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Old Man Warner, Cycling Opponent

by Ted Johnson

Recognize this quote?

“Pack of crazy fools,” he said. “Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while.”

If you graduated from high school, you were likely required at some point to read (or watch) Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery.

If you somehow managed to avoid it, you can read it here. (It’s a short story.) If you are too lazy for even that, watch the video here. Warning: It does not have a happy ending.

Old Man Warner

William Fawcett as Old Man Warner

The character quoted above is Old Man Warner, a crotchety octogenarian and a respected elder in the community. Warner is reacting to the news that in “the north village” and other places, people are abandoning the time-honored practice of choosing a citizen by lottery every June…

[Spoiler Alert!]

…and then stoning the lottery winner to death.

Warner’s crotchety response stems from an unquestioned belief that this institution is good for the prosperity of the community.

Used to be a saying about ‘Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.’ First thing you know, we’d all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There’s always been a lottery,” he added petulantly.

You know where this is going, don’t you?

I’ve been thinking about Old Man Warner in relation to the attitudes that many people have towards cycling and cyclists.

Those of us who are cycling advocates regard cycling as a form of mobility that improves individual lives, communities, economies, and the environment. To us, more cycling equals progress.

Whereas Old Man Warner thinks, “Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more.”

None of us alive today have ever lived in a world without cars, and neither have the Old Man Warner’s of our world. Cars run through our traditions, our rites of passage, what it means to be a credible, respectable, functional member of society; what it means to be socially mobile.

“There’s always been a lottery.”

We, of course, know that there have not always been motor vehicles and the enabling infrastructure. We are taught in school that Henry Ford “invented” the automobile in 1908. But we hardly remember the names of other great Americans, such as Prometheus who brought us fire, and Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin.

Some of us even are aware that cyclists are responsible for the first public paved roads.

But try telling that to Old Man Warner.

To him, cycling — even accommodating cyclists — represents regression; even a slippery slope towards total societal corrosion.

  • Regression in maturity: An adult who rides a bike looks like childish.
  • Regression of civilization: In the “Third World,” people ride bikes because those societies are backwards.
  • Regression of economic class: Cycling is the transportation choice of last resort for the poor, who obviously aspire to own a car.
  • Regression in social standing: Anyone on a bike, if they can afford a car, must have a DUI or other shameful reason for it.

Did I leave out any of the stigmata of cycling?

The problem is that Old Man Warner is flat wrong about what it would mean to abandon the lottery. And his wrongness perpetuates a tragic practice. Everyone in the community perpetuates the practice; Old Man Warner is merely it’s most outspoken defender.

Among other characters in The Lottery, you can sense ambivalence and varying enthusiasm for the ritual. When the lottery winner, Tessie Hutchinson, had been determined,

Mrs. Delacroix selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands and turned to Mrs. Dunbar. “Come on,” she said. “Hurry up.”

Mrs. Delacroix proudly drives a Hummer and complains about smug cyclists blocking her way.

Mrs. Dunbar had small stones in both hands, and she said, gasping for breath, “I can’t run at all. You’ll have to go ahead and I’ll catch up with you.”

Mrs. Dunbar has a troubled conscience. She privately wishes there was an alternative to the lottery. But what are you gonna to do? She drives an economy car (as I do) and tries to believe that makes her less culpable (as I do).

Just as I have a problem with stoning people to death (even if it does bring about a good corn crop), I have a problem pretending a car-centered society is anything but toxic for individuals, communities, economies, and the environment.

Before you peg me as a back-to-the-land hippie, let me say that I’m no more anti-car than I am anti-stone. It’s what you do with cars and stones, and to what degree, that is consequential.

The problem with cars — as with stoning — is in the aggregate. A single stone might kill you, but a community of stone throwers definitely will.

Congressman John Mica

Old Man Mica, Chairman of the House Transportation Committee

If we had to  stone to death — personally — one of our neighbors once a year in order to keep driving our cars, most of us wouldn’t. (I hope.) But the violence of a car-centered society is externalized and outsourced in some ways, and spread thin in other ways.

Every year of auto-centrism comes at incredible costs: the public health costs from auto emissions and sedentary lifestyles, the incalculable foreign policy costs (in lives and dollars) of ensuring the flow of fossil fuels to our hungry cars, the environmental costs of drilling, transporting and/or spilling that oil.

Deaths from car accidents per year may be as high 880,000 world wide (although other estimates put the figure at only half-a-million). Annual deaths from air pollution (all sources, including auto emissions) could be three times that.

Ed Begley Jr. as Jack Watson in "The Lottery"

Ed Begley Jr. as Jack Watson

Imagine a world identical to our own except all the cars and industries run on clean, green, energy. That’s still half-a-million deaths, at least, from car accidents. And this world would still have the public health costs and deaths from it’s sedentary societies (diabetes, heart disease and other ailments).

And why do we put up all of this this? Because, among some people, cycling carries a social stigma? Yes, and also because we’ve designed (and redesigned) our cities and towns to privilege cars — and to change that would be such an awful nuisance.

In The Lottery, it’s not specified what would be the consequences of opting out of the ceremony, or of questioning its validity. It’s implied, however, that the consequences for the individual were dire.

For us, the consequences of not questioning are dire — as in, we’ll have more of the same fixation on automobiles and all of its deleterious effects. Worse yet, the relative budgetary pittance that has been given to biking and walking programs in the past is slated to be cut entirely from the Federal Transportation Budget.

Is it too much to ask that cycling (and walking) be taken seriously as transportation — not as throwbacks to the stone age?

Is it too much to ask that automobiles and their expensive infrastructure (that we, as citizens all pay for) not be promoted to the exclusion of all alternatives?

Those were questions. Did you answer, No, that’s not too much to ask?

Then ask.

Old Man Congress might ignore you. He might patronize you. But he won’t stone you.

If enough of us ask, he might listen.


This link will take you to the Take Action page on AmericaBikes.org where you can contact your Congressman.

 
Burley nomad 229

17 Responses to “Old Man Warner, Cycling Opponent”

  1. Alan Schietzsch says:

    If 2% of citizens bike or walk, 2% of the transportation budget is THEIR money.

    RE: “Worse yet, the relative budgetary pittance that has been given to biking and walking programs in the past is slated to be cut entirely from the Federal Transportation Budget.”

  2. Old man Warner does not question things because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”. He refuses to engage that part of his brain responsible for critical thinking. And often, we really aren’t encouraged to do so because it disrupts someone’s apple cart. Some as simply as asking “Oh, yeah, why is that?” is frequently met with flustered hrrumphing and reliance on emotional arguments rather than data/fact based explanations. Nobody can tell Old man Warner probably won’t listen to the fact that nobody want to take away his car or that bicycles are perfectly democratic since they offer people a choice. He’s already been told they represent creeping European style socialism and that’s good enough for him.

  3. Dr. M says:

    I would think Old Man Warner would support bicycles over those new fan dangled cars. There are large communities of Pennsylvannia Dutch who shun cars and are only allowed modified scooters because bicycles are too “worldly”. Yet this country supports a diversity of opinions and lifestyles.
    That having been said, I think we’re going to have to be realistic about expecting government funding to continue for bicycling and walking programs. Private sector support, perhaps. There are no commuter bike paths in the rural area where I live and the roads even for cars are rough. Still they have improved over the many years that I’ve been riding. I put super bright lights on my bike, bags etc. and have a very loud horn to alert motorists. I make sure to use the right bike tire for the terrain and our daughters both ride mountain bikes. So whatever the government does or doesn’t do, we will continue to be self relaint and use our bicycles.

  4. BluesCat says:

    Dr. M – The only way you’ll get “private sector support” for bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure is if you, first, level a 10% Transportation surtax on anyone who makes over $1 million a year; and then, second, create a tax deduction of 10% for every dollar that same group puts into a local fund which can only be spent on pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure. If you don’t FORCE the rich (the small group with 80% of America’s wealth) to spend money on it … they won’t.

  5. JonO says:

    Interesting post but its not always so black and white. In my area, there’s a big battle going on over a 1/4 mile extension to the Santiago Creek Trail. From what I’ve seen, there are three different ‘alliances’ (two for the trail extension and one against). On the surface, I’m 100% in favor of extending the trail because it allows for safer access to the main trail and eventually a better way for people to enjoy the area. However, the trail extension will most likely mean some of my neighbors will have property seized via imminent domain and several very old trees will have to be cut down (which I’m opposed to).

    The big problem is, nobody’s looking at it objectively. The pro bike trail folks think the anti trail crowd is just a bunch of rich people who don’t want ‘outsiders’ getting into our neighborhood. On the other hand, the anti bike trail people think the pro trail crowd just wants a fun bike ride so they can frolic about on weekends. They don’t realize the trail is how a bunch of people (myself included) commute to work, go to the store, go to the parks, etc.

    Point being, even though many of us locals would love to have the trail extension, we’re still undecided because of the various murky issues. It would be much easier to make a decision if there was a clear ‘Old Man Warner’ on one side or the other.

    If anyone cares to read more, here’s a pro trail group’s site:

    http://neighbors4trail.org/

    And here’s the anti trail group’s site:

    http://savesantiagocreekalliance.org/

    • Ted Johnson says:

      JonO: Thanks for the comment.

      The fact that there is a thoughtful debate over this proposed bike trail at all is a really positive sign. The Old Man Warner argument would be to reject the trail out of hand, simply because it’s a bike trail — rather than a discussion about the merits and impact of the proposed trail.

  6. Tom Bowden says:

    Looks Like Micah is saying “And then I took this REALLY BIG stone and I heaved at her with everything I had!”

  7. Graham says:

    I agree. When people have actual objections to a thing then the argument can move forward. It’s when folks are just opposed to an idea for no reason at all that the conversation gets bogged down.

  8. Dr. M says:

    Perhaps but don’t celebrities and sports stars fall into that same upper tax bracket category? Don’t they raise a lot of money for other social causes they believe in so why not this one? The only thing that’s going to get “forced” is the rich leaving this country with 45% of Americans left who pay absolutely no taxes at all.
    The middle class which is vanishing will be the one’s hit with higher taxes. Class warfare may sound good at an OWS rally but doesn’t really work in the real world.

  9. BluesCat says:

    Dr. W – Anybody who thinks the rich will simply leave is forgetting that the American middle class buys an enormous amount of the goods services which the rich sell to make themselves rich.

    The whole reason for our economic woes is that the rich are getting richer at the expense of the middle class, and forgetting that they DEPEND on the American middle class. The rich won’t stay rich for long if they just depend upon buying things from OTHER rich people. The U.S. can’t just be an “information based economy.” We need to get back to MAKING REAL things that other peoples in the world can afford to buy. It may take tariffs on foreign goods, it may take harder bargaining with other producing countries … it will DEFINITELY take getting away from the high cost of foreign oil.

    Sounds like a solid argument for the bicycle, doesn’t it?

  10. I always wonder where the “over taxed” rich think they will go? Most western democracies tax their rich to a far greater extent than we would ever consider. I hear the threat all the time but suspect it is hollow. The 45% who pay “absolutely no tax at all” is simply a myth.

  11. Joel says:

    I am at the end of my fifth month of commuting by bike. I lost ten pounds and kept it off during the holidays, a feat in itself worthy of celebration. I commute in a car to the bus station only under duress anymore. The reasons for wanting to cycle are many. Everyone on this site understands.

    With each ride, I advertise the respectability of biking by my action and hope in its own little way, it starts to sway the “Mrs. Dunbar” of the community. I doubt that I will do anything to sway the hardliners. They will join the dinosaurs eventually if they refuse to adapt.

    I am often THE only bicycle out there during my commute. As such, my actions might be the only interaction that many car users will have with a bicycle on a commute. I try my best to be the type of rider that I would respect as a car driver. Each ride could be the foundation of a driver’s realization that we can share the road and mutually benefit from lower oil prices, less traffic congestion, better health, and lower emissions.

    Not every person can successfully commute on a bike so respect and encourage the ones that can. We make the commute easier for everyone else when we ride: One less car in their way; One less car emitting emissions; One less gallon of fuel imported into our country; one less visit to the health practitioner due to lack of exercise; one less sick day adding to the country’s productivity and competitiveness; one more example to our youth that the older generation can adapt and so can they; one less car needing to be recycled because it never existed; one happier citizen because he is reminded of his youth.

    Did I happen to mention that I like to bicycle?

  12. Ted Johnson says:

    I updated this article today to include a screen shot of Ed Begley Jr. from the 1969 adaptation of The Lottery.

    Ed Begley Jr.

    Begley re-tweeted this article to his 13,500 followers on Twitter, so I figured they’d want to see why this was relevant him — other than the article referring to clean energy.

  13. Ed Begley, who I just loved on St. Elsewhere, is certainly a dedicated bike commuter of many years. I have to laugh when I think I thought his green lifestyle was a little weird . . . an now look at me.

    I agree with Joel. We never know the simple idea we plant in some drivers head just by being out there on our bikes.

  14. Ed says:

    Jon,
    I lived on the other side of the trail, where old trees coexist with the bike trail. The bike path extension proposed would benefit many commuters (like you and me) and families. The benefits outweight the “theats.”

  15. SweetNightmare says:

    Until I recently decided to get a bike to commute to work(which I’ve not done as I’m saving the money to do so), I never really noticed this. When I tell people my walk to work takes almost an hour, they ask why I don’t just ask someone for a ride. While walking to work the other day, a man stopped and asked if I needed a ride somewhere. I told him no, that I was just going up to the major cross section. He still asked if I was sure.

    These same people that ask me why I don’t get a ride for a mile and a half walk are the same people that tell me to exercise more. I admit it, I’m chubby. And in my despair at being unable to lose weight, I became more sedentary and gained more weight. I decided getting a job where I could walk, or bike, would be a good idea. And hey, while I’m at it, there’s three shopping centers or more in biking distance from my house; why not throw a basket on and do my shopping that way? Suddenly, biking looks like a great solution to my stagnant life.

    But when I look at the roads, it’s daunting when there’s not a designated bike lane. You can’t get to the places to shop or my job without going along a major street at some point, where people zoom by at forty miles an hour. While walking, I saw three bikers, and two had given up and were walking their bikes on the sidewalk.

    Lately, my town has started putting up all kinds of signs and notices for cars to pay attention to cyclists and share the road with them, for which I am grateful. But this town is a wealthy town, where the rich live in luxury with fast cars, places to go, people to see, and phones to pay more attention to than the road. I love my cell phone, and I love never having to worry about contacting someone when I’m out. But doing it while driving is just stupid. It puts everyone in danger, not just you. And when you hit a kid on a bike that was just trying to get home from school, that’s all you.

    It’s only now that I’m going to be doing it myself that I realize how tough bikers have it. And that’s the truly sad part of our society.

  16. BluesCat says:

    SweetNightmare – I know how you feel. When I started back commuting by bike in 2008, I was dismayed at the amount of high speed traffic I was competing with.

    As I became a better rider, and started to get more observant and more knowledgeable, I discovered little things I hadn’t seen or known before. I saw ride-able paths on and in between the parking lots along my route. I bought an inexpensive GPS and could track paths along side streets which would keep me away from the roaring traffic. I studied the bike routes available on the new Google bike maps. I visited my favorite local bike shop, chatted with them, and got some maps for bicyclists as well as some information about “secret” routes even the maps didn’t show.

    These days, the only time I have to cross a busy street on my 8-mile route to work is when I combine two major streets at a light controlled intersection; where, in the afternoons, I am in a crowd of pedestrians and fellow bike riders.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is to not give up on biking to work. Even in my severely bike-unfriendly home town of Phoenix, I have found ways to make it reasonably comfortable.

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