DEMOCRACY, DEMAGOGUERY, AND BICYCLING: Stop The Boston Herald’s Vigilante Campaign

It’s been fascinating and infuriating watching the Boston Herald try to conjure up anti-bicyclist hysteria.   Day after day, they throw out feelers, venomous outbursts testing the appeal of one angle after another: government waste, arrogant elites riding roughshod over ordinary people, preferential treatment of a minority group, discriminatory ticketing of car drivers while letting law-breaking cyclists get away with warnings, out-of-control youth treating the elderly with contempt….I’m sure that there is more to come.

Pandering to resentment is the Herald’s stock in trade.  Of course, it’s not them alone.  The modern model of nastiness was created by AM radio’s talk hate shows and spread to other media (and other countries) by Rupert’s Fox-media conglomerates.  They’re all anti-government, and jumping on the anti-immigrant bandwagon.  If this was any place beside Massachusetts we’d also be getting heavy doses of gay-bashing – but here the legalization of same-sex marriage has made it a non-issue.  (Has your marriage been having any extra trouble lately?  Has anyone you know suddenly woken up attracted to a different gender?)

My concern is not with the Herald itself – it’s been spewing garbage for years.  And I’m not even deeply concerned that its regressive views will significantly impact our state’s transportation agenda.  Unlike New York City, where anti-Bloomberg factions of the power elite are using opposition to bike lanes as a way to attack Mayor Mike, no important sectors of the local establishment see demonizing cyclists as a way to gain votes.  In fact, the importance of the health care industry in this area means that there is huge institutional support for the public health benefits of “active transportation” — which may be one reason why most area politicians and businesses are big bike supporters.  So far, only Congressman Capuano has publicly opposed road designs that divert unneeded road capacity into bike or pedestrian space.

(The lack of local elite opposition to active transportation may be why the Globe backed off from its own forays’ into anti-bicycling nonsense, which probably were just an effort by local editors to please their superiors in the New York Times which seems to be leaning towards the anti-Bloomberg faction in the Big Apple’s intra-elite faction-fights.)

Normalizing Incivility

What worries me is the way that the Herald’s articles can create and escalate public anger, not just against bicyclists but as an increasingly common part of daily social interaction.  Their articles are like burning matches being thrown around looking for kindling to ignite.  And after 40 years of increasingly conservative national policies that have made life increasingly difficult for most Americans while diverting more and more of our wealth towards the top fifth of the population, there is a lot of combustible material lying around.  The bursting of the latest speculative bubble (the financial bubble coming on top of the housing bubble and not long after the dot-com bubble which followed the savings bank bubble which built on…), along with the intense insecurity resulting from the continuing collapse of US international domination, have  added even more of our population to the wood pile.

It’s become ominously clear that our political/business establishment is incapable of surmounting our system’s built-in tendency for periodic crises or the slow crumbling of our empire.   As the available resources diminish and government has fewer ways to solve problems, as past status and hopes are lowered and people become more desperate and aggressive about pursuing self-serving needs, people get angrier and the culture becomes meaner.  Our personal and social fuses are shorter.  We start looking for someone to blame – and punish.  At its worst, this fuels social movements targeting a convenient scapegoat.   Many of us with large gaps in our family trees know where that leads.

Boston Drivers

Too paranoid a leap?  OK, back to basics:  Of course there are people who ride too close to pedestrians, or race through red lights without looking for crossing traffic, or arrogantly yell at others who have an equal right to be on the road.  But most of those people are car drivers.  Yes – some are cyclists.  And some are pedestrians – a disturbing number of whom regularly step out of a parked car or step out without looking from between parked cars.

(By the way: “jaywalking” in the middle of the block is actually safer than crossing at many corners, where cars are coming from multiple directions at various times with short sight lines. As Elizabeth Thomas noted, even (unleashed) dogs have figured this out!)

I understand the saliency of bike lanes and bicyclists as a symbol of a rapidly and unsettlingly changing world, a world in which most people feel increasingly insecure and in which the self-serving actions of the rich and powerful is arrogantly on display. But I also know that allowing reactionary demagogues to frame the way public anger is expressed and where it is focused is a danger to what is left of our civil society and democratic processes.  A couple years ago right wing fanatics were able to turn the idea of helping people die with dignity into “death panels” aimed at the helpless.  The language used in public discourse matters – blaming Muslims for 9-11 impacts society in very different ways than saying it was the work of religious fundamentalists.

Language Counts

And now the Boston Herald is escalating its rhetoric, ranting about cyclists continuing their “war” against cars using language that seems to be almost calling for drivers to fight back, encouraging vigilante attacks on the two-wheeled enemy.

I’m aware that some of my vehemence about all this comes from my own frustrations about the state of US society, my own projection of personal feelings on to the public scene.  As a former history teacher, I know that there have been much worse situations and that our country is amazingly resilient and flexible.  I know that virulent right-wing movements usually only become powerful when they are supported by business elites looking for allies to help them oppose left-wing policies.  But I also know that our society is in the midst of a deeper crisis than our leaders seem willing to admit, much less to deal with.  And I fear that we are in for some turbulent times.

Nearly 30 years ago, as my brother was dying from AIDS, I decided that even if I couldn’t change Ronald Reagan’s policies the space around me would become a homophobia-free zone.  Never again, regardless of the circumstance or the speaker, would I allow a gay joke or disparaging comment made in my presence to go unchallenged.

Gripping isn’t always a hate crime.  Some of what the Herald is reflecting is the normal grumbling of the permanently dissatisfied,  quite different from the visceral hatred/fear that underlies comments denigrating homosexuals, or people of color, or immigrants, or non-Christians, or women, or lots of other groups who have experienced (and in many case still suffer from) real violence.  In everyday conversation, anti-bicyclist comments usually come from ignorance.

Demanding Responsibility

However, the Herald is not ignorant.  They know exactly what they’re doing.  And it’s time for us – not just cyclists but all people concerned about regaining a level of civil discourse and moving us away from paths that lead to violence – for all of us to push back.  As a media business, the Herald is always able to out-shout us, so I know that the region’s advocacy groups need to collectively respond using a more temperate tone than this personal blog.  Part of that response should include encouraging cyclists to behave properly towards the other people with whom we share our roads.  And part of it should include organizing more Courteous Rides events to publicly show our support for “Riding Nicely On Bikes.”

But we can’t get defensive about our right to be on the roads or the culpability of those who are playing with fire.  So most of all, we need to make it clear, through our statements and actions, that if road rage attacks on cyclists occur, it is the Boston Herald that is to blame for inciting and promoting it.


Related Previous Posts:

AVOIDING “NIMBY” – Navigating Between Fear and Greed

REFRAMING ISSUES TO UNITE US: A Transportation Platform for Local Use

MEDIA vs REALITY: The “Bike Lane Backlash” & Big Dig Disasters

WHEN BUDGETS SHRINK, Mission’s Must Converge

Why Do So Many People Do Such Stupid Things?

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