A SWARM of motorcycles closed in on a black SUV carrying a family in Manhattan last week, leading to an enraged encounter, a chase, a beating, and injuries. Police went looking for the bikers, who police say instigated the confrontation after the SUV accidentally struck a motorcyclist. They were but one contingent in a huge mass of motorcycles that had aimed at converging on Times Square in an end-of-summer display. Police had succeeded in heading off the central rally, sending numerous squads of the two-wheeled Harleys, BMWs, and Triumphs across the city. Having had the bad luck to cross paths with the wrong pack, the hapless family in the SUV ended up against a threat no one deserves to face: a frenzied mob that simply can’t be reasoned with.
Motorcycles occupy a conflicted place in the American imagination, carrying associations of rebellion, power, freedom, danger, noise — all embodying a certain kind of hypermasculinity. James Dean’s “Rebel Without A Cause” featured suicidal car races; while Dean died in a sports car, his iconic photo has him on a motorcycle. Evoking him, one news report referred to last week’s biker gang as “rebels without a clue.” Marlon Brando’s “The Wild One” enshrined the motorcycle as a symbol of revolt in one decade, and, in the next, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper sealed it as a counterculture icon in “Easy Rider.” Arlo Guthrie’s “Motorcycle Song” was a kind of anthem to all of this: “I don’t want a pickle; I just want to ride my motorsickle.”
The underlying tensions — between self-affirmation and self-destruction, between liberation and trespass — formed the core of the 1974 bestseller “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig. Dubbed a “philosophical novel,” and arriving just as the rebel counterculture of the 1960s fizzled, the road trip narrative explored the friction between carelessness and responsibility; activism and contemplation; the poetic impulse and the demands of technology. This brooding on what makes for the good life hardly fit in with any tough-guy image. But it touched millions of readers, justifying the culture’s fascination with the motorcycle by showing that mere thrills of power, speed, and risk could also involve real feelings of freedom, love of nature, and intense physical communion with a machine. If the Industrial Revolution had reshaped the human condition, soaring with the wind around curves of a wide-open country road on a two-wheeled dynamo showed that it could still be beautiful.
But what happens when the machine roars onto the scene — whether a traffic-clogged highway, a congested city, or a small town — as one of a multitude? The appeal of every gang lies in the license to behave differently that comes with what the social theorist Emile Durkheim called collective effervescence, but a motorcycle gang is a riot on wheels. Offending others, even striking fear in them, is the essence of this particular group activity. The thrill seems to lie less in the joy of one’s own riding than in the threat of mayhem that beholders perceive.
The confrontation in New York between the swarm and the SUV goes far beyond the all-too-usual road rage. A fearful driver explodes, fleeing the scene by running over the cyclists menacing him. Rationality evaporates. The expression of anger becomes an end in itself, and justifies actions that can only result in sorrow. An overrunning mob of bikers in hot pursuit of a terrified fugitive family evokes not mere rebellion, but complete social breakdown.
Of course, anarchy can take more than one form. In Washington, a pack of Republicans hijacked the American government last week, no less nihilistically than the cycle gang in the daylight nightmare that unfolded on the streets of New York. That same Sunday morning, a New York Times column on those causing the government shutdown was entitled “Rebels without a clue” — foretelling the phrase that would soon be applied to the bikers.
The Tea Party extremists are no doubt in thrall to their own collective effervescence, the ecstasy of energy unleashed without any regard for its destructiveness. They have roared into the public square, making civil discourse impossible, shaking the civic order, and giving expression to nothing except the rage by which they themselves have been taken hostage.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.