What do you do when your bike advocate works for Satan?

December 3, 2019 § 25 Comments

One of the most confounding things for bicycle riders trying to objectively decide about how to make safer streets is knowing the motivation of any particular advocate. Most present themselves as bicycle riders who simply want to get around without being frightened, harassed, injured, or killed.

And whether the advocate works on Wall Street or at Taco Bell, votes for Warren or for Trump, that commonality of interest is what brings advocates together. However, at least in the LA advocacy community, the political leanings of most advocates are left-ish, and some are far left.

Why is that? It’s because leftish politics view the environment, multi-modal transportation, and social justice regardless of income as part of a political worldview. This worldview contrasts and is often in conflict with rightish politics, which tend to support cars as the preferred mode, don’t think that environmental issues are paramount, and believe that the more money you earn, the more rights you should have.

Of course there are many Trump-loving cyclists in LA, and a whole bunch of left-leaning drivers who hate bicycles, so you shouldn’t simply judge a fish by his political preference. Nonetheless, when an advocate presents an idea, and more importantly when he presents himself as “one of us,” we have a right to know if he really is.

This isn’t because conservative bicyclists don’t have great ideas or support smart, sensible things as related to street safety. It’s because transparency is what allows us to factor in a person’s other interests with the interest they are presenting to us as solutions for safer streets.

I read over the insults of Peter Flax in my Sunday blog and wondered, “Why is this guy so mad at me? I hit him for writing a crappy article and pointed out what I thought were inconsistencies and a horrible philosophy, i.e. his belief that a dead cyclist was a silver lining for bike infrastructure, and he went after me as if I’d called him a fake and a fraud.”

I chewed on that. “Well,” I thought, “maybe he is.”

What did I really know about Peter Flax? Who is he? I’d read some of his work online before and generally liked it. But what are his credentials as a bike advocate? What is it about being upbraided by a leaky prostate blogger that would set fire to a guy who is the editor in chief for Red Bulletin?

So I googled, and the more I read, the more surprised I became. Former editor in chief of Bicycling Magazine. Former features editor for the Hollywood Reporter (knew that). Regular contributor to Outside and Red Kite Prayer. Then I scrolled through some of his stories. Legit stuff. Carefully written. Pro-cyclist. Anti-car. The guy has chops, period.

None of it made sense. Why was he hurling personal invective and challenging me to a debate, of all things, as if a writer couldn’t defend himself adequately in print and wanted to “settle this in person”? What was next? A challenge to a bike race? (I would win that, btw.) So I thought back to an earlier comment I’d made on Facebook about an interview he’d done with John Forester that had really angered him, suggesting that he’d eased off on his advocacy now that he was repping the corporate interests of Red Bull.

And then I thought about how I’d led off my Sunday blog by remarking on how corporate-ish he seemed lately. Could it be that these comments, along with my jabs at Bicycling Magazine, had wounded his pride? Or was he hiding something? Or both?

Back to Google, where I started reading about Red Bull, the drink, and its health effects on small kids. Guess what? No studies show that this stuff improves either physical or cognitive performance, or that regular users grow wings. Guess what else? The American Academy of Pediatricians says this:

In a new clinical report, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) outlines how these products are being misused, discusses their ingredients, and provides guidance to decrease or eliminate consumption by children and adolescents. The report, “Sports Drinks and Energy Drinks for Children and Adolescents: Are They Appropriate ?” is published in the June 2011 issue of Pediatrics (published online May 30).

https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/Kids-Should-Not-Consume-Energy-Drinks,-and-Rarely-Need-Sports-Drinks,-Says-AAP.aspx

This of course is the tip of the iceberg. Red Bull is banned in Denmark and Norway, and was banned for years in France. At least one randomized clinical trial shows that energy drinks like Red Bull cause increases in blood pressure, indicating that the drinks may be dangerous for people with high blood pressure. Most interesting is the language in the abstract that talks about how these drinks are marketed to children, which of course is chapter and verse out of the tobacco industry’s manual. More about that later.

Another study concludes that

… although energy drinks may have beneficial effects on physical performance, these products may also have possible detrimental health consequences. Marketing of energy drinks should be limited or forbidden until independent research confirms their safety, particularly among adolescents.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4682602/

On its face I suppose you could shrug and say, well, a fellow has to make a living, and Peter makes his pimping Red Bull. Sure, he probably doesn’t let his own kids drink it, and he probably knows that it’s not the healthiest choice in the checkout line, but it’s not as if he’s selling drones to kill kids in Syria.

Of course this is also what you’d have to say regarding his stint as editor-in-chief of Bicycling Magazine. It’s a corporate advertising rag whose mission is to sell shit to new riders. That’s their demographic and why they pump out the same old stories every year. If you have to make the same excuse for someone twice, is that a pattern? I don’t know.

But back to Red Bull. Would you want to know that your bicycling advocate is the head magazine editor when it comes to marketing unhealthy and potentially unsafe drinks to little kids at the same time he’s advising you about things like the safety of highly controversial things like bike infrastructure? I guess I would want to know it, but maybe once I did, I wouldn’t really care … that much. Everyone has to make compromises, and Peter’s clearly moving up in the world. He lives in one of the richest zip codes in America, right? And since when is the pursuit of wealth in America a crime? Most importantly, in general ideas need to stand and fall on their own merits, regardless of who’s pushing them. But as with disclosures of financial support that are required in clinical trials, knowing who has a dog in the hunt matters.

And I felt bad, too. Why couldn’t I cut him some slack? He writes good stuff on the side of cyclists. We may disagree about methods but he’s hardly the enemy, and it’s these internecine battles that full blown cycling opponents use to fracture our unity. And of course it reminded me that getting in people’s grill is my way of life and it has a lot to not recommend it, both as a personality trait and as way of fitting in.

Problem? I couldn’t get Red Bull out of my head. So back to Google.

Who is Red Bull? What does it stand for? Why does it matter?

I quickly hit pay dirt in the form of an interview given by Dietrich Mateschitz, the billionaire owner of Red Bull, in 2017. It’s in German, and the complete interview is behind a paywall. However, big chunks of it have been excerpted, also in German, and after subscribing and reading the full interview, the more outraged I got. Not because Mateschitz is a reactionary, Trump-leaning, anti-immigrant businessman who gives a regular platform to the most extreme right wing ideologues in Austria, but because Peter Flax, bicycle advocate, cynically steers Red Bull in the USA to young kids while never talking frankly about this corporate ideology. What follow are excerpts from the interview with Mateschitz:

Q: Ist das schon eine positive Kategorie? Viele sind schockiert über Trumps erratische Sprunghaftigkeit.
A: Diese Frage bietet sich schon an, natürlich. Aber vor allem halte ich die derzeitige Hysterie für lächerlich. Nur weil etwas außerhalb der eigenen Ideologie ist? Das Schlechte an der Demokratie ist, dass die Mehrheit nicht immer recht hat. Das Gute ist, dass das Irren korrigierbar ist, dass jeder genauso schnell abgewählt werden kann, wie er gewählt wurde. Man soll Trump Zeit geben.

https://www.kleinezeitung.at/steiermark/chronik/5197881/Dietrich-Mateschitz-im-Interview_Red-BullChef-rechnet-mit

On immigration in Europe:

Q: Was stört Sie konkret?
A: Zum Beispiel das unverzeihliche Ausmaß der politischen Fehleinschätzungen und Fehlentscheidungen bei der Nichtbewältigung der Flüchtlingswelle oder, besser gesagt, der Auswanderungswelle. Ich glaube nicht, dass es ein klarer Ausdruck politischen Willens war, die Grenzen unkontrolliert offen zu lassen. Man hat aus Angst und politischer Opportunität so entschieden. Schon damals war für jedermann erkennbar, dass der Großteil der Menschen nicht der Definition des Flüchtlings entsprach. Jedenfalls nicht der der Genfer Konvention.

Kleine Zeitung, 2017

These and other utterances criticizing political correctness, lambasting Brussels for supposedly trying to wipe out homogenous (i.e. “white) cultures, attacking the current political atmosphere in Austria, and voicing support for the now-disgraced, right-wing ex-chancellor Sebastian Kurz, by themselves aren’t much more than evidence of a very right-leaning billionaire. So what else is new?

But with Mateschitz, it’s never just opinions, it’s also actions. And his actions are like his sports: they are extreme. His TV program Hangar-7 is a regular platform for some of the most hard-core right-wing extremists in Austria, including booted Interior Minister and immigrant hating racist Herbert Kickl (guest speaker at Europe’s congress of extremist right wing parties), reactionary anti-feminist Birgit Kelle, and politician Marcus Franz, famous for insisting on a man’s right to grab women by the ass and also holding that homosexuality is immoral and that poor people should have their right to vote revoked.

This is the real Red Bull with all the advertising, glossy photo covers, and slick prosemanship stripped away. It stands for something, and I think that a large proportion of the community of cycling advocates would agree that what it stands for isn’t good. Trump. Anti-immigrant. Reactionary feminism. Legitimized sexual assault. Homophobia. Hatred of the poor. Are these your shared values? They aren’t mine. And if they aren’t Peter’s he damned well needs to step up and distance himself from them.

Unfortunately, he works for Mateschitz, so that ain’t gonna happen. The closest we get is this piece of bootlicking on Twitter.

The Hangar-7 TV show is Mateschitz’s full frontal push to gain acceptance for right wing extremist ideologies, “Under the cover of freedom of speech,” according to Jerome Trebing, a Viennese sociologist and specialist on Austria’s extreme-right scene.

As is always the case with things like this, there’s more. Cyclists who throw in with Red Bull are also throwing in with Mateschitz’s deliberate choice to use athletes like Felix Baumgartner as the product’s spokesman. “Who is that?” I wondered. He’s this charming guy:

“You can’t get anything done in a democracy. We need a moderate dictatorship, where a couple of people out of the business world really know what’s up.”

https://www.morgenpost.de/vermischtes/article110340228/Felix-Baumgartner-plaediert-fuer-eine-gemaessigte-Diktatur.html

Wow. A couple of businessmen, maybe one named “Donald” and the other named “Dietrich” and all of our problems will be solved. Heck, we’re halfway there.

Which brings me back to Red Bull’s magazine and its explicit marketing of an unhealthy, potentially unsafe drink to children. Because this, not TV shows in Austria, is what Peter Flax really does for a living. When the American Academy of Pediatricians said that “Sports and energy drinks are being marketed to children and adolescents for a variety of inappropriate uses,” Red Bull hit back.

“We do not market our product to children and other sensitive people.”

https://www.beveragedaily.com/Article/2011/06/03/Red-Bull-denies-child-marketing-claims-in-new-study

This is pretty black-and-white. Either they do, or they don’t. So I went to the Red Bulletin web site and looked at “Latest Stories.” First article? It’s about Zion Wright skateboarder, age 20. So I googled “skateboarding demographics” and learned that there are six million skaters in the U.S. and the vast majority of them are under the age of eighteen. Pair that with Mateschitz’s interview in Kleine Presse where he talks about new younger customers replacing older ones, and with Mateschitz’s emphasis on planning, creativity, and growth through constant fine-tuning, and it all makes sense. Red Bull may be terrible for kids and the company may say it doesn’t market it to them. But it does and it lies about it. And Peter isn’t a cog in the machine, he’s the editor-in-chief of Red Bull’s major English language publication in the company’s largest market. Don’t think for even a second that Dietrich Mateschitz doesn’t read every single word.

But are these Peter’s real beliefs? They don’t seem to be, judging from his work in Outside and other places.

It’s a fair question to ask him, I think. If Red Bull doesn’t market its products to children, who was the target audience of the article? MAMIL’s? Hoary commuter cyclists with lights and mirrors trundling down bike lanes? Soccer moms? Or … kids? And I think it’s fair to ask him how he reconciles his corporate ideology with his advocacy.

When I finally came up for air I had to shake my head. What does any of this have to do with Peter Flax and bike infrastructure? With a guy who described dead cyclists as a “silver lining” for infrastructure building? With someone who writes a lot of good stuff in favor of cyclists and in opposition to motordom?

I suppose it doesn’t mean too much, except this: It’s okay with me if you work for Satan if you’re genuinely advocating for safer streets. And it’s okay with me if you’re sprinkling holy water on the devil’s footsteps. But maybe if people knew that’s what you were doing, they’d think more critically about what it is you really stand for. It might not make a difference either way, but here’s the funny thing about transparency:

Maybe it would.

END


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