Monday, June 08, 2020

All ignored problems are in crisis

The repairs in the queue at the shop are a metaphor for neglected problems. The pandemic bike boom has inspired millions of people across the country to dig out machines that they have ignored for years. It won't last, but for right now it devours time and resources. People are awakening to a need they didn't know they had. After a while, the furor will die down. Gas is really cheap right now, and businesses are reopening. Cycling will be forgotten again until the inevitable resurgence of infection leads to a new round of precautions. But by then we'll be going into winter, so commercial interest will swing to indoor diversions. By next spring we will be living in a very different world, though still beset by the same ancient human failings.

Before COVID-19 took over the headlines we were talking about the crisis in the environment. Then came the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd, and the country erupted in protest over the festering problem of racism and police brutality. Protests on that have flared up every time there is a high-profile case, but nothing gets fixed. This time, many good proposals are circulating to change the oppositional model of policing that combines lethally with underlying bias.

Change requires more than protest. It requires continuous and sometimes tedious contact with decision makers at all levels of government to keep them focused on more than just well-crafted words of inspiration for public display. But protest comes first to underscore the urgent need to fix this problem now. Consider how many times huge numbers of citizens have had to take to the streets just since the beginning of 2017. Every time they have been correct. Those issues remain acute. All problems ignored since the end of the 1960s are coming to a crisis at once.

I don't know what to do about the fact that some people are just assholes. We've all met them: the people who are looking for trouble. They are the result of many influences, susceptible to no single remedy. It's a human problem. In the idealized notion of a police force, our protectors in uniform are there to provide the muscle for citizens who are victimized by people who came to them looking for trouble. I have been grateful for sympathetic police officers a few times when they happened to be nearby in a confrontation with bullies in motor vehicles while I was riding my bike. I have also been stopped and ordered off of a highway by an officer who did not know -- and was in no mood to hear -- the actual laws regarding cycling on Maryland roadways at that time. As abuses of power go, it was nothing. I just had to wait for him to speed away and I could pull back onto the pavement and continue as I had been. It was 1982. The officer was black. We weren't hearing about police murdering people of color, or white people having any particular advantage in an arrest situation.

In my life I have been harassed by far more white people than Black people. This includes every event that crossed the line from unpleasant expressions of free speech to actual assault. If you say the word "criminal" to me, I imagine someone who looks like a redneck, or an untouchable dude in a suit. The vast majority of the people who have gone out of their way to be assholes to me have been "my own people." I would venture to say that "my own people" take the greatest pride in being assholes to other people. Is that what makes us "the master race?" Great.

It really hits home for bike riders when a racist, fascist asshole in full bike garb decides to be the terror of the bike path and brings national attention to himself as "a cyclist." All the news stories feature "cyclist" in the headline. Way to represent, dickhead.

While the protests and discussion center on the latest manifestations of the four centuries of white supremacy that have gone into the creation of our republic, our country's reprehensible approach to health care continues to burden all of us with higher costs and greater inconveniences as the novel coronavirus continues to spread. The systems of both personal and public health display more defects than competency. These defects, coincidentally, affect people of color more than white people. And the trouble and expense are just beginning, especially as Americans tire of the restrictions recommended to reduce the spread of the disease. They run out to mingle, feeling like they've paid their dues and deserve to get away with yet another indulgence. A young twerp came into the shop yesterday without a mask.  He insisted that he was fine because he "hadn't been sick with anything in over a year." He went on to say that we were "backward" up here for continuing to observe precautions when the rest of the country is opening right up. He did stand six feet away after moving outdoors at the shop owner's request, but he wouldn't don the free mask we provided to remain indoors to complete his business.

As racism and police brutality overshadow COVID-19, COVID-19 overshadowed climate change and all other attention to environmental rape and pillage. Atmospheric CO2 just hit a new record level, and this May was the warmest on record. Interwoven with all of this is income inequality and the injustices perpetrated by concentrated wealth. If individual citizens are to be allowed unlimited wealth, government by the people demands corresponding leverage by the government to rein in the excesses of the wealthy. Is that going to happen? If so, how? Money is the real power. Citizens who vote to give a government responsibility must also vote to fund the government to execute those responsibilities. Otherwise, power rests solely in the hands of those who can pay for it. That's un-American even by the original white male supremacist standards of the US Constitution. The dreamers who framed that document imagined a nation of free people who prized education and had a sense of moral decency. I don't mean morals in the prissy sense of sexual repression and self righteous piety. I mean genuine identification with the challenges that we all face as human beings. James Madison's expectation that the wealthy would appreciate the contributions and indispensable value of the less well-off was practically communistic. It was certainly naive.

The saying "what goes around comes around" is not true. If you are in the privileged class and wealthy enough, you can dish out far more than you ever take in return. If you bought the police force, you can reasonably expect to be treated as a preferred customer. If you have no empathy, no compassion, and no moral compass, you're nothing but a menace to society. This can be expressed through direct personal violence, but is often expressed far more subtly by the ways in which income is gained and funds are bestowed. You can look like a good citizen and a pillar of the community. You can look like a harmless, fun loving, downright liberal kind of person.

A lot of us harmless, fun loving, downright liberal people were somewhat blindsided by the resurgent power of open racism since the public gains of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Once the firehoses were put away and the dogs were kenneled and the police forces started to be integrated ("They call me Mr. Tibbs"), virulent racism seemed to be defanged. There were still jokes, but they seemed more like jokes on the racists themselves, until you tuned in closely. Or maybe we knew some people who just wouldn't be cured, but we perceived them as powerless vestiges of a dying system. Martin Luther King Jr. himself had believed that the arc of history bends toward justice. You wouldn't think so now. Or at least you'd have to admit that many more hands than we realized are holding its metal and doing their best to bend it toward segregation and social stratification.

All problems intersect. Industrialized resource exploitation leads to environmental degradation and warfare. Warfare and environmental degradation lead to displaced populations. Displaced populations make their way to safer places, bringing cultures into conflict. Colonizers export their beliefs to the lands they enter, bringing cultures into conflict. And some cultures are pretty unlikable if you envision a world where we can all be harmless, fun loving and downright liberal. Colonizers using kidnapped labor set up centuries of conflict in the lands to which they imported that labor. Consumerism leads to resource depletion. Consumers judge their consumption based solely on whether they can afford it monetarily, rather than analyzing its wider social and environmental impacts. What example do they have, after all? The wealthy have forever taken the best that they could afford because they could afford it. Only the exceptional few make prodigious efforts to give a lot back, and that's only after they've profited massively from business as usual. Those few do a service to their lesser-known economic peers who put out a lot less, because they create an image of wealthy generosity, and bring up the averages for the whole bracket.

Underlying nearly every other problem is the idea that it's a good thing to want to have as much as you can get, and to keep trying to get more. We have pity and contempt for people who can't stop drinking, or can't control their sexual urges, or who can't stop themselves from pilfering things in stores, or a host of other compulsions, but we make heroes and role models of the people who seize control of as much of the money supply as possible and then dribble it out to the rest of us at their whim.The best salaries go to the people who support that system. The common good is judged by what's good for the people who already have it good.

There's a deep fear that if we make life too enjoyable for too many people they'll just lie around and breed like rodents. They'll gnaw and burrow and proliferate out of control. The benefits of civilization have to be earned by virtuous toil at prices often set by investors looking to profit personally, not divide the spoils among all the working participants. This can be less true among genuine small businesses whose gross revenues don't allow for a lot of profiteering from the top. The basic cost of even a poorly paid employee takes a big bite out of a small operation's income. And a poorly paid employee might not be the best expenditure compared to hiring someone with actual skill and trying to retain them. This describes a challenge facing small bike shops as equipment gets more and more complicated, but revenues are stagnant or declining.

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