Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Invisible Visible Man, a low-rent PJ O'Rourke - and a day off for the higher brain centres

It’s long been an enthusiasm of mine when reading history to look out for the people who were really, seriously wrong about things – and they've seldom been in short supply. Some missed the point about big things – like the people who attacked Charles Darwin or the prelates who prosecuted Galileo for saying the earth wasn’t centre of the universe. Others got far smaller things wrong - like the editor of the Daily Mail who vetoed a fashion correspondent from reporting on the mini-skirt in the 1960s, on the grounds such an innovation would never take off.

But, when the history of the present age is written, Rod Liddle of the UK’s Spectator magazine will surely loom far larger than he does at present. He has a remarkable knack of stating with verve, passion and an absence of judgement rotten arguments that time will surely only make smell more putrid. It’s consequently a matter of some pride to me that this blog provided the jumping-off point for a piece by Mr Liddle – think a low-rent, less-coherent PJ O’Rourke, American readers - that I predict could face ridicule for decades or even centuries to come.

The Invisible Visible Man's helmet: of note, a lack of
pomposity and, come to that, points
My concern for the moment, however, is to ensure than no-one mistakes Liddle’s piece on cycling in the latest Spectator – entitled “Off yer bikes! Cyclists are a menace to society — and self-righteous to boot” – for a serious, thought-out argument about cycling’s merits. As with other recent attacks on cyclists – including that by Dorothy Rabinowitz in May on the Wall Street Journal’s website - the piece’s few factual assertions crumble into nothing on any examination. The rest of the argument rests on allegations made noisily, in the apparent hope their volume will make them seem more convincing.

The nature of Liddle’s thinking is clear from his targets. There are, to be sure, the now-traditional self-contradicting attacks on people who cycle on pavements (sidewalks, American readers) as well as those who ride on roads; attacks on cyclists who are too slow and hold up traffic as well as those who “whizz” by him. But Liddle also refers to the ownership by cyclists he dislikes of “a pompous little pointy plastic hat, hilarious goggles, a fatuous water bottle”. By the time a writer is imputing motives to inanimate objects and shouting at them, I could understand why readers might be pulling me away from Liddle shouting, "Leave him! He ain't worth it!"

Yet I feel compelled to respond to at least some of Liddle’s ravings because they start off with a typically selective, misleading quote an old post on this blog (whose name he can't even get right) examining why some people feel such anger towards cyclists.
 
My water bottles. They're trying to be fatuous -
but just can't get animated about it.
The post leads off with an account of a conversation with a driver who wanted to intimidate me off the road so that she could get to the end of a traffic jam faster. When I (inevitably) caught up with her, she moved quickly from leaning on misleading points about the financing of roads to suggesting that I, as a Scot, shouldn’t be in London. The post links (reasonably, I think) the woman’s intolerance of my ethnicity to her intolerance of my being on a bike on a road. I suggest that people’s unreasonable intolerance of people on bikes has points in common with other forms of intolerance – including homophobia and anti-gypsy prejudice in Eastern Europe. It seems to me they all reflect a general anger at anyone who’s seen to be doing something different. I go out of my way to make clear that gypsies, gays and other oppressed groups face far more wide-ranging problems than mostly well-off cyclists. But I suggest the feelings have a similar genesis.

Liddle, on the other hand, says I think I’m “special” because I ride a bike and hence a Victim, complete with sarcastic capital V. He goes on to regret that fewer cyclists are being killed annually on the UK’s roads and attributes it to the dead hand of Political Correctness. He then goes on to show a bizarre lack of insight into other people's thinking by saying that – hahahahaha – he’s only joking but humourless activist cyclists won’t realise that. He doesn't seem to realise that people know he thinks he's joking when he says hateful things. It’s just that only a seriously unpleasant, callous fool regards it as funny to joke about wanting cars and trucks to crush more people annually from a group he's decided to find annoying.

There were, as it happens, 118 cyclists killed on Great Britain’s roads in 2012, a 10 per cent increase on the number in 2011, in a period where other kinds of road user fatalities mostly fell sharply.
 
My new glasses. Are these goggles ridiculous enough
for you, Mr Liddle?
I've made unusual choices, rather than being special in the sense of being morally superior. Only between 1 and 2 per cent of trips in the UK, where I lived when I wrote the piece Liddle attacks, are by bike. Only 0.6 per cent of commuting in the US, where I’m now based, is on a bicycle. I’m interested in why I experience a level of anger when I’m riding a bike that I simply wouldn’t while walking or taking public transport. Someone, for example, threw a bottle at me as I rode home from church on Sunday evening, something I’ve experienced several times while cycling. I’m curious why some people, Liddle included, find cyclists self-evidently suitable targets for particularly intense scorn and rage.

The piece does at least make a pretense at wheeling out a few rather shop-worn facts to try to back up the simple assertions. Liddle writes, for example, that it’s more dangerous to be a pedestrian in the UK than a cyclist. An examination of crash statistics for 2012 shows that the UK suffered an average 38 fatalities for every billion miles cycled, against 37.6 fatalities for every billion miles walked. Liddle also asserts that it’s necessary to pass laws to rein in cyclists to protect pedestrians such as him. Yet of the 420 pedestrian deaths in Great Britain in 2012, only 2 – 0.48 per cent – were a result of collisions with cyclists, which accounted for 0.11 per cent of all road deaths.

Given that bikes account for, say, 2 per cent of traffic – and far more in the busy places where most pedestrians are hit – it’s obviously disproportionately safe for pedestrians to be around cyclists. There is not the slightest evidence for Liddle’s assertion that injuries to pedestrians from cyclists are rising.

In a rational world, a Rod Liddle who was genuinely concerned about pedestrian safety would be calling for far more journeys to transfer from cars to bicycles, to protect people on foot. Even in the strange world of a conservative columnist's mind, it's hard to think of other areas where people rant about a group that are causing 0.11 per cent of the problems they profess worry them, while ignoring those causing 99.89 per cent.
An anonymous bike blogger,
hiding in plain sight

But Liddle’s writing sadly isn’t marked by any kind of intellectual curiosity. He remarks, for example, that this blog is “anonymous” as if that were inherently suspicious. Yet my identity is hidden only until one reaches the bottom of the page and sees who owns the copyright. I suggested in one recent post that readers follow me on Twitter – where I give my real name – and some commenters address me as “Robert”. There's a picture of me on the blogpost he quotes.

On Friday, the day after Liddle's piece appeared, a stranger cycled up to me as I waited at traffic lights during my morning commute and asked, based on the work security pass hanging from my belt, if I was author of this blog. The contrast with Liddle's failure to spot the obvious was telling.

There's a similar lack of originality. Liddle’s piece reflects nearly perfectly the advice in a “terrible journalist’s guide to writing an article about cycling” that Mark Treasure, a British blogger, wrote more than a year ago. Liddle even recycles some of his own, stale ideas. The original post that he quotes mentions a previous attack he wrote on cyclist’s “pompous plastic helmets”. He saves some time in getting the piece finished by reusing pretty much exactly the same language.

It’s pretty clear that any purported facts – indeed any real relationship to the outside world – are mere jewels encrusting an object made up of bilious ventings from Liddle’s gut. His higher brain centres – which might have over-ruled some of the absurdities – seem to have been given the day off.

Yet there’s nowhere, it seems to me, where Liddle gets it as wrong as he does when discussing cyclists’ characters.
Rod Liddle's angry cyclists sometimes don't use bike lanes.
So here's a nice picture for him of a bike lane
not being used by cyclists.

It’s true, I’ll admit, that it can bring out a certain defensiveness in cyclists to be constantly dealing with baseless rantings like Liddle’s. It doesn’t help that those rantings seem to fuel unreasonable behaviour on the street. As well as dodging the thrown bottle on Sunday, I had on the way to put up with a runner who insisted on running in front of me down the 1st Avenue bike lane. When I called out, “Watch out in the bike lane, please!” behind him, he replied, “What the…f*** off!” 

I don't repent either of liking cycling’s environmental credentials. Liddle dismisses cyclists as people who “think they’re saving the bloody planet” and sneers at the idea. Yet it’s pretty hard to see how anyone who accepts the reality of global warming – something many Spectator readers don’t, of course – can dispute the idea that using an emissions-free means of transport has to be some help in reducing global emissions.

It's obvious I'm a roundhead to Liddle's cavalier, just as I'm a cyclist and public transport user while he, I'm imagining, is a significant customer of London taxis.

But my moral convictions wouldn't have got me riding as much as I have round the three cities I’ve most recently lived – New York, London and Budapest. I’ve done it because riding a bike lets me hear the sound of the birds in the trees where I live, appreciate the streets and the history, see remarkable sights late at night and creep up unheard on deer on a quiet country road. I ride a bike mainly because the simple pleasure of doing so fills me with a simple sense of youthful joy. Having just marked my 44th birthday, I desperately need that.

Liddle’s rants at what he imagines to be the politically correct conspiracy of the British establishment seem weighed down with bitterness and cynicism. It's hard to imagine he couldn’t do with experiencing some of that youthful joy too.

9 comments:

  1. If, instead of saying "Like many people, I am worried that too few cyclists are being killed..." he'd instead used an offensive word for black people instead of "cyclists," what would his employment status now be no matter how much he claimed to be "joking?" And rightly so. It has nothing to do with ideology. Maybe the man will recant after he has to ride his future bike to his future job washing dishes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Would've made no difference. No one ever gets sacked for racism at the Spectator - the opposite is more likely.

      Delete
    2. Steve and Steve,

      It's worth pointing out that back in May Liddle wrote a piece in which he referred to the people who killed a soldier in a London street as "two black savages". The piece was later edited and he subsequently apologised to anyone who'd "taken it the wrong way".

      What the right way is to take the implication that the two men's acts were somehow intrinsically related to their race I don't know.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  2. Robert/Invisible,

    I find the false pretext and moral equivalency in the Duane NYTimes op-ed far more invidious than this incoherent rant written by someone who comes off sounding like he has barely completed the 3rd grade. I understand that you are (rightfully) incensed that he used your words to start off his rant, but he is not even deserving of your attention. Besides, the commenters on his own article are already doing a pretty good job of beating him up.

    By the way, I think the pointy hat thing refers to TT helmets. Liddle is so clueless he doesn't even realize that normal everyday cyclists don't wear the same helmets.

    Best,
    Tal

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tal,

      You are very kind.

      It was so remarkable a point that he picked on my blog and twisted its words that I felt obliged to respond. You're quite right that it's barely worth the effort.

      All the best,

      Robert/Invisible.

      Delete
  3. I note that Mr. Liddle's hate-mongering was published on November 9.

    Suppose that two days before Remembrance Day he published an article mocking soldiers' funny helmets, goggles and water bottles? And wrote "Not enough British soldiers are being killed in Afghanistan - just kidding."

    Take a close look at these photographs. How many of them show soldiers carrying bicycles as they storm the beaches on D-Day?

    http://www1.toronto.ca/wps/portal/contentonly?vgnextoid=8b6a757ae6b31410VgnVCM10000071d60f89RCRD&vgnextchannel=7cb4ba2ae8b1e310VgnVCM10000071d60f89RCRD&vgnextfmt=default


    And I sign myself...


    K40592576
    Captain (retired) Kevin C. Love, CD
    Ready Aye Ready

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Capt Love,

      I think we can safely say that one segment of British society that Liddle and the Spectator would shy away from attacking would be veterans, particularly of the Second World War.

      If you reminded him that many used bicycles, however, he might start to have second thoughts.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  4. Thank you, Invisible and thank you, Capt Love. That photo is priceless, and Robert, your piece is thought provoking, as always.

    There seems to have been an increase in the volume and hysteria recently regarding those who feel threatened by bicyclists. Yet, this morning, when I set out with my young neighbor to attend an outdoor Boy Scout activity, I reflected on the smell of the wet leaves, the sound of the birds, and the cool calm of a moist morning that we had almost to ourselves. These are the days that encourage the bicyclist to continue...aaaahhhhh

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. SouthLakes,

      You're quite right about both the frustration of the haters and the simple joy of getting on one's bicycle. The joys continue to outweigh the frustrations by some distance. We had a family trip today to the Museum of the City of New York on the Upper East Side and, while everybody else went by subway, I had a sublime ride up the Hudson then through Central Park to the museum. It was a joy.

      I hope you also saw my reply on the previous post with advice for your trip in February.

      If you need anything more, by email address, as Rod Liddle failed to spot, is hiding in plain sight.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete