Michele Bachmann, in spite of “not always getting things right” as she once put it in a campaign ad, nevertheless revealed a great and profound truth when she promised to bring back the heady days of $2 a gallon gasoline. When Bachmann promised the return of cheap fuel, she tapped into that mythic connection between Americans and their cars.
It isn’t simply that American’s worship the car or make it a sacred object; although one could not be blamed for thinking so. The Los Angeles Times reports that Americans spend almost 100 billion a year on new car purchases alone, not counting used car purchases or maintenance of existing cars. When gas costs $3.84, reports CNN/Time, Americans spend eleven cents out of every dollar on gasoline. On average, an American spends 72 minutes a day in a car, getting from place to place.
In one sense, a car is just functional arrangement of glass, metal and gears; driving just a matter of getting from place to place. But human beings are hardwired to address questions of meaning. Sacred meanings are conferred when they (are made to) imitate the sacred, according to religion scholar Mircea Eliade. One of the ways to achieve this conferral of the sacred is to enact “the symbolism of the Center.” Very ancient myths, says Eliade, share in presenting the archetype of a celestial city or territory or altar as the center of the world. Thus, when humans establish new places, they establish an omphalos, a center around which to organize themselves (and keep others de-centered). In doing so, they mirror sacred reality and thus transform chaos into cosmos.
Curiously, modern American city centers eschew the car, preserving it for pedestrians and public transport. Indeed, the epicenters seem designed to embrace not the individual but the public, not the private capsule of the car, but shared and civic space. The federal highway system—the real America—on the other hand, operates as a widely dispersed, center-less system for individual travelers on separate routes, an enactment of the American protestant primordial act: the prioritizing, centering, and sacralizing of the individual in pursuit of their own happiness. A few months ago, when the California Department of Transportation closed a portion of a major highway, California I-405, for expansion, the event quickly became known as “Carmeggedon.” When a significant crack was discovered in the Sherman Minton bridge that spans the Ohio River between Kentucky and Indiana, causing indefinite closure of a major east-west interstate and river crossing, it wasn’t long before it came to be known as “Shermageddon.”
These references reflect something larger, truer, more apt than the events they were coined to describe—in Eliadian terms, they were profane events positioned within a sacred reality, namely the invocation of a biblical reference to Har Megiddo or Mount Megiddo (in the Hebrew Bible), a strategic hill upon which armed guards could protect (or conscript) valuables being transported along a major ancient near-eastern thoroughfare from Mesopotamia to Egypt. The one mention in the New Testament can be found in that most cryptic of texts, Revelation, and that one reference is none too clear, only suggesting a gathering of kings for the purposes of battle “at the place that in Hebrew is called Harmagedon” (Rev 16:16, NRSV).
But Americans love apocalypses, so in the hands of late nineteenth and early twentieth century pre-millenialists, the term “Armageddon” was used as a kind of blanket locative to refer to the entire region of Palestine/Israel, where a pitched war campaign would take place signaling both the waning of the period of tribulation and the imminent physical return of Jesus to rule the millennium. From there, it was but a short step for the term to operate metonymically, referring not just to the place of battle, but the entire end-time the battle ushers in. In other words, it became not just a location, but was narratively foregrounded and centered in the American imaginary. Armageddon theology has had a decided influence on American foreign policy.
Michele Bachmann’s promise, to return Americans to the time of $2 per gallon gasoline, echoes within an ongoing discursive effort of centering and sacralizing American exceptionalism, isolationism, and superiority. It is something of a marvel, the way humans engage their sacred signifiers, however dimly understood, and in so doing keep them alive, relevant and instructive about the issues they face, the feelings they have, the problems they can and can not solve, the gods the make and then—love them, fear them, hate them—live with.
The car represents in mythic terms the deeply protestant American urge to be free of confinements, and to establish oneself anew in fulfillment of divine mandate. Bachmann wasn’t promising a financial result (even she can’t really have believed it), but instead was tapping into the deep registers of an American myth.