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Friday, June 23, 2006

ABF Friday:  Personal freedom edition!

As residents of Steeler Nation (and denizens of the Motorcycle Municipality) are well aware, about two weeks ago Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had some car trouble.  Which is to say, his motorcycle struck a car, apparently as the car made a turn across his path, as all too many cars are wont to do, and Ben went flying.  Now, he’s kind of a mess, but reasonably all right, very lucky to be alive and in possession of his faculties:

Roethlisberger underwent seven hours of surgery after a motorcycle crash near the 10th Street Bridge on Monday morning. He remained in serious but stable condition on Tuesday morning.

According to a police source, Roethlisberger suffered a broken jaw, broke his left sinus cavity, suffered a 9-inch laceration to the back of his head, lost many teeth and has injuries to his knees from hitting the pavement.

Roethlisberger rides a Suzuki Hayabusa, which, they tell me, is a kind of powerful bike.  Actually, the fastest street bike in the world, capable of speeds around 200 mph.  And it’s not like Terry Bradshaw didn’t warn him about this last year:

As the interview ended, Bradshaw walked off, muttering, “I can’t believe he’s riding that motorcycle. Stupidest thing I ever heard of.”

Bradshaw speaks from experience. As a young quarterback, he was told by team owner Dan Rooney to keep his Corvette off the road and in the garage—and he says he obeyed.

If Roethlisberger’s willing to listen to reason, Bradshaw thinks he’ll do the same.

Well, now that he’s all banged up, Ben says he’s going to listen to reason.  Look, if I were the Steelers QB, and Terry Bradshaw told me to wait ‘til I retire before I ride my supersport bike, I’d wait ‘til I retire.

So I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that cyclists should wear helmets.  Janet (who, as many of you know, is a former R.N.) reports that she and her intensive-care colleagues used to call motorcycles “donorcycles”: that was mordant ICU-speak, referring to the fact that young men (they’re almost all men) who ride bikes helmetless wind up being organ donors.  And in general, I think it’s a good idea for people to try to prevent profound, life-changing and severely-debilitating injuries if they can.  (I say this as a hockey player whose helmet includes a full-face wire mesh, and who remembers how strenuously the players fought against the helmet rule, back in the day.)

But Roethlisberger’s crash got me thinking.  In central Pennsylvania, we have approximately elevenzillion bikers who hit the roads every spring, enjoying the beautiful, winding mountain roads, and many of them wear nothing more than bandanas.  Our mandatory-helmet law was repealed in 2003, and we’re not alone: a number of states have done likewise, construing motorcycle helmets as a matter of personal taste and personal freedom rather than as a basic safety matter.

You can just imagine how “liberals” fare in that debate.

And strange as it may sound, I think liberals have gotten an exceptionally hard time over things like this.  I mean, only the full-blown crazies really believe that liberals and progressives are objectively pro-terrorist, and certainly no one in the general public cares one way or the other what liberals have to say about Slobodan Milosevic.  But when it comes to these personal-freedom issues, well, they hit people where they live, so to speak.

In other words, in the precincts where I’ve been living for the past seventeen years (Champaign, Illinois and State College, Pennsylvania), “liberalism” is often associated not with gay marriage or with jolly Friday night American-flag bonfires but with People Who Think They Know What’s Good For You.  Smoking bans?  Pah—damn liberals.  Seat belt laws?  Fussy liberals.  Gun control?  Mother#%@&ing latte-drinking liberals!

The really difficult thing is that this perception of liberalism isn’t completely inaccurate.  When I lived in Illinois I was treated to the southernmost reaches of the upper-Midwest phenomenon I call “Lutheran Liberalism.” It’s smart, civic-minded, well-meaning, do-gooding, and by gum, it will stop your car and put you properly in your seat belt, young man, for your good and the good of your entire family.  It’s no mystery to me, for example, that the MacKinnon/Dworkin pornography ban was passed in two cities in the 1980s: in Indianapolis in 1986, with the help of the Christian right, and in Minneapolis in 1983, with the help of the Lutheran Liberals.

Now, of course most of this perception of liberals is phantasmic.  As we know, the last Democratic presidential nominee was required to shoot a goose to prove that he could be worthy of the White House, and because Kerry was actually mocked by Cheney himself for his hunting, it’s clear that the 2008 Democratic nominee will actually have to shoot someone in the face.  Still, I can’t deny that there really are some liberals out there who think it’s simply a terrible thing to own a gun, an even worse thing to shoot one, and a completely unthinkable thing to shoot another living being (especially in the face).  Don’t tell me this is a caricature, folks.  Remember, I teach at a university, I am a paid-up member of the Pinot Grigio Liberal Elite, and I know whereof I speak:  these are some of my colleagues I’m talking about.  Most liberals simply want decent gun laws that prevent felons from buying arsenals at gun shows, and that prevent gun dealers from selling automatic weapons and armor-piercing bullets.  And most liberals (myself included) don’t understand why saying so produces such paroxysms of rage on the right.  But now that I live among (and play hockey with) hunters, I realize that ordinary gun owners can sense tsk-tsking disapproval of guns even if there’s only a part per million of the stuff in the atmosphere.  As Digby would say (and has said quite compellingly), it’s a matter of cultural identity, and hunters know when people are taking a nose-pinching relation to their cultural identity.  So do bikers.

Same thing with smoking bans.  I was a smoker from 1979 to 1990, and have been smoke-free for sixteen years, but I have none of the zeal of the convert: I couldn’t care less whether people are smoking around me, and I do care when liberals are seen as people who want to flick cigarettes right out of people’s mouths.  But I gradually decided to support smoking bans in bars after hearing from some friendly bartenders and wait staff about what it’s like to breathe fumes for eight hours.  (To give the eastern half of my state its due:  please feel free to debate Philly’s new law, exempting “local taverns.” I’ve heard good arguments pro and con.)

Likewise, there are some very pure liberal precincts in which people are not permitted to eat bacon cheeseburgers within twenty feet of another person.  OK, maybe I made that one up.  But you know what I mean.

The thing that completely flummoxes me is gambling.  You’re not going to believe this, but I don’t know what I think about it.  Really!  I am in a state of perpetual epistemological crisis.  I think it’s awful that states encourage what is, for some people, a grievous addiction, and for some reason I’m skeptical that gambling revenues really go to support education and elder care.  (On philosophical grounds, all the worse if they do.) On the other hand, if people want to play the slots, or the lottery, or the horses, let ‘em!  It’s no business of mine.  Any industry that drains Charles Barkley and Bill Bennett of millions of dollars can’t be all bad.  Besides, personally, I like playing roulette in casinos.  I don’t play at the Barkley-Bennett rates—I usually play five bucks on the numbers and five on the periphery (red/black, odd/even, etc.), in the spirit of Austin Powers, who, deciding to stay with a hand of five in a game of blackjack, toothily explained, “I too like to live dangerously.” The most I’ve won is $80.  The most I’ve lost is $75, and I promise you I’m going to return to Mohegan Sun someday and win it back.

Mohegan Sun.  Ah, there’s another thorny issue right there.

My point is that for helmetless “freedom"-lovers everywhere, liberals sometimes come off as Podsnaps.  Nine times out of ten, it’s quite unfair: after all, we’re the ones who brought you the idea of workplace safety, the innovation of flame-retardant children’s pajamas, the life-saving devices known as car seats, and the radical notion of manufactured food that’s safe to eat.  (We also brought you the weekend and the eight-hour day, though those have since been taken back.) The libertarian right, by contrast, often uses the “motorcycle freedom” argument as a cover for their much larger argument that food manufacturers should be able to go ahead and make hot dogs out of severed human thumbs, and let “the market” decide whether people want to eat ‘em.  Ditto for auto manufacturers, toxic-waste producers, building contractors, bond traders, and absolutely everybody else.  There’s no reason, they say, to let a bunch of maimed or scammed or dead consumers stand in the way of dynamism and growth!

So here’s today’s Arbitrary But Fun question: which of these freedom fights is worth fighting over, and which aren’t, and why?  Me, I don’t care if people own guns.  I wish bikers would wear helmets.  They can smoke in most places, they can gamble a bit, and they can eat what they like.  But I’m in favor of unpoisoned food and safe cars and houses and workplaces and industries.  How about you?

Posted by Michael on 06/23 at 01:14 PM
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