Memorial Day is when patriotic Americans are asked to “pay tribute to the U.S. men and women who died during military service by observing a minute of silence at 3:00 PM, local time.”
We get the whole day off (well, many of us do) to prepare for that one minute. I think I blew it. At 3 PM I’m pretty sure I was in headphones listening to Blind Willie Johnson while cleaning my garage — a long-term project that has spanned many of my recent weekends.
On Saturday I came across the box where I keep my American flag. I’m not one of those guys who flies the flag whenever there’s a national patriotic litmus test — which is 17 times per year, plus ad-hoc days determined at the whim of elected politicians — plus Flag Day. (Yes, bewildered non-Americans, we have a day called Flag Day when we fly the flag simply because it’s our flag. No, we don’t need a better pretext.)
But my American flag is no ordinary flag. Instead of the 50 stars and 13 stripes standard today, mine has 15 stars and 15 stripes. It’s a reproduction of the flag as it looked from 1795 until 1818 — one star and one stripe for each state. And it’s the version of flag that flew during the War of 1812, which you will notice was 200 years ago. (Even though the war was largely fought in 1814.) Nowadays we often refer to this version of the American flag as The Star Spangled Banner.
So on Memorial Day I was reflecting in particular on the men and women who died during military service in the War of 1812.
I’m kind of a nerd about the War of 1812, because it’s the only time that our country was actually invaded — like, by an army with boots on the ground. And that army was the biggest most badass army in the world at the time: The army of the British Empire.
It was not a war we had to wage; we picked that fight — “we” meaning President James Madison. And at the time there were a lot of people wondering if the President was nuts to do so. The country had only been independent for about 40 years. Our Constitution was barely drinking age. The British had been licking their wounds and bulking up ever since George Washington humiliated them. So why in the world would we taunt the British to come and take back the country? That was the outcome expected — even welcomed — by many at the time.
I like the Star Spangled Banner because it is a reminder that seemingly unwise military conflicts, and public ambivalence towards them, is not a new phenomenon.
And on Memorial Day, I of course began thinking of the War of 1812 as a metaphor for bike advocacy.
Cycling advocates have taken on an enormously dangerous and well-funded empire: The Centric Autocar Republic (the CAR).
Are we crazy to pick this fight? Some think so. The CAR and it’s sympathizers are hoping to see bikes put back in their place: the Toys and Sports section of our local box store.
Normally, I reject the war metaphor so popular in the media and on bike blogs: We are all users of the roads, and all we are asking for is a little respect. (I was also listening to Aretha Franklin this weekend.)
But the reality is that the CAR has taken over the paved streets that our cycling forebearers began to put in place more than 100 years ago. This fact is well-known, but for the sake of irony I’ll quote a British publication, Carlton Reid in The Guardian:
Many motorists also assume that roads were built for them. In fact, cars are the johnny-come-latelies of highways.
The hard, flat road surfaces we take for granted are relatively new. Asphalt surfaces weren’t widespread until the 1930s. So, are motorists to thank for this smoothness?
No. The improvement of roads was first lobbied for – and paid for – by cycling organisations.
In the UK and the US, cyclists lobbied for better road surfaces for a full 30 years before motoring organisations did the same. Cyclists were ahead of their time.
And now the invaders from the CAR are saying that we have no right to use these roads.
So how do we win against such a formidable opponent? Take a look at the Battle of Baltimore from the War of 1812. You see, The British had just burned Washington, but largely had focused their wrath on government buildings, such as the White House and the Capitol. Baltimore — a hotbed of anti-British sentiment — was going to be a different story. The British planned to raze the place. Imagine the army of the CAR intending to make an example of Portland.
The British bombarded Fort McHenry from a safe distance. The guns mounted on their warships had a superior range, and they could fire newfangled exploding cannonballs, but their accuracy was crap. The Americans at Fort McHenry with their non-exploding shorter-range cannons basically drew an invisible line that said, Keep your distance and nobody gets hurt.
And that’s pretty much what happened. With a few lucky shots, the British killed four Americans, and wounded 24. The Americans only wounded one Brit among a small reconnaissance group foolish enough to paddle a boat near shore.
The British eventually got bored of lobbing their expensive bombs at the fort, only to see “the flag was still there.” So eventually they backed off.
Francis Scott Key wasn’t really much a fan of the war in the first place. He was a Georgetown lawyer and amateur poet who proselytized to his slaves. (They probably would have preferred to be whipped. I know I would.) His modern-day equivalent would be a yuppie Georgetown lawyer with a Hummer — but generally supportive of cycling.
Key’s expendable butt had been chosen to negotiate the release of an inconsequential prisoner, Dr. William Beanes. Key brought letters testifying that Beans had treated British soldiers and treated them kindly. Key ultimately persuaded the British Admiral to let the doctor go. During and after the battle, Key wrote his poem to the tune of a British drinking song and turned the British “retreat” into a huge moral victory for the Americans.
My thoughts are that bike advocacy can work the same way. You never know the quiet influence you have, or who will have it. We don’t always have to put up much of a fight. Until we prevail, we are likely to be out gunned and out funded. Testimonials of people who have benefited from cycling can be more influential than confrontational tactics.
I’ve never participated in a Critical Mass ride. Why? Because since the phenomenon of Critical Mass began, I’ve always lived in places where the tide was going the way of cyclists.
Ultimately the Centric Autocar Republic will get tired of opposing (and killing) us. And we can save our more aggressive advocacy ammo for when the CAR crosses that invisible line. If the CAR were to push back where I currently live, you bet your ass you’d see my ass in a bike protest — probably flying my Star Spangled Banner.