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Reason check

That gangrene on our society called talk radio – it needn’t and shouldn’t be gangrenous, but too typically is – runs to its worst when the effort is to draw lines between the perfectly reasonable “us” and the out of line, irrational, zany “them.” It’s worst when it’s subtle – alert listeners won’t get what’s being done surruptitiously.

Here’s the background story (and the facts happen not to be disputed, because the incident was captured on Tri-Met cameras).

A Portland resident named Randy Albright was pedaling his bicycle (he happens to be an activist on bicycling issues) around Hawthorne Bridge, one of the bridges crossing the Willamette River in Portland. He was not riding in the bicycle lane (most Portland bicyclists are scrupulous about sticking to these) since it had extra garvel that day, but in the main lane.. A Tri-Met bus rolled up and passed him, narrowly, there being little space available. He shook his fist at the bus; he may have swung at it with his fist as well. Then he followed the bus and, when it arrived at its next stop, he tried to get the attention of the bus driver. He apparently either did not, or the driver ignored him. Albright then walked his bicycle in front of the bus and planted himself and it there.

Almost immediately, a man exited the bus, swung at Albright and pushed him back onto the sidewalk. (Albright has said he was battered.) The man then re-entered the bus, which promptly drove off. Albright has filed a complaint against the driver; the activist passenger evidently has not been identified.

Talk jock Lars Larson, whose home station is Portland’s KXL, asks the following on his web site: “Bicyclist suing Tri Met for his own road rage. Was rider [presumably, the bus passenger] unreasonable?”

Notice how carefully this has been framed. The road rage of the bicyclist is highlighted, but that of the bus driver and his passenger is not. Was the passenger unreasonable for beating up the bicyclist? We’re invited (not very subtly) to say that the beating up was perfectly understandable. The bus driver’s responsibility, if any, is not addressed.

Those thin-skinned, highfalutin’ bicyclists! Those put-upon drivers and passengers in motor vehicles!

Given the facts of the case, most sensible people would assess culpability a little more broadly. Albright was asking for more than he was owed when he rode in the motor vehicle lane on a busy, central Portland bridge at rush hour; other options were available. He was pushing it past the point of sympathy; most people driving or riding on that bus would have been ticked. The bus driver, for his part, should have been more careful and he shouldn’t have allowed an evidently violent passenger off the bus – and he shouldn’t have just hauled off after one of his passengers beat up a (then) pedestrian. As for the passenger: Is Larson really suggesting an endorsement of road rage, of beating up people on the streets who irritate us? Is he really suggesting that’s a reasonable thing to do? (He unhooks himself from that one, of course, by merely posing the question – but the rhetorical work has been done.)

There’s plenty of fault to go around in a case like this. But acknowledging that wouldn’t do such a good job of getting our blood boiling at the horrible group of “them.”

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