Tempestuous Cyclists and a Stunning Victory

There’s an editorial in the SF Bay Guardian today, but they don’t seem to have included it on their website, so I’m going to post it below… The Committee for Full Enjoyment chimed in on the recent frenzy surrounding Critical Mass…

But before we get to that, I want to congratulate Jeff Schmidt on his remarkable victory over his former employer, the American Institute of Physics, publishers of Physics Today. When his book appeared he explained how he’d written a lot of it on the job at Physics Today, and that was their excuse for firing him. But the content of the book is so damning to the entire profession, it’s not surprising they tried to suppress it, or at least punish him for writing it. The whole story is posted online here, and the victory letter announcing the capitulation of the magazine is here.

Jeff was a long-time subscriber to Processed World magazine, and some years ago now he published a very important book: Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes Their Lives. In it, Schmidt really unpacks the deep compromises at the heart of the professional’s middle class existence. Hilariously (and alarmingly) he advises studying the US Army’s Prisoner of War survival manual as a way to maintain your intellectual independence while going through graduate school… I’m quoting him in several spots in my forthcoming book. Here’s one of my favorites:

“Professionalism” in particular the notion that experts should confine themselves to their “legitimate professional concerns” and not “politicize” their work” helps keep individual professionals in line by encouraging them to view their narrow technical orientation as a virtue, a sign of objectivity rather than of subordination.”

Jeff Schmidt’s dissection of professionalism illuminates the powerlessness that characterizes crucial aspects of the careerist experience: “Professionals control the technical means but not the social goals of their creative work. The professional’s lack of control over the political content of his or her creative work is the hidden root of much career dissatisfaction”¦ Professionals are licensed to think on the job, but they are obedient thinkers.” Schmidt further argues that by leaving unchallenged the employer’s control of the political content of his work, the professional “surrenders his social existence, his control over the mark he makes on the world.” This is a core aspect of the deep dissatisfaction experienced by many so-called successful professionals. Reclaiming their dignity and full humanity often leads such professionals to disengage, to walk away from apparently successful lives.

So check it out… Physics Today had to pay him a half million dollars and offer him his job back. This all came about in response to a huge campaign amongst physicists across the world, really encouraging my endless hopes for a revolt among the technicians!

And I still think Critical Mass is a bit of that too… and after all those comments on the last post, I’m sure there’ll be some more after this… so here’s the editorial, as promised:

Tempestuous Bicyclists Stir San Francisco’s TeapotOur local road/culture war has erupted again, this time thanks to some unsavory gossip columnists at the monopoly paper in town. Wildly distorted accounts of two confrontations at the March Critical Mass have been presented as evidence that bicyclists are anti-social, out-of-control, and generally immature scofflaws. Such accounts serve to frame a narrative that is in sharp contrast with the actual experience of tens of thousands of bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorists on the last Friday of every month, not just in San Francisco but in hundreds of cities worldwide where Critical Mass rides take place regularly.

Suddenly “normal” life is suspended as thousands of bicyclists, talking, singing, playing instruments and boomboxes, smiling and laughing, take the streets. Bells tinkle, people wave, traffic stops, encouragement is shouted, and uncounted conversations of unknowable depth and breadth happen by serendipity and choice. These are much more characteristic of the Critical Mass experience than the relatively rare confrontation between an overheated, impatient motorist and a self-righteous, antagonistic cyclist.

Cheap “journalism” of the type practiced by Matier & Ross just obscures the truth that our transportation system is designed to promote mayhem, anger and alienation. Every day, motorists crash and die, confront one another angrily, or are left cowering in isolation. The fact that such events can also happen during Critical Mass should come as no surprise.

The sheer exuberant pleasure of a mass, rolling occupation of city streets month after month is hard to understand unless you’ve been a part of it. For the dozens of online flamers that have ferociously denounced Critical Mass, it’s inconceivable that an event that doesn’t behave according to the staid norms of a placid democratic society can have any justification. “Critical Mass doesn’t make demands! No one is in charge! The participants don’t all behave like obedient school children! They are destroying the Cause of Bicycling for the law-abiding cyclists!” And so on.

In February and again in March, Critical Mass bicyclists rode for 2-3 hours through San Francisco streets, enjoying the city in ways unplanned for by traffic engineers, police, or city bureaucrats. It’s a remarkable re-invention of urban life in an organized coincidence that is mostly spontaneous in spite of its predictability ” surprising every time, and inspiring most of the time.

Critical Massers are engaged in that most rare of activities: an act of collective imagination and invention that is considerably greater than a sum of its parts. And part of its magic is the convivial, friendly, enthusiastic reception the vast majority of motorists, pedestrians and people in their homes give the riders as they roll by.

For those motorists or bicyclists who think Critical Mass is about a fight between cars and bikes, THINK AGAIN! We are all in this together, and a monthly demonstration of how much better life could be is an invitation to everyone to try something different. There is a well-defined etiquette among Critical Mass riders that thanks stuck drivers for their patience, that promotes an atmosphere of friendly camaraderie on all sides, and invites the curious to join us next month at the foot of Market (April 27, 6 p.m.), on a bicycle, for an experience that just might change your life!

Committee for Full Enjoyment, April 11, 2007

9 comments to Tempestuous Cyclists and a Stunning Victory

  • Rocco

    Hey, they actually wrote a half-way decent article, relatively speaking.


    Have fun!

  • greg

    Wow, I didn’t know there was a CM ride that tried for adherence to traffic rules. Very interesting.

    I must say that the absurdity of following the rules to the letter was revealed on the critical ‘manners’ ride. You just can’t stay in a group AND follow the traffic regs at the same time!

    I mean, if you look at the laws they’re designed with the assumption that each vehicle will move independently on its own private route, trajectory, and destination– isolated in its course.

    Except, perhaps, on a ‘freeway’ where everyone tries to move in the same direction.

    But trying to do anything as a group pretty much gaurantees you have to flaunt some of the regs.

    The ‘manners’ ride was dispersed most of the time because of all the stopping, the riding in single file, etc. There were some great moments where everyone was together rounding corners with their signal arms extended [!], but they were the exception rather than the rule.

    I can just imagine a critical mass riding single file– be kind of a fun experiment to see how many streets we could wrap if we rode wheel-to-wheel! But it would probaly make for a pretty dull ride.

  • hedgehog

    Misfithero has a point: There aren’t enough Critical Mass cyclists thanking people for patience, telling pedestrians that it’s safe to cross, and otherwise engaging with the city around them. As he says, few non-CM riders see things the way that editorial portrays them — they have no idea what to make of CM, whether they love it or hate it. More importantly, too few CM riders see things that way. Many riders I talk to see CM as a political march, not a rolling reclamation of urban space.

    However, it’s pretty goofy to say that a protest creates tension between riders and drivers. The tension is there because of the power differential between bikes and cars. When drivers operate vehicles that isolate them from sound, temperature and even impact, they deserve to be held to account for the slightest infraction, as they are a menace to both social and physical life. Cyclists are very defensive against drivers because drivers kill us, usually without even meaning to.

    That said, cyclists and drivers often share an entitled attitude that deserves scrutiny. Both are often “in a hurry” and act like they deserve to travel without regard for their urban (i.e., interruption-prone) surroundings, setting themselves up for conflict. All should back off a bit on the rush (usually a rush to get to work or shopping or other basically meaningless, stupid pursuit) and spend a bit more time and energy on interaction. Critical Mass’s slow pace facilitates this; the same spirit could, but doesn’t, prevail day after day.

    As far as the idea of critical manners, we’ve tried that. In August 1997, after the big police crackdown, we pulled a stunt of getting riders to obey all traffic laws on a CM ride. With thousands of riders there, it ended up being one of the most disruptive events I’ve ever seen — traffic downtown, which is usually interrupted for 5 to 15 minutes by CM, was instead paralyzed for more than an hour.

    PS, there is nothing in manners or California law requiring cyclists to ride single-file when they are traveling as fast as the other traffic on the road.

  • misfithero

    Not that I plan on coming near the CM rides, but DP, if I am and I can find you, I will wave; and if you want to stop and have a chat then, I’d be happy to buy you a coffee. Why is it even a question of whether motorists and cyclists can’t be friendly, or that they are even exclusive groups. I am bi-vehicual and so are you!

    What I am saying is that CM creates this tension, whether you like it or not, and that is COUNTER to what you want CM to do. Passing out leaflets to Joe & Sally from Idaho ain’t gonna make up for it.

    Also I just saw this:

    http://tinyurl.com/38dxxs (sfgate.com)

    Cyclists who believe in stopping at red lights seek to reclaim the high road when they pedal off tonight for a Critical Manners bike
    ride through San Francisco.

    The ride, created last year as a response to the controversial Critical Mass ride, features cyclists who ride single file, signal their turns and obey all traffic laws.

    “I started the ride after seeing bad behavior at Critical Mass that I found unacceptable,” ride organizer Reama Dagasan said Thursday.”Rather than let a few bad apples speak for me, I decided to start my own ride for cyclists who follow the law. As nerdy as our rides may sound, we’ve had great fun cycling around this city together.”

    Critical Manners departs at 6 p.m. from in front of the main library at Civic Center.


  • DP

    Misfithero, you said: “CM is not making a statement, nor is it doing any good for cycling”. I disagree. CM does make a diference and does accomplish goals. Numerous times we pass through the heart of downtown SF where many tourists are and handout leaflets about our concerns: the need for more bike lanes, stop global warming, no more oil wars, etc…..

    The reason cyclists go thru red lights during CM is so everyone can stick together. Intersections are blocked off briefly so cyclists can pass thru. CM is only once a month, for 2-3 hours, thats it.

    Yes, cars hurt the planet and destroy eco-systems, and cause pollution, and kill people, and animals, etc. etc… I also understand its not possible for every person to commute 30 miles on a bike. I do own a small eco-friendly car, which I only use on weekends.

    There is no reason why drivers of cars and cyclists cant be friends and respect one another. Next time you get stuck during CM, wave at me, and I will wave back and wish you well on your journey home.

  • misfithero

    DP, how can my experience be “wrong”?

    Maybe now the ridership is small enough to pass by quickly, but perhaps you were not part of the first many CMs that were enormous and took far longer than 2-3 minutes to pass.

    Also not sure how you assume I am “fuming like some mad-man”, but this is exactly the kind of assumption that I an proposing that many CMers have about all motorists and seek out during their rides.

    I am extremely courteous to cyclcists I see on the road, giving them plenty of room, and not caring so much when they blast through a stop sign even though I have the right of way. Very few make eye contact or wave. I’m not sure what planet or suburban oasis you live in.

    I am glad you are not one of the conflict-seeking cyclists I have witnessed frequently in CM. More power to you. When I see you on the road, you are a cyclist I respect, especailly when I see you battle the hills of San Francisco that I usually have to walk my bike up. But when I see you in Critical Mass, I see you as a self-serving, self-righteous fool.

    I have been riding a bike since I was six, so I know how great it is. CM does not “own” this experience. I also know how great it is to ride a scooter, which I rode for sveral years, and how it forces you to be aware of the world around you, and how blind motorists can be.

    As a side note: my vehicle is nowhere near the cold cushioned drive you speak of. It connects me with the pot holes, bumps, and life of the road, far more than many of your dual-shock bikes do. One of the joys of driving, and especially driving a good car fast, into turns and on a straight-away, is how it connects you to the road and to machine. I can get as much joy out of a car ride as a bike ride, although not as often, since too many times my car ride is a commute, and almost all of the time, my bike rides are for pleasure.

    And CM is a bike ride for pleasure, and it is not making a statement, nor is it doing any good for cycling, nor is it making roads safer.

    Next time you attend a CM, think to yourself why you are going and what you are trying to achieve. And if you are indeed trying to achieve something worthy and not just out for a thrill, ask yourself if it is really working.

    I’m asking you to publish the routes, reach out to the community, raise money for cyclists. Get petitions signed for more closed streets on weekends, more bike routes… get something on the ballot. Make a difference.

    Just don’t be a nice guy/girl in the middle of a pack of idiot cyclists looking for a good time and a fight.

  • DP

    The last comment is completely wrong.

    I quote: “I have been stuck in several CM. I ALWAYS see a confrontation,and not once have I seen cyclists be courteous or thankful to drivers”.

    If, and thats a big if, you have stuck during CM, it only takes 2 or 3 minutes before all the cyclists pass by. Then you can continue to drive again. Perhaps during those 2-3 minutes, you could be courteous instead of fuming like some mad-man ready to stroke out. You need to chill.

    Most of the time, I carry with me a small sign which says, “Thanks for waiting” whenever I come across some intersection where cars are stuck, and most of these drivers have no problem. The majority of them support CM.

    Riding a bicycle gives an engaging and connected experience. While a car is a sanitized box, a retreat from the surrounding world, bikes engage people with their surroundings. People on bikes wave, make eye contact, notice who and what they pass (unlike the driver who hit the cyclist during the last CM). There is an intimate tie with the landscape. The road ceases to be mere utility. It is full of bumps, pot-holes, and back alley routes, all having a life of its own. Unlike the cold, cushioned drive that a vehicle facilitates, riding a bicycle forces one to be aware of the world in which they are traveling.

    But hey, you are entitled to your opinion.

  • misfithero

    I think this post by the “Committe for Full Enjoyment” just supports the argument many people are making – that Critical Mass is just a social outing under the guise of a protest. They write of the “sheer exuberant pleasure of a mass…”

    And I love this one:


  • Rocco

    Great post, Chris. Makes me miss “home” even more, man. Wish I could be there this month. Play a few seconds of your music for me!

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