Saturday, June 17, 2006

Another "Coincidence" that Just So Happens to Help Big Oil (aka The Current US Government)

When founder James Smithson started the institution that bears his name, he explained
"I then bequeath the whole of my the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge..."
There's no question that day-in and day-out, the keepers of his vision do an extraordinary job of living up to it (the Smithsonian is a national treasure and I profoundly cherish it). In fact the mission of the current Secretary, Lawrence Small, echoes and expands upon that of the founder:
"The Smithsonian is committed to enlarging our shared understanding of the mosaic that is our national identity by providing authoritative experiences that connect us to our history and our heritage as Americans and to promoting innovation, research and discovery in science. These commitments have been central to the Smithsonian since its founding more than 155 years ago."
However, the timing of a recent decision the Institution has made is for me so very disappointing that I hope they reconsider or do something to reverse perceptions. Via
Just weeks before the release of a movie about the death of the electric car from the 1990s, the Smithsonian Institution has removed its EV1 electric sedan from display.

The National Museum of American History removed the rare exhibit yesterday, just as interest in electric and hybrid vehicles is on the rise.

The upcoming film
Who Killed the Electric Car? questions why General Motors created the battery-powered vehicles and then crushed the program a few years later. The film opens June 30th.

GM happens to be one of the Smithsonian's biggest contributors. But museum and GM officials say that had nothing to do with the removal of the EV1 from display.

A museum spokeswoman says the museum simply needed the space to display another vehicle, a high-tech SUV.

The Smithsonian has no plans to bring the electric car back on view. It will remain in a Suitland storage facility. [emphasis mine]
So help me here. I'm supposed to accept that the Smithsonian (an institution dedicated to the "increase & diffusion of knowledge") "needs" to display a vehicle any American can see clogging all of our highways on any single freakin' day of the year. Yes, it might be considered by some (GM marketing managers, mostly, I'd venture) as "integral" to some current exhibition, and yes, it's a so-called high-tech version of the road hogs out there, but, really is an SUV a rare sight where you live? I mean the suggestion that we have to travel to DC to see one is moronic. I can't spit without hitting three of them.

Electric cars, on the other hand, are like four-leaf clovers...I'm not sure I've ever actually seen one in person.

Now I've thrown my two cents in on political blogs long enough to know that folks who don't want to see a connection between GM's significant sponsorship of the Smithsonian and the decision to replace a rare electric car (just before a hard-hitting controversial film comes out) with a ubiquitous SUV will shield themselves behind delusions of happenstance. "It's just a coincidence ... stop being so paranoid ... you have no evidence ... blah ... blah ... plausible deniability ... blah."

Wiser observers, however, understand that the only thing rarer than an electric car on an American road is a true political coincidence. In this instance, the suggestion that it is a coincidence is virtually insulting.

Consider what extreme steps the Automotive and, especially, the Oil industry have already taken to sour Americans on the idea of the electric car. In response to an air pollution crisis in 1990 (a year the Los Angeles Basin issued 41 stage-one smog alerts), the California Air Resources Board targeted one of the leading causes of the problem: tailpipe exhaust. In 1990...
Inspired by a recent annoucement by General Motors about an electrical vehicle prototype, the Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate (ZEV) was born. It required 2% of new vehicles sold in Californa to be emission-free by 1998, 10% by 2003. It was the most radical smog-fighting mandate since California first required carmakers to install catalytic converters. [...]

Both the Car companies and oil industries argued the mandate was too strict, and both the car and heavily profitable oil industries (in 2005, ExxonMobil posted $35 billion in profits, the largest ever profit recorded by a US company) lobbied heavily against the ZEV mandate from the very beginning.

As early as 1995, the American Automobile Manufacturers Association circulated a confidential proposal to launch a public relations “grassroots education campaign” to repeal the CARB ZEV program.

The Western States Petroleum Association, an oil industry trade group, hired the PR firm of Woodward and McDowell, in the winter of 1993-1994 to drum up public opposition to EVs by calling attention to supposedly sharp price hikes utilities were planning to make to build and expand infrastructure, like charging stations, with the advent of EVs. Through the bogus grassroots organization, Californians Against Utility Company Abuse, Woodward and McDowell sent out hundreds of thousands of letters protesting any utility increases that would follow under the ZEV mandate and made calls to California ratepayers, some of whom were transferred to politicians’ offices so they could voice their opposition to any increases in their utility bills. Michael Shnayerson, author of The Car That Could: The Inside Story of GM’s Revolutionary Electric Vehicle, also claimed that “(t)he oil companies spent far more money than the car companies” in lobbying against California’s ZEV mandate. Also, from December 1994 to June 1995, Mobil took out ads in publications like Time, USA Today and Newsweek to argue against alternative fuels, electric cars and the ZEV mandate by claiming, amongst other things, that everyone would have to pay to subsidize electric cars via increased utility rates and government subsidies.
Now here's why this matters. Even the resident of the White House admits that America's dependence on oil puts us at greater risk of terrorists' attacks. Dependence on foreign oil (something that drilling in ANWR will not make a noticeable dent in, mind you [you soulless freaks]), is directly related to the attacks on 9/11 and our invasion of Iraq. In other words, close to 6000 American lives have been cut short because we consume too much oil to tell the oppressive regimes in the Middle East to fuck off, and so the radical, murderous forces opposed to those regimes targets us, as friends of their enemies. In a nutshell, our excessive use of gas-guzzling SUVs put us at greater risk of terrorism. There's no denying it.

So why does the Smithsonian respond to such matters with this particular choice, in these perilous times? Well consider this first:

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History attracts nearly 6 million visitors each year. 'Americans on the Move' will be the Museum's first major exhibition on transportation since the late 1970's and will highlight all modes of transport - road, rail, air and water. General Motors will be the named sponsor of this new transportation exhibition wing.
I for one am exhausted from giving the current powers that be the benefit of doubt in such matters. We're living in an age in which power is somehow divorced from responsibility. Enough, I say. No more plausible deniability. If there's even a chance the public will sense a questionable connection, the institutions involved should explain themselves in advance or be laid open to the harshest of criticisms. My tolerance for suspending my suspicions has been drained.

I beseech the Smithsonian: make plans (and announce them) to put the electric car back on exhibition.


Blogger fisher6000 said...


6/17/2006 03:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

And why do we have so much availability of oil and petrol that is not coming from the soils of america?

I think the middle east also would wish to say to the americans to fuck off. Don't you think?

Let's try to have some perspective here. People don't terrorize for lunatic reasons (though they use lunatics to commit their crimes, which is really sad).

If every country really owned their land ressources, maybe the world wouldn't be economically imbalanced (I get great food from Africa).

Now, about the car.

I've seen it at Massive Change,
the exhibit organized by Bruce Mau. Or at least I've seen a variety of electric cars.

Maybe they should put that exhibit as a permanent institution somewhere. We really need it.

I dont think the fact that they replaced an electric car with a SUV (a totally ridiculous move unless there is a comment next to it explaining the ecolo-ethical troubles surrounding that engine)
at Smithsonian is really of much importance. You don't go at the Washington Mall expecting to find marks of your political upsets. That is just not the place it will happen, unless you tumble on a large march about human rights.

More people are likely to see the film than to see and know about a SUV at Smithsonian.

At any rates, having a car company sponsors the museum was already a bad move.

Once here in my town there was a scandal because a car company had placed a car on the side of a theatre during the show they were sponsoring: an opera. You could see the car on the side during the whole spectacle (and some lucky bastard could win it).

I dont think the company used the car sponsor anymore, but sometimes you can only make these decisions after the fact.

So it is possible that employees at Smithsonian received some pression, and they won't tell it to you like this.

Make Smithsonian change sponsor.

Cedric Caspesyan

PS: and you know, Picasso had this....oh, never mind.

6/18/2006 02:48:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History attracts nearly 6 million visitors each year.

Edward, this is obviously a power move by GM, but I agree w/ Cedric that a lot more people will probably see the film than the exhibition. Plus, the EV would be just a minor note lost in a big exhibition, while the film completely focuses on the electric car and what happened to it.

I'm more concerned about what this situation says about the problems with corporate sponsorship of museum exhibtions than about whether the EV is in this one particular show. We all know that museums don't really have much affect on public opinion, but films potentially do (I'm sure I've opened a can of worms here).

6/18/2006 11:22:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

There's no question films reach more people and pack a more potent punch than the average exhibition, but I'm still rather disappointed with the timing here. My hope is that the attention this decision is getting will have the opposite effect we must assume GM would want and make people a little more sceptical of the exhibition. Is it truly subjective knowledge being diffused, or simply marketing.

6/18/2006 12:23:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Marketing. Big corporations don't spend money to spread knowledge.

6/18/2006 01:04:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

"Cedric Caspesyan

PS: and you know, Picasso had this....oh, never mind."

from Sunday NYT:

""I wanted people to ask themselves to what extent the criteria they use to look at children's drawings is the imposition of an adult eye," said Jonathan Fineberg, a scholar of modern and contemporary art who organized the exhibition. "It's not just that Picasso could render well, because you could teach anybody to do that." The catalog has a startlingly lifelike drawing of a dog by the 5-year-old Edwin Landseer; he grew up to become not Picasso, but a maudlin academic painter."

Does 'scholar' mean thick-headed?

6/18/2006 02:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

A couple of years ago the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum re-labeled the Enola Gay as simply being a state-of-the-art airplane from WWII (i.e., dropping any mention of the fact that the plane was used to drop the bomb on Hiroshima)... a pretty craven way to avoid controversy.

6/18/2006 03:06:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Ethan, that's exactly it. Museums have a responsibility to understand that they have the authority to shape the dialogue.

6/19/2006 07:48:00 AM  
Anonymous ShopAtHome said...

Come on. Does the Smithsonian really need cash that bad that they would make themselves out to be GM's B*tch? That's horrible.


6/20/2006 04:13:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Does the Smithsonian really need cash that bad that they would make themselves out to be GM's B*tch?

They do seem to have been working under significant financial constraints recently. (see here and here).

6/20/2006 04:29:00 PM  

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