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.

Posted in Just Thinking | 2 Comments

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.


grant

 

 

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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Here We Go Again? : Lessons of Yankee Interventions and Fear in the Home of the Brave

 

Bush Declares an end to combat operations? Associated Press Photo

Bush Declares an end to combat operations? Associated Press Photo

Clausewitz was right, war is simply an extension of politics by other means. Accordingly, one can find numerous examples of apparently victorious military operations that ended in strategic defeat.  If control, colonization, or economic dominance (i.e. strategic policy) is the objective of military action, then military action must be judged by that strategic outcome, not the relative military success that may precede the strategic outcome.

In recent decades the United States has racked up an impressive tally of victorious defeats (military victories followed by strategic failure).  Remember our “Peace with Honor” in Viet Nam?  Now it looks like the United States is about add yet another victorious defeat to its list, this time in Iraq. Even if ISIS fails to establish a Caliphate or Islamic state, the odds are Iraq will fall apart or die trying not to in the next few years. This was not the strategic objective when Bush and Cheney put “boots” on the ground back in 2003.

The Iraq War may the most phenomenal victorious defeat in US history. Never before has a presidential team failed so spectacularly in so many ways for such a long time as the Bush Jr. team. Viet Nam at least had a Cold War as an ostensible backdrop, but Iraq was product of unbridled hubris with no defensible rationale.

As spectacular at the Iraq failure has been, It’s critical that Americans remember this isn’t the first time US military power has failed to produce the sought after reality “on the ground”. It’s important to take note of the increasing frequency with which US military adventures are failing in the last few decades. Recognition of such failures should be a cautionary lesson for Americans but fear seems to trump caution all too often in the home of the brave. Now the same people who brought us the stupidest war in American history are panicking in the face of ISIS and demanding yet more military action. We should ignore them.

We’ve seen this before. We fought a vicious and costly war in Viet Nam that got millions of people killed because we were told that dominos would fall and Communism would rise. And anyways we always fight for freedom. So we “won” our military victory, got our peace with honor, and then the government we spent a decade and billions of dollars propping up lasted all of  two weeks when attacked in 1975. Horror of horrors right? Not really.

Wikipedia Public Domain Photo

Making a Vietnamese Hamlet safe for Democracy  Wikipedia Public Domain Photo

We never ended up living in McNamara’s nightmare world of rampant communism and crushing dominos. Instead the Vietnamese ended up making our tennis shoes and T-shirts.

Likewise the US spent decades using direct and proxy military force all over Central and South America. Few Americans know that it was actually the United States that invented the formation of “Banana Republics” on behalf of the United Fruit Company. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler penned a speech about our military adventures back in the 1930s: “War is a Racket”

By the time Arbenz in Guatemala was overthrown by the CIA in 1954 the Cold War had become the backdrop for military and proxy military action in Latin America. The US spent decades supporting brutal dictatorships in order to stave off communism or its little sister socialism. Ronald Reagan warned us that Nicaragua was hours driving time away and would become a Soviet base should the Sandinista’s prevail.  Reagan’s team broke several US laws, international laws, and committed multiple crimes against humanity (The Contras were a terrorist proxy army that routinely murdered and terrorized Nicaraguan civilians). All to keep the Sandista’s out of power. So what ended up happening in Latin America? Did totalitarian socialist end up occupying the region and organizing a march on Texas and New Mexico?

Photo by Don Rypka for AFP

Photo by Don Rypka for AFP

Here’s what happened. The United States was eventually forced to abandon it proxy wars on “Leftist’s” throughout the region. Covert (and not so covert) military intervention gave way to elections and things actually got better for most people on Latin America. The Sandista’s in Nicaragua lost elections for a while but the descendants of Somoza turned out to still be corrupt and incompetent. Now the same guy the Contra’s fought to overthrow (Daniel Ortega) has been elected president for the last 8 years or so.

In fact, throughout Latin America with a few exceptions, countries are being run by governments that would have been considered “Leftist” back in the 80s. Here’s the thing…. Did you even know that? You may have heard some rumbles about Chavez in Venezuela but beyond that the fall of “free market” dictatorships has unleashed economic resurgence in Latin America, not catastrophe. The guys we kept overthrowing ended up in power anyways and it’s OK.

Having learned absolutely nothing from these previous fiasco’s in 2003 we invaded Iraq based on fear mongered hysterical visions of mushroom clouds and state sponsored terrorism. We all know how that went. Once again we declared military victory and then came home. Now the whole region is descending into chaos or turning towards military rule to avoid chaos and the fear mongers are back at it. Again, ignore them.

Listen, the problem is that folks like Condoleezza Rice, and McNamara before her, didn’t listen to anyone who actually knew anything. Rice and McNamara weren’t the best and the brightest.  Meanwhile Bush Jr. was apparently allergic to reliable information and knowledge while Cheney was just an asshole who saw potential dollar signs and rolled the dice… oh well, you win some you lose some.

Way back in the beginning, even before the beginning of the Iraq War, guys like Jeremy Scahill, Tariq Ali, and Noam Chomsky told us what would happen if we demolished Saddam Hussein’s government. They warned us that this war would unleash sectarian violence in Iraq that would spread in a variety of ways throughout the region. There was no shortage of historians willing to point out that Iraq itself was an illusion of a nation screwed together by the Brits in order to extract the oil. Even Saddam’s brutal and psychopathic repression couldn’t keep a tight lid on the sectarian conflicts.

There are also a lot of very knowledgeable people around who would tell you that even if you did manage to promote “democracy” in the region, being a region heavily populated by Muslims, those democracies would likely take the shape of a Caliphate. Given a choice, Muslims would set up something that looks more like Iran than Canada… in other words- an Islamic State. To promote “democracy” in this region, is to promote Islamic States. Who knew?

So here we are again. We declared victory and thought we left behind a parliamentary democracy only to find a sectarian civil war that has now spread to Syria. One way or another an Islamic state will probably emerge out of this and according to the guys who started the Iraq war; an Islamic state is even more dangerous to America than Saddam’s regime was. Ironic?

A wise man once said: “Don’t get fooled again”. A communist state emerged from the Viet Nam fiasco and the biggest problem we ended up having was finding a place for the Hmong to live. Leftists took over Latin America and you probably didn’t even know it. Even if another Islamic state emerges in the Middle East they will likely not become a threat to the United States.

It’s actually not as easy to start up a country as some people seem to think. Given the sectarian nature of the Middle East, any Sunni Islamic state will spend its infancy under attack in a variety of ways. This is not a place in the world where people forgive and forget. ISIS will have their hands full just setting up a country for several years. Simply establishing a border could take decades.  Beyond that, the collection of militants that are currently supporting ISIS are all extremists and extremist are not big on cooperation or compromise.  The most likely scenario is that once they establish a nation they’ll starting fighting each other to decide who controls it.

What should the US government do in the meantime? I’m not sure attempts to prop up the Maliki government will be any more successful than previous attempts to prop up our governments of choice. Nor is adding another military action to the list a good idea.

There is actually a well-known response for threats to national security if and when they emerge, it’s called: “Security”. Maybe we should just focus on monitoring the threat, park a few satellite’s above the region, find some human beings who will keep us informed about what going on, and get our act together regarding effective threat and recognition assessment. I know some spooky rhetoric is coming out of ISIS but we’re a big powerful country, and rhetoric is just that. We need to be a country that leads with our heads, not a country that gets fear mongered into military action every time some psychopaths put a speech up on the internet.

Posted in Just Thinking, Politics | 1 Comment

Cycling in the City: The Law, The Dangers, and My Two Cents

Photo by Paul Udstand

Photo by Paul Udstand

The long dark evil vortex winter is finally loosening its grip on the poor people of Minnesota. That means the bikes are coming out of storage and the roads and trails are becoming congested with a dizzying array of riders, skaters, walkers, and runners. Even though the Twin Cities is the 1st or 2nd biking community in the nation year-round, we still see a big surge in bike traffic on our streets and trails this time of year. It’s a good time to review some rules and suggestions regarding bike safety and etiquette.  

My perspective may be a little different from yours because I’m not a bikers-biker in a lot of ways, I own but do not wear a helmet, and my only concession to bike “fashion” is high a few high visibility t-shirts and jackets. I ride one 30 year old Gitane and a basic Schwinn Hybrid. My biking attitude is best aligned with Grant Petersen’s “Just Ride” philosophy.  You can read my book review of Peterson’s book here and another long muse about bike safety in America here.

I’ll divide my observations into three sections. First I’ll talk about the actual laws governing bicycles in MN. Then I’ll discuss some basic conditions that make cycling less safe than it could be, and finally I’ll make personal safety recommendations. Some of my suggestions may be more controversial than others and as always I welcome comments and suggestions.

All bike safety discussions should begin by pointing out that riding a bicycle is an incredibly safe activity. It’s one of the safest activities in the world and its fun, healthy, and environmentally friendly. I’ve been riding a bike on city streets and more recently trails for over 45 years and I’ve never been seriously injured.

Let’s get started with the basic laws. You can read the actual statutes pertaining to bicycle riders here.  I won’t go into great detail but in nutshell of sorts:

·         Bikes are vehicles and bike riders are “drivers” under MN law. This means you are NOT a pedestrian. It also means you’re entitled to use drive-through windows by the way.

·         Unless you are in an actual bike lane or making a left hand turn you are required to ride as far to the right as is practicable. Of course you can dodge debris and ride around parked cars.

·         You’re supposed ride single file. In practical terms we all ride side by side on occasion but you need file up when other riders are passing you either from behind or head on. Basically no one should have to maneuver around you beyond a simple passing maneuver.

·         You are supposed to issue an audible warning when passing slower traffic. Now I think we need to use some judgment here, to some extent shouting at everyone can be disturbing, but if someone is wandering around on the trail in front of you or clearly oblivious warn them. Children and pedestrians almost get a warning because they are unpredictable. And of course audible warnings should be issued to anyone who might wander in front of you under any circumstances.

·         You’re supposed to signal your turns. Basically you don’t want your maneuver to take anyone by surprise.  

·         You’re supposed to ride in the same direction as traffic and obey traffic laws.

·         You are NOT required in Minnesota to walk a bike through an intersection even in a crosswalk. Obviously if riding amongst pedestrians, don’t run over them, best to ride next to the crosswalk and give pedestrians a safe distance. I’ve always ridden through intersections because as a general rule they are the most dangerous places for bikers and pedestrians… the less time spent in the middle of intersection the better if you ask me.

·         Stop lights and intersections in the US are simply not designed for bicycle traffic, but as a general rule you follow the traffic lights, not the pedestrian signals.

·         You can ride on some sidewalks. Basically bikes are prohibited from sidewalks in business districts or other places where they high pedestrian traffic.  

·         There is one big exception for bicycle riders at stop lights, and this may surprise you. You can legally proceed through a red light if you come to a complete stop, and it’s safe to do so.  It’s called an “Affirmative Defense” and it arises from the unique characteristics of a bicycle. For one thing, since you’re NOT a pedestrian you can’t be required to push a “walk” button on a stop light. And secondly, you and your bike won’t trigger the light change mechanisms for stop lights so you could end sitting there for a very long time if there’s little or no car traffic. You can read the entire statue here.

So that pretty much covers the laws, there’s nothing very controversial about these recommendations.  I encourage you to check out the statutes for yourself. However safe bike riding isn’t just about following the laws, there are a number of factors that can diminish safety, here are a few of my observations:

1)      Poorly designed traffic control. Our roads are exclusively designed for automobile traffic and there’s just no getting around that fact. We’re starting to improve with painted dedicated bike lanes but we’re decades behind countries with better safety records. This is improving but it’s a contentious and expensive process. Recently a Dutch cyclist has made a number of very insightful observations about biking in the US. You can look at that here.  I recommend watching the video as well.   

 2)    Unfamiliarity. We’ve seen a huge surge in bike riding in the last two decades and we’re just not used this mix of bikes, pedestrians, and automobiles on our streets and trails. Pedestrians in many ways are the biggest hazard to American riders.  This will improve with time

 3)    Biker profile. We have a lot of riders who are very “proficient” when it comes to biking skills, but lack the experience that builds expertise.  Proficiency is acquired much fast than expertise. By comparison the insurance industry estimates that it actually take up to five years for a person to really learn how to drive a car. I think cycling is very similar especially if you don’t ride frequently. Most American riders are NOT lifetime riders. Most of today’s cyclists had bikes for toys as children but didn’t actually start riding till later in life. Compare that to European riders who start riding as children and ride more or less without interruption for their entire lives.

4)      Vehicular riding. Too many Americans riding their bikes in traffic as if they’re driving cars or racing.

The whole vehicular riding craze was started by John Forester back in the 1970’s. It’s kind of unique American mentality. The idea is that bikers are safer when they ride amongst traffic and “drive” their bikes as if they’re cars. This method of riding was based on a flawed data that appeared to indicate that cyclists on dedicated bike paths got injured at higher rates than those who rode with traffic. Unfortunately although the data itself was junk and has yet to be replicated by other research, the idea took hold in a big way. This is why you see “aggressive” riders in traffic, encroaching on car lanes or even swerving out into traffic on occasion in efforts “defend” their lanes and make drivers slow down or at least be aware of their presence.  There’s certain logic to this riding style, but it’s divorced from the reality of traffic. For one thing it always assumes that the driver that hits you is the one who’s watching you ride your bike, not so. Secondly it just ignores physics, any collision between a 40LB bike with a 160LB rider and a 1+ ton vehicle is going end badly for the biker, with or without a helmet. Vehicular bike riding just closes the distance between a biker and an increasingly distracted population of car and truck drivers, thus decreasing the margin of safety.

Vehicular riding is losing its popularity and more and more cyclists are abandoning the mentality while fewer enthusiasts are recommending it. 

 5)   Bike models. Too many Americans are riding road or touring bikes with swept down handles.

Road bikes were designed almost 100 years ago for racing. Originally they weren’t even equipped with brakes. They are not designed for traffic situations where a rider needs to maintain a 360 degree field of awareness. The very design of a road bike actually encourages a rider to keep their head down and fly. In many cases people riding these bikes can cruise at very high speeds that are completely unsafe for the conditions their riding on and the bike design itself actually encourages this. This way we end up with proficient riders cruising at unsafe speeds because they lack the expertise to ride at an appropriate speed for the given conditions. The popularity of road bikes is peculiar to the United States. I think it grows out of the fact that for years, between the mid-1980s and late 1990s the majority of people riding bikes in the US were cyclist rather than commuters or recreational riders. Touring or road bikes appealed to cyclists for a variety of reasons during this era.  A change in consumer choices towards more comfortable and appropriate bike designs will eventually put fewer racing bikes on the roads and trails.

Now that we’ve discussed the law, and some of the factors contributing to safety problems, let’s look at a few of my personal safety suggestions.

1)      Use the bike trails and lanes when available.  Don’t ride on the parkway streets unless you need to commute and the bike trail is running the wrong way.  Those roads are narrow, curvy, and congested with distracted drivers, you’re never more than one distracted driver away from having a really bad day if you ride on those streets.  I realize many of the bike trails are one way affairs so if you need to go the opposite direction around one of the lakes for instance, you’re better off riding on the street than the wrong way on the bike path, keep your time on the parkway as short as possible and consider alternate routes.

2)      Try to avoid heavy traffic streets. In most places our streets are laid out on a grid and you can find a parallel street with far less traffic to ride down. Plan a route that avoids tricky traffic conditions as much as possible. Bikes aren’t the fastest mode of transport so it’s better to take a slightly longer ride than ride in more dangerous conditions.

3)      If you have to ride in traffic, don’t ride “assertively” by encroaching on traffic, remember you’re supposed ride as far to the right as practicable, and stay in the bike lane. You don’t want to be fearful but don’t try to modify traffic behavior with riding techniques, all that does is put you in danger.

4)      There are situations where a sidewalk might be safer than the street, and legal. I’m thinking for instance along University Ave. over by 280 and KSTP TV. It’s a nasty stretch of road and there’s almost never anyone walking on the sidewalk there. The thing about sidewalks is you have to watch for driveways and pedestrians.

5)      Slow down. Ride at an appropriate speed. Outside of races and tracks I’d keep it to around 15MPH on average, of course you can easily exceed that at times, 18 – 20MPH can be safe in certain conditions for a period of time. I reach 25MPH just coasting down the river road under the Washington Ave. bridge.

6)      Approach all intersections with caution and take advantage of the fact that you have a better field of view and are not inside a vehicle.  You can see AND hear potential hazards. Always be prepared to brake at an intersection.  

7)      Watch for pedestrians, they are by and large clueless. If I had a dollar for every pedestrian who sauntered in front of me I’d be a millionaire.

8)      Make others aware of you, light up at night, and bright up during the day. And give those audible warnings.

9)      Learn to anticipate hazards, you can read body language of pedestrians and other riders and even drivers. Don’t put yourself in front of a car than can hit you unless you know that cars going to stop, don’t assume it’s going to stop.

10)   Be prepared to stop and slow down. Especially if you riding a road bike. One other problem with road bikes is the position of the brakes. Many bikers ride with their hands out of position for braking. You need to have your hands on the hoods unless you have the old style combination brakes (see photo). If your hands are out of position you may not be able to reach your brakes in an emergency. I suspect a lot of road bikers have collisions because they didn’t or couldn’t brake in time.

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

Photo Courtesy of LovelyBicycle! blog

11)   I’ve already mentioned, our controlled intersections are a disaster for bikes, especially if you want to make a left hand turn. You have use your judgment, sometimes a modified pedestrian cross from one side and then to the other is the best way to go. If you decide to use the left hand turn lane, don’t put yourself in between or in front of cars and trucks, get off to the side. Remember a very high percentage of auto collisions happen in intersections for a variety of reasons ranging from inattention to feet slipping off of brake pedals.  If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time you’re gonna get smushed. A fender bender for a car is potentially fatal for someone on a bicycle.  

12)   I believe in rear view mirrors on bikes, especially if you’re riding on city bike trails. I know they’re kinda dorky but they make it a lot easier to check your six o-clock, and you should always glance behind you before making left hand turns, passing someone, or slowing down because of traffic or responding to a potential hazard.  Bikes are quiet, and they’re fast enough to pop up behind you unexpectedly.

13)   Don’t assume other bikers aren’t going to do anything stupid. Again, many cyclists are proficient riders but lack expertise; just because they’re riding 25mph with $2000 worth of equipment doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing. Riders acquire proficiency must faster than they acquire expertise.  Safe riding isn’t just about reflexes and balance, experience and anticipation are critical and can take years to acquire depending on how often your ride.    

14)   Tunes on a bike. You can listen to music but don’t wear noise cancelling ear-buds and keep the volume down so you can hear audible warnings and traffic. It’s not uncommon to hear a hazard before you see it.

15)   Keep your bike tuned up. Unlike cars bikes are pretty cheap and easy to maintain. A malfunctioning bike can distract you at just the wrong time and otherwise cause accidents.

16)   Finally, no one should be riding anywhere but a time trial on a track with those triathlon handle bars (pictured below) or “aerobars”. I see people riding with them on the Greenway and Cedar Lake trail and I know what they’re thinking, it’s flat, it’s pretty straight, and you have good visibility. Problem is I’ve seen everything from stray dogs to homeless people stumble out of the woods and tall grass along those trails. With those handlebars you can’t maneuver. And look how far out of position the hands are in relation to the brakes. Those handlebars have actually been banned in for road racing because they’re too dangerous, they don’t belong on any trails or roads in a city. At the very least you might kill or injure something accidentally and it’s bad Karma to kill or injure something with your bike.

Dave Zabriskie Wiki Commons

Dave Zabriskie Wiki Commons

Before we go I’ll just say a quick word about helmets. I personally don’t believe helmets are an essential piece of safely equipment unless you’re riding off road or racing. I actually think lights and high visibility are more important. The actual data on helmets and injuries is surprisingly inconclusive. You can read a more thorough discussion of the issue here. I simply think it’s more important and ultimately safer to focus on riding safely and building expertise, avoid accidents rather than to equip for them. However I don’t discourage people from wearing helmets, if you feel more comfortable with a helmet by all means wear one. And you can always wear them some times and not others. If you do wear a helmet, (or put one on your kids head) make sure it’s tight and in position on top of the head. One thing we do know about helmets is that they are useless or maybe even worse if they’re flopping around or out of position when you hit your head on something.

So that’s my advice. Ride safe, ride polite, and have fun. You’re riding through a beautiful world so don’t just speed by it without looking. Don’t be afraid to talk to people once and while and its good Karma to help a person out every now and then.  Sometimes those folks on the green Nice Ride bikes need directions or recommendations.          

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Drifting Around Our Frozen Lakes: Snow Shoeing in the Vortex

vortex3RLC-2Say what you will about the never ending Polar Vortex winter of 2013-2014 but you have admit it’s not boring. Two weeks or so ago I wrote about the unique post Winter Loppet conditions on our chain of lakes (Calhoun, Cedar Lake, and Lake of the Isles).  At that time the Vortex had produced solid conditions that made exploring the lakes extremely easy, but I warned it might not last. Guess what, those days are gone.

Our latest nine to ten inch snow storm obliterated all the trails and even the groomed cross country ski trails. Many of the Loppet’s ice sculptures still survive but the sidewalk –like conditions on the lake have been replaced by beautiful (sometimes deep) snow drifts.  The best way to explore the lake now is with snow shoes or cross country skis.

The best thing about this time of year is that the sun is always low enough on the horizon that any time of day the angle of light yields interesting shadows. The best part is that the shadows shift with the sun so the same landscape will look different depending on what time of day you visit.

I strapped on my snow shoes and went for a stroll with my camera. If you do the same don’t forget to bring a walking stick or poles. I forgot mine and got careless and distracted and… you guessed it, I went down. If you’ve ever fallen into deep snow while wearing snow shoes you know hard it is to get back up. With those shoes on you can’t just snap your feet back under you and pop up. I also discovered that there’s a layer of extremely wet mush about 16 inches under that snow.  Furthermore I discovered that when you’re gloves totally saturated with water (when you fall you put your hands out in front of you) in these temperatures they start to freeze solid. Who knew? 

You can see more photos on my Facebook Photography page

vortex3R-1

People have built little snow men and families all over the lakes

People have built little snow men and families all over the lakes

Canoes waiting for the thaw on Lake Calhoun

Canoes waiting for the thaw on Lake Calhoun

vortex3R-13

The Lagoon between Lake of the Isles and Calhoun.

The Lagoon between Lake of the Isles and Calhoun.

The snow drifts on the lakes are like waves frozen in time

The snow drifts on the lakes are like waves frozen in time

Easter Island on Lake of the Isles. One of the surviving Winter Loppet ice sculptures

Easter Island on Lake of the Isles. One of the surviving Winter Loppet ice sculptures

The snow storm started out above freezing, that meant the snow stuck to the trees. Usually it would fall off in a matter of hours but the temperatures dropped quickly freezing it in place

The snow storm started out above freezing, that meant the snow stuck to the trees. Usually it would fall off in a matter of hours but the temperatures dropped quickly freezing it in place

Aaron Shaffer of Weathernation TV was exploring the lakes on skis

Aaron Shaffer of Weathernation TV was exploring the lakes on skis

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Walking on Water: Visitiing the Frozen City Lakes of Minneapolis

Lake Serpent on Lake of the Isles

Lake Serpent on Lake of the Isles

It’s been a cool winter thus far, very cold. Not the coldest I’ve seen but the coldest in a while. There’s a lot of complaining going on but there are some definite advantages to this cold weather.  If you’re willing to bundle up and venture out into the latest Vortex you can find some unique winter experiences here in the cities.

 We try to make something out of our winters in MN; we have dog sled races and Winter Carnivals amongst other things. A couple weeks ago the Annual Winter Loppet took place in Minneapolis. This is a three day cross country ski event that takes place in the Uptown area, around the lakes, and in Theo Wirth Park.  One of the Loppet events is a “Luminary” evening that’s quite beautiful.  The Loppet Foundation builds a track around Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun. That trail is lined with ice installations and sculptures that are lit with candles on the night of the Luminary.  Participants can ski, walk, or snow shoe along the trails where bon fires, hot chocolate stations, and fire dancers await. On the night of the actual Luminary you have to pay in order to go out on the lake, but during winters like this one, the trails and sculptures survive for weeks afterwards and provide wonderful free and completely public opportunity for anyone who wants to venture out and explore one of our greatest urban assets.

The best thing about this weather is that it creates fantastic trail conditions. The cold temps and lack of fresh snow mean that the trails are very solid and compacted. It’s like walking on a sidewalk out there. That may not be ideal for cross country skiing but its great for the rest of us. You can easily walk, run, or bike all over the lakes and get a different perspective on one of our most beautiful public spaces.  I’d guess there’s about 7-10 miles of trails out there and there’s a lot to explore.

Warmer weather and or several inches of fresh snow will turn this into slush or obliterate the paths so jump out there while you can. Right now you don’t need skis or snow shoes. 

I’d like to thank my trusty canine companions Ole the Lab and Liffey the Boarder Collie for adding a little something to my photos. You can look at more photos from our expedition on my Paul’s Photography Facebook Page.

The Channel Leading from Lake of the Isles to Cedar Lake

The Channel Leading from Lake of the Isles to Cedar Lake

Cedar Lakes is the Wildest of the Lakes. There are a lot of woods surrounding it that you can explore

Cedar Lakes is the Wildest of the Lakes. There are a lot of woods surrounding it that you (and your dogs) can explore

 

The view of "Ice Henge" on the way from Cedar Lake to Lake of the Isles.

The view of “Ice Henge” on the way from Cedar Lake to Lake of the Isles.

The ice sculptures in the "Enchanted Forest" on Lake of the Isles have survived thus far because of the cold temps

The ice sculptures in the “Enchanted Forest” on Lake of the Isles have survived thus far because of the cold temps

The ice Pyramid on Lake of the Isles with downtown Minneapolis in the background

The ice Pyramid on Lake of the Isles with downtown Minneapolis in the background

The approach to Lake Calhoun from the lagoon between Calhoun and lake of the Isles.

The approach to Lake Calhoun from the lagoon between Calhoun and lake of the Isles.

In the lagoon again returning to Lake of the Isles from Calhoun. You can see the pyramid.

In the lagoon again returning to Lake of the Isles from Calhoun. You can see the pyramid

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rape is a crime: What’s up with the Archdioceses and That List of Names?

abcYou’ve heard the one about “tangled webs?” Well the Catholic Church is twisting in a fine tangle these days. It turns out a lot of priests former and otherwise have a history of sexual liaisons (like those with children) were criminal in nature. This disgusting tapestry of sexual abuse has been unraveling for quite a while now but I’m not here to pull on another thread. My concern today centers around an observation that that has far as I know, has received little if any attention.

In an attempt to untangle the history of sexual abuse that has occurred within the church over the last several decades, several courts have now ordered that a number of archdioceses around the country must disclose the names of accused Priests. (The Strib has an article about this) The Church has of course resisted this, but not entirely for nefarious reasons

Many of the archdioceses have balked at full disclosure orders because they claim it will damage the reputation and careers of innocent Priests. Frankly, they have point. It is safe to assume that not all of the allegations over the last several decades were legitimate.

However I find that I cannot muster much in the way of sympathy for the Catholic Church or the affected priests. My reticence doesn’t merely stem from the fact that behind all of this lay a conspiracy of pedophiles. My concern is actually more mundane, I’m looking at decades of very basic criminal activity.

There is a reason that the Catholic Church and its priests find themselves in this situation, having to submit to what is admittedly a less-than-perfect solution. The origin of this dilemma lay in the decisions made decades ago that the church and its problems are somehow separate or beyond secular law. We don’t know which if any of these accused priests are actually guilty or innocent because these crimes have never been properly investigated. The problem is that church took it upon itself to investigate these alleged crimes.We know that you cannot trust that institutions will properly investigate themselves. Standard practice is to bring in outside investigators. In this case, we have well established, well trained, and publicly financed investigators who are available 24-7. We call them the “Police”.

We report crimes to the police, we don’t investigate them ourselves, and there are a lot of very good reasons for that. Rape is a crime. In fact rape, especially the rape of a child, is one of our most heinous crimes. I’m not saying that it would be easy for a Church official to make that phone call, but that’s what you do. These weren’t alleged “miracles” or “demonic possessions”, these were serious crimes. What was the church doing investigating crimes in the first place? Had these crimes been reported to the police years and decades ago they would have been properly investigated and these guys would have either been cleared or arrested. No private list would even exist because these names would already be a matter of public record. I can’t muster any sympathy for the church because the church built this house and it’s going to have to live in it. All we have left at this point are imperfect solutions. Obviously we can’t let the church decide whom amongst its accused priests are/were innocent. The names will have to be released and the chips will fall where they will.  

By the way, it’s not just the church that seems to have been confused about calling the police. Listen: if you, or your child, or wife, or anyone else is raped by a priest, you don’t report that to the church, you call the police. You can call the church if you want, TO TELL THEM THAT YOU JUST CALLED THE POLICE. Don’t report rape to an institution that’s going to investigate itself and expect things will work out. The fact that a crime occurs in a church doesn’t change the fact that it’s a crime. Call the police.       

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Back to Basics with Film: The “K” Series Orphan’s of Pentax

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHEvery now than then I find myself thinking about camera designs. This may not be an unusual thing for a professional photographer to do but I like to share my thoughts on the blog here every so often. You can see a previous contemplation here.  

The other morning I decided it might be fun to dig out some of my old cameras and shoot some film for change. I have a bunch of film stored in my old dark room fridge along with the beer that has replaced the dark room paper and chemistry that used to occupy all that space.  I have many cameras to choose from in my collection. In addition to the Nikon F100 and FE that I used to shoot professionally I have Canon’s, Minolta’s, Olympus, Pentax’s and even a Praktica communist camera stored away.

Before I went digital I used to have a small bag complete with two Pentax bodies, lenses, light meter, and a flash.  I could just grab that bag and toss it in the car, or just keep it in the car so I’d be ready to shoot if the opportunity presented itself. It was nice to have a small ready-to-go bag on hand on a moment’s notice. It only seemed natural to turn to my trusty old ready-to-go bag for a morning of film photography.

SLR cameras have gone through three revolutionary eras in the last four decades. The first was a transition from mechanical architecture to electronic architecture between 1975 and 1985. The second was a transition from manual to automatic focus between 1985 and 1995. And the third was of course the transition to digital in the last decade or so.

These K’s hail from the 1st revolutionary era of SLRs. Pentax stayed with the all or mostly mechanical camera model longer than any of the other major manufacturers.  While the Nikons of that era are technically nicer cameras, these Pentax’s are fun to shoot for a variety of reasons. These cameras were known for their solid architecture and durable build. Pentax wasn’t big on bells and whistles, they produced practical cameras, mostly for serious amateurs and people who wanted better than point-and-shoots of the time.

Pentax K Series. K-100, KX, and K2

Pentax K Series. K-100, KX, and K2

The late 1970’s was a decisive age for camera manufacturers. In 1978 Canon introduced the A-1 and it was a game changer on a variety of levels, more than anyone realized at the time. Most of the core features you find on any DSLR today are derived from that A-1 design. I won’t go into great detail about the  A-1 here but the full multi-mode (i.e. full program, manual, shutter, and aperture priority modes all in one camera selected by a dial) features that you find on all DSLRs today was first introduced in the A-1. Likewise anytime you look through a view finder you will see LED’s providing all your information from shutter speed to frame count. That LED view finder was introduced in the A-1. It’s kind of funny actually, at the time one of the criticisms of the A-1 was a “cluttered” viewfinder with all that information. It seems silly now but at the time Canon took that concern so seriously that they actually built in a button to turn those LEDs off.

Canon A-1 Photo Wiki-Commons

Canon A-1 Photo Wiki-Commons

The A-1 was the first camera to be introduced as a complete “system” camera. Not only did Canon roll out a new “FD” lens assortment but there was a full range of accessories ranging from motor drives (souped-up auto-winders) to dedicated flashes that would automatically set your shutter speed and aperture. There was almost no gadget for a camera that anyone could want that wasn’t rolled out with the A-1 system. Olympus had a similar “system” for its OM series but in the end the A-1 ended up being more influential than any other camera.

While not actually marketed to professionals the A-1 greatly expanded a heretofore small consumer class, that would come to be called the “pro-sumer”. Nikon and Olympus had always marketed to serious photographers who weren’t professionals, but the A-1 knocked it out of the park. While the Olympus OM’s were probably the most elegant SLRs in history and the Nikons were sturdy and well-engineered, the A-1 was packed with features that no other camera had at the time. The A-1’s features were so attractive that a number of pros ended up using them (myself included) and the popularity of those features pretty much overwhelmed the market. By the mid-90s any manufacturer that wasn’t offering all those features on new designs was in serious trouble and many off them went under.

Here’s what’s interesting: at more or less the same time Canon was introducing its A-1, which was a radical departure for SLRs, Pentax was introducing its “K” series cameras that I’ve got in my ready-to-go bag. The “K” series is kind of weird because in many ways it’s an orphan series, with the exception of the ubiquitous K-1000 these cameras were discontinued within five or six years.

At the time Nikon and to a lesser extent Olympus and Canon had a lock the professional market. Pentax offered a pro camera, the LX, but not very many pro’s ever used them. Pentax wisely decided to focus on a different segment of the market. The K series cameras were designed for serious amateurs who wanted to take really nice photos but had no professional aspirations. While the A-1 was as electronic as a camera could possibly be at the time, these cameras provided as many features as they could in a mechanical camera. The A-1 required a hefty 6 volt battery to run practically everything but the K series got by on 1.5 to 3 volts that ran the light meter and very little else. In fact you could take the batteries out of mechanical cameras like these and still take pictures.  The A-1 is little more than an interesting paperweight without a battery.

Pentax Ks R-10

All of the K series cameras were introduced at the same time. The designs ran from the absolutely no-frills not even a self-timer K-1000 to the bells and whistle laden K2. These cameras are orphans because despite being really nice cameras, only the K-1000 was a really successful design. All of these cameras had sturdy and reliable designs but the k-1000’s lack of features makes it very simple to use which made it appealing to all kinds of photographers at all levels. The K-1000 also became an absolute favorite for introductory photography classes all over the world. One thing you want to teach aspiring photographers is that you don’t need fancy cameras to make incredible images and the k-1000 has taught that lesson to millions. Were it not for the switch to digital, the K-1000 would probably still be the camera of choice, Pentax manufactured it right up 1997 or 98.

The KX has a self-timer, mirror lock-up, and depth of field preview.

The KX has a self-timer, mirror lock-up, and depth of field preview.

The KX and K2 took the mechanical designs as far as they could go. Unlike the K-1000 they had fancy needle meters pointing to your shutter speed. The KX had an additional window that would reveal the aperture ring on your lens so you had both aperture and shutter speed info in your viewfinder. For some reason this feature is missing on the K2 which was supposed to be the more advanced camera.  The KX and K2 had other more advanced features like mirror lock-up buttons,* depth of field previews, and battery strength indicators.

The K-1000s basic basic needle light meter

The K-1000s basic basic needle light meter

The K2 has the more sophisticated needle match meter. Note the shutter speed of 8 seconds made possible by electronic assist.

The KX has the more sophisticated needle match meter.
The KX has a more sophisticated needle match meter as well as a window (not visible) revealing the aperture ring on the lens

The K2 has the more sophisticated needle match meter. Note the shutter speed of 8 seconds made possible by electronic assist.

The K2 had an aperture priority auto-mode and an exposure compensation dial. One weird feature of the K2, possibly inspired by the Olympus OM’s is an ASA dial that’s located around the lens mount. These take some getting used to and were not a popular feature. If you get one of these cameras today that dial will likely be very stiff or even impossible to move, but that is easily fixed.  

Pentax Ks R-6

You can see the program mode in the shutter dial of the K2

Pentax Ks R-7

The K2 notorious ASA ring located around the lens mount. These took some getting used to and tended to get stiff over time. They can be fixed however.

Pentax Ks R-8

You can see the mirror lock-up, self timer, depth of field preview, and exposure compensation dial.

Pentax Ks R-9

The K2 even has a fancy LED battery check.

These cameras are solid, reliable, and a pleasure to shoot. They had many of the same feature sets as the Nikon, Canon, and Olympus equivalents of the era (The FE, AE-1 program, and OM-1 or 2 respectively) but couldn’t quite reach the emerging pro-sumer’s consciousness because they all lacked auto-winder capability, and the mechanical shutters made long exposure cable release affairs. While you could get 8 seconds out of the K2 semi electronic shutter, you got 30 seconds from Pentax’s electronic shutter competitors.  The K-series price range at the time went from $75.00 for a K-1000 with a lens to $250.00 for a K2.  The Canon, Nikon, and Olympus equivalents were all  starting at around $300.

In many ways Pentax itself rendered the K series obsolete because at more or less the same time they released the K series they released the ME series. The ME’s were more electronic, compact, and could mount auto-winders. They had electronic shutters which gave them better dedicated flash capabilities as well. Whereas the K2 comes as close to a Nikon FE as a mechanical camera can get, the ME is downright comparable. You’re left wondering why Pentax bothered to release the K series at all?

me super wiki commons

The ME series had most of the same features as the Nikon FE and a sturdy build. The ME series, especially the ME super were probably Pentax’s most popular cameras besides the K-1000. They had a very strong and loyal following.

Its good thing Pentax did release the K’s because without them we never would have had the K-1000 and I wouldn’t have these sweet little cameras to play with today.

You can see some of the photos I took that day by visiting my Facebook page here:  https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.715282105156058.1073741842.670113279672941&type=3

*Mirror lock up eliminates the vibrations you can get if you’re shooting a long time exposure. You can lock up the mirror on a K-1000 if you know the little trick.                   

   

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Epilepsy vs. Race Baiting: Who’s Worse? Souhan or Lewis?

292px-Bele BW star trekThis is the tale of two toxic editorials published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Rather, this is the story of two toxic editorials that got two very different reactions.  One editorial by Joe Souhan  advocated the dismissal of a coach who suffers from epilepsy. The other by Jason Lewis was a blatant exercise in race baiting and fear mongering that maligned and entire ethnic minority. Guess which editorial provoked the outrage and protest amongst the good citizens of Minnesota?

When he wrote “In Category of Health, Kill Falls Too Short to Continue” Souhan ignored the basic tenets of human decency (Not to mention the basic tenets of grammar when writing a title) on behalf of a profoundly unbalanced set of priorities. Jerry Kill is the head coach for the MN Gophers football team. Last Saturday he had a seizure during a game to wit Souhan writes:

“No one who buys a ticket to TCF Bank Stadium should be rewarded with the sight of a middle-aged man writhing on the ground. This is not how you compete for sought-after players and entertainment dollars.”

Souhan’s disgust at the spectacle of an epileptic seizure is so powerful that he demands Kill’s resignation presumably so that someone with a less visible problem could take over. Souhan reminds us that the current environment of blowhards broadcasting toxic commentary was begun by the sports shock jocks of the mid-1980s. The only response I can muster for Mr. Souhan is a simple suggestion that he consider growing up and acting like an adult someday.  Beyond my response Souhan and the Strib got an earful. By the end of the day Souhan’s ill-mannered rant had provoked protest and condemnation throughout the land.  One of the better responses appeared on Minnpost. The protests and condemnations got so bad that the Strib ended up apologizing on Souhan’s behalf.  Souhan himself offered one of those non-apology (i.e. I’m sorry you read what I actually wrote instead of what I meant to say) apologies but it failed.

Where Souhan was boorish and immature Lewis was deliberate and calculating. The difference is Lewis got a complete pass.

Guys like Lewis like to pretend they work at an academic level but without the pretense, as if they’re intellectuals. In fact if Lewis were an actual academic he’d be an academic fraud.  His commentary:  Black on White Crime in America” is a perfect example of intellectual dishonesty and racism passing itself off as courageous journalism.

Lewis’s opening volley stretches all the way back to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s ( Who was a Democrat by the way)  1965 claim that the “Negro” failure to establish nuclear families was at the heart of their economic woes. Moynihan’s genius was that he relied on Labor Department data to draw his conclusions. Moynihan’s failure was that he relied on Labor Department statistics.  If poverty in 1965 had been a simple matter of labor data he might have been onto something but as it turned out he merely launched decades of racial stereotyping that guys like Lewis have been relying on ever since. The truth is that for decades, contrary to Moynihan’s predictions, despite their lack of nuclear families, Black poverty dropped dramatically almost by almost 50%.

poverty by race historical

Charles Murray (The brain behind: “The Bell Curve”) picked up Moynihan’s idea (but very little in the way of reliable to data) and ran with it. In the early 70s Murray created the myth of the welfare queen and gave Jim Crow attitudes a new lease on life. 

Murray has long history of releasing big thick non-peer reviewed books that raise alarms about everything from education to “family” policy. The problem with not actually being an academic however is that despite education (Murray and Lewis both have advanced degrees) no one’s around to check your work. Consequently almost the entirety of every one of Murray’s arguments is based on an elementary statistical error. He constantly mistakes statistical correlation with causation.

This is what Moynihan got wrong back in 65. If you look at black families there are dozens of variables that describe black people and black families. Many of those variables will correlate with black poverty because so many black families live in poverty. The problem is that there are a multitude of factors that have nothing or little to do with “Blackness”. To make this simple it would be like asking: “Why were so many blacks slaves before the civil war?” and coming to the conclusion that it was because so many of them were descendants of Africans. Yes, you would find a really high correlation between African descent and slavery in pre-civil war America, and if that’s all you looked at you could conclude that Africans caused slavery in America, and like Murray, and Moynihan before him, you’d be wrong.  

40 years later Lewis is still peddling those myths and committing his own equivalent of academic fraud. Having attributed black poverty to a regurgitated, decades old, and long since discredited theory, Lewis takes up the issue of black crime. Lewis’s intellect is no more up to the task of analyzing crime data than poverty.  He concludes that blacks are targeting whites at an alarming rate.

This is flat out race baiting, and it’s completely false. Here’s what Lewis actually says:

“While most violent crime is indeed interracial, 26.7 percent of homicides where the victim is a stranger are interracial. And in 2008, the offending rate for blacks (24.7 offenders per 100,000) was seven times higher than the rate for whites (3.4 offenders per 100,000), according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

Accounting for population differences, whites are simply far more likely to be victims of interracial crime than blacks.”

I’m pretty sure I know where Lewis got his statistics, he mentions the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice and those are contained in a 2011 report, you can see that report for yourself here. This is the relevant passage:

Most murders were intra racial

 From 1980 through 2008–

 * 84% of white victims were killed by whites (Figure 19).

 * 93% of black victims were killed by blacks.

 Stranger homicides were more likely to cross racial lines than homicides involving friends or acquaintancesFor homicides committed by–

 * a stranger to the victim, 26.7% were interracial (Figure 20a)”

 

You can see Lewis’s 26.7% figure here, but just above that you can see the actual percentages of interracial homicides. If you do the math it works out to 16% for whites and 7% for blacks, that’s a difference of 9%. Sure you can say whites have twice the rate percentage of black interracial murder, but its 9%. Does that make whites “far” more likely to be a victim of interracial murder? In a word: “no”.

If Lewis wants to talk about “ likelihoods” then he needs to calculate rates and odds, not merely ignore actual percentages. To begin with the homicide rate for whites is 6 times lower than that for blacks so right out of the gate whites have lower odds of being murdered. The murder rate for whites is 3.3 per 100,000 and the murder rate for blacks is 19.6 per 100,000. We know 7% of those 19.6 murderers are not black and that works out to 1.3 non-black murderers per 100,000 blacks murdered. Meanwhile 16% of 3.3 works out to .53% or .53 non-white murderers of white people. That means even though a smaller percentage of blacks are murdered by non-blacks, a black person is still more than twice as likely to be a victim of interracial crime than a white person.

The other problem with Lewis’s information is that he seems to be assuming that blacks are the ones doing all those interracial murders of whites. In fact all we know is that those murders are not white, we can’t assume they’re all black.

If Lewis’s racism were limited to shoddy math and selective data picking we might be able to cut him some slack. The problem is Lewis doesn’t stop (or even begin) there. He lists several examples of heinous black on white crimes as if black criminals are more vicious than other criminals. In the end Lewis concludes that:

“ ‘gangsta culture’ is responsible for greater self-inflicted wounds among young African-American males than the remnants of racial bias”

Lewis is not referring to Italian gangsters.

Lewis is making a calculated attempt to provoke white fear of black Americans and he’s arguing that to the extent that black families have problems, they are self-inflicted. The information he uses to make this argument isn’t simply wrong, its dishonest, and as far as I can tell, its deliberate.  

So why did Souhan’s boorish article provoke so much more controversy than Lewis’s race baiting? You tell me. I merely note that unlike Souhan’s article in the sports section, Lewis’s article in the editorial page had the “comments” turned OFF.

Then there’s this; the reader might be interested to know that the phrase: “Blaming the victim” was actually coined by the psychologist William Ryan… in his response to the 1965 Moynihan Report.

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Do You Remember the Last War that was a Good Idea?

syria civil war

Photo Courtesy of AsiaNews 2012

The Syrian Civil War is a bloody horrible mess. Over two million people have been driven from their homes and over 100,000 people have been killed. Atrocities have been committed on both sides, although I don’t think the rebels have matched the atrocity of the government gas attacks.

So what are we to do? What are we to make of this?

Well, one lesson may be that the Syrian Civil War was a bad idea. Wars are frequently not good ideas. WW II didn’t go the way the Japanese and the Nazis thought it would. And our own Civil War seemed like a great idea at the time for the Southern states but turned out to be not so much. Granted sometimes wars kind of work out, like our own Revolutionary war. But most often war is not a good choice.

The Syrian rebels started this war. Instead of using non-violence and time to change the regime they decided to start a war, they gambled that violence would get them there sooner and/or easier than non-violence or the march of time. No dictator lives forever, and no family stays in power forever. Nevertheless the rebels thought war was a better alternative than the oppressions they were living with. Everything that’s happened subsequently flows out of THAT decision. That’s not an excuse for war crimes but it raises the distinct possibility that war was a bad idea.

I’m not a strict pacifist. I believe violence is sometimes justified. It’s not for me to decide whether or not the violence of the Syrian Civil War is justified, I merely point out that it was a choice, and it may have been a bad one.

I also point out that the Syrian Civil War was NOT my  choice, or my government’s choice. This is not an America’s war, and no logic dictates that contributing our military might and violence to that war will help anyone.

So maybe the war was a bad idea. Nothing the United States can do will change that. We can’t “fix” a war. As horrible and wrenching as this war may be, adding more violence to the mix doesn’t seem logical. For a fraction of the cost of a military attack we could offer expedited immigration status to Syrian refugees, or provide millions of dollars in support to the medical and refugee programs on the ground in surrounding nations.

I don’t know how things will work out in Syria but I find it strange that no one seems to considering the war itself as an actual factor in the conflict. The discussion thus far treats the war as if it’s mere background to some other problems like the chemical weapons or the refugees. Everyone is arguing about about messages and credibility and Obama’s speech or Putin’s NYTs article as if something other than war itself is the origin of the misery and human suffering. Talk about focusing on the trees instead of the forest.

An old soldier once said: “There never was good war or a bad peace”. That seems like such a simple observation, yet here we are again, in a bad war.

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