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July 31, 1997

Full Flaps

Massas and Massers

If you're Willie Brown and you're used to bending phenomena to your will, you compensate in similarly spectacular fashion when you find yourself thwarted. Temporizing and grandstanding are emboldened by your hyperbole, and that language unavoidably leads to directives which cast increasing doubt on your competency.

Brown's consistent waffling on transportation issues has brought about his imbroglio with Critical Mass. Rather than set a definite date for a summit with cyclists on the bicycle plan they had painstakingly worked out with the city, Brown tendered the summit as a reward if Critical Mass followed his makeshift route guidelines on their ride last Friday. This was in lieu of his threatened crackdown. Brown had been among those stalled in traffic during Critical Mass' June ride, and had grafted his continuing high dudgeon onto the anger of the other motorists idled that evening. Our acclaimed urbanist (all the national media say so) then compounded his political and diplomatic skills this week with an "absolute" insistence on full prosecution of arrested bikers, labeling them "lawless, insurrectionist types" who are on a par with bank robber Willie Sutton. Brown has admonished Police Chief Fred Lau to institute a hard-line strategy for future Mass rides, and Lau obliged with a recommendation to treat the rides as athletic events requiring a permit, subjecting violators to arrest. Constitutional lawyers don't get windfalls like this very often.

Brown's actions are matched only by the tactical stupidity of the Critical Mass participants themselves. There is a punctiliousness about their anarchism (we're limited to non-pejorative usage of that word here, since we're not as grown-up as the Chronicle), an eschewal of anything hinting of hierarchy, and a dedication to spontaneity and the autonomy of small blocs within the membership. Combine that with a sense of theatricality and a distaste for authority and you have a free-form ethos which, prior to the last two rides, was an increasing irritant to commuters, but otherwise harmless. The void in that approach is their goo-goo presumption that the public shares their belief in the intrinsic merits and need for alternative transportation models, and Critical Mass' apparent reluctance to build alliances with non-cyclists. Aside from the plan the Bicycle Coalition has formulated with city officials, the organizing and p.r. canvassing necessary to sway the unconvinced has been negligible. The rides have constituted the only focus through which the cyclists' agenda could be viewed, a prism inevitably bound to yield distortions. Off the bikes, the basic groundwork hasn't been laid, and last Friday that glaring omission played into Brown's hands. With the ride as the sole lobbying means at its disposal, and Critical Mass' innate antipathy to letting anyone dictate the terms and parameters of its "social space," the logic of its resultant disobedience was foreordained.

* * *

One makes a mistake underestimating the extent to which Brown will utilize his wounded vanity to cover his failures of leadership on transportation problems. Should the public ire at cyclists persist, Brown will accentuate that disdain with his own outrage as long as there is political capital to be gained. As a cover for his other instances of political inertia, Brown can distinguish between "responsible" bicyclists and the pariahs, and craft a new context in which to evaluate any implementation of the formal proposals cyclists have worked out with the Bicycle Advisory Committee. He has already moved quickly in this mode, criticizing Parking and Traffic Commissioner Sharon Bretz for suggesting that Market Street east of Van Ness be closed to private cars.

At the root of the movement to reclaim the streets from the automobile is the notion of what a city is; and for all his vaunted urbanity, Brown hasn't a clue. He was provided the opportunity of a lifetime last month as host of the Mayor's Conference to elucidate his urban canon (it is widely taken for granted, after all, that he is without peer in this field), and said absolutely nothing of any consequence or evinced the slightest comprehension about the issues central to the crises affecting cities. For all we were able to surmise, San Francisco might as well be a nightclub, where Willie entertains and regales his friends and everyone else is screened very carefully at the door.

It isn't necessary to belabor Brown's corporate accommodationism; he's no different from the other advance men for capital interests who occupy public office. What is important to reemphasize is the degree to which all of them have become irrelevant, and the self-righteous "weenies" (as Brown has termed them) who defied the mayor last week and "bicycled over the car culture," as CM is wont to parse it, manifested that conviction. Why should it surprise us that these new serfs of the urban plantation, college-educated twentysomethings in permanent vassalage to low-wage globalism, are contemptuous of a system which provides a range of options from standing over a photocopier, to tending an espresso machine, to pedaling through auto exhaust to deliver oblivious boomer suits their precious packages?

The repercussions of globalism are, of course, anticity, and these kids know it viscerally: the skyrocketing rents which preclude living alone, the inability to afford health insurance, the pervasive emptiness and hypocrisy of cultural norms, the relentlessly idiotic cant of public officials, an environment and physical infrastructure either decimated or pompously hostile. If they're adamant about forging new concepts of community, on their own terms, who can blame them? They're forced to make the connections every day, and in San Francisco last week, boorishly and amateurishly, to be sure, they were not to be denied making one so self-evident that it has blinded the rest of us: Cars and cities are natural enemies; to cater to the automobile is to ultimately destroy the idea of the polis.

* * *

Doubtless among cyclists there are strategists knowledgeable about the fundamental axiom of successful mass movements: You bring the middle class over, or you lose. At this juncture, slogans like "We don't block traffic, we open minds" should be assigned full-bullshit status. Off the bikes and into the streets, more appropriately, conveys the intricacies of the moment: Setting up card tables downtown, leafletting cars at traffic chokeholds, sidewalk street theater at lunch hour, the recognition of drivers as workers, with media campaigns built around these actions -- in short, the old-fashioned verities of traditional community organizing.

There may well be a time when confrontation is again necessary and, indeed, warranted. Politician Brown may have relegated himself to mere overseer rank, but he nonetheless holds the key to how this will play out. He and others who should know better have disparaged cyclists for their unwillingness to accept the consequences of their actions, citing the civil rights movement and the Vietnam demonstrations as proper applications of civil disobedience. I remember something else of more recent vintage: young people in their twenties here rebuking a country that had gone in pursuit of starving and vanquished Iraqi troops fleeing home to their mamas and turned them into charcoal briquets. Those kids went to jail en masse for that, and to believe they will not proudly do so again on matters of high principle, is to have your head up a tailpipe.

This isn't a localized issue, it's international, and we dismiss these kids at our peril. In time, we might even realize they've done us a favor. Right now, it's a certainty that these Willie Suttons are intent upon stealing back their inheritance -- what we've left them of it.

-- Coyright John Hutchison 1997



Bread and Circuses

As the jubilant men in suits paraded across my TV screen, celebrating the federal budget agreement, I kept hearing -- like an ironic voice-over -- the phrase that began it all, "We the People of the United States." Those of us who came of political age in the 1960s take our Constitution very seriously. To my mind, the new budget doesn't. In fact, its egregious flouting of the spirit of that document verges on unconstitutionality.

It's not merely that the balanced budget bill and its accompanying tax cut measure, which marched relentlessly through Congress this week, are skewed in favor of one particular class. Even a skeptical observer like the historian Charles Beard would find their underlying factionalism disturbing. Rather than fulfilling what he described as one of the main functions of any government, "the making of the rules which determine the property relations of members of society," these measures seem to serve no purpose beyond furthering the narrowly defined political interests of their authors, by furthering the equally narrowly defined economic interests of the people they see as their constituents.

How else to explain the Tweedledum-Tweedledee speeches of self-congratulation burbling from the White House and the Gingrich crowd across town? It's no longer the economy, stupid; it's the election, and the public good be damned. As the Clinton administration and members of the Republican-dominated Congress look for ways to win in 1998, 2000, and beyond, they move into alignments that, although almost syllogistic in their simplicity, were never mentioned in Poli Sci 1. Presidential popularity -- for the incumbent and his heir apparent -- thrives on success; cooperation with the majority Republicans in Congress brings about success; therefore, an interparty buddy system replaces the traditional balancing tension between the executive and legislative branches. The Republicans in Congress can also expect to profit from this partnership, but their Democratic counterparts, being No. 2, must try harder; to win elections, they must demonstrate that they are not only different from, but also better than, their opponents, even if it means breaking their traditional intraparty alliance with the Democratic president. (This holds doubly true, of course, if you have designs on moving from Congress into the presidency yourself.)

It's hard to interpret the festivities as anything but elation over a well-completed process. The product is certainly nothing to cheer about -- without the distractions of the balloons and the cute kids, the approval of a balanced budget based on increased spending and decreased taxes would be more likely to elicit astonishment than praise. Within its welter of articles and clauses lurk some genuinely praiseworthy provisions as well as some pretty dreadful ones. Thousands of legal immigrants, for example, who were knocked from the welfare rolls by the 1996 welfare reform act will be able to receive benefits. On the other hand, many patients, citizens and noncitizens alike, will undoubtedly have to pay more to hospitals and other health-care providers because of a substantial reduction in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. Back on the constructive hand, millions of previously excluded children will have the possibility of health insurance. But here's the rub: their access to actual coverage will be restricted by a prohibition on allotting federal funds to health plans that -- as most do -- provide abortions.

More distressing is the agreement's "do-nothing-today-that-you-can-put-off-until-tomorrow" approach to the economy. It contains countless specific proposals concerning everything from cigarettes to airline tickets. But the foot-high compendium (did anyone have time to read the whole thing before voting on it?) is only part of a five-year plan. It proposes to achieve a balance in 2002 primarily by cutting Medicare funds now and then, in the year 2000, finding ways to prune discretionary spending. In the present flourishing economic climate, where the deficit has shrunk from a 1992 level of $290 billion to a predicted $45 billion by the end of 1997, lawmakers may hope to avoid the pain of trimming future budgets at all.

Other difficult decisions will not disappear so neatly, however. Many economists argue, on the basis of obvious demographic data, that our prosperity is just a brief respite between eras of major hardship. In twenty years or so, when the very Baby Boomers who created today's economic boom retire and begin to decline in health, they will claim, in unprecedented numbers, the right to draw on the Medicare and Social Security systems to which they contributed significantly during their working years. Even a self-serving politician with limited vision should be able to see that now, when we are enjoying a period of relative economic calm, not when a crisis of over-extended entitlement programs is swirling about our heads, is the time to do some much-needed repair work.

This kind of short-sightedness may be irresponsible, but it is not particularly novel. An overriding interest in one's political future and a lack of interest in tackling the problems of another generation denote character flaws, not cardinal sins. The perniciousness of the new budget agreement lies elsewhere. It does not attempt to cajole us into acquiescence with offers of something for everybody -- there is no "everybody" in the center of this structure. The tax bill's 80 "limited tax benefits," tax breaks for a few people or businesses, which are subject to presidential veto, are symptomatic. In its grander scheme, working parents are courted with tax credits for children, college students with deductions for loans, and homeowners with exemptions on profits from the sale of their house. Investors are not simply rewarded with huge cuts in the capital gains tax; they are treated to a variety of options so that, if they cannot make use of one, they are sure to find another that will pay off. Taken as a whole, this budget projects -- on a wide screen with full surroundsound -- the image of a nation composed of people defined by their special interests.

This picture responds, perhaps, to a general American desire for clear-cut definitions in the face of an increasing awareness that personal identity and identification with others are elusive constructs determined by complex configurations of race, class, gender and various other elements. Recent instances abound of the confusion that arises when overly simple classifications are applied to a diverse population, ranging from the blackening of Tiger Woods and the whitening of Andrew Cunanan to the forked-tongue expression of attitudes toward single mothers depending on their class. In response, our leaders in Washington have traveled farther than ever before toward government by pigeonhole.

Despite the incredible claims of victory for the government-reducing Contract with America, the result is actually a major move toward micromanagement, or social management by economic manipulation. Founding father James Madison would have approved: writing in the Federalist Papers, he noted that the new republic's physical size would provide stability (and support for the status quo) by making it difficult for popular opposition to "spread a general conflagration" nationwide. In an era when technology has shrunk geographical distances, the construction of psychological distances -- the old technique of divide-and-conquer -- may work equally well to control potentially restive populations.

A familiar question hovers nearby, waiting to be asked. Who benefits? The answer will emerge over the next few years, as the budget's multifarious machinations are played out. My fear is that a nation which bestows special favors on investors in a growing global economy will lose sight of the original promise embedded in the Constitution, to promote its own general welfare.

-- Copyright Betsey Culp 1997

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