Tuesday, May 27, 2008

You Say You Wanna Revolution ...

Bicycling may seem boring, stupid and nonsensical to many people. Could it be revolutionary?! Well, it has been and still is.

In a former life (which I may someday revisit) I was an English literature student. Doing senior work in Victorian literature was much more fascinating than I ever thought it could be. I'm not a voracious reader. Only because of my studies am I moderately well-read. I enjoy the collection of well-written words for the sake of art, for sure. But much more so I appreciate literature because of its link to the cultural discourse at its time of creation.

The Victorian period here and across the pond was a time of profound change and immense paranoia. Yep, in so many ways it was not entirely unlike our current era. Moral zealots were crying foul at every turn. The purity of national borders, ethnicities, racial identities and social strata were regarded as severely threatened by citizens possessing any ilk of conservatism (well, and those holding money, too -- funny how those two things often go hand-in-hand). If you ever think there's some discontented spirit banging around your belfry in the wee hours, it's most likely a ghost of the Victorian era.

When I thought I was surely going on to graduate school I was strongly considering taking up a study of Victorian literature. Of interest to me are class elements and the blossoming of various new ideologies that countered the discourse of the freaked-out status quo. One thing many "upstanding" citizens did not warm to very quickly was bicycling. Biking was decried from pulpits because its joys showed parishioners another (arguably more fun) way to spend their Sundays. Cycling also was a formidable boon to the women's movement. My inner feminist revels in essays such as this one: How the Bicycle Emancipated Women.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

Susan B. Anthony once said, “I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

If you're not familiar with why Susan B might have said this, you really ought to read the article. It's short, but interesting. It might also inspire you to read a bit more about the history of cycling particularly in the U.S. You weren't doing anything better anyway -- Google it. Here a little spew from Wikipedia to get you started.

The severity of the outcry against women participating in these activities is proof of their effectiveness. The brave women who donned rational dress [bloomers] were criticized, denied access to public places and widely mocked in the media. A satirical poem in one U.S. paper, for instance, suggested bloomers were a sort of “gateway garment,” the wearers of which might go on to participate in such dastardly pursuits as business or reading.
Female cyclists were often accosted verbally and physically as they rode. Emma Eades, one of the first women to ride a bike in London, was attacked with bricks and stones. Men and women alike demanded that she go home where she belonged and behave properly.

Ah, how much our society has progressed from such barbaric mob justice ... NOT. The difference is now women AND men alike can enjoy abusive treatment while riding. Non-cyclists enjoy making fun of how cyclists dress and act. In an interesting sexist twist, I've been called a 'faggot' or 'pussy' countless times while riding my bike, usually yelled at me, of course, by men. And all regular commuters have instances where motorists have unleashed a litany of insults that we cyclists need to go back to "where we belong" -- on the paths and sidewalks, not in the road. I won't even go into having things thrown at me while on my bike. Luckily no bricks.

The 1900 United States Census Report, released more than 20 years after the introduction of the bicycle, said, “Few articles ever used by man have created so great a revolution in social conditions as the bicycle.”

Even if it were sustainable mode of transportation, could the same be said about the automobile? Some, proponents of internal combustion, might argue 'yes' and to be fair the easy mobility provided by automobiles has increased options for the masses. However, I see that the automobile has chained most habitual drivers to unprecedented levels of debt. The mounting costs of car ownership and chasing bigger and better cars has propped up an artifice behind which lies a chasm of even more stark class division. But a car is an "asset", right? You fill up your tank a couple times a week, keep up your payments, insurance and maintenance -- then explain to me how something that requires that kind of care and feeding can be an asset.

So, the bicycle -- vehicle for the next social revolution? Bring it on.

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