Thursday, June 3, 2010

I Hate Being Right!

Almost a month ago I wrote the post "Sister Cities," which had its origins in a New York Times Op-Ed piece by Chris Raschka and emerged as a comparison of bicycle cultures in New York and San Francisco (hence the title). The heart of the comparison had to do with the nature of what I called a "defiance culture," which probably had its origins among the cyclists (through rituals such as Critical Mass) but has extended to both pedestrians and motorists (who were ostensibly the primary target of cyclist defiance). There is, of course, little one can say in defense of a defiance culture; and, in many respects, it just provides further support for Ghandi's precept that "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind."

The resulting blindness in this case is to the fact that conflicts among cyclists, pedestrians, and motorists amounts to little more than what I called "arguing over symptoms." So I concluded my piece by trying to tease out where the real problems resided:

The "disease" is a "pandemic" inability of cities, at least in the United States, to deal with the current levels of crowding. This is not just a problem of cities lacking the resources to pursue solutions. I would guess that, even before the resource question arises, there are deeper problems of lacks of both will and imagination. In just about any utopian vision that has been conceived, every individual has "breathing space." These days we only encounter those individuals in television commercials; and, because we now accept such commercials as fiction, we may have abandoned the idea that we have the resources to recover that "breathing space." Perhaps disregard for the environment is prevalent because so many sectors of the population feel antagonistic towards that environment; but the problem is that, if we are all wrapped up in hostility towards the problem, we are ill-equipped to give serious thoughts to solution. The result is that we shall find ourselves in yet another situation in which we succumb to a helplessness that can only beget rage.

Today it pains me to report that rage has, indeed, emerged in San Francisco. This morning Henry K. Lee, Staff Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, filed the following brief report:

A motorist is being sought by San Francisco police after he rammed four bicyclists in the Mission District and Potrero Hill neighborhood during a five-minute rampage in a crossover sport utility vehicle, authorities said.

The driver of a blue Nissan Rogue hit three male bicyclists before hitting a fourth victim and then crashing into a light pole and a parked Jeep Cherokee at the corner of 17th and Missouri streets. The motorist then fled from the vehicle on foot.

Three of the victims were taken to San Francisco General Hospital, while a fourth was treated at the scene. All suffered non-life-threatening injuries, authorities said.

Witnesses reported the man weaving in and out of traffic and driving on the wrong side of the road to deliberately run down the victims.

"All of the victims were bicyclists, and from witnesses at the scene, they do appear to be targeted," police Lt. Lyn Tomioka told reporters. "We don't know if they were known victims, or if because they were on bicycles or what the issue was yet. Obviously this is very fresh and still unfolding."

The first incident was reported on the 2700 block of Harrison Street at 9:43 p.m. Wednesday. The second crash happened on the 2800 block of Harrison, quickly followed by the third collision at 23rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

The final crash at 17th and Missouri was reported at 9:49 p.m.

While the "hard data points" behind this incident are still tentative, the operative phrase is likely to be "appear to be targeted." My use of the noun "pandemic" stems from an ongoing series of news reports from around the world all of which involve outbursts of rage often with what appear to be arbitrarily chosen targets. Consider the "headline company" that Lee is keeping today over on the BBC News Web site. Two of the "Other Top Stories" given links on the Front Page involve similar acts of rage:

  1. The shooting spree of 52-year-old self-employed taxi driver Derrick Bird, which left 12 people dead and 11 injured in Cumbria.
  2. The shooting deaths of a judge and clerk in a Brussels courtroom.

Yesterday, when I was writing about Michael Pollan's latest New York Review contribution, I did not include his exploration hypothesis of the link between fast food and the erosion of social civility. At the time I felt that this hypothesis was still a bit too remote for further consideration. However, Pollan included a quote from Janet Flamming, a leading proponent of this hypothesis:

Civility is not needed when one is by oneself.

If one is "by oneself" out of a desperate need to find that "breathing space" that plays a significant role in my own argument about city life, then there could well be a link between Flamming's hypothesis and the sociopathy I have been trying to address. The question that then remains lies in another of my hypotheses: Are we so consumed by this sociopathy that we now lack "both will and imagination" that could lead to a cure?

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