I. Iconography of the enhanced cranium
The bike helmet ought to be the emblematic headgear of liberalism, as the mitre is
of episcopacy and the Borsalino fedora of orthodox Judaism.
All clothing is a system of signs, of course, and all clothing choices say
something. But headgear speaks a lot louder than, say, socks. Maybe
even louder than shoes. What does the bike helmet say?
Most importantly, it says that the wearer cares a lot about safety. In fact,
he cares more about safety than dignity. He's so concerned about safety
that he doesn't mind looking like an idiot.
Even liberals, of course, don't wear bike helmets on the crapper, or in
the shower, where so many deadly falls occur. So there are -- at least
for the present -- some limits to the liberal's concern for safety. What,
precisely, defines those limits?
The answer is easy. The liberal needs prophylaxis when he (or she) is doing
something deviant. Cycling, say, or non-marital sex.
Now the safety-conscious liberal could just strap a pillow on his/her head
and secure it with a hand-knotted, hempen macrame band. But that
would be a bit trailer-park and un-technological. The liberal always
wants a solution expertly engineered by a person with sound academic
qualifications, working on some large organization's R&D budget.
Say what you will about the modern bike helmet, it certainly is that --
or appears to be that, anyway. The complex curves! The intricate
system of vents! The lift spoiler and the aerodynamic little beak, which
dissipates the shock-wave front (guaranteed effective up to Mach 2.56)
and also prevents melanoma on the bridge of the nose!
Seldom in daily life do we see the rhetoric of high technology exhibited
with this kind of studied, elaborate virtuosity. Obama's bike helmet is such an obviously consummate triumph of engineering, it makes the B-2
bomber look a little clunky and pedestrian.
So the liberal, in his bike helmet, still looks like an idiot -- but an idiot
who possesses the very latest and highest technology.
How very American.
* * *
II. You'll be safe. Whether you like it or not
Since I ride a bike myself -- probably more often than Obama does -- I'm
very familiar with the missionary zeal of helmet Pharisees: the folks who are
not only happy to look ridiculous themselves for the sake of some more
or less illusory increment of safety, but who are also determined to make
everybody else look ridiculous too.
This too is part of the liberal canon: to make people do things for their
own good. People ought to have health insurance -- well, make 'em buy
it. Or else.
* * *
III. Helmet to helmet
The last Democratic presidential candidate I remember seeing in a helmet
was Michael Dukakis:
Now on the surface you might think these images are opposites. Obama,
even when he's being dorky, looks cool, and poor Dukakis always looked dorkier the cooler he tried to be. Dukakis was riding in a tank -- surely the ne plus ultra of
bad transportation choices -- and Obama on a bicycle, surely the second
most benign (human feet, of course, take the number-one spot).
But it's more interesting to ponder what these images might have in common. One word: safety.
The world is such a dangerous place. There are all those furious towel-heads out
there -- towel-heads whom we have made furious, of course, by messing with them for the last sixty years or so, but still. And there are all those cars out there on the road -- cars that we have encouraged people to buy, and subsidized them to drive. But still.
Strap on the helmet. And, if you want to be really safe, line it with