Technological advancement as the instrument of liberal repression
In Cars 3, the liberal regime is back to finish what it started. After Radiator Springs staved off its seemingly inevitable death at the hands of ‘progress’ in the original film, the sequel revealed that this survival was far from guaranteed by Lightning McQueen’s fame and friendship.
Cars 3 confirms this revelation: The logic of the liberal regime invades the comfort of Radiator Springs and the domestic sphere of racing itself, as unceasing technological progress begins to destabilize the happy equilibrium that Lightning McQueen’s racing career has provided the community.
In a welcome shift back to the trilogy’s traditional spirit, the movie begins with McQueen preparing for another race in the Piston Cup Series. The film invokes an attempt to return to its roots in the opening scene, as McQueen delivers his famous lines of self-motivation: “Speed. I am speed.” Though everything appears the same, in reality, it is entirely different. Immediately, McQueen has a moment of self-doubt, remarking in disbelief: “Did I used to say that?”
The reason for the self-doubt is simple enough. It is an all-too-familiar story to sports fans—an all-time great is aging and will soon be surpassed by young up-and-comers. But these upstarts are not simply younger and more energetic, they are portrayed as the beneficiaries of a new training system guided by state-of-the-art technology and scientific precision. Furthermore, in a world inhabited by cars, the newest vehicles have the advantage of technological superiority over the previous generation.
Within 10 minutes of the film’s beginning, McQueen’s world is upended. McQueen pushes himself to his limits in an attempt to catch up to these “next-generation” racers. The broadcaster screams, “McQueen is fading! McQueen is fading!” and the audience is moved to tears as his tires explode and a nearly fatal crash sends McQueen soaring through the air.
There is no reward for McQueen in his dotage for his accomplishments. He fades into complete obsolescence in a world that no longer resembles the one in which he was raised and achieved greatness.
Moreover, an even gloomier destiny looms for the town. The devastation that was accomplished by the town’s circumvention by the interstate highway (a major theme of the first movie and article in this series, if you are unfamiliar with either) was merely temporarily delayed by Lightning McQueen’s fortuitous embrace of the town and the economic boost that his fame delivered the community. Now that McQueen himself has been discarded by the liberal regime, the process can be completed.
Through the lens of liberalism, the small town in the Arizona desert appears only as an inefficient agglomeration of individuals who would better serve themselves and the economy by uprooting their shared life together and moving to a larger urban center. Obviously, this is not what the residents desire. They value their relationships with one another and the way of life that they create.
Liberalism promises to allow people to choose what relationships they value most. But by reframing all relationships as chosen—and, additionally, incentivizing temporary and fungible relationships within a market that rewards fluidity and punishes fixity—it destroyed the essential permanence of relationships, taking with it the very neutrality of the political system towards individuals’s choices that it sought to create. Thus, in promising to allow people to choose what relationships they value most, liberalism has made it impossible for the citizens of Radiator Springs to choose the very community they love.
With these tensions at hand, at this point the film presents itself as relatively interesting and thought-provoking, answering the question: ‘How is man supposed to adapt to the modern world?’ Following McQueen’s decision to continue his racing career, the viewer embarks on a quest of self-discovery in the face of progress.
For a time, the film flirts with an embrace of tradition, community, and resilience in the face of undesirable progress. McQueen, now a mature sentimentalist, turns to old film of his former coach and racing legend, Doc Hudson, for inspiration. In light of his reflections on Doc, he begins to ask bigger questions about what it means to lead a life outside of racing. McQueen then turns to his memories of racing on “sacred dirt” for a renewal of strength in deciding what his future might be. Finally, he explores the richness of the provincial American lifestyle through participating in the Thunder Hollow demolition derby in a small rural town, seeking the mentorship of Doc Hudson’s old-timer competitors tucked away in the Appalachian mountains.
During this nostalgic segment of the film, the audience feels as if the Cars universe has come home from its devastating globalist excursion in Cars 2. For a fleeting moment, there is hope for both Radiator Springs and this liberal world. Emboldened by the tradition, guidance, and spirit of those that came before him, McQueen is poised to win his upcoming race against the technologically superior vehicles.
For just this moment, all seems right with the world. But then, quicker than one could say “Kachow!”, the unyielding power of the modern liberal world suddenly is unleashed. The film suggests that there is no legitimate solution to the problem posed by progress that is grounded in tradition. The movie instead turns towards the story of a Latina trainer named Cruz Ramirez for its answer. Never before seen or mentioned in the Cars universe, Ramirez is assigned to be McQueen’s trainer during his rehabilitation process. She follows him for the majority of the film as a particularly obnoxious and uninspiring side character who, though frequently present, does very little to attract the attention of the viewer.
Instead of fighting against the logic of liberalism and attempting to return to prominence as a racer using the time-tested methods Doc Hudson taught him, the film’s uplifting ending centers around the unexpected success of Cruz Ramirez. After McQueen lashes out at Ramirez on one occasion, she expresses that she actually wanted to become a race car when she was younger but was prevented, in her view, due to her race and gender.
By the end of the movie, it is she, overcoming this perceived injustice, who rises to the top of the racing world—not McQueen. During the film’s final race, McQueen decides that Ramirez should finish in his stead. Just a few minutes later, the Cars trilogy concludes with a random, inexperienced character winning the race against all of the next-generation racers. Although there is much to celebrate in Ramirez’s victory, this shift in focus causes the real problems facing McQueen, Radiator Springs, and the whole Cars universe to fade into the background.
Instead of dealing with the very serious problems caused by liberalism that the film implicitly identifies, the plot turns towards further liberalization in one particular sphere of society.
Josh Spiegel, a writer for The Hollywood Reporter, is one of many national film critics who praised this shift. He explains that “because of her gender or her race compared to those of Lightning, Cruz accepted that she would have to scale down her ambitions if she wanted even a modicum of success in the world of racing.” Spiegel affirms the film’s implicit suggestion that the only way forward for the modern car is further self-actualization beyond the natural bounds of a given community. Other publications recognized this theme, arguing that Cruz Ramirez rightfully depicts the struggles of the queer communities of America, with some outlets even describing Cruz as a “lesbian.”
One can celebrate Ramirez’s victory against alleged injustice, but the looming problems facing Radiator Springs and McQueen do not disappear in the slightest. Radiator Springs will still struggle to survive (the lack of children in the town, perhaps due to its economic struggles, testify to this in addition to the problems addressed head-on in the first film). McQueen will still struggle to find his place in a world he barely recognizes. And the racing world, especially the generations following McQueen, will encounter further technological upheaval, eventually subjecting the current upstarts to the same ill-treatment and disorientation that McQueen suffered at the end of his career. One can distract oneself from liberalism’s problems by fighting for victories over the remaining obstacles to complete individual liberation. But this diversion will not lessen the urgency of countering the destructive processes that liberalism initiated. Radiator Springs needs more than a nice story.
Nico Schmitz is a senior from Pasadena, California in the Program of Liberal Studies. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Luke Thompson is a senior from Flagstaff, Arizona majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies, political science, and theology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Disney
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