an asshole and his money

Well sure, Elon Musk is a massive asshole. We all know that. He’s an asshole on a multitude of levels. But he’s an incredibly rich asshole, so the stuff he says and does carries some social weight. It’s important, though, for us to remember that that weight is the weight of gold, not the weight of intellect.

Back a few months ago, when he was still just talking about maybe buying Twitter, Musk said this:

“Free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”

Free speech IS the bedrock of a functioning democracy, he was right about that. But only a dolt would think that what takes place on Twitter is a debate. And while I can’t read Musk’s mind, I suspect his interest in Twitter wasn’t so much about securing the bedrock of democracy as it was about wanting to own the public square. And if a public square is owned by anybody, it ceases to be a public square.

Compare Musk’s desire to own the public square and influence socieity to the contribution of the richest man in the world a century ago — Andrew Carnegie. Like Musk, Carnegie was an immigrant to the United States. Unlike Musk, Carnegie was born poor. In 1848, his parents borrowed enough money to emigrate to the US. Carnegie was twelve years old, but he was put to work immediately, employed as a bobbin boy in a textile mill in Allegheny, PA (his job was to keep the bobbins wound with thread). He wanted to improve himself, but he couldn’t afford the US$2 subscription fee to the local library.

By the end of the 19th century, Carnegie was rich. Like every rich person (I’m just making assumptions here), he was an asshole in many ways. But he never forgot his experience as a bobbin boy. So one of the things he decided to do with his money was to build a public library. This was in 1889.

The Carnegie Library in Braddock, PA — built in 1889.

This was radical. A public library. A library open to the public. The entire public. A free library, available to everybody–including women and children and folks who weren’t white. That first library was built in Braddock, PA, which was near one of Carnegie’s steel mills.

Then Carnegie built three more free, public libraries, all in locations near his mills. And he didn’t stop. He kept building public libraries. All over the United States. And in his native Scotland. And in the UK and Ireland. And Canada. And Australia, and South Africa, and New Zealand. And France and Belgium and Serbia. And in the Caribbean and the South Pacific.

Dude eventually built or funded the construction of almost 1700 public libraries in the US, and around 3500 worldwide. He had rules and conditions that any community that wanted Carnegie to dig into his pockets and fund a public library had to meet. They had to demonstrate a need for the library, they had to provide a building site, they had to agree to pay the staff and maintain the library (and those funds had be drawn from public sources, not private donations), and they had to agree to provide free service to all.

Not everybody was willing to accept Carnegie’s cash, especially after his steel company was involved in one of the ugliest and bloodiest labor confrontations in US history. Like Musk and so many rich pricks, Carnegie wasn’t a fan of unions (I told you he was an asshole in many ways).

Carnegie Library in Woodbine, IA — built in 1909.

But hey, a public library is still a huge deal for a lot of small communities, so they were generally willing to take advantage of Carnegie’s offer. Take the small town of Woodbine, Iowa, for example. Incorporated in 1887, a small railroad town. In 1908 Woodbine had a population of about 1500. They asked Carnegie for a library and he gave them $7500. That was enough to build the library; the town had to cough up the coin to buy the books and pay the staff. It’s not a grand building, by any means, but it’s quietly lovely.

Woodbine’s population hasn’t changed much in the century or so since the library was built. The library is still central to the community. In addition to books, it offers computers and free wifi and has a small coffee bar. It hosts board game afternoons and a brown bag book club. Hell, this place loans cake pans. Seriously. If you’re a resident of Woodbine and have a library card and find yourself in need of a certain size of cake pan that you don’t have in your cupboard, you can check one out from the library.

Andrew Carnegie had a rich person’s capacity for being a colossal asshole, but he also gave back to the community in way that rich assholes like Elon Musk don’t even consider. During the last couple of decades of his life, Carnegie gave away about 90% of his wealth. And not to his family. He wrote: The man who dies rich, dies disgraced. Which is one of the least asshole things a rich person can say.

Rich assholes are a threat to democracy. Musk talks about democracy without any real understanding of it, with antagonism towards it. Carnegie was a lesser asshole because he actually did something to encourage democracy. He gave common people access to information and knowledge.

Support your local library.

willfully and deliberately stupid

I don’t know if you’ve read any of the SCOTUS decisions from the last few weeks. I mean actually read them, not just read news reports or blog posts about them. I suspect most folks haven’t. Can’t blame anybody for that; it takes time to churn through these decisions (the Bruen decision is 135 pages long, for fuck’s sake) and big chunks of them (while certainly/probably important) are mind-numbingly boring.

But if you do take the time to read the most important decisions, I think you’ll discover a theme running through them. And that theme is this: the conservative majority is being willfully and deliberately stupid.

I’m just going to focus on the Bruen decision (and the concurring opinions) because we just went through a long holiday weekend that delivered sixteen mass shootings. The issue in Bruen was a New York law stating an individual who wanted to carry a concealed firearm outside their home had to prove they had a “proper cause” for doing so. In other words, you had to have a good reason for going strapped in public.

In essence, SCOTUS said, pffft, you don’t need no stinking reason, this is America, bitches.

The Court’s majority decision begins by noting that “this Court has long cautioned that the English common law “is not to be taken in all respects to be that of America.” It then (and I am NOT making this up) it spends pages explaining how common law back in Merry Olde England allowed folks to carry guns.

[W]hatever place handguns had in English society during the Tudor and Stuart reigns, by the time we reach the 18th century—and near the founding—they had gained a fairly secure footing in English culture.

You may be asking, “Greg, old sock, when were these Tudor and Stuarts reigning in England? And why should we give a shit?” I’m glad you asked (and stop calling me ‘old sock’). The Tudors and Stuarts were big hats in England from 1485 to 1714. A long fucking time ago. That means we’re talking about flintlock pistols—big honking single shot handguns weighing a couple of pounds, with an effective combat range of about 20 feet, that took a trained soldier at least 30 seconds to reload. Why should we give a shit? No idea. I confess, if I see a guy walking into Starbucks with a flintlock pistol strapped to his belt, I’m not going to get too concerned.

Flintlock pistol

The SCOTUS decision sporadically repeats its finding from Heller decision: “[T]he Second Amendment protects only the carrying of weapons that are those ‘in common use at the time.’” To say flintlock pistols were in common use at the time is bullshit, mainly because most folks didn’t have any need to tote a pistol around (and besides, those things were expensive). But it’s true that IF folks carried a pistol back then, it was a flintlock. Does that constitute ‘common use’? I don’t think so. The Court then goes on to say:

Whatever the likelihood that handguns were considered “dangerous and unusual” during the colonial period, they are indisputably in “common use” for self-defense today.

Dude, they’re in common use today because y’all allowed them to be in common use. It’s like saying colonial era folks never kept their dogs on a leash, then arguing that leash laws aren’t justified in cities now because unleashed dogs were common back then. Willfully and deliberately stupid.

The Court notes that historically, there weren’t a lot of laws in the US restricting the carrying of guns. Not until we passed an amendment restricting firearms.

Only after the ratification of the Second Amendment in 1791 did public-carry restrictions proliferate.

Maybe that’s because the 2nd Amendment specifically mentions that well-regulated militia? Once you link keeping and bearing arms to the militia, state and local lawmakers are going to base laws on that. Right?

The Court, in its review of the history of firearm restrictions, also notes there was an “uptick in gun regulation during the late-19th century—principally in the Western Territories.” You know why there was an uptick in the Old West? Because that’s where cowboys carried guns and got in gunfights. Cowboys had a need for handguns when they were out rounding up cattle and stuff. There were snakes and predators that threatened the cattle and understandably pissed-off native Americans. But when those cowboys rode into Dodge, the sheriff made them take off their guns to stop drunken cowboys from fucking shooting each other. This is NOT hard to understand.

The notion that states and cities have limited power to regulate firearms because the US doesn’t have a history or tradition of regulating firearms is massively stupid. We didn’t have a history or tradition of cowboys riding riotously through a town, shooting at random until cowboys started riding riotously through towns, shooting at random. You don’t need laws preventing folks from doing shit UNTIL THEY START DOING SHIT.

What we DO have now is a history and tradition of mass shootings and mass murder. We are contributing to that history and tradition every goddamn day. As I noted earlier, we had sixteen mass shootings from July 1 through July 4. Four days. Sixteen mass shootings. Eighteen dead, 105 wounded. In four days.

In his concurring opinion, Justice Alito scolds the three Justices who dissented from the majority opinion. He wrote:

[T]he dissent seemingly thinks that the ubiquity of guns and our country’s high level of gun violence provide reasons for sustaining the New York law, the dissent appears not to understand that it is these very facts that cause law-abiding citizens to feel the need to carry a gun for self-defense.

Alito is being willfully and deliberately stupid. The ubiquity of guns and the high level of gun violence ARE EXACTLY the reason for sustaining a law that requires people to demonstrate an actual need to carry a firearm.

Again, it’s like claiming I need to walk around with my dog unleashed to protect me from all those goddamned unleashed dogs out there.

well, here we are

I haven’t written here for a week or so — not because I don’t have anything to say, but because there’s SO MUCH to say. I start to write about this, which is necessarily tied into that and is deeply connected to this other thing. You can’t, for example, write about abortion without also writing about the political corruption of the Supreme Court, which means you also need to address the rising fascism of the Republican Party and the green grass grows all around, all around.

But here we are on July 4th. Independence Day, right? When we celebrate the decision by a group of colonists so fed up with a hostile government that subjected them to such “a long train of abuses and usurpations” that they felt it was necessary “to dissolve the political bands which have connected them.”

I think the operative term there is necessary. It’s from the Latin necesse (which meant ‘unavoidable’) and cedere (to withdraw, go away). Necessary, a thing from which there is no backing away. The colonists felt it was necessary to rebel against the government that oppressed them.

When we think about the Declaration of Independence, we tend to focus on the dramatic bits at the beginning. Mainly this line:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That’s powerful stuff, no mistake. Beautifully written. But we forget that the biggest chunk of the Declaration is a list of grievances — an inventory of all the shit the government of the King of England was imposing on the American colonies. That list includes stuff like:

— He has obstructed the Administration of Justice
— He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices
— He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us

There’s another small chunk of Declaration that gets overlooked. It’s just a paragraph that basically says, “Hey, look, we warned you guys about this. Repeatedly. We asked you nicely to knock this shit off. We have appealed to your native justice and magnanimity. But no, you fucking ignored all those warnings. You have been deaf to the voice of justice.

A lot of us today feel much as those colonists did almost 250 years ago. Instead of a tyrannical king or queen, we have to deal with a neo-fascist Republican Party. We have to deal with Republican at the state level who are actively manipulating laws to undermine the process of representative democracy. We have to deal with a Republican Supreme Court that ignores legal precedence when it conflicts with their personal religious beliefs or their political ideology. We have to deal with a former president who not only refused to accept the result of a free and fair election, but continues to foment sedition.

Those colonists had to choose — do we keep putting up with this shit, or do we act? We have to make a similar choice. We know basically what needs to be done. The Supreme Court MUST be made neutral. It MUST be returned to balance. Not a liberal Court (as much as I’d love that); just a Supreme Court that isn’t governed by any partisan ideology.

The Declaration of Independence was a revolutionary document. I mean revolutionary in every sense of the term. It sparked an actual revolution, it started a shooting war. We don’t want or need that here. We don’t need to turn the world upside down — at least not at this point; we just need to put it back into balance.

But one thing is clear. If we don’t act, if we keep putting up with this shit, if we don’t start electing Democrats who are willing to make some radical but legal decisions to balance SCOTUS, if we don’t do that in the very next election, then we may never see another free and fair election in my lifetime.

saturday, noodling around

I don’t know what you did last weekend, but I drove 75 miles to the small former coal town of Humeston, Iowa. Why? Because there’s a tiny cafe. Almost every small town has some sort of tiny cafe or diner. But this one–the Grassroots Cafe–serves a grape salad that’s so good you want to lie on the floor and kick your feet in the air. And the bread pudding would make angels weep that it exists for mortals on the earthly plane.

The Grassroots Cafe

Humeston is a really small town. Population: 465 in 2020. It was the home of the Humeston and Shenandoah Railroad, which in 1881 ran 113 miles from Humeston to (guess where) Shenandoah, Iowa. In its glory days, the H&S RR ran 14 classic 4-4-0 steam locomotives, hauling mostly coal, grain, livestock and occasionally passengers to the slightly larger town of Shenandoah, where the railroad joined up with the Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska Railway system. (You may be wondering, “Greg, old sock, what is a 4-4-0 locomotive?” I wondered the same thing and I googled it. You can do the same thing. Don’t be lazy. And stop calling me ‘old sock’.)

This is Humeston.

By the late 1920s, the H&S RR was beginning to fade. The advent of the automobile (and, more importantly, the truck), combined with improved roads, the gradual decline of local coal, and the beginnings of the Great Depression, strangled the small railroad business. The railroad died slowly and in sections, but by the mid-1940s, during the Second World War, it was essentially gone. As the railroad died, so did the town’s population.

Humeston, near the cinder bike path.

Although the railroad is gone, the track left behind became Iowa’s first rails-to-trails bike path. Thirteen and a half miles, from Humeston to Chariton. Unfortunately, it’s also Iowa’s worst-maintained bike path. About half of it is gravel and cinder; the other half is…well, just grass. Sometimes overgrown grass. It’s doubly sad because it’s one of the few bike trails with covered bridges.

Humeston

On arrival in Humeston, I gave in to an impulse. Sometimes you just have to give in to your impulses. You know how it is. You’re on the road, you see a train, you pretty much have to say, “Train” out loud, even though anybody with you can see the damned train. Same with horses and cows (and, I don’t know, maybe sheep? Yeah, probably sheep). Even if you resist saying it aloud, there’s a part of you that’s thinking and wanting to say “Cow” when you see a cow. It just happens.

The photographic equivalent of saying “train” or “cow” is shooting your reflection in a window.

First photo in Humeston

Obviously, I gave in to that impulse. My first thought was that Humeston should be photographed in black-and-white (why yes, I DO have an app I use just for b&w photography–doesn’t everybody?). But the day became so sunny and bright (though still brutally cold) that I quickly abandoned that idea and shifted to my standard photo app.

Selfie with Humeston bench.

And my first photo was, yes, a reflection selfie. There’s no point to it; you just have to do it sometimes. Usually, you do it once and that’s enough; you won’t have to do it again for weeks or months. The impulse has been fulfilled and you can get on with your life. But there are occasions when the itch just doesn’t feel properly scratched until you’ve done it a few times.

Yes, three (3!) reflection selfies in Humeston.

So I wandered around on the streets of Humeston briefly (briefly because 1) it was savagely cold and 2) there isn’t enough of Humeston to wander around at length). It feels like a small town, to be sure, but it doesn’t feel like a small town in decline. Sure, some of the shops are empty, and some are a wee bit worse for wear, but everybody I met was cheerful and there was a sort of bright enthusiasm to the limited commerce. The aisles of the general store (yes, there’s a general store) were so exuberant that they were almost hallucinatory.

Tripping in Humeston.

As much as I love to visit small towns, I always find myself wondering what it would be like to grow up in one–and deciding it would be awful on so many levels that you’d need an abacus to count them. I have absolutely nothing to base that on, and the people I know who grew up in small towns generally have nice things to say about the experience. But damn.

On the way home from Humeston, we passed through the town of Lucas, Iowa, where we saw this charming little brick building. Of course, we decided to stop and look.

Lucas is so small it makes Humeston feel like a metropolis. Before it was a town, it was just a station on the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad line. The station was established in 1866. A decade later, the Whitebreast Coal and Mining Company sank a mine near the station. There was a rich deposit of coal, and by 1880, they’d opened a second coal mine and created a company town. If you’re not familiar with the concept of a company town, it’s basically a town in which practically everything–all the stores, the housing, the local services–are owned by a single company that’s also the sole (or at least the primary) employer. If you wanted to buy a shirt or a loaf of bread, if you wanted to have a boil lanced or a tooth extracted, you paid the money you earned from the company back to the company, before returning to the house you’ve rented from the company.

Lucas selfie with optional shop cats.

By 1890, there were 1300 people living and working for the Whitebreast Coal and Mining Company in Lucas. But here’s the thing about coal. Once you dig it up, it’s gone. A coal mine without coal is just a big fucking hole in the ground. The last productive coal mine in the Lucas area closed in 1923. By 1930, the population had dropped to about 500. In the 2020 census, the population was only 172.

Dr. Bell’s office.

There were three antique/craft stores in Lucas. None of them were open during our brief stop, nor was the John L. Lewis Mining Labor Museum (union organizer John Lewis apparently got his first job as a coal miner in Lucas). I doubt that Doc Bell is still in business, but his office is still standing. If you look, you can recognize the bones of the old company town that existed here a century ago.

That was my Saturday. A day spent not doing much of anything–just noodling around in small towns, thinking about stuff, shooting shop-window selfies. In other words, a day well spent.

anocracy

The CIA (yes, that CIA) sucks in massive amounts of data and information from a whole galaxy of sources. One of those sources, when it comes to assessing the stability of a nation, is the Center for Systemic Peace. You’re probably asking, “Greg, old sock, just what the hell is this Center for Systemic Peace…and is that really it’s actual, no-shit name?”

Yes, that really is its name. The CSP was founded in 1997 to conduct “research and quantitative analysis in many issue areas related to the fundamental problems of violence in both human relations and societal-systemic development processes.” Basically, they evaluate a nation’s stability by looking at stuff–like the spectrum of social conflict, the methods of governance, and the various responses of the population. The CSP does this for just about every nation state that has a population of over half a million. Also, stop calling me ‘old sock’.

One of the CSP’s metrics for national stability is what they call a ‘polity score’. It measures ‘regime authority’ on a 21-pont scale with a zero point at the center: -10 being an hereditary monarchy, +10 is a consolidated democracy. They tend clump nations into three groups: 1) autocracies (-10 to -6), anocracies (-5 to +5), and democracies (+6 to +10).

Now I suspect you’re asking, “Greg, old sock, what the fuck is an anocracy?” Good question. At the high end (+5) an anocracy is a form of government that’s democratic but has autocratic features; at the low end (-5) it’s an autocratic government with some democratic features.

Why am I telling you all this? Two reasons. First, the CIA uses the CSP as a tool for understanding how fucked up nations are. They have their own reasons for doing this, of course, some of which are almost certainly nefarious, but the CSP metrics are universally seen as pretty damned reliable. The second reason I’m telling you this is because the US, for most or our history, has been either a +9 or a +10. For a long time, the US was the world’s longest continuing democracy.

This is insurgency

Now we’re not. According to the CSP, under the Comrade Trump administration the polity score of the US dropped to a +5, which drags us right out of the democracy zone and dumps us in with the anocracies. How’d that happen? You can find the CSP’s abbreviated political history of the US here.

It’s sad that the US is now just a high-functioning, democracy-leaning anocracy. What makes it all very much worse, though, is that anocracies are much more susceptible to insurgencies, and nations that with active insurgencies are more likely to slide into an actual civil war. And we’re seeing overt signs of a growing insurgency movement in the US.

Depending on which poll you look at, somewhere between 17-38% of folks who identify strongly as Republicans believe the use of violence to ‘restore America’ is acceptable or necessary. Every state in the Union has at least one civilian armed militia movement. Some militia groups are national–the Oathkeepers, the III Percenters, the Proud Boys, etc. Members (and supporters) of militia groups have engaged in anti-government ranging from the insurrection on 1/6/20, to a plot to kidnap the Democratic governor of Michigan and put her on ‘trial’, to threatening the lives of local election or school board official. These aren’t just crimes; they’re insurgent actions.

The III Percenters are insurgents

Again, the US is still at the high end of anocracies. We can claw our way back into the realm of full democracies. But there’s no guarantee we will. At this point, the Republican Party is effectively acting as the political wing of an inchoate collective of insurgent groups, all of whom want to install some form of right-wing authoritarian government. Since Senators Sinema and Manchin have given the GOP the power they need to suppress voting, the odds of the US sinking lower on the polity scale have increased.

The Oathkeepers are insurgents

It’s hard for me to even say this–mainly because this should be unthinkable–but we may be witnessing a cascade of events that will be the end of representative democracy in the United States. And because it should be unthinkable, most of the people in the US aren’t thinking about it at all. Most of us are just assuming everything will go on just about as it always has. And maybe it will. But I’m not confident about it. I keep thinking of the closing stanza of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men.

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

ADDENDUM (1/28): It appears that Uncle Joe’s move to the Oval Office has allowed the US to claw its way up from a 5 on the Polity Scale to an 8. We are now a middling, shaky democracy. Yay?

new year bullshit

Okay, look, this whole New Year bidness? It’s bullshit. I mean, sure, we live in a culture that requires us to establish metrics for Time. But basically, I’m with Thomas Mann on this: Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunderstorm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. The objective differences between December 31, 2021 and January 1, 2022 are trifling.

Even if we agree that there are valid reasons to demarcate one year from another, the only reason January 1–a date right in the middle of the fucking winter–is considered the first day of a new year is because Julius Caesar yanked the old 10 month Roman calendar and imposed a new, improved 12 month one. He added a couple of months, clever boy, one of which was January–named for Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings and endings, the god of gates and doorways, the god of transitions. Caesar made the imperial decision that the first day of the new month would be the first day of the new Roman year. I’m not saying he deserved to be stabbed to death for that, but c’mon, what an arrogant prick.

Generally, folks living in the Roman Empire at that time (which was seriously huge, by the way) felt a new year began at some point around the Vernal Equinox. Which totally makes sense. It’s around the end of March, winter is over, the land begins to come alive again, leaves grow on trees, plants bloom, days are longer, everything is new. So when Caesar imposed this new calendar on the empire, common folks mostly ignored it. They continued to celebrate a seasonal new year rather than a calendar-based one.

Then three hundred years or so later, Christianity came along and sort of fucked things up. When the Roman emperor Constantine decided that Christianity was the Official Religion of Rome (which is a whole nother story), all his generals and high ranking officials had to become Christian if they wanted to advance their careers. That meant supporting the nascent Church, and supporting the Church meant adapting pagan holy days to Christian holy days AND marking them on the Roman calendar.

Still, hardly anybody celebrated January 1 as New Year’s Day. It was celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. You may be asking yourself how Romans decided that Jesus was circumcised on January 1, which is a reasonable thing to ask yourself. What happened was a Roman historian named Sextus Julius Africanus, after some serious consideration, decided Jesus was probably conceived around the Vernal Equinox. That’s why Christmas is mostly celebrated on December 25, nine months later. And according to Jewish law and tradition, eight days after a boy is born his parents hold a bris. What’s a bris? It’s a ceremony in which a mohel comes to the family’s home, snips the foreskin off the boy’s penis, then everybody has a nice meal. Eight days after December 25 is January 1.

Now, there’s a whole weird, uncomfortable history dealing with early Christianity and circumcision which isn’t worth going into (so much of history has been shaped by the relationship men have with their dicks). There’s a whole sub-genre of art devoted to Jesus getting snipped. The important thing, though, is that over time the Christian discomfort over the celebration of Jesus being separated from his Holy Foreskin morphed the event into a celebration of the New Year.

This is why folks are putting on pointy party hats and blowing horns and getting high school drunk tonight. Because Yahweh decided Abraham should be circumcised and Julius Caesar wanted a better calendar and a Roman historian made a wild guess about when Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit and Constantine decided to become a Christian and early Christians became awkward and uncertain about circumcision so instead of celebrating a bit of foreskin-snipping they fell back onto celebrating Caesar’s arbitrary decision to start a new year in the middle of the fucking winter.

It’s all bullshit. The sun rises, the sun sets, the earth orbits the Sun, tilts on its axis, we have seasons. And basically, that’s it. Some folks just need an excuse for a party.

sunday — this beautiful world

Sunday morning, early October, chilly but sunny, not a cloud in the sky, very little wind. Who wouldn’t want to go for a bike ride? Now, I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking, “Greg, old sock, you always want to go for a bike ride.” First, stop calling me ‘old sock’. Second, well, yeah.

My brother-in-law, who’ll I’ll call “Jeff” (on account of that’s his name) and I started our ride in a little Iowa town called Mingo. I am NOT making that up. It’s an old coal-mining town, named after the Mingo tribe of the Iroquois nation. The Mingos, by the way, didn’t call themselves Mingos; that’s what the neighboring Algonquin tribes called them. It’s a corruption of the Algonquin term mingwe, which apparently means ‘sneaky’. But they weren’t sneaky enough to escape the notice of ‘progress’. As part of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, any remaining Mingos in Iowa were required to shift themselves to Kansas. Why? As President Andrew Jackson said at the time,

“What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms?”

Andrew Jackson was more fucking savage than the Mingos, and a LOT of us would prefer a country covered with forests. Anyway, Mingo now is a sneaky little town of about 300 white people and a small biker tavern (as opposed to a cyclist pub). We did NOT have a beer at the Greencastle Tavern because 10:30 in the morning is too early to drink. And besides, the tavern wasn’t open yet.

Just outside of Mingo.

This bike trail is called the Chichaqua Valley Trail. You might assume that’s because it runs through the Chichaqua Valley. Silly rabbit. There is no Chichaqua Valley. There is, however, a 25-mile-long series of oxbows and bottomlands called the Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt. The oxbows are the isolated remains of the South Skunk River, which coal companies ‘straightened’ in order to facilitate barges transporting coal from mining towns like Mingo. More ‘progress’.

That straight line is the current channel of the South Skunk River

The Skunk River got its name a couple hundred years before the Mingo arrived in this part of the country. The French voyageurs, exploring and trapping beaver, asked the local Meskwaki tribe what the river was called. They were told the river was Chichaqua. The natives were referring the smell of the wild onions and cabbage that grew along the riverbanks. They’d also used that term to describe skunks. So we can thank the confused French for the Skunk River.

Like so many Iowa bicycle trails, the Chichaqua Trail follows an old railroad line. This was the Wisconsin, Iowa & Nebraska Railroad, originally built in 1885 to haul coal and livestock throughout the Midwest. You can actually gauge your progress along the trail by watching for old railroad mile markers that show the distance to Kansas City. Unlike most rails-to-trails bike paths, which tend to be incredibly straight and incredibly dull, this trail is full of curves and turns. One bicycle trail guide describes it as ‘serpentine,’ which may be a tad too elegant, but isn’t entirely wrong.

One of the many bridges.

It runs mostly through farmland and woods. It’s a quiet trail. Even on a perfect autumn Sunday afternoon, we saw very few other cyclists. For the most part, all you hear is the wind and the sound of your tires on pavement or rattling over the many wooden bridges. There are a LOT of bridges–some small, some extensive. The trail crosses over creeks, drainage ditches, oxbows, and the South Skunk River. I don’t know how many bridges there are; I forgot to keep count after the first nine.

Another bridge.

We tend to think of bike trails on old railroad lines as being flat–and they generally are. When there are hills, early railroad builders tended to rely on long slow inclines. Really long inclines. There’s a section of the trail that winds uphill for just about four miles. And I mean it winds. You can only see a few hundred feet in front of you, so you have no grasp of just how close–or how far away–you are from the top. It’s not steep, but it’s fucking endless. You start to believe…to hope…that you’ll be able to see the top around the next bend in the trail, And each bend in the trail crushes that hope. You won’t see any photos of that hill, because there was no way I was going to stop.

Bridge over the South Skunk River

After about 15 miles, we reached the town of Bondurant, named for the first white person who settled there (Alexander C. Bondurant–I don’t know if he did anything worthy or important other than being white and deciding he’d gone far enough west and decided to just stop traveling). Eventually the Chicago Great Western Railway Company built a depot there–which has been reproduced as a rest area for cyclists. It’s very nice. Bathrooms, picnic tables, repair station, drinking water. All very pleasant, but Jeff and I made straight for Reclaimed Rails–a bike brew pub just off the trail.

One of the best things about cycling in Iowa is the advent of the bike brew pub. Beer and bikes are a natural pairing. The sugars and salts in beer help you absorb fluids more efficiently than water alone; you’d have to drink a lot more water to get the same hydration effects of beer. No, I’m serious. THIS IS SCIENCE, people. Beer also has almost as many antioxidants as red wine, and that helps your leg muscles recover. And hey, it’s cold and it tastes good.

Along the Gay Lea Wilson Trail, a man fishing.

After hydrating and dosing ourselves with antioxidants (mine was a nice malty Märzen), we set off again. After a few miles, we turned off onto the Gay Lea Wilson Trail, named for the advocate who came up with the idea of a series of bike paths and trails through central Iowa. Unlike the rails-to-trails bike paths, which were based on direct routes for transporting goods, the Gay Lea Wilson trail weaves in and out of semi-rural areas and suburbs. It’s designed to transport people, making it easy for folks (and families) to access the trail and travel by bike to places they want to visit. Places like libraries and parks and picnic areas and playgrounds and…well, brew pubs.

Another 15 miles or so took us to our final stop: Brightside Aleworks, a fairly new craft brew pub that has a relaxed vibe closer to a coffee shop than a beer joint. We’d ridden about 33 miles altogether. Aside from the brutal four mile uphill stretch, it was a nice way to spend a day. It was fun. And the beer was cold and welcome (I had a biscuity, slightly sweet Irish red).

That’s the thing about cycling. It’s fun. Sure, it’s good for you. Fresh air, healthy exercise, all that. But mostly it’s fun. That’s why I ride. Bugger exercise; I ride because it makes me happy. Because it’s one of the best ways to see the world you live in. You get to meander along at whatever pace you want (well, fucking hills excepted) and be a part of the landscape, rather than just passing through it in a car.

Dr. K.K. Doty (who doesn’t seem to exist on the internet other than as the author of this quote) wrote: Cyclists see considerably more of this beautiful world than any other class of citizens. A good bicycle, well applied, will cure most ills this flesh is heir to. Most ills. Not all ills. But most. It’s a bicycle, not a miracle machine.

Well, maybe a miracle machine. Small miracles in a big world. It’s enough.

yeah, it did

You know what’s annoying? You probably do, but I’m going to tell you anyway (which is undoubtedly annoying). What’s annoying is folks who ought to know better–and maybe actually do know better–repeating the same stupid shit. They continue to claim to be absolutely shocked at the completely predictable outcome of the US/NATO adventure in Afghanistan.

“It didn’t have to be this way,” they say. And yeah, they have a point–but it’s a very narrow one. The moment the Bush administration decided to step beyond its simple, achievable objective of eliminating the influence and capabilities of the al Qaeda network, they created an inevitable monkeyfuck situation.

It didn’t have to be this way. Yeah, it did–as soon as we decided to ignore 1700 years of history, it had to be this way. When we decided to engage in a conflict against multiple ethnic and tribal cultures we don’t understand, that operate on traditional rules and norms unknown to us, that have values and ethics that are often alien to us, and that have goals that are foreign to us, it had to be this way. We didn’t understand Afghan Rules, and we were too lazy/arrogant to bother to learn about them. I said this back in April, when President Uncle Joe announced the withdrawal date: Forget it Joe, it’s Afghanistan.

It didn’t have to be this way. Yeah, it did–when we implemented a style of combat that was heavily dependent on sophisticated technology and massive firepower in an environment that’s hostile to any machinery more complex than a Toyota pickup and has a mountainous terrain that moderates the effectiveness of firepower. Military tech is great, but that shit is expensive and it breaks. We made it all worse by training the Afghan army to fight an American-style high tech war, then failed to train them to maintain the tech required to support it.

This terrain is fucking nightmare for an invader.

It didn’t have to be this way. Yeah, it really did–when we decided to impose a Western style centralized democracy on a diverse group of tribes and clans that have zero experience with democracy. In fact, many/most of them reject the notion that they all belong to a single nation. They don’t think of themselves primarily as Afghans. The Tajiks speak Farsi and generally identify as Tajiks, not as Afghans; the Balochs speak Balochi and identify by any of dozens of local tribal or clan affiliations, not as Afghans. The same is true of the Uzbeks and the Hazara and the Kyrgyz and all of the other tribal groups. (See the Editorial Note at the end.)

Various ethnic/tribal/clan groups that make up Afghanistan

It didn’t have to be this way. Yeah, it did–when we brought an American football mindset to fight against a fútbol mindset. In football, orders are given by a coach who isn’t on the field of play. Those orders are sent to a single player who relays the commands to the others and controls the ball. The other players each have a specialized skill set and very specific roles to play; they wear complex specialized gear and follow their orders. Most of the players never touch the ball, only a very few can achieve the goal. After each play, the action stops, the team regroups and waits for the next set of orders. In fútbol, the play never stops, the players don’t depend on gear to protect them, the players learn to recognize situations and adapt their play to the immediate situation, they shift roles easily and often as the situation changes, no single player controls the ball, at any given moment any player can assume temporary control, and they’re all capable of scoring. Football is about a rigid centralized command structure, and following strict orders. Fútbol is about decentralized flexibility and quick idiosyncratic responsiveness to changing situations.

It didn’t have to be this way? Yeah, considering all the bad choices we made, it did. It was a monkeyfuck almost from the start.

EDITORIAL NOTE: I’m too lazy to count and categorize the various ethnic and tribal groups that comprise what we like to call Afghanistan, but the CIA collected a list in 2005. Many of these groups speak their own language, have their own unique identity, have their own cultural norms, have their own conflicts/feuds/vendettas with other groups. There is no United States of Afghanistan; anybody who thought we could create one was an idiot.