Author Archives: Ahimsa

On Hiking and Not Hiking in Japan

My first vacation (of more than 3 days) in a couple of years and Japan was calling. I thought about a few other places like Cambodia or Malaysia but Japan a) had cheaper flights and b) featured a rad hike that I couldn’t get out of my head. (The Nakasendo.) So I prepped a folder with hiking information and japanese phrases for explaining veganism and I hopped on a plane. The first stop was Kyoto, a legendary city of marvels and wonders.

Not Japan’s fault, but we didn’t get off on the right foot this trip. (Not to mention last time when they mistakenly wouldn’t let me board a flight to New Zealand.) Both in Korea and in Japan I was subjected to “random” pat-downs and bag-checks. I was even wearing my nice clothes and had my tattoos covered up. Anyway, no big deal but kind of a bummer to go through all that yet again.

I wander the stinking hot streets of Kyoto for 3 days. With humidity, it’s 45 degrees (113 F) and I get the worst case of chub rub I’ve ever had. Like, I’m waddling like a penguin but because my time is short I’m still walking 20+ km a day. Halfway through the second day I realize that I don’t much like Kyoto. It’s a surprising revelation, to me as well as to you, and I spend some time pondering why it might be. I mean, it’s a city that gets 50 million tourists a year so clearly it isn’t a bad place.

Contrary to my hopes, there aren’t really many bookstores and the two I visit don’t have much in the way of hiking books. Likewise, the much vaunted vegan restaurants disappoint-many are closed for the day or afternoon. Thus several long, sweaty walks ended up as fruitless endeavors. Luckily the convenience stores have inari and edamame and other good stuff so it wasn’t a major bummer. Also, the one place I did go to (twice), was the grubbing Cafe Matsuontoko.

So as to Kyoto. Most of it is boring city. The temples are nice, absolutely, but they are places you have to make an effort to get to. They’re not places you can stumble upon, which isn’t really my jam. Still, I’m glad I saw the city, and maybe I’d go back in spring or fall, but probably not.

I leave Kyoto and catch a train to the castle city of Hikone, which is were I was thinking I could hop on the Nakasendo. But between the lack of map, the heat, and my sore thighs, it just seems like a bad idea to hike. I make the call to just go to the Kiso valley (the best part) and before that to travel around and see some cool cities. Hikone is a very cool city, not swollen with tourists and has one of the best castles in Japan. Plus it has a samurai cat as a mascot. But it’s really hot here, so much so that most of the shops are closed even in the early afternoon.

The guesthouse I stay at is nearly tropical, and brand new. Apart from two other Japanese backpackers, the dorm is empty. It’s too hot to sleep though (32 degrees at 7:30 am) and I get up early and catch the train to Gifu, which is where the castle of a notorious warlord once stood. The rebuilt castle isn’t special, but the view from the hill is nice and there are cool weapons and artifacts in the small museum. It’s kinda special to stand in a place where once ninjas and samurai fought.

I actually have no idea of where I’m going next, but on a whim I head to a place I hadn’t heard of called Takayama.

This is probably the best decision I make on the trip.The ride itself is brilliant, ambling up into misty mountains, past rice fields and granite rivers, distant bridges and villages cut into the jungle.

Takayama is a wonderful, walkable city that is much cooler by virtue of being up in the mountains. There are temples and parks and villages and bridges galore. It’s much smaller than Kyoto, but it has the vibe I was hoping for. It also has half of Europe seemingly striding its narrow streets.There’s a festival with live music the night I arrive the closest I can come to describing the vibe is Pai meets Malakka.

I spend the next two days with my Swiss roomate Alex. Just 24, he saved up for a year on archaeological digs and had 7 weeks to travel Japan. We went to an outdoor museum/craft village and learn about things like silk worms and tofu pressing. We take off and put on our shoes, a lot.

The next morning we wake with the sun and bus further up into the mountains. A group of Spanish tourists become enamored with Alex’s boots and their tour guide actually starts presenting the boots (no lace, zip up) features to them.The hiking is perfect, pretty and cool and not too crowded. After 35 km of hiking in the Japanese Alps, we get back on the last bus and get back to Takayama. I have to change hostels and then Alex and I meet a couple we had met hiking for drinks.

This ends up a bad move. I come back before midnight to see that my hostel has a door code. I should have asked before leaving but they didn’t say anything and I didn’t ask. I come to rue this decision. It’s summer, so I think of sleeping in a park. But I make my way back to my friends and learn that the couple have an extra bed, so I crash with them for a few hours.

Phew. My hostel is very apologetic and end up giving me a cake and then, on my way out, refunding that night. They just opened this month so are working out all the kinks, so it’s a nice gesture on their part.

It’s time to make future plans again. But there’s a bit of a bummer. The post towns of  Tsumago and Magome are booked out, as are the towns on either side of them. There are places I can stay, but none for less than 100 dollars a night. So my raison d’être for coming to Japan is now discarded entirely.


I head north to a town called Toyoma. It seems to be more of a gateway to other places than a destination in its own right, but it has plenty of gardens and canals and even a reconstructed castle. I read a few books and wander the streets in my 2 days there. It’s a great little town, and it’s nice to say goodbye to the tourists again.

My flight back to Korea is on Sunday at 2 pm and I check out of my hotel Saturday at 11 am. My first thought is to spend the day in Toyoma, read in a park, and then catch a night bus. The night bus is all sold out though. The train ride is supposed to be beautiful and it’s less than four hours but it cost 120 dollars. So I catch a bus for 77 dollars and hope it’s not much longer. It is.

The bus leaves at 1:30 pm and I get into Tokyo at 1o pm. After that long (but comfy) bus ride, I think “Hey, it’s my first time in Tokyo. Maybe I’ll find a cheapish hotel, wander around a bit tonight, and then get up early tomorrow, explore some more, and then head to the airport.” The two hotels I check are booked and/or too expensive. So I catch one of the last trains to the airport and prepare to spend the night there, which was my very original plan.

It’s a good airport, but I feel sweaty from a long day and the few comfy places for sleeping have long since been claimed. No worries; I buy some edamame and start a new book.

Around 1 am I hear them announce “The Peach flight to Seoul will now begin boarding.” I actually text Nahid and say something like “I wish that was my flight.”

I read for 15 minutes or so before the daunting realization (that you no doubt already suspect) hits me.

What if that is my flight? After all, my ticket said leaving at 2:00, not 14:00 and there’s no am or pm. I grab my bag and jump on an escalator. As luck would have it, Peach check-in is right there and it is indeed my flight. Had I succeeded in night bussing or getting a hotel, I would have entirely missed my flight! What a chump move, man.

The flight’s delayed, and the Seoul subway is slow, so I don’t get back to my house until 8 am, as sleepy as can be. The vacation now officially over, I fall in bed and sleep like the sleepiest sleeper that ever slept.


Even without the official hike, I walked 231 km in my 11 days, and despite sleeping in hostel dorm rooms, eating almost entirely at convenience stores, not drinking very much alcohol, and taking the cheapest transportation possible, I spend almost a month’s salary in my time there.

It was technically my 4th trip to Japan, but at 11 days this was longer than the other three put together. As I said at the beginning, I was jonesing for Japan but whether it was the heat, the high costs, or my unrealistic expectations, I left Japan thinking I might not ever go back. On previous visits, I felt like Japan was just a much better version of Korea, but this time I was actually kind of happy to come back.

On the other hand, I still wouldn’t mind actually trying the Nakasendo some day.


Vegan Seoul – 2016

The last time I blogged about being vegan in Korea, it was 2011 and the world was a different place. Veganism was growing in popularity in Seoul. There were vegan buffets, more every month it seemed, Loving Huts with all kinds of options, Purely Decadent had dedicated stores and was even available in some convenience stores. It was an exciting time.

But in many ways, it seems the  great vegan experiment is over. All but two Loving Huts are shuttered and gone. The buffets are closed and forgotten. The top 5 restaurants I blogged about in 2011 are all long gone. And it’s not a surprise. Korea isn’t really a place that vegans prosper. It’s more surprising that it even tried to catch on here.

Honestly, even though rents are expensive I think the market for veggie and vegan food is ready to expand. A restaurant that sells vegan mandu and ddukbokki could make a killing, I think. Plus there aren’t any mock-meat Indian, Thai, or Chinese restaurants that could clean up. It may take time, and the vegan market will  skew away from Koreans and toward foreigners for a long time, cutting out so many potential customers. But the opportunity is there.

Anyway, until then, here are some of the best places to eat as a vegan in Seoul. It’s not a comphrensive list, but all of these places are pretty awesome.


Location: Itaewon

This is probably the most famous vegan place in Korea, and it’s as tiny as it is delicious. Although it can be hard to get a seat, and the portions are, too my taste, both a bit expensive and a bit small. But it’s a great haven and the baked goods are incredible. I got my birthday cake here and it was so good it impressed my omni friends.

Baker’s Table

Location: Gyeongridan

I haven’t actually tried the vegan sandwich, but the baked bread is so good. The Focaccia (tomato or garlic) might be my favorite edible thing in the whole city. You can also get hummus at High Street Market (about a 20 minute walk away) for a tasty little sumthin’ sumthin’.

JULY 2016 UPDATE: I actually will never go to the Baker’s Table again. Last time I went, the focaccia was so old and stale that I could barely eat it. Well, no worries. I went back and ordered the vegan sandwich. They cooked the vegetables in bacon grease, like a lot of bacon grease. I can’t recommend them as a vegan option anymore.

Taco Loco

Location: Sinchon

Thanks to some friends who introduced this place, it has become my favorite Mexican in Seoul. There aren’t too many vegan options, but if you order the veggie burrito without cheese it’s totally happy. It’s a bit cheaper than other Mexican places, plus the burrito comes with avocado.

Cafe The Bread Blue

Location: Sinchon

A weird name, sure, and it’s a little expensive. But this place is cool; like a typical Korean bakery but everything is edible for vegans. They have cool little cups of parfait and soy milk for all their coffee drinks. The cafe is cozy and a fun place to, say, play a board game.


Location: Everywhere

Not the first place you think of, but given that most of the vegan places in the city are either in Sinchon or Itaewon/HBC this place is a bit of a oasis. In order to get a vegan version, order a veggie sandwich with no cheese with Italian bread and hot chili or sweet chili or sweet onion sauce. This is a cheap and cool option and Subway has saved my fakin’ more than once.

Petra Palace

Location: Itaewon

A long time ago

There are a couple of other restaurants I’ve been to but don’t have pictures of, including Jack’s Bean in Hongdae. Also, at least some Paris Baguette’s carry a Quinoa Lentil Bean Salad.

Also every vegetarian or vegan who lives in Korea probably knows about Iherb, but it’s an awesome source for nutritional yeast, Braggs, herbal tea, quinoa, oatmeal and so much more. Here are some of my scores this year.


While it’s harder to be a vegan in Korea than it was even 5 years ago, there are plenty of places to go. Especially in the Hongdae/Sinchon and Itaewon/HBC area. It’s not 2011 anymore, but hopefully it’s better than just convenience store apples and pringles.


10 Reasons I Can’t Live in America again

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged here. I’ve been writing and developing games and running an RPG here in Seoul which claimed much of my free time. Plus I think all bloggers go through a point where they wonder if the hours spent blogging might be better used on … almost anything else. But this is a subject that has been percolating in my mind for a while now.

Before I go any further, I’ll clarify by saying that the reasons I do have to go back–family and friends (and burritos)–outweigh these. Okay, Mom?


Consumerism: buy buy buy

cj 033

This has been covered before just about everyone, but the longer I live out of the US, the harder it is to come back to the bombardment of “buy X=happiness” messages that make up so much of day-to-day life. (The part of the world I live now is arguably just as consumerist, but not speaking the language or belonging to the culture makes it feel far less so.)

Buying into the culture gets harder too–“new” things like uber and Spotify and smart phones and well who knows what gaining popularity since I lived in the US lead to a disenfranchising feeling. (For me at least.) On the flip side, going back is often a process of discovering a new culture, which I do appreciate.

Over-Regulation and Bureaucracy


Renting an apartment requires background checks and credit checks and promises of first-borns. My mom moved for the first time in years and was shocked at all the hoops she had to jump through. From checking into a hotel to registering for school, everything is so needlessly complex.

This might be more an Oregon thing, but it insane to me that a thirty year old person cannot necessarily buy a beer if they don’t have their ID. A non-ending series of permits are required for far too many things, from opening restaurants to painting your house. Everything is needlessly more complicated than it should be, and that’s no way to live.

Gun Culture



See the guest post from 2015 by liberal anarchist and gun enthusiast Bob Swan to demonstrate that even educated people can hold very bad ideas. Selling guns in stores and online is, if the rest of the world is any sort of system to judge, a bad idea and a key ingredient of a toxic culture.



“I Deserve” Entitlement


This one is harder to articulate–it’s a more a “I know it when I see it.” But it permeates everything; the decadent “I deserve” mentality and the counterpart, the prevalent “you should sue” mindset. This is a refection of rampant consumerism and while there’s nothing objectively wrong with those attitudes, they are pretty much 180 degrees from how I live my life.

Undereducated Populace


Socialism is still a bad word. People don’t know it’s not the same as facism. I should note this does seem to be changing now, but there are still plenty of people who think that socialism=lazy people asking for free stuff. This goes far beyond the political. It’s a society that glorifies money and fame for their own sake.


Driving Culture


The ultimate symbol of freedom in America? A machine that kills or injures over 2 million people a year, and includes costs for insurance, gas, repairs, and registration. Even Portland, famous for bikes and public transportation, requires a car to get anywhere out of it. Intercity options like Greyhound are stigmatized and inefficient for anything other than big cities.



They suck everywhere but in the US they are a special flavor of suckiness. (And I wrote this sentence a year ago, well before this year’s singular madness of an election process.) I haven’t commented much on the election this year, but I’ll say this. For me, the candidates rank like this. Bernie Sanders (he’s not actually as liberal as I’d like but still the best by far candidate), and then Green Party candidate Jill Stein (better than Sanders but with even less of a chance), then a tie between Trump and Hillary (both of which are disasters) and then Cruz (the worst case scenario).

But part of me wants to see Trump in the White House. He is the president that “Honey-BooBoo”-watching, mass produced pop listening America deserves. The mirror image of the culture. And it would make for way better comedy shows. (Inherent in this opinion is that he wouldn’t be any worse for the people of the world than Clinton.)

Anyway, one of the problems in my opinion is that the US is too big and too diverse and the solution of splitting into separate countries  still seems too radical.



I actually defended our wonky system for years, but I can’t do it anymore. It would be hard to go back to funny old Fahrenheit and miles after the nice conciseness of the metric (almost) everywhere else in the world. It’s the 21st century and a system based some English King’s foot probably isn’t the best system imaginable.

Fear culture


The USA is good at big portions, and that includes the buffet of fear-mongering options that citizens chomp down on with glee. Fear of other countries. Fear of germs. Fear of immigrants. Fear of the other. Fear of the Other. Fear of Republicans and cyber-predators and flying and terrorism and so many other ungrounded fears.

Even in relatively safe places like Portland, people knocking on doors is a cause of fear. And yes, a fearful populace is a more easy to control but is that all there is to it? It would be exhausting to be afraid all that time and, quite frankly, I’m afraid to be that afraid.

Portland is a Hard Place to Live


Most of the reasons on the list are philosophical. This is purely practical though. It’s so hard for me to find a job in Portland. I have applied in my life for several hundred jobs in Portland (over a period of almost 20 years now) and heard back from fewer than 20. I’ve been rejected from Powells 3 times. And I only apply to jobs where I fit all the criteria. I always thought it was just hard to get a job in Portland but my sister has no problem doing it so maybe it’s just a me thing. It’s definitely discouraging to come back and be *lucky* to get a job temping or in a grocery store.

So that’s my thinking. From afar all of those things seem kind of terrible. But as I said, with so many good friends and family there, I probably will come back.



A Typical Week in Teaching


Leave the Class for one minute and there’s poo everywhere. Poo shoes!

One of the questions I asked for one of my classes on their monthly Speaking Test. They are one of my favorite classes. This kind of shows how funny and weird they are.


The question is: What do you like about your best friend?

Student 1: “She is very high nose.” 

She thought this was a completely satisfactory answer so I gave her 3/5 points.

Student 2: “She has very straight, very black hair.”

Better grammar. And who am I to quibble on the importance of straight hair in friends? 4/5

Student 3: “She is very kind to me.”

Perfect. 5/5

Student 4: “He is very smart.”

This doesn’t seem funny but the look he gave me was like “You know what’s up.” 5/5 and he wasn’t done.

The next question: What is an important quality in a friend?

Student 4: “Money. I think money.”  (His look: “You still know what’s up.”

In another class with lower level students, they learned about twins. I asked them if they knew the word for three brothers/sisters born at the same time.
One girl, Marsha, who is preternaturally smart, shot her hand into the air.
“Trio,” Marsha said confidently.
“No,” I said. “But that’s very close. In fact, the word starts with tri.” I said, writing TRI on the board.
All the kids raised their hands simultaneously.

“Trins,” they all said.

Me: “Oh. That’s actually better than what we use. Good job class.”


Best of 2015 in Pictures

I’ve been doing this for a while now: 2009, 2010, 2011,  20122013 and 2014 . Unlike the last couple vagabondy years, this year I spent entirely in one country (with a one weekend in Japan visa run exception). While this year didn’t have visits to Everest or the Grand Canyon, overall it was nice to get back into a groove and start saving some money again.

2015 will be characterized for me by my job at the Talking Club, by the friends I made with the Scifi Meetup group, and by weekends spent teaching English at the Buddhist temple. I juiced fresh veggies and cooked a thousand stir-fries and drank a thousand thousand smoothies and my weight in hazelnut coffee. It’s a year that got me back on my feet.

January 2015

January 2015January – I almost took a terrible job outside of Seoul but I’m so glad I didn’t. It made for a financially precarious time for a while but also gave me time for long city wanders, such as this one up to Namsan. I was listening to Animal Farm on audiobook and now this mountain and that story are forever linked in my mind.

February 2015

February 2015February was the one time I escaped Korea this year.  I went back to Fukuoka where I spent a lovely weekend full of walking and seeing new sights. This picture was taken in a small canal town about half-an-hour out of the city. It was early in the morning and raining hard and few people were around.  These hardy souls didn’t seem to mind at all though.

March 2015

March 2015Birthday hike with some of my coolest friends. They didn’t even mind when I zigged instead of zagged and we missed the place we were looking for. Not only was it a good hike, with hummus for a snack, but after we played board games and ate some fun vegan food. Good birthday!

April 2015


This hike, along Bukhansan’s Dullegil, was in early spring with the blossoms raining down along with the rain, which was also quite good at raining down. For whatever reason, I quickly entered a natural high on this hike and stayed that way for all 7 hours. It was just too nice walking up and down the mountains in the soft spring mist.

May 2015

May 2015

May weekends I walked an hour to Yeouido Island and played basketball until my legs stopped working and then walked home. This view of the 63 building was along the way. I like the juxtaposition of a field of towers with the immensely tall building.

June 2014

June 2015

In June I went to a sheep cafe! ‘Nuff said.

July 2015

July 2015City wanders in Seoul often reward with unexpected art. This wall in Sincheon is equal parts random and sweet.

August 2015

August 2015In August I took time off from the temple and went down to  Gyangju. What a nice city! Burial mounds and observatories and temples and lakes and this Unesco World Heritage Temple, Bulguksa. It was hot as blazes but a place I’d like to go back to.

September 2015


In September I went back to Insadong as part of a year long project to write a walking tour to the area. This view of the moon over the giraffes was pretty cool.

October 2015

October 2015Halloween at Everland. What more could you want?

November 2015

November 2015It was a long autumn filled with plentiful leaves but these Suyu bongo trucks really strike my fancy.

December 2015


Not a lot of pictures this month, but the first snow was pretty great. As much as I love snow, it’s almost better to see how cranky my students get. These kids don’t love snow because it’s too cold and they come bundled up to class in ski jackets and scarves and mittens.

Reflections from the Mountain


Hwagyesa Temple

I’ve been teaching English at Hwagyesa temple since February. I teach Buddhist lay people who are already quite advanced in English but may need help with tricky grammar or unusual words.

There are a couple of negatives–I have to get up at 6:45 am Sunday morning to get to the temple on time (Classes start at 8:20 and it’s across the city.) So no Saturday nights, early rising (I’m much more likely to stay up until 6 than to get up anywhere around it the other days of the week).

But the people are so wonderful and the temple is in the foothills of Bukhansan. In fact, my favorite hike in Seoul starts right here!  Grumble as I do about the early rising, it’s still nice to see the sun rise (though it’s fully dark on my bus rides now) and be one of the only people on the bus or subway.


No, really though.

It sounds like the time is coming to an end–the head monk wants a real Buddhist teaching English. Fair enough. So I’d like to share some of the interesting (to me at least) moments from this past year.  These are just some rambling and scattered anecdotes, so consider yourself warned.



⊕ One of the first days one of the women asked me what “dank shit” means. They also asked me about “Wishy-washy” and were surprised it didn’t have anything to do about washing. Later, the phrase “you’re history!” was quite amusing as well

⊕ I learned that in 1980’s Korea one could go to jail for reading a Time magazine in public.

⊕ This was uttered, which I will relate without comment: “It’s okay for brainwashing for the right direction.”

⊕ As was this: “My nephew is very intelligent. But the Korean young woman doesn’t care about intelligent.”

⊕ Over summer break, one of my students told us about her travel plans to Estonia. I asked her if it was in the Schengen Area. She didn’t know but this led to a discussion on German. “I know one other German word,” said another woman. “Schadenfreude.”

⊕ Later one of them asked about what foods to eat if one wanted to stop hair loss. (Apparently black beans and sesame oil are the secret here). “What about in America?” they asked me. “What do you eat to prevent hair loss?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  They all laughed at the thought that I wouldn’t know. “I think we’d say eat lots of veggies to get your vitamins and minerals.” One of them scoffed and said “I don’t believe it.”


⊕ Another time, I asked one of the women, “How was your Saturday?”
She smiled very big and said “Yesterday I went to my sister’s house to have alcohol.” Her smile got even bigger.
⊕ I truly blew some minds when they asked me what slang words we had for hand fans in the USA and I told them we didn’t really have any, words or fans. (My mom being a notable exception to the latter.)  I actually think this was the most shocked they were the entire year.

⊕ They asked me what animals an attractive woman might be called. I told them about”She’s a fox.”  “Oh how about bear?” One of them asked. “Is attractive woman also called a bear?” I told her what a Bear was and she just covered her mouth in embarrassment and didn’t speak again for a while.

⊕ I was told that a famous monk predicted a Korean crises, followed by a world crises but then that Korea would emerge as a world leader largely because of good karma accrued for not hurting anybody.

⊕ The Korean movies International Market (“I cried a lot), On the Way Home, (a small boy and his grandma) and Sound of Cow Bell  (the classic story of an old man and his cow) were recommended to me. I haven’t seen any of them yet but they come highly praised.

⊕ I taught them modern slang and all of them, but especially the 70 year old man, laughed so hard at the word hangry.

⊕ This might not be true, but apparently in Japan there were so few men around after the war that people were given permission to hump anyone. Women were discouraged to wear underwear. Because of this, a 2nd family name based on the place of conception (things like “By the sea, under the tree, on the rice field, etc) became part of the names and this lasted until the 70s or 80s. When this story was told, one of the students said “Oh, that’s why Japanese are so open to sex!”

⊕ Just last week I learned that an unmarried woman used to be called “old-miss” but now in light of career women they are called “gold miss.”

⊕ I was  asked about the word “bad-ass” and how it could mean something good.


The Gang’s all here

⊕ We also hiked several times. The last time we all hiked the oldest of us (a 70 year old man) broke his ankle but still walked the two hours down to the trailhead. The whole time he was asking me about the difference between a trek and a hike. (Korean is I think a fairly precise language and the ambiguities of English sometimes baffle them.)  On an earlier less dangerous hike though we stopped for lunch, then bread, then coffee. During coffee one of them asked me what I usually eat (they are very interested in my diet.)

I told them usually stirfry and rice or pasta. She frowned and asked me something else, in Korean. The man next to her translated “She wants to know: why are you fat?”


Noodle version of my dinner


And the Rice variety


“I eat very big portions,” I explained. All of them looked at me unsteadily, until another man who has traveled extensively in the US explained the difference in portion size, using his hands to emphasis little and big. They all awwwed in understanding and we went back to drinking our coffee.

So I will miss my time in the mountains, with the Buddhists, in the temple. But I won’t mind having my weekends again.


Guest Post: Bloomberg’s Gunfight

I asked my good friend who is hyper liberal in almost all ways (except for gun control) to write something explaining the argument why “guns are good.” To many who live outside the US (and many who live there as well), the prevalence of guns seems like a scary mistake, part of redneck culture and sign of a failed or failing state

But are there legitimate arguments for widespread gun use? Mr. Rober Swan, a former U.S. Marine and Professor of Community Policing as well as anarchistic muralist, marathon runner, and recovering academic currently living in Oregon., is here to explain the case for guns.

It’s a long read, but worth it. While I personally disagree with him rather vehemently, I do think he makes some interesting points and I’ve definitely gained a deeper understanding of the issue.

(At) Home on the Range

(At) Home on the Range

Bloomberg’s Gunfight
—by Robert Swan

“It’s controversial but, first thing is all of your, 95 percent, 95 percent of your murders and murderers and murder victims fit one M.O. You can just take the description and Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops. They are male minorities 15 to 25. That’s true in New York, it’s true in virtually every city in America. And that’s where the real crime is. You’ve got to get the guns out of the hands of the people that are getting killed.” —Michael Bloomberg speaking to a largely white, wealthy audience at the Aspen Institute (Colorado) [Ignoring the profound inaccuracy of his data, Bloomberg has since advocated the disarming of all minority males between the ages of 15 & 25, regardless of criminal record]

Guns.  For many lefties in the U.S, the very idea (let alone the reality) of firearms evoke a great deal of concern, if not horror and outrage.  Why?  There are many reasons for the left’s generally profound aversion to guns but the most obvious and basic reason is that firearms are designed, exclusively, to kill other living creatures.

I get that.

But why is a white, male billionaire—with an abysmal policing and crime-control record in New York City and a clearly racist policy intent— telling us how to control gun violence?  And, more importantly, why are we (lefties) listening?  Admittedly, the left is not always aware that the prepackaged and recycled anti-gun message they subscribe to in the policy process today has become a uniquely Bloomberg product—complete with racist & classist characteristics and include a fairly vast expansion of the American penal and juridical system.  Nonetheless, the fact that Michael Bloomberg—who, over the years, has identified as a Republican, a Democrat and an Independent (e.g., whatever works)—is the primary financial driver behind the current spate of new, state-level gun control policies should give us pause.

As a lefty myself (I am left…far left…of President Obama)—and as a former U.S. Marine and Professor of Community Policing—I understand all too well the horror that guns inflict upon our world.  Whether we are talking about war, mass shooting events, suicide or neighborhood-level crime, the profound waste of life is paraded before us every night on cable news networks, and all day, every day on social media.

In addition to these distorted, for-profit visions of mayhem, some of us have actual (as opposed to vicarious) experience with gun violence.  As a professor of criminal justice and policing living in central California for two years, my sleep was frequently punctuated by 3:00AM gun battles between the Norteños and Sureños, two ferociously combative criminal gangs that have made a battleground of California.

….and yes, they had weapons and ammunition magazines that violated California’s rigid firearms restrictions…but I digress….

I won’t delve into crime data too much here, since I think that we can all agree that guns are destructive and that people will, with some frequency, use guns for nefarious purposes.  They always have and they always will.  However, I think if we’re honest, we can also agree that most gun owners in America do not use their firearms for nefarious or destructive purposes—if we limit our agreement on that to strictly person-on-person violence.  (e.g., I acknowledge that my vegan and vegetarian friends likely find hunting to be a destructive, if not nefarious, pursuit).

What I would like to address here is the political and social value related to one’s ability to possess firearms in a democratic society. Indeed, what is largely forgotten, misunderstood or intentionally neglected in the typical narratives surrounding guns is that the right to legally possess and deploy guns represent something much larger than a right to kill and maim.  In fact, the right to own a firearm in the U.S. represents an opportunity for citizens to exercise a freedom usually reserved for military and law enforcement in other countries.  This freedom has, traditionally, conditioned our sense of individual responsibility and efficacy in relation to individual and collective well-being. Importantly, the cyclical, distorted and heavily mediated national discussion over firearms has had a large impact on the many debates regarding the limits of freedom (more generally) in the U.S.  It is through these hysterical media discussions—and resulting policies— that the moral entrepreneurs seeking to politically profit from gun violence are able to infantilize an entire nation.  After all, if you can regulate the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, what can’t you regulate?

The fierce opposition to firearms restrictions is not—as the anti-gun internet trolls would have you believe—about gun-loving rednecks who want to stock-pile weapons for a zombie apocalypse or government overthrow.  Rather, the ferocity of the gun debate is related to citizen resistance to a creeping fascism; a softening of our resolve to be responsible for our own actions.  It is about fighting to remain a grownup in an increasingly childish and selfish society.

The Symbolic Value of Gun Ownership:  “Yup, Grownups Live Here”

“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”—The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

Before I address the practical value of legal gun ownership in the U.S., it is useful to trot out a few statistics, tropes, myths and symbolic realities related to gun crime and the legal right to own a firearm.

First of all—and though I (sort of) promised not to talk crime statistics—it is useful to point out a few, important gun crime statistical confusions.

Contrary to President Obama’s assertion that “mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.  It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency,” in fact, mass violence has been declining in the U.S since the mid-1990s and mass violence (and violence in general) does happen in advanced countries and, with some frequency.  Of course, it all depends on how you define “advanced.”  Russia, for example, has a homicide rate 2.4 times greater than the U.S. and Brazil’s homicide rate is almost five times higher.

That being said, one really shouldn’t compare crime rates between completely different rule of law systems.  In comparing our system to a similar system like, oh say, Britain we might be able to make some assertions about gun crime that do not distort the issue.  Even though the U.S. has the most guns (88 per 100 citizens), the gun homicide rate in the U.S is only 2.8 per 100,000.  In England and Wales, the gun homicide rate is considerably lower at .07 per 100,000 and Northern Ireland is at .28 per 100,000 citizens.

Interestingly, both the U.K. and the U.S.—all in the name of promoting democratic freedom in developing countries— are major exporters of small arms, which means both are spreading the love beyond their own borders…but I digress (again)…

However, when factoring in all other crimes, Britain actually has three times as much crime as the United States.  So, while we might argue that fewer guns means fewer gun crimes, we can’t say that fewer guns equals less crime.  In fact, one might make the argument that more guns equals less overall crime.  Some do make that argument, but that’s beyond the scope of the argument here.

Crime and statistical literacy is also a huge deficit when it comes to public discussions on crime. In fact, most people don’t understand how crime is distributed. For example, many foreign nationals appear to fear becoming a victim of a violent crime if they visit the U.S.  Well, that may be a valid fear if you plan on vacationing in the shittiest parts of Chicago, L.A., Boston, Stockton or Cincinnati, but generally speaking, most people are not at risk for victimization at the hands of gun wielding thugs.  In fact, most people in the United States are quite safe primarily because crime is unevenly distributed and tends to be concentrated in specific areas.  Any simple internet crime mapping tool will tell you that (or a good travel agent).

So, now that the unequal distribution of risk idea has been sorted out, let’s talk about why the U.S. is prone to more aggressive types of criminal behavior. Gun-wielding criminal behavior in particular.  The good news is that criminologists Stephen F. Messner and Richard Rosenfeld have already written a book about this (5th or 6th edition, actually) called “Crime and the American Dream.” In this macro-level criminological research, guns are not the primary villain.  The economic system is.

In fact, it is our particularly virulent form of capitalism, combined with diminished social safety nets, our collective disconnect from the well-being of…well… the collective, and a culture of “winning at all costs” that has led us to where we are today.  Recall (if you saw it) the movie “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” with Will Ferrell.  In one flashback scene Ferrell’s father tells him that “If you ain’t first, then your last.”  That’s America in a nutshell.  Guns, then, are simply an efficient way to be “number one” when all other legal pathways to success have been blocked—typically through some kind of legal or economic subterfuge inherent in the American political and economic system.

In addition to comparisons between the U.S. and other advanced countries using Messner & Rosenfeld’s criminological ideas, we also know that more diverse countries have more conflict.  Conflict, from a Marxist perspective at least, usually means more crime.  Less diverse advanced countries have far less crime than the U.S. simply because there is more consensus on collective goals.  In the U.S., we have an absolutely terrifying record of economic and political oppression by elites and almost no point in our history have we reached a consensus on anything (Hell, we’re still fighting battles over the confederate flag for crying out loud).

Do we need guns?  In my opinion, we only need guns for symbolic reasons, though there are many other practical reasons to own guns (e.g., self-defense, hunting & etc.).  For me at least, the symbolic Constitutional placeholder role is enough to keep gun ownership legal in this country.  The question really is, do we want to do away with our right to own guns?

Yes, the right to own a firearm in the U.S. is firmly entrenched in the U.S. Constitution and recent U.S. Supreme Court cases (See: D.C. v. Heller).  The courts have cited a number of practical and constitutional reasons for maintaining this right, but what does having this right mean in terms of symbolic value?  Well, it means at least a few things:

1) It means grown-ups live here.  Not only do we have the right (in theory) to speak, pray and associate freely (not to mention enjoy the right to a fair and humane justice system), but we also (in theory) have the right to carry and deploy firearms in order to defend those rights.  For example, I would argue that the outcome in South Carolina would have been much different if at least ONE person in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church had been packing heat. High capacity heat.

In short, (and to borrow from a right-wing trope for a minute here), the Second Amendment is not about the right to hunt or target practice (see: Tench Coxe, a contemporary of James Madison).  That being said—and regardless of the internet “revolution” gossip surrounding the Bundy standoff with the BLM (e.g., armed insurrection)—an interpretation of the Second Amendment does not (with any seriousness today at least) suggest that a large-scale, armed revolt against the U.S. government should or could occur—especially given the size and capability of the U.S. military.  But what it does mean is that the right to own guns is an individual right, a right to act in defense against violent attacks upon your person (or others) based on race, gender, ethnicity, political beliefs, sexual identity or sexual orientation.  It is a tool that individuals can use when faced with unjust violence at the hands of unruly mobs or individuals.  It is a tool that need never come out of the toolbox and serve only as a symbolic reminder that you are, in fact, a grown-up living in a free society (like the Swiss!).  This is how the Second Amendment has traditionally been used, not as right-wing extremists have depicted…or the way it has been depicted in really nifty zombie apocalypse TV shows.

While there continue to be vigorous legal and political debates on the meaning of the Second Amendment (and appropriate restrictions), ultimately, being a grown-up in America is tightly coupled to the right to own and deploy firearms, as well as to all other rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution.  Eviscerating (or attempting to nullify) the Second Amendment seems to be less about increasing public safety than it is about decreasing public power.  It is no accident that Bloomberg’s gun control policies and proposals seem to be guided by a patriarchal and infantilizing impulse—it is the general zeitgeist of all Sugar Daddies after all. Everywhere.  Always.

“As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the next article in their right to keep and bear their private arms.”—Tench Coxe writing to James Madison on the 2nd Amendment as an individual right.

2) The right to own firearms in the U.S. context also means that because you are a grown-up exercising your right to own and potentially deploy a firearm that you will be held accountable for your actions.  In our system, “rights” also include “responsibility.” This, then, is the essence of the “freedom” trope found so often in pro-gun narratives.  They have a point.  If the rights of citizens are reduced through infantilizing public policy (e.g., reductions in the opportunity to be responsible for your actions though the evisceration of your right to act in the first place), then a key element involved in being a free person has been removed.  Yep, in this country, it’s all fun and games until you yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater (or, alternatively, let a round fly accidentally from your concealed six-shooter while watching that movie).  To try to prevent the misuse of a given right by removing that right is both tyrannical and, frankly, nonsensical (as evidenced by gun crime data…er, hem…Chicago!).

The Political & Social Value of Gun Ownership: Personal Efficacy and Political Action

Contrary to media portrayals of gun owners, most of us spend a fair amount of time thinking about the responsibility that comes with gun ownership—if for no other reason than our handling of firearms has the ability to significantly impact the lives of others.  This level of responsibility is consistent with the other responsibilities people in a democratic society are given (e.g., paying taxes, driving a car, voting & etc.).

In my experience, people who live in states with heavy-handed and overly restrictive gun laws are the angriest, least efficacious, least trusting (paranoid, actually) and least mindful people I have ever met. What seems to be lacking in these states are feelings of trust (about anything); high levels of fear; and, importantly, low-levels of personal and political efficacy among the general population (though, interestingly, elites never seem to feel marginalized in these states.  See: voting participation data for California, for example).

These may be false correlations but it is my opinion nonetheless.  It is such a strongly felt opinion that after only two years I left a tenure track teaching job in California because of it.  Indeed, I may have short-circuited my academic career over it.  However, it is also my opinion that there is nothing more detrimental to human efficacy than a distrustful governance system emboldened (and empowered) by a coercive political culture.

The political cultures in these states tend to be fairly coercive across policy domains, not just in relation to firearms.  This is an important cultural feature to be aware of because, as some criminologists have argued, coercive political cultures are usually related to citizens’ distrust in each other and in their government.  Coercion (as a governing tactic) is the last resort in states in which voluntary, collaborate action is no longer possible—or perceived by the state to be no longer possible.  Thus—paradoxically— the problem of gun violence goes largely unresolved in states possessing coercive political cultures because, as criminologists and political scientists are well aware of, effective crime control is a co-produced outcome achieved through the voluntary collaboration of citizens and a state’s penal and political systems (e.g., community building and community policing are effective gun violence reduction strategies that embraces the co-production idea.  SEE: Boston Gun Project & David Kennedy’s work).

The social and political outcome described above are not due simply to firearms restrictions, of course, but, the over-regulation of firearms in these states tends to correlate with the over-regulation of everything else.  California is a good case in point, and, as I stated earlier, the catalyst for my current thinking on the relationship between gun ownership and personal and political efficacy.  What is interesting is that as ineffective as current gun control proposals and policies actually are (see: California, New York & Illinois for examples), they continue to dominate the interests of state legislatures—even in states that don’t have much crime at all.  Why?

                        Purchasing a Firearm in California:

  • Generally, all firearms purchases and transfers, including private party transactions and sales at gun shows, must be made through a California licensed dealer under the Dealer’s Record of Sale (DROS) process. California law imposes a 10-day waiting period before a firearm can be released to a purchaser or transferee.
  • Purchasers of handguns must provide proof of California residency, such as a utility bill, residential lease, property deed, or government-issued identification (other than a drivers license or other DMV-issued identification), and either (1) possess a Handgun Safety Certificate (HSC) plus successfully complete a safety demonstration with their recently purchased handgun or (2) qualify for an HSC exemption.  (Pen. Code, § § 26800-26850.)

    Purchasing a Firearm in Oregon:

  • Buying from an FFL (Guns store/ dealer):
  • A person must be at least 18 years of age to purchase a rifle or shotgun. To purchase a handgun, a person must be at least 21 years of age.
  • Must be Oregon Resident.
  • Pay $10 background fee.  Wait 10-30 minutes.
  • Leave store with firearm once background check clears.
  • Until August 9th, 2015, Oregonians are still allowed to privately buy and sell firearms to each other with no background check.

The Left is Taking Marching Orders From a Scoundrel…whaaaat?

Both the political left and political right in America seem alarmingly oblivious to the nasty history of gun control and seem equally oblivious to the positive role firearms have played in America’s historical fights for equality. Indeed, gun control has profoundly racist roots (see: “Negroes and the Gun: A Tradition of Black Arms by Nicholas Johnson).  How else do elites (government and business) cling to political power than by disarming disgruntled populations?  In the case of African Americans, gun rights have traditionally been denied (often violently) because political and economic elites correctly assumed that an armed, marginalized population would be dangerous to their interests (see also: “slave catchers,” black resistance and the origins of modern law enforcement).

Michael Bloomberg has continued the tradition of stripping African Americans of their guns, first in New York (e.g., “Stop and Frisk”) and now, nationally through his shell groups, Mom’s Demand Action & Everytown For Gun Safety.  Admittedly, not all liberals understand the relationship that Bloomberg has to current gun control policies.  Most people aren’t even aware of his abysmal racial record in New York City.  But Bloomberg understands them.  He is well aware of the left’s dogma surrounding gun control and has used it, I would argue, against them.

Today, Bloomberg’s policy ideas are designed—at least implicitly— to limit firearms access to all people of color as well as to members of the poor and working class, regardless of race.  These are the most marginalized populations in America and, thanks in part to America’s general “war on crime,” and specifically, to America’s nonsensical “war on drugs”, many people in these groups have become legally disenfranchised for low-level drug felonies (which of course, makes them ineligible to either vote or own firearms).  The public safety messages broadcast by Bloomberg and his cynical crew are, really, thinly disguised calls for racial exclusion that pander (shamelessly) to the always poignant fears of the white middle class.  The left—to my chagrin— is particularly gullible to Bloomberg’s message.  But, in their defense, it is a message that is typically cloaked behind the image of self-actualizing mom’s trying to “save the children.”  The King of Sugar Daddy’s has actually coopted the very notion of motherhood (e.g., Mom’s Demand Action) and put it in service to elite interests!   It’s pretty fucking clever, actually.

By most accounts, Michael Bloomberg is a clever scoundrel.  For the lefties (like me) who pay attention to these things, Bloomberg’s “Stop-and Frisk” policies in New York City were touted as effective crime control but, in fact, were both ineffective at reducing gun violence and horribly destructive to communities of color and police legitimacy (see: ACLU New York).  For ten years Bloomberg stubbornly forced his cops to engage in this behavior, and for ten years communities of color were oppressed and marginalized by these race-based stops, searches & seizures.  So, then, one has to ask: “Why are left-leaning groups taking marching orders from Bloomberg and his well-funded shell groups, Every Town for Gun Safety and Mom’s Demand Action?”  Well, there are a number of factors at play here, but I’ll start with the theoretical.

Some critical sociologists have hypothesized that the way elites control the general population in a democratic system is “by proxy”, rather than directly (as is the case in true dictatorships, usually though the use of terror campaigns, mass incarcerations, executions, mass torture and arbitrary arrest).  It is also, for some sociologists, a gender and class issue.  To fit the Bloomberg Plan into a theoretical framework such as this, is not difficult: 1) Billionaire White Dude; 2) Empowers (through money and political support) upwardly mobile white women (Mom’s Demand Action); & 3) …to divide the working class and poor on the issue of guns.  More importantly, as Mom’s Demand Action recruitment messages indicate, this strategy also divides the poor and working class by gender, as the MDA appeal to poor and working class women is pretty simple: “Do something about violence against children.”  Certainly, it seems to be true that if you want to push an agenda all you need to do is trot out dead children… in this case, it is not designed to “save children” but, rather, to divide the households of the poor and working class by offering a false sense of efficacy to women who otherwise possess very little (if any) power.

Universal Background Checks and the Politics of Trust

In what world are policies designed to increase the number of restrictive laws—while simultaneously decreasing public safety and public trust—acceptable?  Well, the world in which wealthy elites seek to control increasingly unhappy and marginalized populations (see: John Irwin & “rabble management”).  As scholar Donald Black has asserted over and over again for decades, the best way to disable a society is to increase the distance between individuals by increasing the amount of formal law that separates them in the first place. Simply, law is a barrier to personal efficacy and collective action.  In some cases, this is a good thing (see: “Crime as Self-help, by Donald Black).  However, too much law is coercive to healthy social systems.  In criminal justice and political science, this translates in to the evisceration of informal social control (e.g., collaborative social networks) while simultaneously increasing the importance of formal social control (e.g., police and prisons).  Welcome to Bloomberg’s world, where more law means more cops, more courts and more prisons (but not necessarily less crime or healthier communities).

As Bloomberg’s moral and political entrepreneurs know all too well, adding more restrictions on gun ownership is a good way to go if you want to diminish the health of a given political culture.  Recently, in Oregon—a political culture that has traditionally enjoyed strong, left-leaning libertarian impulses— Senate Bill 941 (with generous financial backing from Bloomberg) was fast-tracked (as “emergency” legislation) through the Oregon legislature and signed by the governor this year. In simple terms (though the law is anything but simple), SB 941 requires police background checks on the private transfer of firearms. Traditionally, Oregonians have been trusted to conduct these transfers on their own.  Not anymore.

The emergence of SB 941 was especially confusing given that Oregon has enjoyed a declining violent crime rate for some time, to include gun homicides and robberies (UCR, 2013). My confusion was resolved once I realized the role that Bloomberg (and his “astroturfing” strategy) played in pushing his agenda in Oregon.  “Astroturfing,” in a nutshell, is a fake “grassroots” effort designed to manipulate public opinion for private gain. In particular, “astroturfers” try to manipulate public opinion by using false or misleading data and marginalize anyone who disagrees with them.  It is an effective trick, especially among a largely media-illiterate population.

Unfortunately, the astroturfing efforts by these Bloomberg-backed groups are not true efforts to do anything about crime, but, rather, are efforts to radically change our political culture. The resulting culture of control (Garland, 2001)—as is the case in California and New York, for example—will become increasingly punitive and coercive.  In short, the politics of trust (or distrust, as the case may be) has come to Oregon.  While Bloomberg’s rhetoric may assert that the “NRA is resisting positive change in Oregon,” the truth is that many Oregonian’s are—without any NRA influence at all (they contributed nothing in defense of SB941)— resisting Bloomberg’s effort to foment distrust among the poor and working class.  Simply, Bloomberg’s effort to eviscerate informal social control and divide the poor and working class in Oregon did not go unnoticed.  The four State Senators currently enduring a recall effort can attest to that.

Back to being a grown up….

My argument is that the right to own guns is an essential right and responsibility in the American democratic system.  Primarily, this is because it is through the preservation of this right that citizens maintain their sense of individual efficacy; their sense of gravitas; their basic sense of responsibility for the well-being of others.  Smart phones and video games won’t do it (unless what we really want are a nation of distracted children).  You don’t need to own guns in order to appreciate the contribution the right to owning them has conferred on the nation as a whole.  Though admittedly, it is hard to see that through the fog of mediated mayhem.

Of course, my argument may not resonate with some, and may, in fact, create feelings of hostility in others (Hello internet trolls!).

I get that.

However, as a lefty, non-hunting, non-criminal, non-violent progressive person, I have found myself defending this right more and more, which puts me at odds with the people with whom I usually agree (hello social progressives!)… and in bed with folks I don’t (hello angry rednecks!).

The issues surrounding gun ownership and gun violence have become too dichotomous, too polarized, too distorted.  “Balancing” safety concerns has come to mean eviscerating a key Constitutional right.  Anomalous gun crime events (which are declining) have become overemphasized and the role that a healthy government—fueled by a critical, efficacious citizenry—has been minimized or ignored altogether.  Unfortunately, our collective fear of guns is greater than our fear of bad government—a perverse and paradoxical outcome for citizens who think themselves freedom-loving, independent thinkers.  Right now the dangers to our democratic system do not originate from the barrel of a gun but, rather, from Bloomberg’s wallet and the misplaced middle-class white fear he panders to.