Tell me more about your seatpost

by Michael Smith

Posted to ebikes, the New York cyclists' mailing list

Recent exchanges on the list have gotten me thinking, not for the first time, about the problem of the Internal Enemy. By that, I don't mean turncoats in our midst -- I doubt that the powers that be are worried enough about us to bother hiring any. No, I mean the mental structures that prevent us from acting, or even thinking, in our own interest.

Growing up in this society, we're all a bit like the children of a pathologically narcissistic parent. It has, up to a point, nourished us, and we depend on it; we even love it. At the same time, on some level we recognize that it wants to devour us. We have to get away from its smothering embrace, yet we feel a need to protect it from our own anger.

Getting down to cases: Most of us who read this list do so because we cycle in New York City. This is an act of self-affirmation: it says, as far as it goes, that we have taken a step away from the anthropophagous grasp of the American Way of Life -- the suburban house, the moronic world-view, the butt-graft to a car seat.

The trouble is, that it's only a step. For many of us, indeed, it's a purely temporary and insignificant one, a kind of adolescent acting-out, like recreational sex or dope; OK when you're young, but perfectly compatible with a settled intention of returning to the arms of Moloch as soon as you reach a certain level on the white-collar baboon hierarchy.

For some of us, though, it goes a bit deeper than this. And it's at this somewhat more advanced stage of self-assertion that the Internal Enemy -- the introject of the devouring parent -- mobilizes his forces and produces the really interesting symptoms.

Perhaps the commonest of these involves a kind of dissociative reaction, a "splitting" of the ego. An evil twin is posited: the Bad Cyclist, who is bad both in the sense of being wicked and in the sense of being incompetent. It is the Bad Cyclist who makes drivers angry and "spoils it for the rest of us." And of course it is the Bad Cyclist who ends up under the wheels of the truck, because he's stupid.

Finally, it is also the Bad Cyclist who hates drivers, and wants to hurt and punish them. These feelings, which any sane person has, in spades, after five minutes of cycling in New York, are felt as too dangerous to the loved and loathed social parent, so the Bad Cyclist has to bear our sins into the wilderness (Montana, for example). Love it or leave it!

Now the fact is, that the Bad Cyclist is... us. We are all occasionally inattentive, slow to react, less than Clausewitzian in our traffic tactics. Most of us like to be nice to pedestrians, but our estimates of distance, trajectory and intent are imperfect. And of course, adult and insightful as we wish we were, we can't help invoking some loathesome skin disease on half-a-dozen drivers per mile.

So exiling the Bad Cyclist is a recipe for self-imposed paralysis. He has the right to be human and fallible without getting the death penalty, and he has the right to resent ill-treatment and demand his day in court. (This includes being represented by The People in court if he has the misfortune of being dead and unable to speak for himself.) If he hasn't got these rights, then we haven't either.

This is why I'm inclined to think that environmental or transportation activism, absent a broader social critique, is unstable and unsustainable. We can't welcome the Bad Cyclist back into the bright circle of our recognition, as Auden says of Freud, without at the same time seeing the devouring parent for what it is.

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