Residents of this beautiful and beleaguered state weren’t the only Americans electrified last night by Chrysler’s Superbowl ad starring Eminem and Detroit.
My father-in-law and I watched the commercial at his home in Brethren, where he raises beef and pork on a 40-acre farm. He’s Manistee County born and raised. He also can fix anything that needs fixing and spent a good bit of his work life as a prison guard. I’m a New York-born and raised writer who emigrated to this part of Michigan more than 20 years ago. We both were stirred by the Chrysler ad’s frankness, as well as its hopeful swagger and the wonderful lacework of iconic Detroit locations, rap, and gospel. Chrysler is selling 200s and more.
While hearts and intellects were fired by the opening and closing lines — “What does this city know about luxury? Huh?” and Eminem’s closing “This is what we do!” — they weren’t the most important. That honor goes to the line three quarters of the way through. “We’re from America.”
In every way imaginable, Detroiters and Michiganders understand that we are America. This state invented the 20th century, manufactured its drive through economy, sold a way of life of cul-de-sacs and convenience, highways and prosperity that persisted for half a century. The high wages that Michigan’s auto workers earned in hundreds of unionized factories also made the state number one in second home ownership, boat ownership, and near the top in median incomes, new business starts, and other measures of economic stability. Detroit at its peak was so vibrant that it produced Motown Records, which recorded the soundtrack of America for a generation.
“We’re from America” now means something much different. Just as Detroit and Michigan and the thriving auto industry defined American wealth and opportunity in the 20th century, the deteriorated city and state describe the diminished condition of the nation in the 21st. This state, the only one to lose population in the first decade of the century, and its largest city, which is less than half the size it was in the mid-1950s, is a vivid warning to America. Industrial obsolescence, ignorance of the weight and speed of history, an undying fealty to the foolishness of American exceptionalism, political polemics, allegiance to quarterly numbers, racism, and too many other damaging trends to name here, wrecked Detroit and injured Michigan. Much of the rest of the country is following the same path to economic and cultural decline.
Americans understand that instinctively. Most are perfectly capable of describing the central characteristics of our national emergency — jobless millions, diminishing wages for tens of millions more, the fecklessness of our poisoned politics.
But this is where the Chrysler ad is spot on. Americans are beginning to truly understand the depth of the crisis enveloping the country, and not just in economic terms. It’s going to take time, at least a decade and maybe a generation, to reboot how we approach the new market opportunities of the 21st century. It will test the American strength of character and our innate optimism. It’s going to take a good honest look at our depleted condition and then see beyond to a new era of opportunity.
Chrysler embraced Detroit’s hollowed buildings and saw poetry in decay, heard beauty in gospel voices, to sell luxury cars. What those of us who live here saw and heard, though, was a gripping video prayer for our state, our families, and ourselves. “We’re from America.” We have what it takes to get through this.
— Keith Schneider