So, there is this video today, via Fallows (and bmk). It is basically a back-and-forth between Dorothy Rabinowitz, a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and a softball-slinging host. The issue of the day is European-style totalitarianism gone rampant in New York City, in the form of a bike-share program. I really urge you to watch it. The lunacy cannot be overstated. Sample question: “are we too fat” (with a smirk)? “To people outside of New York, this represents something more than just the specifics of this dreadful program” (which I remind you, is a bike-share), and how the best neighborhoods are “begrimed” by the the blue bikes.
A few other choice quotes, if you can’t watch it- and I really want you to; it is amazing: “how much have they sneaked in under our noses in the name of the environment”, with the last word being handled the same way you would carry a pound of chum. Railing about an “ideologically-maddened traffic commissioner,”, which, maybe? But that is an amazing collection of words. We are also told that there are warning to watch out for bikes in every taxi, where you’ll “see a sign in your face telling you to watch out…where is the parallel warning for bikes?” It seems to me to be a strange thing to worry about something disrupting the aesthetic beauty of cabs, but I guess art comes in all forms. That is followed by a spirited and sneering exchange about how the bike warning will have to be in 100 languages because tourists want to use bikes, which I guess is a bad thing (and I guess tourists don’t use cabs?).
Anyway, it all leads up to this. Rabinowitz tries to tie it in to the overwhelming paternalism of Michael Bloomberg, more on which later (and an argument to which I am sympathetic), but it veers quickly toward madness, especially when you remember he was duly elected.
“This is a serious matter. The fact that a city is helpless before the driven personal and ideological passions of its leader, allegedly for the good the city…we can see this take many forms, and the best example is our city.” To which the host replies, not as a question, nor as an argument, but as affirmation and summation: “and the latest instance of this is the bike-share program.”
Now, a few caveats before we dive in.
1) I am not a New Yorker. Rabinowitz at the beginning claims to speak for most New Yorkers, I can’t judge if that is true. My instincts are to distrust any pundit who wraps themselves in the cloak of the majority. Their job is to persuade, not to pretend to be a funnel. My hunch, though, is that most people approve or don’t care (with the majority there being on the latter).
2) I do think Bloomberg obviously has strongly paternalistic leanings. Totalitarian is obviously a thing that only crazy people would say, but he manages to bring it down on himself by his style of leadership and by what animates him (though it is clear that he has always been like this, and he has been re-elected twice).
3) I really like bikes, in theory anyway, but tend to hate that segment of bikers that sees themselves as morally superior and who believe that traffic laws don’t apply. You see this on the streets and on like the lakefront bikepaths, where jerks in spandex fly past joggers and children with both dangerous aggression and an unearned sense of ownership. This is far from the majority of bikers, but no one seriously denies this doesn’t exist. It combines the insularity of a sub-culture with a sense of martyred self-regard blended with adrenaline. I agreed with the parts where she was mad at people flying through busy intersections as if the rules don’t apply to bikes. That said, these are the people we tend to pay attention to, and not the overwhelming majority of people who love bikes for exercise, for scenery, to relax, to avoid driving, and are good, conscientious riders.
OK, with that out of the way- back to madness. Fallows says that this reveals the id of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, and it is hard to think he is wrong. The wildly disproportionate outrage, the sneering way Europe is brought up, the fast-and-loose attitude toward stupid bullshit like “statistics” or “numbers” or “facts”. But I think Fallows’ indictment was too narrow- this is a prime example of the kind of manufactured outrage that is the current hallmark of the American right-wing, and the way everything, no matter how uncontroversial, can be twisted into the irritating maw of our culture wars.
And Rabinowitz wasn’t alone in this- in recent years Republicans have taken up the cry that bike riding is not just stupid, but a plot by the UN and others to steal our cars and oil and land. Something can’t just be itself- it has to stand for something more, be a glimpse into a darkened room, an over-heard snatch of conversation between spies on a rainy bridge, a few notes of a song that you don’t know, but won’t leave your head. This is the kind of over-heated mental atmosphere in which a terrifying amount of our politics is taking place.
But forget the really crazies, even though they make up a scary amount of people. Even for those who don’t believe that bikes are a plot by gay Frenchmen, there is the idea that if long-hairs and Bloombergs like bikes, it must be wrong. That is something is good for the environment, the real American thing to do is to scoff at it. Not just to ignore it as harmless, which it, at the very worst, so obviously is, but to militate against it and twist it into an assault on values. To take everything you don’t personally care for as an affront. Or, more accurately, to convince yourself that is people who ride bikes also vote Democrat (sic), then bikes themselves must be a problem.
I’m not saying that this doesn’t happen on both sides, but the parallels are rough-hewn, at best. Probably the best counter-example is NASCAR. Most liberals don’t even want to think about it without scoffing (I personally find it incredibly dull). It is somehow tied into Republicanism and jingoism and all its attendant illiteracy. And you might say- but it is, and I would say, yes, but so, at its essence, is the NFL. But the NFL is bipartisan, a nation-wide thing, so it doesn’t engender the same mental connotations among most Democrats.
(And don’t bring up guns. They are not a parallel to bikes, which, if used wrong, can be dangerous. Guns kill people all the time when they are used correctly).
So yeah- this video was a bitter old woman and a cynical paycheck-cashing interviewer, passing the time until death or another gig. But it represented so much of our broken politics. Anything even smacking of liberalism, even something as innocuous as a bike-share program, is shown not just as a waste of money, but at best as a symptom of a power-hungry mayor and America-hating elitists- with their BIKES- and at worst a fiendish UN plot to destroy America. This is the path we’re on.
BONUS CRAZY QUOTE: “The bike lobby is an all-powerful enterprise.”