This story has been in outline form for some time. However, it lacked a seemingly complicated (and easy enough) example to access and research. Then a little plane accident happened and it appeared a complicated and fraught enough example had (literally) fallen from the sky. It was quickly added to the article. Outwardly, it seemed like the perfect example: easy to discuss, emotional, but not related to current controversies.
Fate is a weird thing. On the day before this article was to be published, here in the United States an horrible and cruel example of Antisemitism tragically cost 11 innocent and beautiful souls their lives. The story was to auto-publish that next evening. Clearly it was held up. The question became whether it would ever be published and if so, in what form.
However, in the end, it was decided it should go forward. This article is about complicated subjects. Whether we are talking about urban mountain biking, iconography or the stupidity of bigotry, we should be able to talk about complicated things and do so without others reducing those subjects to a cartoon. So this article is presented in its full, original, form.
The best thing we can all do is promote love and acceptance. The second best thing we can do is talk about hard topics, like Antisemitism, with the better angels of our nature. In the spirit of the best of what humanity can be, please take the time to donate to organizations like HIAS because, seriously, those assholes can't be allowed to win.
A lot of the parts of creating urban mountain biking experiences are hard. Whether it is discussing environmental impacts, trail management, volunteering or funding of trails, a lot of little things can add up. Additionally, some things are subjective to the time, location or usage. In other words, it can get complicated.
So how do we, as advocates, talk about complicated things without confusing or upsetting our audiences? How can we get the context right in the simplest manner possible?
Let’s find that out. But first, let’s talk about an airplane crash in California to see how the lesson there can teach us why understanding complicated things is important to what we are trying to do. Let’s also use that understanding to figure out how to talk about the complicated things of mountain biking to an audience.
When a Balkenkreuz falls from the sky
On October 24, 2018 a AT-6 Texan, a type of American trainer aircraft built in the 1930s and 1940s, had a malfunction and its pilot landed the aircraft on the 101 freeway north of Los Angeles. That isn’t that weird of a story. There are tons of AT-6 Texans still flying and emergency landings on roads and highways is a technique that is regularly used by pilots. What made this particular incident unique was the paint on said aircraft.
The aircraft was painted in typical Luftwaffe camouflage with the distinct Balkenkreuz (“German cross”) painted on each wing. It also included other visual clues popular with the Luftwaffe of World War Two: spirals on the spinners, green hearts, yellow flashes/insignia and Germanic runes. (It should be noted that save for the Germanic runes, pilots of all nations included similar decorations on their aircraft. Depending on the role, theater, political situation and commanding officer these decorations could get quite elaborate.) This wasn’t some wackadoodle with a paint can and some questionable decorating tastes. This aircraft is part of a non-profit known as the Condor Squadron that flies these planes at airshows as stand-ins for World War Two German aircraft.
The news stories were, as you might guess with an aircraft that was painted to look like it was from Nazi Germany, a bit breathless. The worst of these was a Gizmodo article with the most click-baity title of them all: Uh, a Fighter Plane with World War II-Era Nazi Insignia Just Crashed in California. It included this bit of (very misleading) historical context:
The plane in question does not appear to actually be an antique Reich original, despite it being clearly marked with the Balkenkreuz, an Iron Cross-like symbol used on Nazi planes and armored vehicles before and during World War II.
That is true, the Balkenkreuz was plastered on the side of German vehicles in World War Two and that is when the Nazi government was in place in Germany. But it’s not the whole story.
Here is the thing: the history and usage of the Balkenkreuz is complicated because history is complicated. Neither the statement that the Balkenkreuz is a Nazi symbol is correct, nor is the statement that Balkenkreuz isn’t a Nazi symbol correct. It’s just… complicated.
So, let’s take a few paragraphs and talk about the history of the Balkenkreuz, not because we really need a history lesson in German iconography, but because going thru this history will give us some touchstones to use when talking about the complicated things of mountain biking.
Everything was fine till those guys came along
The symbol we call the Balkenkreuz derived from the Cross Pattée, itself derived from the Teutonic Cross, used by Teutonic Knights. The Cross Pattée became the national symbol of the Prussians. It remained a symbol of the German military after the unification (and Prussianization of German), completed in 1871. For most of the history of Germany (as a single nation) the Cross Pattée was used as an identifying mark on vehicles and firearms. In World War One the Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches (Imperial German Flying Corps) or as it was later known, the Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte (German Air Force) used a form of the Cross Pattée as the identifying symbol. Don’t confuse the Cross Pattée, used as a marking, with the Iron Cross, which was a military award. They are similar in appearance, but vastly different in function. As the war progressed, the Cross Pattée slowly changed, losing its radically arced internal flanks and becoming narrower and more beam-like. In March 20th, 1918 the Luftstreitkräfte officially adopted a new symbol, the Balkenkreuz (“beam cross”; Germans are a very literal people) to be placed on aircraft. It was a completely linear version of the Cross Pattée. Soon the Balkenkreuz had been adopted by other operators of vehicles, including German tanks. The Balkenkreuz would remain the standard vehicle symbol used through the last days of World War One into the beginning years of the Weimar Republic. It should be noted that the Germans were not the only nation to adopt the Balkenkreuz, in fact, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the resulting nations (Austria and Hungary) used some form of the Balkenkreuz for a short time after World War One. Even these nations weren’t alone. The Poles used surplus German aircraft in the early days of the Polish-Ukrainian War and left the Balkenkreuz and just painted on Polish colors. Some of these aircraft were used through the Polish-Soviet War, though by that time Polish aircraft tended to use the checkerboard painted over the Balkenkreuz.
With the signing of the Versailles Treaty Germany had its army vastly curtailed and its air forced stripped away completely. (Spoiler alert: this does not go the way people had hoped.) In Germany the Balkenkreuz basically disappeared from official use for nearly 14 years. Then those assholes came along. In 1935, the Balkenkreuz was re-introduced by the Luftwaffe. Similar usage of the Balkenkreuz were adopted by the Wehrmacht and Kriegsmarine.
It wasn’t just the Germans. Nations and groups that allied with the Germans also adopted some version of it: the Hungarians, Romanians, Croats and the Cossacks all used some form of the Balkenkreuz. (The Finns where the exception, opting for their use of the blue swastika, which predated the Nazis use of the symbol by some 3 years. The swastika was a popular symbol in the early 20th century.) The Balkenkreuz remained the standard German symbol for the entirety of the Nazi era, till 1945, becoming one of the most recognized symbols of Nazi Germany.
With the reformation of a (West) German military in 1956, the decision was made not to use the Balkenkreuz in favor of a hybrid version of the Balkenkreuz and a Cross Pattée. The resulting symbol, called Schwarzes Kreuz (“black cross”), is different from previous Cross Pattée, having less arched internal flanks and retaining the contrasting color flanks of the Balkenkreuz without the outer border. The reasons for this decision were obvious. It was only 11 years after the end of the Nazi era and no one wanted any reminder of that. Also, the Russians had taken the brunt of the casualties in World War Two and in the tension of the Cold War a newly reformed German military sporting Balkenkreuz was not going to go over well.
In the final analysis, discussions of the use of the Balkenkreuz get complicated because context really matters. We can’t say the Balkenkreuz was a Nazi symbol because it was also the symbol of Imperial Germany and the Wiemar Republic. (And, in some form or another, nearly half a dozen countries between 1918 and 1945). We can’t say it wasn’t a Nazi symbol because the Nazi’s made extensive use of it. (Though it should be noted that Nazi iconography is banned in Germany and Balkenkreuz is not banned.) Yeah, you are an idiot if you use Balkenkreuz in a modern setting, but it’s not the same as using a swastika and only an idiot would claim a Balkenkreuz is the same as a swastika. Maybe painting up your plane up to look like a Luftwaffe fighter doesn’t seem to be the brightest idea, but in the context of war re-enactment it’s at least defendable.
That is the thing about complicated subjects: they are complicated to discuss. They can depend on timeframes, usage, intent or audience. They can dependent other factors and choices. They might only be true or false if other things are true or false. Just like the Balkenkreuz, they can be tied to history (negative or positive) or perceptions of history.
To be honest, there is nothing within the realm of mountain biking that approaches the complexities of the use of the Balkenkreuz and the associated historical baggage it comes with. However, when discussing aspects of urban mountain biking, there are things we must talk about that can be complex. There are things that rely on other factors being true or false. There subjects that come with dependencies and with caveats. There are things that come with emotional and historical truths (negative or positive) attached to them.
So, what are the ways mountain biking advocates can talk about complex issues in a way that is easy to understand?
Who is your audience? – It really matters
One of the primary things in talking about complex thing is understanding your audience. Just as the answer to “Where do babies come from?” is different for a 4 year old versus a 12 year old, answers about mountain biking have to fit the audience you are talking to. There are audiences that need every scrap of detail you can give, with references and bibliographies. There are other audiences where that level of information will just leave them confused. Understanding what an audience wants and needs is the first step. So how do you know what your audience is going to want or need? There are two relatively simple ways to determine this.
The first is just asking. When dealing with groups or governments in meetings, you can often ask ahead of time what they would expect to see. Often, you can get copies of the types of documents they expect from persons approaching them with a request or an idea. You likely won’t find these to be examples of trail proposals, they will likely be apartment buildings or zoning proposals. Whatever they might be, they will give some idea of the level of information they expect.
The second method is role playing an audience or group. Think about what questions they might have and what would be the simplest way to answer those questions. You might have to use fellow members of your group to get some ideas on questions. Also, approaching family members who have no idea about this mountain biking thing and asking what they think of the subject and what questions they would ask is a good idea. Another resource is finding a city in another location that recently had a trail proposal and watch or listen to any community comment and questions sessions if they have these meeting available online. If persons in that community are asking questions or have concerns, it’s likely people in community will also.
Let’s walk through the different levels of information in different settings for a complex subject: getting hikers and bikers to share trails without issues. We will discuss this as if all of us are part of the group proposing the trails. We won’t get into a lot of detail on that subject, as we have covered it a few times before. But will we discuss the level of information and how to discuss that subject with differing audiences. In this scenario, we have 4 audiences:
Park staff for a city – What is the park staff going to want? They are going to want technical information they can reference with the minimal of fuss. So instead of paragraphs of information describing every minute detail of sharing trails, we want to have bullet points for any textual information, preferably with references listed. We can include pictures and examples of user management techniques, but it’s more important to give the overview of the techniques (what it is and what it does) and then reference other trail systems across the country that use that technique. For their questions, we might have cheat sheets for the in-depth aspects of how to employ those management techniques.
Park board for a city – Who are often members of a park board? In many cities the position is either elected, appointed or sometimes volunteer. Many park board members have little or no formal training in park management or in park design. What they are going to be most concerned about is what any new use or idea is going to mean for park users that might complain to them. Therefore, the technical aspects of trail sharing are less important than the social aspects. Yes, we might include some reference information, but the number of pictures and diagrams would have to be increased. The number of examples would also increase. We might want to include how user management techniques are maintained, i.e. signage, patrols and outreach.
Neighborhood association – What would a group of neighbors around a park care about? They want to ensure when they take Snookums, their dog, for a walk that they (or Snookums) aren’t going to end up under some wheels. For them, diagrams and pictures become very important. Even bringing a mountain bike to show them might be beneficial. (One note on bringing bikes: do not, repeat, do not bring bikes costing more than $1500. More than a few times the supposed the cost of mountain bikes have been used as a reason to fight against a trail proposal, claiming mountain biking is for rich, elite young persons and therefore it doesn’t appeal to everyone.) It might be useful to make a diorama with a trail and use hiker and biker dolls to show how different techniques work. (The best set to use is Playmobil set 9129. Combined with some hard foam from a craft store and decorations from the model railroad part of a hobby store, a surprisingly good trail diorama can be made.) As most neighborhood associations have largely older individuals as members, we would want to have the older members of our group, mothers and maybe young teenagers as our presenters. They need to know the diversity of mountain biking. Their fears will likely involve young (male) whippersnappers racing down a trail. They need to see that assumption is incorrect. We would also want to involve them, making our presentation built around their potential concerns.
Newspapers – We recently talked about some methods to make dealing with reporters easier. Consider this an extension to that previous article. Media fact sheets and FAQs are essential. But don’t forget photos for newspapers. Photos, even from other trails systems, are going to convey the reality of mountain biking better than multiple paragraphs. Especially for newspapers, if we don’t provide photos, they will find stock photos, most of which will be from high-speed events. If we want to propose a trail system in a natural area, the last picture we need the local paper using is one from this years Red Bull Rampage. We also need to remember to keep our answer short and just specific enough to answer the question. We don’t need to talk in depth about the latest scientific paper, we can let the fact sheet do that. We just need to mention that there are scientific papers.
A picture is worth a thousand words, an infographic is worth a book report
Remember when we were talking about the history of the Balkenkreuz? Your eyes probably glazed over about the third sentence. All those dates and organizations, who has time for that? It’s possible to take all that information and make it into and infographic. What is an infographic? As its name suggests, it’s a picture or diagram that contains informational text. The “picture” part of the infographic tells a story and the “text” part of the infographic gives the viewer concrete information about the subject at hand. Here is an example of an infographic covering the German use of the Balkenkreuz:
Using that style of infographic, this is what one showing the history of sustainable trail construction techniques looks like:
We can even apply this idea of infographics and diagrams to text-heavy documents or descriptions. This is a screen capture of a document used as part of the Knobbies in the Neighborhood presentation, showing types of mountain biking, whether they are passive or active use and the types of properties they can fit into:
Just as we discussed above, your message needs to fit your audience. For a lot of handouts, it might be reasonable to great a “heavy” and a “light” document. The heavy document would be highly technical and contain as much information as needed to cover the subject. While this document might contain diagrams, photos and infographics, it would likely be laden with text and references. The light document would cover the overview of that same information. It would likely be very sparse with text, opting for bullet points where text is needed, but with tons of diagrams, photos and infographics. Obviously, having the heavy and light documents is helpful when talking to different audiences, but also can be helpful within the same audience. How? What happens if a person in the group you are talking to, a Parks board, for example, has a more technical background or at one time was a member of the Parks staff? The heavy version of the same document could be immediately given to this person if he asks questions.
Ultimately, talking about the complicated parts of mountain biking involve taking a large subject and breaking it down into pieces the exact size that your audience needs. Diagrams, photos and infographics can save on tons of typing of text. They can also make complicated things easy. A combination of textual descriptions and pictorial types of information can provide a powerful 1-2 punch to the data given to the public, whoever that might entail.
The final analysis
Complicated things are complicated to talk about and describe. It’s important to discuss these subjects with the understanding they need to be broken down to simpler bits. That means finding ways to cover all aspects of the subject at hand in the simplest manner possible. It also means the patience to think about how best to explain things. Diagrams, pictures and infographics can take a lot of the burden off the textual descriptions. But it’s not all about the technical aspects, remember to understand your audience and what they want, what they fear and what they need. That means learning about your audience, by either asking questions or role playing. In the end, no matter how complicated aspects of urban mountain biking are, you can talk about them and do so successfully.
Finally, if you are decorating your plane or your mountain bike or whatever, for the love of all that is holy, don’t put a Balkenkreuz on it. It’s a symbol that comes with the baggage of pain, death and darkness for so many. It has a historical place and it deserves that place, but it doesn’t belong to this time. Especially at a time that is seeing a resurgence of the kind of ignorance and narrow mindedness that taint that symbol. Maybe some day in the future the German people can reclaim it, maybe they will decide its beyond reclamation, but either way, that day won’t come till all of us are riding the hills of the great beyond.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.