February 25, 2010
In Toyota We Trust
— Frances LeapThe nearly-blanket news coverage that Toyota and its unraveling have received from all media, but especially NPR, is an indicator of much more than a slow news time, which it is not. The massive recalls seem to be a faith crisis for an entire segment of our population.
Who made up Toyota’s most loyal following? The baby boom. Why did the baby boom generation choose Toyota? That story sounds very much like a faith conversion. Our parents were solidly committed to The Major Brands. There was a lot of rivalry, but also great respect among those who pledged competing allegiances. I can remember an uncle goading my father every time something would break or even squeak on our Oldsmobile, because his Dodge was a paragon of beauty and reliability in his eyes. But I also remember the respect with which he uttered the “he was an Olds man all his life,” at my father’s early funeral. It was a sort of ecumenical cordiality.
There was absolutely no such respect or even tolerance to be given to next generation, though, when many made the choice for foreign-made vehicles. They were not merely heretics – they were infidels who had turned to the East for their faith commitment. Much of the baby boom generation seems to have driven “rice-burners” and driven the greatest generation nuts in the process.
This is probably one reason why we did it. How does a generation grow up to distinguish itself from the one that liberated Europe in their young adulthood? We longed for a moral high ground of our own and many found it in their automotive choices. We may have rejected all things conservative and traditional, but we had our own righteous moral conversions to saving gas and conserving the environment. We may not have believed very well in God, but we came to place deep trust in the skill of foreign car manufacturers.
This hyper news coverage is not about Toyota as a business; it’s about Toyota as a locus of belief and the deep shaking of a generation’s faith. Life may have been unreliable, relationships may come and go, but Toyota was forever. One friend went through three “long-term” relationships in a single car. She had parties when the long-termers moved on, but had a funeral when “Fidelio” (from the Latin for faithful) died. She went out and married another right away. Safe, sturdy, compact, we could enfold ourselves and those we loved best (at the time) into a trustworthy web of non-American engineering that identified us as committed to something, something even greater than our parents. We looked beyond xenophobia to the future of the planet.
Why this obsession with massive Toyota recalls? For Toyota to admit that they are not perfect, but will redouble their efforts for customer safety and value, is like finding out that there is no Santa, but your mother will carry on in buying your presents. You may continue to practice Christmas, but something is lost that will never return. For some, to think that Toyota knew about sticking gas pedals is akin to finding out that the bishops knew the game all along in the recent Catholic scandals – and even that did not receive as much national coverage despite the fact that nearly one quarter of America is Catholic. This is a secular breach of trust at a deep level, and so a generational consciousness seems to seek healing by processing the trauma aloud in a kind of media therapy.
The healing will come. And it may come in much the same way that it has for Catholics. Some will leave in disgust and irreparable distrust. Others will stay because it is all they have known and cannot imagine anything else. And some will heal, precisely at the moment when we see that all cars, and all institutions, are human-made. To place our trust in anything human-made is to invite ourselves to an inevitable journey of disappointment that leads either to cynicism or to wise maturity. Cars, and churches too, are important vehicles for the journey; but they can break down and betray us. Staying on the journey is what counts.Frances M. Leap is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Seton Hill University.