Not many professors teach classes from the seat of a bicycle. But that’s exactly how Harry Wray begins his DePaul University course “Discover Chicago: Biking & Politics,” which uses the bicycle to explore political and social issues. Students in the introductory course take a series of bike rides around the Windy City to better understand the implications of America’s overwhelming commitment to the automobile.
Wray, professor of political science at DePaul, is most recently the author of Pedal Power: The Quiet Rise of the Bicycle in American Public Life (2008, Paradigm Publishers), as well as Sense and Non-Sense: American Culture and Politics (2001).
A passionate urban bicyclist, Wray rides year-round and can be occasionally spotted during monthly “Critical Mass” meet-ups in the Loop. In These Times caught up with him via email.
In 25 words or less, what makes you so special? (Keep in mind that humility, while admirable, is boring.)
I am the first of my family to attend college and, as an adult, I have experienced more than one version of reality. I have been a furniture mover, a bureaucrat and a college professor.
What’s the first thing that comes up when your name is Googled?
I had to Google my name to find out. It is reviews of my most recent book, Pedal Power: The Quiet Rise of the Bicycle in American Public Life.
Shamelessly plug a colleague’s project.
My colleague and friend, urbanist Larry Bennett, has recently been taking a “big picture” look at American cities. He is at work on a very interesting paper, “American Cities and the Densification Imperative.”
Describe your politics.
I’m an ecumenical, free-floating, somewhat desperate leftist, dismayed by the anti-democratic character of our political process. I am not a credentialed sectarian. I believe we need all the help we can get and that important work can be done both within and around the political system.
Come up with a question for yourself and answer it.
Q: Can one be an academic and seriously committed to social justice?
A: I think about this question all the time, and I have no definitive answer to it. Tenure is supposedly liberating, but academic disciplines can induce a mind-boggling conformity. Sometimes I think, and I fear this in myself, leftist academics are content with the social justice of lunchtime conversations.
Name a journalist whose work you read religiously. Why?
Seymour Hersh is fearless and brilliant; David Moberg is a pit bull, relentless in his efforts to keep workers in our consciousness. My favorite reporter, however, is Bill Greider. He marches to his own drummer and always reads the fine print. He works in the estimable tradition of Izzy Stone.
Pick your five favorite websites and tell us why.
1. Josh Marshall at talkingpointsmemo.com is, I think, creating something extraordinary. He has a clear picture of the potential of the Internet as a democratic voice. He is thoughtful and balanced. He gathers information from hundreds of folks around the country, and it has led to a very powerful voice. I know that progressive pols read him regularly, as do old-line media institutions. On several occasions he has pulled them into stories.
2. Dailykos.com has a remarkable stable of lively writers. Rush Limbaugh hates them, so you know they are doing something right.
3. John Aravosis at Americablog.com is excellent for general political news and one of the best for tracking issues of concern to the gay community.
4. Juan Cole at Informed Comment is essential for keeping abreast of Middle Eastern affairs.
5. Crooked Timber is something like an online New York Review of Books for me, with lots of academics writing about an array of things. Much of it does not interest me, but there are always things there that do.
Name five other websites you go to when you’re procrastinating.
Media Matters is a tasty site dedicated to dispelling the ridiculous idea that the mainstream media have a liberal bias. Mystery Pollster is the most decent polling website going, and I have an interest in that. Duncan Black at Eschaton is an economist with a wicked sense of humor. Raw Story often breaks lesser-known but interesting stories. When I’m really into pain I go to espn.com to note how, once again, the Cubs are breaking my heart.
What’s a mistake the mainstream media always makes that really gets under your skin?
I am appalled by the way the mainstream media will, in the name of objectivity and balance, give a liar equal weight to a truth-teller, without comment.
What’s one piece of legislation (state or national) you’d like to see passed right now?
A universal, single-payer system of national health care.
What is the greatest challenge facing humankind today? And what’s one thing we can do about it?
I believe climate change poses a huge challenge. The problem is, it requires international foresight. If nothing is done until its un-deniability is physically experienced, it will be too late to avoid catastrophe. It raises interesting questions about human nature. The good news about climate change is that each of us can do something about it, but the necessity of enlightened leadership cannot be overstated. Obama should be talking about it every day.
My political awakening occurred when …
This is going to sound trite, but my political awakening really did occur in the ’60s. I was a working-class kid who believed that political leaders would not lie about something like Vietnam. When I started having doubts about the war in 1965, I assumed it was because I did not know enough. So I wrote to the Department of Defense asking for any information they could provide justifying it. They sent back a substantial amount of material, all of it crap. Then I went to a Harvard-trained International Relations professor at UCLA and talked with him for about an hour about the war. That was when I first learned that Harvards could be stupid too. I was pretty angry for a while.
Are you involved with any interesting forms of activism? Could you tell us about any of these projects?
Most recently I have been involved in getting people on bikes. There are many reasons why I think this is important. It is an ongoing act of nondestructive living. There aren’t many of those around. The bike also changes consciousness. It connects people, unlike the car, which separates and isolates them. As the car is an apt metaphor for a 20th century culture that is now in crisis, the bike can become a metaphor for a 21st century culture that recognizes shared fates and space.
How do you get around (bike, public transportation, car)? Why?
I estimate that about 85 percent of my travel trips are by bike, with public transportation and the car splitting the rest. I ride a bike year-round in Chicago and logged close to 5,000 miles last year. There are so many reasons that I ride, but the biggest one is that I love it. It’s fun!
What is your favorite childhood memory?
I grew up in a close family. My mom is Italian, and her family came from Sicily and settled with lots of other Italians in the San Joaquin Valley in California. My dad’s family is part of that early Irish stream that settled in the Appalachians and eventually migrated to Oklahoma. His family moved to the Imperial Valley with other Okie refugees à la Steinbeck. My dad went up to the San Joaquin Valley to pick fruit, where my mom was working in a cannery. They met at a Saturday night dance. Pretty Damned Romantic. There are great storytellers on both sides of my family, and me and my many cousins never tired of hearing them.
Have you ever had any run-ins with the law that you’d like to share?
Not exactly run-ins, but interesting conversations. I have been stopped by police three or four times in the last couple of years while riding my bike in South and West Side Chicago neighborhoods. The conversation was always about how I should get the hell out of there. One asked me if I was packing heat. I’m sure they were trying to do me a favor, and that they were talking out of their experience, but I have never felt threatened while biking through these neighborhoods, and I do not think I am naïve. I attribute our different perspectives in part to our different modes of travel. Cars are (I think inherently) instruments of aggression. In contrast, bikes are much more benign. Don’t get me started!
Fill in the blank: _______ scare(s) the hell out of me.
John McCain scares the hell out of me. I would not have said that about a year ago, but it became obvious. He was really spooky, like he was in some parallel universe and asleep in that one most of the time. The fact that he was regarded as a viable presidential candidate is stunning, a dubious tribute to our corporate media system.
What is the last great book you have read?
I just finished [occasional In These Times contributor] Rick Perlstein‘s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. I’m not sure I would call it a great book, but I really loved it. In part this is because I have had a lifelong connection to Nixon. I grew up in Whittier, Calif., and graduated from Whittier College. I have always thought Nixon and LBJ were by far the two most interesting presidents of the 20th century, in part because of their psychological complexity. Perlstein nails Nixon’s lifelong smoldering resentment. What is interesting is that he uses it to frame the politics of the last half-century. It’s a provocative idea and pretty compelling.
What texts, persons, or events have inspired you the most?
In college I came under the spell of Albert Camus. I read everything he wrote. He fell out of favor with much of the Left, but he never did with me. He has helped get me through this bleak political era.
What trend in popular culture do you find the most annoying?
This will stamp me as a luddite, which I really don’t mind, but it is the cell phone. Life was much more interesting and ambiguous without them.
—February 23, 2009
Harry Wray is a professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago. He is a former chair of the department and has won two university Excellence in Teaching awards. His most recent book, Pedal Power: The Quiet Rise of the Bicycle in American Public Life, was released this year by Paradigm Publishers. It is available at bookstores and at paradigmpublishers.com.