One of the problems of the 1960's, and every generational movement, before or since, for that matter, is the determination to define each act in moral, absolute terms. There is little room for discussion of relative importance or impact, and less room for dissension within the movement.
I criticized bicycling, in the dark, in a vicious snowstorm, with roads already difficult to navigate because of ruts in the snow and ice bonded to poorly plowed streets Bicycling Madison Style: As Dumb AS It Gets. I did not criticize any of the following:
- biking in subfreezing temperatures
- winter cycling
- ice biking or biking on snow packed streets
- bicycling in heavy traffic or streets poorly designed for bicycle safety
- biking in the dark
Yet it brought an avalanche of replies, over two hundred to my three posts. The replies are interesting. There were a significant number who focused on riding bicycles in the winter and the rights of cyclists. No quarrel here.
Several people noted that they had no alternative form of transportation - that for one reason or another there were no alternative means of transportation. I suggest that they do the same as anyone else stranded in a storm - either stay put or find an alternative means of transportation. The point does not change - biking in a dangerous storm after dark, with those kind of road conditions, is not worth risking your life.
Many of the comments were in defense of bicyclists' rights, accompanied by a torrent of criticism against drivers who do not respect the bicyclists' space. There was no one word in my posts conceding one inch of the space on the roads that rightfully belongs to those of us who use two wheels.
Lastly there were the posts on the environmental benefits of using a bicycle and a wave of attacks on carbon producing vehicles.
Excuse me for not using gasoline and spewing carbon emmissions (sic) when my commute takes less time by bike, is healthy for my body, and is far safer.
And that is the redefined essence of the debate.
While I criticized a specific act under specific conditions, my comments were taken as an assault on a life-style on a conscious environmental, political, social, and economic decision made by many readers. I had attacked their way of life.
It did not matter to them that my focus was a narrow specific circumstance.
And the rebuttal was more than just a defense of biking under winter conditions. Note, that if you read all the comments, there are very few that actually defend riding in the snowstorm that prompted the debate.
Upon reflection, the furor was to be expected. Constantly under assault from the opposition, in this case motor vehicles, some bicyclist took any criticism on their own as an attack on themselves, on their culture, their way of life, and their core values.
A critic of any use of a bicycle, no matter how specific, must be a right wing, gas guzzling, carbon producing, cranky old man.
Those responses were interesting. Individuals who probably believe they are free of discriminatory bias launched an attack based on age. Others proudly announced their moral superiority. Some insisted that their right to access the public thoroughfare was absolute, regardless of the danger to their own personal safety.
All of us leave a carbon footprint. It is a matter of degree. It is virtually impossible to escape being a party to the exportation of jobs, a global economy that depresses wages and increases the need for carbon fuels, and incredible amounts of waste.
Just as individual acts contribute to solutions, so do larger local or state acts such as recycling programs, or national acts such as limiting carbon emissions. In the entire scheme of things, bicycling in dangerous snowstorms is an extremely modest contribution, and when balancing the value of human life, unnecessary.
As for the conservative, John Dos Passos part, I suggest reading posts at Waxing America for the past two years on :
- opposition to the war in Iraq dating back to 2002 -before it began
- a fierce attack on the Patriot Acts and defense of civil liberties
- defense of the rights of the most unpopular people to speak
- a hearty defense of consumers' right including criticism of the AT&T sponsored legislation to undermine the pubic when it comes to cable TV
- the right of Americans to freely walk the public streets without having to pay a toll
- Criticisms of Republicans and Democrats who tolerate torture
- Support of public education from the assault of right wingers who wish to privatize everything
- Support of labor unions