Sexism Is More Than An Accusation: Who Gets to Say We’re Sexists?

Photo by George Hodan Public Domain.

Photo by George Hodan Public Domain.

I’ve been watching and participating in the liberal/progressive debate over Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for months. As a Sanders supporter and a writer/reporter I’ve now had many conversations and arguments about the merits of the two candidates over the last few months. I’m not going to re-enact the debate here but I’m prepared to make some observations.

Sanders and his supporters have launched a barrage of accusations most of which have had the staying power of a dairy product, however one accusation that keeps emerging and reemerging is a “sexism” claim, i.e. Sanders supporters are almost inherently sexist. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill recently renewed this accusation by claiming that Sanders would never question a man’s qualifications. In fact I don’t think we’d wait very long before qualifications would become an issue in a general election battle between Trump and Sanders. You can watch the McCaskill/Sanders “Meet the Press” segment here:  NBC News Meet The Press

Previously I’ve refuted the actual charge of sexism as it pertains to Sanders and most of his supporters, you can read that here:  “Are ‘Bernie-Bros’ Really Clinton’s Big Problem?” But today I want to look at a different claim that is related to the charge of “sexism”, namely that only women get to recognize and denounce sexism when they see it. An excellent example of this kind of reasoning recently appeared on my Facebook Newsfeed.

“As a white person I never tell people of color what is and is not racism. I could not even imagine having the audacity to do such a thing. I also recognize that there may actually be situations in which I’m unable to grasp subtle racism at play. I accept the notion that although I may not see it or understand it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. When that occurs, it’s a learning opportunity for me. I am also aware that my white privilege makes me racist. This is something I try to be conscious about. This is why it’s astonishing to me when some men will not only tell me they are not sexist, but dictate to me what defines it and what does not–all without realizing that doing so–is sexism.”

Over last few weeks this proposition has popped up in a lot different ways in various articles and comments, basically repeating a basic premise that we have to remember that “guys” don’t get to decide what “sexism” is. In this case the proposition is buttressed with a comparison to “racism”.

You may notice I’ve been putting “sexism” and “racism” in quotes, that’s because I want to denote the fact that we’re talking about different concepts of racism and sexism, one that is little more than an irrefutable insult to be charged by infallible observers (i.e. women or people of color) but there’s another concept of racism and sexism that civil rights activists and feminist intellectuals have been developing for decades.

One thing is absolutely clear, neither civil rights leaders nor the women’s movement or the feminist project have sought to create a race or gender specific language or discourse that only women or people of color can speak. The idea that the concept of sexism depends on infallible observers (See below) is almost an insult to feminist intellect. In many ways the feminist project has been about creating a genderless discourse that emphasizes inherent human qualities rather than inherent gender qualities. This is one reason that feminists have been out in front of the LGBT struggle.

The concept of sexism replaced other critiques of patriarchy (Such as chauvinism and patriarchal hegemony) in late 70s and early 80s because feminist were dealing with the realization that men are not the only reservoir of patriarchal oppression, consider a character like Michelle Bachmann for instance, or at the time Phyllis Schlafly. By breaking the critique of patriarchal privilege free from gender feminist created a concept that is based on public observations and has the capacity to recognize patriarchal privilege wherever and however it’s expressed. “Sexism” then becomes a concept that can seek social consensus and hence has much more power than a mere accusation leveled by one gender against the other. The whole point of the feminist project is to reveal and dismantle illegitimate gender based power structures, not create a new one based on a gender specific discourse.

While “sexism” is a feminist concept that has obviously been defined by women, it makes no sense to limit the discourse to women alone, and in fact many feminists intellectuals do not try to do that for obvious reasons.

Consider for instance the fact that my responsibility as man in a feminist project is to renounce whatever power or privilege I derive from my gender; how can I do that if I’m not allowed to recognize sexism when I see it? I have yet other responsibilities; I can not only renounce but also denounce gender based privilege, why would you want to prevent me from doing that?

The idea that only women can make such observations relies on the rational fallacy of an infallible observer, i.e. a woman and only a woman can render an observation about sexism. The problem with infallible observers is easy to see: Infallible observer 1. (Wendy) declares that something I’m doing is sexist. Then Infallible observer 2. (Brenda) declares that what I am doing is NOT sexist. There’s no way to resolve that, and feminist intellectuals long ago figured that out. By making sexism a publicly verifiable construct that everyone can recognize, renounce, and denounce, you multiply the number of observers and the socio-political power of the observation.

Consider an example from my personal life. My wife and I used to work at a hospital wherein my wife’s supervisor one day took my wife’s position away and gave it to a male employee. My wife filed a gender discrimination complaint that eventually compelled financial settlement from the employer. This was a blatant example is sexism, why should I not be able to recognize and denounce that and support my wife (or any other woman)? Furthermore, the supervisor perpetrating this sexism was a woman, and the investigator that decided it was illegal discrimination was a man. If we’re stuck with infallible female observers presumably the supervisor will say it’s not sexism and my wife will say it is and that’s the end of that. Again, there’s no way to resolve a disagreement among equally infallible observers.

Finally, we can recognize where this infallible observer language originates, it primarily emerges from a discourse about violence against women and other kinds of “victim” narratives. We have correctly observed that in assault cases and other forms of oppression thems doing the assaulting don’t get to decide whether or not they committed an assault. So for instance a child molester or a rapist doesn’t get to decide whether or not they molested or raped anyone. I’ll just assume we all agree on this.

Problems arise however if we take that principle and try to deploy it in a much broader discussion of sexism. Weird things can start to happen; a guy who thinks laundry is women’s work ends up in the same room as a gang rapist. More problematic is the universal reclassification of all women as “victims” of sexism on an existential level. A lot of feminists would object to that as destructive form of disempowerment. In our society “victims” are sheltered and protected, they receive special care.  Does a narrative that defines all women as inescapable victims empower women? Thanks for sending the women’s movement back to the 19th century. I think you try to apply a universal victim narrative to all women at your own peril, it’s not going to be universally embraced and it can be characterized as degrading under some circumstances.

We could go back and perform the same analysis for racism, but the results are the same. Neither civil rights leaders nor feminists have spent decades trying to create an irrefutable insult they can level at privilege. The whole point is to create a credible concept that expands rather than constricts understanding, recognition, and support.

As to who gets to make sexism and racism claims, it depends on your level of awareness and understanding of the concept, it can’t simply be a function of race or gender. Privilege can interfere with comprehension to be sure, but if you don’t think that people can recognize and renounce illegitimate power and privilege then no society based on equality and justice is conceivable, that might be nihilism, but it’s not feminism.

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Are “Bernie-Bros” Really Clinton’s Big Problem?

NOC 2016 finalR-12If you’re a Bernie Sanders supporter you’re no doubt familiar with the ubiquitous accusation that you’re succumbing to an insidious expression of sexism. My first encounter with this accusation arrived on Facebook shortly after I posted an article I wrote about a big Sanders event in St. Paul MN. “Sorry sexist boys but Hillary’s the next President”. Although this comment was somewhat playful those that followed, and a subsequent plethora of articles, FB memes, and conversations, clearly establish that this isn’t a playful jab, it’s a real thing. Many Clinton supporters actually believe that a vote for Hillary is the only responsible choice that any serious supporter of feminism can possibly make.

The problem for Clinton supporters is that the more they hurl accusations of sexism at their fellow Americans the less impact that accusation seems to have on the campaign dialogue. In fact when Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem ran that: “gender loyalty = feminism” gambit up the flag pole it pretty much exploded in their faces. Hillary spent the next week putting as much distance between herself and that narrative as fast as she could.

I no longer engage people on this issue personally but I see it almost every day and it’s like watching people bounce around in an echo chamber of circular reasoning: “The more we accuse people of being sexist the more they ignore us. The more they ignore us the more convinced we are that Clinton’s biggest problem is that she’s a woman. Her gender can only be a problem because there’s so much sexism…” and round it goes.

Setting feminism per se aside for a moment, there’s actually an empirical problem with the sexism narrative. The narrative that sexism is holding Clinton back ignores the fact that she has been and still is the front runner. If sexism is the dominant feature of this election cycle how did Hillary get established as the most legitimate and electable candidate in the first place? The fact is that Sanders has been the one who’s struggling for legitimacy, not Clinton. Did sexist America fail to notice that Hillary is a woman until the Iowa Caucuses?

Clinton supporters don’t actually seem know who they’re talking to when they berate Sanders supporters as sexists. Clinton’s support by-and-large emerges from establishment liberals whereas Sanders is getting most of his support from progressive liberals. If you think American progressives are a reservoir of sexism you simply don’t know who American progressives are. Listen: Sanders was recently confronted at South Carolina Town Hall Meeting regarding his call to abolish the CIA back in 1974… yeah, that was us. In the 80s we joined the Rainbow Coalition and cast our votes to put a black man (Jesse Jackson) in the White House. A few years later we decided Jackson wasn’t radical enough and we cast our vote to put a black woman (Lenora Fulani) in the White House. Granted many of the young progressives today may not have been born when Lenora Fulani was on the ballot, but this is where progressives live, this is our intellectual and ideological heritage. If you think gender is our big problem with Hillary Clinton, you simply don’t know who you’re talking to.

Let’s take a few moments to actually talk about feminism directly. It’s not my place to decide what is or isn’t feminism but I can share some basic observations (That people are free to challenge). My first exposure to feminist discourse landed on me in the early 80s when I was at University. At the time the woman’s movement appeared to be stalling in many ways (The Equal Rights Amendment would be dead by 1982) and a backlash of sorts (lead by Phillis Schlafly amongst others) had emerged upon the socio-political landscape. The feminist intellectuals I met were trying to sort out what was happening and why. Eventually a consensus of sorts emerged that the early emphasis on specific rights and gender roles was limited by an inability to reach deeper into the foundation of the patriarchal power structure. One product of this realization was the solidification of a basic tenet and agenda for feminism i.e. the identification and deconstruction of illegitimate power relations based on gender. One of the first and most destructive power relations identified was the patriarchal control of language. That power to declare the nature of reality and delegate individual roles within society i.e. “This is what a marriage is because I say that’s what a marriage is.” Or “This is what a wife and a mother are because I say so.” is a fundamental exercise of illegitimate patriarchal power. Related to the power of declaration is the power to recognize or deny the legitimacy of any given discourse, i.e. “That’s nice honey but the men are talking about serious issues, would you bring us some coffee?”

Now I can’t tell you whether you’re a feminist or not, but if you think the mission of feminism is to adopt and exercise illegitimate patriarchal power, you have some splaining to do. Steinem and Albright stood up and essentially declared that: “Clinton is the candidate for all women because we say she is and this is feminism because we say it is.” The suggestion that no legitimate feminist discourse can consider Sanders as the best candidate to promote women’s issues appears to delegitimize feminists who would vote for Sanders as a matter of decree. Maybe that didn’t blow up because young women don’t understand the challenges and struggles they face; maybe it blew up because young women (and progressives) know a patriarchal mentality when they see it. Maybe you think the mission and focus of the women’s movement is to get a woman, any woman, into patriarchal positions of power, I’m not going to say it is or it isn’t, but you have to make your case, and we await your reply.

Obviously sexism exists, and I’m not aware of any intrinsic ideological fire-walls that grant progressives or anyone else defacto emancipation from sexist thoughts and attitudes. Sexist Sanders supporters (“Bernie-Bros”) and progressives do exist. Nevertheless if you’re looking for a consequential reservoir of sexism in America you’ll likely find that among the ranks of republican voters not progressive liberals. While sexists are obviously flocking into Trump’s tent, the idea that sexism is propelling Sanders into a dead heat with Clinton is a spurious proposition at best.

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Bernie Sanders Lands In North Minneapolis: Can He Connect with Black Voters?

NOC 2016 finalR-14

Those who were lucky enough to get one of the 1,500 free tickets for a Black Forum at Patrick Henry High School in North Minneapolis on February 12th witnessed a unique political event. The grassroots organization Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) had planned to hold a forum discussion about black lives and the black community that evening. Upon hearing that both democratic presidential candidates were going to be in town for fundraiser they decided to invite Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to their forum. Clinton was unable to clear her schedule but Sanders found time to attend.

NOC's Mike Griffen speaks to the audience prior to the forum.

NOC’s Mike Griffen speaks to the audience prior to the forum.

This was not a typical Sanders rally by any means. Whereas his typical audience would be overwhelmingly white, this audience almost entirely black. I spoke with several people prior to Sanders arrival and none of them expressed the typical enthusiasm for sanders, they weren’t there to support Sanders, they were there to hear what he had to say to them (primarily) as black voters. Nor were people there just to hear a Sanders campaign speech; this was a forum, Sanders was to join them at the table and dialogue, respond to questions, and address their concerns.

I began my interviews by talking to three young women who immediately expressed reservations about Sanders because he doesn’t support reparations for African Americans or Native Americans. Others expressed reservations because he’s an unknown quantity compared to Clinton.  Everyone I talked to (all people of color) prior to the event expressed some appreciation that a major presidential candidate was coming to their neighborhood, something no one could remember happing before. Everyone pointed out

From the left: Saida Mahamud, Hibak MohamedMegan Abdirahman,  Shared their views and expectations prior to the event.

From the left: Saida Mahamud, Hibak MohamedMegan Abdirahman, Shared their views and expectations prior to the event.

that their communities are typically ignored by major candidates during elections and once in office. Several people also pointed out the fact that Sanders isn’t simply a Presidential candidate but is also a sitting US Senator. Looking back I wonder if those were digs on Senators Franken and Klobuchar, neither of whom has attended similar forums in North Minneapolis? In the end my interviews revealed more or less the same attitudes. Sanders was not walking into a hostile room, but expectations were somewhat guarded.

Mica Grimm of Black Lives Matter leads the audience: "I believe... We will win!"

Mica Grimm of Black Lives Matter leads the audience: “I believe… We will win!”

You can watch a video of the entire forum here.

NOC Executive Director Anthony Newby begins the forum

NOC Executive Director Anthony Newby begins the forum

The forum covered a wide range of issues but two exchanges stood out as remarkable. One was a discussion about criminal justice. Hamline Law Student Ngeri Azuewah and a member of the audience by the name of Jason raised a number of issues regarding the inequities of the justice system. Ngeri asked about prison recidivism and Jason, a convicted felon who’s gotten his life on track with a Ph.D., declared that while he can “feel the Bern” he can’t cast the ballot because he doesn’t see what Sanders will actually do for people like himself.

Sanders bid for Jason’s ballot focused on a fact that Sanders himself raised- the disenfranchisement of felons as voters. Millions of black Americans have been disproportionately arrested, convicted, and imprisoned as felons, and in most states convicted felons lose their right to vote. Sanders of course denounces this fact, and he connected it to the larger agenda of voter suppression pointing that millions of disenfranchised black voters benefit some political elites. While this is a powerful observation that resonated with the audience, Sanders did not offer any specific remedy that he could pursue as President.

Sanders response to high black incarceration rates and prison recidivism is basically focuses on three initiatives: 1) Better education and community development that keeps people out of prison in the first place. 2) Changes in the law enforcement regime that now disproportionately arrests and incarcerates more blacks than whites. 3)  Reorienting criminal justice towards rehabilitation rather than punishment.  These are standard progressive initiatives going back decades and while the audience applauded I suspect they were hoping for something a little more specific.

I thought it was interesting that Sanders didn’t take advantage of an opportunity to point out that Bill Clinton’s regime (with Hillary’s support) championed the Neo-Liberal policies that exacerbated these problems in the 90s. The Clinton administration embraced several conservative initiatives ranging from welfare reform to the war on drugs and crime. Budgets for education, rehabilitation, and community development in black communities were slashed while prison capacity and law enforcement budgets exploded. I’m sure Sanders is aware of this history, so these are potentially powerful observations that he just leaves on the table. Perhaps this is an expression of Sanders reluctance to go “negative” on Clinton?

The other remarkable discussion that emerged was a discussion about reparations for over a century of economic injustice ranging from slavery to Jim Crow and contemporary racial disparities. Panelists and audience members raised the issue several times before Felicia Perry almost in exasperation finally as clearly and directly as possible demanded a response from Sanders. Perry: “…Today, can we please talk about specifically… about black people and reparations?”

Although Sanders didn’t say it explicitly, his answer was basically: “No”.  Sanders would prefer to talk about inequality and disparities in general. While he supports initiatives tailored to specific communities and cultures, he’s obviously reluctant to break out specific ethnic groups for special consideration, at least on a rhetorical level.

NOC 2016 finalR-16It’s important to consider the historical context of this discourse, because it’s not just about Sanders. The tensions between minority ethnic liberals and white liberals, socialists, and even white progressives, go back decades. Socialists tend to focus on class and income disparities, and since they’ve never had any real political power (In this country) they’re not in a position to do much. At the end of the day too many white liberals can’t escape their entitlement and end up basically assuming that the Civil Rights movement settled the issue of racism in America. White liberals will bemoan the existence of bigotry and institutionalized racism but they don’t seem to know how to engage it effectively. The limitations of white liberalism have always created tensions with the ethnic minorities they sympathize with. Those tensions have led to the emergence of popular figures like Malcom X and movements like the Black Panthers, The American Indian Movement, and Cesar Chavez’s labor activism. More recently Black Lives Matter can be seen as an expression of frustration with the white liberal establishment. Once again white liberals are playing catch-up rather than vanguard when it comes to racial and social justice.

Another problem with white liberalism in America is its actual narrative. The white liberal narrative is one of inclusion, coalitions, and the elimination of divisions and prejudice, i.e. the “melting pot”. Agendas based on unique racial and ethnic experiences don’t easily fit into this narrative. In fact, this narrative can actually minimize or even deny unique experience; it can too easily become a colonial language of assimilation. For his part Sanders has actually said that he doesn’t want to talk about reparations because he’s afraid it would be divisive. The question at hand is what did this audience make of Sanders response?

NOC 2016 finalR-12Frankly, I thought Sanders blew it on the reparations issue. However when I talked to people afterwards I ended up getting schooled in grace and humility. I asked Black Lives Matter activist Mica Grimm if this was a make or break issue, and if she was satisfied with Sanders response? Grim: “He’s just afraid of the term ‘reparations’… it provokes all kinds of controversy and white people freak out.” She went on to observe that in many ways Sanders was already talking about reparations when describes his economic and social priorities, he just doesn’t see it that way. I asked Ms. Grimm if Sanders was someone she could vote for? She nodded her head and said: “yes.”

If Ms. Grimm’s response reflects more widely held conclusion in the audience it may because on a basic level people understand that if a serious dialogue about reparations and disparities is ever going to emerge in the United States, it will emerge from the progressive end of white liberalism, not the white liberal establishment (Clinton also opposes reparations). In fact, that conversation has already begun among progressives (See Ta-Nehisi Coate’s article in the Atlantic), that conversation just hasn’t reached Sanders yet. From a campaign perspective it’s clear that Sanders isn’t trying to peel away all of Clintons black voters, just enough to tip the scale in his favor.

For some black voters it may come down to whichever candidate they think will actually advance progressive agendas.

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Gone Off the Rails With the Second Amendment: It’s Time to Ban Assault Weapons

Fargo teen's graduation photo sporting gun get rejected. Story Minneapolis Star Tribune. Photo: Melissa Baasch.

Fargo teen’s graduation photo sporting gun. Story Minneapolis Star Tribune. Photo: Melissa Baasch.

It would be nice to say that two horrific and nearly back to back mass shooting in the United States recently shattered a national sense of complacency but alas, these shootings have become all too common.

Back in January of 2013 I wrote a five part series on the Second Amendment and gun violence in the United States. It was supposed to be a six part series at the time but being the primary “boss of me” here at Thoughtful Bastards I decided to wave off on the sixth installment. I sensed some fatigue among my readers at the time and frankly, I knew there would plenty of opportunity in the future to write this installment. Sadly, one can always be certain that another mass shooting will take place in the United States if one is waiting for a relevant context to discuss gun control.  If you want to review the entire original series you can visit it here.

This blog is longer than I like my blogs to be, but it’s a complex issue and I can’t figure out how to neatly break it up for several reasons. I’ve written several other pieces that support and dovetail with this writing, but I think it would be disruptive for the reader to have to look at another piece too frequently, I’d rather it be a (an albeit long) stand alone piece rather than collection links. Besides, as long as this is, it’s shorter than all the related blogs combined. Consequently I’ve elected to include short summaries here, with links to the more in depth blogs.

Yet another factor contributing to the length of blog is subject matter itself. The whole issue of gun control and the arguments that revolve around are difficult summarize. For me, this not new territory, I’ve been to this dance before and basic criticisms and arguments tend to arise with all the predictability of the sun’s orbit so I’ve decided to anticipate and respond to the more predictable criticisms rather than battle them out in comments. So without further ado.

Let me start briefly summarize the two most important findings from the original series:

First, the false impression that the Second Amendment effectively prevents any serious measures of gun control is based on a legal fiction that the Second Amend grants individuals the right to own and use almost any of kind of gun. This false impression exists not only in the minds of many Americans but also as a political reality of sorts. Quoting myself:

“The short story regarding the Second Amendment is that it was NOT meant to bestow the individual right to own a gun in the United States. The Second Amendment was about creating and maintaining State Militias and equipping them for the common defense. Primarily the Amendment was about reassuring slave states that Federal government wouldn’t interfere with their ability to suppress slave rebellions. Over the centuries the historical and legal realities of the Second Amendment have diverged. Contrary to the historical reality, the legal reality is that the Second Amendment currently guarantees some individual rights to own guns.  However the exact nature of those rights and what kinds of guns they may apply to remains murky.”

Looking beyond the Second Amendment per se, the sheer number guns in the United State creates a plethora of civilian carnage on a scale not found anywhere else in the world. One of the most unique and deadly characteristics of the US gun culture is mass murder typically carried out with assault weapons, i.e. weapons who’s primary design was for use in wartime combat. You can read my extensive review of mass killings here. In summary, it’s not the just number of guns, but the type of guns Americans  possess that contributes to the carnage.

It’s important to understand these critical findings because they provide the foundation for effective gun control. The fact is that we’ve long since passed the point where we should have placed an effective ban of some kind on assault weapons in the United State. We did have an assault rifle ban of sorts on the books from 1994-2004 but it was riddled with loopholes and consequently did little to slow down ownership or prevent mass killings. Although one should note that since the US Congress let that limited ban “sunset” in 2004 we have seen a marked increase in mass shootings and casualties.

Before discussing the ban itself I feel the need to point out that assault weapons are not the only deadly problem that arise from our gun culture in the United States. Any discussion about gun control needs to start with the basic realization that guns are in fact incredibly dangerous weapons. If that proposition looks weird in print that’s only because groups like the NRA and the firearm manufacturers have largely succeeded with an incredibly effective campaign that obscures the inherently dangerous nature of guns. Millions of Americans would tell us that guns are actually “perfectly safe” as long as users know what they’re doing. The truth is that guns by they’re very essence are specifically designed to deliver instaneous and irrevocable lethal force and they do so at an alarming rate. If guns were any other product most of them would have been pulled off the shelves long ago much the same way Lawn Darts were.

The inherently dangerous nature of guns cannot be eliminated with training or familiarity. Whether it be cops accidently shooting themselves in classrooms while teaching gun safety, or lifelong hunters dropping their rifles and shooting themselves in their deer stands, every year thousands of Americans accidently shoot themselves or someone else and hundreds are killed. Guns are dangerous, period. The chances of someone in your home dying a violent death increase dramatically if there’s a gun in the home. Over 80,000 a year are killed or injured with guns. So far this year 43 toddlers have shot themselves or someone else in the United States, this is a unique American phenomena. If we step back from accidents and look at homicides the public danger of guns multiplies dramatically. According to the CDC while 500 people were killed with guns by accident in 2013, over 11,000 were murdered.

Now the fact that guns are dangerous doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be allowed to have them, lots of things are dangerous, but the notion that guns are “safe” simply has to go away. We cannot begin a rational discussion about guns from an incoherent starting point.

Why Assault Weapons?

If all guns are dangerous you ask, why am I’m focusing on assault weapons? As I pointed out in Part Five of my previous installments the massive presence of assault weapons in civilian hands has led to a dramatic public safety crises that is unique to this country.  The US has at least five times more mass shooting than any other country in the world and accounts for 31% of the worlds mass shooters despite only holding 5.1% of the world’s population. (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 3 2015) Between 1982 and 2012 103 of 142 guns used in mass shootings were assault weapons (Mother Jones, Feb. 27 2013)

While high numbers of accidental shootings and “ordinary” homicides are certainly legitimate problems, there’s no magic bullet (forgive the pun) solution for ALL gun violence in the United States. For now, a “ban” would have likely have to be targeted at a specific class of guns while other strategies could be developed to reduce other types of gun violence, deaths, and injuries, beyond mass shootings.

What’s An Assault Weapon?

Time to get down to it: Any ban of anything requires a working definition of the thing to banned, and a workable definition of: “Assault Weapons” is critical. One can quickly become mired in miasma of minutiae when attempting to define assault weapons. In fact bogging people down in minutiae has been a favored and successful gun lobby tactic for decades. It’s funny, here we have the most recognizable gun designs in the history of firearms and for some reason the gun “experts” suddenly can’t recognize an assault rifle when they see one? If you delve into the business of identifying an “assault rifle” online you find a dizzying collection of websites (both pro and anti- gun control groups) discussing everything from flash suppressors, to pistol grips, to magazine capacity. Frankly, I think that’s all a waste of time and that’s exactly what the gun lobby wants us to do, waste our time trying to decide whether or not “assault weapons” fit their latest iterations of mostly cosmetic details.

Assault weapon enthusiasts know that if they limit the definition of an assault weapon to for instance, anything identical to whatever specifications the Pentagon is currently using to purchase guns for the military, no ban can possibly be effective. If we’re serious about creating effective assault weapon bans, we can’t let those who oppose bans define the nature of assault weapons. We need a definition that works, and is enforceable.

My definition is broader than those typically proposed. You notice I’ve been referring to assault “weapons” rather than rifles for instance, that’s because I include semi-automatic pistols, .50 Caliber rifles (other than mussel loaders), and tactical shotguns. So what definition brings all these guns under one umbrella? To wit:

“For the purposes of this ban an assault weapon is any firearm derived from any weapon designed for military combat after the year 1890”

I say keep it simple. The fact is that the primary characteristic that makes these guns so lethal has nothing to do with individual features like pistol grips or large capacity magazines, the primary feature is that they are/were designed to take into combat and kill enemy soldiers in the greatest numbers with the greatest possible efficiency at the time. These guns were not designed for hunting, or personal defense, or target shooting, they are designed for combat and removing a selector switch here or there doesn’t change that fundamental essence.

Individual features gun enthusiasts like to argue about are actually by and large irrelevant. For instance historically a “full automatic” capability has not been a universal requirement for military assault weapons. The Belgian FN FAL (L1A1 battle rifle) is deployed by militaries all over the world, and was the standard combat weapon throughout NATO for over a decade. Some versions of the L1A1 had three round burst options, but most were limited to single shots. Some M-1 carbines had full auto capacity, some did not. Likewise the US M-14 originally had a full automatic option but the gun was so unwieldly in full automatic mode troops were ordered not to use it in Viet Nam and some cases the switches were actually disabled. Even the M16 was frequently limited to semi-auto rather than full auto operation in practice. With a rate of fire of 800 rounds per minute one could almost empty an M-16 clip before getting a finger off the trigger. Unless you want your troops to run out of ammo in the first two minutes of a firefight you don’t let them expend rounds like that.

It important to remember that our purpose is not to buy weapons for our troops, we’re classifying to be banned military style weapons that have few if any civilian applications.

For instance many people may be surprised to learn that the majority if AR-15 (M-16) rifles with the military 5.56mm (.223) chambers (The vast majority of such weapons being sold in the US) can’t actually be used to hunt anything much larger than a wild boar, they’re actually limited for the most part to small game that you could shoot way way way cheaper with a .22. You wouldn’t want to shoot something like a rabbit with AR-15 anyways unless you like to see small animals explode. Likewise while the AK-47 (AK-74) variant’s fire a legal caliber for large game (7.62), these guns are a poor choice for hunting. AK-74s  are not known for their accuracy, they’re cumbersome to carry around in the woods, and big game hunters usually want to kill an animal with a single shot if they can (A bullet ridden hide is not what most hunters aspire to). There’s no practical hunting advantage of a riffle that can fire 20-30 rounds per minute at moose or elk.  This is why you see few if any deer hunters carrying assault rifles in the woods and fields of MN, or any other state during hunting season.

Ironically assault weapons are also a poor choice for self or home defense. Any gun enthusiast worth their salt will tell you a decent assault rifle (they may call it a “sport” rifle) ought to be secured unloaded in a gun safe because they’re prime targets for home burglary. An unloaded AR-15 locked up in a safe isn’t exactly going to be at your finger-tips if a “bad guy” bursts through the door and invades your house. Even if you could get to your assault rifle in an emergency such weapons are not well suited for close quarter action like that inside a typical home. Of course one cannot conveniently carry a loaded assault rifle around in public or at work on a daily basis for obvious reasons. The practical effect of owning an assault rifle is to increase the odds of being burgled, aside from simply “having” one, there’s they’re very impractical and expensive guns.

A pistol of some kind would make the most sense for home or personal defense, but here again, a semi-automatic military weapon is the poorest choice.  In theory a semi-automatic pistol could be safer than a revolver for instance because it may require two steps to fire, you have to chamber a round AND disengage a safety. In reality thousands of people a year accidently shoot themselves and others with semi-automatic pistols because they don’t realize there’s a live round in the chamber. Everyone from toddlers to Police Chiefs and DEA weapons instructors ends up shooting themselves because they either failed to clear the chamber after firing or forgot they chambered a round in the first place. Did I mention… guns are dangerous?

Large capacity magazines are more likely to accommodate heroic fantasies than actual self defense scenarios. Unless you’re a gang member or something any self defense encounter you have is likely to last a few moments and be over (one way or another) in short order. The odds of getting into prolonged gun battles with bad guys in your living room or on a street corner are practically nil.

Likewise tactical shotguns, and .50 caliber rifles have no real civilian applications. Hunters have been bringing down ducks and pheasants for decades without 20 round drum fed semi-automatic short barrel shotguns designed for close quarter combat. Nor do hunters need ( or use) a .50 caliber weapon first introduced as an anti-tank weapon by the Germans in WW-I… to hunt elk. Few if any hunters “engage” targets at 2,000 yards (over a mile away).

The point is a ban on these weapons isn’t going to have any kind of detrimental effect on hunting or self -defense in the United States. So even if you’re worried about some ancient right to hunt or defend yourself you’ll have plenty of options, and those other options are actually better suited for hunting and self-defense.

Just a quick note because I know someone will bring this up (they always do);  you can claim we need assault weapons in civilian hands as some kind of “check” against government oppression should the need arise but:

1) That is to admit that these are assault weapons that you in fact intend to deploy in combat against the government if need be. You can’t have it both ways, deny that these are military combat weapons and then tell us you need to them to combat the military should our “freedom” ever be in jeopardy.

2) Democracy and the rule of law protect our freedoms, not guns. Not once in over 200 years has our democracy been rescued by gun wielding freedom fighters, and in fact, our constitution specifically classifies armed insurrection as treason. Do not delude yourself that you and the gun in your closet are, have, or ever will, defend our liberties. Democracy does NOT flow out of the barrel of a gun. There is NOTHING in the US Constitution, or in any court ruling to support the idea that armed insurrection is some kind of “fail safe” for our democracy.

The Ban Itself

What does the ban itself look like? Here it is:

“The sale or purchase of assault weapons (as defined above) by anyone not legally authorized to take part in such transactions in the United States of America is hereby prohibited.”

Who’s “authorized” to buy or sell assault weapons? 1) The US government and State and Local law enforcement agencies. 2) Gun collectors who are licensed yearly, register their complete collections, and limited to no more than two identical examples of the same weapon. Collections need to be securely stored and cannot be transported without permit. 3) Registered gun clubs. The primary appeal of these guns is that they’re fun to shoot, there’s no denying that, so let people shoot in relatively safe and secure environments under some semblance of supervision. Any gun club with assault weapons would need to secure those weapons, keep them onsite at all times, and obtain an annual permit.

How Does This Ban Actually Work?    

First you’ll notice that sales are banned, not ownership. That’s because Millions of Americans have thus far legally purchased assault weapons and I think criminalizing ownership is just too problematic. Criminalization of possession creates a whole new list of issues like whether or not or how to confiscate guns, and I just don’t think we should go there. A ban would almost certainly be challenged in court and I think we’d do well to avoid certain search and seizure issues. What we would do is create a federal buy-back program for those who finally realize how silly it is to have these guns and want to get rid of them. If I had my way we’d pay for it out of the defense budget because I really do think this is a national defense issue.

As I’ve already outlined, this ban is does not depend on definitions comprised of a specific and detailed description of an assault weapon, but rather a straightforward recognition of basic similarities. Recognition would fall on a group of people who would simply make a judgment, a jury of sorts that would determine the status of individual weapons. We already have models for this, the FDA, FCC, SEC, for instance of commissions that enforce legislation. One advantage to commissions is they provide a framework of due process thereby rendering the process Constitutional, you could build an appeal process of some kind into this, but you’d want to set a high bar so gun manufactures couldn’t tie up the process indefinitely with frivolous challenges (something they will surely do if they can). And of course you’d come out of the gate a predetermined list and work from there.

How does the panel recognize an assault weapon when they see it? It’s actually very simple, it requires no magnifying glasses or list of components, all you really need to do is look at weapons designed for military use, and then look at the gun in question, frankly, anyone could do it…. Look:


Photo: Wiki Commons

Many historians trace the modern assault rifle to this gun, the WW-II German Sturmgewehr 44 or StG 44. Just look at it, this weapon was designed for combat use by the German Army. Photo: Wiki Commons

Does an assault rifle have to have a pistol grip and a big magazine? No.

Here’s a Chinese type 56 designed for combat use by the Chinese Army (And issued to the Viet Cong) Photo Wiki Commons

Here’s a Chinese type 56 designed for combat use by the Chinese Army (And issued to the Viet Cong) Photo Wiki Commons

The US M-14 didn’t have a pistol grip either:

The M-14 started out as an assault rifle but transitioned into a sniper rifle used the US military for decades. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Charles B. Johnson, U.S. Army. (Released)

The M-14 started out as an assault rifle but transitioned into a sniper rifle used the US military for decades. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Charles B. Johnson, U.S. Army. (Released)

Does an assault rifle have to have a “full-automatic” option? No.

Here’s an L1A1 Belgian Assault Rifle issued by military's all over the world, semi-automatic single shot. Photo Wiki commons

Here’s an L1A1 Belgian Assault Rifle issued by military’s all over the world, semi-automatic single shot. Photo Wiki commons

What about pistols? Here’s a Colt 1911 semi-automatic pistol developed for the US Army next to a Glock

Photo: Wiki Commons

Photo: Wiki Commons

Photo: Wiki Commons

Photo: Wiki Commons









Just in case you think you change the style a little here’s a Colt next to a Lugar:

Photo: Wiki Commons

Photo: Wiki Commons

Here’s a .50 caliber rifle, basically an assault rifle with a 50 caliber chamber:

Photo: Wiki Commons

Photo: Wiki Commons

You could make a bolt action version but that would be derived from the German Mauser T-Gewehr

Here’s a tactical shotgun:

Photo: Wiki Commons

Photo: Wiki Commons

And of course we have the ubiquitous AR-15 (M-16) and current military issue M-4

Photo: Wiki Commons

Photo: Wiki Commons

The idea that a manufacturer can produce any of these weapons in a different caliber, without a bayonet mount, or with a different selector switch, or stock, or whatever, and call it a completely different weapon is obviously ridiculous, so we just don’t go there. Furthermore it doesn’t matter whether it’s a carbine, or a rifle, side arm, or shotgun.  And it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s a “new” design, we’re ready for the future, if it was designed for combat that’s it, it’s an assault weapon. Our definition doesn’t require that a proposed civilian model be “identical” to a military version, just that its basic design be derived from a military weapon.  That derivation is determined by simple observation, not a list of components. If you start seeing “bull pup” designs in the gun shops, you’re looking at an assault weapon, this weapon was designed for military use, not plinking squirrels:

Styer AUG A1 508mm

Bull Pup design assault “Carbine”. Photo: Wiki Commons

These guns are distinctive and their origins are not disputed. No gun derived from any of these designs is difficult to recognize.

Now a quick word about high capacity magazines; some people think that we could keep buying and selling these guns if we just limited the magazine size to 6 or 8 bullets. I’m not saying smaller magazines are a bad idea but we have to stop playing whack-a-mole. We have millions of these weapons in the hands of millions of Americans, probably billions of rounds of ammunition, and tens of millions of high capacity magazines or (clips) out there. No matter what kind of low capacity magazine you sell with an assault weapon, people will be able to get their hands on high capacity magazines one way or another for decades to come. And if we make manufacturers re-design guns to only accept new low capacity magazines, rest assured that work-arounds of a various kinds will be developed regardless of legality.

Why Now?

I think Americans might finally be getting fed up with these mass shootings and while support for bans waxes and wanes I think we can make a strong argument that people will support. I think the time might be ripe to cut though the NRA haze have a intelligent and coherent discussion about gun regulations. Furthermore, I think the ban I’ve designed could get passed the current Supreme Court. It’s not an outright ban on all guns and it addresses a clear public health and security problem.

We might draw some confidence from the fact that the Supreme Court recently let stand an assault weapon ban in Highland Park Illinois.

In Columbia v. Heller the Justices wrote:

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose…”

The bases of the ban is that assault weapons fall into the category of “any weapon whatsoever” and constitute a public danger that far outweighs any potential benefits related to personal defense. Banning these weapons in no way renders citizens helpless in face of danger, yet the ban may prevent attacks on civilians by people armed with military weapons.

Another advantage to this kind of ban is that we don’t have to wait for Congress, such bans can be fashioned on a local basis and the Supreme Court has signaled a reluctance to strike such bans down.

The gun culture in the United States has created a huge monster that will haunt us for decades no matter what. I would offer no illusions that the ban I’m proposing would produce an immediate end to mass shootings, millions of these weapons are already out there and will be for decades even with a ban. The fact remains that until we fundamentally shift our focus and national discussion from dystopic fantasies that revolve around zombie apocalypses and social disintegration the carnage will continue and accelerate. It’s time to put gun lobby nonsense aside and realize that we have options, we’re not helpless, we CAN actually DO something.



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Cecil vs. Playboy: The Discussion We Should Be Having

by: Paul Udstrand, James Kaagegaabaw Vukelich, and Carter Meland

There is a way of living in which we do not create harm or conflict for any of our relatives. It is a way of living in peace and balance. In Anishinaabemowin, this way of living is called mino-bimaadiziwin, the good life.

~ James Kaagegaabaw Vukelich

“… I deeply regret that my pursuit of an activity I love and practice responsibly and legally resulted in the taking of this lion”

~Dr. Walter Palmer regarding his killing of Cecil the lion.  

July 28, 2015 (read the full statement)

Kelly Brook Courtesy of FHM Magazine. 2010.

Kelly Brook Courtesy of FHM Magazine. 2010.

Let me begin by saying clearly that as far as I know, no member of the Hefner family nor their magazine “Playboy” endorses “big game” hunting in any way. However when Hugh Hefner launched Playboy Magazine in 1956, he marketed it as a portal into the “Good Life” for (mostly white) American men. The image of the contented man in a smoking jacket with a pipe or cigar in hand, surrounded by other objects of his desire, was supposed to be the ultimate image of the civilized man content with his affluence. For such men the world is an oyster full of pearls… there for the taking.

On one hand Playboy is just a magazine, one man’s ultimately successful attempt to make a fortune and live the good life himself. In another way, the “Good Life” Playboy promotes represents a Western Culture that places man outside of an objectified nature that exists solely for human gratification. The problem with Playboy’s notion of a “Good Life” is it may put human beings on a collision course our own extinction.

By now most people on earth with any kind of access to “news” are aware of the sad demise of Cecil the lion at the hands of an American dentist living the “good life”, taking an object of his desire in a Zimbabwe wilderness. For a mere $50k (US dollars)plus change it seems a hunter of trophies can let loose an arrow from his trusty compound bow and lay waste to one of the world’s most magnificent animals.

Obviously the notion that killing an animal that doesn’t even know it’s in danger is some kind of “sport” is simply absurd. Even in a bullfight the bull recognizes at some point that it’s fighting for its life. We convert killing into sport by re-imagining animals as “game”. The transformation of animals into “game” converts them into objects that can be “taken” as Dr. Palmer would have it, not killed. Cecil wasn’t “taken” anywhere. He was beheaded and skinned on site, and Palmer and his guides left the carcass to rot. Cecil’s killers, in a sad commentary on their notion of responsibility, attempted to hide their beloved activity from the authorities, but a well designed radio collar foiled their design.

Truth be told, maybe the problems of one lion don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world, but the mentality that classifies killing a lion as “sport” may well lead to our own extinction. In his statement Palmer suggests that his killing for pleasure is not merely legal, but can be done responsibly. I think it’s clear that a hunter who insists they’re taking game rather than killing an animal is devoid of honor. We don’t use euphemisms to describe honorable actions.  But how does a human being in the year 2015 conclude that killing a lion for a trophy is a “responsible” thing to do? Maybe trophy hunting is a symptom of a larger problem. From the Savannah’s Zimbabwe to the shores of Lake Mille Lacs we might do well to step back and look at the big picture.

We are currently in the midst of a Sixth Mass Extinction. According to biologists and other Earth scientists over 20,000 species are currently near extinction and that rate is one thousand times the normal rate of extinction.  Unlike the previous five extinction events, this mass extinction has been caused entirely by human beings. If human beings weren’t on this planet, THIS mass extinction would not be taking place. So what? Well, we depend on this biosphere and it’s diversity for survival so if nothing else we could consider the possibility that this mass extinction may end as well with the extinction or near extinction of human beings. If not extinction, consider a nightmare world nearly devoid of plant and animal diversity, which would likely lock human communities in a constant state of combat over dwindling resources.

Once upon a time theologians of Christianity decided that humanity was above nature and theorists of Capitalism decided that nature is a commodity, put there by God for the taking. Long before trophy hunters turned animals into objects (i.e. “game”), Christianity turned everything that wasn’t human into objects, devoid of souls and destined for oblivion. Eventually Capitalism took those objects and commodified them as an efficient way of “taking” them for human designs and pleasure. These mindsets alienated their followers from nature. Bent with this pathological alienation, Europeans poured out into the world five centuries ago and unleashed an unprecedented wave of ecological, cultural, and genocidal devastation. The Indian wars may be over but the colonial mindset is still wreaking havoc on the planet. Ask Cecil.

The mentality that killed Cecil doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor is it limited to the domain of self-deluded “sportsmen.” Trophy hunting is a vestige of European colonialism. It assumes that humans have a God given right to “take” what sustains them or pleases them. In that regard a lion is no different than oil, trees, or water. Palmer may have paid good money for his lion, but the “market” he exploited is nevertheless a product of colonial conquest. Maybe it’s time to trade a model of conquest for a model of sustainability?

It may interest people to know that Playboy’s idea of the “Good Life” isn’t the only idea of a “Good Life”. Recently James Kaagegaabaw Vukelich and Carter Meland began a project that seeks to introduce a different understanding of what the Good Life can be to a culture alienated from its own nature. In their work they discuss the Anishinaabe Indian idea of mino-bimaadiziwin, which translates into… you guessed it: “The Good Life”.  Basically the Anishinaabe world view is that the earth is our home, and everything in nature is a relative with whom we share a home. We cannot destroy or assault our relatives without destroying our home. As Vukelich and Meland note:

As social beings, humans should seek to live well with all manner of other living and non-living beings. Though modern society labors under the illusion that it is otherwise, human beings are not independent from the animals, plants, waters, and minerals that compose the Earth and its environments. Humans depend on these other beings for life—remove any one of them, and humans would likely face their own extinction as a species, but remove humans from the Earth and all these other ways of being would carry on without them. Human beings are really quite pitiable in this regard. All the bluster about their power to reshape the world—even as that power makes the world less livable for all—is just canary song in a coalmine filling with gas.

Vukelich and Meland plan to discuss many of the intertwining principles of the good life—mino-bimaadiziwin— and what they mean from an Anishinaabe perspective. Three of these principles reveal a distinctive perspective on the “taking” of Cecil by Dr. Palmer. If we use these ideas as a measure of what constitutes living the good life, we can see that Dr. Palmer acted irresponsibly. He acted with the sort of baseless self-indulgence that is typical of the colonialist/capitalist mindset that depletes landscapes, poisons our waters, and is arguably the main driver behind the sixth great extinction event. The three ideas are as follows:

  1. We are all related. “We” embraces all manner of being found on earth, animal, plant, mineral, water, spirit, etc.
  2. In this relationship with others there is interdependence and interconnection, which is to say that we need each other to survive. Every single thing we do affects one another.
  3. There is a way of living in which we do not create harm or conflict for any of our relatives. It is a way of living in peace and balance. In Anishinaabemowin (the language of the Anishinaabe people), this way of living is called mino-bimaadiziwin, the good life.


In looking at Cecil, a colonialist mindset sees him as game to be taken, but from the Anishinaabe perspective, he is a relative and in bringing harm to him we disturb the balance we should seek with all our relations. We are interconnected: human-to-lion-to-environment. We are a large, extended family here on Earth—here at home. When we indulge in the “good life” that Dr. Palmer pursued—of fulfilling our desires, regardless of the cost—one risks shooting him- or herself in the foot, as Palmer appears to have done given the public outcry that has followed the revelation of his act.

Let’s not think that all this discussion is really about a man and an animal though. It has become more than apparent in the days since the killing was revealed that Cecil and Dr. Palmer have become more than just a hunter and a lion. Cecil and Dr. Palmer have become symbols of humanity’s broken relationship with nature. The killing reveals a relationship that is deeply dysfunctional. Rooted in harm and conflict and egotistic self-indulgence, this dysfunctional realtionship—the likes of which most of us would not stand for in our own homes—speaks to larger issues of how modern people relate to the environments where they live. What we do to Cecil, we do to ourselves. If we fail to step outside egocentric and self-indulgent notions of what constitutes the “Good Life,” we fail to gain the kind of perspective on Cecil’s killing that we need in order to understand what is really at stake: the way we should want to live within our home.

Obviously we don’t kill our relatives for food, but neither do we kill them for pleasure or sport. Mino-bimaadiziwin doesn’t require that we forego sustenance, but it asks us to acknowledge the reciprocal nature of the relationships in our home. From an Anishinaabe perspective, hunters don’t “take” animals, rather the animals give their lives so that humans might live; their sacrifice is an act of grace that an Anishinaabe hunter acknowledges with a gift of tobacco. The animal’s sacrifice of itself is a gift to the hunter’s people, one the hunter repays with the gift of tobacco. Where a Christian blessing may give thanks for the animals, the Anishinaabe give their thanks to the animals. Theirs is a direct relationship.

Do Meland and Vukelich demand that Christians abandon their religion, or atheists like myself become fluent in the Anishinaabe language? Of course not. They offer a perspective that changes our orientation towards nature and each other. Maybe we’ve reached a point where re-arranging the deck chairs isn’t going to work—if it ever did; we don’t need to change where we sit on this Titanic, we need to jump ship. The philosophy of Anishinaabe people offers us a lifeline. We can’t save ourselves without saving our home. Cecil’s killing can help us reconsider what sort of relative we’ve been to all of our relations, and what sort of relative we ought to be.

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Lone Wolves Do Not Shoot People

Descendant of the Noble Wolf... Olaf the dog. Would never Shoot anyone

Descendant of the Noble Wolf… Olaf the dog. Would never Shoot anyone

Mark Twain said a lot of things very well, there’s no denying the guy had a way with words. So Perhaps it was Twain who said it best when he pointed out that evil and certain types of violence are uniquely human qualities. In: “The Mysterious Stranger” The Angel Satan pays a visit to a Medieval town and visits with a small group of  young people over the course of a few days.  When the difference between “man” and “animals” becomes a topic of conversation; Satan takes the little group to the local church basement where a man is being tortured into confessing to being a Heretic. Afterwards one of the kids refers to the torture as a “brutal” thing and Satan scolds him for insulting brutes:

“No, it was a human thing.  You should not insult the brutes by such a misuse of that word… It is like your paltry race – always lying, always claiming virtues which it hasn’t got, always denying them to the higher animals, which alone possess them. No brute ever does a cruel thing… only man does that. Inspired by that mongrel  moral sense!” (Italics mine)

I was reminded of Twain’s words this morning when I saw the headline referring to the latest killing spree in America, this one in Chattanooga Tennessee.  Apparently someone has decided that maniacs who launch into killing sprees by themselves are: “Lone Wolves”. No, this is a human thing.

No wolf lone or otherwise would launch into killing sprees. Even wolves mad with Rabies don’t launch into killing sprees. This is uniquely human violence, let’s not pretend that it’s the animal in us that’s being expressed when someone commits mass murder. We already nearly drove wolves to extinction; let’s not add insult to injury by laying our violence on their shoulders as well. When I think of a lone wolf my mind conjures an image of a noble and powerful animal roaming the wilderness, not a jerk with an assault rifle killing innocent people.

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We’ve Met the Alien’s, And They Are Us!


Carter Meland Ph.D Photo by Paul Udstrand

There’s no getting around it my friends, we’ve screwed up the planet and our relations with our fellow beings. As an Atheist I blame religion of course but that’s just me. Well, it’s not just me really, some people have observed that one problem with Christianity and Western culture is that at some point it’s theology and ideologies repositioned “man” outside of Nature. At that point our relationships with our environment  became  increasingly incoherent and as that theology and culture spread the problem took on global proportions.

Some of the most insightful observations and commentary on this self inflicted alienation has been issued by Native American’s. My lifelong buddy Carter Meland teaches Native American Literature and Film at the University of Minnesota and the guy’s a treasure trove of such insight. Meland has just announced a new and exciting project on his Blog: The Long One   Meland has teamed up with Ojibwe language teacher Jim Vuckelich and together they intend to explore our world and it’s problems from a Native American perspective. As Meland puts it:

Language teacher James Vukelich and I have undertaken a book project that explores the power and philosophy embedded in Anishinaabemowin (also known as the Ojibwe language) to help us look at the world and the problems it faces today. We cannot expect a technocratic, anthropocentric society, which created problems of intolerance, social inequity, and environmental destruction, to offer solutions that won’t do anything but create similar problems.”

Here’s a short excerpt.

“Of all the mistakes that they could have made, human beings made an epoch-shaping one when they began to see themselves as aliens on the Earth. When they began to see themselves as different from other animals and living beings and when they began to regard themselves as superior to these other forms of life because they were self-aware and self-determining, they began to regard their purpose on Earth differently.”

Read the blog in it’s entirety here.

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Beware the “Right Hook”: Safe Cycling and Experience

Photo by Paul Udstand

Photo by Paul Udstand

I’ve been thinking a lot about “expertise” amongst bike riders in the last few years. The United States has had a persistently higher bicycle accident and fatality rate that many other nations for more than two decades now and I’m convinced that our rider’s profile has something to do with that.

Rider’s profile isn’t the only factor, poor cycling infrastructure, anti-cycling prejudice, territorialism (on the streets, trails, and sidewalks), equipment, and inexperience with a new mix of traffic (i.e. the number of cyclists on the roads has exploded in the US over the last two decades), all contribute to the accident and fatality rate. Nevertheless I think rider profile plays a significant role.

What do I mean by: “rider profile?”  When I talk about profile I’m referring to a comparative level of rider experience and expertise. One can quickly acquire the physical skills of riding, but it takes years to acquire the expertise. Basically I think we have fewer expert riders in the US than they do in a place like the Netherlands. I know a lot of US cyclists will bristle at my suggestion but let me flesh it out a little.

Look at who’s riding bicycles in the United States today. Basically we have four generations, seniors, middle aged, 20s-30s, and children.  None of our age groups contain a majority of lifetime riders. Amongst seniors we have a group that rode as children, on very different bicycles, in very different circumstances- as children, and then didn’t ride again for decades. Many of our middle aged riders, people in my age group, rode bikes as kids and maybe teenagers, but then stopped riding bikes almost the very day we got our provisional driver’s license.  Many riders in their 20s and 30s had bikes when they were kids, but they were just another toy in the garage that didn’t get much use because parents shuttled them around in the SUV’s all the time. Then we have the children of today, many of whom don’t ride unless they’re riding with their parents as a family activity of some kind… which means they don’t ride very much compared to say, my generation.

Compare the US profile with that of cyclists in the Netherlands where almost everyone riding a bike no matter what age has been riding continuously since they were 4 or 5 years old. Very few cyclists in the Netherlands ride multi-gear or road (racing) bikes, and almost no one wears a helmet, yet they have much much lower accident and fatality rates per capita. One difference is that they’ve been riding continuously for years if not decades and presumably have acquired more actual riding skill. American’s have the gear, and they read the magazines, and ride in groups and clubs, but they lack years of acquired experience. So you’ll see US cyclists all geared up in groups, flashing hand signals, drafting, and shouting out: “clear!” when they get some intersections in groups, but they’re all riding way too fast for the conditions, or entering blind intersections and curves side by side instead of in single file, etc. etc.

Part of the problem is that we don’t actually share experience in the US, we kind of have a weird way of talking about cycling safety. We have arguments about who’s responsible for accidents instead of talking about what riders can do to avoid accidents. Some Americans see cycling as a “movement” of some kind rather than a form of transport or enjoyable activity.

A good example is an article about “right hooks” recently published on the “Fair Warning” website, a website devoted to safety issues.  The “right hook” is the problem of cars and trucks turning “right” at intersections and cutting off cyclist who are riding in the same direction- on that right-hand side. These turns can take cyclists by surprise if the drivers don’t signal and it can lead to tragic results when cyclists get pulled under the wheels.

The article discusses the need for special equipment maybe laws requiring special guard rails on the sides of large truck that can prevent people ending up underneath the vehicle, and that’s fine. However in typical American fashion there’s absolutely no discussion about what a cyclists can actually do to avoid right hook accidents. They talk about training truck drivers, but there’s no mention of training cyclists.

I’ve decided that given the gaps in experience amongst US cyclists it might helpful to share some practical experience on occasion here on my blog, to wit: let’s talk about right hooks.

Right hooks, a car or truck cutting you off with a right hand turn, are a somewhat unique problem for cyclists. Car drivers never really face this dilemma because they’re never on the right had side of another vehicle making a right hand turn unless someone is making an illegal turn from the wrong lane. With the right hook in theory both the cyclist and the driver making the right hand turn are where they’re supposed be.

Unfortunately there is no “safe” place to ride next to a street that can eliminate the possibility of right hook accident, that’s one reason they’re so dangerous.  It doesn’t matter if you’re in a dedicated bike lane, or bike trail, or even a sidewalk, if a vehicle makes that turn in front of you, you have a problem. The best way to reduce the possibility of a right hook accident is to approach every intersection with caution, survey the traffic as you approach the intersection. It doesn’t matter if you have a green light, or no stop sign, whatever; you need to look at the traffic.

Most vehicles cannot make a sharp right hand turn without slowing down, so that’s what you’re watching for, not a turn signal (drivers frequently neglect to use signal turns, or do so at the last second). Whenever you’re approaching an intersection next a vehicle on your left hand side you need watch that vehicle for signs of slowing down, in preparation to make a turn, and you need to slow down or be prepared to stop if they make the turn. In stop and go traffic it’s a little dicey because a vehicle may already be going slow enough to make the turn.  My advice, whenever entering an intersection next to a slow moving vehicle, slow down, almost to a stop of need be, until you’re absolutely sure that vehicle isn’t going make that right hand turn.  Unfortunately you can’t just blow though intersections assuming that no one will do anything they’re not supposed to do. Sure, drivers are supposed to see you, they’re supposed to signal, they’re supposed to do a lot of things.  People don’t always do what they’re supposed to do, and it can get other people killed on occasion.




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Americans: You Actually Live In A Free Country

Photograph by Paul Udstrand Copyright Paul Udstrand 2013

Photograph by Paul Udstrand Copyright Paul Udstrand 2013

We’ve had some exciting and tragic events over the last few weeks here in the United States of America. A few weeks ago a white racist gunman murdered 7 black people in a North Carolina Church, that was tragic. However, that massacre was followed by a final recognition around the country that Confederate Flag flying above many Southern State Houses is a symbol of racism that has no business pretending to represent American sentiments. Now those flags are finally coming down in many places.

Another historic blow for liberty has been a Supreme Court decision establishing that Gay and Lesbian couples have a nationwide right to get married.

Here’s the thing: we have in America a number of people who call themselves “conservative” in one way or another. From the Tea Party to Libertarian’s we have these people who claim to be supreme patriots who bravely defend individual liberty and freedom. Yet almost every time we expand freedom and liberty, be it marriage rights, or the right to sit on any available seat on a public bus, or recognizing a woman’s right to vote, these same people practically fall into hysterical fits crying that nation is coming apart at the seams. Every time we recognize individual right or liberty in some major way, these champions of freedom decry that recognition as a decent into chaos and tyranny?

Obviously racism, bigotry, and intolerance play a major role in this reactionary response to expanding freedom, but I think there’s something even weirder going on.  My experience over the decades boils down to the bizarre realization that these self-declared super patriots who claim to have superior expertise about the Nation’s history, its Founding Fathers, and the USS Constitution (sic) don’t actually seem to be aware of the fact that they live in the United States of America. From legal “Originalists” to Libertarians, to Tea Partiers, these folks seem to think they live the Twilight Zone or some other country.

Check it out:  Look at the reaction to the Marriage equality ruling and the Confederate Flag…  as usual conservatives all over the country are reacting as if these developments somehow make them victims of persecution. Well, there is a reason we refer to such people as: “reactionaries” so let’s not paint all conservatives with same brush.  But the reactionaries speak the loudest and conservatives seem to be happy to let them do so. So here we have reactions like this one from the MN “Family Council”:

“… the Supreme Court today stripped Americans of the freedom to democratically address one of the most important social issues of the day by creating a constitutional “right” to same-sex “marriage” in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision…  Just as many thought wrongly that Roe v. Wade would end the debate over abortion, Obergefell v. Hodges will not end the debate over marriage in America. Similarly, just as many thought incorrectly that people of faith would “get over” their belief in the sanctity of human life beginning at conception, people of faith simply cannot “get over” their belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. “

Likewise Southern States have seen some pretty big demonstrations and complaints that their “right” to fly the Confederate Flag has been obliterated by “liberals” and their undemocratic tyranny.

In both cases you have clear examples of the democratic process being denounced as anti-democratic.

These claims about the loss of democracy are simply bizarre on a very basic level. The fact that people who claim to be champions of American Democracy are the ones making such claims is little more than Grand Irony. Any basic review or our Constitution (which is the blue-print of our democratic government) reveals the fact that Supreme Court Justices are a huge part of our democratic system and that they are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing when they make rulings. Whether you like the ruling or not; the rulings are not anti-democratic.  One of the whole points of the court mechanism as  a check or balance is that they protect minorities and individuals from the tyranny of the masses. So if Montana passed a law tomorrow converting every woman in the state into a sex slave, the Supreme Court would strike it down.  That wouldn’t be a betrayal of our democracy, THAT would be a victory for individual liberty and freedom. Indeed the fact that our erstwhile champions of individual liberty constantly find themselves denouncing the branch of government that has emerged as the strongest defendant of individual liberty is simply bizarre… and a little ironic.  From “Gitmo” to Rosa Parks the courts have taken a stand against oppression and every time they do reactionaries denounce them. Go figure.

So I’ve decided that someone needs to tell these people that they actually live in the United States of America. This is a Democracy that protects and defends individual freedom and liberty. It’s not perfect but if anyone has a gripe it’s NOT Christians or republicans. You can believe whatever you want to believe in this country. You can believe in the Confederate Flag, or the idea that the only legitimate marriage is one between a man and woman, no one expects you to “get over” those beliefs.

Part of the problem is that reactionaries like to stomp on minorities, so they fear becoming a minority. Again, I remind you, this is the United States of America. The impulse to stomp on minorities isn’t universal and our government and Constitution is actually designed and tasked with the mission of protecting and defending minorities. And guess what? In a country that doesn’t stomp on minorities we don’t have to worry about being minorities. THAT’S why we don’t want to stomp on minorities in a free country.

Here’s the thing: You can believe whatever you want about marriage, you just can’t expect the government to impose your personal beliefs on EVERYONE else. The fact that other people exist who don’t share your beliefs doesn’t make you a victim of oppression or tyranny, and it doesn’t mean you don’t live in a democracy. On the contrary.

You can “believe” in the Confederate Flag if you want. You can fly it above your property, put it on your car, wear it on your head, or tattoo it somewhere on your body. But if you want to fly that flag over the State Capital your personal belief doesn’t give you that right because YOU are not the State. It’s my Capital as well and that gives ME a dog in the race. If you want to fly that flag above MY state capital we’re going to have to talk about it. We have people in this country who “believe” in the Nazi Swastika, that’s fine, a little toxic but perfectly legal. Those people don’t get to fly their Swastika’s above our government buildings without clearing it with their fellow citizens first. THAT’S called “Democracy”.  The fact that you may not get to fly your Swastika above the State Capital does not make you a victim of oppression and it doesn’t mean you don’t live in a democracy. Remember, citizens of democracies sometimes change their minds about stuff like slavery and who gets to vote… the ability change things is an integral part of democracy, not a sign of chaos.

Look, if you want to be an intolerant bigot and racist frankly, that’s your problem. Just remember, nations that are ruled by intolerance and bigotry are never “Free” countries or democracies. Quit panicking every time our democracy makes itself a little more “free” than it used to be. And stop worrying about being a minority because no matter how toxic and noxious you are, we don’t believe in oppressing minorities in this country. In fact, we tend to give them their own TV and radio shows on Clear Channel and Fox.  And the name of this country you live in? The United States of America. Please try to remember that.

And by the way, we’re not going to stop making this country a better country with more equalities and liberties just because it might push you out of your comfort zone a little… maybe it’s your comfort zone not our democracy that’s the problem?



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Riding a Bicycle Through an Intersection in America: Not So Simple.

Photo by Paul Udstand

Photo by Paul Udstand

In my previous annual bicycle safety blog I discussed the fact our road infrastructure is by and large not designed to accommodate people riding bicycles.  People driving cars often get frustrated with cyclists for not following the rules so I thought I come back to this subject with an illustration.

Here’s a typical intersection by the West End in St. Louis Park. I live nearby and I’ve ridden my bike through this intersection, and I’ve driven my car through it many times; I’m telling you, those are two completely different experiences. Bear in mind this is NOT an old intersection, it was built when the West End was built.

The intersection of W. 16th Street and Park Blvd in St. Louis Park Minnesota. Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

The intersection of W. 16th Street and Park Blvd in St. Louis Park Minnesota. Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

The street on the right, leading to the shopping district didn’t exist 6-8 years ago, there was a racket club of some kind there if I remember correctly. Even when we have a chance to design new streets and intersections with bicycles in mind we don’t do it. This intersection has all the modern bells and whistles, striped pedestrian crosswalks with audible signals for the vision impaired, nice wide sidewalks, plenty of lanes for cars and trucks, fancy lights, etc. NOTHING for cyclists. As cyclist you just have to figure out how to get through this intersection on your own, safely and legally.

If you’re in a car, or walking across this intersection it’s very simple, you just go when the signal tells you to go. On a bike, this is a much more complex problem than many people may realize.

Let’s say for instance that you’re trying to get to the super market (marked by the green “X”) to buy a gallon of Milk. According to the law, a cyclist (represented by the yellow line) is supposed to obey the traffic signal and ride as far to the right as is practicable.

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Note that there is no bike lane here, nor are the car lanes very wide. This means a cyclist would practically ride in the gutter while cars squeeze by to the left. Then, having arrived at the next intersection, the cyclist has make a left turn and cross four lanes of traffic, (two from the opposite direction), in order to get over to the supermarket. By the way, that second intersection, is NOT a controlled intersection; there are no stop signs there to stop the traffic although there is a crosswalk for pedestrians.

Now a vehicular bike rider who believes in driving his or her bike as-if it’s a car might do it differently. Such a rider would park themselves right in the midst of the cars and ride in the car lane until they got to the crosswalk and then turn.

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Of course this is the kind of cyclist that car drivers love to hate as they poke along at 15-20 mph waiting to see where the bike rider is going. This option is actually illegal because it blocks and otherwise interferes with traffic. It’s also not the safest option in my opinion because it assumes that car drivers will behave reasonably and everyone sees the cyclists. Nevertheless I’ve seen people do it.

A third option, not illustrated here, is that a cyclist cross one way, and then the other along with the pedestrian signal. While that may be safe, it kind of defeats the purpose of riding a bike.

A fourth option, and the one that I usually choose, is to use the sidewalk, crosswalk and the pedestrian signal on the north side of the intersection.

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

It’s permissible in this location to ride on these sidewalks, and as long as you ride with requisite caution and mindful of pedestrians you’re not going to put yourself or anyone else in danger. Some people may not realize that at this location, that option is perfectly legal. I know what you’re thinking, I had to cross traffic to get to my sidewalk, and that’s true, and it’s a good point. It just so happens that it’s easy and safe to cross traffic on this particular street on the approach to this intersection. on a different street in a different location I might not have that option. This just illustrates the fact that each intersection can present its own challenges for a cyclist.

Now let’s look at a slightly different scenario where a cyclist at this intersection is simply trying to make a left turn.

Again, in a car, you just get in the left turn lane and wait for the light to change. As a pedestrian you just wait for the signal and cross the street one way, and then the other.  A cyclist on the other hand is faced with all kinds of problems.

Minnesota law grants bicycle riders status as: “Drivers”, with all the rights and privileges of motorized vehicles on the roads (see the statute here).  However, while cyclists may have the rights, they don’t have necessarily have lanes, so this means in some circumstances we’re supposed to use lanes designed for cars and trucks, or… not.

One way to make a left turn (not pictured) would be to simply use the pedestrian crosswalks (MN law also grant cyclist on sidewalk or crosswalks all the rights and privileges of pedestrians, and you don’t have to dismount).  You cross to one side, and then the other according to the pedestrian signal. However cyclist aren’t required to do that, and again it kind of defeats the purpose of riding a bike instead of walking.

Another way would be to use the left hand turn lanes and make the turn just like a car. However in this scenario a cyclist is again faced with several problems. If there are two left hand turn lanes, which one do you use? And where do you stop while waiting for the light to change? I’ve used pink lines here to reveal the path of the auto traffic so you can get a feeling for traffic a cyclist might be coping with.

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

No matter how you do this you’re in the traffic mix riding among cars and trucks while your make the turn. As you can see, if you use the left-left hand turn lane you’ll have to cross traffic to get over to the right once you make the turn. That’s tangling you up in traffic and not so safe.

If you use the right lane, you still have to decide where to be while waiting for the light to change. Some riders will park in the middle of the lane, right in front of or in between cars and trucks. The theory there is that your physical presence will actually make the driver back off and give you the space you need to get through the intersection.  Most of the time that strategy works.

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

The problem is that cars and trucks get into thousands of fender-benders in intersections across American every day. Feet slip off of brake pedals, accelerator pedals get mistaken for brake pedals, people hit the gas too hard, a driver might be in a rental with a touchy gas pedal, things go wrong in and around intersections. I personally don’t like to be in front of cars and trucks because a 5 mph fender bender for a car or truck can be a serious or even fatal encounter on a bicycle, it’s just physics.

One way you can minimize the danger of sitting in fender-bender prone traffic is by sitting off to the side of the lane. The problem in this case is that such a position makes you thread the needle between oncoming traffic and traffic going your direction when you proceed through the intersection.

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Now I’m not endorsing this, and I’m not saying I’ve ever done it, but I gotta tell you if I’m sitting in that left hand turn lane waiting for a green light, and I can see that there’s no cross traffic approaching, I just might be thinking it’s safer to ride on through an empty intersection than it would to wait until all those cars and trucks are set in motion by a green light. I’m just sayin.

What I would most likely do at this intersection is use the crosswalk and the crosswalk signal on the north side of the intersection. This strategy gets me where I’m going without putting me in the middle of the road with traffic. Think of it this way: would you want to see a ten year old on a bicycle out there in that left hand turn lane?

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Satellite Imagery ©2015 Google. Map data ©2015 Google

Now let’s consider the fact that cyclists encounter these intersections, there are thousands of them, all over the city, every day. I don’t know which of the options I’ve discussed appeals to you, maybe you’d do something else entirely, but the point is there is simply is no single and clearly defined way that is the best and the safest way to get through all intersections under all circumstances. Drivers and pedestrians should appreciate that. Even with the same intersection, the safest way to turn left at 11:00 in the morning may be a bad idea three hours later. My sidewalk strategy for instance doesn’t work downtown or even uptown.

Of course if you can avoid tricky intersections with an alternate route that’s always a good idea. However cyclists point out that we shouldn’t really have to find alternate routes that may take longer just to be safe. We ought to be able to use our streets like everyone else does.

Keep in mind this isn’t necessarily as spooky at it looks. Thousands of cyclists get through intersections safely every day, most of the time car drivers back off for a few seconds and give cyclist the space they need to be safe.  Nevertheless the majority of serious bicycle accidents and fatalities occur in intersections. When you look at this one example I think you can see why. I don’t want to exaggerate the danger, my point is to draw your attention to the complications a cyclist can face simply trying to get a gallon of milk.

My idea of a safe light controlled intersection would be to have bicycle lanes clearly drawn and give cyclists their own signal. There is a moment in every light controlled intersection when all traffic is stopped by red lights, that’s the best time for cyclist to make a left turn. If we simply lengthened that time frame for few moments and worked out some kind of “go” signal (maybe a flashing green arrow?) for cyclists, these intersections could be perfectly safe with little additional traffic delays.

Where do you put the bike lane? Personally I would make the bike lanes start on the right hand side of the road, and then cross the intersection. The problem with putting bike lanes out on the left turn lanes is that cyclist have to get out there somehow, and that usually means crossing traffic. If everyone could just stay as far to the right as is practicable I think you minimize confusion and problems.

Hopefully if you’re a driver reading this you now have little more appreciation for the dilemma’s cyclists can face in otherwise unremarkable intersections. A street can look a lot different when you sitting on top of a bike instead of behind a steering wheel. Sometimes when you see cyclists bending the rules try to keep in mind that they’re not necessarily being careless or rebellious, they may just be trying to get a gallon of milk without getting smushed.

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