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.
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…
…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.
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.
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?
Old Man Congress might ignore you. He might patronize you. But he won’t stone you.
If enough of us ask, he might listen.