Sunday, April 14, 2013

Identity politics and cycling

Councillor Doug Ford's reported response to a plan, recently approved by a city committee, to install a bicycle parking station with showers can stand as a textbook example of identity politics in all its absurd glory:
taking away parking space down here at City Hall that is creating $70,000 worth of revenue, and — ready for this, folks? — they’re putting in showers for the bike riders to come down here, to a tune of $1.2 million.
To get the obvious question out of the way: assuming the bike facility lasts ten years, it will cost about $120,000 a year, plus whatever revenue the parking authority would lose when the lot filled up; that comes to at most $190,000. Since the health effects of sedentary lifestyles increase health care costs by about $10,000 per year per person, the new facility will break even when it attracts twenty new riders: seven percent of its capacity. Putting a bike parking station at City Hall actually makes a great investment. And the words Doug Ford uses strongly indicate he doesn't care.

Whether cyclists get a secure parking station with showers or not, we already "come down to" City Hall and downtown Toronto. I cannot believe Doug Ford has never seen the full racks of bicycles that line the eastern side of Nathan Phillips Square. Describing cyclist as some essentially alien force that the city should resist and exclude defines his supporters: they don't ride bicycles. They are important people with urgent business; they drive cars. Or, since they live in Toronto, they sit in traffic and drum the steering wheel.

This kind of identity politics obviously limits people's freedom. If you share the Fords' belief in a limited servant government, but ride a bicycle, you don't really belong in "Ford Nation". That limits the transportation choices of Ford supporters, and limits the political choices of cyclists. But by limiting freedom, by constructing an identity their followers are invited to conform to, political movements, and the men and women who lead them, bind a core of true believers around them. It makes for a cramped and limited society, but it also makes for devoted followers and at least for a time, it makes good politics.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

On safe cycling

Since otherwise this web log runs a risk of turning into a commentary on selected Atlantic Magazine articles, and since I have wanted to do a set of posts on cycling safety, courtesy, and road sociability for some time, this post will serve to introduce the series.

Why talk about safety, and how do I define that term? What does safety have to do with what we as cyclists owe to ourselves, our fellow cyclists, our fellow road users, and the world, however we define it, at large? I have two answers for this. I believe they apply to me as a cyclist, which means that I believe they apply to other cyclists.

I believe, first of all, that I have an obligation to do everything I can to survive the ride. I have an obligation to get home for the people waiting for me. I don't want a police officer to come to our door and tell them I will not come home. I think most cyclists have a relationship like that: the news of almost any cyclist's death would come as a devastating blow to someone. But also, because I love cycling so much, because it has given me such joy, I do not want to make it the means by which I lose my life or my health.

My second obligation simply extends the first: I have an obligation not to hurt another road user. Hurt in this case does not mean annoy. Causing a motorist to miss a light will not hurt them. Requiring a motorist to choose between shifting lanes and driving at bicycle speed for a block will not hurt them. But I do have an obligation to avoid causing actual injury to another road user, which in almost every situation means I have an obligation to avoid harm to pedestrians and other cyclists. All the  arguments for not hurting myself on a bike apply here, with the added obligation not to impose harm, or risk, on people who have not consented to it.

I also make choices. I choose to assert my right to ride, but wherever possible, I choose to do so without causing unnecessary inconvenience. I choose to facilitate the movement of traffic, all traffic, whenever I can do it safely. I choose to respect the laws, which means I obey them when I can do so without sacrificing my safety or that of someone else, and I accept the penalties for breaking them.

In the next post, I will discuss some of the cycling practices I use to express these values and choices.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Michael Kelly and Iraq: Guided by the beauty of our weapons

London anti-war march by Simon Rutherford
Over the past month, we have seen various ten year assessments of the decision by then President George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq. Most recently, writers at the Atlantic have posted retrospectives of the first journalist to die in that war: Michael, and journalist who had, among other things, edited the Atlantic Magazine. Mr. Kelly, an avid supporter of the war, had gone to cover it as an "embedded" journalist with the American army.

I originally intended to say nothing about Mr. Kelly, except that his decision to go into harm's way to document an effort he believed in showed an integrity that many of the war's advocates lacked. But a recent post by Ta-Nehisi Coates, highlighting Michael Kelly's writings in support of the war, included a good example of the problems in the thinking that led to the Iraq war. Those same problems had a lot to do with the ultimate American failure in Iraq.

 Tom Scocca quotes Kelly's defence of the  moral case for war in Iraq:
Tyranny truly is a horror: an immense, endlessly bloody, endlessly painful, endlessly varied, endless crime against not humanity in the abstract but a lot of humans in the flesh. It is, as Orwell wrote, a jackboot forever stomping on a human face.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes the thoughts of Michael Kelly as an embedded reporter waiting for the invasion:
It is remarkable enough that the United States is setting out to undertake the invasion of a nation, the destruction of a regime and the liberation of a people. But to do this with only one real military ally, with much of the world against it, with a war plan that is still, by necessity, in flux days before the advent, with an invasion force that contains only one fully deployed heavy armored division -- and to have, under these circumstances, the division's commander sleeping pretty good at night: Well, that is extraordinary.

A victory on these terms will change the power dynamics of the world. And there will be a victory on these terms.
As someone who does not believe, implicitly, in the absolute goodness of American military power, I see a boot in those paragraphs. As events played out over the following half decade, we saw that boot crash down on many faces: at Abu Ghraib, in uncounted house raids, in the incompetence and corruption that left Iraq an impoverished ruin, the money for reconstruction disappeared, opportunities squandered and lives wasted. It started with the belief, the ecstatic belief, that American military power could make the world anew, starting with Iraq.

Reading Orwell, it does not do to take the "boot" quote out of context. Orwell gives his interrogator the lines he does because he needs to expose the lies behind the worship of power. The real thing, the virus in the wild, almost always wears a mask. If we expect a interrogator like the one in 1984, we shall mistake the real face of power and cruelty, which even in its sadism feigns benevolence. A person with the character and insight to see the boot on their own foot almost always tries to take it off.

American power, American weaponry seduced many Americans outraged and terrified by the vulnerability 9/11 had shown them. Dazzled by their weapons and new forms of military organization, they never saw the boot on the face of Iraqis, never saw that the military and political power they supported wore that boot.