TCS Daily

I Created a Monster

By James K. Glassman - January 17, 2003 12:00 AM

I created a monster.

About a year ago, I was a regular on a Santa Monica radio program called "Left, Right and Center." Arianna Huffington, the protean author and TV personality, was, if you can believe it, the center of our trio. I was the right. Bob Scheer, Los Angeles Times columnist, was the left.

Arianna had gone through many changes, as we used to say in the 1960s.

Biographer of Picasso and Callas, author of a New Age book on "meaning in a secular world," conservative Washington hostess and zealot on behalf of Newt Gingrich and of course, her ex-husband, oil heir and former Congressman Michael Huffington and now, having moved permanently to Brentwood, Hollywood hobnobber.

On the program that day, Arianna Version 5.0 began to rant and rave about Americans wasting energy. I reminded on the air that she (or her amanuensis) drove a Lincoln Navigator (12 mpg city, 17 mpg highway. Apparently embarrassed, she quickly sold her land yacht and bought a Toyota Prius, one of those hybrids that gets more than 50 mpg.

This gesture seemed a little silly for someone who owns a huge, energy-gobbling house and flies around on her friends' private jets. But she was doing her part.

Unfortunately, she could not leave well enough alone. A short while ago, she launched something called the Detroit Project, raised money from some of her L.A. friends and produced two 30-second ads - which aired this week.

The spots clumsily attempt to parody ads that link drug use to terrorism. Thus...

"This is George. This is the gas that George bought for his SUV. This is the oil company executive that sold the gas that George bought for his SUV. These are the countries where the executive bought the oil that made the gas that George bought for his SUV. And these are the terrorists who get money from those countries every time George fills up his SUV."

Here's the problem that any serious person faces when confronted with such nonsense: Do we take it seriously and respond to it as an adult? Or do we laugh it off as a childish prank by a bunch of Hollywood airheads?

I'll respond seriously....

  1. The link between oil sales and terrorism is absurdly tenuous. The drug ads tell us that violent creeps sell drugs and kill people in the course of doing business. This is true! (Now you could argue that drugs should be legalized and thus clean up the profession, but that's another matter.) There's only one degree of separation between drug buyer and vicious drug purveyor. But Arianna's spots contend that if you own a car that uses a lot of gasoline per mile (never mind how many miles you drive), then you are funding terrorism since the source of that gasoline might be a country that supports terrorists. She evidently means Saudi Arabia.
  2. A few problems: First, why are SUVs the guilty parties? Why not anyone who drives any kind of car that uses gasoline, period? Or why not a person who drives a great deal? A mid-range SUV like the Nissan Pathfinder uses an average of about 18 miles per gallon. But a mid-range sedan like a Nissan Maxima uses 23 mpg. In other words, the Maxima consumes 10 gallons of gasoline in driving 230 miles a week while the Pathfinder consumes 12.8 gallons. That makes the Pathfinder driver a supporter of terrorists?
  3. Back to Saudi Arabia, which provides, according to the latest Energy Department data, 10.7 percent of the petroleum used by Americans. The single largest source of crude oil in this country is the United States itself, which provides 38.4 percent of our oil. Next in line after Saudi Arabia are Mexico and Canada. And crude oil is not our only energy source, nor is driving a car or truck our only energy use. According to the Energy Department, petroleum was the source in 2001 (latest figures) of just two-fifths of our energy while natural gas and coal - largely indigenous - were the source of about one-fifth each. In other words, Saudi oil (even if you accept the terrorist link) represents about 4 percent of the total energy used in the United States. Saudi oil in SUVs accounts for less than 1 percent of total U.S. energy use. And incremental Saudi oil in SUVs compared with average cars accounts for, at most, one-quarter of one percent of total U.S. energy use.

If Arianna is really concerned about U.S. use of Saudi oil or even foreign oil in general, she could support exploration in areas of the United States such as barren stretches of Alaska or off all three of our major coasts. Or she might try to encourage her friends to sell their 10,000-square-foot houses in Bel Air and live in apartment buildings. Or get them to stop flying in fuel-guzzling private jets. She might want to tell producer Norman Lear, one of her financial backers, to tear down what the Los Angeles Times reports is "a garage for 21 cars...which stands 45 feet tall." As a minor sacrifice, her Hollywood pals might actually drive those little hybrid cars they have bought instead of taking limousines. Or take the bus.

By now I am beginning to feel a little silly for taking these ads so seriously. Jean Abi Nader, managing director of the Arab American Institute, put it well: Huffington "is not only delusional, but it almost is embarrassing to try to make that connection" - that is, between SUV use and terrorism.

In fact, it is worse than embarrassing.

The real problem with the ads is not their logic but their premise. Energy use is not a sin. It is a force for good. Fuel is something that humans put to use to enrich their lives. Energy is the key to economic growth, and, frankly, we are lucky that it is as abundant as it is. The obstacles that are placed in the way of the free flow of energy raises its cost and hurts, not so much the rich of Beverly Hills, as the poor of India. Energy pulls people out of poverty.

But more.....

In this country, we drive for pleasure and privacy. There is nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all. We use the car to take the kids to ballet or to go to work at an AIDS clinic or to visit our parents or to go out for dinner with friends. We drive SUVs because we like them. They can go anywhere. They're safe. (I don't want to be in that Prius when a bus hits it.) They're luxurious. We've earned them. Last year, one-fourth of all cars sold in the United States were SUVs.

In a free society, people make their own choices about where they live, who their friends are, and what they drive. As Eron Shostek of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said of Ms. Huffington: "Her opinion is out-voted every year by Americans who buy SUVs for their safety, comfort and versatility."

Certainly, it is right - and even the responsibility - of those who think an activity is unreasonable or immoral to take their case to the public. But the Detroit Project ads don't fall into the category of sensible criticism. If you don't take them seriously, they are infantile and laughable. But if you do take them seriously (and, in the end, I do), then they are brutal and dishonest. They mock an earnest effort to fight abusive drugs, and they trivialize a terrorism, the most profound threat to America in at least the past two decades.


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