St. Augustine & the Cyclists, or, Critical Mass

Get engaged to a Buddhist, as I have, and you’ll hear a great deal about impermanence. Now I’m hardly inundated with demands to renounce the world. There’s no insistence I jettison my morning bowl of Frosted Flakes or other such ephemeral attachments; my bull-headed materialism is accepted or at least suffered cheerfully.  Still, the silence around town for the last few weeks has been a case study in the harm caused by certain devotions or misplaced forms of love.

“Why is it so quiet?” my boss asked me Friday night at the Strand, the landmark used bookstore in Manhattan at which I work. The store was packed, noisy.

“No, Out there,” she said, pointing toward the preternaturally silent patch of Broadway just below Union Square. For months, the streets had been overflowed with protesters, scenesters and their ilk. They had been growing steadily more quiet since the debates, as the poll numbers began to lock into a slight but steady Bush lead and the absurdist euphoria and orgasmic indignation of the RNC protest/orgy faded. And now, Bush reelected, nary a Free Mumia or We Are All Palestinians was to be heard.

The streets were muted further by the police sent to curb Critical Mass, a monthly bike ride of a few hundred going from Union Square to City Hall, which used to garner little more than a pair of police scooters picking up the rear but now attracted dozens of cops between 12th and 14th streets alone, to say nothing of the helicopter tracking the bikers’ routes. All things being equal Critical Mass’s organizers, Time’s Up, a New York based environmental group that prides itself on “direct action”, did antagonize the city with the August ride just days before the Republican convention. Taking nearly forty minutes to fully pass us, it came complete with deliberate attempts to congest traffic and antagonize drivers, followed by the arrest of 264 bicyclists.

Splintered and impotent after the pre-RNC disaster, the September ride produced a mere 33 arrests, and without the RNC press coverage and inflated ridership, was about as monumental as a mouse sneezing in church.

Considering that New York has been the starting line for the interesting times in which we as a nation find ourselves, this silence is difficult to understand and fatigue only explains so much. I mean there’s certainly no lack of polemic out there, as evidenced by the until this week ubiquitous campaign buttons, t-shirts and posters (the bumper stickers will remain long after the election is mostly forgotten), but it all feel like wishing for a far off corner of the world, like American prayers in the 1950’s for the conversion of Russia. Sure they express fervent hopes, but nobody’s holding their breath.

Lionel Trilling, when confronted by his waning energy for the ideological warfare waged by the coarse student radicalism of the 1960’s, observed that “Subjects and problems got presented in a way that made one’s spirits fail. It wasn’t that one was afraid to go into it, or afraid of being in opposition…but rather that in looking at the matter one’s reaction was likely to be a despairing shrug.”

The despair Trilling speaks of has its wellspring in the fatigue that comes from hearts broken by the reckless, misplaced love which often afflicts such young political amateurs as myself (although at nearly 30 I should know a bit better) who are yet to experience their first betrayal. Recently I’ve found myself poking through dollops of St. Augustine, the go-to-guy on the subject of misplaced love. Following the death of a dear friend Augustine wrote:

“Grief darkened my heart. Everything on which I set my gaze was death. My home town became a torture to me…I thought that since death had consumed him, it was suddenly going to engulf all humanity.”

A.R. Brook Lynn

Taking this bitter experience of grief as the template for all human suffering he found that unhappiness is the product of love placed in the finite and mutable instead of the endless and unchanging nature of God. Not the most satisfying advice for lapsed Catholics such as myself and others not regularly found in a house of God.

But Augustine’s warning to carefully choose and jealously guard our attachments applies equally well to those of us whose allegiance lies with man. Beware the desire for the heroic and those leaders that seek it. Try to remain horrified, instead of stuffing those feelings into a memory hole, when leaders who seemed worth the benefit of the doubt abuse that trust by cheap manipulations at home and torture abroad. Don’t succumb to broken hearts. Be wrathful instead.

PostPost a Comment

Enter your information below.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>