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In modern America, bigger is not only better, it’s the best

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BY KIRKPATRICK SALE

This is for all those in Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Summerville, and other places that are growing too large too fast:

Bigness is pervasive in America as nowhere else in the world. It is as much a part of the American system, the American way of thinking, as the capillaries are a part of the vascular system. Consider:

• In the U.S. there are 13 olive sizes, ranging from bullets and fine to large, jumbo, extra jumbo, giant, colossal, super colossal, mammoth and super mammoth.

• Big cars have been so quintessentially American — Europeans find it baffling — that even after periods of rising fuel prices they continue to make up more than half the annual automotive market. Big sedans began the trend, but sports utility vehicles, huge truck-like cars introduced in the 1980s, quickly became popular and today, with pickups and vans, have captured nearly half the market and are continuing to be the top sellers — the Ford F-Series pickup became the single best-selling vehicle in the country in 1981 and remained so to 2014 (when 754,000 were sold) and beyond.

But not just big, increasingly gigantic: between 1980 and 2013 the average car weight rose 26 percent, and a Honda Civic, for example, that weighed 1,500 pounds in 1973 was bloated to 2,800 pounds by 2012. The average midsize SUV gained 474 pounds in that period as well as growing 10 inches longer and 4 inches wider.

There are no social values to large vehicles, since they cost more, pollute more and are more deadly in accidents.

“A 1,000 pound increase in a striking vehicle weight,” said the National Traffic Safety Administration in 2013, “raises the probability of fatalities by 47 percent,” with SUVs and pickups “significantly more likely to cause fatalities.” The ultimate cost to the public, it said, was $136 billion a year.

• A survey of 300 American chefs found that most are serving up food portions two to four times what the government recommends, the Obesity Society was told in 2007. The government says two-thirds of Americans now rank as overweight or obese, defined as being more than 30 pounds beyond their healthy weight.

• The average American home has almost doubled in size since 1973, from 1,500 square feet then to 2,657 square feet in 2015, and those with four or more bedrooms went from 27 percent in 1978 to 51 percent in 2013.

• Texans, as everyone knows, typify American bigness. As John Bainbridge explains it in his account of “The Super-Americans”:

“It really means something to Texans that their San Jacinto Monument, just outside Houston, is a little higher than the Washington Monument and that their Capitol, in Austin, has a similar edge on the Capitol in Washington. They also take satisfaction in knowing that of all the states Texas has the most farms, the most churches per capita, the biggest state fair, the most airports, the most insurance companies, the most species of birds, the most banks, the most football teams, and the most holidays, among other things.

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“It also claims the largest herd of whitetail deer and the largest circus museum, the largest and most expensive high school football stadium, and it has a forest called Big Thicket and some canyons called Big Bend. Amazon sells shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with the motto, ‘Everything’s Bigger in Texas,’ in 39 models and styles.”

• The largest restaurant operator in the world, and the largest single-brand restaurant chain, is Subway, headquartered in Milford, Conn., with 43,981 restaurants in 110 countries and territories as of June 2015.

• American advertising expresses its most important messages in superlatives about size: Supersize your lashes … dream bigger with Thermador … the biggest sale we’ve ever held … big in nutrition … jumbo: jets/muffin pans/red straws/peanut butter/piggy banks … super-size: coin jars/clock hands/scrapbooks/base cabinets/bib overalls … the largest condominiums in Florida … we’re growing bigger every day … Big Macs, Whoppers, Big Catch, Giant Sub, Grande, Superlongs …

It has become part of the American character not only to accept bigness but actually to admire, respect, revere, glorify it. Size is the measure of excellence: in cars, tomatoes, houses, audiences, salaries, skyscrapers, muscles and fish.

Where but in America could a con man like P. T. Barnum actually get people to pay money to see someone he billed as “The Biggest Midget in America” (a perfectly normal-sized man, as you found out after you paid your nickel)? Or could people successfully sell a cigarette called simply “More” or a tennis racket called “The Giant”? Or, in a national art form known as the tall story, could a giant lumberman with a big blue ox be considered an admirable folk hero?

Every outsider from Tocqueville to Jean-Francois Revel has noted this peculiarity in the American psyche; the French writer Raoul de Roussy de Sales was bemused by the whole thing:

“When I listen to Americans talking on shipboard, or in a Paris restaurant, or here in New York, it is only a question of time before someone will come out with that favorite boast of yours— ‘the biggest in the world!’ The New York skyline, or the Washington Monument, or the Chicago Merchandise Mart — the biggest in the world. You say it without thinking what it means.”

Or as one 19th century German journalist summed it up: “To say that something is large, massive, gigantic, is in America not a mere statement of fact but the highest commendation.”

What’s the problem with that? Well, at the very least we can say that what’s wrong is that it leads us to assumptions that are often unsupportable and hence to practices and policies that are often detrimental. Bigness may have its place here and there, but it is the pervasiveness of it that is so alarming. Because bigness as a virtue is by now so rooted in our culture, we have not really ever come to grips with the questions of size, of scale, of quantity, of extent, for our individual dwellings, our organizations and workplaces, for our cities and systems. Because we do not really know how much is enough, we assume that bigger is better.

The danger in that should be evident, most recently in the installation of a president who believes that “huuuge” is the highest virtue and achieves that in his blunders as well. But it is more ominous than that. It was the sobering judgment of the great twentieth-century genius, Lewis Mumford, after a lifetime of studying history: “In the repeated decay and breakdown of one civilization after another, after it has achieved power and centralized control, one may read the failure to reach an organic solution of the problems of quantity.”

Kirkpatrick Sale, who lives in Mount Pleasant, is the author of “Human Scale Revisited,” published this month, from which this column has been adapted.

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