Bicycle Commuting and Activism

I’ve been meaning to post some thoughts on activism, its aims and tactics. One thing that has come up recently (and I’ll hopefully post more on this soon) is the case for vegetarianism as an inherently progressive practice. I think this is wrongheaded and serves to further marginalize progressivism. In the mean time, however, I got into a conversation with someone about methods of bicycle commuting. Check out the full post here at Citizen Rider.

The issue in that blog was raised by a bicyclist posting his commute on YouTube. Cafiend suggested, and I think correctly, that this should not be considered an “instructional video.” The rider in the video exhibits some unsafe techniques (running red lights, weaving in and out of traffic and riding in the lane against the flow of traffic). Cafiend takes the rider to task in a recent post. While I do not commute right now (because I scarcely leave my desk), when I used to commute daily in Boston, I practiced some of the techniques exhibited in the YouTube video and I could sympathize with the rider who made the video. The thing I object to, and it’s something I have objected to before in my interactions with bicycle activists in Boston, is that taking the moral high ground and criticizing other riders for their riding style is just a downer. It puts a damper on the whole event and can snuff out the energy of activists.

This was palpable in Boston where a few active participants in Critical Mass (mainly those associated with MassBike) would routinely argue and criticize other riders at the monthly ride and in the email listserv. I unsubscribed from the listerv because of the sheer volume of email it would periodically generate when some new user would raise a some hot button issue. The absurd conclusion of their position can be characterized by the oft-repeated claim that we should obey traffic laws while participating in Critical Mass rides (i.e., we should occupy only one lane of traffic and stop at all red lights). This seems ridiculous to me. The greatest thing about Critical Mass, for my money, was the sheer carnival of it. One of my favorite seasons was when a few riders built a makeshift trailer and mounted variously a couch and a live rock band on it. They towed this thing all around the city during the ride; and I’ll bet their legs thanked us when we didn’t force them to stop at all red lights.

I have participated fairly regularly in the protest movement since the 2000 election and I have found the same thing operating there. Sometimes people criticize the protest movement for lacking direction, unity of purpose or a coherent position. But this just entirely misses the point! Protests–among which I would include Critical Mass–are about mobilizing people (period). The goal is to get people out in the streets! Once they’re out there we can talk about why and where we’re going. But if we had to have all of that straightened out beforehand, we’d more likely stay inside on our couch or at our computer, fostering our own self-righteous indignation at the fact that the whole world isn’t exactly like us.


Oh my!!

Ladies and gentlemen, yesterday was the last Ride the Fire Eagle Danger Day. And if you don’t know what that means, then you must find out… now… here (it’ll only take a few minutes). And in addition to knowledge filling you in on what’s new, you will see animations, power moves, bits of the ORG, an intro broadcast from Hawaii…. and Jack Black, reporting the weather… from inside. All I can say is it’s fluorescent…. or was that evanescent. 🙂 Aaahhh…. it just makes me feel good inside.


I’ve been meaning to post about my great-uncle Neil, but I just never get around to it… Until I was motivated today after I pulled off the bookshelf a collection of articles that had been given to me via my grandfather, with the title Nacirema (wikipedia). I had an inkling about what the name might mean, but when I read the Introduction, it read like a real collection of scholarly articles on American cultural anthropology. In fact, Neil writes the final article, “The Mysterious Fall of the Nacimeran: This Vigorous Culture’s Obsession with Altering its Land and Waterways May Have Caused its own Death,” written in 1972 (I was delighted to have found the article online–hence the link). Put down your Harry Potter and read this article–it is wonderfully illuminating.

Over the last two years, as both of my maternal grandparents passed away, I had the unexpected good fortune of discovering a previously unknown family relative: Neil Baird Thomspon, a former professor of American Studies at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. He died prematurely of cancer in 1977. An intellectual and a man with vision, he took his illness as an opportunity not only to prepare the manuscript on which he was working, and which would be published two years after his death, but to prepare his own “humanistic” funeral. There is a surviving audio tape of the funeral that I have not heard; but I am told that in the car on the way back from Minnesota, I (a year and a half old) uttered my first word: wa-ter.

The book was completed by a colleague who wrote “In Memoriam” that “Because Neil was a careful and complete craftsman, his drafts and notes eased the final work of publication.” I cannot imagine much higher a complement to be paid. When I received a copy from my aunt last year, I read it with the enthusiasm of meeting someone I had longed to meet. There are many wonderful features of the book, but most of all its careful, concise and measured prose made reading it a joy.

The Foreword describes the book as “a vivid portrayal of the events which transpired during the Indian Wars Campaign following the Civil War and services performed by that relatively small Regular Army force engaged in securing the western plains for occupation and settlement by the white man.” More than anything, it is a meditation on the real life situation (‘on the ground’ as we say today) of the American footsoldier. Its title, Crazy Horse Called Them Walk-A-Heaps, expresses much of Thompson’s final assessment in a few, poignant words. Published in 1979, it provides a well-developed complement to, for instance, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970). Using the Battle of Little Bighorn as its guiding point, it supplements that pioneering work on the Native American realities of the great plains wars with an equally sensitive portrayal of the American footsoldier himself.

Like any good historical account, Thompson’s study of the Regular Army has as much to teach us today about the politics of war as it teaches us to distrust our romantic visions of the past. Indeed, it seems that the United States was singularly unprepared to undertake its mission of securing the west from the “ravages” of the “lawless” Native Americans. The Regular Army was a rag-tag force of Civil War veterans, foreign recruits and vagabonds. They were underfunded, ill-prepared, inappropriately supplied and their various forts and encampments were only loosely connected. Meanwhile, the political establishment and the media back east kept the populous woefully ignorant of the real status of the ongoing conflict. In concluding a chapter called, “The Hydra-headed Monster: The Nation’s Interests and the Army,” Thompson writes:

Two of a kind, those–the soldier and the Indian. Disliked, feared, treated with contempt, they were kept from an intimate relationship by ambiguities, animosities and the greediness of those people who created the murky situation in which they were the primary pawns. And so the trooper and the warrior fought and killed each other while developing hatreds to last more than a lifetime.

Neil Thompson, like his brother (my grandfather), was a WWII GI and a devoted soldier. He does not bring to his analysis any a priori distain for war or soldiers. Just the opposite, his assessment of the R.A. soldier is admiring and illuminating. He sees the soldiers as victims of a bureaucratic tangle, brought about by greed for expansion to the west and an army that was unfit to fight a war over such a vast landscape, against a superbly trained guerrilla warrior. As the previous quotation makes clear, he extended the same respect and empathic perspective to the Native American warriors. For them, Thompson observers, horsemanship and the ability to navigate the landscape were simply part of life: “the lifestyle of the horse Indian produced a superior fighting man. His value system, his concept of logistics, his use of the horse, his tactical sense, his medical knowledge, all contributed to make the warrior.”

A chapter called “Gentlemen by Act of Congress: The Officer’s Corps” describes how the American soldier, though undertrained and underequiped, rose to the occasion of the war. Despite woeful conditions and a lack of funds, these soldiers made the most of it. Select officers who possessed innate military acumen adapted to the style of warfare waged by the Native Americans to some effect. Almost more remarkably, however, Thompson records impressive scientific observations of the topography, flora and fauna of the western plains carried out by officers. One developed into what Thompson calls a “litterateur,” writing some 86 novels, while others preserved a more modest body of information about paleontology or weather.

No, there was nothing reprehensible about the American soldier; and there remains a wealth of reasons to ponder over what we lost with the deaths of so many American Indians… It was simply the war itself, the policy that governed it and the way in which it was executed that made that period such a morally bleak era in American history.

In fact, Thompson is quite clear that the stated policy of expansion was hardly advanced by this foolhearty war. Indeed, it seems that white settlement, the railroads, disease and the destruction of the buffalo were the real reasons for the annihilation of the Native American civilization. In fact, the most positive outcome of the great war in the plains was that it readied an outdated and aging military for the wars of the twentieth century.

One can only conclude that the R.A. was really a quite minor factor in the “civilizing” of our last frontier. We can surmise that the men who faced the Indian Campaigns, risked life and limb against some of the finest light cavalry the world had ever seen, finally learned what it took to make a modern army. Those hard lessons finally forced that army into being.

As I mentioned at the outset, the book was posthumously edited and published. Though I believe the argument is complete and the writing certainly fluid, I wonder what more uncle Neil may have had to say. As it stands, the book seems to end abruptly. But the last few paragraphs portend wonderful insights:

Given such a slap-dash organization, the history of the Indian Campaigns could be little more than the series of ill-managed episodes that it was…. The Old Army was a grand spectacle–of individuals. It certainly was not a grand army. the historian finds it difficult to call it an army at all.

One wonders how he would have understood this claim in light of the broader identity and development of a nation of frontierspeople. A nation, as his tongue-and-cheek “Nacirema” article suggests, that is so driven by consumption and its desire to alter its environment that it would someday (gasp!) bring about its own demise.

Jesus Camp-a review

Just watched the documentary Jesus Camp. Anyone who grew up with an evangelical Christian background–actually, anybody who cares about the social state of this country–will find this movie is disturbing. It is intensely personal, highly critical, at times touching and artistic. It is a caricature of fundamentalist Christianity in the United States and like all caricatures intensifies certain features of the movement at the expense of a realistic representation. Yet it is not for that reason false.

I used to go to a summer camp that was organized for the purpose of instilling, not to say indoctrinating, a fundamentalist Christian world-view. There is enough in the movie that I recognize as an accurate depiction of the disturbing impact of fundamentalist religious beliefs on children that I would not call this movie a fabrication. I know that people like Bill O’Reilly think that this movie–along with the recent Friends of God: A Road Trip with Alexandra Pelosi–are paradigmatic examples of a left-wing conspiracy to discredit and undermine well-meaning conservative Chrstians by highlighting the most extreme elements of the movement. But the fact that anything like the events portrayed in Jesus Camp actually happen (even if only in this unique situation) is disturbing in itself.