Almost by chance, I came upon the Wikipedia page of the Château de Barbezieux, in the Charente department. The current castle was built on the site of an earlier motte and bailey style castle which was partly destroyed during the Hundred Years War. According to Wikipedia, it was rebuilt at least partly in order to provide work during a time of famine. There are photographs on Wikimedia.

There is a tendency, I suspect, to associate work relief with the modern welfare state. However, various forms of relief have been going on since time immemorial.

A few weeks ago, within a few days of one another, the subject of malaria came up twice. In an email someone said to me (Pardon me if I’m misquoting.) that Kenyans found malaria scarier than terrorism. A few days later, in a comment thread about the possibility of migrants in Europe bringing in diseases someone scoffed at the idea that they might bring in malaria because it is, according to that person, a “tropical” disease.

That last bit pricked up my ears. Now, I didn’t get a chance to ask that commenter if he was from the U.S. or not. One thing that everyone in the U.S. knows, or at least should know, is that the early English settlers in North America famously built their first permanent settlement, Jamestown, in the middle of a swamp. The very basic, school children’s version of events, is that many settlers died of malaria. From Wikipedia:

It soon became apparent why the Virginia Indians did not occupy the site: Jamestown Island is a swampy area, and its isolation from the mainland meant that there was limited hunting available as most game animals required larger foraging areas. The settlers quickly hunted and killed off all the large and smaller game animals that were found on the tiny peninsula. In addition, the low, marshy area was infested with airborne pests, including mosquitoes which carried malaria, and the brackish water of the tidal James River was not a good source of water. Over 135 settlers died from malaria, and drinking the salinated and contaminated water caused many to suffer from saltwater poisoning, fevers and dysentery.

This, I would like to emphasize, is not controversial or revisionist history. It is the mainstream history children learn in school.

For those of you who are not familiar with the regional climates of the U.S., most of the country is in what people usually call “the temperate zone.” The nearest city to Jamestown with which most people outside of the U.S. are probably familiar is Washington D.C. The average yearly temperature is 13.5°. This is between the average annual temperatures of Paris (11.3°) and Rome (15.5°). To pick Rome as our point of comparison, Washington D.C. is wetter with 1035 mm of precipitation and 115 days of rain.

I suspect many people who are not from the East Coast of the United States are a little unaware of the weather we have here. Hot in the summer, cold in the winter and humid, wet and mucky all year long. And we have lots of swamps. In other words, this is mosquito heaven.

“So, why aren’t people in the U.S. terrified of malaria?” Glad you asked!

During the Second World War, many U.S. military training bases were located in the Southeastern United States, the region of the country that also happened to have the highest rates of transmission. Since governments are never so interested in keeping you alive as when they’re about to send you to get killed, the U.S. government decided to do something about the malaria. They created an Office of Malaria Control in War Areas, which also, by the way, combated typhus and other vector-borne diseases.

These efforts were so successful that at the end of the war and at the founding of CDC, one of the initial tasks was to oversee the completion of the elimination of malaria as a major public health problem.

And how did they do that?

The program commenced operations on July 1, 1947. It consisted primarily of DDT application to the interior surfaces of rural homes or entire premises in counties where malaria was reported to have been prevalent in recent years. … It also included drainage, removal of mosquito breeding sites, and spraying (occasionally from aircrafts) of insecticides.

Map of regions in the U.S. where malaria was prevalent in 1882, 1912, 1932 and 193-1935. Source:

Malaria is today considered to have been officially eliminated from the U.S. in the early fifties.

The next logical question is, “But isn’t DDT bad?” Although in recent days I have read some blog posts in which people have argued it is not, I have not been convinced by them and still adhere to the general consensus that DDT is bad. So is malaria. If you have read my blog for any length of time, you may have come to realize that I believe there are no easy answers in the world. It’s always about weighing costs and benefits, which have to be weighed and re-weighed according to the specific circumstances. Both the right and the left have reason to dislike this little bit of history. For the right, it was a highly successful government program which took on a problem for which there was no “market solution.” On the left, well, that solution used a potentially dangerous pesticide.

A few years ago, there was a brief panic when cases of West Nile virus first started to appear in New York City. I can’t find any articles now, so I’m going on memory, but I remember reading something about how the State of New York was going to develop a mosquito control program in response. I wondered if New Jersey was going to develop a similar program and looked it up. What I found out is that New Jersey has had a mosquito control program since the early 1900s. “That makes sense,” I thought at the time. Whenever I hear the Bruce Springsteen line, “And my machine she’s a dud, all stuck in the mud, somewhere in the swamps of Jersey,” I think to myself, “Well, that could be just about anywhere.”

Those conversations about mosquitoes and malaria came up before the current news about zika. I was going to write this anyway because it’s the sort of undramatic history we tend to forget. I don’t want to be misinterpreted as advocating for one response or another to current problems. I’m not a scientist. I do, however, think it’s important to have our facts straight. The idea that malaria is a “tropical” disease confined to certain highly limited regions is not correct. As you can see from the U.S. maps above, even in the nineteenth century malaria didn’t exist in the mountainous regions of North America or in the dry areas of the West Coast. However, it existed in vast swathes of the country, including the Mississippi river basin all the way up through to the Dakotas (average low daily temperature in January: -20°C – ie. not tropical).

Map of New Jersey color coded by land use. For those of you not from the region, the western boundary is the Delaware River, the south is Delaware Bay and the east is the Atlantic Ocean, so they are entirely surrounded by water.

Maybe when the weather gets a little nicer, I’ll persuade my sister to go on a frog, flower and photo expedition to New Jersey. Believe it or not, the least glamorous state in the union is known for rare orchids and rare amphibians.

I didn’t want to fuss too much because the dialogue I want to illustrate is just a silly short think that crossed my mine. So, I tried to kick out a second head quickly. Here’s the sketch. Now, to bring it into illustrator and turn it into a line drawing in the same style as the first on.


I was working up a little dialogue to be rendered in a comic format. Since it’s just two guys talking, I thought doing it in a vector program would allow me to reuse portions of the drawing. After making a little sketch in a raster program, I brought it into a vector program. As usual, everything took longer than anticipated and there is no way I will finish it today, so I figured I’d just put up the sketch of the first character as is.


I hate that the title is the first thing you’re supposed to write. Sometimes I start with one thing and end with another and the title is only tangentially related to the main subject.

Two days ago, I was writing a longish post on Billy Joel. I mentioned him in a post the other day and, as I was listening to his songs, I found the lyrics, especially in his first six albums, to be far more interesting than I recalled. Everything was going well. I was on something of a roll. Lots of ideas were floating around in my head. I had about a dozen tabs open with the lyrics. A couple of others on subjects related, not to Joel himself, but to the ideas I was trying to express.

I have a huge weakness when doing creative work. I’ve never been able to make outlines. Ideas stew and churn in my brain. (Can things stew and churn at the same time? Am I mixing metaphors, or is it okay because they’re both food related?) Depending on the size of the project, the stew period could be just a few hours or it could be weeks. Then, when it all comes together, I just start to work.

Here’s the key, I can’t be interrupted, not by anything that demands mental attention. When I get onto a creative streak, everything falls by the wayside. It’s why I’m not really a loner, but I need to spend long hours, preferably days, alone. It’s why I don’t paint unless I’m dedicating myself to painting and I can paint day after day. I don’t cook. I only eat when my stomach tells me I must, and then the easiest thing to grab without losing my train of thought. I want to go to sleep thinking of my project and wake up thinking of my project. It’s as if I’ve held up my skirt and let leaves fall into it. If I let my skirt drop and the leaves fall, they’ll never go back in the same order.

When my project is done, then I have a chance to do the dishes, get myself something normal to eat, do my laundry, run the vacuum. If I’m lucky, another idea doesn’t come until I’ve at least managed a haircut. I frustrate boyfriends. I’m the feminine version of Jekyll and Hyde. One moment, nicely dressed, looking pretty, with a reasonably tidy apartment, happily accommodating to their needs. A few days later, no make-up, wearing sweats, living in a pig sty and acting as if I’d rather they’d just leave me alone.

So there I was, typing away, when my mother had a problem. Normally, a brief chatty phone call is not enough to get me off track. However, the other night and the following day, I spent hours helping her with a little computer problem. When I returned to my Billy Joel essay, I’d lost it. I can remember a few of the ideas, but I’m missing something, something that made it worth writing. Now, it’s coming out sounding like a shoddy term paper on a second-rate poet.

So, I thought I would just share with you one of the songs to which I’ve never paid much mind, but piqued my interest the other day. It wasn’t going to make it into the main essay, in all likelihood.

The main character described in “The Angry Young Man” sounds like most of the people I knew when I was young, some of whom I still know. Indeed, it could have been me from the age of about fourteen to twenty-four. Have a listen:

There’s a place in the world for the angry young man
With his working class ties and his radical plans

I really liked the phrase “working class ties.” Many of the radical kids are not truly working class, but they have “ties” to the working class. Often, they emphasize those ties. Sometimes, as in the case of one person I know, who I’ll call Rocco, they have no family ties whatsoever. His mother’s father was a large landlord in New York City. His father’s family was given a significant land grant on Long Island from the King of England. Yet, to hear him talk, you’d think he watched his father come home half-dead every night after working in the factory, not teaching at the university. He has no money now, but he doesn’t acknowledge the privilege he was born with and that his family (his parents are radicals, too) essentially frittered it away. They turned themselves into the victims they identified with.

And he’s proud of his scars and the battles he’s lost
And struggles and bleeds as he hangs on his cross

If I had a penny for every time I heard one of my associates invoke phrases like “fighting the good fight” or “the side of the angels,” I could buy a summer house out in the Hamptons and pretend I never knew a person with “working class ties” who wasn’t a servant. The important point here is the emphasis on nobly failing. They don’t look to create something that endures, which would involve compromise and working with people who don’t agree with them. No, they’re actually proud of their losses. They feel most comfortable in the position of martyr. This continues in the second stanza and a sense of isolation is added.

He’s been stabbed in the back he’s been misunderstood
It’s a comfort to know his intentions are good
And he sits in his room with a lock on the door
With his maps and his medals laid out on the floor

Note the sense of victimization. In his mind, he’s done nothing wrong, made no mistakes. If he’s failed, it’s because “he’s been stabbed in the back.”

Then comes the next stanza, which makes me feel akin to the speaker, whom I take to be Joel himself. I don’t know my musical terms, but this stanza has a different melody which sets it apart from the rest of the song. It’s less staccato, which makes it sound as if the speaker is more mellow than the angry young man.

I believe I’ve passed the age of consciousness and righteous rage
I found that just surviving was a noble fight
I once believed in causes too
I had my pointless point of view
And life went on no matter who was wrong or right

One day, around the age of twenty-four, I realized I didn’t like suffering. Actually, I guess I already knew I didn’t like it, but I decided that I didn’t want to suffer anymore. Certainly, I didn’t want to suffer futilely. Believe it or not, this had a major effect on my politics. I realized it was wrong to ask anyone else to suffer for your ideals. If I didn’t want to suffer, I couldn’t ask anyone else to do so, either. It sounds pretty simple, but, once I thought it out in so many words, I was struck by how often my radical friends either wanted others to suffer or were surprisingly blase about whether or not they did.

If the song had been just about being radical when young and mellowing and getting older, it would have been uninteresting. It was the next stanza that really got me excited. It begins, as the first and second stanzas do, with a couplet that starts with the same first line:

And there’s always a place for the angry young man
With his fist in the air and his head in the sand

Then we find what is really the problem with the angry young man. It is not that he’s radical or even angry. It is that he can’t learn, grow, develop and change.

And he’s never been able to learn from mistakes
So he can’t understand why his heart always breaks
And his honor is pure and his courage is well
And he’s fair and he’s true and he’s boring as hell

“Boring as hell.” That’s so perfect.

The first, second and fifth stanzas all end with the same line, “And likes to be known as the angry young man.” Since the fourth stanza is the only one of the four with the same format to end in a different line, it stands out in importance:

And he’ll go to the grave as an angry old man

There we feel the real sense of futility of being an angry young man who can’t change. It also makes it clear that we are not talking about the folly of youth, but radical politics. I don’t think I need to draw the parallel to some current politicians.

The final stanza simply repeats the first.




Lately, I’ve been thinking about memes a lot – not the silly “internet memes”, but the original idea that Richard Dawkins first proposed. Annoyingly, if you search on Google for “Richard Dawkins meme” the first result is actually image results of, yes, Dawkins’ photo with silly captions. Below that we do find the Wikipedia entry for Meme:

A meme… is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of how people develop their ideas. For instance, few people I know wake up one day and decide that, although they are totally neutral on the subject, they would like to inform themselves about Marxism, read Das Capital, Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, and, I don’t know, maybe some later things like Marcuse or Zizeck, and maybe they read a few arguments against Marxism, Communism and Socialism and after about six months or a year of calm detached study, he or she decides to be a Marxist. Now, I know someone will almost certainly say, “But I did exactly that,” and I’m sure that’s true, especially if someone is assigned books in school when they didn’t really want to read them. However, when I think of friends I knew who became Marxists, mostly they didn’t do that. Their move towards Marxism went in fits and starts. First they have a sense that the world is unfair. They are bothered by poverty. The hear Patti Smith sing “The People Have the Power.” Maybe they watch “Metropolis” or read The Jungle. Ideas come in chunks, which is maybe why I’m relating it to memes. By the time they actually read any theory, they have already accepted some ideas without conscious examination.

This behavior has nothing to do with intelligence. One of the smartest woman I’ve known became an anarchist in this way. This was back in the days before the internet. Eventually, an anarchist newsletter started appearing on her coffee table and she started saying things that indicated that she had actually read at least Emma Goldman. She was so smart. I can’t even begin to describe it adequately. She certainly could have read heavy works. Still, she came to anarchism through punk rock and the East Village club scene. It is very possible that my dislike of anarchism comes from the fact that my very interesting, intelligent friend with whom I was once able to have long discussions in which we could disagree on a variety of things started to become filled with certainties and could brook no dissent. She wasn’t alone in this attitude, the new friends to whom she tried to introduce me were similarly certain and unable to discuss too many things for me to enjoy their company.

As I’ve mentioned many times, I grew up with a highly unfavorable opinion of the United States, despite having no real reason for that.

The other day I heard some Billy Joel. Now, I’m a not Billy Joel fan and it’s rare for me to listen to his records, but I was in junior high school when the albums 52nd Street and The Stranger came out. This was not the height of his fame or sales, but it was the height of his reputation. Just having finished bingeing on multiple listens of those two albums plus “Piano Man” I’m really struck by how influential Billy Joel was on my peers. He was one of us in a way that other performers were not. He was very frankly a lower-middle class kid. In “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” he sings, “From a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island, rode a boy with a six-pack in his hand.” Joel was born in the Bronx and grew up in Levittown, a planned suburban community comparable to the one I was living in on the other side of New York City, out in New Jersey. The brutal honesty of “Captain Jack” established a suburban equivalent of “street cred.” For me, personally, as a pre-teen, Captain Jack described a young adult or older teenager who was exactly what I didn’t want to be, an unhappy, dissatisfied person who, instead of trying to change his life, gets high. Now that I think about it, it might done more than all the well-intended anti-drug messages to keep me from over-indulging in drugs. The song evoked the barrenness of suburban life. In the first installment of my memories, I discussed a reexamination of that evaluation, but at the time, growing up in suburbia, I very much felt the dissatisfaction.

The song “My Life” from the album 52nd Street starts with the following lines:

Got a call from an old friend.
We used to be real close.
Said he couldn’t go on the American way.
Closed the shop, sold the house
Bought a ticket to the West Coast.
Now he gives them a stand-up routine in L.A.

When I listened to these lines, which I had heard hundreds of times before and sung along with nearly as many times, but suddenly sounded fresh because I hadn’t heard them in years, an unintended irony made me sit up. We all understood what Joel meant by “the American way,” although it might be hard to put your finger on it. At that time, it was expected that you would go to school, work hard, make a little money, probably not a ton, and spend that money on little suburban comforts, more than necessities but less than luxuries. A slightly nicer car. Slightly nicer clothes. A big teevee. A barbecue grill in the back. The friend in the song rejects this empty life and moves out to L.A. What, however, can be more American than doing a stand-up routine in L.A.? Americans had been railing against suburban conformity for almost as long as that middle class suburban life has existed, but it was the thing they were rebelling against, not the rebellion, that was seen as “American.”

A long time ago, I had a boyfriend from England who, upon arriving in the U.S., wanted to finally do what he saw as a stereotypically American thing that he had always fantasized about doing. He got a motorcycle and rode from New York out to California. It was only on arriving there and finding that all the Americans he met were vaguely amazed he had done that and thought it was outrageously “cool” that he realized that it wasn’t as typically American as he thought. Lots of things happen here. Some of them get dubbed “American” by Americans, some get dubbed “American” by outsiders, and some never get dubbed American by anyone at all.

A few weeks ago I wrote about Scott Alexander’s essay, “I Can Tolerate Anything but the Outgroup.” In it, he mentions the strange bit of “alchemy” that allows some people to appear to hate the social group to which they belong. In his essay, he explains that when people use certain words, one of which is “American,” they don’t always mean “American” in the most literally sense of the word, but a specific American subculture. Although the subculture Alexander has in mind is “guns, religion, barbecues, American football, NASCAR, cowboys, SUVs, unrestrained capitalism,” that is not the way the term was used when I was growing up. Back then, “American” signified the materialistic, suburban life the characters in Joel’s songs are rebelling against.

I don’t think Joel had any intention whatsoever of being anti-American, but when I heard that lyric more recently and it jumped out at me the way it did, I thought of it as one more drip in a constant drip, drip, drip of anti-American platitudes that was the background noise of my childhood. It is like one of Flaubert’s received ideas, only one that has remained generally unexamined. We are essentially brainwashed to hate ourselves.

When I try to find the origin of these assumptions, it can be very difficult because it’s rarely presented as a complete thought. It comes, instead, in off-hand remarks and associations that are secondary, or at least appear to be secondary, to the main subject under discussion.

Back in October, there was an incident, which I wrote about at the time, in which a professor at Yale was accused of racism for suggesting, in her capacity as an assistant faculty in a residence that the school, that students are capable of making their own decisions regarding Halloween costumes and that it is not helpful towards their development as responsible adults for the young adult students to have older adult school administrators lay down strict costume codes.

Today, there was an article in The New York Times about what has happened to her since. In the article, there was a detail about her past.

A. Douglas Stone, a professor of applied physics who helped rally faculty support, said he was embarrassed that Ms. Christakis — who once worked in the public health field with subsistence farmers in Africa and with drug addicts — would be “a poster child for insensitivity.”

Christakis is not teaching this semester and her husband, Nicholas Christakis, “a physician and sociologist known for his theory of “social contagion,” or how social networks spread behavior, announced that he was taking a sabbatical this term.”

The article concludes that Christakis is considering returning to an early childhood classroom.

In New York, people always ask me if I’m Italian. Sometimes, I get annoyed having to constantly deny being Italian. “Are you sure you’re not Italian?” they ask me all the time, is if I might not be telling the truth. Are you kidding me? I’d love to be Italian. I’m sensual. I like food. I like art. I appreciate beauty. Did you see that movie a few years ago, La Grande Bellezza? I would make such a wonderful Italian! I’d make a better Italian than most actual Italians! I used to be a trompe l’oeil muralist, for god’s sake! I never had the chance to learn fresco technique, but I always wanted to. There’s no market for it. That’s the problem. I have dreams of the murals I could paint, but it’s not like I can go get myself a country house or an unfinished Paladian villa the way I can go get myself some canvas.

With good reason, I believe, the vast majority of people I admire from history are dead white men, and many of them are dead white Italian men. It sounds a bit melodramatic, but the first time I went to Venice, as the water bus from the train station approached St. Mark’s Square, I began to choke up because I had never seen any place so beautiful. When I went to Florence, it was more like a pilgrimage than a vacation. To dismiss the accomplishments of someone like Brunelleschi simply because he was “white” is a level of ignorance I cannot even begin to grasp.

William Faulkner once said, “the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.” He said it in a particular context. Still, there is something a bit cold-blooded about the notion that a work of art is worth more than a human life, and when quoted and taken out of context that is the way it is used. As fundamentalist Islam spreads, its followers have been destroying ancient works of art. At the same time, many people have been dying and suffering. Despite my feelings about art, I haven’t spoken out much about this destruction because it feels immoral to be more concerned about inanimate objects than about living, breathing human beings.

The first shock for me was the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001. Although horrified, at the time, I was too ignorant of fundamentalist Islam to realize the full meaning of the action. It seemed like an isolated instance of lunacy. As time has progressed, it has become obvious that this cultural destruction is an integral part of fundamentalist Islam. Over the past few years, I had almost become inured to reports of destruction. Islamic shrines in Timbuktu. Statues of Buddha in the Swat Valley. The ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. When I read about the destruction of Palmyra, I felt physically sick. Still, with people dying, I felt guilty for caring about old stones.

In general, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been far more respectful of the country’s pre-Islamic cultural heritage, although it has tried to destroy some things like dance. Still, I felt like I’d been punched in the gut when I read that the Italian government covered up nude statues for a visit by Iran’s president. Matteo Renzi doesn’t deserve to be Italian!

My betters at Vox think I’m silly to be concerned about this, and, yes, silly is the word they use. Giorgia Meloni, the head of the centre-Right political party Fratelli d’Italia, wrote, “The level of cultural subjection by Renzi and the Left has surpassed the limits of decency.” Forcing the subject into the right-left framework confuses far more than it reveals. Max Fischer at Vox illuminates only the narrowness of his perspective. I have dealt with this subject before, usually defending art and culture against the puritanical Christians on the religious right in the United States. Yet again, my most deeply held values are being betrayed by the left and I’m confronted with the difficult truth that my politics do not exist along the right-left axis.

To be fair, I should note that Iran did not request the covering of the statues and it has spoken out against the destruction of cultural artifacts in the Middle East. However, the incident did make me think about what is to especially pernicious about the destruction of culture. A few months ago, I came across a discussion of the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. Authoritarians, it said, merely want obedience, while totalitarians want “obedience and conversion.”

Totalitarians…  are the people who have a plan, who think they see the future more clearly than you or who are convinced they grasp reality in a way that you do not. They don’t serve themselves… they serve History, or The People, or The Idea, or some other ideological totem that justifies their actions.

They want obedience, of course. But even more, they want their rule, and their belief system, to be accepted and self-sustaining. And the only way to achieve that is to create a new society of people who share those beliefs, even if it means bludgeoning every last citizen into enlightenment. That’s what makes totalitarians different and more dangerous: they are “totalistic” in the sense that they demand a complete reorientation of the individual to the State and its ideological ends. Every person who harbors a secret objection, or even so much as a doubt, is a danger to the future of the whole project, and so the regime compels its subjects not only to obey but to believe.

This was written by a conservative in the U.S., which explains the emphasis of the state, but the same can be said of other organizations, including religion. Describing George Orwell’s novel 1984, he says:

If torturing the daylights out of people until they denounce even their loved ones is what it takes, so be it. That’s why the ending of the novel is so terrifying: after the two rebellious lovers of the story are broken and made to turn on each other, the wrecks left by the State are left to sit before the Leader’s face on a screen with only one emotion still alive in the husks of their bodies: they finally, truly love Big Brother.

In a box adjacent to an article on the destruction of Palmyra which appeared in the New York Times, it said, “…the Islamic State destroyed many archaeological sites, looting them for profit and damaging some for propaganda.” That is a naive view of the purpose of the destruction. The aim is to detach people from their history, from their ancestors, from their culture, even from their families, as we saw when an ISIS member murdered his mother, to detach individuals from the normal bonds of human existence.

I saw a map the other day the Animal’s famous hit, written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, popped into my head. This was the map:
Infographic: The 20 Most Violent Cities Worldwide | Statista
You will find more statistics at Statista

As you can see, two of the world’s most violent cities are in the United States – and I used to live in one of them. As it happens, Baltimore only broke into the top twenty this year. A year ago, it was ranked 40th. Today, it is 19th. Now, since this is ranking rather than rate, a city could find itself moving higher without getting more unsafe if the rest of the world got safer. Unfortunately, that is not the case. In 2015, Baltimore experienced its highest per capita murder rate in its history. This is very sad.

Strangely, Business Insider chose to illustrate  its 2014 list with a photograph from Howard County, a normally safe area that is definitely not Baltimore. It is a suburban area about a half and hour to an hour’s drive away. I guess they couldn’t get a suitably scary looking photograph of Baltimore. As it happens, nothing bad happened to me in Baltimore, but I’ve been mugged twice in the significantly safer New York, although that was years ago when New York wasn’t as safe as it is today. Still, that goes to show that there is a certain amount of randomness and chance involved with crime.

Saint Louis, although within the top twenty two years in a row, has moved from nineteenth to fifteenth.

While we’re looking at this map, I would like to draw everyone’s attention to the big, empty space that is most of Africa. It is probably due to being lulled by a sense of familiarity, but I know more than a few Americans who wouldn’t think twice about going to Latin America but are afraid of Africa. (Admittedly, most Americans are afraid of Baltimore, St. Louis and Detroit.) One of my mother’s friends’ daughters recently got married and wanted to go to Africa for her honeymoon. They chose South Africa because it was “safe.” Obviously, she was functioning with serious misinformation. Although, it is worth noting that despite South Africa being statistically one of the less safe places in Africa, nothing bad happened to her and I hear they had a lovely time. I mention it, not to knock South Africa, but simply to point out the misunderstanding people seem to have.

A close call with a young hipster running a red light at the corner of 80th Street and Broadway while I was walking, with the light, within the crosswalk, carrying my groceries, reminded me of how much I hate cyclists. Normally, this is something I keep secret because a few too many of my friends are “cyclists.” If you noticed, I didn’t say that they ride bicycles. Most able-bodied people ride bicycles from time to time. For a smaller number of those people, however, riding a bicycle is part of their identity. A criticism of bicycles is a criticism of them personally.

This morning, looking for some facts about cyclists hitting pedestrians, I came across an article in the New Yorker, by Samuel G. Freedman, from 2014 which succinctly put many of the complaints I have about the behavior of bicycle riders in New York City.

After describing an incident in which a 31-year-old male musician killed a 58-year-old woman, the young man described it as “an unavoidable accident.” There are two things about this that strike me as being common when talking about bicycle accidents. The first is the age difference. In fact, this is narrower than usual. It is probably my own bias that makes me imagine the killers as white hipsters, though that bias is based on cyclists I know. The killers are almost always male. The victim is almost inevitably older. A stronger, more powerful person kills a weaker person. The second thing is the lack of an acknowledgement that the killer cyclist has for his own culpability. It’s not simply an accident, but an “unavoidable” accident. I’ve never seen anyone killed, but I’ve seen close calls and more minor accidents. Typically, they could have been avoided by the cyclist not going quite so quickly. I find cyclists over-estimate their ability to weave in and out of pedestrians. They behave in a way that I can only describe as aggressive and arrogant.

After describing a second incident, in which the killer was 17 and the victim was 75, Freedman writes:

These tragedies lay bare two realities of what we might call bike culture in New York City. First, many bicyclists routinely ignore all traffic laws, signs, and signals. Second, the city has made inadequate efforts in recent years to enforce those laws, and thus to protect the rest of us.

I think it’s very relevant that Freedman refers to “bike culture.” Riding a bicycle is a neutral activity which could be conducted with a variety of attitudes. My best friend, while he lived in New York City, was active with some cyclist advocacy groups. With him, I would avoid the subject entirely. I couldn’t bring up the subject of pedestrian safety without my friend engaging in the diversionary tactic of changing the subject to aggressive drivers, a subject, while important to cyclists generally, has nothing to do with cyclists’ attitude toward pedestrians. If I tried to bring the subject back to pedestrians, he would then go on about how pedestrians violated traffic rules. All in all, I was always left after these discussions being somewhat bothered by his sense of entitlement and lack of empathy towards others, which was strange because it was uncharacteristic of him more generally. This is why I think Freedman is right to bring up “bike culture.” Eventually, I’d avoid the subject even if he brought it up. I guess this is me breaking twenty years of silence on the subject.

Freedman continues:

Part of the current problem, I think, derives from bicyclists’ sense of themselves as victims. If you feel aggrieved, if you have been injured, if you mourn at the ghost-bike shrines of bikers who have been killed by cars, then you may have a difficult time realizing that you can simultaneously be the aggressor.  What I see on my runs in Central Park, though, could fairly be termed aggression: bicyclists speeding through red lights, scattering those in the crosswalk and leaving the rest of the pedestrians bewildered and cowering on the curb.

Psychological studies have shown that people who feel victimized show less empathy.

One day, two or three years ago, I was walking on the sidewalk along University Parkway in Baltimore, a couple of blocks west of Charles Street approaching 39th Street. The corner of 39th and University is a dangerous one for several reasons. The street is very busy with many cars and pedestrians, as well as cyclists. It is a nerve-wracking corner when driving and I hate crossing the roads there on foot, but usually walking along the sidewalk is safe enough. This day, however, there were a group of “cyclists” standing on the sidewalk. There’s no sense in calling them bicycle riders since they were not riding at the time. What they were doing was standing at a “ghost-bike shrine,” reinforcing their shared identity as cyclists and wallowing in the sense of victimhood, marginalization and self-righteousness that that identity creates. As I approached, the group who must have seen me, made no attempt to move. Their bicycles blocked my path. I supposed I could have yelled at them. It was clear from their impassive response to my presence that I would have to get verbally aggressive and I wasn’t even sure that would have the desired result. Getting physically aggressive would be an over-reaction. In order to pass by, I had to leave the safe sidewalk and enter the busy road. I’m sure the drivers who swerved to avoid hitting me wonder why a stupid pedestrian had suddenly started walking in the road.

In a study, “Victim Entitlement to Behave Selfishly” (Zitek, Jordan, Monin and Leach), the authors suggest that the

… perception of being wronged increases individuals’ sense of entitlement to avoid further suffering and to obtain positive outcomes for themselves. Wronged individuals feel that they have already done their fair share of suffering… and consequently, they feel entitled to spare themselves some of life’s inconveniences, such as being attentive to the needs of others. We predict that this should lead individuals to behave selfishly by, for example, refusing to help, endorsing self-serving intentions, or claiming a bigger piece of the pie when sharing resources with others.

Indeed, this is exactly the behavior of cyclists who, believing themselves to be wronged by “drivers,” respond selfishly when asked to share resources with “pedestrians.” Since we all walk sometimes, I’ve put quotes around these words since they are more about identity than actions.
Returning to Freedman’s article, he brings up another subject that used to come up back in the days when I hadn’t yet learned that criticism of cyclists was damaging to my social acceptance, the self-righteousness of cyclists.

And there is another element, I suspect, to bicyclists’ self-righteousness and the de Blasio administration’s inadequate response. To ride under your own power on two wheels is to be admirably green, to be on the sustainable side of the angels. Four wheels fuelled by hydrocarbons are easier to see as a potential danger needing to be controlled. But there is no mandate of heaven for putting passersby at mortal risk. And there is no public-policy logic to giving a free pass on public safety to someone who is not polluting the air.

My friend and some of his acquaintances used to bring this one up if I murmured anything about bicycles that wasn’t clearly positive. The reality was that none of them were cycling instead of driving anyway. This is New York City. Depending on the distance, they were probably cycling instead of either walking or using mass transit, and if they were cycling for pleasure, which they often did, the question is entirely irrelevant.

Freedman concludes:

One of the social compacts of living in a large city is sharing public space in a mindful way.

It’s funny, I feel like I can always identify neighbors who have recently moved into New York from a suburban area. They are often blithely inconsiderate. The extreme density in New York causes us all to make little adjustments. However, the new arrivals usually learn and adjust. Cyclists, on the other hand, show no sign of adjusting on their own. The behavior of cyclists goes beyond mere civility because physical injury, and, on rare occasions, even death is at stake. The cyclists will not change unless confronted with the evidence of their own bad behavior. I regularly support laws that improve safety for cyclists. I have not opposed them in any way regarding the laws in the city. However, I do ask that they give up their sense of entitlement and curb their aggressive behavior.

It’s hard to explain to younger people the sense of vulnerability one feels as one ages. I’m only fifty and far from frail, yet I have begun to realize that I don’t heal as quickly as I did when I was young. Only last year, I wanted to get in shape. Doing what would have been a normal exercise routine only five years ago resulted in tendonitis in my knee which took months to heal. For six months I couldn’t climb even a single flight of stairs without pain. If the young hipster had hit me and knocked me to the ground, it would take me much longer to recover than it would have had I been a twenty-something as he was. I don’t work for a large corporation or the government. My health insurance is insecure and has a high deductible. A smallish injury could be thousands of dollars out-of-pocket for me. That would all be because he couldn’t even slow down, let alone stop, at a traffic light in the middle of Manhattan where a reasonable person could anticipate there would be a lot of people walking.

I’m not sure if I should add this, but I can’t help noticing. Years ago, when aggressive cyclists were associated with bicycle messengers, there was a crack down. Back then, cyclist were not viewed very sympathetically by anyone. They were also mostly black and working class. It seems to me that the attitude towards cyclists has changed as the demographic associated with them has changed. Not long ago, that very same cycling advocate friend who is normally very PC, said something about delivery men giving cyclists a bad reputation. That might be the case among people who drive cars. However, as someone who walks more than anything, I find the delivery men to be little more than an occasional inconvenience. Sometimes, they get in my way, but they are rarely going fast enough for me to feel at risk of injury, unlike the young white men who appear to be middle class. The delivery men are obviously working class and many of them appear to be descended from people native to the Americas. It’s definitely speculation on my part, but I can’t help thinking that class, and possibly race, is a factor in our attitudes.

Just to expand on that last thought – a few years ago they made a movie about a bicycle messenger. I’m not usually very PC and have mixed feelings about some of the calls for “diversity” that have been made recently. We’d have to go through them one at a time. Some seem valid. Some sound ridiculous. Others I’d need far more information to have an opinion. Yet I felt it was absolutely ridiculous that the bicycle messenger movie starred a white guy. I worked as a receptionist on Wall Street back in the heyday of bicycle messengers in the eighties. According to my recollection, more than nine out of ten of them were black. I had a sweetheart for a while who worked for a messenger company, in the office, not riding, and he was black and many of the people he worked with were as well. I don’t know the backstory of the main character in that movie, but back in 1986 a movie about a bicycle messenger starred the white-looking Kevin Bacon. According to Wikipedia:

Jack Casey (Kevin Bacon) is a young floor trader who loses all of his company’s and family’s savings on a risky business decision. Deflated and disenchanted with his profession, he quits his job and becomes a bicycle messenger.

Back in the eighties, around the time I worked as a receptionist and dated a guy who worked for a messenger service, I can tell you most of the guys were working class. They were attracted by the pay which was higher than what they could get in other occupations, but it was definitely a difficult, physically demanding job with no small risk of injury.

Anyway, while I was on the subject, I just thought I’d get that off my chest. Nothing personal against Gordon-Levitt. I’d bed him in a heartbeat under the unlikely circumstance that he’d be interested in a fifty year old woman who isn’t a movie star. He’s definitely cuter than the average guy I’ve dated, although not as hunky as the aforementioned sweetheart. Still, if I made a bicycle messenger movie, it would be starring a young black man with bulging thigh muscles. I’m definitely picturing a really corny movie which is a poor excuse to have hunky guys strut across the screen. Maybe I’ll go start a Kickstarter campaign. Maybe not, with tempers running as high as they are on race related subjects and the possible accusations of exploitation that would be a really stupid move right now. (But really, who the fuck casts Emma Stone as half-Japanese?)

I seem to be on a streak of getting things off my chest, so I’d better stop before I say something that will get me in trouble.



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