Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

May 20, 2015

Outlaws!

Filed under: Op-eds,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:53 am

This Sunday saw a pitched battle between two motorcycle gangs in the parking lot of a Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, Texas, which left nine dead and 18 wounded.

The good news is there were no bystanders harmed. The bad news is it’s not over yet.

The shooting involved members of the Bandidos and Cossacks gangs, with some involvement of the Scimitars and Vaqueros gangs. The score reportedly stands at eight Cossacks and one Bandido.

A possible cause of the battle, according to Texas Department of Public Safety Joint Information Center, might be the Cossacks refusing to pay Bandidos dues for operating in Texas and for wearing the Texas logo under the club patch on their vests without the Bandidos’ approval.

The Bandidos, like the Cossacks founded in 1969, are the dominant motorcycle gang in Texas. They are said to allow other gangs to exist in their territory, but do not allow them to wear the Texas patch.

The Bandidos are also said to have a feud with the Hell’s Angels, the largest motorcycle gang in the world.

Bad blood between the gangs goes back to at least 2013 when Curtis Jack Lewis, president of the Abilene, Texas chapter of the Bandidos, was arrested on charges that he stabbed two members of the Cossacks during a fight outside a restaurant.

The current war has been building for a month at least according to law enforcement. Reportedly the restaurant management was warned trouble was coming their way, but did nothing. The parent company has now revoked their franchise.

To be fair it’s difficult to see what they could have done short of a 24/7 security presence that would scream “DON’T COME HERE” to both bikers and the general trade.

So what is this all about?

That some people like to ride motorcycles is neither new nor hard to understand. Two-wheeling is some of the most fun you can have on a vehicle which doesn’t leave the ground.

Then there’s the romance of outlawry. There’s a fair number of people in our society who find it just too civilized. The allure of the outlaw band appeals to the desire to take to the open road and thumb your nose at civilization.

With this comes the primal impulse of loyalty to the tribe. In an age of gigantic impersonal nation-states this is very powerful.

With your brothers at your back you can feel powerful! Think on that the next time you’re being bullied by some petty bureaucrat and the thought creeps into your mind unbidden, “Man to man, he wouldn’t have a chance…”

This is not confined solely to the anti-social. I personally know a city attorney in the northern Midwest who likes to don his leathers, leap on his bike and ride down the road, returning with hints of not-quite-respectable adventures and bar fights.

And there are the material advantages. The lucrative criminal enterprises these gangs engage in are said by law enforcement to include trafficking in marijuana, cocaine and meth.

This is not confined to the U.S. A few years back there was a motorcycle gang war involving the Hell’s Angels in Sweden. Just last month the Night Wolves, a Russian gang, rode through Eastern Europe to demonstrate their support Putin’s dreams of resurgent Russian nationalism. Until they were stopped at the Polish border.

The outlaw biker gang is an odd phenomenon. They harken back to an age of feuding tribes, but depend on industrial civilization to build and maintain the roads and vehicles they use.

They proudly proclaim their outlaw status, but their survival depends on the laws of a free society. Because face it, how difficult would it be to wipe out gangs of conspicuous law-breakers who wear identifying badges and often tattoos, if society decided to ignore due process?

Their existence is mostly a nuisance to the larger society as long as they obey the first rule of civilized gang warfare: If you’re not a player, you’re not a target.

And I wonder, is there something about their existence we find thrilling in a guilty sort of way, as long as they confine their wars to themselves?

May 14, 2015

An idea worth a second look

Filed under: Op-eds,Politics — Stephen W. Browne @ 7:31 am

I’ve been an observer, commenter, and sometime-participant in politics now for several decades in several countries. Believe me, there is nothing like it to make you appreciate the truth of Bismarck’s observation that those who love sausage and respect the law should never watch either being made.

We are not ruled by the best among us nor the wisest. We are not ruled by those who have our best interests at heart, or who even care about what we want.

Not long ago a study conducted at Princeton University combed through 20 years of data from 1981 to 2002, looking for the answer to a simple question. Does the government represent the people?

Researchers compared public support, measured by more than 2,000 public opinion surveys, for more than 1,800 public policy initiatives with the likelihood of that measure being passed by congress. Ideally in a truly representative system the percentage of public support would track closely with the chance of it becoming law, i.e. 50 percent public support equals a fifty-fifty chance of passing, etc.

We would expect some exceptions of course.

Edmund Burke said, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

We would hope to have representatives with the wisdom to know when popular sentiment is wrong, and courage to go against their wishes and risk their displeasure.

But what they found over 20 years was an almost flat 30 percent chance of any given bill passing, whether it had zero support or nearly unanimous support of the voters.

The study concluded, “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

However, when they compared the support of the top 10 percent of income earners the likelihood of a policy initiative passing was not identical but far closer.

The fact wealth translates into political influence has never been a secret. The Founders wisely built a dynamic tension into our system, balancing the interests of the powerful few against the many, in an attempt to prevent it from lapsing into either an oligarchy or a mobocracy.

It is evident now that the equilibrium has come unbalanced, and that this is a long-term trend. It is not the result of any single law, nor the exclusive fault of either of the major parties. The problem appears to be systemic, and not fixable by electing new representatives who swear on the Bible to do something about it.

There is a group of people who think they have the solution though. Represent.us is an attempt to start a grass roots movement to pass a model anti-corruption law at city, county, and state levels with the goal of reform from the bottom up.

There are nine provisions to the model law which boil down to three basic principles: 1) prohibit politicians from receiving contributions from interests that they regulate, 2) require full disclosure of all political contributions of any kind, 3) create a small tax rebate for political contributions by individual taxpayers.

They appear to be going about this in a sensible and practical way. They’re starting with modest goals on a local level, with a program that ordinary people on the right, left, and center can support.

I confess to some reservations about this. I’m not totally sure complete transparency of political donations wouldn’t create the possibility of intimidation of donors by employers, unions or any powerful interests.

I’m also cynical about the ability of venal politicians to work around laws designed to limit their greed.

But I’m also hopeful about the enormous reservoir of talent and courage within the American people, and I refuse to believe they will tolerate becoming serfs in a corrupt oligarchy, no matter how well-upholstered their servitude may be.

And let it be said, I’m also confident that those oligarchs are smart enough to realize the people when roused will reform that system, or destroy it.

Without endorsing it yet, I say give it a look.

May 4, 2015

Terror in Texas

Filed under: Op-eds — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:13 am

Charlie Hebdo TBy the time this goes to press readers will know more than we do now about the shooting in Garland, Texas at the Mohammed cartoon contest last Sunday.

All we know for sure at the time of writing is that two men with rifles were shot dead by police after opening fire on an unarmed security guard outside the event.

The event itself was sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), a new organization founded by Robert Spenser and Pamela Geller, both prominent anti-jihad pro-Israel activists.

The convention featured a contest with a $10,000 prize for the best drawing of the Prophet Mohammed, an act considered blasphemous by Muslim fundamentalists. Attending was Dutch politician Geert Wilders who occupies a prominent place on the Al-Queda hit list.

AFDI has already generated a fair amount of controversy in a short time. The Southern Poverty Law Center wasted no time putting it on their list of “hate groups.”

But they are not so easy to dismiss. Spenser is acknowledged scholar of Islamic history and has been asked to conduct seminars on jihad by the United States Central Command, United States Army Command and General Staff College, the U.S. Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group, the FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and various organizations of the U.S. intelligence community.
Geller is an author, columnist, and outspoken proponent of free speech and opponent of honor killings, the Middle Eastern practice of murdering sisters, daughters and wives deemed to have dishonored the family for being seen with an unrelated male or just getting lippy.

Whatever you think of her political opinions Geller puts her life on the line for them, and for your right to express yours.

At a time when so many people conspicuously congratulate themselves on their courage for expressing opinions which carry not the slightest risk of even minor inconvenience, that’s impressive.

At this point speculation is rife. Some have said it’s significant there were no demonstrations outside the venue and speculated potential demonstrators had prior knowledge of the attack.

Reportedly there have been many enthusiastic expressions of support for the attackers on Twitter.

Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.

What does seem obvious is that organizers of the event were prepared for something like this. Response was swift and well organized. And we know that 200 people knew the risk and came anyway.

This is important after 206 members of PEN, the writers’ organization dedicated to free speech, signed a letter disassociating themselves from the decision to honor the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo with the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award following the murder of 12 members of their staff in Paris on January 7.

Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau, who made a career of fearlessly lampooning right-wing politicians who whatever their faults uphold his right to do so, publicly ran like a jackrabbit from the impression he’d ever offend anyone who might kill you for it.

After the targeted murders of journalists in Paris and Copenhagen many wondered if that kind of up-close-and-personal jihad against free speech could come to America.
Now we know.

Note: This is my weekly op-ed. I usually archive them after they’ve appeared in print, with exceptions such as this when the news is still breaking.

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