The question arose at a dinner party outside Los Angeles. Suppose someone gave you a Hummer that got 100 miles per gallon and was fixed so that it emitted no pollutants whatsoever. If nobody knew but you, would you drive it?
It was, for me, a no-brainer.
"Of course I'd drive that Hummer," I said.
My answer was too emphatic, I knew. Maybe because of the crowd. Whenever I'm around friends from high school, I re-adopt my adolescent shrug: I don't care what you think. About my unfashionable clothes, my hard-to-explain writer job, my harder-to-explain cabin in the boonies: I don't care.
"What if it had American flag decals all over it?"
I dug in deep. I don't like posturing: buying or wearing or driving things because of how they look. Maybe because when you spend twenty years in a committed gay relationship, you learn not to worry about appearances. You don't live the way you do to offend anybody or to impress anybody. You do it because it's right for you. And a car with no emissions and great gas mileage: What could be more right?
"I'd still drive it."
No one else agreed. They looked at me askance. Hadn't I been the purist once: the churchgoer, the straight-A getter, then the flower-sniffer, the Thoreauvian rejecter-of-materialism? Something, clearly, had gone wrong. The party game ended, but for months I kept thinking about that Hummer.
Maybe, I thought, it comes down to that old theological conundrum. Is it faith that saves us or good works? What we believe or how we live? Martin Luther or Thomas Aquinas? Me, I think what we do is what counts.
Here's why: I have neighbors who don't believe in global warming, not one bit, but you'd never know it from how they live. They walk and bike frequently and almost never fly. They grow their own food or hunt for it. They live in modest cabins and heat with wood removed for the forest's health. They're doing a whole lot more to save the world than most true believers.
So, yes, I told myself: I'd drive that Hummer.
If there was anyone who'd agree with me, I figured it'd be my friend George. George maintains a Web site devoted to non-motorized transportation, but he also sews his own less-than-fashionable clothes and once made us quiches with store-bought crusts: one Oreo cookie, one Nilla wafer. In his youth, while dodging the Vietnam draft, he drove around in a pink hearse. Or so he claims. George does not care what people think.
"Would you drive it?" I asked.
"Never," he said. "A Hummer isn't a car. A Hummer is a message."
I was shocked.
Turns out the old theological debate has taken on a postmodern spin. Neither faith nor good works will save us; image is what counts. No one knows that better, I suppose, than George. After all, American flag decals during Vietnam sent a specific political message -- stay the course! -- that got a lot of people killed.
Though I bristled, I knew it was true. Years ago, Laurie and I stopped hiding our sexuality. If people don't know any gay people, then how can they vote for our rights? At some point it's not posturing; it's posture. Standing tall.
Maybe I wouldn't drive that Hummer after all.
A few weeks later, I stumbled upon an article that proved George right. The number-one reason listed by Hummer drivers for owning one is their political beliefs, and the louder and more often liberals rage against them, the higher sales go.
Then again, if Laurie and I really want to curb global warming, or at least cut into Hummer sales, the very best thing we could do would be to drive one. Just imagine: two lesbians shopping for organic espresso and locally grown kale in their Hummer. Hardly the image the company or its customers is after. We could just sit back and watch sales plummet.
And we might get the chance. The 100 MPG Hummer is no fantasy; the prototype has shown up at car shows. So, I suppose, if I really want to act on my beliefs -- do Thomas Aquinas proud -- we'll have to buy one. Except, of course, that we can't afford it.
If I want to stand tall, I'm left to do as my neighbors do: Take a walk or ride my bike.