Get the best of Commons Magazine — FREE!

What’s Funny About Dead Bicyclists?

When cruel partisan humor imperils the spirit of democracy.

A few weeks ago my 13-year old son excitedly showed me the new accessory he got for this bike. It’s a picture of Barack Obama with the word “believe,” designed to stick in the spokes. Cool!

Creative Commons license, nc, by Larimdame from Flickr

I later read in my local alternative weekly here in Minneapolis that a local right wing website announced that an increase in bike deaths on the streets might mean fewer Obama voters come election day. Cruel!

A bad joke, I figured, until I linked to the blog and saw that it was illustrated with photos of cars plowing into and presumably killing a group of bicyclists. The photos look authentic (even if they were faked), which makes this more than a sick joke. It’s almost a provocation for motorists to mow down bicyclists, since they are a no-good bunch of liberals anyway.

Thinking about this, on top of the shouts of “Kill Obama” and “Off with his head” heard at Sarah Palin rallies a few weeks ago, worries me. There’s an element in American society—even here in Minnesota, which has the longest record of voting Democratic for president of any state—that can’t seem to accept most of their fellow citizens no longer share their right-wing views. And perhaps never did.

This seems part of a wider breakdown in civility, which is a crucial element of the commons. Democracy itself is imperiled when sides in a political battle begin to target their opponents as enemies who deserve cruel humor—even death wishes. That’s the first step toward political violence, civil war, dictatorship, ethnic cleansing.

I am relieved to hear that fewer vicious taunts are being shouted at Republican rallies, although as I write this there is a report about two Obama supporters being aggressively threatened by people leaving a McCain rally in Miami. Curiously, after police broke up the incident, McCain happened to drive past the two men in an SUV and waved at them even though they were waving Obama signs.

That reminds me of how Barack Obama responds to supporters who jeer any mention of McCain at rallies by saying, “We don’t need to boo. We need to vote.”

That’s the spirit of the commons—a commitment to civility that demands basic decency and respect for people you don’t agree with. Afterall, we all share democracy in common.