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A two- (and three- and one-) wheeled revolution is upon us. Dubbed “micro-mobility” by start-up marketers and influencers, the trend incorporates all sorts of personal means of transport. While the buzz may hover around electric scooters and skateboards, the faithful bicycle still leads the pack, as it has for over a hundred years. And advocates—who bike as their primary means of exercise, commuting, and running daily errands—are challenging the orthodoxies of car culture.
As an avid cyclist myself, who bikes as often as I can for groceries and other errands, I will admit to a strong bias in their favor. But even I’ve been challenged and surprised by what I've learned from biking advocates like Liz Canning, producer and narrator of a new documentary film, Motherload, a portrait of the many people who have chosen to use cargo bikes instead of cars for nearly everything.
The film is remarkable for the ordinariness of its subjects. As one cargo cyclist, Brent Patterson of Buffalo, New York, says, “I’m not an athlete. I’m not superhuman. I’m just a completely normal person like you.” The Patterson family “sold its car,” notes Outside magazine, “and travels by cargo bike year-round, even in snowstorms.” Another cargo cyclist in the film, Emily Finch, “carts all six of her kiddos around on two wheels.” We see cargo cyclists around the world, using bikes as emergency transport haulers and daily grocery-getters.
Most of the Americans profiled live in bike-friendly communities like Marin County, California or Portland, Oregon. But others, like the Pattersons, do not, “and not all are as comfortably off as Canning,” who retired as a commercial filmmaker to raise her kids in bike-friendly Fairfax, CA. “Some had to sell their car or take out a no-interest loan in order to afford a cargo bike.” No one seems to have regretted the decision.
Readers who hail from, or have lived in, places in the world where bike-reliance is the norm may scoff at the presumed novelty of the idea in Canning’s film. But at one time, even the Netherlands—home of the ubiquitous Bakfiets—was almost as car-centric as most of the U.S., as American Dan Kois writes in a New Yorker essay about how he learned to become bike commuter in the Netherlands.
I had assumed that Dutch people’s adeptness at biking was the result of generations of incessant cycling. In fact, after the Second World War, the Netherlands had, like the U.S., become dominated by cars. Cycling paths were overtaken by roads, and neighborhoods in Amsterdam were razed to make room for highways. Between 1950 and 1970, the number of cars in the country exploded from about a hundred thousand to nearly two and a half million. During that same period, bike use plummeted; in Amsterdam, the percentage of trips made by bike fell from eighty to twenty.
That all changed when young activists and parents, especially mothers—like the biking mothers in Motherload—began protesting high numbers of traffic deaths. They took to the streets on their bikes, blocking traffic, running for office, and pressuring city officials to make infrastructure and public space safe and accommodating for bikes. Now, there are more bikes than people in the Netherlands, and cars co-exist on roads full of cyclists of all ages and classes, on their way to work, school, and everywhere else.
Dutch drivers “look out for cyclists,” writes Kois. “After all, nearly all of those drivers are cyclists themselves,” using the car for a brief, necessary outing before they get back on their bikes for most everything else. Next to Kois’ first-person account of his few-months-long sojourn through Delft, we have the global testimony of the Bicycle Architecture Biennale, a “showcase of cutting edge and high profile building designs that are facilitating bicycle travel and transforming communities around the world.” The exhibits, writes Karen Wong at David Byrne's Reasons to Be Cheerful, "point the way to a two-wheeled utopia."
BYCS, the group responsible for this well-curated exhibition, come from Amsterdam. The projects they feature, however, are in London and Chongmin and Chengdu, China. The cargo cyclists in Motherload, and the ferocious activism of cyclists in places like New York City, despite tremendous "bikelash," may show Americans they don't need to look abroad to see how bikes could slowly displace cars as Americans' vehicles of choice in some parts of the country. But learning from how other places have reimagined their infrastructure could prove necessary for lasting change.
Many Americans cannot imagine life without their cars, even if they also have garages full of bikes. Some lash out at cyclists as a threat to their way of life. The country is enormous (though we do most driving locally); cars serve as modes of transport—for human, plant, animal, and everything else—and also as escape pods and status symbols. Canning’s film shows us ordinary American men and women getting the gumption to trade some comfort and security for lives of minor adventure and ecological simplicity. (And a good many of them still have cars if they need them.)
We also see, in exhibitions like that previewed in the video above how design principles and policy can help make such choices easier and safer for everyone to make. Canning pointedly frames her argument in Motherload around cycling's radical history. "100 years before the bicycle saved me," she says in the film's official trailer at the top, "it liberated the poor, empowered the suffragettes, and transformed society faster than any invention in human history. It could happen again."
From the point of view of political philosophy, both liberals and conservatives should see boycotts as a clear-cut issue. While in practice millions have had to fight for their economic rights, in theory individual citizens should be able to spend, or withhold, their money where they see fit. The politics of boycotts are far more heated on the supply side, however, perhaps signaling that individuals feel increasingly dependent on the wealthy to resolve conflicts.
We may want corporations, for example, to practice good citizenship and withhold business and endorsements from bad actors, while, at the same time, holding serious doubts about legally calling corporations citizens. When it comes to high-profile artists like J.K. Rowling, the Chemical Brothers, or Radiohead, things can get even more heated as the proprietary feelings of fandom collide with political tactics. Add to this the notorious BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement and you have instant inflammatory controversy.
In their own words, BDS “works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.” One of the means at its disposal is cultural boycott, pressuring artists not to perform in Israel. Hundreds have complied, protesting illegal settlements, human rights abuses, state repression, and treatment of artists like Dareen Tatour, a poet who was jailed for several days and given three years house arrest for social media posts.
The three big artists named above all refused to boycott Israel, even when petitions appeared with thousands of signatures. In response to criticism and a Change. Org petition, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke issued an angry response that hardly calmed things down. “The kind of dialogue that they want to engage in is one that’s black or white,” he said in 2017. “I have a problem with that. It’s deeply distressing that they choose to, rather than engage with us personally, throw shit at us in public.”
Whatever your thoughts on the band’s stance, Yorke points to something that is necessary to keep in mind: politics are always personal. They are personal when we expect artists to stay out of political debates, as though they can’t be full human beings in public. They are personal when the expectations levied on artists don’t accord with their sense of the issue, even if they might agree in principle with those pressuring them.
The entanglement of the personal and political bothered Palestinian filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel, who signed the petition to Radiohead then regretted it. For him, however, the issue was not Thom Yorke’s feelings, but his own, as a Palestinian raised in refugee camps in Lebanon, for whom the issues addressed by BDS are not abstractions affecting other people. Fleifel, who now lives in Denmark, called his friend Faris to talk over his misgivings. Then he turned their conversation into the short, abstract documentary above, I Signed the Petition.
The film provides, as Aeon writes, a brief but “complex account of how individuals make their own politics,” and the role power plays in that making. Fleifel confesses that he’s afraid his name will appear on a “blacklist” after he signed the petition for Radiohead to boycott Tel Aviv. He expresses the perfectly legitimate fear that “they’re not gonna let me in next time I go to Palestine.” Faris validates his “concerns and fears,” then paints a decidedly bleak picture of what Fleifel would find on his return to occupied Palestine, and an image of Palestinians as powerless, resentment-fueled “losers” in the global system.
The filmmaker responds with a metaphor: “So why are all these dogs barking in the desert?”—referring to the Palestinian artists who circulated and signed the petition. If a boycott doesn't make sense in this situation, what does? As Naomi Shihab Nye writes of her experience as a diasporic Palestinian artist, "this tragedy with a terrible root / is too big for us. What flag can we wave?"
Fleifel keeps calling our attention to the ways that politics and art and our individual lives are all bound up together. Yorke may have wanted a personal approach, and who can blame him? Who can blame the Palestinian artists under threat of imprisonment or permanent exile for fearing to risk more than a signature, if even that, in exercising the only political power they may have? Fleisel and Faris’s perspectives give needed depth and weight to events, without providing any easy resolution.
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Happiness, we know, is hard to come by, even in the best times. And if we agree on nothing else, we might agree that these are not the best of times. An air of gloomy dread and outraged alarm prevails for good reason. There have been many other times in history to justifiably feel this way. In 1944, German Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno—exiled for ten years from his home and sojourning through a U.S. he found increasingly fascist in character—resigned himself to quiet despair.
“There is no way out of entanglement,” he wrote in his trenchant, gloomy collection of aphorisms, Minima Moralia. “The only responsible course is to… conduct oneself privately as modestly, unobtrusively and unpretentiously as is required, no longer by good upbringing, but by the shame of still having air to breathe, in hell.”
Adorno’s absurdist melancholia came from many places: his assessment of capitalism’s inescapability, his survivor’s guilt, his generally morose temperament…. He rarely confessed to having happy thoughts even when things were going well. Another thinker of the period, philosopher of the absurd and a writer for the French Resistance during World War II, had a very different take on the question of happiness in dark times.
Albert Camus reminded us that all times are dark times for someone. Speaking after the war in 1959, he castigated the idea that we should be shamed into misery. “Today happiness is like a crime,” Camus sneered, “never admit it. Don’t say ‘I’m happy’ otherwise you will hear condemnation all around.” One pertinent question both of these very different perspectives address is whether happiness is morally responsible.
Former Talking Heads frontman, record label maven, and frequent cultural critic David Byrne has answered the question in the affirmative with his project, Reasons to Be Cheerful, first an online compendium of news stories, now a curated online magazine designed to be a “tonic for tumultuous times.” Reasons to Be Cheerful starts with the premise that we are subjected daily to “amplified negativity” that wildly skews our view of events around the world.
It’s an old complaint; we’ve all heard, or voiced, a version of why don’t they ever show any good news? Byrne put his creative energy and resources behind the criticism to do something about it, “collecting good news,” he says, “not schmaltzy, feel-good news, but stuff that reminded me, ‘Hey, there’s positive stuff going on! People are solving problems and it’s making a difference!’”
In their blurb for the introductory video at the top, the Reasons to Be Cheerful team describe the site as “an online editorial project” that is “part magazine, part therapy session, part blueprint for a better world.” The site’s “stories of hope” don’t shy away from sentiment, but they are “rooted in evidence” and purport to show “smart, proven, replicable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.”
A sampling of articles currently on the site gives us a story about how lawyers might “end up saving the world” by taking on polluters the way they took on the tobacco industry; a piece about how cheap solar in China has “fueled the world’s green-energy revolution”; and essays about education in prison and the creation of a public waterfront from donated private property on Lake Erie. This being a David Byrne project, there is also, of course, a story about "the way to a two-wheeled utopia." The current edition features several articles by Byrne himself, and another by Brian Eno.
Byrne and the editors and writing staff make no explicitly political statements, but they clearly value things like quality public education, clean air and water, a sustainable climate, and the creation of more public space—all areas that are now vastly under threat. Whether or not you find your own reasons to be cheerful in this commitment to positive journalism may depend on who and where you are, and whether you tend to see the world more like Adorno or Camus.
Toni Morrison wrote against forgetting, against the institutionalization of denial necessary for maintaining racial hierarchies in the United States. But that denial is not sufficient, she also showed. Racism always falls back on brutality when confronted with change, no matter that the past will not return except to haunt us. This reality has driven a significant percentage of Americans (back) into the arms of white supremacist ideology, espoused equally by politicians and armed “loners” in networks on Facebook or YouTube or 8chan.
In a short essay for The New Yorker after the 2016 election, Morrison displayed little surprise at the turn of events. The language of white supremacy, she wrote, is a language of cowardice disguised as dominance. “These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.” A fear so great, it has brought back public lynching, with high-capacity semiautomatic weapons.
What did Morrison think of the idea that racist mass shootings are the acts of random mentally ill people? She did not offer a medical opinion, nor presume to diagnose particular individuals. She did say that racism is seriously disordered thinking, and she suggested that if racist killers are “crazy,” so are the millions who tacitly approve and support racist violence, or who spur it on by repeating rhetoric that dehumanizes people.
In the clip above from a 2012 interview with Charlie Rose, Morrison says “those who practice racism are bereft. There is something distorted about the psyche…. It’s like it’s a profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is. It feels crazy, it is crazy.” Some may reasonably take issue with this as stigmatizing, but it seems she is neither scapegoating the mentally ill, nor absolving racists of responsibility.
Morrison points out that despite (and because of) its lofty delusions, white supremacy makes things worse for everyone, white people very much included. It succeeds because the belief in “whiteness” as a category of specialness covers up deep-seated insecurity and doubt. “What are you without racism?” she asks. “Are you any good? Are you still strong? Are you still smart? Do you still like yourself?”
In her masterful way, Morrison showed us how to have empathy for people in the grip of hatred and fear without diluting the consequences of their actions. She pitied racists but never gave an inch to racism. Tragically, her 2016 essay, “Mourning for Whiteness,” is making the rounds for reasons other than in tribute to its author, one of the country's greatest writers and one of its most unflinchingly candid.
In the days before her death yesterday at age 88, Americans were once again, “training their guns on the unarmed, the innocent, the scared, on subjects who are running away, exposing their unthreatening backs to bullets." Morrison dares us to look away from this:
In order to limit the possibility of this untenable change, and restore whiteness to its former status as a marker of national identity, a number of white Americans are sacrificing themselves. They have begun to do things they clearly don’t really want to be doing, and, to do so, they are (1) abandoning their sense of human dignity and (2) risking the appearance of cowardice. Much as they may hate their behavior, and know full well how craven it is, they are willing to kill small children attending Sunday school and slaughter churchgoers who invite a white boy to pray.
Ending with a reference to William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, she summed up the state of the nation in one deft sentence: “Rather than lose its ‘whiteness’ (once again), the family chooses murder.”
The 448 page Mueller Report doesn't make for breezy beach reading. That's for sure. But, "buried within the Mueller report, there is a narrative that reads in parts like a thriller." Working with that theory, Insider.com "hired Mark Bowden, a journalist and author known for his brilliant works of narrative nonfiction like Black Hawk Down, Killing Pablo, and Hue 1968." And they gave him an assignment: "Use the interviews and facts laid out in the Mueller Report (plus those from reliable, fact-checked sources and published firsthand accounts)" and create an account that's "so gripping it will hold your attention (and maybe your congressional representative's)." They also hired "Chad Hurd, an illustrator from the art department of Archer," and "asked him to draw out scenes from the report to bring them to life." Find the resulting illustrated edition of The Mueller Report right here.
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Laughter is good medicine, but I've found little genuine humor in satire of the 2016 election and subsequent events. Political reality defies parody. So, I guess I wasn’t particularly amused by the idea of a comic staging of the Mueller Report. But aside from whether or not the report has comic potential, the exercise raises a more serious question: Should ordinary citizens read the report?
Given the snowjob summary offered by the Attorney General—and certain press outfits who repeated claims that it exonerated the president—probably. Especially (good luck) if they can score an unredacted copy. Yet, this raises yet another question: Does anyone actually want to read it? The answer appears to be a resounding yes. Even though it's free, the [redacted] report is a bestseller.
And yet, “the published version is as dry as a [redacted] saltine,” writes James Poniewozik at The New York Times. “Robert Mueller himself has the stoic G-man bearing of someone who would laugh by writing ‘ha ha’ on a memo pad.” (Now that’s a funny image.) One wonders how many people dutifully downloading it have stayed up late by the light of their tablets compelled to read it all.
But of course, one does not approach any government document with the hopes of being entertained, though unintentional hilarity can leap from the page at any time. How should we approach The Investigation: A Search for the Truth in 10 Acts? Scripted by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan from the Mueller Report’s transcripts, the production is “part old-time public recitation,” writes Poneiwozik, and “part Hollywood table read.”
The staging above at New York’s Riverside Church was hosted by Law Works and performed live by a cast including Annette Bening, Kevin Kline, John Lithgow (as “Individual 1” himself), Michael Shannon, Justin Long, Jason Alexander, Wilson Cruz, Joel Gray, Kyra Sedgwick, Alfre Woodard, Zachary Quinto, Mark Ruffalo, Bob Balaban, Alyssa Milano, Sigourney Weaver, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mark Hamill, and more. Bill Moyers serves as emcee.
Can this darkly comic production deliver some comic balm for having lived through the sordid reality of the events in question? It has its moments. Can it offer us something resembling truth? You be the judge. Or you be the producer, director, actor, etcetera. If you find value—civic, entertainment, or otherwise—in the exercise, Schenkkan encourages you to put on your own version of The Investigation. “Your production can be as modest or extravagant as you like,” he writes at Law Works, followed by a list of further instructions for a possible staging.
If, like maybe millions of other people, you’ve got an unread copy of the Mueller Report on your nightstand, maybe watching—or performing—The Investigation is the best way to get yourself to finally read it. Or the most grimly humorous, moronic, pathetic, and surreal parts of it, anyway.