I happened to be in New York this past weekend. My oldest son, a photographer there, called to get together. Towards the end of the phone conversation he says, “Don’t get worried when you see me. It’s not as bad as it looks. I fell off my bike. I blame it on the New York streets.”
He slid across an intersection when he hit a patch of indiscernible liquid that he describes as “black ice,” a film that drips off the back of garbage trucks and lays unseen over the pavement. He flew thirty feet across an intersection, scraping his arm raw.
My son is doing the right thing. He sold his vehicle and he bikes and takes subways to work. But the streets of New York are inhospitable for those who “do the right thing.”
Then I pulled open the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times and found Jan Hoffman’s Moving Targets about how “bikers and drivers fight over their patch of asphalt.” Another example of how inhospitable New York streets—and who uses them—are to those trying to “do the right thing.” But in Hoffman’s article we move into dramatic, and dangerous, territory: anger, aggression and violence—people to people fighting over ownership of the pavement.
“With more bikes on the road, the driver-cyclist, Hatfield-McCoy hostility is ratcheting up,” says Hoffman. This is a situation made more complex by groups—cyclists and motorists—banning together and protesting via blogs and texting. There is also a “whiff of class warfare in the simmering hostility,” Hoffman says, when “superfly fit cyclists, wearing Sharpie-toned spandex and ridding $3,000 bikes, cockily dart through swampy, stolid traffic with bike racks and showers” while motorists stuck in traffic grit their teeth.
To make matters even more challenging, adding to the confusion, tension and angst are the inexperienced cyclists who pedal on sidewalks and zigzag against traffic. Hoffman asks, “Will the Hatfields and McCoys ever be able to coexist?”
It’s a difficult question to answer that requires we try to understand who we are as a culture. We are an aggressive culture. We occupy large quantities of space; we take “ownership”; we acquire; we “go for it” by any means necessary. We binge. We hook up–and forget. One of the reasons why American football has become the American pastime is because it is a territorial, aggressive game defined by crisis—and time, of which there is never enough. In America, it’s always the fourth quarter. We define life in inches—so we need to take a mile, even if it’s away from you, even if it hurts you.
I just came back from Amsterdam, an older culture that had something to do with the founding of New York, aka the colony, the New Netherlands. It’s amazing how the bikers glide smoothly across streets, over tram tracks, around pedestrians. The key, I learned, is respect, tolerance and understanding–and following rules. There is no aggression; that is, bikers ring their bells, trams dong theirs and pedestrians, even the tourists, “watch out.” It’s as if one is watching a beautiful dance, only this one is orchestrated from within, holistically, naturally: we are all in this together; we all have rights, so let’s respect them. A healthy approach that permeates the entire culture.
In an aggressive land such as ours, particularly in New York City, though Hoffman is keen to define this problem as a national problem, coast to coast, we are more interested in our advantage over “the other” rather then reconciling our differences peacefully and creatively. We in fact shun creativity. We negotiate with violence, our fists. (see: Violence in American Myth, Imagination & Literature, by Jane Anne Phillips)
Aggression and the lack of tolerance pervade our culture, whether for another’s skin color, religious and moral believes, sexuality and gender and ideas. We attack. No matter what. We even violate members of our own families. This is our mode, like bullies in a playground. It’s how we address the world, too—Iraq and Afghanistan are our prime examples, as is how many persons we incarcerate.
We’re not going to go forward, at any level, if our initial reaction—the American Reaction, or is it American Regression?—is aggressive and violent. This is not what Emerson had in mind when he defined the truly creative person in Self-Reliance.
Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times, and hurl in the face of custom and trade and office, the fact which is the upshot of all history, that there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor working wherever a man works; that a true man belongs to no other time or place, but is the center of things. Where he is, there is nature. He measures you and all men and all events.
Where is the true person? How have we moved so far from truth?
Squandered is the “great responsible Thinker and Actor.” We’ve enabled the mediocre, shallow person who reacts without thinking, takes without consideration, violates because of the immoral belief that it’s one’s right to do so. This is not a thinker, but rather, a follower, someone easily manipulated.
It’s easy to see how we believe, then, that acting violently without reflection is our right because we view the soil under our feet as solely ours; we view the space we inhabit as ours and ours alone; we see the other as an aggressor to the world we inhabit, literally and figuratively. We thus walk around with destruction foremost in our minds.
This could be a person who crosses our always moving path on a bicycle or it could be someone in Muslim garb or a person of a color different from our own or someone who challenges our privileged space. We don’t tolerate any of it. And resolve to attack.
But as Emerson says, “In history our imagination plays us false.” It is unfortunate that we turn aggressively against history—this has been our story since Emerson, brought dramatically to the forefront during the last eight years where violence has been the only means to an unforeseeable end. The battle between bikers and drivers is, I’m afraid, only a symptom of greater ills we seem to be running from. How far can we run from the truth?