Critical Mass: Occupying the Lion’s Gate Bridge

June 27th, 2009
About 2000 Vancouverites participated in the June 26 Critical Mass ride, which ended on the Lions Gate Bridge

About 2000 Vancouverites participated in the June 26 Critical Mass ride, which ended on the Lion's Gate Bridge. (photo copyleft Rodger Levesque)

I participated in my first Critical Mass Ride since moving to Vancover in 2004. When I lived in Ontario, I was a commuter cyclist, beginning in my undergrad days at U of T, where my bike was an extension of my body. I went everywhere on it, rain or snow, day or night. When I moved to Windsor, Car and Smog Capital of Canada, I was one of perhaps 10 commuter cyclists in the city. There were no bike lanes and I was told that I literally took my life into my own hands when riding certain roads, despite the fact that bicycles were (and still are) designated as vehicles by the Ontario Highway Traffic Act subject to the same rules of the road as automobiles.

Those were the days when I was working at ROOM magazine, an alt weekly I co-founded with NotLeftToChance in 1994. One of the bees in our bonnet was cycling in Car Town, and we wrote a lot about the environmental, health and community benefits of human-powered transportation. We supported the city’s Bicycling Committee in its fight to put bike paths on Riverside Drive, something the (ill-informed, yet well heeled) residents opposed. We organized Windsor’s first Bike-to-Work-Week, and we held the first mass ride – I think there were about 10 people on it, which, despite the small number, still produced an odd sight in a town where there is one mode of transportation: driving. To see people walking, let alone cycling, is strange indeed. Today, some “inroads” have been made to raise the profile of cycling in Windsor, though I’m not sure how much of the Bicycle Use Master Plan has been implemented.

Having young children, moving to a new city and starting my PhD really put the brakes on my cycling. My old bike, which I brought from Windsor, rusted in the rain. I found myself with little time for cycling, and little inclination – I didn’t venture too far from home with the kids, and walking suited us just fine. I took transit to school everyday, and that was that.

Then two birthdays ago, I got a new bike. A shiny orange cruiser with fat tires and no gears. I slowly got back into the cycling groove. I’ve wanted to attend a mass ride for awhile now, and yesterday’s beautiful weather decided it for me. As it turns out, the weather also called out at least a couple thousand Vancouverites, who converged at the Vancouver Art Gallery for what would be the year’s biggest ride yet.


A researcher from SFU's psychology department interviews me about Critical Mass for the study Bike Activism & Collective Action. Photo copyleft Rodger Levesque.

The ride was super fun – a nice tour of parts of downtown and the west end that I don’t get to very often, being fairly ensconced in the Republic of East Van. There is truly something amazing about doing the unexpected and forbidden – about gathering together with other cyclists to ride en masse on the city roads – normally so hostile and dangerous for the two-wheeled. There is an exhilerating feeling of liberation, of community, and the sense, too, that things could be different, could be better. That we would make it better together.

The ride had its tense moments too. I’ve learned that this comes from confronting the status quo with alternatives, with forcing people to step out of their comfort zones (in this case, the security and isolation of their metal shells). I did witness some confrontations with motorists. Those who tried to bypass the “corkers” (cyclists who block oncoming traffic by lining their bikes up in a row across an intersection) were surrounded by more cyclists. In this scenario, someone usually tries to engage in polite, educational dialogue, to assuage the motorist’s concerns and develop allies.

As the Critical Mass Vancouver blog states:

This is not an us vs car drivers ride. Those stuck in car traffic are our friends and we need to be polite and respectful of them as we increase the traffic by putting more people on the roads. We do have to prevent cars from entering the mass and if anyone tries to use a car as a weapon to threaten aggressive force we call 9-11 and try to defuse the tension.

Most drivers I saw were pretty calm. A lot looked annoyed, many were resigned, and some called out questions. My favourite, of course, were the ones who honked and waved and smiled. One guy got out of his car, cranked the tunes, and watched the scene go by. Not surprisingly, though, some drivers became irate, shouting at cyclists. One woman even opened her car door into the ride and refused to move from beside the door, making a slow-moving part of the ride even slower as bikes wended their way along Beach Ave. Mostly, the mass riders I saw were cool and polite (though, like any large group, there are always those who don’t adhere to the spirit or intent). Sadly, conflict is inevitable when dealing with motorists who see driving (often single-occupancy) cars as their godgiven right, inalienable as their property rights.

Vancouver Critical Mass, June 26, 2009

Bikes and the City: A pretty awesome mix. Photo copyleft Rodger Levesque

I understand that the wait was long (at least an hour or more in spots) and I understand that it was the end of a long day, at the end of a long week. But progressive social change isn’t convenient. It isn’t comfortable. It takes and shakes us out of our complacency, out of our routines, which – in the case of massive over-driving – is having devastating impact on our planet and human health. Cars kill, literally. For example, a 2005 study found smog -  a key ingredient of which is the major atmospheric pollutant carbon monoxide, a by-product of internal combustion engine use – kills thousands of Canadians prematurely each year. There were 2,889 people killed and 199,337 people injured in road crashes in Canada during 2006 (the most recent year for which official statistics are available).

Like everything, this translates into dollars and cents. One government study estimated that the social cost for car collisions is $62.7 billion a year or about 4.9 per cent of Canada’s 2004 Gross Domestic Product. BC ranked fourth among the provinces, with annual costs of $8.8 billion (see the Transport Canada report). Another Transport Canada report estimates the annual financial cost of roads to be $156.35 billion, and the social costs (such as accidents and pollution) were $29.59 billion.

There is some irony in the fact that Vancouver motorists willingly wait two or three  hours to cross the border or board a ferry in long, boring, sweaty line-ups. But for the odd time they might encounter a mass ride, whose social objectives are hard to argue with, they often can’t see beyond the smog horizon. We forget that along with certain rights (and I’d seriously question that auto travel is a right) that membership in society confers, it also conveys responsibilities. We are beholden to our fellow humans. We are required to husband this earth, from which we derive sustenance and often abundance. We don’t just get to drive in our isolated metal shells from the suburbs to work in the city every day and ignore the consequences. Critical Mass simply draws our attention to the consequences of our behaviour. And points to positive alternatives. Better health. Cleaner air. Physical connection to our streets and neighbourhoods. Strengthening of community, and of the caring it brings.

There was time when it was inconvenient to have women in the workplace. And to have black people sit at the front of the bus. Social change is uncomfortable. Sometimes it even hurts. But it is necessary if we are to continue to evolve as a sustainable, equitable and caring species.

How can we change?

1. Stop driving to work if it’s under a 15 minute drive. Ride your bike, walk, or take transit.

2. Stop driving if you live within a 10 minute walk from transit. Buy a pass. Get going.

3. Carpool. Find someone at work with whom you can do this. Make it work.

4. Sell your car! Join a car co-op and drive only when it’s really necessary.

All these things will improve your physical fitness, save you money and maybe, just maybe, lead to something interesting, something that the isolation and alienation of car travel could never provide. And remember, Critical Mass is the last Friday of every month, rain or shine. Save yourself the “hassle” and don’t plan to be anywhere near the core of the city with your car between 6 and 8pm. Telecommute, take transit or goddessforbid, bring your bike and join the ride!!

See you on your bike!

The Art of Loving

April 10th, 2009

Erich Fromm wrote The Art of Loving in the early fifties. It’s pretty rad. In his section on Love of God, he writes of the the “true kernel” of monotheistic religion, “the logic of which leads exactly to the negation of this concept of God. The truly religious person, if he follows the essence of  the monotheistic idea, does not pray for anything, does not expect anything from God; he does not love God as a child loves his father or her mother; he has acquired the humility of sensing his limitations, to the degree of knowing that he knows nothing about God.”

Cool so far. Fromm continues:

“He has faith in the principles which ‘God’ represents; he thinks turth, lives love and justice, and considers all of his life only valuable inasmuch as it gives him the chance to arrive at an ever fuller unfolding of his human powers—as the only reality that matters, as teh only object of ‘ultimate concern’; and eventually, he does not speak about God—nor even mention his  name. To love God, if he were going to use this word, would mean, then, to long for the attainment of the full capacity to love, for the realization of that which ‘God’ stands for in oneself.”

Right on.

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What I dig about Critical Theory

February 13th, 2009

There’s a reason I’ve always felt an affinity for critical theory. Early on, it was more of an intuition, like right, these folks are really on to something.  Max Horkheimer, of course, is more articulate in his 1937 definition of critical theory as:

1. “a theory dominated at every turn by a concern for reasonable conditions of life;

2. a theory which Condemns exisitng social institutions and practicies as ‘inhuman’;

3. a theory which contemplates the need for ‘an alteration of society as a whole.”

Is it any wonder this is my theoretcial framework, my intellectual orientation and foundation? It just seems so simple, so obvious and so sensible.

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So much for new year’s resolutions

December 28th, 2008

I don’t usually make new year’s resolutions. Nor ny’s reservations for that matter, or any big plans around this fairly arbitrary and thus meaningless date – concept really. I realized from a young age that the resolutions never stick – are a set-up for failure basically – and that the night itself is usually awash in disappointment. At the least it never meets expectations.

But. With me, hope springs eternal, despite the shit and horror of this world. I am the hopeful despondent. And so when Trophycase drew my attention to my horoscope in Free Will Astrology, I gave it a gander. Now, I have written about Rob Breszny’s FWA before … and my assessment remains the same – Leos get the short shrift in his column – despite the odd bone tossed our way. Here’s what Rob wrote about the regal star sign as 2006 drew to a close:

Leo Horoscope for week of December 14, 2006

“Your face alternately contorts with strain and breaks into beatific grins. Your body language careens from garbled jargon to melodic poetry. Your clothes make a fool of you one day and show off your inner beauty the next. Are you becoming bi-polar? Probably not. The more likely explanation is that you’re being convulsed by growing pains that are killing off bad old habits as fast as they’re creating interesting new ones. This is one of those times when you should be proud to wear a badge that says ‘hurts so good.’”

And, you know, I took heart at the idea that people could change. That I could change. Not so much a new year’s resolution but a work in progress. I think that’s more artful and beauty-filled than any finished “piece.” Course, the years flow on, and nothing much does seem to change. Least of all me. And I find myself mired in my own shit all over again, or still. And then up pops another inspiring horoscope from my buddy Rob and I tempted to hope once more:

Leo Horoscope for week of December 18, 2008

“Happy Holy Daze, Leo! If I could give you one gift for the holidays, it might be a magic object to add to your love altar — something like a pomegranate resting on red velvet, or a golden heart-shaped magnet, or Pablo Neruda’s book 100 Love Sonnets. What? You don’t have a love altar? Well then please begin creating one as soon as possible, and continue building it throughout 2009. For the next 12 months, the time will be right to get smarter, wilder, and kinder in your approach to creating intimate connection.”

Sounds pretty awesome, hey? If only I could deliver. Once every year or two Rob Breszny comes through for Leo. Somehow, it feels too little, too late. A bit like me and my “changes.” I recently watched the latest from Harmony Korine, Mister Lonely. The Michael Jackson impersonator is played by the ohsolovely Diego Luna. The expansive Samantha Morton is Marilyn Munroe, who asks Michael whether anything ever changes. He says of course. And she repeats her question with more insistence: But does anything ever really change?”And Michael is stumped. Then Marilyn, true to form, kills herself. It’s a good movie. Go rent it.

My new year’s resolution for 2009 is the same one I set for myself every day, the same one I’ve had since I was about 30: to change myself. To rail against the social constraints and limitations that stripe my being like whip marks. I tell my students at the beginning of each course (whichever one) that the world is a social construction; as it is made daily by our participation in social and physical structures, by our acquiescence to the status quo, so it can be unmade, remade.

But can I remake myself? How to change daily practice that has become second nature? People default to nature as explanation, our animal instincts as some sort of salve that would soothe us, cleanse us, even, from any responsibility for our very conditioned (re)actions. It is tempting, believe me, but not in the spirit of metamorphosis.

Marcuse writes of “second nature” – both of the current capitalist set of values/mores and of the instinctual foundation for liberation:

“Once a specific morality is firmly established as a norm of social behaviour, it is not only introjected – it also operates as a norm of ‘organic’ behaviour the organism receives and reacts to certain stimuli and ‘ignores’ and repels others in accord with the introjected morality, which is thus promoting or impeding the function of the organism as a living cell in the respective society” (Essay on liberation, p. 11).

He further observes that the “so-called consumer economy and the politics of corporate capitalism” comprise the second nature of human, tying her “libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form.”  The constant need to possess, consume, own that capitalism offers to and imposes upon people has become “biological”in this sense.

“The second nature of (hu)man thus militates against any change that would disrupt and perhaps even abolish this dependence of (hu)man on a market ever more densely filled with merchandise – abolish [her] existence as a consumer consuming [her]self in buying and selling” (ibid). According to Marcuse, the needs created by the capitalist system are stabilizing and conservative – in this way, the counterrevolution becomes instinctive.

Marcuse says that unless the “revolt” – that is revolt against capitalism as a dominative and repressive mode of social organization – descends into this “second” nature, these ingrown patterns, “social change will remain incomplete, even self defeating” (ibid). The radical change needed to transform existing society into a free society therefore must take place within the individual, in the biological dimension, which will then unfurl and extend to social relations and then to social organization itself. For this to occur, according to Marcuse, the “vital, imperative needs and satisfactions of (hu)man” would need to assert themselves. Currently, our “instinctive” needs and satisfactions reproduce our servitude. “[L]iberation presupposes changes in this biological dimension, that is to say, different instincutal needs, different reactions of the body as well as the mind” (p. 17).

The difficulty is changing our instinctive reactions to the social conditioning that has literally ruined us as free, expressive, loving individuals. Intellectually, it isn’t that difficult to observe and analyze the history of humankind, which Marcuse calls the “history of domination and servitude.” But to liberate our scarred, branded, crippled selves from that history is tricky business indeed.

So it’s true: if you want to change the world, you have to change yourself first. And that in itself is a revolution. It might be bloody. And there might not be survivors. But as Spartacus said (just watched for the first time last night), a slave only finds freedom in death. I am speaking metaphorically here, and the conundrum remains: how to be reborn, free of the societal chains that confine and maim, and yet still live in that society?

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