Sunday, June 7, 2009

Front Porch Cycle Chic: A bicycle on every autarchist's front porch

[Welcome, visitors from Streetsblog(!), which was kind enough to honor this post with a plug on its current front page [update: and welcome to visitors from Carbon Trace, too]. I hope you enjoy your visit.]

The Roberts and Gregory families, Kentucky, early 20th century. Click on image to enlarge. Image found here.

What follows isn't exactly a continuation of yesterday's post. It's more like a picking up of another thread and unraveling a perfectly good idea from Front Porch Republic so as to hastily (and, no doubt, clumsily) re-weave it here in combination with other recent concerns of mine as a garment to hang in cycling's metaphysical closet. I'm not sure, incidentally, whether the following, famous injunction from Thoreau's Walden--"I say beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes"--implicitly condones or condemns that re-weaving. But if the latter, I take some presumptuous hope from George Bernard Shaw's statement, "All great truths begin as blasphemies."

Enough preambling. On with the ambling.

One of the central causes of what the writers of Front Porch Republic contend is our current cultural and political predicament is a perversion of our understanding of property and the resulting policies and politics arising from that perversion. This matter gets addressed directly in James Matthew Wilson's "The Need for Autarchy": Following Hannah Arendt, Wilson argues that that perversion is the result of "the specious conflation of the idea of private property (which Aquinas was right in defending as necessary to a good society) with that nefarious invention of modern usury, unlimited wealth accumulation." Here's Arendt, as quoted by Wilson:
Private property is not a euphemism for anything I happen to acquire, but a reference to the place in the world that is necessarily mine if I am not to be reduced to dependence on another. The way to secure such property is not usually to expand it and widen its frontiers (though that may sometimes be the case), but to fortify it, to fill it with the productive means necessary to maintain it and for it to maintain me. That kind of security and self-sufficiency-in a word, autonomy and autarchy-requires stewardship and conservation rather than expansion and avarice. Such virtues serve the purpose of having the property remain my property with a permanence approximating to the solidity of its literal foundations. [. . . ] [W]e reply to the capitalist that he does not defend private property but, instead, rationalizes endless wealth accumulation, and in so doing he does not defend the one, best hope for the wide distribution of private property. He advocates, rather, the source of its usurpation and dissolution.
Wilson then sums up Arendt's argument: Private property, once freed of market capitalism's co-opting of it, "is a public good but also provides for the individual household the basis for what is itself a great good, the foundation of a family’s liberty: autarchy [which literally translates from the Greek as "self-sufficiency" and thus is not to be confused with "autocracy"]. And the autarchy of the family household, I contend, is the analogous foundation, the microcosmic model, for still another public good: the sorely needed autarchic independence of our country." (Wilson's italics)

So: what does all this have to do with cycling in particular and, more broadly, issues of livability?

In the first "Front Porch Cycle Chic" post, I noted toward the end that "bicycles' practicality and portability create that version of independence that arises not from mere mobility but from self-reliance in all its senses." Surely one of those senses--or, perhaps, better put, that which is essential to self-reliance--is self-sufficiency. The automobile, while it evokes in the American psyche images of freedom and independence, in fact requires a massive, state- and corporate-maintained infrastructure in order to sustain those images on a mass scale; paradoxically, then, car culture has made us more dependent on both government and business, and less self-sufficient. Moreover--just to revisit the picture you see here within this slightly different context--car culture is both symptom and cause of our consumerist mindset: the automobile consumes and occupies those resources known as raw materials and not just the physical space it happens to occupy but, by extension, the physical space the automobile's infrastructure occupies as well: not just roads and parking lots, but car dealerships and repair shops, gas stations (and, for that matter, a goodly proportion of the petrochemical industry) and, in a more virtual way, the state bureaucracy devoted to the regulation of automobiles--even, indirectly, the space and resources occupied and consumed by the fast-food industry. Yet, as the events of the past year have made abundantly and painfully clear, if no one is interested in buying cars anymore--at least, not this country's current version of cars--suddenly they don't seem nearly as essential as they once did . . . even as their revenue-generating centrality to both commerce and the state has likewise become painfully clear via the loss of much of that revenue. The centrality of car culture to American life thus encroaches on the individual's access to private property as defined by Arendt; moreover, the direct and indirect expense of participating in that culture puts at risk our independence (both individual and national) from others--if not actively excluding many from autnomous participation in it by forcing them into dependence upon others.

As I have mentioned before, it was last summer, when I really paid attention to the fact that many of Wichita's street people and working-class folks use bicycles, that cycling revealed its practicality as transportation to me. Without at all meaning to suggest that we should not be concerned for the welfare of these people, clearly bicycles make their lives a little easier than they would be otherwise: they can cover more ground in search of work and shelter; and, as cheap as bus fare is, owning bicycles allows them to save that money for food and other expenses. A reorientation in our collective thinking in the direction of cycling as practical personal transportation and, at the governmental level, a rethinking of infrastructure (in the form of retrofitting existing streets, planning future streets, encouraging high-density, mixed-use development and discouraging suburban sprawl via zoning and mass transit) would, first of all, have the effect of freeing up some of the space and resources car culture demands. That freed-up space thus becomes more truly public in that greater numbers of people can utilize it. Granted, public space, very broadly defined, is not private property, but in its status as commonly-held property it enriches us, at its best, in a way best described as "aesthetic": culturally, intellectually, emotionally.

[Just a quick aside here: My misgivings about Critical Mass as a concept are connected to this idea. If it's an assumption of Critical Mass that motorists monopolize public roads at the expense (and to the endangerment) of cyclists and pedestrians and thus, in political terms, constitute a tyranny--one I don't necessarily disagree with--it's counterproductive to what should be cyclists' larger cause, gaining and earning the respect of motorists as equal users of those roads, when Critical Mass events in other areas (I cannot speak of Wichita's Critical Mass), at their worst, supplant the tyranny of motorists with a tyranny of cyclists. The fact that it occurs for a few hours on one Friday night a month doesn't make it any less tyrannical. Public space by definition should--and must--always be safely open and accessible to all who seek to use it.]

So, then, due to their lower costs and vastly-reduced demands for resources and infrastructure, the increased and encouraged ownership and use of bicycles presents itself as a means by which many, many more of us can enhance our holdings of private property as Arendt defines that term: that which frees us of dependency on others. At the same time, I'd like to suggest, larger numbers of folks going about their daily business by bicycle also fosters a stronger sense of and appreciation for place and, ideally, can lead to an enhancement of that place's self-sufficiency, its autarchy. In "Cycling in the rain" I try to make the case that cycling by its very nature shapes the cyclist's thinking according to a localist bent. By way of winding up that post's recognition of the Delano District's need of one/a few small full-service grocery store(s), I wrote:
No: cycling can't make corner markets appear in a neighborhood. But I think that cyclists, by being alert to and patronizing their neighborhoods' products and services, can play a role in affirming the community as a place unto itself, with a measure of (economic) sovereignty relative to the city that surrounds it. To tar with a broad brush: cars encourage us to leave the immediate area, to perhaps even see that space as in some way lacking, and don't encourage us to get to know the neighbors--they insulate us from a community's "weather," from its nature. Bicycles encourage their riders to take stock of that same area's resources and, at least in my own brief experience as a cyclist, to see it as richer than they once thought it to be. Far from being "flat" economically, the business topography of healthy communities is varied and often surprising.

Car culture, and all that car culture hath wrought, will not disappear any time soon. But it seems clear that in the decades to come it will not be as pervasive a presence as it currently is; it will no longer be the designated driver, as it were, of the thinking behind infrastructure decisions. Given the enormous individual and collective costs of car culture, I am far from mourning this. So, while I share much of the collective dismay of those over at Front Porch Republic regarding the enormous economic, political and cultural mess in which we find ourselves, I also see signs--and, via the seat of my bicycle, some of the means by which--we can begin to work our way out of those messes . . . and reinvigorate our understanding of and appreciation for community and, in the bargain, become more individually and collectively self-sufficient.

UPDATE: Here is Andy's Springfield-centric version of what I'm after and will pursue in a future post. Thanks again, Andy, for the plug and kind words.

No comments: