Harley Culture from the Outside: Cowboys, Guns and Patriotism

Misao Dean

Who wouldn’t want a Harley? The brand is so ubiquitous in popular culture that the word “Harley” has become for many a loose synonym for any cruiser-style motorcycle. And the history of Harley-Davidson riders seems, in North America at least, identical with the history of motorcycle as a cultural icon: its success as a Second World War vehicle, promoted through war propaganda films, its identification with post-war outlaw motorcycle gangs in Hunter Thompson’s book Hell’s Angels (1966), its appearance in iconic 60s movies like Easy Rider and Girl on a Motorcycle, and its rebirth as a desirable commodity whose purchase provides an entrée to a popular identity and a complete “subculture of consumption” (Schouten and McAlexander passim), covers the span of the post-war commercial production of motorcycles from the 1940s to the present. The characteristics of that culture are also well-known: commitment to the “brotherhood” of riders, celebration of masculinity (even hypermasculinity)[1], and identification with an ethics of personal freedom (Schouten and McAlexander 50-55) and tolerance of eccentricity (Thompson 143). The Harley ethos would seem to suggest that 99% of riders belong to a mutually supportive, open-minded community of independent thinkers that welcomes newcomers and celebrates the diversity of people who love their bikes, and much academic work on the group supports this point of view, with the suggestion that while women and racialized minorities might have felt excluded in the past[2] they have successfully challenged that exclusion and are now gaining open acceptance as Harley riders.

Billy and Wyatt in Easy Rider (1969, 16:45) [Fig.1]

But from the outside, Harley culture seems a little more contradictory and less welcoming than this image would suggest. Some might find the association of the Harley with cowboy iconography exclusionary and the celebration of US frontier history and US patriotism downright offensive. To Canadians, Harley culture can seem dominated by a militaristic and hierarchical exclusiveness that disrespects riders of other bikes, and by a persistent and peculiarly American debate over helmet and gun laws. Canadian observers of motorcycle culture are perhaps hyper-aware of the contradictions inherent in Harley culture, and motorcycle travel authors such as Ted Bishop (Riding with Rilke), Neil Peart (Ghost Rider, among other works) and Derek Lundy (Borderlands) often choose the Harley rider to exemplify everything Canadians find problematic about US culture. While the immersion of Canadians in US media and popular culture means there is a significant minority in Canada that is prepared to endorse the pro-US ethos of the Harley-Davidson[3], Lundy, Bishop and Peart take the opportunity provided by their outsider status to thematize a more critical view of Harley culture.

The Harley ethos is often expressed through the iconography of the US West: the cowboy, the gunslinger, the outlaw. Western elements such as fringe, hand-tooled leather, and cowgirl graphics are ubiquitous in accessories for custom motorcycles (Schouten and McAlexander 52); authors such as Hunter Thompson and Ted Polhemus comment on the identification of motorcyclists with western outlaws; and in Easy Rider, the classic 1967 counter-culture motorcycle movie, this relationship becomes explicit with the naming of the two protagonists after Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp. Bill Osgerby, in his book Biker, develops the relationship thus: “the biker’s image of trenchant independence and rugged individualism harks back to the mythic figures of the cowboy and the western pioneer … Just as the hardy frontiersman personified the sense of personal freedom and robust self-reliance at the heart of the American Dream, the biker has come to symbolize American ideals of confidence, resourcefulness, and individual liberty” (8). On the surface the reason for the identification is clear: both Harley riders and western heroes are associated with mobility, independence, freedom, and a personal ethos that sets them apart from mainstream society. Commitment to a personal ethos, a view of right and wrong that is independent of the legal system and of social mores, connects this cowboy image to that of the outlaw, and thus to the outlaw motorcycle gangs pictured in 60s movies like Hells Angels on Wheels and described by Hunter Thompson in his book Hell’s Angels (1966). The post-war rider supposedly found an antidote for the frustrations of bourgeois US life in identification with the western outlaw and, “like Daniel Boone and the cowboy hero, fled a civilization which had too many rules, too many constraints, and too few options” (Walle 75)[4]; this contemporary rejection of constraint puts even the middle-class rider outside of the law of convention. The myth of the western cowboy always includes a little bit of outlaw, and the outlaw has his inner cowboy; in the context of motorcycle culture, they are two sides of the same coin, both identified with integrity, personal liberty, physical strength and competence, endurance and emotional reserve, embodying the ideal that Harley culture holds up for itself.

None of these authors makes the more obvious point that by identifying with the frontiersman or cowboy, the Harley rider consciously chooses sides in what contemporary historians might consider a colonialist and genocidal war against indigenous peoples in the US west. Steven Alford and Suzanne Ferris suggest that the narrative of the biker as cowboy also evokes the possibility of counter-identification with “the Indian band of brothers … [who] defended themselves from threats from without, not only from the encroaching settlers, but also from bands of Indian warriors from other tribes” (88). But it’s difficult to see how this is actually the case: “while it may be true that both groups suffer from social repression and undeserved violence from forces purporting to be the law of the land” (88), the chosen social alienation of middle-class bikers is hardly comparable to the recognition of complicity in the massacre of whole peoples. Certainly it’s offensive to suggest that an “Indian” identity is something that Harley riders can playfully perform, or experiment with, as the backlash against the current popularity of “Indian headdress” cosplay at music festivals reveals.[5] While there may be some adoption of “Indian” iconography among motorcyclists (famously in the case of the “Indian” motorcycle manufacturers) this seems more along the lines described in Philip Deloria’s Playing Indian, of white US men appropriating the identity of “Indian” in order to reinforce their cultural dominance. Harley riders recall the children of the 1950s kitted out in cowboy and Indian dress-up costumes, performing of an identity that is only empowering because it depends on an unselfconscious lack of historical awareness.

And it must be emphasized that this account of “the West” is a particularly US one, not shared by international Harley riders (obviously) but also not shared by continental “Americans” like those in Canada and Mexico. Derek Lundy’s book Borderlands associates Harley riders with a US west that excludes Canadians, despite their seemingly parallel histories of western expansion. Lundy’s choice to cross the continent twice, from East to West, means that he can hardly escape “the old and potent image of the lone rider heading west” (356), something he associates with Turner’s thesis that the advancement of the frontier ever westward is the defining myth of the US nation. “The biker image itself is quintessentially American: the lone rider, rebellious and refractory, resistant to authority, a laconic man of action; if he is answerable to anyone, it is to his brothers and to their code. These are the very qualities possessed by the American man of the fabled West on Turner’s frontier. This man lives on astride a Harley, or, indeed, aboard any bike” (356). However, Lundy is conscious of appropriating this image, rather than embodying it, because “The American Frontier thesis has hardly any relevance north of the Canadian border” (358): in Canada the Crown extended sovereignty into the Northwest long before settlers arrived, and dispatched their harbingers of civilization, the Mounties and the Land surveyors, to go on ahead and set things up. “Canadian attitudes to the law, to government, and to the nature and role of the state diverged from those of Americans from the beginning” (360). For Lundy, the cowboy image of the Harley rider is not merely foreign, but offensively so, because it assumes that “the West” is the same for everybody, and devalues the difference that Canada represents.

Ted Bishop’s narrator in Riding with Rilke expresses the ambivalence of the Canadian rider toward the image of the cowboy biker. Bishop self-consciously tries to act the part of the laconic western hero when he “rides into town” on a Ducati: “I was working on my Entrance, one of the most important aspects of being a biker” (26). He practices cruising down main street, taking in the lay of the land before turning and choosing a parking spot; the strut when he enters the coffee shop, and the order, “Coffee. Black,” are part of his performance as cowboy-biker. For Bishop, the western hero is an identity he self-consciously plays with, finally admitting his inadequacy for the part: “I hate black coffee, but whoever said, ‘Jed, there’s a stranger in town and he drinks his latte with a double shot!’?” (27). Rather than discovering an authentic cowboy self on his motorcycle, Bishop’s flirtation with the “lone rider” iconography reinforces the contradictions inherent in the spectacle of a Canadian professor on a motorcycle.

An important aspect of the biker-as-western hero narrative is the independence and solitariness of the rider. According to ethnologists Schouten and McAlexander, the “Harley-as-horse” (51) metaphor continues to be an important part of the contemporary motorcycle ideology, linking the motorcyclist to “the wild west drifter (i.e. a frontiersman whose freedom is based on a lack of attachments) and the western folk hero (whose freedom derives from his prowess with a six gun)” (52). The rider’s mobility and his solitariness together create the freedom from community ties that defines both the biker and the western rider. Indeed, both figures reject those ties as artificial, instead developing an individual sense of morality represented as more authentic and more exacting than either existing social norms or the rule of law. Contemporary Harley culture, however, seems to have discarded the image of Harley Rider as freedom-loving loner and independent thinker. As Corey and Millage discovered, while Harley riders identify their bikes with the freedom and solitude of the cowboy, a large majority of riders would “much rather ride with a group of people or at least with a passenger than to ride alone” and, “would ride almost twice as often within a group setting” (68). Neil Peart, in his memoir Far and Away: A Prize Every Time (2011), is disappointed to find the famous pass at Deal’s Gap in North Carolina choked with groups of Harley riders who are incapable of maneuvering their shiny customized bikes along the “Tail of the Dragon”: “on that busy Sunday in Deals Gap … we were stuck in a halting parade of Harleys and clones all the way through 318 sharp turns, switchbacks, and tricky hairpins. That kind of riding was way beyond the limited cornering clearance of such ‘fashion statement’ motorcycles, and apparently beyond their riders, too” (131). Despite the traditional respect for riding skill and mechanical competence cited by researchers on early patch clubs[6], Peart suggests that Harley owners are more interested in displaying their bikes than riding them. Lundy recounts the contempt such riders expressed for his KLR, “a butt-ugly, Jap-shit, back road tanker” (171) that nonetheless has carried him across the continent twice.

Lundy also points out that Harley riders disdainfully exclude other motorcyclists from the vaunted sense of neighbourliness and mutual support that is supposed to apply equally to the motorcycling community and the culture of the US West. Harley riders often refuse to return the wave that is the universal greeting among “civilian” riders. “The wave or the nod [to another motorcyclist] is the non-verbal equivalent of ‘Be Safe,’ or ‘Be careful out there.’ But the practice has its exceptions; the apparent democracy of the motorcycle has its hierarchy. … Harley riders will sometimes wave to non-Harley riders, but often they don’t. I’ll discover that they hardly ever acknowledge the existence of someone on a jumped-up dirt bike. I give this guy on the I-35 a wave, but he shows no sign that I exist” (29). This military iconography is continued in the use of the word “civilian” by one-percent club members to designate non-members; militarism is also evoked in the military structure of even the most recreational of HOG clubs, with their Road Captains and “Ladies of Harley” auxiliary groups for women (who ride pillion).[7] The association of Harley motorcycles with military veterans predates the Vietnam war, extending to the legendary (if perhaps apocryphal) association of the Hell’s Angels with veterans of World War Two described by Hunter Thompson. Militarism may be one reason why Harley culture is dominated by the iconography of the US flag, and the discourse of patriotism. The motorcyclist as cowboy analogy brings these two ideas together by figuring the Harley rider as the patriotic nation-builder, “the modern-day heir of the frontier pioneer” (Osgerby 8): “Davie Crockett, Wyatt Earp, and Jesse James have long since bitten the dust, but the biker has assumed their mantle” (Osgerby 8). A striking example is in Easy Rider (1967) when Wyatt (also called Captain America) and Billy stop at a small farm to make repairs to their bikes. As they pull into the farmer’s shed, the camera moves back to include both the bike repairs and the shoeing of a horse in the same shot. Later at the dinner table Wyatt praises the farmer and his family as representing an ideal of simple living: “It’s not every man can live off the land you know. Do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud.” This scene is directly linked to Wyatt and Billy’s later trip to a back-to-the-land commune, which is represented as a contemporary return to the ideals of early America (or a parody of them, depending on your point of view). For the Harley rider, motorcyclist are the true builders and defenders of the nation.

Indeed, Schouten and McAlexander identify “patriotism and American heritage” as one of the core values of the “Harley ethos,” values that “touch on virtually all aspects of members’ lives, including the social, the political and the spiritual” (Schouten and McAlexander 50) along with personal freedom, brotherhood, and machismo. Accompanying the iconography of the US west, the imagery of the US flag is ubiquitous among Harley-Davidson riders, along with a heritage of racism that has grown from the post-war antipathy to Japanese bikes, and from various “Buy American” campaigns. Jay Barbieri, a Harley purist, suggests in his Biker’s Handbook that “for 30 years it was a turf war” between Japanese and American-made motorcycles: “this war was so real and lasted so long that even into the 1990s, bar owners at rallies such as Sturgis and Daytona would hoist Japanese bikes up into trees and set them on fire as a symbol against the import motorcycle scene” (Barbieri, 17).[8] Barbieri concludes “The American-made motorcycle, primarily the Harley-Davidson, soon became synonymous with patriotism: ‘Buy American, support America’ … The American bald eagle and the American flag practically became trademarks for the company” (17-18). As Hamilton Carroll points out in his book, Affirmative Reaction, “the motorcycle has gone from being a countercultural symbol of dissatisfaction with the traditional values of bourgeois American nationalism to embracing those same values” (80). According to Carroll, this shift has taken place as “changes in the economy and globalization” have led to a “decline in the status of white masculinity”(1) and a resituating of the values of the “biker ethos” as under attack by “feminism and multiculturalism” (1). “As the labor and sociocultural landscapes of the contemporary United States have shifted, white masculinity has reacted defensively” (2), utilizing the rhetoric of identity politics to resituate white masculinity as a complex of minority identities (such as Irish, blue collar, white trash, or biker) that have been marginalized by the discourse of race and gender. The discourse of motorcyclists and of western heroes is a major site in which the “pernicious culture of white male injury or victimhood” is articulated, and the struggle to “maintain heteronormative white patriarchal privilege in contemporary American culture” (2) is carried out.

Barbieri exemplifies the loyalty of the Harley rider to the brand, and his identification of this loyalty with loyalty to the US, despite, as he and other Harley riders such as Sonny Barger (Let’s Ride 27) admit, the functional and mechanical unreliability of Harley motorcycles made in the period from the 50s to the 90s. The intense brand loyalty Harley inspires is one reason why its riders are a popular subject for research[9]: other businesses would like to know how Harley does it. In his account of the rivalry between Harley and Honda, Barbieri implies the wartime racist stereotype of the sneaky, underhanded Japanese companies who somehow unfairly bested the patriotic Harley brand by outselling them in their domestic market. In the ethos of the Harley rider, the US company, its workers and its customers are victims of globalization who heroically overcome the competition of their Japanese rivals to triumph, and who maintain and show their support of domestic US workers and of US prestige in the world by continuing to buy Harley.[10]

This discourse of “white male injury” is linked to an aspect of the “biker ethos” that is rarely articulated, a sense of being perpetually misunderstood by “citizens” and indiscriminately slaughtered by “cagers” and careless drivers. Bishop’s account of an academic session on “biker stigmatization,” where “the presenters talked about bikers being abused and exploited … and argued that bikers were still the victims of systemic harassment” (207-8) is part of this discourse. The participants in a European focus group study of motorcyclist attitudes toward safety illustrate this sense of victimhood: the informants “deplored that car drivers often put the riders at risk by behaving recklessly, breaking the traffic rules (e.g., maintaining short headways, overtaking while approaching red traffic lights) and showing erroneous behavior (e.g., performing abrupt maneuvers, start overtaking while a motorcycle is overtaking them). Some of those driver errors were said to be specific to the interaction with a motorcycle and would not happen in the interaction with other cars” (Hutha et.al). The website bikesafer.com agrees that a “victim mentality” may contribute negatively to motorcycle safety: “bikers have a victim mentality. They blame cage drivers for all crashes, and this causes a fatalistic attitude … This may have helped create a victim culture” (“Biker Psychology.”). While Hunter Thompson described this phenomenon in the case of the Hell’s Angels as the fruitless complaint of losers and sons of losers who were unable to succeed in the US economy they therefore rejected, the sense of marginalization and misrecognition is also part of the history of the western drifter and the “good-bad man” of outlaw myth. The prevalence of the trope of death (and especially unjust death, early death) is common to both discourses, and is expressed in motorcycle culture by the common advice to “ride as though every car driver is trying to kill you” and the emphasis on funerary rituals (funeral motorcycle processions for example) common in biker culture.[11] The complaint that people who don’t ride motorcycles don’t know how to drive, that carelessness, drunkenness and recklessness is endemic among car drivers, and that motorcyclists who are injured in accidents are victims of drivers who unjustly walk away from accidents they caused, underlies a discourse of paranoia and victimization that is common in motorcycling culture.

The simultaneous construction of the Harley rider as victim and as the exemplar of “American freedom” provides the ironic context for the Canadian view of US helmet and gun laws. Canadian provincial governments implemented mandatory helmet laws in 1974, and the only significant challenges to those laws have been mounted by observant Sikhs, who are exempted in BC and Manitoba if they are wearing turbans.[12] Lundy begins his trip in Texas, where he can go lidless if he chooses, but he makes a point of wearing all the protective gear he can get, aware that this means that “To the fat [Harley] rider with the hat and tattoos, I’m beneath contempt” (28). Neil Peart is similarly direct in his rejection of US helmet politics: “helmet laws are not an issue at all to me, on motorcycles or bicycles, I just wear one” (89). For Peart, anything else is just dumb: “Questions of “individual choice” in your wardrobe do not apply if you are, say, a race-car driver, a skydiver, a jet-fighter pilot, a firefighter, or a fragile human being perched on an unstable two wheeler in a demolition derby.”

Ted Bishop piles on the irony when he describes US attitudes to helmet laws in Riding with Rilke. He declares himself surprised to discover, at a conference on popular culture, that “helmets were not just a choice, they were a cornerstone of American freedom” (207). After hearing a presentation by the head of the Motorcycle Rights Association of Texas on harassment of motorcyclists by law enforcement, Bishop declares he wants to join up, to quit his job, grow his hair, “get tattooed, and ride back to Texas to fight the Feds and save America” (209). Bishop’s enthusiasm is only momentary, however: it lasts about as long as it takes him to realize, in hindsight that despite the modesty of the speaker, and his self-deprecating statement that “I’m just a Dumb-Ass biker,” the Texan has offered the most polished presentation of the conference. Bishop suggests that the authenticity of the message is undercut by the showmanship, implying that there is more at work here than meets the eye.

Bishop’s Texan makes the familiar rhetorical move of appealing to “the Constitution” to make his case against helmet laws and other forms of “biker stigmatization.” “Americans are always talking about the Constitution” comments Bishop, evoking an unstable context of ironic meanings that also undercut the persuasiveness of the Texan’s argument. Canadians are aware that in the U.S., “The Constitution” is supposed to trump all other arguments: reformers of all political stripes seem to declare that, like God, “the Constitution” is on their side. Canadians have little time for this sort of absolutism: our constitution has built in a provision (the notwithstanding clause) that allows flexibility in the application of national legislation, in keeping with Canada’s historical emphasis on cultural diversity. Upon reflection Bishop concludes “I was not about to give up my helmet. I liked the quiet, and at 65 miles an hour the vents kept my head cool” (209), an ironic suggestion that for Bishop, the cooler head prevails.

Bishop’s Texan may appear as a stereotype, and the representations of Harley riders in all three books are open to that charge. Lundy specifically addresses his use of stereotypes, apologizing that stereotypes of Americans in Canadian popular culture “might come across as anti-American.” But he defends the creation of stereotypes as necessary to the creation of irony: “Canadians stereotype Americans (as Americans do Canadians) as a necessary condition for ironic commentary on American ignorance of Canada … in reality, the stereotype is largely true: the ignorance is real and virtually universal” (387). Irony is a common strategy for Canadians writing about the US, used by all three authors to suggest an unarticulated context of Canadian “normalcy” to highlight the alienating strangeness of Harley culture. This strangeness is highlighted by Lundy when he returns to his bike after a pit stop in Texas, and discovers “another bike parked. It’s a Harley, but the middle-aged couple are friendly and talkative. They are sitting at a picnic table in the shade of cottonwoods, eating sandwiches and drinking beer. It’s a nice scene, except that an automatic pistol is also lying on the table” (103). Lundy’s matter of fact account of this incident contains two signals to further ironic meaning. One is the sneaky “but” in the second sentence: It’s a Harley, but (despite that fact, contrary to expectation) the people are actually friendly. The second is the complete absence of commentary on the gun. The pistol is just there, a completely shocking, completely inappropriate element in an otherwise friendly encounter at a roadside picnic table. Handguns are highly regulated in Canada, and rarely owned by individuals who are not associated with the police or the military. Lundy’s very lack of commentary cries out in shock (presumably with a Canadian accent).

The connection between Harleys and guns is prominent in all three writers. Lundy crosses and re-crosses the border, repeatedly asked by armed border guards if he is carrying a gun, and, along the Mexican border in particular, repeatedly advised to get a gun. For him, the guns of the border guards are a constantly threatening presence no matter how open he is. Indeed, the openness of the motorcycle becomes a metaphor for his attitude to US authorities: “The bike and I are right out in the open, with nothing concealed. The agents can see everything about us at a glance – whether or not I have a weapon (although, as part of the Script, they ask me if I’m carrying). ” Lundy is surprised by the hostility, because he knows that like him, the border guards are “the sort of men who like motorcycles. More than one of them has told me he rides too—,” however with one big difference: “a Harley of course” (170-171). Much of this sense of threat at the border comes from what Lundy finds is the still common misapprehension that the 911 bombers had some kind of connection with Canada.[13] Ted Laturnus sums up the sense of threat Lundy feels from Harley riders in his Globe and Mail review of Borderlands : “At one point, Lundy is chatting with some Harley-riding Vietnam veterans, and as soon as they discover he’s Canadian the conversation ends. The mood in the U.S. these days is pretty ugly.”

As outsiders to both the US and Harley culture, Bishop, Peart and Lundy perceive the irony that allows the motorcycle, the symbol of rebellion and marginalization, to become central to the articulation of both patriotism and patriarchy. This irony is created by the situating of the motorcyclist as the inheritor of the so called “frontier spirit” of the nation builder; and, simultaneously, the situating of the traditional nation builders (white men) as marginalized and under threat. Bishop’s Texan activist for motorcyclist rights wants to elect a biker to Congress, in order to stem what he feels is a decline in US status: “”Because if there’s anything that’s going to save America, to stop the decline and save this country, to save this civilization, it’s the Spirit of the Biker” (209). The contemporary identity of the Harley rider is part of a discourse of white male injury that responds to individual Americans’ perceived loss of status under the effects of globalization and the shift to a service economy, as well as a perception of the US as a nation under threat both economically and militarily. The Harley ethos associates motorcyclists with a fantasy politics that constructs white US men as a disenfranchised minority in North American public space. And this, for a Canadian rider, is a pretty problematic association.

A useful comparison is Sharon Schembri’s study of Australian Harley culture in her article, “Reframing brand experience: The experiential meaning of Harley–Davidson.” Schembri points out that while some Australian riders embrace the US iconography of Harley, displaying US or even Confederate flags on their bikes, “for some Australian Harley owners and riders, the American brand of their bike is a serious concern.” She cites a member of her own club who replaced the US flag imagery in his Harley-Davidson tattoo with an Australian flag (1305-6). In my experience many Canadians also endorse the “patriotism” element of the Harley rider ethos by replacing US flag iconography with Canadian flags and military emblems. But despite Schembri’s embrace of Harley as a globalized and thus “postmodern” brand that demonstrates the consumer’s “right to construct what a brand means” (1310), her study, as she points out, merely “extends previous (American) findings” (1308) about the patriotic Harley ethos. No matter what country the Harley rider hails from, some sort of flag, either the brand-mandated US flag or the local one, seems to be de rigeur: a postmodern rejection of the politics of patriotism doesn’t seem to be an option for Harley riders.

For Canadians, the ubiquity of flag-waving patriotism in the Harley ethos is perhaps more problematic than for Australians. As Pierre Trudeau famously put it: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”[14] This makes it difficult to accept the iconography of the US flag as mere decoration, or as part of an identity that the rider performs recreationally, as Alford and Ferris suggest most European Harley riders do (89). While, as I said, a significant minority in Canada would endorse the politics of US victimization that seem to underlie Harley-ethos patriotism, many more Canadians would subscribe to what Glenn Willmott has described as “Canadian ressentiment,” a “group identity” that includes the rejection of flag-waving patriotism, even if the Canadian flag is being waved, as both aggressive and in poor taste, and instead “paints the picture of itself as a weaker social formation self-conscious of a certain subordination and complicity, but burdened with a prophetic if terrible insight and a corresponding moral transcendence” (Willmott 134). Certainly Bishop, Lundy and Peart seem to fall into this category, representing themselves as complacently superior to the Harley rider whose misplaced emphasis on helmets, guns and “the Constitution” creates a direct threat to more peaceable Canadian riders. Lundy puts it simply when he quotes Canadian actor Seth Rogen on the advantage of being a Canadian in the States: “It’s great, there’s an automatic fake moral high ground that’s just built into whatever situation you’re in” (388).

For Canadians, Harley culture evokes a complex domestic politics and on-going history, one that tends makes us want “to hightail it back to Canada, where when you say someone is “Carrying” you mean they’re with child, not packing a .44 magnum” (91). “Wyatt,” the character nicknamed “Captain America” in the film Easy Rider, crosses the nation astride a motorcycle emblazoned with the US flag, but at the end of his journey famously condemns the whole culture and its history with a single enigmatic phrase: “We blew it.” Perhaps US culture is more divided on the value of the Harley ethos than Lundy, Peart and Bishop suggest. If, as I have argued, the association of the Harley-Davidson brand with cowboys, guns and patriotism is part of a conservative ideology of US victimization, then to an outsider, Harley-Davidson culture looks like the antithesis of freedom and self-reliance, and the opposite of the values that the motorcycle is supposed to symbolize.

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Schouten, John W. and James H McAlexander. “Subcultures of consumption: An Ethnography of the New Bikers.” Journal of Consumer Research, 22:1, June 1995, pp.43–61.

Shabanowitz, Robert B. “Hog Heaven: Funeral and Mourning Rituals of an Independent Motorcycle Club.” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies, 9:1, Spring 2013, http://ijms.nova.edu/Spring2013/IJMS_Artcl.Shabanowitz.html

Thompson, Hunter S. Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. New York: Random House, 1966.

Tompkins, Jane. West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. New York: Oxford, 1992.

Trudeau, Pierre. “Trudeau’s Washington Press Club Speech.” March 25 1969. Video Clip. CBC Digital Archives. http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/trudeaus-washington-press-club-speech

Walle, Alf H. “Harley-Davidson The Renegade Image Free at Last.” Journal of American Culture, 7:3, 1984, pp.71–76.

Wolf, Daniel. The Rebels: a brotherhood of outlaw bikers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

[1] While increasing numbers of female riders challenge the dominance of men in Harley culture, the ethos remain masculinist: see Martin, Schouten and McAlexander (2006), and below.

[2] See Martel, or Martin, Schouten and McAlexander (2006), for example.

[3] For a comparison of Canadian and US values, see Adams (2009).

[4] See also Alford and Ferris, Motorcycle (Reaktion Books, 2007) 87–88.

[5] See Dorian Lynsky, “This means war: why the fashion headdress must be stopped.”

[6] See Wolf, for example.

[7] See Martin, Schouten, and McAlexander.

[8] See also Wolf (37).

[9] See especially Schouten and McAlexander (1995), Martin, Schouten and McAlexander (2006), Schembri (2009), Martel (2001), and Corey and Millage (2014).

[10] As Schouten and McAlexander document, over 90% of Harley riders intend to buy another.

[11] See Robert B. Shabanowitz “Hog Heaven: Funeral and Mourning Rituals of an Independent Motorcycle Club” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies 9:1 (Spring 2013) and James B. Gould, “Make Today Count: Motorcycling as Memento Mori” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies 9:1 (Spring 2013).

[12] See “Liberals accuse of flip-flopping on Sikh motorcycle helmet law.”

[13] Janet Napolitano, the US Homeland Security Secretary, repeated in 2009 the false information that the 911 bombers had entered the US through Canada, and a few days later John McCain repeated the charge. See Goodman.

[14] Part of a speech delivered to Press Club in Washington, D.C., 25 March 1969.

Image Attributions
[Fig.1] Easy Rider. Directed by Dennis Hopper. USA: Columbia Pictures, 1969.

Misao Dean, Department of English, University of Victoria, Victoria BC, Canada: https://www.uvic.ca/humanities/english/people/regularfaculty/dean-misao.php

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One Comment

  1. A well done article. Timely as well in light of all the politics and corporate cronyism in the making as the H-D myth is perpetuated. I’ve forwarded it to a couple of Canadian and Antipodean friends for their reactions and all to a number are in agreement with your conclusions.

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