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Saying What We’re All Thinking: Normalize Resistance

Friday, December 9th, 2016

For reactionary populism to win, it needs to tell stories about a golden past and about a future that can be great if old values are recovered and given strength. For liberty and tolerance to win, we need to tell a better story than our opponents. Against those throwing out truth and reason for comforting lies and destructiveness, we find strength in our convictions, tell the truth, and embrace the project of creating a better future. To defeat a regime, you must point out what is wrong with the regime, but you should highlight people resisting it and the world they embody.

Let’s look at the facts: Donald Trump is pursuing the agenda of a minority of a minority.

He lost the popular vote by millions.

The maps that show stark divisions between red and blue states or counties are obscuring the numerous shades of purple that stretch across the country.

Non-voters remain the largest share of the American electorate. Their dissatisfaction with electoral politics was apparently not changed by Donald Trump.

Many of the people who voted for Donald Trump did not do so because they were excited about his agenda: they were either frightened by the Clintons or they were willing to look the other way when Trump said repugnant things. Whether or not they feel bad about their decision is up to them – I just want them to help mitigate the harm that a Trump administration would do.

Trump in power is dangerous. The numerous people who are excited about what he promised to do to minorities are frightening. The numerous people who are celebrating his election as a victory in the race war are disgusting. The lack of concern that many show for this is disheartening. Yet we can take heart, be excited, and celebrate the fact that people are rejecting the divisions assigned to them and are embracing liberty and tolerance.

Donald Trump’s behavior is not the norm. It is merely one norm among many struggling for greater acceptance.

Negativity is enticing. We can throw up our arms and say that the world is generally a terrible place with only a few nice breaks here and there. Negativity allows us to feel superior to those who don’t get it, and it gives us an excuse to not try to improve the world. It is a comforting story. But there are better stories.

We can find precedents for a lot of things in the past if we look for them. History is full of war and oppression. It is also a story of change. When it comes down to it, the tribal loyalties of humanity have taken many forms in the past. While the historical record will show much prejudice and fear of outsiders, it will also show episodes of assimilation, cultural exchange, and awe of people and things from far away.

The ethnic nation state is only one of the kinds of tribalism humanity has seen. The ethnic nation state has only been around in its familiar form for a couple of centuries, and until the last few years it has arguably become more cosmopolitan.

The United States of America was founded on a lot of assumptions, but also upon great principles. “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…” These are words upon which colonies in rebellion declared themselves to be a new nation. Revolutionaries like Lafayette and Kosciuszko came to these shores to fight for a new world. International revolutionary Thomas Paine stirred reason and emotion with his pen. “Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.” The revolution of 1776 could not fully overcome its flaws and another revolution was needed to unseat the slave aristocracy from power. Since then these lands have hosted smaller, less bloody rebellions: the Lawrence Strike, Civil Rights, Stonewall, etc. They have also been host to numerous quieter attempts to expand human liberty and dignity, including even the people who were left out from the beginning.

If tribalism is to be an inescapable part of the human experience, that does not mean we have to let other people assign us to a tribe. I will make my own village based on how people treat me, and not on whether the villages of our forgotten ancestors were in the same general area of the world. I will embrace a heritage of reason and rebellion, and leave the prejudices of the past to study from a distance. I embrace the strength of self-improvement that comes from examining my own shortcomings and trying to understand the experiences of other individuals. I want liberty, I want compassion, I want tolerance, and I will live my life accordingly.

If they try to insult me by calling me a special snowflake, I say that millions of special snowflakes will bury the old world in the cold. The story of humanity should be a story of liberation.

In practical matters, there are numerous men and women resisting oppression and building a better world, and their stories should be told to whatever extent they are comfortable with. Yes, we need to talk about the horrible things happening in the world, but every chapter should point the way to a solution.

The idea that Trump was “saying what we’re all thinking” gained him some popularity among people who want to say things that make them feel good and make other people feel bad. Here’s some plain talking for you: Trump is a far worse liar than career politicians, his idea of truth is little more than whatever feels good to shout at a rally or rant on social media, he has no moral compass whatsoever, and the ideas that he does adhere to are either factually incorrect, morally repugnant, or fatally corrupted by his consuming need for personal gain and glory. He represents boastful ignorance and an arrogant sense of entitlement that can and should be destroyed.

“Saying what we’re all thinking” is a statement without a precise meaning, but it is powerful. Giving voice to thoughts gives them greater power. Presenting your ideas as commonly accepted imparts a standard of legitimacy. The idea that we should quietly and meekly express a bit of displeasure to avoid offending people who are playing by a completely different set of rules and thrive on creating offense is self-defeating. An underdog story may be compelling but the heroes should win in the end. Humanity’s drive for freedom may be messy, it may be full of unresolved contradictions, and it may stumble often, but it is a path that we should show our pride for walking.

As Thomas Paine wrote in 1776: “O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!”

Defend Freedom and Steer Away From Fascism

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

Donald Trump and the movement that he has inspired threaten American liberty to a more serious degree than most of us have seen in our lifetimes, and it is crucial to meet these threats now in order to mitigate them.

In Donald Trump, observe a leader who runs on charisma and vague statements that work on peoples’ feelings. He does not just stretch the truth, but he is even anti-rational in the way that he blurts out statements and then acts as if he never said them or that it would be ridiculous to take them seriously. He has demonstrated that he has little sense of personal restraint and it is not clear how much institutions can restrain him. He has publicly stated a desire for power and privately boasted that with enough social capital he can do whatever he wants to women. He has expressed open hostility to media that is not loyal to him. He admires the governing style of a deceitful strongman and KGB officer. His campaign went beyond scapegoating to incite people to feel like they can be part of something great if they push out or push down the other, promising empowerment by holding power over others. The people who voted for him either looked the other way, or they were fooled by the fear or the promises he pushed, or they actually liked what he has done. Whatever their reasons were, the rest of the world now also has to deal with Trumpism in office.

It is no surprise that Trump has been conspicuously silent or evasive about some of his most odious fans, which include the KKK and racist cyberstalkers. Although he did belatedly disavow the verbal and graffiti threats made to political and demographic minorities following the election, he actually appointed as chief strategist a man responsible for giving a major media platform to modern-day fascists in search of a great leader.

We are living in a different world from the heyday of classical fascism, the 1920s to early 1940s, and Trump is a product of today’s unique circumstances. However, the conduct of Trump and the people he associates with make it prudent to look at the record of fascism for warnings and countermeasures. In fascism, loyalty to the leader is a primary principle of governance and civic virtue. There is typically some kind of cult behind a charismatic leader. Yet there is also a participatory process. Mussolini’s famous line “everything in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state” shows the totalitarian intentions. (Giuseppe Finaldi, Mussolini and Italian Fascism, Routledge, Jan 14, 2014, 57 ; See also: “The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism“)

The totalitarian goal of controlling society was only ever partially successful, but reaching toward this goal by assimilating more of society into its grasp is an operating principle of fascism. Such control does not stem from fear alone, but also involves inspiring people to participate in pushing the party line. A person in a fascist movement may lose individuality, but if they are open to the message, then they can gain a sense of empowerment from being part of a group that tells its members they are the strong, and they will dominate the weak. Joseph Goebbels remarked that “It is not enough to reconcile people more or less to our regime, to move them towards a position of neutrality towards us, we would rather work on people until they are addicted to us.” (Quoted in Speielvogel and Redles, Hitler and Nazi Germany: A History, Sixth Edition, 147) The regime created propaganda as well as numerous organizations to control different spheres of social life. In these days of outsourcing, contracting, and crowdsourcing, it is possible for a regime to accomplish a similar project through partnerships and incentives outside of direct state administration. In order to carry out its mission of social transformation, fascism seeks broad participation, and plants roots deeply into society.

Fascism presents a thoroughly cultivated image of order, but in reality it can be chaotic. The Nazi regime was full of bureaucratic infighting. Force of personality and personal connections could be more important than seemingly objective qualifications or even official duties. Even orders from the top were not always clear. Historian Ian Kershaw created the phrase “Working towards the Fuhrer” to describe the work of Nazi administrators trying to interpret the Fuhrer’s statements to create actual policy. Regardless of what Triumph of the Will tried to convey, a regime moving toward fascism should not be expected to operate in an orderly manner. The saying about how Mussolini made the trains run on time is actually the product of a propaganda campaign, and propaganda worked much better than actual railroad operations in fascist Italy.

Fascism carried a strong anti-intellectual and anti-rational mindset. Nazi leaders derided intellectuals and boasted that as strong-willed Aryans, “We think with our blood.” Goebbels gave a speech in which he said “the age of extreme intellectualism is over… the past is lying in flames… the future will rise from the flames within our hearts.” (Speilvogel and Redles, 146-147) Trying to grasp the intellectual basis of fascism is difficult because to a large degree it is a movement that operates on feeling. People believe in it because it makes them feel good to believe in it.

In fascism the regime is to represent the will of the united nation, and the nation is typically defined in terms of an ethnic community. The nation is not simply a political community with a common set of traditions, principles, and geographic connections. In the pursuit of power based in a particular political community, the competing social bonds are attacked. The question of which traditions will be incorporated into the national revival becomes critical as the ethnic definition of the nation rises in prominence. What defines the nation that must be made great again and who is taking it back from whom?

There are more worrying passages from the history of Nazi Germany, but it is important to remember that the current political situation is rooted in a different political moment. By now many have seen the New York Times profile of the Nazi movement from 1922, which stated that “several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic, and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.” Unfortunately many people in the German establishment were willing to look the other way when it came to the worrisome ethnic policy of a guy who could get things done. The German establishment expected Hitler to moderate while in power. He was seen as a vulgar crowd-pleaser who could inspire the masses to a sense of national unity and purpose while keeping them away from the revolutionary left. The establishment was not able to control him like they thought they could.

While our attention is rightfully drawn to the similarities we see to fascist history, there are critical differences between now and then. A big difference is that the early fascists were shaped by their experience of facing mass death in the trenches with their countrymen during the First World War. While reverence for military values and a fascination with violence is certainly prevalent in American society, the obsession with violence and death that fascists thrive upon does not seem so widespread, and does not appear much in Trump. Trump’s personal history is not of a soldier turned demagogue, but of a con man who persuades people to trust him with their money which he drains before riding off with his lifestyle of wealth intact. If he continues in a fascist direction, there is good reason to believe that he will not be the catalyst of intentional mass murder.

Although the lessons of Putin’s Russia are striking, and Putin’s influence and worldview are important to study, the parallels with Russia can only go so far. Russia did not have a very functional or well established democratic government before Putin came to power. The type of civil society in which classical and current liberal values tend to grow had little space to develop under Communist Party rule, and the 1990s were far from stable times in Russia.

If a historical situation must be found to compare with the present, then the United States during its involvement in the First World War through the First Red Scare, 1917 through roughly 1920, would be instructive. Suspicion of foreigners and political dissidents was widespread, freedom of expression was suppressed, and organized racism grew. It was a fearful era, but progress has come since.

I understand that this writing could be considered alarmist. I do not mind. An alarm is a warning that there is a situation that needs to be addressed. A fire alarm is supposed to go off well before a building burns to the ground, but if it is ignored too long then everything around will burn.

There is much that can be done to prevent the country from taking a fascist course. If fascism requires participation, then non-participation is more than standing on the sidelines. Ensure that social or institutional spaces you can influence reject the culture of bigotry and bullying. Regardless of how easy the road to social empowerment may look when it runs on casting people out or pushing around outsiders, do not take that road. Take the high road of commanding respect for decent people.

Institutional resistance to modern day fascism can take many forms. Sanctuary cities may offer relatively safe living for people targeted by federal authorities or others doing the administration’s dirty work. Yet networks to warn of and resist deportation actions may be needed. Serious legal challenges may be ahead and supporting organizations like the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, and those that aid refugees and migrants can become critical.

Consider personal resistance to the fascist direction. Insist on factual correctness against anti-intellectualism and political niceties. When a person is acting like a fascist and associates with fascists, it is okay to point this out. When the regime is lying, point it out loudly and repeatedly. I do not think that much respect will be won with weak statements of disapproval, and I do not think that Trump will have sufficient reason to moderate unless doing so has obvious political advantages.

Defensively, one should understand the legal options of protesters and people targeted for acts of political dissent. Read what the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild say. One should also consider methods of personal defense against people inspired to violence. Exercising the right to keep and bear arms can prevent some threats from being carried out, and it is a right that, perhaps surprisingly, might not be secure for everyone. There is a definite possibility that the no-fly list will be expanded to include people who have been investigated by partisan and power-hungry federal investigators with expanded budgets and loosened restraints, and this secretive list could be used to deny people other rights without due process.

Going on the offensive against modern-day fascism requires advancing an alternative. Participating in communities that embrace and defend diversity and respect the rights and dignity of the individual means making a better future. Community resilience and mutual aid are especially important to consider now that the government is led by someone who will likely make harmful economic and foreign policy decisions. Communications networks may be needed for emergency situations, including raids and arrests of dubious legality. This alternative community shows that this is not merely Trump’s world that we all live in, but that there is a world of decency assembling its strength and creating a better future.

Donald Trump has entangled himself with modern-day fascists and he will move the country toward fascism if it is politically expedient for him to do so. The world of individual liberty, of cooperation and compassion, must assemble its strength and make its strength known. We might be heading down a dark road, but we can turn a better way if we open our eyes and take the wheel.

Preventing Fascism From Taking Root: We Have Work to Do.

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016

I am between the shock of last night’s surprising performance by Donald Trump, the dread of checking the news this morning to see if it really did go the way I feared when I went to bed, and the anxiety of needing to start my day as if things have not changed. Where in the world could be safe when the most powerful nation on the planet has elected a reckless spokesman of hate to its most powerful office?

While it is tempting to write the epitaph of American liberty, and reflect on the fact that the years 1776 or 1865 to 2016 is a longer run than a lot of modern democratic governments, we are far from finished. There is work to do. Move if you must, and let’s not have all our eggs in one basket, but would happen if everyone with the means and desire to oppose Trump abandoned the American beacon of liberty to the dark forces overtaking it?

The most frightening thing about the Trump victory might not be the sizable minority of his supporters who are actually fascists and members of racist organizations, and it is certainly not the numerous supporters of his who are sick enough of the status quo to overlook his numerous flaws. It is frightening to see the people who have bought into his campaign of angry scapegoating – that we can make America great again by shouting down those who question us, by following a career swindler who encourages violence against protesters and opponents. There are the people for whom recent changes have not meant economic hardship, but status panic, those who feel oppressed by so-called “political correctness’ that says they have to recognize a country where being a good American does not necessarily mean listening to straight white men who are Christians or at least play them on Sundays. Those who buy into Trump’s rhetoric of pushing out and pushing down the outsiders are buying into the attitude that fascism thrives upon even if they themselves are not fascists.

The importance of a strong leader and top-down commands for fascism can obscure the fact that it is typically a popular movement – that while it does not require a majority of the population for support, it draws on a wide base of support and encourages and directs misplaced fears of change and fears of outsiders. The need for fascism to penetrate deeply into society offers a critical place of resistance. By consciously creating and defending social spaces and institutions where the culture of fascism is not welcome, we can prevent the poison tree from sinking its roots deeply. We must not internalize or embody the divisions that we are supposed to follow. We must make it clear that no matter what the official ideology says, wherever we are is a place where black lives matter, Muslims are not enemies, migrants are welcome, LGBTQ people are free, and all people who do not step on others to climb the ladder of social hierarchy are welcome.

In the long term, we should question the value of a system that would put Donald Trump in charge of millions of citizens and the most powerful military on the planet. In the meantime, any institutional impediment to his power should be utilized. The aspiring autocrat still has political opponents, and members of his party, who recognize Constitutional limits on his power.

If we survived the September 11 attacks, we should be able to survive this. Good luck out there, America.


Ignorance in Power

Thursday, June 30th, 2016

I’ve been reading some great commentary on how the establishment is utterly baffled by, and derisively hostile to, the rise of populist movements that appear to reject some of its core positions. Glenn Greenwald’s commentary on the topic is particularly excellent. There are a lot of narratives about who the establishment is and who is anti-establishment that need to be examined.

“The establishment” is a handy shortcut to generalize about the status quo, the political, economic, and social authorities established within it, and people who support all this. Elites are people who have significant influence on the establishment and benefit most from it. There are also people with less influence who nevertheless identify with and strongly defend the status quo and its elites because their life is so tied to it.

The fact that bad solutions are popular does not mean there is not a problem. The fact that so many people demand some kind of different situation does not simply mean that there are a lot of ignorant people, but it could show how many people are negatively impacted by the current situation.

The fact is, everyone is ignorant to some degree. Some are more ignorant than others, and some are more willfully ignorant. I would say that many people have been trained to be ignorant to some extent. It provides little value to the establishment for the average person to be a thoughtful citizen of the world. What kind of power would one have without ignorant masses to rule over? Many people in various social situations see the success of others depending less on how much they study, and more on who they know. Will getting good grades, analyzing global news, and writing insightful commentary be more likely to lead to a stable living than impressing the right people? What if the right people to know are impressed by displays of disdain for for eggheads and experts? How many people who go to college are actually more interested in learning than in credentials and contacts? Ignorance is rampant among elites. Many do not understand how life is for most people primarily because they do not want to know.

The narrative that people reject the status quo simply because they are ignorant low-class racists does a lot of service for the establishment. It implies that the status quo must be working pretty well, because only awful people are against it. It directs people away from asking how many people are poor, desperate, and looking for scapegoats because the status quo has utterly failed to deliver on lifelong promises or even to deliver basic stability. It also hides how racist the establishment itself can be.

The Trump campaign runs on outrageous statements about putting things back the way they used to be, barely concealed hostility toward minorities who step out of their prescribed places, and overt hostility toward anyone who opposes the campaign. Supporting Trump means being at least racist enough to not care how minorities have to suffer while “we get our country back.” Donald Trump is hardly outside the establishment. He was born into wealth and has had a life of turning his wealth into greater prestige that nets him more money. He has continually benefited from a system that he mainly criticizes for not being hard enough on outsiders. Trump was still in with the New York elite during and after the time he called for all-but lynching a group of black teenagers who were accused of raping a white woman based on flimsy evidence – men who were later proven not guilty by DNA testing.

The elites who pretend to be against elitism probably believe in what they do and believe that things will be better with them in charge. What they are really doing is managing potential revolt and directing its anger against relatively powerless groups of people they are willing to write off as sacrifices. Donald Trump has for decades been in the business of talking himself up so people will support his schemes, and him running for president seems no different. A lot of people who claim to know what they are doing have caused serious harm to numerous people. Donald “Trust Me” Trump in political office would be one of them, and the harm he would do would almost certainly be immense.

A complete disregard for expertise is not rational. People who spend their lives examining particular issues are at least worth hearing. When people reject modern medicine, deny climate change, or insist on clear historical falsehoods, they are usually not really being skeptical. They may be deciding what to believe based on how they feel about the people speaking. If they feel more in common with someone who argues a certain way, that will substitute for critical examination of arguments and evidence. Cultural affinity becomes a shortcut for thinking.

To really change the status quo, to really have a smarter and more secure world, is a worthwhile goal. It can only happen if people refuse to be willfully ignorant, make a serious effort to understand what other people experience, try to have some grasp of the complex nature of human relations, and embrace what truly does lead to progress – a commitment to liberty for all individuals and a commitment to continually examining the nature of social relations. Those for whom personal power is too entangled with their view of progress, and those who simply prefer power over others, can get out of the way.

What Kind of Conversation?

Sunday, June 12th, 2016

I really did not want to write about a mass shooting, but I felt like I needed to.

I hope that I can somehow help the families and survivors of the attack on the Pulse club and help them not be forgotten.

I cannot speak for the victims and survivors. I do not know what they would want to say. People who know them well might know. I can only say how it makes me feel.

I am angry that yet another disaffected man has gone on to attack innocent people. I want to talk about the cultural environment that brought this on. Is it really so different when Americans pick up a gun to kill people for their idea of glory or God, as it is when people in any country pledge allegiance to ISIS to brutalize women and attack those who believe differently? Is the desire to reclaim some wounded manhood by shocking acts of violence not part of their motive? Are they the worst kind of reactionaries, acting under more or less organization, going after people who represent threats to the social order they desire?

I find it hard to believe that people with all kinds of views on gun laws are not only sick of the tragedies, but sick of the non-debate that goes on afterward. Gun ownership is integral to my political views of individual empowerment. I am always going to pro-gun and pro-Second Amendment. I am proud to be a gun owner who has taught others about responsible use and ownership of firearms. I am also tired of the scripted non-debate that we always get into. I agree 100% that tragedies can be stopped by individual gun owners, like the Uber driver who stopped a massacre in Chicago. But the fact is, armed citizens are not always going to be around, and pro-gun folks are talking ourselves into irrelevance if this is all we have to say.

The national conversation on gun laws is not a debate. It is an opportunity for cultural posturing. At this point, there are basically two camps pointing to the other, saying nasty things, and getting cheers from the crowd we’re in. The leading national politicians are not having an honest discussion, either because they don’t trust the other side or they don’t think they will get anywhere by talking to the other side. We are just building up more anger that must eventually come back to us.

Some people advocate banning all guns, even though it is politically and practically impossible in America and there are actually very few developed countries that have done so. Some people might prefer gun control laws that are not outside the realm of reason, but then they talk as if all gun owners who disagree with them are responsible for mass murders, and then they wonder where why there aren’t more gun owners who want to talk with them. Some people pretend they want a debate, but they actually are more likely to talk about things like how a gun owner’s penis is.

For the pro-gun crowd, an attitude of no-compromise is required for full membership. The fact that full gun confiscation is a political, practical, and cultural impossibility in America is not given the weight it is due. The actual amount of firepower that is required for the people to defend themselves against government overreach, violent political movements, and violent criminals is not discussed. There is a little bit of discussion on how to best secure gun rights for the largest number of Americans for the greatest length of time, but more often there is the spectacle of a life-and-death struggle against the forces of darkness. When we are in power, they lose, and when they are in power, we lose.

Essentially, there is no trust. I find it hard to believe that most Americans would prefer to do nothing about mass murders. We can celebrate the fact that violent crime is down, that individuals in American society are relatively safe. But things can be improved. The ax of gun control will eventually fall if the political winds are shifted that way, and it will fall more heavily if nobody will talk to each other. Is there any compromise to be made that will make anyone happy?

I know there are people who want all guns to be taken from American civilians, but I think they will stay in the minority if American gun culture does not wall itself off. I am not in favor of weapons restrictions, but I would not actively oppose laws that include a balance of restrictions and guarantees on gun rights. I think it is more important that Americans have the ability to carry guns in more places across the country than for those guns to hold more than ten rounds of ammunition. I would be less opposed to gun control laws that also restricted the weapons that police could routinely carry, as that would remind them that they are supposed to be citizens like the rest of us. I will remain opposed to gun control regimes where gun ownership is an exclusive club for the rich and connected while the poor get frisked. I recognize that my goal of a more libertarian society is going to take some time and trial and correction to get to, and I am okay with compromises along the way.

I recognize that the bulk of this post talked about guns and gun laws, not the culture that violence springs from. Unfortunately, that is the discussion that I am responding to. As the profile of the shooter is detailed in the coming weeks, let’s not forget how mass society is woven with past violence, threats of violence, awe of violence, and brutalizing, humiliating, hierarchy. Oppression that is done most shockingly in mass public shootings will not be undone without serious inquiry.

The cause of mass murder spectacles is not guns. Anyone who refuses to take seriously the inquiry into the cultural ground that perpetrators spring from should not be taken seriously. Similarly, a larger store of firepower is not the greatest guarantor of the greatest liberty; that role belongs to widespread social acceptance of the principles upon which liberty rests. But guns are often the tools used in mass murders and they are tools that give teeth to individual liberties. The discussion about guns should be taken seriously as well.

Longer Walks in Winter

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

Winter has arrived, and it’s time to get friendly with the season. Enduring the cold can certainly become the focus of a long winter walk, but there is much more. The contrasts abound: body heat and cold air, chill breezes and warm sunlight, white snow and dark tree trunks, soft snow and hard ice, the quiet of the forest and the crunch of snow under foot. A stand of snowy pines is a sight to enjoy, especially when the low sun shines through the branches. When the moon is bright above a wide, snowy path, the Earth shimmers before the walker. When the winter ground is exposed, the observer can see the raw edge of life awaiting its chance to burst forth in spring. Getting friendly with winter is also a remedy for cabin fever, a chance to feel the sun on your face and all the trees, rocks, and snows that are still out.

I have been outside on many winter days of around 20 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and I will say that all you really need to enjoy them are a few layers of clothing and the knowledge of how to get back to your warm shelter. But enjoying longer walks in winter, for example a day of hiking, requires a bit more preparation. I am going to discuss some equipment that works for me. The perfect kit for you will require some trial and error to find what makes you most comfortable. Bring extra layers out with you and leave room in your backpack.

If your winters are as wet as those in the northeastern US, you really will benefit from some waterproof boots. Stores with good selections of hiking and camping equipment are good places to find them, especially when sales are on. Boots should have a waterproof liner, be rugged and designed for movement, and might or might not have insulation depending on the user. I usually do winter hikes in leather hiking boots or backpacking boots that have waterproof lining, but are not insulated. I do have some insulated hiking boots, but they come out on days that are colder than usual for around here. In my youth I hiked through much snow in Gore-tex lined combat boots.

I wear merino wool socks in winter. I have had good results from Smartwool socks, but there are other good brands out there I haven’t tried much.

After the footwear, I would say that base layers are the next most important clothing to consider. A base layer consists of long underpants and a long sleeve shirt, and it is supposed to go against your skin in order to pull sweat away from the skin. They also provide some insulation. I usually wear polyester midweight thermals on hikes. I have had good results with EMS, REI, and Polarmax branded base layers. I also got a Smartwool baselayer pant and I find it to be very comfortable and effective. Base layers should be made of material that dries quickly, so cotton should definitely be avoided.

The item I would consider next would be the overcoat or shell jacket or whatever you call the thing that goes on your torso and keeps the water off of you. I recommend durable water repellant jackets from brands that specialize in active outdoor recreation. They should include a hood and pockets. They should be big enough to wear comfortably over layers, but not too baggy to keep the breeze out. I used to do a lot of hiking in a military field jacket with some extra sprayed-on water repellent when I was into that kind of thing.

Obviously, you should be wearing pants out there. For many trips, hiking pants or military pants that are not all cotton will do fine. Sometimes waterproof pants are good to have. It’s pretty common to fall in the snow at least once on a snowshoe trip, and you might want to slide down a nice slope or sit down without getting soaked. There are a few kinds of waterproof pants out there. You could wear the thin nylon rain pants over your other pants, but they don’t usually breathe too well. A woven water repellent material might be better. I would probably go light on the insulation here, because legs can get really warm from exertion and you can add a layer of light fleece pants or thicker thermals for colder trips.

For torso insulation, I usually like to wear a fleece or commando sweater between my base layer and my shell. They seem to balance warmth and breathability well, and they are comfortable to sweat in. For times when I won’t be getting as warm, like a leisurely walk, a slow night hike, or a careful descent, I have a puffy zip-up layer. If it’s really cold I will wear both. For leisurely walks, I might be wearing a flannel shirt. Despite what you may have read on the internet, it is possible to wear cotton in the woods and walk out alive. However, is better to go with other fabrics because cotton dries very slowly and insulates poorly.

Hats and gloves might be considered accessories, but I would consider them necessities for winter hikes. A simple knit hat will do the job, as will a fleece hat, a wool cap, or anything else that is warm but not too heavy. A knit ski mask is one of my oldest pieces of gear that I use with some regularity, usually folded up as a cap until the wind kicks up. I like to bring light water repellent gloves for ascents and heavier gloves for descents, but I often just go with whatever gloves are in my pockets. A scarf or neck gaiter might be nice to have as well. I sometimes wear sunglasses if it’s a really bright day.

Water repellent gaiters that cover the area where your boots meet your pants can do a great job of keeping snow out, provided you take a little time to buckle them properly for your size. This can make a long walk in the snow much more comfortable.

So that’s clothing. There is a lot of it, because it is serving as your shelter for a day when other people are inside a solid structure with modern heating. My list goes pretty well with the theory of three types of layers: base, insulation, and shell. I do find that for many activities, the base and shell provide a good amount of insulation.

There are other things that you or your hiking party should have. Water is essential. The air will be dry and you will be exerting yourself. Water should be carried in bottles, not hydration bladders, as a narrow hose will freeze more readily than a bottle neck. Food can make a huge difference. Water and food are the fuel that will keep you walking upright and will allow your body to generate heat. You need to fuel the fire.

Bring navigational equipment, emergency supplies, and small wilderness tools. Winter days are short and winter nights are cold, so bring a light, preferably one that you can wear on your head. They can be found at outdoor recreation stores, and sometimes home improvement stores carry cheap models. If you are exploring an area big enough to get lost in you should have a map and compass and know how to use them. Smartphones can often use their GPS function even without cell network coverage, but that won’t help you if you haven’t downloaded the maps, there are no features on the map that can guide you, your battery drains, or you have no idea where you are in the first place.

An emergency kit is a good thing to carry. It should include an emergency blanket and fire starting tools. Your party should have at least one first aid kit that includes bandages, moleskin for blisters, tweezers, antibiotic ointment, antiseptic wipes, medicines, gauze, and medical tape. It’s even better if there are people trained in first aid who can make use of a larger kit. A knife or multi-tool is a good thing to carry in the outdoors as well. I like to keep some water purification chemicals in my hiking kit too. I also carry some paracord and a miniature roll of duct tape in my kit. I don’t think I would actually lash together a shelter unless I was planning to stay a while, but paracord is something I have always carried so I’ll keep doing it. Some chemical hand warmers are a good thing to have, if only to help other hikers enjoy the day as much as you would like. All of this plus extra clothing should go in a backpack that is comfortable enough to enjoy carrying and will not fall apart on the trip. Most backpacks are not waterproof so you may want to line it with a waterproof bag or pack your gear in freezer bags.

So how do you actually walk when the forest is covered in snow and ice? There are ways. If it’s just a little snow, you can be patient and plod your way through it. If there is ice, micro-spikes will help you keep your grip. If the hill is steep and icy, consider going heavy duty and strapping on crampons. If you can’t walk without sinking into snow, it’s time to consider snowshoes. If you want to go far or get a workout, cross-country skiing is an option.

If you want to get out, be active, and get the feel of a place, you don’t need much beyond the right attitude. But if you want to go farther and have a better experience, some planning and preparation will take you a long way. Winter can be dangerous, but a person in the right mindset can be friendly with winter.

The Mapmakers: Reading a Classic

Monday, October 12th, 2015

The Mapmakers by John Noble Wilford tells the story of mapping from the earliest known maps to the turn of the twenty-first century, when the second edition of the book was published. It is recommended for readers interested in any facet of mapmaking.

Wilford draws on his vast experience as a science journalist to present a broad and technical topic in a well-written narrative. It is a thorough historic overview, but given the breadth of the subject and the objective of telling a story to popular audiences, there is not much room for detailed analysis, technical instruction, or many footnotes. Those looking for a more complete understanding of mapping will benefit from reading The Mapmakers, but they should also look at the impressive bibliography in the back of the book or consult academic textbooks or online instruction.

The Mapmakers is limited by its date of publishing, though it is not truly out of date for most purposes. This is not the source for understanding mapmaking techniques that have come into widespread use in the 15 years since the book was printed. The reader will not find the story of the amazing web maps that are almost taken for granted today, nor the lidar technology being used in such varied applications as terrain mapping, building modelling, and archeology. Importantly, however, Wilford does succeed in describing the important changes in mapmaking from the book’s first edition in 1981 to the end of the twentieth century. The transition from drafting table to computer screen and the use of electronic equipment in the field is thoroughly discussed. The book also includes chapters on GPS, geographic information systems, and the mapping of other planets, so the latest technology at the time of the book’s publishing is not neglected.

The book tells the stories of the big names in mapmaking history without neglecting many of the lesser-known and collaborative work in the field. Wilford discusses the contributions of philosophers, mathematicians, surveyors, cartographers, astronomers, tinkerers, and navigators. The sense of discovery energizes the narrative, perhaps especially the chapters about early map projections and pioneers in precision surveying. The chapter on Columbus is an excellent discussion of how the explorer convinced himself that his goal was achievable by calculating that the world was much smaller than it actually was. The later chapters of the book reveal how much of the current understanding of the planet came from technology that only became available in the twentieth century.

The Mapmakers is an excellent overview for those with an interest in mapmaking and the history of discovery, and a great starting point for those who want to gain a detailed understanding of the topic.

The Mapmakers by John Noble Wilford
Revised Edition, 2001
Vintage Books
508 pages

Hello Again!

Monday, October 5th, 2015

It has certainly been a while since I have blogged. I guess I needed a break to refresh my writing.

I expect to occasionally post on history, current events, and the outdoors.

I have stopped regular updates on Head First Adventures, but I am quite happy with the content there.

Since most of the content on this blog was pretty old, I decided to start fresh. I archived the older stuff the old fashioned way, with a lot of copy-and-paste action. I will add some of it to the archives section of the website.

I’ve got some ideas in the works and I expect the upcoming year to be fruitful.