What You Can't Say

2004-08-01

Paul Graham's essay What You Can't Say challenges one to think the unthinkable, question the unquestionable (at least as "unthinkable" and "unquestionable" are defined in current society). It's an attitude that geeks and heretics work to inculcate, and that Graham mostly lives up to (or so it seems); yet Graham does not always practice what he preaches. For instance, he blithely assumes that sport utility vehicles ("SUVs") are evil and that the only reason car companies developed SUVs is that their male customers wanted something more macho than a minivan. First, Graham's assertions are historically inaccurate: the modern-day SUV is a direct descendent of four-wheel-drive vehicles such as the Jeep CJ and Toyota Land Cruiser, which were developed sixty or more years ago, not in the last ten or fifteen years as a reaction to the minivan craze. Second, he provides no reasoning to justify why he thinks that SUVs are more evil than, say, full-size pickup trucks (which are just as big, and often bigger, than SUVs, especially smaller SUVs such as the Honda CRV) or high-performance sports cars (whose fuel consumption is as bad as, or worse than, that of most SUVs). It seems to me that, in this instance at least, Graham is accepting the received wisdom and is refusing to question the unquestionable. So let us think the unthinkable: could it be that SUVs are good? Lots of American car buyers seem to think so (they also love big pickup trucks and racy sports cars). Are all those SUV buyers deluded? Possibly. But it's also possible that they appreciate the improved visibility of an SUV, have lots of gear to cart around, etc. SUVs are really just high-profile station wagons, and I'd bet that SUVs have seriously cut into station wagon sales. Were the station wagon buyers good whereas the SUV buyers are evil? I think not, and I think that Graham is merely spewing forth accepted wisdom in this case.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal