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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Twin Cities Bicycle Riding: The Safe Way

Riding with the Dog

Riding with the Dog Photo by Paul Udstrand 2014

Well it’s that time of year when temperatures here in Twin Cities edge above freezing and that means hoard’s of people will be digging out their bicycles and hitting the roads and trails for the next few months. Of course there are a surprisingly large number of intrepid riders who kept peddling all winter and those riders put the Twin Cities on the map as the #1 or #2 bicycle cities in the United States. It’s actually amazing given our climate that we can have the largest cycling population in the nation. But there you have it… I salute you intrepid winter riders!

Cycling may be incredibly popular in the Twin Cities, but our fine metro area like the rest of the country is still experiencing growing pains and culture clashes between cyclists and everyone else out on those roads and trails. For now this is just kind of an American thing, we’ve had an explosion of people riding bicycles in a country that for decades was designed around automobiles. We’ve also had an explosion of exercise in the last couple of decades.  Millions of people started walking and running and cycling in communities that were largely designed or redesigned around automobiles. There is some “tension” out there… to say the least.

The idea of sharing our roads, sidewalks, and trails, is kind of an afterthought here in the United States so we have a lot of catching up to do with places like Europe where cycling has always been a major part of the transportation mix. Of course all of this makes safety a dodgy proposition at times so every year as a cyclist myself, I like to dash off a refresher blog about safe cycling.

As usual some of my advice is a little controversial, but that’s actually a reflection of the culture clashes and infrastructure deficiencies we’ve been experiencing for almost three decades. Some riders will disagree with my suggestions but that’s OK, they’re suggestions, all I ask is some consideration.

To begin with, we do have laws in MN, and here’s a link: https://www.revisor.leg.state.mn.us/statutes/?id=169.222

The basic requirements are that you follow all the traffic laws, obey signs, and ride as far to the right as is “practicable” when riding on streets with traffic.  You’re also not supposed to ride side by side unless it won’t crowd others on a trail or impede traffic.

A lot of drivers get frustrated with cyclists who seem to ignore traffic laws, and that contributes to some of the tension. I personally get frustrated with cyclists who ride so far out in the street that they slow down or otherwise impede traffic.  Some cyclists do this deliberately as an attempt to “defend” their lane, or “calm” traffic. This was actually a theory of bike “driving” or vehicular riding that was popular in some circles a few years ago.  The philosophy of vehicular riding was based on possibly fraudulent research that no one has ever managed to replicate. The claim was that riding on the streets in traffic, and riding assertively, challenging traffic, was safer than riding on bike trails. That was simply a false claim, subsequent research has shown that the safest way to cycle is to stay out of traffic and use dedicated bike trails and lanes.  I’ve discussed this in more detail in previous cycling blogs, you review that here.

The problem is, and many auto drivers don’t appreciate this, we don’t have dedicated bicycle lanes and trails everywhere. This means cyclists sometimes have to ride in traffic on streets that aren’t designed to accommodate bicycles. This means that a cyclist has to make safety decisions on occasion that can be contrary to the rules that car drivers must follow. I’m not endorsing anything- but in a given intersection, under certain circumstances, it can be safer for a cyclist to get through that intersection when there’s no traffic moving, even if it’s still a red light. Left hand turns in busy intersection can be quite dangerous and cyclists can sometimes feel like they either have to risk their life in traffic or ride through when they can see that it’s safest to do so. A cyclist has certain advantages that driver’s don’t have. We’re not enclosed in a cabin surrounded by blind spots and we sit up higher than people sitting in a car. It can be easier to reliably survey an intersection on a bicycle than it is sitting in a car. Until our streets and intersections are better designed to accommodate bicycle traffic, cyclists sometimes will face the dilemma of following traffic laws to the letter or deploying the safest maneuver under the circumstances. Of course other times cyclists are simply ignoring the law, and that’s just annoying, and maybe even dangerous.

One thing you may have seen more recently around the lakes (Cedar, Isles, Calhoun, etc.), is cyclists riding on the LEFT side of the one-way parkway. If a cyclist needs to go the opposite direction of the bike path, they have to ride on the street going the other way, so that’s why they’re on the street instead of the bike path. Technically it’s illegal to ride on the left side of the street, but the problem is that all the parked cars are on the right side, and this presents certain hazards because cyclists are more difficult to see (and hear) than automobile traffic.  People will fling their doors open, pull out, or even step out from between parked cars right in front of a cyclists without seeing them.  I’m not saying I like the idea of riding on the left side of the street, but I can see the logic behind it. Here’s the thing: I’ve seen at least two near collisions with other bikes or pedestrians at the lagoon bridge on Lake of the Isles because speed demon cyclists riding on the left ignored the stop sign at that crosswalk. If you’re going to ride on the left, you need to obey the signs Mr. speedy, you’re not on a race track. Personally I think all of those bike paths should be two-way so people can go whichever direction they need to safely without having to mix with traffic.

Stay out of traffic as much as possible. If you’re riding for fun or exercise use the bike trails or dedicated lanes. If you’re commuting, and have to ride on streets without dedicated bike lanes, plan routes that minimize mixing with traffic, better to take a little extra time on a safer route with less traffic than get banged up on a busy street. I don’t think it’s a good idea to ride on the street on the parkways unless you have to because of the aforementioned one-ways.  The parkways are too narrow and curvy, use the bike path; it’s only ten feet away (or less). If you want to be Mr. Sirspeedalot ride somewhere else.

The majority of collisions happen in intersections so enter all intersections with caution, prepared to brake.  Never assume anything in an intersection no matter what color the light is, or what any sign says. And by intersection I mean any kind of intersection, not just those on the streets.

Speaking of breaks, keep your hands in the proper position. If you’re riding a road bike with swept down handlebars your hands should almost always be on the break hoods.

Photo Courtesy of Lovelybicycle blog   http://lovelybike.blogspot.com/2011_11_01_archive.html

Photo Courtesy of Lovelybicycle blog

I still see people riding with those “aerobars” on the streets and bike paths (specially the Cedar Lake Bike Trail and Greenway) and that’s a really bad idea.

Dave Zabriskie Wiki Commons

Dave Zabriskie Wiki Commons

Those bars are only allowed in time trials for racing because they’re so dangerous, you can’t maneuver and you can’t reach your brakes in an emergency. None of our bike paths or streets are safe enough to ride with those handle bars.  I would almost support a law of some kind banning aerobars I think they’re so dangerous.

Speaking of aerobars, other kinds of extensions are also a bad idea. People will fit their handle bars with all kinds of funky extensions because their wrists get sore but the problem is the bike fit, not the handle bars. Buy the right bicycle, don’t buy the wrong bicycle and try to make it fit. Just think about it, can you reach your brakes in an emergency when your hands are up on those extensions?

Keep your bike tuned. Bikes are very simple mechanical devices, they’re not difficult to maintain. For the most part a tune up is simply inspecting the rims, repacking the bearings every so often, and adjusting or inspecting your brakes and derailleur. Specialized tools aren’t that expensive, there are a million how-to videos on YouTube, and it doesn’t cost much to have a bike shop do it for you.  A malfunctioning bike can be dangerous and distracting.

If you feel safer wearing a helmet, wear one; but helmets are not essential safety gear for EVERYONE. Better to ride safely and avoid collisions than gear up for a collision. The vast majority of cyclist never have a serious crash, and if they do crash, they don’t hit their heads.  It may seem odd but there’s actually no evidence that requiring helmets is even a good idea. I’ve written about this more extensively here.  I’m not telling anyone not to wear a helmet, but I am saying it’s OK to ride without one.  The important thing is to ride, and ride safe.

Final points:

Light up and vis-up. One of the biggest causes of collisions is failure to see a cyclist in the first place. Make yourself visible.  Lights are cheap, and hi-vis gear has gotten much cheaper. For instance if you want to wear a helmet, make it a high-vis helmet, the increased visibility may be more important than the Styrofoam.

Sound off. Always exercise a little extra caution when in close proximity to pedestrians.  You’re supposed to make pedestrians aware of your presence when you pass them, and oblivious pedestrians are a standard feature on our bike paths and streets. I prefer a voice warning because I don’t think American pedestrians know what to do when they hear a little bell ring, but if more people use bells maybe pedestrians will learn.  Maybe bells combined with a voice warning?

Slow down.  A lot of bikers are simply traveling too fast for the conditions they’re  riding in, and that’s easy to do with modern bikes, you can easily coast 15 mph on even a slight downward slope.  Don’t pretend you’re in a race when you’re riding on city streets or bike paths. In races, streets and intersections are blocked, and pedestrians and bystanders are cordoned off. In the REAL world, traffic and pedestrians are all over the place and you have to share the streets and trails. You want to race, enter a race. Don’t jump onto our streets and trails with thousands of other people and pretend you’re racing.

Little known facts about cycling in Minnesota:

  1. a) In Minnesota you do NOT have to walk your bike through intersections or crosswalks. You can (and I think should) ride rather than dismount and walk through an intersection. Just give any pedestrians crossing with you plenty of space, maybe ride next to the crosswalk rather than inside it.
  2. b) If there is no approaching traffic you can proceed through an intersection against a red light as long as you come to a complete stop. Minnesota lawmakers realized that a person on bike won’t trip the mechanism that changes the light, nor can the crosswalk button be reached from the street. You don’t have to sit there and wait for an unreasonable period of time, you can go. https://www.revisor.leg.state.mn.us/statutes/?id=169.06 ( Subdivision 9)

All this talk about safety can sometimes obscure the fact that riding bike is one of the safest things you can do, and it’s certainly one of the healthiest things you can do. For the most part safety is common sense, ride with some caution and courtesy,  and be aware of your surroundings. It’s a slow process but Americans are getting more and more accustomed to the new mix of transportation, and we’re starting to design and redesign streets and trails with Bicycles in mind. Riding a bike is safe, and it’s getting safer every year, so go out and have fun.






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Assault On Integrity: Oklahoma Lawmakers Try to Ban Critical Thinking

ronald Reagan painting-Edalisse Hirst (Flickr)

Ronald Reagan painting-Edalisse Hirst (Flickr)

Maybe you’ve heard about a recent initiative by Oklahoma lawmakers? Seems republicans in Oklahoma have decided to ban the Advanced Placement United States History Curriculum in the state’s public schools because those courses don’t celebrate America enough. You can read an article about it here. This is nothing new; republicans have been complaining about school curriculums for decades, it’s been part of their “Culture War” for as long as I can remember.

It goes without saying that this is nonsense, but it’s persistent nonsense that’s been flowing out of reactionary American circles for decades so it’s kind of interesting deconstruct on some levels. The targets for these attacks change once and while, but the cognitive style that produces these attacks is remarkably stable.

There are actually two consistent glitches in some conservative mentalities that produce this kind of nonsense, both are related to a certain type of religious mindset.

For one thing, some religious people have trouble sorting out the difference between secular and religious human activity. Religion is all about celebrating religious principles, scriptures, leaders, historical figures, and events. Religious music, writing, gatherings, worship, are all about celebration. In the Christian religion for instance, it’s not just about celebration but also proselytization, or promotion of Christ. Fine, no problem there, that’s religion.

Secular activity on the other hand is not always celebratory. For instance whereas Christian music is supposed to celebrate Christ for the most part, Blues music doesn’t necessarily celebrate anything. Nor is secular expression necessarily promoting anything. We’ve seen this over the years when religious leaders try to censor secular books, music, etc. because they assume that a song or book about sex, violence, drugs, etc. is celebrating or promoting sex, drugs, and violence. Secular books, movies, or songs that depict some types of immoral activity may actually be attempting to condemn that behavior by providing an unfiltered and un-glamorous depiction. Even if a song or movie does glamorize or endorse questionable behavior, that’s actually OK in the secular world because of our whole “free speech” thing. In religion, that would be blasphemy.

On a basic level the difference between religious and secular education can best be distinguished by recognizing that religious education celebrates its subject (God), whereas secular education studies its subject (whatever that might be). Religious education allows critical thinking within certain limits, secular education in theory, places no limits on critical thinking. Conservative and reactionary mentalities frequently look at secular critical thought and conclude that it’s exceeded its limits.

We see this celebratory religious impulse expressing itself in Oklahoma when the conservative mentality mistakenly assumes that secular history is supposed to celebrate its subject rather than study it. Basically it’s an impulse to convert history text into a form of religious scripture.

A lot of people confuse critical thinking with negativity, but that’s another discussion. Suffice to say that thinking critically about history isn’t the same being negative or even judgmental about history.

Returning to the discussion at hand; the other related problem with some religious mentatilities is the failure to understand that secular education isn’t about teaching people what to think or believe, it’s about teaching people how to think. Again, you have to step outside of the religious mentality to get your head around this. Religion is all about teaching people what to believe, that’s kind of the whole point. However we don’t teach people math because we want them to “believe” that two plus two equals four. Nor do we don’t teach people how to read for the sole purpose of studying religious scripture. When we teach history it’s not about teaching people to “believe” in America, it’s about teaching people how to study and understand historical events and figures. History is also about training intellect by studying complex realities, and developing intellectual integrity with dispassionate observation skills. The difference between propaganda and history after all is that propaganda is intellectually dishonest.

Oklahoma lawmakers are developing a curriculum of propaganda, not history. Not only is this endeavor itself intellectually dishonest, but if successful, it will impede the intellectual abilities and integrity of their students.

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Ending Torture Would Be Nice: But Really We Need To Put An End To Our Criminal Regimes

Bush War Cabinet Annie Leibovitz 2001

Photo by Annie Leibovitz 2001

For the benefit of everyone who’s been living in a cave for the last decade or so the US Senate finally (after an 8 month delay) released the results of its investigation into the US government’s illegal detentions and interrogations in the wake of the Sept. 2001 attacks (Between 2001 and 2006, and it’s not clear if the torture actually stopped in 2006 or was simply outsourced for a few more years). Let’s be clear about this, the fact that illegal torture and secret and illegal methods of capture and detention were part of the regime, has been public for almost a decade.  By 2006, in response to revelations about waterboarding, Congress was passing legislation “clarifying” that:

“… all individuals acting under the color of U.S. law categorically are prohibited from engaging in or authorizing cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. “ (1)

By 2005 major news outlets and human rights organizations had already revealed the Extraordinary Rendition program, and within the year European “allies” were publishing investigations and withdrawing from the program due to legal and human rights concerns. (2) In 2007 Hollywood actually started making movies about it, one starring Meryl Streep and Jake Gyllenhall (3)

I’m not going to detail an indictment here, you can “google” all of this for yourself. Suffice to say that illegality of all of this is not in dispute, and hasn’t been since at least 2006. The recent report doesn’t alert us to something we didn’t already know. What this report does provide is yet another confirmation that it is indeed possible to have a criminal regime in a democracy like ours; it confirms the fact that the Bush II Presidency was a criminal regime. It wasn’t the first criminal regime, but it was arguably the worst criminal regime in US History.

The thing that bothers me is the fact that this was the third criminal regime in my lifetime, and these regimes are getting worse. Nixon was the first (Watergate, Allende’s murder etc.). Reagan was the second (Iran Contra, drug smuggling, and various other crimes committed against people in El Salvador and Nicaragua). And then we get to Bush II and it was like a free-for-all for thugs and sociopaths. From illegal wire-tapping to the trumped-up war on Iraq Bush II was an illegal rampage that would have made Nixon and Reagan blush.*

While Nixon had Kissinger and a secret team of “plumbers” and Reagan had a semi-rogue team of terrorist (Ollie North and company), the crimes of Nixon and Reagan were compartmentalized. The number of Bush executives that could be prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even domestic crimes, is without precedent. The Attorney General, White House Council, Secretaries of Defense and State, National Security Advisor, FBI, NSA, and CIA directors, not to mention the President and Vice President themselves, all complicit; and that’s not even a complete list. If we use standards comparable to those of the Nuremberg or Tokyo trials, hundreds of people from private contractors to the newly created Department of Homeland Security personnel would qualify for prosecution.

The Nixon and Reagan regimes faced consequences such as impeachment and indictments (although limited in scope and severity). Bush II? Despite numerous instances of everything from gross incompetence to treason only one Bush official, “Scooter” Libby, has been prosecuted (resulting in a commuted sentence with no jail time). For all practical purposes the Bush regime has faced zero accountability; the only semblances of accountability thus far have been a few instances where Condi Rice and George Tenet appear to have been somewhat uncomfortable in interviews or public forums. Tenet squirmed a little while declaring that: “We do not torture” in his 2007 “60 Minutes” interview (At least he squirmed while lying.) Condoleezza Rice had to withdraw from a Rutgers’s commencement gig but manages to bully her way through other encounters.

Beyond the scale and lack of accountability, Bush’s criminal regime was unique in two other important ways. First, with the exception of Watergate, previous regimes committed crimes under the auspices of the “Cold War” one way or another. The Cold War was a policy problem that spanned multiple administrations involving both major political parties. As the Pentagon Papers revealed there was always plenty of dishonesty involved in all of this, but the scale and nature of the dishonesty was different in important respects. For instance, we know that several consecutive administrations lied about a lot of stuff in Viet Nam, but we were fighting communist who were trying to take over the country. The Soviet Union really did have nuclear weapons (although not as many missiles as the CIA was claiming in the early 60s). Compare that to Iraq where every single justification for the war turned out to be either wildly mistaken or just plain fabricated. While previous administrations exaggerated threats under a static umbrella of the Cold War (Remember Reagan’s warning that Nicaragua was going to be a Soviet Base?), Bush’s regime fabricated threats whole cloth and reacted to those threats with criminal responses.

Bush’s criminal regime was a departure from previous administrations in another important way. While torture has been a standard practice amongst US client states for decades, US agents have rarely if ever actually administered the torture, and never before has the practice of torture or the direct knowledge of torture reached all the way to the Oval Office.

Torture was a standard feature of the South Vietnamese intelligence regime and frequently carried out while US agents observed. Likewise throughout South and Central America torture techniques, many of them learned at the US Army’s School of the America’s ,*  were ubiquitous features of US supported Military Junta’s from Guatemala to Chile. And of course we had the CIA torture manual that was issued to the Contra’s.

The Bush regime brought torture into the white house as far as we know for the first time. Not only did US agents personally engage in torture, but their actions were explicitly and personally authorized and monitored by cabinet members and other high ranking officials. This was a radical departure from the status quo of previous US regimes.

The reader may have noticed that I’m not trying to define torture. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that a bunch of sociopathic members of a criminal regime have trouble recognizing torture when they see it, but the rest of us don’t have that problem. Maybe there are worse kinds of torture, but this was torture. The reason previous administrations kept these techniques beyond arm’s length was they knew it was torture, legally and morally.

Who’s responsible for these crimes? We know that these crimes originated in the White House, these polices were created in the White House and pushed down through the ranks. We’ve actually known a lot of details about this for years. We know that ground level CIA, FBI, military personnel, and others pushed back.  We know that by 2004 FBI agents were refusing to participate, and warning that torture was going to produce unreliable intelligence. We know that analysts at the CIA also warned that torture didn’t produce reliable intelligence, and was illegal in a variety of ways. We know that the push-back was significant enough that White House Council eventually had to manufacture legal findings in order to justify the policy. We know that as early as 2002 Colin Powel wrote an extraordinary warning detailing the problems with a torture regime.

The excuses and rationale that former Bush officials have given for their crimes are almost too ridiculous to discuss. Basically when they’re not claiming that the country was happy to live under the warm blanket of protection that torture was providing (A lie because the country was never happy with torture nor was torture protecting us), they’re claiming that they panicked and couldn’t think clearly enough to find other solutions. Such claims are simply not worth our consideration. These claims are sociopathic fantasy masquerading as history.

As for torture providing valuable intelligence, I remind everyone that Bush and Cheney never did find Osama Bin Laden. I think it’s far more likely that unreliable intelligence derived from torture enabled Bin Laden’s escape and evasion rather than led to his location 8 years later. Intelligence was never a strong suit in the Bush II White House.

What to do? Well the idea that a crime isn’t a crime when the president does it goes back at least as far as Nixon. Every time we create “safeguards” criminal regimes just set them aside or ignore them. When Bush II came into office we had a bulwark of laws in place ranging from the Military Code of Conduct to FISA, and they all failed. It’s unlikely anyone from the Bush II regime will face charges in a US court.

One thing is for sure. We have thousands of dedicated men and women of integrity working throughout our government who provide invaluable and outstanding service. Criminal regimes never emerge from the bottom up, so the prosecution of criminal regimes (in whatever form it takes) should never work from the bottom up. It is an eternal stain on our justice system for instance that no one above the rank of Staff Sargent was convicted of the abuses at Abu Ghraib.

It may be a long shot but one thing we could do is change the Constitution. This Pardon authority that US Presidents have has become corrosive to our justice system. Even when high ranking officials are charged and convicted presidents simply erase the convictions or modify the sentences. This creates a circularity of lawlessness whereby crimes are committed on behalf of the president who then either erases the crime or pardons the offender.  We should limit a president’s ability to interfere with the prosecutions of government officials or those working for government officials.  Maybe if people knew they could actually go to jail, they’d be a little less enthusiastic about ignoring the law.

Beyond the President it’s clear that we’ve become incapable or unwilling as a nation of policing our own presidential administrations. If we can’t do it, we need to let someone else do it. We need to make our high ranking officials accountable to the International Criminal Courts. It’s nice that our criminal regimes eventually pass out of power either by election or term limits, but that’s little comfort to thousands or tens of thousands of victims.

In the meantime, if I was Cheney, or Rice, or Tenet, or any other members of this former regime, I wouldn’t leave the country. There are thousands of victims of this regime world-wide, and other courts are unlikely to accept the feeble arguments these people offer as excuses for their crimes.

*I know there are those who add Bill Clinton’s regime to the list. You can add to the list if you want, but it doesn’t change the problem. I merely note that Clinton was impeached and acquitted. Furthermore his alleged crime, if it was a crime, was of a personal nature, it wasn’t an expression of a criminal regime.

**We know that Torture techniques were part of the curriculum when the School of the America’s was located in the US controlled Canal Zone in Panama. It’s unclear whether or not the techniques are still being taught now that the campus has moved to Fort Benning, GA. The Army denies its teaching torture techniques but other’s report that the curriculum is essentially unchanged.

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Forget the Grand Jury: Look at the Grand Indictment

abcI don’t need to fill in the reader in regarding the recent killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson Police Officer and subsequent reactions. Suffice to say that many good citizens seem to think we can solve our racially disparity problems by putting all police shooters on trial without applying to a Grand Jury first. Or, alternatively, we can somehow “tweak” the Grand Jury system and get the indictments so many people are demanding.




Listen: These problems with racially disparate “justice” systems, policed profiling, and militarized police regimes are NOT going to fixed by tweaking or eliminating the Grand Jury system. Dozens of people imprisoned for Satanic Ritual Abuse back in the 90s, and dozens of death row convicts that have been exonerated by DNA evidence will tell you that “trials” aren’t the great arbiters of truth and justice you may think they are.

The problem isn’t going to be fixed at the Grand Jury level because it starts soooooo much farther upstream. The militarization of policing started back in the 70s under the Nixon/Rockefeller “law and order” initiatives. Criminalizing anything we think is a problem and having zero-tolerance for offences began in the 70s, and escalated for decades.

Those of us who were paying attention noticed a big escalation in the 90s after the Rodney King L.A. riots, and then again after the Battle for Seattle against WHO policies. Locally we saw this for the first time in a big way at the Hiawatha Reroute demonstrations. And of course the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks pushed it over the top. But even before Sept. 2001 police fear and paranoia regarding “Anarchists” and “Earth First!” and PETA was palpable.

And don’t think that our gun culture is irrelevant. You send this militarized police force out into an environment with millions of assault weapons floating around and the results are predictable. The police are soooo heavily armed now because criminals are so heavily armed.

Of course when you add racism to the mix you get a whole new set of problems. You militarize a racially bias police regime… you get racially biased policing on a military scale.

So what happens when for whatever reason you make selling cigarettes without a license a crime in New York City? You get a racially biased militarized police force confronting ordinary citizens who are selling perfectly legal product on the streets. You’re surprised this escalates into fatal encounters? You’re surprised people of color are targeted more than anyone else?

But yeah, let’s just tweak the Grand Jury System and have mandatory trials for all cops who shoot anyone in the line of duty. We do that and I’m sure we’ll be ship shape and Bristol fashion in no time. It’s not the Grand Jury’s, it’s the Grand Indictment we’re missing, and I’m not talking about a few cops here and there. This Nation and it’s good citizens created this law enforcement regime, liberals and conservatives alike. You want to indict someone? Look the mirror.

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