The Yellow Sign of our Irony Problem

I had a great time at Critical Mass last night, as usual. Probably over 2000 riders, great weather, a lovely evening. The ride broke up into a bunch of smaller clots after an ill-advised loopback through the Broadway Tunnel, which also led to some tense interactions with a drunk idiot at Broadway and Polk who decided to try to enforce his idea of traffic control by threatening bicyclists and pushing some off their bikes. Not altogether unusual, but never much fun… anyway, the highlight of my evening was at the beginning, when I came upon some folks who said they’re from Ritual cafe, and they were sporting these funny send-ups of the “Bicycling Against Oil Wars” signs that I’ve been distributing for the past two or three years… First the original, in case you don’t know what I’m talking about:

Check these out:

and one I didn’t see until I got home and looked at my photos is blurrily visible on this woman’s handlebars:

There were a few others too. I guess this last one, about “self-righteousness” captures the real point of the whole series. And that’s the rub, isn’t it? I do understand that a lot of bicyclists are rather sanctimonious and painfully self-righteous; in fact it’s that attitude that often leads to really stupid interactions with pissed-off motorists (not that that happens so often, but when it does…). Why is it ‘self-righteous’ to publicly proclaim that you’re against oil wars? Isn’t that a rather minimal claim for bicyclists riding on Critical Mass, or riding around the city as daily commuters? Of course there is a funny irony to proclaiming oneself against oil wars on a petrochemical-based plastic sign, but fine, it starts a worthy conversation.

What I find disturbing, if I’m understanding the spirit of these satirical signs correctly, is the assumption that any proclamation of a political idea is automatically ‘self-righteous’ and that really we oughtn’t to be doing such a thing. It seems that the series of counter-signs is partly meant in good fun and as ironic comments on the original sign, but the one about self-righteousness goes to another place, a stance that the ironic hipsters of this apolitical culture readily embrace. It is a stance that says any expression of sincere opposition to our fucked up society is by nature kind of stupid sounding and can only mean that the bearer of such an expression is obliviously self-righteous. In other words, if you are being sincere, you must be a chump.

I’ve been railing about this for a few years now, but I’ll take this opportunity to raise my lonely (self-righteous?) voice once again. We have to find room for sincerity in our politcal expressions and actions. We cannot dismiss everything with this endless ironic distancing, always flattening all expressions of politics or philosophy into a false sameness that equates things on emotional terms even if they mean rather different things. It’s a way of draining the political discourse of affect, of some chance of actually reaching from one person to another and changing how they think and feel. If you automatically scoff at any sincere expression as self-righteous you are actually reinforcing the dominant society’s values as the only ones worthy of common support.

I doubt if the folks who made these funny yellow signs are in favor of oil wars, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or anything like that. And probably the signs were a product of a collective brainstorming in which a bunch of things got produced just because they came up together. All fine, of course. But in the spirit of the original sign, and the notion that public signage is about stimulating argument and discussion, I toss out my further thoughts on their expression. Thanks for the flattering satire of my original, but let’s stop and think about these new signs too. Dismissive charges of self-righteousness are a key part of how the Right defangs and delegitimizes any expression that isn’t pro-authority, pro-state, pro-patriotic, etc.

The interesting challenge is to be publicly poetic and sincere, but still have a sense of humor… can’t say I always (or even often) manage such a task, but it seems like a worthy goal…

6 comments to The Yellow Sign of our Irony Problem

  • Mick

    Surely its just funny. Its an ‘in’ joke, analizing it to death renders the joke worthless.

    Im not convinced that a group of cyclists riding really slowly around a city centre during Friday rush hour does any thing to promote cycling. All it seems to do, in my limited experience of London and Bristol is piss people off. Although of course I dont live in your city and respect your right to protest in the manner you wish, I cant help thinking that any car driver held up by CM will get the impression that bikes are SLOW. Why not do a critical mass where you all cycle around at top speed?
    Show them just how fab and fast bikes can be. Just a thought.

  • gusto

    My concern is that bicycling against oil wars is off the mark in too many ways to be a slogan at all. By bicycling we are reducing gas use by what, a drop in a bucket? The conversion to other energy sources is underway, with all the oil corporations at the helm. Bikers are less than a quiet statement unless they are powerful enough to ban cars from cities, not just establish a bike lane. A quiet statement is an understatement. I think the reduction of the problem to oil wars is thooughly misleading and leads to a self-righteous response, a consumer-based response that couldn’t possibly go beyond a superficia critique of what generates wars. That said, I think those signs were great.

  • I think shouted slogans, not cynicism or wit, are what is flattening. The way to change someone’s mind is through conversation, the mixture of listening, responding, and speaking. Signs, especially those posted on people’s posteriors, are self-righteous; they speak without listening. (Remember your old colleague’s exhortation, chanted loudly at rallies, “A slogan – exhausted – should never be repeated!”)

    Bicycling is a truly quiet statement. When I see your signs posted on a bike, I feel that they flatten the rider from a full person full of ugliness and beauty and contradictory motivations into just one layer: that of anti-war activist. That is an uninteresting layer in S.F.; it’s about as controversial as a “Pray for our troops” ribbon-magnet in West Virginia.

    This reminds me of a store I saw in Harlem on a recent visit. Its awning was all red, white and blue and had two U.S. flags. Under each it said in bold lettering, “United we stand!!” In between it said the name of the deli. Under the awning was a dark storefront with one sign that said “Closed” and another, “For Lease.”

    I don’t mind earnestness and honesty in political conversation. My problem is with people shouting their opinions without listening. That is the definition of self-righteousness. That’s why I don’t have one of your signs on my bike, along with the fact that I don’t love yellow.

  • yer host

    Yowza! Great comments. Thank you! Right fuckin’ on!

  • Kmd

    Hello there, I’m the lady in green pictured above. For the record it says, “Bicycling, a quiet statement, as if I don’t have 7 other things to be self-righteous about”.

    For me the sign is not meant to claim that political statements are self-righteous, or that we oughtn

  • J. Beaman

    the real question is why do we ride bicycles? do I ride a bicycle to protest a war? no. i ride a bicycle because i like it. period. bitches love it, too. that can’t hurt.

    i made the signs and i’m probably the most self-righteous person I know. thankfully, self-depracating too.

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