problem with democracy, unfortunately, is that most people are too lazy to perform their due diligence as citizens, and they get suckered every time. The same thing true for intelligent people who don’t read Consumer Reports and Motor Trend before purchasing a car.

Car dealers want us to bond with the salesmen, to like them, to want to have a beer with them, and to think that they are operating in our interests, but of course they are not. They create the artificial division between the “salesman” who must check with the “manager” about the price, and create the illusion that the salesman is on your side, and somehow independent of the person in charge, the “manager,” just as for months Bush has used Petraeus as the salesman, while Bush has been back in the office, making the real deals.

And this is why, I suspect, New Yorkers have been so prominent among recent generals. From the end of the Civil War to the 1960s, the United States had northern presidents and southern generals; now the trend is reversed. We now regularly elect as our presidents warmongers and wavers of the bloody shirt, who offer fervid rhetoric about enemies who need to be militarily destroyed. We look to our generals for sober reflection and reason, and to restrain our civilian leaders.

But I fear that the Bushes, father and son, have favored New Yorkers for their generals for a more sinister reason. Sober and reflective persons, if they chose to do so, make the best, most effective, and most believable liars
I have long thought that New Yorkers, with their no-nonsense, down to earth, matter of fact styles, poker faces and calm miens, can, if they choose, be great car salesmen, con men, or even four-star generals.

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