Rage Against the Machine
In the Washington Post Magazine Concerned Citizen Athur Mason offered this thoughtful, well-reasoned response to an article about the growth of the DC Metro area’s biking infrastructure:
Leah Binkovitz’s article was one of the most biased I have ever read. Let’s start with the picture on Page 20 captioned “Bikers wait for a green light.” How long did you have to look for bikers waiting for a green light? They never wait for the green light. Anytime I talk to a D.C. driver, the subject always gets around to the lawless biking community. Red lights, one-way signs, do-not-enter signs mean nothing to them. They act like they are entitled to go anywhere on any street or sidewalk at any time. Now wonder they get in accidents. They have the politicians’ ear and laws passed making it an offense for cars to annoy them in any way.
October 13, 2013
Now I’ll be honest. The cyclists not waiting at lights thing actually kinda bugs me too. On an individual level biking for me is about trying to be a different kind of person; and with the remaining shreds of idealism that I have left, I’d also like to believe that biking is also part of the path to a different, hopefully better, kind of world. You have to wait for 30 seconds at a stop light. Oh. My. God! The humanity! Biking is supposed to be about not being the kind of jackass in a car that is concerned with getting from point A to point B as fast as humanly possible. So if you are a cyclist, stop at that light. Take a moment to get your head out of your ass and look around at your surroundings. Don’t be a car driver. So the letter writer and I have that in common.
Beyond that, however, we don’t have much in common because this person is clearly a tool.
But the specific features of his toolness are useful for understanding the pathology that is car culture in the U.S. Because what strikes you immediately about this piece is the entirely disproportionate level of anger being manifested by the writer. No one who is even remotely observant and possessed of a modicum of intelligence (and I admit that cuts out a substantial portion of the population) could possibly think, upon sober reflection, that cyclists have politicians in their pockets. Almost every aspect of our urban, suburban, and rural infrastructure across the whole of the US remains designed to establish and maintain cars as the privileged mode of transportation and to render–at best–other forms of transportation marginal, or to establish them as hostile impediments to cars (hence the widespread practice of designing suburban enclaves without sufficient sidewalks, let alone without bike paths, etc.).
But what is interesting here in Concerned Citizen Arthur Mason’s rant is precisely the lack of sober reflection, the obvious anger. Cyclists might certainly inconvenience drivers on occasion. But this level of anger is not commensurate with being inconvenienced. This is anger usually associated with feeling threatened. Clearly cyclists on their 20 pound bikes constitute a grave threat to his 2000 pounds (at least) steel-encased reality. One the most obvious level this is nonsense. But on another level it is probably true. Because when you see a disproportionate level of anger like this you know it is not about the nominal content. Arthur Mason isn’t really concerned about cyclists not stopping, or their lawlessness or the fact that we are obviously paying off politicians to half complete one bike line for every thousand miles of new road improvements. No, what tweaks Arthur Mason’s twinkie is that the mere presence of bikes in any capacity in his world constitutes an existential threat. Because clearly cyclists are, in his view, getting away with something.
And you know what? He is right.
Who is the Greatest Threat to U.S. Freedom and Security? Hint: It isn’t Al Qaeda.
As you can see from the date of the above Washington Post article, I wrote the foregoing quite some time ago, just jotting down a few quick thoughts that never quite coalesced into a blog post. But I came back to these notes in light of a recent controversial piece in the Post by commentator Courtland Milloy (ordinarily I would link directly to the article, but it is such a steaming pile of shite that I’m not going to send any more traffic WaPo’s way than absolutely necessary. Google it if you must). With the subtle title, “Bicyclist Bullies Try to Rule the Road in DC” Milloy also labels us cyclists “terrorists” and suggests that some cycling behaviors are so “egregious” that motorists might consider it worth paying the $500 DC fine for hitting a cyclist. And let’s be very clear about what he is really saying there. Because what “hitting” a cyclist means is almost inevitably seriously injuring or even killing a cyclist. So what are the high crimes that justify vigilante justice beneath the wheels of the District’s cell-phone nattering, BWM-driving masses? Apparently we steal parking spaces away from elderly churchgoers. And build too many bike lanes. And don’t build enough bike lanes.
Oh, and we bang on hoods, spit on cars, hit side mirrors. Why? Apparently this is how we respond to drivers who “demand that [cyclists] show common courtesy and obey the rules of the road.” Well, I’ve certainly never spat on anyone. Mainly because that is too wimpy. I have done all of the above, in addition to employing some choice vocabulary impugning the parentage (or lack thereof) of various drivers. Have I done all of these things (and, moreover will continue to do them) because a) I am a threat to national security, or b) because drivers are politely asking me to use hand signals at an intersection? No. I have done them in response to the driver who blew through a red light and almost mowed me down while legally using a crosswalk. I have done it to drivers who sped past me only to turn abruptly in front of me. I have done it to people who think it is cute to roll down their windows and yell abuse at me. Or roll down their windows and throw things at me. Now all you car drivers out there think very carefully. When was the last time someone threw something at you simply for being on the road?
Is my behavior wise? Probably not. Especially given that I am living in a country where any psychopath can easily purchase a rocket launcher. Are some of these drivers simply oblivious? Undoubtedly (because hey, who among us doesn’t run a red light while checking box scores on our phone). But it is only if you are a good Catholic that the distinction between sins of omission and commission is meaningful. From the point of view of a cyclist trying to survive an urban landscape, both types of driverly sins will get you killed.
Now Milloy’s column provoked a number of predictable responses. Lots of “you go, guy” responses from similar dickheads, outraged responses from cyclists, “setting the record straight” type responses from local cycling activists, and a horrifying article from one of Milloy’s fellow WaPo columnists, Petula Dvorak called “Hey Infuriated D.C. Bikers and Drivers, Can’t We All Just Get Along?” Dvorak is a wonderful example of the kind of squishy liberalism that now passes for progressive thought in the US. Milloy is a great guy, didn’t really say what he said (or mean what he did say), biking in the city is scary, driving in the city is scary, blah blah blah group hug. Seriously, if Dvorak were alive while women were fighting for the vote she would be reminding suffragettes that it is really hard to be a man having to make all those tough voting decisions. She would be reminding Civil Rights activists that it is no picnic being a white person either. (There is a reason I’m choosing such deliberately snarky analogies, as you’ll see in a moment).
But we do learn something interesting from Dvorak’s piece about Milloy. The only time he has ridden a bike on more than a casual basis (or on any basis, as far as I know) is when he lost his driver’s license. Now you don’t have your license taken away because you are a model driver. So that might explain why he seems to regularly provoke cyclists into doing violence to his vehicle. This means, therefore, that Milloy is not a cyclist. That is in fact an extremely important point. And not simply for the fact that his lack of any real experience cycling in the modern District is a key ingredient in being able to create a giant “them” of all cyclists. What this reveals in fact is one of the many asymmetries that constitute the relationship between cars and bikes. Most of the self-righteous drivers like Milloy and Mason are not cyclists. Most car drivers of any description are not also cyclists. But virtually every cyclist is also a car driver. Cyclists often like to pretend that this gives us greater insight into human nature, or at least the dark corner of it inhabited by your average automobile driver. In fact, it doesn’t produce as much insight as you might expect; it may, indeed, create a giant blind spot.
What is clear however is that Milloy’s outrage is just as over-the-top and misinformed as that of Concerned Citizen Arthur Mason. You don’t even have to be a cyclist to understand how stunningly stupid it is to label cyclists as “bullies” and “terrorists.” Just think about all the news headlines you can remember reading. How many times have you seen the following?
Car Driver Killed in Collision with Cyclist
Pedestrian Struck by Bike, Killed
Two Cyclists Dead after Head-On Bike Collision
Three Dead, Two Injured After Drunk Cyclist Plows into Crowd
Enraged Cyclist Runs Motorist Off the Road
The statistics don’t lie. Cars are killing cyclists not the other way round. More than four thousand pedestrians are killed every year by drivers and tens of thousands are injured. And for your own sick amusement you can google the number of news reports of cyclists deliberately run off the road by drivers, many of whom upon investigation were proven to have done nothing to provoke the driver beyond being on the road at the same time. It is pretty clear that there are vehicular bullies and terrorists out there but virtually none of them are on two wheels. What Milloy has done therefore makes as much logical sense as labeling a rape victim a rapist.
keeping the (Bad) Faith
When you see people massively and willfully distorting reality in the way that Milloy and Mason do, it tells you pretty clearly that we are dealing with people trying to defend, either deliberately or sub-consciously, a powerful system of privilege and entitlement. Because this is the classic tactic that we’ve seen throughout history. Women asking for equal rights? They are making totally unreasonable demands that are destroying society as we know it! Civil Rights? Those uppity black people are being totally unreasonable and asking for special treatment!
This highlights, by the way, the tragedy of Milloy’s piece. Milloy’s usual focus is race relations and urban tensions in the District and he is often pretty savvy about exposing the oblivious nature of privilege when it comes to things like gentrifying hipsters and developers riding roughshod over long established neighbourhood cultures. But clearly being savvy about the specifics of one system of privilege is not the same as understanding the fundamental mechanics of systems in a way that would enable you to recognize when you are embedded in a different one.
Milloy is hardly alone in possessing this blind spot. This is perhaps the biggest systemic weakness in US culture: the inability (and unwillingness) of the news media, members of the public and, most particularly, politicians, to grasp the concept of systemic privilege. Any time you start talking about there being a “system” of privilege and discrimination some drab-suited dweeb starts jumping up and down and yelling “You are advocating class warfare!” (The thing I love about not being able to mention “class warfare” is that it is a tacit acknowledgement that there is more than enough evidence that there really is a class war, but if we simply don’t mention it–cue Basil Fawlty–then maybe people won’t get any ideas). There is, however, a dreadful similarity in the way most systems of power and inequality operate. For starters,those fighting for recognition are the ones who are typically seen as causing “the problem.” Most tellingly, however, an index of privilege is widespread lack of awareness; you are benefiting the most from systems of privilege when you don’t even recognize that you are privileged. When you don’t notice your own whiteness but see all race “issues” in terms of those with non-white skin colors. When you don’t even notice how much you as a man benefit from a patriarchal culture. Systems of privilege and entitlement are at their most invidious when they are not, in other words, seen as systems, but rather as the natural order of things.
So it is with car culture or, as I prefer to call it, auto supremacist culture. Make no mistake: in the US car culture is just such a system of privilege and discrimination. It is, in the first place, ubiquitous and central to the functioning of US society as we know it (just, as in earlier eras, white supremacy and male domination were). It isn’t just an issue of car ownership; rather car culture is all about you having to own a car to participate fully in all aspects of your culture and to gain access to its benefits. Almost every single aspect of US culture would be unthinkable in its current form. Our geography would look very different. Our diet would look very different. The way we raise our kids and the way we credential kids would be different (if it weren’t possible to schlep the kids around in a mini-van to soccer games and flute practice and soup kitchen volunteering in order to build the uber college resume, even the fundamental structure of the family and education would be different). Therefore US culture mobilizes an impressive array of resources to try and build and defend this culture. Politicians move heaven and earth to keep gas and road taxes artificially low, ensuring that the real cost of the environmental damage caused by cars is never made visible. They fight tooth and nail to keep emissions standards ridiculously low. Everything about our streets and neighbourhoods is designed to make life easier for cars. Even our homes are designed to show what really controls us and what we really value; go into one of the many newly McMansioned suburbs around the country and what do you see? Houses with beautiful front porches to facilitate neighbourly interaction with your community? No. A brick fortress whose most prominent feature, taking up a substantial part of the front of the house, is a two or, god help us, even three or four car garage.
Cops Gone Wild
If any system is threatened, then the system’s first line of defense is always its enforcers. Part of me is still sufficiently idealistic and law-abiding to want to believe that the police are relatively fair enforcers of the law, but sadly I’ve just seen too much evidence that cops are, in general, indifferent to what it is like to be a cyclist. That is in fact the best case scenario. At times they are actively hostile. Rationally, you can understand this; there are only a tiny number of police officers who, in common with the rest of the population, are cyclists. Theirs is a car world, like it is for most people. Moreover, they are tasked with upholding a legal system where a significant proportion of those laws were crafted with the needs of a car culture in mind. So like police everywhere, it perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that they would be particularly enraged by activities that blatantly challenge the foundation of many of those laws: that the dominance of cars is part of the natural order of things. As I say, intellectually you can understand it. Just possibly. But it is always shocking when you see the police defending the car. Here is an infamous example from New York City in 2008:
This incident was covered in more detail in a Bicycling article. Apparently the police tried to charge the cyclist with assaulting the officer until this video surfaced. Charges were dropped. No disciplinary action was taken against the officer as far as I can discern. This was during a Critical Mass ride which have often been flashpoints for precisely the reason that many civil disobedience tactics often are: they make visible to the privileged how massive their privilege really is. Cyclists as a group spend their lives riding on streets choked with cars driven by people who are often unaware that anyone else is on the same road and are completely oblivious to their needs. What a Critical Mass ride does is put cars and their drivers in the reverse position: having to negotiate a bike-choked street and accommodate the whims of bicyclists for a change. Cops seem to particularly hate these rides and there is in fact a history of them reacting with disproportionate force. A more recent example (May 2014) occurred during a Fort Lauderdale ride (video included). There is an entire backstory in the article about the cyclist in question having tried to stop a police officer from charging at speed through the group of cyclists. Which, apparently, was enough to justify not simply being assaulted, but an assault that put other cyclists at risk. Now you are certainly entitled to think that people on Critical Mass rides should be arrested. They are, after all, disobeying “The Law.” Many of the organizers of these rides would probably agree with you; they are acts of Civil Disobedience after all. An act of Civil Disobedience, especially when it poses no direct danger to anyone else, does not however justify the police assaulting you.
Sadly, what we see in these videos is simply officials acting out what is a more widespread assumption that you would expect from people defending a system of privilege. Because if you are part of that system then those that threaten it are seen as being lesser beings who don’t deserve the same protections as those who are privileged. In extreme cases, those who challenge your privileged status are not even seen as human. Here’s a final video (you can locate many more if you have the stomach for it) that indicates that this phenomenon of car privilege is not solely a US thing (the US has just raised it to the nth power). This is from a Critical Mass ride in Brazil where an enraged driver simply drove through and over a large portion of the riders:
I find this video horrifying but also deeply saddening. These are not the spandex-clad weekend warrior cyclists (the privileged often look for superficial excuses to justify their othering of the target group: in this case, it is that cyclists’ moms dress them funny). These are people with baskets on their handlebars for god’s sake. Even more sad is the voice near the end desperately telling people to call the police. In Brazil as here, I suspect that they would have got very little joy from the authorities. Because breaking the law in a way that exposes assumptions about superiority and entitlement is, in the minds of the privileged, justification for homicide. Were Milloy watching this video I’m sure he would be talking about the terroristic cyclists who assaulted that poor hapless driver.
So that is why, contra Milloy’s attempt to legitimize assaults on cyclists, and Dvorak’s simpering “let’s all form a drum circle” call, I won’t relinquish my anger. Because a cyclist’s anger most often comes from a very different place than a driver’s anger. I get angry when, in an endeavour that is already fraught with peril (where bikes are shoe-horned into a transportation system whose overriding imperative is not to offend motorists) someone pulls a stunt that could get me killed. And it really makes no difference if it was done out of ignorance or out of malice. Ignorance of the law (drivers love to remind cyclists) is no excuse. Well, right back at ya. Aren’t aware of the safe passing distance in your state? Turning across me when I’m legally in a crosswalk? Prepare to get cussed out and your car thumped. Because that is the big difference. When cyclists get angry a driver might learn some new words, will probably be startled, and maybe very rarely get a scratch or dent in their vehicle. When drivers get angry, cyclists die. That is because driver anger comes from a very different place. It is not a response to cyclists being a physical threat. It is rather because cyclists are seen as an irritation, an annoyance, an obstruction to a driver’s leadfooted sense of empowerment. And for that, cyclists deserve to die.
I should also add that I recognize that not all drivers are homicidal maniacs by choice or homicidal oblivoids (I just made that word up). So I don’t treat all drivers the same (in other words, I don’t do a Milloy/Mason). If someone doesn’t try and charge through a pedestrian crossing I give them a smile and a wave. If someone notices my hand signals and allows me to take the lane to avoid an obstacle, I try to make eye contact and give them a salute. I stop at intersections to allow pedestrians to cross. Around me, of course, I see other cyclists who don’t do those kinds of things, and the reason why they behave like a pack of adolescents, alternately surly and self-absorbed, will become clear in a moment.
Hypocrisy is the Greatest Luxury
None of what I’ve said up until this point quite answers the question that is the title of this post. Clearly the cops and the driver in the above videos are human beings on the edge and in need of psychological counselling, including a lot of anger management. None of that explains, however, why it is seen as legitimate to unleash that anger against cyclists when that cyclist briefly inconveniences you. I’m sure there are a lot of people who get mildly irritated when their coffee order at Starbucks is delayed by someone in front of them specifying the exact number of bubbles they want in their latte foam. That person is irritating. They are holding you up. They are slowing down your day, a day where you have so many important things to do, and places to be: like online checking Facebook, for example. But you are unlikely to kill that person for briefly inconveniencing you.
Systems of privilege are not simply logistical, financial and technical systems. They are also psychological systems that foster a particular set of mental frameworks for understanding the world around you.
One of those frameworks is a necessary level of hypocrisy. So one point that Milloy and Concerned Citizen Arthur Mason have in common is the perception that cyclists routinely break the law and get away with it. And the example that Mason provides, one that car drivers trot out with monotonous frequency, is “cyclists don’t stop at stop signs/lights.” Well, here’s the thing: neither do car drivers. I bet if I followed Arthur Mason around with a video camera for a while we would discover that a lot of the time he never comes to a complete stop at stop signs. Add in a few illegal u-turns, a couple of occasions where he parks in a disabled spot “because I’ll only be a moment” and all the other routine minor, but illegal, infractions in which all car drivers indulge, and hey presto! My fellow cyclists and I are now justified in getting together and complaining about the “lawless car community.” Furthermore, I would be extremely surprised if Mason as a pedestrian (assuming he ever walks anywhere, something that is not a given with all people) hasn’t jaywalked more than a few times. Not waiting for the light to change, he has wantonly and shamefully crossed in defiance of the law. Clearly he is a stain upon the moral fabric of our nation.
This is why the “they don’t stop at stop signs” argument is one that cyclists find incredibly aggravating. There are all kinds of arguments that could be (and often are) made concerning the very different realities of stopping and starting a one humanpower machine versus something powered by a 200 horsepower turbo-diesel. But all of those arguments are beside the point (and, as I suggested at the beginning, probably should be). The most grating aspect of this criticism is that it is just out and out hypocrisy on the part of car drivers.
Even that would be a minor issue for cyclists if it weren’t for the fact that so many law enforcement agencies love to make the “they don’t stop at stop signs” issue a cornerstone of their revenue enhancement . . .er, sorry, I meant to say, law enforcement practices. At Haines Point, a popular local spot for large groups of cyclists because it is an approximately three mile loop road with a good surface and relatively few stop signs, cops routinely ticket cyclists for failing to stop. Which would be annoying, but more palatable if they were singling out all violators. I personally have seen a police officer haranguing a group of cyclists for not stopping while behind him two cars rolled through the same sign without coming to a complete stop. Hell, the other day while biking through Georgetown I was at a complete stop at a stop sign only to have a police car do a rolling stop through the same intersection. Enforcement of laws, particularly those governing relatively minor infractions, is always selective. So ask yourself: which has the greatest potential for damage: two hundred pounds of nimble, aware, bike and rider rolling through a stop sign, or two thousand pounds of steel driven by someone on their cellphone?
The situation happens off and on out in rural areas especially. Every so often some officer will set up at a stop sign and decide to beef up his or her monthly ticket quota by ticketing all cyclists who fail to obey the letter of the law at a stop sign. Part of the problem here is that since most cops are not cyclists, they really have no sense of how this looks to cyclists.
Wait minute. Not only have I just spent the last two hours taking my life in my hands dodging the cavernous potholes and navigating the shoulderless chip seal on this thing that you laughably refer to as a road, but I’ve also had one car lean on the horn for two minutes because I wouldn’t stop and let her have the whole road, a car full of kids who thought it would be fun to scream in my ear as they passed me, some yobbo in a “I’m pretending I haven’t got a small penis” truck almost clip me with a wing mirror the size of a refrigerator door, and someone else throw a used diaper out the window at me. Interestingly, during all those incidents, you were nowhere to be seen. Now I find that while I’ve been surviving all this abuse you in fact have been sitting on your fat arse rather than being out patrolling and doing your job. I came to this stop sign on a near deserted country intersection where you are in fact the only car present, and despite the fact that I slowed, looked carefully to left and right, you are busting my balls because I didn’t come to a complete stop with one foot on the ground? Are you high?
Hypocrisy is the clear marker of privilege. It is holding someone else to a standard that you yourself feel no need to meet because, well, you don’t have to. You don’t have to because you benefit from a system of privilege, a system of enforcement that nods and winks and looks the other way when it sees you break the law, but will descend with crushing force on “those people” who are part of the underclass.
Drivers, The World is Out to Kill you. So you Need to Kill it First.
For a brief period of time cars were marketed as symbols of freedom: powerful, sleek land yachts. This was the time when your average US family car was as big as an aircraft carrier, handled like one, too, was not equipped with any safety equipment beyond ten tons of steel, and where a trip to the supermarket used as much gas as the entire output of Dubai. Car culture still has traces of that around the edges but is now fundamentally different. Cars are no longer symbols of freedom; they are symbols of freedom from care.
We have all been fed decades of propaganda about how cars make us invulnerable and place us firmly in control. In recent years that element of control has been the most potent sales pitch. Most cars now are marketed as their own little gated communities. The road will bend to your wishes, conform to your expectations; the world wraps itself around you and effortlessly slides off. You are automatically granted passage through the world, smooth and safe, as your vehicle shapes your environment to your needs and desires, almost at the speed of thought. Think, for a moment about the mass of car ads you have seen over your lifetime. Think about how many of them show a car holding safe and sure to a slick road, dodging sudden obstacles (rock slides, dogs, children) that appear unpredictably in front of you, minimizing wind noise, warning you about obstacles and potential threats from all sides. This relentless cavalcade of advertising portrays the world as a large, usually inconvenient, often scary and sometimes downright dangerous place. Your car, by contrast, is a refuge from all of that, a refuge that places you firmly in control.
Car makers pay lip service to the dangers of distracted driving but behind their back they are busy packing our cars with all manner of devices whose trajectory is relentlessly inward, away from the dangerous and inconvenient and unpredictable world. Our cars come equipped with navigation packages a hundred times more sophisticated than anything the astronauts used to land on the moon; they can receive texts, stream music, surf the web. Now the average family min-van comes equipped with so much kiddie-distracting technology that kids need never look out the window and will probably undertake an entire cross-country journey and never think they have left their living room. All of this technology is now, parents insist, essential.
[Now before the mommy and daddy brigade start jumping up and down, no, I have never had to drive up to visit the folks in New York with three brawling kids in the back. But my folks had to. In fact, we drove across the entire US (and once across Canada) at least four times that I can recall. Was this incredibly arduous for my folks? I have no doubt. It required a massive bag full of toys and games, gradually released into the destructive ecosystem of the back seat at regular intervals. My dad always drove so it required my mother to–oh my god–actually engage with us kids, often by playing games that got us to look out the window at what was around us rather than parking us in the backseat with some eye candy while she “liked” cat videos on Facebook for 300 miles. God bless the 1970s American station wagon, which was to your standard American car at the time what continents are to aircraft carriers. Again, I can now thoroughly appreciate how hard that must have been for my folks. But they chose to do it. And then having experienced it once, they chose to do it again. Those trips became the source of incredible memories for all of us and not a few family legends. But they were also about (a deliberate attempt on my folks part) engaging with the world with a sense of wonder. Engaging with America. Now the world is simply an inconvenience from which our media devices and our vehicles are at great pains to shield us.]
Here’s the problem. At some level we know that that the car marketing is a load of crap. And cyclists constantly confront drivers with their own guilty conscience and bad faith but even more unforgivably, with the lie behind the marketing dream drivers have bought into. Deep down car drivers know they are operating something that is part of a deeply exploitative, environmentally damaging, and socially destructive infrastructure. Drivers know that the feeling of empowerment and total control is all an illusion, that they don’t control the car, it controls them. That while they are locked within its steel and vinyl confines, it is rotting their bodies and stealing their minds. And then along comes a cyclist. Very unpredictable, even more so than pedestrians; they dart this way and that, neatly avoiding road obstacles that drivers have no choice but to power over and through. They wobble, they sway and weave, yet they so obviously have all the freedom that drivers are supposed to have. Stuck in a long rank of grid-locked traffic drivers watch cyclists jump the curb and dart ahead on the sidewalk. While drivers wait FOREVER at a red light before an empty intersection, cyclists, those scofflaws, dart across. Drivers find themselves confined to the most efficient traffic arteries which they have been brainwashed into believing are also the fastest. Cyclists instead disappear into the labyrinthine weave of the city’s infrastructure and–how is this possible!–beat drivers to their own destinations. And as the drivers own arteries slowly harden into the shape of bucket seats, cyclists flaunt their healthiness.
Cyclists are a bobbing, weaving, undisciplined reminder of the way in which being part of the privileged driving class has not in fact made your average car driver any happier. Quite the opposite, in fact. When a cyclist freewheels past you and disappears into the distance as you crawl toward the 395 entrance, unpleasant truths begin to gnaw at you about all that you’ve bought into by allowing yourself to be absorbed unthinkingly into everything this car culture made possible. The trophy house halfway to West Virginia that has these awesome cathedral ceilings and a bathroom for everyone and a media room that you never get to use because you are commuting for three hours each way. The trophy spouse and trophy family that you never get to see, except for the weekends where you are so busy shuttling the kids around that you never get to talk to them. And you know you married your partner for a reason but can’t remember what that was. And you know you had plans, once, plans that involved doing things, not great things, but satisfying things that didn’t involve working, and driving. Always driving. And now here come those bastard cyclists throwing it all in your face. Unlike all those other cars out there, all of them inhabiting the same messed up commuter hell reality as you, those damn cyclists are unpredictable! They aren’t obeying “the rules” (which means not just the laws, but the unwritten rules: that you have to be miserable in traffic along with everyone else, for example). You can’t control them. Moreover, they seem to be at one with the world out there, a world that we know from decades of television is a dangerous threatening place.
Isn’t it obvious why cyclists must be punished? Probably the cruelest thing you can do to someone is show them the way they and their life really appear. Fortunately, as Eliot put it, “the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity” and we have numerous defenses against facing up to the truth about ourselves. The ever-popular one is to take whatever threatens to expose how we benefit from a system of privilege (and, even more devastatingly, expose how deeply unhappy our privileged status makes us) and create it as an Other, a Them, a Those People, so we can keep it at arms length.
Or, failing that, destroy it.
The mental health of those who subscribe to the auto-supremacist regime, their ability to avoid considering the contradictions of their position, means that it is cyclists that must be treated as an aberration, as an offense against nature rather than acknowledging that it is driving a car that is part of a (self)destructive culture. It therefore makes perfect sense that a cop would attack a cyclist. As a custodian and upholder of the laws that support that auto-supremacist regime, cyclists need to be shown their place in that order. which is to say they don’t have one.
But Wait! it Gets Worse!
By now it should be pretty clear why so many people turn into an arsehole when they step into a car. But that also points to an unfortunate truth. Remember what I said earlier about cyclists also being drivers? Well, sadly that tends to mean that cyclists also turn into arseholes when they step into cars, despite their other lives as cyclists. Riding a bike doesn’t give you any more privileged access to virtue than driving a Prius. Cyclists are part of the broader culture and are no more immune to those decades of advertising about cars as a refuge against a dangerous unpredictable world; they carry all that baggage with them when they get into a car, just like anyone else. Worse still, they are often still carrying that baggage with them when they put their butt on a saddle. That helps to explain why so many cyclists are arseholes. In their souls, even though they are riding a bike, they are still car drivers.
That is a big part of the reason why I don’t hold out a lot of hope that the situation will improve dramatically, at least in my lifetime. Because car culture isn’t going anywhere any time soon. What about when we hit peak oil? Well, that is where it is important to understand what we’re talking about here. We aren’t talking about gas culture. Or internal-combustion-engine culture. It is a car culture. The US isn’t dependent upon the internal combustion engine. It is dependent upon the car. So as the oil begins to run out it is precisely that dependence that will accelerate new technologies to power the cars which underpin the entire social fabric of the US. And bikes will still be anathema to the culture of privilege to which cars give rise.
I also know that some of you will be thinking: oh no, he didn’t. He hasn’t seriously been equating cycling advocacy with the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movement? Well, yes, in part because whatever else those movements (and many others) were about, they were also attempts to combat dominant systems of privilege that had positioned groups (women, people of color, gays and lesbians) as lesser beings that deserved fewer protections from the larger society and where repeated abuses of those groups were consistently overlooked by the dominant culture. Those movements were all part of a shift in the direction of greater inclusion, an expansion of the possibilities available not just to individuals but to societies as a whole. That inevitably meant that some individuals would see their freedoms and privileges curtailed. You can now no longer legally buy and sell another human being. You can now no longer legally rape your wife. I am sure that there are still a larger number of people in the US that will find either or both of those restrictions on their personal liberty to be a matter of some inconvenience. But the collective “we” determined that those kinds of restrictions on the “I” were important so that a broader range of individuals would have the chance not just to develop as individuals but to do so in a way that contributed to the collective wellbeing.
The same kinds of issues are at stake in breaking up the auto supremacist regime. Because it is becoming increasingly clear that this system is no more sustainable over the long-term (if you want a society that maximizes the potential of its citizenry) than any other system of privileged oppression. This lack of sustainability has nothing to do with oil, as I pointed out above. It is rather measured by the seemingly inexorable expansion of soulless suburbs, clogged roadways, epic commutes, acres and acres of countryside disappearing beneath the parking lot for yet another WalMart. (It is no accident that communities that have broadened their transportation options are some the most desirable places in which to live.) It will, inevitably, mean forcing large numbers of people to accept a slightly greater degree of inconvenience. But “convenient” is a relative term. OK, so you may have to take 20 minutes to bike to the supermarket rather than 10 minutes to drive there. But you’ll also probably see the size of your arse decrease and maybe you also won’t be tempted to by quite so much unnecessary crap.
Placing restrictions on the automobile and fighting back against the car supremacists like the Milloys and Masons of the world simply puts you, I believe, on the right side of history. One day we will be looking back at the outraged sputterings of Milloy and Mason in the same light as we will look back at the venal politicians who oppose DC statehood. Struggles against self-interest and convenience are long-term; self-interest dies hard, as evidenced by the fact that the struggles for racial and gender equality are far from over. So, as I said, probably no great changes in my life-time. All I can do is try to cycle on through a world that hates me with a passion, and try to match it with a passion of my own.