(Updated) The ‘Zelig Complex’ As It Relates To The Urban Cycling Movement

Background Reading

Source: WikiPedia

'Zelig' Screenshot - Woody Allen

‘Zelig’ Screenshot – Woody Allen

Zelig is a 1983 American mockumentary written and directed by Woody Allen, and starring Allen and Mia Farrow. Allen plays Leonard Zelig, a nondescript enigma who, out of his desire to fit in and be liked, takes on the characteristics of strong personalities around him. The film, presented as a documentary, recounts Zelig’s intense period of celebrity in the 1920s and includes analysis from present day intellectuals.

The film was photographed and narrated in the style of 1920s black-and-white newsreels, which are interwoven with archival footage from the era and re-enactments of real historical events. Color segments from the present day interview real and fictional personages, including Saul Bellow and Susan Sontag.

Over on the ChainLink Forum There Is A Lively Discussion

Source: ChainLink

Reply by Reboot Oxnard 2 hours ago
Michelle, even if you have the moral high ground in the bike -v- car fight, the poll data says you are probably going to need to choose between being right and being effective. These are your neighbors and if you want to get along with them, especially if you want them to provide funds and support for developing cycling infrastructure, you are going to have to learn how to play nice with them. It doesn’t matter who started your war, what matters is that putting an end to it means that you are going to have to be the one to sue for peace.

Reply by Michelle Milham 2 hours ago
Said every single person who ever just say down and gave up on an ideal.

Reply by h’ 1.0 1 hour ago
Go Michelle!

Reply by Michelle Milham 1 hour ago
I mean… I took a history minor and in it we oddly enough never studied anyone who just politely coexisted with an oppressor and expected things to get better.

This is not a call to violence or even really a call to break ALL the laws.

But it is a call that maybe we shouldn’t just take this bullshit sitting down, and maybe we should expect better of drivers than they expect of themselves, and fight to get that.

Maybe you don’t think critical mass helps with that. But I think it has and will continue to do so.

Reply by Crazy David 84 Furlongs 8 minutes ago
You need to ask for a refund of your tuition. Many social changes have been brought about through politely coexisting with people with other views (charged terms like oppressor don’t help) and things actually got better. Let’s take, for example, the recent positive trends in same sex marriage. What finally brought about the change? The realization by the majority that this was not the “great evil” that they had seen and that these couples were just like the rest of us. It wasn’t forced upon us be large scale protests.

In fact, a strong argument can be made that the Viet Nam War protests, for example, actually increased the length of the War. The original opposition to the War was in the “grandmother” contingent. The “anti-war” protests were viewed by this group as “anti-american” (flag burning, people not “like” us) and this caused them to re-think their position. The only time that a “protest” movement can really be effective is when it is the “majority” that is protesting the actions of a minority controlling them. The thing is that, in the case of Bicyclists, it is the super-majority of non-Bicyclists that are being annoyed to the point of perhaps wanting to lash-back.

And, of course, you keep denying that all evidence is “anecdotal”. Not really. Its the kind of evidence that shows trends. People don’t write letters to the editor unless an issue is really important to them. The numbers of letters to the Editor condemning Critical Mass is more than anecdotal. In any event, we have “real” evidence that Bicycling is in trouble. As noted in the Sun Times article, bike lanes were the number one “problem” raised by the people being polled — unprompted. This is a very strong, and very worrisome indicator.

We have ways to be effective and productive. Critical Mass is not one of them. Its highly counterproductive. It may “feel good”, but in the long term its bad for you. And more importantly, its bad for the rest of us as well.

Reply by Crazy David 84 Furlongs 6 minutes ago
I support bicycling. The difference is that I believe in effective advocacy, not childish actions that simply make the majority mad at the rest of us. One of our problems is that a portion of the time is spent on controlling the “bomb throwers” on our side, rather than setting forth effective positions.

Reply by Michelle Milham 20 minutes ago
What advocacy do you believe is effective, if you don’t believe that exerting our rights as a group is effective? You are basically telling anyone who wants to do anything more than write a letter to the editor to sit down, shut up, and get out of the way of cars. We are advocating for ourselves. Anti bike people aren’t beyond whining to newspapers and pollsters and MAYBE voting. I am confident that a 16 year old 1 time a month tradition actually has LITERALLY nothing to do with the people who complained about bikes. They didn’t complain about critical mass specifically. They complained about bikes existing on the road at all. People do this all the time, everywhere.

At this point, Chicago has a choice: continue to attract the young and the bright, who want options like bike to work facilities, or run those people out of town due to some whiny assholes. Which do you think we can afford to lose: companies like Google? Or some whiny assholes? Even if people vote Rahm out of office because of bike lanes, it would still be politically/financially necessary to continue making cycling safer if we want to attract companies that matter to our state.


‘Do’ Respect

Reply by Kevin C 16 minutes ago
“do” respect.

Quite often some of the older males on the ChainLink being unable to keep up with the pace of the conversation resort to feeble attempts at humor. One can only imagine how they might react to being asked to concentrate on carefully marking the Four Star Bike Route rather than playing with dead rats on the roadway. But we all mature at different rates, do we not?

Reply by Crazy David 84 Furlongs 5 hours ago
Effective Advocacy can take many forms:
We used to have a very effective advocate in Chicago for Bicycling — the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation. But they have lost their way and are no longer an advocate for bicycling. That would be the first thing that should be done — the establishment of a “Federation of Chicago Bicyclists” for the purpose of advocating for bicycles.

Secondly, a Political Action Committee should be formed to provide some financial support to those local candidates that are willing to support pro-cycling activities.

Thirdly, events such as “Bike to Work Week” need to be expanded and supported.

Fourthly, an effective demonstration of the financial “clout” of bicyclists should be shown. Pick a day and have all bicyclists pay for everything that day with either $2 bills or $1 coins.

Fifthly, a strong outreach to the Bicycle Community should encourage following the most important traffic rules without exception. (Lights, one way streets and the like) Perhaps with T-Shirts that say “I follow the traffic laws, What about You”.

That’s a start of a program and that’s a lot more effective than CM.

With respect to CM, traffic has gotten much worse. It would have gotten much worse even if all cycling were banned. But that fact is not relevant. What is relevant is that cycling is a quick and easy scapegoat. And CM gives them support for this.

What has also changed is that Rahm has put a lot of “support” into obvious bicycle programs. And some of these programs have gotten voters mad at him. He has also earned lots of other enemies with other policies. If he loses, which is not a given, those forces that lined up against him will all have a seat at the table. And an “easy” and “noticeable” cut to the budget (even if it means nothing to the bottom line) will be to all of the bicycle programs. The new Mayor will be able to show that she is cutting the budget by cutting things that are obvious. And, of course, as always, the cuts will be for the benefit of the “children”…… (the Charter School companies…)

Reply by Simon Phearson 5 hours ago
Of course, the example of same-sex marriage cuts against your argument, since the most recent step came only after decades of in-your-face advocacy and generation-by-generation, individual-by-individual coming out to families, friends, and workplaces.

If we want car drivers to support bike infrastructure, we have to find ways to convince them that it’s in their interest to do so, and achieving that requires somehow conveying that message to them in a convincing way. Good bike diplomacy – while always advisable – is not really a complete PR campaign.

I am not really sure what the best strategy at this point in Chicago’s maturation is. “We’re here, we’re cycling, get used to it,” may not get us there, and I tend to agree that it could be counterproductive. But you can’t organize a message or a campaign around a message like “be a good cycling diplomat” – it’s just not a clear or salient enough message. We need cyclists to be proud, organized, and together, behind a message to drivers that says, “We’re your allies: we’re helping you reduce congestion, wear and tear on roads, and pollution; we’re clearing seats on the CTA and parking spots downtown; you give us infrastructure, we’ll use it and stay out of the lane” and so on. I’m not really seeing you suggest anything like that.

The in-your-face antics of ‘ACT UP‘ did little to move me. And I doubt many others. That kind of thing is aimed more at the ‘troops‘ to keep them motivated but does nothing of consequence to bring support from outside. What always makes the difference is someone being brave enough to share their story and to let the rest of us know that ‘you are like me‘. When you ‘put a face‘ on a movement then it begins to succeed. Critical Mass Rides are argued to not be demonstrations and to ‘not have a point‘ and that information is gleaned from the ChainLink Forum itself.

What it has become is a ‘nanny saddled‘ excuse to break traffic laws in such a fashion as to ‘piss off motorists‘. How effective is a ride like this (as an act of in-your-faceness) if you have cops riding along as ‘nannies‘. The only people who think this is ‘bad ass‘ are those too new to the scene to know better and old farts who have ‘gone past their sell by dates‘ and really have no new ideas to offer.

Reply by Michelle Milham 5 hours ago
Also, here is an article about why Portland no longer has a Critical Mass. It’s because their right to protest peacefully as a group was taken away by local police. Lets just be glad that’s NOT what’s happened here.

And what exactly do you call being shadowed by the police on each and every ride? And you need to find another descriptor for the CCM. You folks do not even call it a ‘demonstration‘. It should probably be relabeled a chance for people over 20 years of age to be escorted through the streets of Chicago by representatives of the Nanny State. Yeah, that’s ‘real badass‘.

Reply by Michelle Milham 5 hours ago
Thank you for expressing this specifically. I was too irritated to even get out something eloquent.

Reply by rwein5 4 hours ago
ha! classic CL flamewar

Reply by Michelle Milham 4 hours ago
If by flame war you mean “argument”- no one is “flaming” anyone here.

Reply by S 1 hour ago

Simon Phearson said:
I’m not sure the marriage equality cause really supports you here. Things didn’t take off until the the last 5 years or so when a majority of the population supported marriage equality after about 20 years of steadily increasing support. OTOH, the early bold steps to gain equality like the Hawaii state supreme court decision in 93 resulted in DOMA being passed and an amendment to the Hawaii constitution banning same sex marriage. At least for DADT and marriage equality, it seems like the slow gradual behind the scenes approach resulted in the stolid sustainable gains and that was after popular opinion started swinging decisively in favor of getting rid of these bans.

Honestly, I’m not sure critical mass really helps here. It’s not civil disobedience and does things (corking, ignoring stop signs/traffic lights) that aren’t used in another cycling context.

Reply by Crazy David 84 Furlongs 1 hour ago
+ Exactly. The cause changed its approach and emphasized the commonality and has now made great progress. Its how adults support causes…..

Reply by Simon Phearson 1 hour ago
My point is that a majority of the population supporting marriage equality didn’t appear out of nowhere: that’s a consensus that had to be built, and the early stages of laying the foundation of that consensus included, yes, in-your-face advocacy. We would not be where we are today if it weren’t for previous generations of outspoken advocates reminding LGBT people that the best thing we could do for one another is come out, outing public figures that took anti-LGBT positions, organizing parades, etc., etc.

The biking movement seems like it’s in a very early stage, relatively speaking. I don’t think just being good bike diplomats and trying to nibble at the edges of infrastructure budgets otherwise massively devoted to paving over neighborhoods and parks, at this stage, is going to get us where we want and need to be. That just feeds into our image of being part of a dismissable fringe, a bunch of loons riding toys to work and the grocery store, and continues the current status quo. What we need to do is effect a cultural shift, where drivers look at their cars as the optional vehicle, the device they don’t actually need to use every day; where drivers understand that a bike rider next to them at a light is one fewer car in front of them.

Is CM the way to do it? I am skeptical. But I do know one thing: CM is the sort of thing that shouldn’t be a big deal, and it wouldn’t be if our infrastructure weren’t entirely designed to move cars into and out of downtown as quickly as possible and if our drivers weren’t so preoccupied with their own personal need to get there fast. They should try doing their commute at bike speeds and see whether their lives completely implode. Opposing CM, you might just as easily take the drivers’ side on bike lanes – those also impede traffic in some tenuously-understood way. Some nerve us cyclists have, riding in them!

The same could be said for not obeying traffic rules. The reason cyclists run red lights, among other things, is that red lights and the rules relating to them are simply not designed for bike traffic. Obeying traffic laws while riding may be required, but it’s stupid in a way that most cyclists seem to intuit. Every evening commute, I spend probably five minutes in a left turn lane on Kinzie, trying to get into the Dearborn PBL. I feel like an idiot the whole time, but – bike diplomacy. That’s why I do it.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that we need a real strategy. Open displays of irreverence are maybe not the way to ally ourselves with drivers in a project to make our streets and neighborhoods saner, more connected, and more pleasant to live in and travel through. But assimilating ourselves to car culture will only perpetuate that car culture and leave us squarely at the fringe. A lot of what we’re fighting against right now are just the truly privileged ways that people think about their commute. They can’t even imagine a city that isn’t asphalt streets everywhere and driveways and towers of parking and highways wherever we can pack them.

Correct me if I am wrong. But didn’t you folks who support CM say that the motorists are angry for being ‘stuck in traffic‘? How does that square with your assertion that the design of the current infrastructure is to ‘move cars into and out of downtown as quickly as possible‘? Actually, it does not do what you say. And that my friend is why adding fuel to the fire by creating even more havoc once a month is not a good strategy.

Reply by David Barish 18 minutes ago
I understand this. I am not taking a position on hard core following of the Rules of the Road or on Critical Mass. Still, I agree that we have to at least follow the spirit of the Rules of the Road. As I posted earlier, we need to ride with a consciousness that we are all on the road together and that we want everybody to get there safely. As to CM, I don’t ride it but don’t have any issues with it. I am usually not free when CM takes place. Years ago I had a problem with it as I interpreted CM at that time as an us against them mentality. I do not agree with that but also feel that CM has evolved and does not necessarily stand for that today. But then again, since I am not a CM regular I am not going to define it or say what it stand for.

I think the future of the roads in urban America will not be about us or them. It will be integrated in the newspeak we hear from transportation advocates. We are all part of a share of the road and there are a variety of modes of transportation. Most of us do and will use many of these modes on a regular basis.

These comments are an attempt perhaps to ‘straddle the fence‘. Few ChainLinkers ever like to come out from behind their rock and ‘stand their ground‘. They prefer to be a bit ‘wishy-washy‘ and thus continue to be invited to the beer gatherings. But frankly folks, it is not the end of the world if you take a stand. The Urban Cycling Movement is simply bereft of a Martin Luther King, Jr.

Instead we have corporate blather that is designed to bring in more money for Active Transportation Alliance. We have managed to pass a few dollars under the table to the folks in newsprint who either support us or are willing to serve as our punching bags. It’s all good fun. We get to sound as if we are the leaders of The Movement and yet knowingly have no real beef with the ‘fakeBad Guys.

That might just be worse than having the police spy on your movement.

Reply by Julie Hochstadter 13 minutes ago
Agreed. I feel that way when I travel abroad , esp in certain european cities. There is no bike culture cause it is so part of the norm.

Reply by Reboot Oxnard 2 hours ago
This is a fair point – standing up for what you believe in is a fundamental requirement if you’re going to achieve your goals.

What also matters is whether you’re standing up or acting out. Sometimes a little misbehaving is a good way to get attention, see: every two year old child whose tantrum gets him a piece of candy. Sometimes, however, a little misbehaving garners the wrong kind of attention, see: every two year old child whose tantrum results in a swat to his fundus and a time-out. By three, most children have learned the secret to achieving an objective lies in the ability to adapt and innovate, not to stand in the middle of the room screaming.

The takeaway from the poll remains: resistance to cycling is increasing to the point that it may become actively detrimental to our cause. Hopefully, as every two year old does, we can learn from our experiences and avoid acting out when the parents are in a bad mood and earn a collective smack down. Tipping points are inflection points, they only demarc changes in trend lines and can be either good or bad for those whose principles are at stake.

Social change almost always starts with a ‘lunatic fringe’ getting attention by acting out but it never actually gains acceptance until the movement learns to behave responsibly while insisting on change. If cycling is going to achieve the critical mass that would make it mainstream, it’s time to abandon the tactics of Critical Mass that threaten to create a backlash.

Reply by M G 1 hour ago
I have only heard negative views from people who are drivers. My mom’s main complaint is how it impacts times for emergency vehicles. I haven’t been to more than one or two, so I don’t know how the crowd responds (I would hope by pulling to the right!) but the back up can be pretty bad even on intersecting streets, so I don’t think it is unfounded to think an ambulance or police car might get tied up by Critical Mass.

Reply by Maria Boustead 23 minutes ago
I love the new cycling infrastructure and do not want its progress impeded in any way and definitely do not want it to go away. I think there’s a lot of ways to address the need of getting more people to bike (that’s the ultimate goal, right?) and having more approaches to rally behind will probably help get more people to get on board. For example, I don’t ride CM because I don’t like crowds and I’m painfully courteous, so making people wait for a parade to roll by that they didn’t know about makes me feel guilty. (Embarrassing, but true). So, while CM scratches the bike advocacy itch for others, it doesn’t work for me. Fortunately, I know there are other ways to encourage people to bike, like sharing good routes with nervous riders, etc.

However, somewhere earlier in this, er, discussion, someone did say something that pushed one of my buttons. One thing I wish was not so prevalent is the us vs. them mentality, or the notion that people are either “drivers” or “bikers”. When did those modes of transportation become mutually exclusive? My fave mode is biking, but I also drive, walk, take the CTA…I love having the options and would hate to give any one of them up. Does that mean I hate bikers when I’m driving or hate cars when I’m biking? Of course not, at least assuming everyone is following the rules of the road and acting respectfully.

The reason that there is no real ‘bike culture‘ is because there really does not need to be one. All that increased bike infrastructure is about is more efficiently and safely getting from point A to point B. It is not about much else. We Yanks are not willing to let an opportunity to ‘muddy the waters‘ pass us by.

So we have tossed in The Critical Mass Ride and our version of the World Naked Ride and Drunk As A Skunk Bar Nights and it goes on and on. What we have failed to do is bring a coherent plan to the table. Instead we try and hold Rides of Silence without explaining that we know and understand ourselves to be among the safest of all users of the roadways. And we have not done a very good job or inviting our neighbors to join us on group rides.

I have long wondered why the Critical Mass Ride was so very full of ‘elites‘? It not only is full of them but travels mostly in areas they feel safest traversing. But among the worst things about the ride is that in the process of trying to argue for more bike infrastructure we demonstrate by our very actions that we do not give  a crap whether what we do is safe or not.

It strikes me that this would be the kind of mind bending demonstration against the lack of funding to cure HIV where the participants engaged in anonymous oral and anal sex with the cameras rolling. How anybody could devise such a meaningless demonstration is beyond me.

About The Maternity Ward

Before I get to the maternity ward story, let me point out that Zelig was a defining moment in my emotional development. I was graduated from a virtually all-white Christian College where conformity was of the utmost importance. I had been teaching for almost a decade when I left to work in the burgeoning computer programming field. One thing that I understood at that point in my life was that whether I liked it or not ‘blending in‘ was not really possible. I was an African-American in a world largely populated by white males. I saw this movie in first release while commuting between Chicago and Upstate New York on assignment. I strongly identified with ‘Zelig‘. I walked away from that movie determined to better understand the world in which I lived and myself as well.

Now the maternity ward story. A fellow walks into a hospital with a severely inflamed hangnail on his right index finger. He can neither type nor write because the affliction. Because the regular emergency room is filled with people with far more serious injuries he is sent to the floor above where to his surprise the maternity word is situated.

He is seated in a room with about a dozen women who are in various stages of labor. When the doctor walks in he tends to the women and then notices the lone male. He assumes that he must be the husband of one of the women. But the man explains that he has a severely infected hangnail and when questioned about its severity indicates that on a scale of 1-to-10 this pain has to be at last a 12. Like the women around him he feels that immediate assistance would be best.

When the doctor asks him to wait his turn he blurts out that his pain is at least as great as theirs and presumably his infection is a more dire condition than theirs.

Forgetting Where We Come From

Zelig wanted to belong somewhere, anywhere and so he over-empathized with others. Nothing wrong with deep empathy. But it helps to understand that empathy is not the same as suffering. If you were raised as I was and suddenly found yourself in a world that you had desired to be a part of but had a difficult time dealing with because of the systemic rejection that we today call ‘racism‘ you can begin to doubt yourself. I know that I did. But that only spurred me to work that much harder.

It helped to remember that many of my friends and family had not had the opportunities given to me. Lots of kids that I went to grade school with were already in prison or had died. It was with a great deal of remembrance of my experiences that the book on Black Reparations was met. One of my biggest regrets is that the Urban Cycling Community has in essence trivialized (perhaps without meaning to) the lives of African-Americans in this country. In fact I would go so far as to say that the sufferings of Native Americans, Japanese Americans and even European Jewry has been made tawdry by the equating of ‘bicycle riding in urban situations‘ with ‘oppression‘. In fact the words of Ms. Michelle Milham are more reminiscent of the Black Panther People’s Party than anything else.

I sometimes wonder had I gone into medicine and decided to work with emotionally disturbed young adults whether I would have been able to deal with a room full of ‘trust fund babies‘ (whose lives had been turned upside down by drug use and depression) clamoring about their ‘meaningless‘ lives amidst lives of luxury and over-indulgence.  So when I hear an ‘elite‘ complain that her position in this social hierarchy is as a member of an ‘oppressed minority‘ it makes me sit up and take notice.

It makes me wonder how she would have fared as a young black person standing at the foot of the casket of Emmett Till wondering whether you too could be killed in this manner just because of the color of your skin? I know first hand what this is like because my family was a member of the church where Emmett’s mother attended. I was indeed a child standing at that casket shaking with fear.

I Have Never Felt Oppression As A Cyclist

I have been turned away from restaurants, hotels and nightclubs because they did not allow blacks. I have been shouted at in Glen Ellyn movie theaters ‘Nigger go back to Africa‘. I have been warned by police that it was not wise of me and my white wife to be in their town after sunset. But never once did the fact that someone honked at me while riding a bicycle even remotely seem associated with the color of my skin. I of course have no way of knowing that these honks were not an act of oppression but having been in situations where the act was crystal clear, this did not rise to that level of intimidation.

Sometimes it seems to me that young activists have the ‘Zelig Complex‘. They want desperately to be part of the underclass. So they adopt hair styles that would have been populate in Jamaica at the time of Bob Marley. They have donned body piercing and tattoos like the African slaves brought to this country over 150 years ago. And somewhere in this attempt to be like the ‘common man‘ they have overlooked the fact that at any time in the future they can remove the piercing, have the tattoos covered up and continue through life like the ‘elites‘ they really  are. But instead they wallow in a sense of ‘oppression‘ and as if they were members of the Birmingham Bus Boycott or the March On Selma they are out there in the struggle for human dignity.

Well, you cannot convince the fellow with the infected hangnail or the doped up trust fund baby that he or she is only ‘playing‘ at being a ‘common man‘. That is a revelation it will take some of them years to achieve. But at 65 years of age I am under no illusions about the reality of ‘oppression‘. And riding a bicycle on Chicago streets does not even rise to the level of ‘a pain in the butt‘. But like the guy with the hangnail his assessment of his pain level is his own. And unfortunately he will never be able to truly empathize with the women in that delivery waiting room. He may indeed go through life certain that he too has truly suffered.

But until the day this fellow gets to pass a kidney stone the size of a baby through his penis, he will have to be allowed the courtesy of accepting his personal assessment of his situation.

Most Cyclists Over-Estimate Their Levels Of Danger

The facts are clear. Motorists die at an alarmingly greater rate on the streets and byways of this country than do cyclists. In fact we are less likely to die that pedestrians. And what really comes as a gut punch is the fact that it is safer to be a cyclist in Chicago than it is in the whole of Netherlands. But to admit this to ourselves it would mean giving up on the role of ‘the oppressed‘.

But what is worse is how we tend to cling to this ‘victimhood‘ because it helps justify our role in something that not even Portlanders use, namely the Critical Mass Ride. Forget what Urban Cyclists say about the ride not being a protest. It clearly is. But more importantly it is a way to ‘get even‘ with the ‘oppressor‘. It is in essence ‘reparations‘. Or if not ‘reparations‘ it is a way of ‘doing to them what they do to us‘. And we wonder why motorists and even pedestrians find us tiresome. Frankly, they should.

We, within the context of the transportation landscape are the ‘trust fund babies‘. We suffer the least, whine the most and are rewarded with much more than we should ever expect.