The Root of All Evil

Seen on the street in San Francisco!

Almost as consistently as the Christian insistence on an unspoiled Eden from which humans have “fallen” is the notion that evil is an independent force with a will of its own. Given that common belief, it follows that there is a centuries-long project to determine where the “root” of this evil lies. The results of evil behavior, intentions, and institutions are plain to see throughout history: barbaric slavery imposed by some people on others is perhaps the most obvious. But the obliteration of countless species and lands—unique habitats wrought by creative interaction among multiple living beings over generations, is at least as shocking as the reduction of individual humans to slavery. Seeking to explain the recurrent horrors that beset the history of humanity, it’s understandable that we try to reach the ultimate cause, the best explanation, the switch that we could perhaps reverse to stop the madness.

Part of my ongoing fascination with history is finding the patterns that offer a glimmer of such explanations, even if I’m not convinced that we’ll ever settle on any one quality or institution or social dynamic that will explain everything else. Still, some recent readings, pieced together, seem to underscore a combination of money and property as compelling candidates to explain a lot about the wrong turns so-called civilization has made, going back a very long time. What follows is a peculiar trajectory through ten books that I’ve read in the past months… not atypical for this blog, but it does lead to a long post and perhaps some bewilderment about why I put these writings together under this title. By the end I hope it makes sense!

I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2006 Mayflower recently, after a friend gave it a strong recommendation. It’s an illuminating look at the first arriving English pilgrims, people who have been largely reduced to false clichés amid ridiculous tales of a Thanksgiving that never happened. The original Puritans were extreme religious zealots who embarked on the risky trip to North America in the early 1600s to establish a place where they could live according to their beliefs without repression. The original pilgrims recognized that they needed to make some kind of accommodations with the people who were already present when they arrived, though by fluke of fate they missed their targeted landing near the Dutch colony in Manhattan and ended up on the outer edges of Cape Cod. It turns out that preceding their arrival other European fishing fleets had visited coastal New England, and even an English raider who landed and forcibly captured some dozens of local people, carrying them off to slavery in the Caribbean. Locals were not entirely unfamiliar with Europeans, and some trade had already happened, and some had even learned some English. Disease had already decimated the population of the coast where the pilgrims landed, feeding the false sense of available land for settlement. But for my purposes here, the following quote gets to the issue at hand. Already, after one generation of complicated and fraught relations with the many tribes thriving in the area, the children of the first colonists were turning away from the religious focus of their parents to grab the opportunities they could see around them.

At the root of the trend toward town building was, Governor Bradford insisted, a growing hunger for land. For Bradford, land had been a way to create a community of Saints. For an increasing number of Pilgrims and especially for their children, land was a way to get rich. Bradford claimed that the formation of new towns was “not for want or necessity,” but “for the enriching of themselves,” and he predicted it would be “the ruin of New England.” Even Roger Williams, whose vision of an ideal community was very different from Bradford’s, shared his concern about land. Williams railed against the rise of “God Land” in New England and feared that it would become “as great with us English as God Gold was with the Spaniards.” (p. 185)

Back in England during the 1640s, King Charles I was overthrown and eventually beheaded by the religiously inspired New Model Army led by Oliver Cromwell. Some Puritans in New England returned to join the new society emerging in England at the heart of which was their own religiosity. But for Levellers and Diggers and other English radicals of that time, it was a chance to agitate for a new equality in the face of God, in defense of the commons and a common wealth. I have not delved deeply into the “Putney Debates” because they’re rather unreadable, but those public debates held over several weeks in Putney (now subsumed in London), were the opportunity in 1647 for the rank-and-file soldiers and their immediate officers of the New Model Army to debate the higher officers over the terms of the unfolding English revolution. They debated the role of commons, property, nobility, monarchy, republicanism, and more. A great many of the radicals of this period were millenarian believers in the End Times, and it was jarring when Christ did NOT return in the early 1650s, leading to the unraveling of the revolutionary fervor that carried the movement through the prior decade. By 1661 the monarchy was restored and many of the most radical agitators—some of whom had helped found Quakerism, too, during the ferment of the revolution—were in jail or already dead.

Cruising back to Emeryville after a CIIS Bay Cruise on October 5.

But the Quakers, originally partisans of the Army and the radical egalitarianism of the English revolution, turned to pacifism as a way to remove themselves from the political fray that accompanied the Restoration. And within the decade, Quakers were migrating in large numbers to the colonies in North America. William Penn was granted by King Charles II a sizable portion of land in the Delaware River Valley, north of the Chesapeake Bay, to establish the Quaker colony that eventually becomes Pennsylvania. Disputes with Maryland (and Lord Baltimore) lead Penn’s agents to seek out the Susquehannock leaders who traditionally controlled the lands on either side of the Susquehanna River that drains into the northernmost extension of the Chesapeake Bay. These same Susquehannocks were reaching the end of a ten-year period of constant war with the Virginia colony and the Maryland colony, described in eloquent detail by Matthew Kruer in his remarkable book Time of Anarchy: Indigenous Power and the Crisis of Colonialism in Early America (Harvard University Press: 2021). The title of his book refers to the decade 1675-1685 in which a dozen conflicts raged between different indigenous cultures as well as between English colonists and surrounding societies. Various tribes became tributary to the Virginia colony or the Catholic colony in Maryland to seek protection from their vulnerability to raid and plunder from larger nearby societies, of which the most powerful in 1675 were the Susquehannas.

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Post-Pandemic Melancholia . . . Same As It Ever Was?

First days of August on the beach in Mexico, eating coconut pie, pretty far from melancholic!

Dark times will always spur retrospection, but we need to look backwards not simply to track either progress or decline but rather to open our eyes wider to the crosscurrents, contradictions, and eerie resonances of history. (p. 18, Up From the Depths: Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford, and Rediscovery in Dark Times, by Aaron Sachs, 2022)

The summer has passed! Seems like it was just starting and already it’s September. I went to Mexico for two weeks in August. Shaping SF wrapped up its programming in June and then I had a bay cruise to give on July 30, which provided the surprise bonus of a trip to the 14th floor of the Fontana Towers for a post-cruise drink. We also planned 19 events for the Fall to continue our 25th anniversary celebration of Shaping San Francisco. I spent most of June and July knocking 60,000 words out of my novel, When Shells Crumble, and then sent it off to Spuyten Duyvil right before I left for Mexico. Tod there sent back a finished paperback proof for me to further edit and that’s taken up the past few weeks of August. The good news is that we are publishing it in time for me to present it at the annual Howard Zinn Bookfair at the Valencia Street City College campus on Sunday, December 3! Woohoo! Not a lot of time for blogging in the midst of all these other activities.

I keep reading though, all sorts of interesting books. I’ll get to some of them in subsequent posts. I’ve become a huge fan of Nnedi Okorafor, the Nigerian-American science fiction writer. Lagoon, Who Fears Death, The Book of Phoenix, Noor, all fantastic novels. If you haven’t discovered her yet, don’t hesitate!

I found a series of interesting “graffiti stencils” on fabric stapled on poles in the Castro in June… anonymously produced.

I had to laugh when the New York Times ran a feature on Japanese Marxist professor Kohei Saito, author of Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism a couple of weeks ago. I had just finished reading it (the British edition) and in the article the writers claimed the book, which has sold 500,000 copies in Japan, hasn’t yet been translated to English even though it was published in the UK at the beginning of the year. (The U.S. version is coming out some time in January, under the title Slow Down.) It is actually one of the most engaging and intelligent Marxist books I’ve read in a long time. I highly recommend it.

If you’ve spent much time around Marxism and the generally contentious intellectual debates that swirl around the various interpretations of it, you’ll be surprised by this new book. It is a fresh reading that supercedes the tired Marxists who treat the body of thought as a dogma that must be parsed and then followed, or the anti-communists who completely reject it due to the authoritarian political systems that claimed the banner of Marxism. It’s hardly novel to reject that binary. Plenty of radical thinkers have rejected the vulgar Marxism-Leninism espoused by the Soviet Union and its true believers (including the Trotskyist, Maoist, and Fidelista variants) to theorize about an “autonomous Marxism” that re-centers the working class and its own activities at the heart of the class struggle that drives capitalism (as much or more than capital’s internal drive to expand value). Still others have embraced Marx’s critique of capitalism as an indispensable tool, but one sorely lacking in prescriptive value. I suppose I’ve fallen into that last category since several decades ago.

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Chronicle of Deaths Foretold

The disastrous new center bike lane on Valencia Street.

San Francisco street engineers have begun implementing what the world’s best-known bicycling diplomat, Copenhagenize’s Mikael Colville-Anderson, called the “worst infrastructure I have ever seen anywhere in the world.” The new center-of-the-street two-way cycle path on Valencia from 23rd to 15th is a disaster. It was only supported by 18% of cyclists in surveys conducted by the SFMTA months ago, and was objected to by well over 70% of respondents.

I’ve been out there riding on it a half dozen times already, even though it’s officially closed. Hundreds of other cyclists have been doing the same since the old bike lanes have been removed. As the Mission Local article documented, there’s already been a number of accidents, and at least a couple of cyclists have been hospitalized after trying to leave or enter the absurd center lanes.

So why are they doing this? Why move the once hugely popular Valencia bike lanes from the sides to the center when an overwhelming number of local cyclists opposed it? Who benefits from this? How many more will be hurt or killed before they undo this?

Another view with the rubber “protective” pieces installed. Soft posts to come.

It’s true that the bike lanes along the sides have been largely wrecked by endless double-parking, especially though not exclusively by Uber and Lyft drivers. It’s been incredibly irritating that the out-of-town clueless rideshare drivers have been allowed to stop wherever they want, wherever someone clutching a cell phone randomly called for a ride. How difficult would it have been for the city to create organized drop-off and pick-up spaces near the corners of each block to accommodate this?

During the last few years before the pandemic, Valencia Street had become an awful street to bicycle on. Double parking, random U-turns anywhere and anytime, cars weaving in and out of the bike lanes while drivers stared at their phones, and so on. I can only imagine this all becoming worse with the new center lanes. Cars will ignore the low rubber separators but bicycles will have a hard time leaving the center lane mid-block. In fact, bicycles will have a hard time leaving the center lane anywhere! Because the ridiculous diagonal entry and exits at 23rd (and 15th eventually) are completely unfamiliar to everyone. Neither cyclists nor motorists will know how to behave or what to expect and it’s a certainty that there will be a great number of needless collisions when drivers and cyclists take their right of way at the same time.

The original configuration, seen here in 2015. Dooring always a possibility.


This was a typical weekday in 2015 with endless double parking of cars forcing cyclists in and out of the bike lane.

For all the merchants used to having cyclists pull up to their establishments with ease, they will now see most people opt to pass them by because of the inconvenience of stopping once you enter the center lane. I’m glad to see former metered parking eliminated in favor of loading zones and 5-minute limit pickup and dropoff zones as part of the street reconfiguration. Finally. But taken together, restricted parking and difficult access for cyclists, it may lead to worse business conditions along the once thriving corridor.

Motorists are sure to complain loudly about the restricted parking on Valencia, but the reality is that San Francisco is overflowing with parking. In Henry Grabar’s very informative and entertaining new book Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World, he details the remarkable numbers. “By square footage, there is more housing for each car in the United States than there is housing for each person.” In San Francisco there are 441,541 curb spaces, more than one for every household. In the Bay Area, there are 15 million parking spots, 2.4 for each car.

But overall, the reconfigured Valencia Street is an obvious failure before it’s even fully implemented. Turns out, beyond the specifics of this odd design, the issues have been with us much longer. Back in the 1890s about one in five San Franciscans were regular bicyclists, a higher rate than today’s. And just like today, the mainstream advocates of cycling were endlessly frustrated with the so-called misbehavior of some cyclists:

At a conference on municipal improvements in 1897, one speaker declared that “the greatest enemy to the cyclist in moulding public opinion, is the scorcher, whose sins are visited on all wheelmen, and they are held responsible for his misdemeanors. . .” Their actions, at least theoretically, threatened to endanger the reputation of cyclists as a whole.

p. 53, The Cycling City: Bicycles and Urban America in the 1890s by Evan Friss, University of Chicago Press: 2015

Image of “Good Roads” demonstration by bicyclists in San Francisco, 1896.

Complaints about the lack of perfect personal behavior on the part of cyclists wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t perpetually fuel the bizarre animosity non-cyclists direct to bicyclists. In Jody Rosen’s entertaining Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle, he cites a study that concluded that 49 percent of non-cyclists regard cyclists as “less than fully human.” As someone who has been cycling in San Francisco and many other world cities over the past four decades, I can confirm that this is indeed the attitude of all too many people behind the wheel of their cars. But anytime a cyclist has tried to say this, either in opinion columns or in the comments section of numerous online publications, they are soon swamped by the angry retorts of motorists or elderly pedestrians who are sure that cyclists are the real criminals on the road. But it’s the transportation system, distorted to emphasize private automobiles by decades of lobbying and outright manipulation of government subsidies, that is the source of the problem. We won’t fix it by tinkering along the edges of various streets, as long as we continue to put the car at the center of everything. John Stehlin in his brilliant book Cyclescapes of the Unequal City: Bicycle Infrastructure and Uneven Development (University of Minnesota Press: 2019), says it well:

At issue is that the collective consumption of the street is mediated through vehicles. While there is a tendency to view mass transit as “public” and automobility as “private,” vast public subsidies go into the making of streets with specific affordance that prioritize automobiles. (p. 89)

Continue reading Chronicle of Deaths Foretold