Bikers, Patriotism and Righteous Dissent

Hell For Leather, HFL -



Bikers have always had a strange relationship with patriotism. Some of the most anti-establishment biker characters are sometimes the most patriotic. It’s like when you see a Maltese cross and American flag on the same bike. It’s a patriotism that isn’t blind allegiance. It’s a patriotism that revels in the fact that we are a nation of firebrands, misanthropes, and weirdos. This is a patriotism that can sometimes make people very uneasy, like when the Hells Angels volunteered to go to Vietnam. It’s “freedom” with a hard “F.”

It was maybe 1981. There was this guy who worked at my father’s nursery – a lanky guy with a stringy George Thorogood haircut and an Ironhead Sportster. That bike was probably the most valuable thing he owned. He worked outside in the fields or in the smothering heat of the quonset huts all day and wasn’t that interested in talking to a little kid. I seem to recall he had once worked as a deck hand on a Great Lakes freighter, so let’s call him Freighter Dave. The only protective gear Freighter Dave wore on his bike was aviator sunglasses and engineer’s boots. His Sportster had a sissy bar and straight pipes – absolutely no baffles.

At that point in my life, the loudest thing I had ever heard were the jet funny-cars at Thompson Drag Raceway, but this bike came a close second. It was shockingly, frighteningly, wonderfully loud. Freighter Dave said it was “the sound of freedom.” I thought he meant because it was made in America. I knew we didn’t like “Jap” bikes, so I took this as a simple, straightforward statement of patriotic loyalty. It didn’t occur to my eight-year-old brain that Freighter Dave was not exactly the rah-rah America type.

That comment about “freedom” stuck with me, maybe because it was one of the few things Freighter Dave actually said directly to me. Later, I thought it meant that he felt free and in control while he was riding, when the rest of his life certainly had few luxuries and few choices. It wasn’t until decades later, in a moment, that I realized what it was about.

He was talking about righteous dissent.

This is summed up perfectly in the image of Peter Fonda’s “Captain America” bike from Easy Rider. Here is this character, this anti-super-hero, striking away from society’s expectations, a new pioneer, with the flag on his tank. Of course, he runs up against “real” American society, with terrible results. A sociologist might say he “appropriated” the flag “iconography” in order to “re-invent” or “re-interpret” it, but I say that’s where it was meant to be all along. The spirit of righteous dissent is essential to the American spirit. Without it, there is no Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, or Woody Guthrie. It’s something you don’t hear in Lee Greenwood, but you do hear something like it in Elmore James. It is what makes America unique… or at least what makes America interesting.

We are the nation of the Whiskey Rebellion. Right after we had a revolution and formed a shiny new country, a bunch of farmers and distillers took up arms against our very first administration over whiskey taxes. Many of them were even veterans of the Revolutionary War. You have to love a bunch of nuts like that.

Our culture is bursting with great examples of dissent. Every “great American novel” is a book that is critical of our society, and we celebrate them for that very quality. From The Last of the Mohicans to The Scarlet Letter to Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Jungle, The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Naked and the Dead. It is a canon of malcontents!

This is why I believe Rocky I is a more genuinely patriotic movie than Rocky IV. It’s why the most credible rendition of The Star Spangled Banner is by Jimi Hendrix. Once you hear his “rockets red glare,” when you can’t tell if you’re hearing celebratory fireworks or a shitstorm of missiles raining helldeath out of the sky, every other version of the national anthem will just seem boring. This is why Abbie Hoffman wore that American flag shirt. This is why we love the First Amendment so much. Think about it: you don’t need an amendment to protect inoffensive speech. You don’t need it if everybody agrees. The only reason to have it is to protect offensive, unpopular, outsider speech. It is our license to dissent. Our license to be a crackpot.

I think we are in danger of losing this spirit of righteous dissent and becoming boring. Patriotism is becoming too narrowly defined. At the end of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson talks about reaching a high water mark in the 60s, and seeing the tide recede, sliding into apathy and complaisance. I don’t think we’re apathetic, but bumper-sticker love of country is too easy and lazy. Patriotism now seems to mean supporting a particular agenda. We have plenty of partisan bickering, but no real dissent. It’s morbid compliance. Biker-style patriotism is anti-agenda, and we need to spread more biker-style patriotism.

Most people who ride are good, normal citizens – squares. That’s fine; we love bikers from all walks of life – I don’t hold to that “real biker”/”not real biker” thing. But whether you’re a nursery worker, a high school teacher, a dentist, or even (ugh!) an architect, when you get on your bike, you know deep down that you’re tapping into something dangerous. I don’t mean physically dangerous, I mean a dangerous idea. You are hearing Thomas Jefferson tell you, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” This is something that emanates from core biker culture, and it’s good. It feels good. We need it.

I don’t know what happened to Freighter Dave. He would only be about 55 or so now, so I hope he’s still riding. I wonder what he’d think if he knew I spent so much time thinking about his comment. I know he wasn’t thinking about the Whiskey Rebellion or Upton Sinclair when he said it. All these connections are just my own ramblings, but as I try to look past all the sameness around us, the chain restaurants, reruns, pop anthems, cars that all look the same, the neighbor’s leaf blower, and all the fucking parking lots, when I look for what is awesome, inspiring, and uniquely American, I always come back to this common theme of restlessness, rebellion, and dissent. I’m always listening for the sound of freedom.

Who is Carter Edman? An architect and writer in Cleveland. He teaches “Motorcycles and American Culture” at Case Western Reserve University. He is also an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church and can perform marriages in the State of Ohio and at sea. Carter rides a modified 2008 Triumph Bonneville.

You can follow the Moto Sapiens twitter feed.
Carter also tweets Things that I know to be True.
And writes as Richard Parker.

  • Stef

    I know a lot Americans are quite bold and loud about their country, so a bike with US flags aren’t strange. But what is the link between riding a motorcycle and patriotism?

    • Jesse

      If I’m picking up what Carter is putting down, it goes like this.

      The highest form of patriotism is dissent
      Motorcycles are a dissension again the “norm,” against the “safe,” and against “The Man’s Rules.”
      Participating in the latter is a subtle form of the former.

      • MrDefo

        I did not get into riding as a means to express a belief in anything other than my enjoyment of a mode of transportation. However, as I have gone on and have had several people say to me point black, to my face, “Oh you ride a motorcycle? You’re going to die on that thing.” I have come to the conclusion that my riding is a form of political posturing – that is to say, I will live my life in a manner that I see fit, and if that manner doesn’t cause any unavoidable harm to others, it should be tolerated.

  • Jesse

    It’s why the most credible rendition of The Star Spangled Banner is by Jimi Hendrix.

    Preach on.

  • Lee Scuppers

    Yes, America is all about dissent, as long as the IRS approves of the content. I guess that’s what you mean by “righteous”: Palatable to petty government functionaries.

    Dissent as the set of all officially-sanctioned orthodoxies. Boy, doesn’t that just get your blood pumping?

    • R_Melaun

      Claiming that your organization exists to promote social welfare, while engaging in political activity, invites government scrutiny. Both those on the left and on the right abused their status by (rather ridiculously) attempting to claim tax-exempt status.

      Everyone is free to involve themselves in whatever political activity they choose. We are not free to lie and claim that our political activity is “social welfare.” No one stopped anyone from engaging in politics.

      • Stuki

        And who gets to define what is “social welfare?”

        • R_Melaun

          The legislation may contain such language; if not, the courts decide. But calling politics social welfare is bunk and undermines the intent of the legislation. The law for tax exempt status was passed to aid groups that do charitable works – the American Red Cross, The United Way, etc. are the types of groups it was intended for. Not those with a political axe to grind.

          To claim that denial of tax exempt status is government abuse is to make a mockery of the law. Anyone is free to participate in politics. You just can’t claim to be a non-political organization and then participate in politics. That is abuse of the law. We can’t decide which laws we choose to follow and those we do not. Actually you can if you are willing to pay the legal consequences.

          • Stephen Mears

            Scuppers scuppered.

          • Lee Scuppers

            The legislation in question specifically mentions taxation as a question relevant to social welfare, in plain English. And numerous left-wing political groups were effortlessly granted tax-exempt status under the same law.

            It’s also a crock that the same surreal level of scrutiny was applied to groups with a more IRS-friendly world-view. Not by a couple orders of magnitude. Folks at the IRS actually are free to decide which laws they follow, and which they don’t, without incurring any penalties. Look up the phrase “content neutral”. It’s got a long history. Denying tax-exempt status based on political content is abuse, by our laws. That’s pretty well established.

            And you’re free to pretend that the IRS merely declined to certify certain groups for tax-exempt status, rather than going on lengthy — sometimes years-long — fishing expeditions. But again, that ain’t so. Like a lot of our more left-leaning brethren, the IRS folks have a deep, intractable conviction that anybody who doesn’t agree with them is some kind of sneaky nogoodnik secretly on some other sneaky nogoodnik’s payroll, up to all kinds of secret nastiness. So they spend years looking for evidence under every pebble, find nothing, and it never once crosses their angry, piggish, frightened, bullying little minds the conspiracy they’re hunting may not exist. That’s the real news in all this: None of the inquisitors, as far as I’m aware, ever found ANY evidence of whatever brand of witchcraft they imagined they were searching for.

            That’s not enforcing the law, it’s just petty harassment, and it’s ideologically-driven petty harassment engaged in by government officials.

            Of course, you’re free to tell whoppers in defense of massive, pervasive abuses of government power. That’s Righteous Dissent, and it’s got something to do with motorcycles. And stuff.

            • R_Melaun

              So, you’re the arbiter of facts? I don’t think so. Merely expressing so-called conservative talking points you get from forums or not-so-newsworthy sites is not dissent, it’s being a lapdog for that which you already agree. Try thinking for yourself and not parroting the party line. No?

          • Kevin

            Replace “political” with “partisan” and I believe you’re more bang-on. You can have an advocacy group be non-profit and engage in political activities like lobbying, it just can’t engage in partisan activities like supporting specific candidates or parties.

          • CruisingTroll

            So, it is your position that government gets to tax you for exercising a right? That if a dozen people get together, pool their resources and buy soapboxes, bullhorns, and a printing press in order to print petitions, i.e. “lobby”, “participate in the process”, “engage in political activity”, the government gets 35% of their resources off the top?

          • Stuki

            Now, I’m not saying I personally agree with them, or even that I don’t agree with them; but there are many out there that consider merely helping out the poor at all, a political statement.

            Of course, the simple, right and Occam approved way to cut this particular Gordian’s knot, is simply to extend tax exempt status to everyone, but that would definitely irk those that are involved in politics…….

    • Campisi

      Dissent in America is embraced, as long as it doesn’t threaten to change anything. Remember that the next time the homogenised faceless suits tell you to “save it for the ballot box.”

      • Mark D

        The Civil Rights Act was passed by a congress elected by people who were dissenting from the status quo. Although I should know better, I still have faith in the American electorate to, slowly but surely, drag this country into the 21st century.

        • Stuki

          Or by people who were suckered into expanding the fiefdoms of those in charge, because the latter told them not doing so would be mean to some people….

          You should know better. We live in a country where 49 out of 50 electorates thinks harassing people for lane splitting is a-ok; because it is the result of some fancy sounding Greek word they have been told is somehow above criticism. It’s over. The sooner the Muzzies win, the sooner we get to lane split. And carry AKs in bike scabbards, just in case some dimwitted reactionaries try to stop us from doing so.

  • Theodore P Smart

    I believe you may have confused the racket from a Sportster’s straight pipes as “freedom.” And sadly the ‘rebel’ protagonists of the fiction you list too often die a pointless death. Sometimes the noise coming out of a baffleless pipe is just noise.

    • Kevin

      South Park got the final word on the subject. It’s done.

  • Victor

    Thank you

  • gregory

    Loud horns save lives.

  • David Kent

    The above article succinctly defines why I hate being called a “biker” and much prefer “motorcyclist”. I despise being categorized as someone who chose my preferred form of transport as some kind of political, philosophical, or (anti) social statement. I ride because I’m forever amazed by the sensory input it gives me. By the immutable lessons of physics it imposes on me. The places it takes me I experience so much more vividly because I’m on a bike. When I’m riding, I’m at peace with my world and my God. Rebellion is the furthest thing from my mind. And I chafe at the idea that I’m supposed to be rebellious while I’m doing something that I enjoy so much. I prefer to save my rebellion for worthy causes. Glorification of rebellion for its own sake is pretty ridiculous. Brings to mind those asinine stickers plastered all over the shorty helmets of the “real biker” sitting next to you at the stoplight who can’t stop blipping his throttle because his bike won’t idle. Because his “rebellious” pipes require the jetting change or remap that he can’t quite wrap his rebellious mind around.

    • Piglet2010

      Hey, “I’m a motorcyclist, not a biker” is my line. ;)

      Maybe that is why I like my Honda Dullsville (NT700V) so much – other than the Honda Pacific Coast, what motorcycle could be more non-biker?

      Oh, I like small, step-through scooters too.

    • Afonso Mata

      “When I’m riding, I’m at peace with my world and my God”
      That’s EXACTLY what Carter means by this article. Riding is your way to get away from the pop anthem’s and your neighbor’s leaf blower, your way to be at peace.
      If the “establishment” is to sit for 2 hours inside your car stuck in traffic, and then sit in the couch watching “Dancing with the Stars” while drinking a gallon on coke and eating a bucket of fried chicken, whether you’re playing chess in the park, writing poetry or riding a motorcycle, you’re going against the grain.
      That’s rebellion, in my book ;)

      • Stuki

        You know, getting away from your neighbors leaf blower, by simply drowning it out; is probably the most sensible reason I have ever heard for loud pipes…..

    • CruisingTroll

      “Glorification of rebellion for its own sake is pretty ridiculous.”

      This!! A pithy encapsulation of why the article is off the mark.

      • Davidabl2

        Q:”Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”
        A: “Whattaya got?”

        From the movie “The Wild One.” 1956.

      • Stuki

        Only on first approximation.

        If you work off the (highly reasonable) assumption that all power structures are corrupt and filled by nothing but scum (empirically as well as theoretically true), some form of generalized rebellion glorification is probably a natural reaction to the human condition in most locales.

        Probably don’t make much sense in Somalia anymore, since the rebels actually succeeded; nor in Jefferson’s America, where leaving the riffraff behind by Going West was a more reasonable reaction; but in the US of Goldman Sachs, Gitmo and universally corrupt public sector unions; why not?

        Come to think of it, and given the above, I actually find glorification of the patriotism part, much harder to understand than the rebellion part.

    • Davidabl2

      Dave, try “Japanese Biker” Though the dyed-in-the-wool USA faithful feel that that term is an oxymoron. But a lot of them are just “non-oxy” Morons… More “non-oxies” out there than 2nd and 3rd generation American Riders who have perhaps legitimate reasons to feel that way.
      But,hey, maybe “American Rider” or “Japanese Rider” & “Euro Rider” are better terms than “Biker” for a lotta reasons. Personally, I prefer “biker” equals 1%Motorcycle Club members…not the legions of American Riders(and “metric” riders) who assume a 1%wannabe style.
      I can understand not wanting to call yourself a “Sportsbiker” as well..since that says “squid” or “hooligan stunter” to a lot of people.

      So, I can see why “motorcyclist” seems the best bet for somebody that’s “none of the above” :-)

      And after the crash of 2007 I can see why 1%’er motorcyclists don’t like the term..1%’er
      The 1%’er bankers have given it a bad name :-)

      Better “biker” than “banker’ ’cause then folks’ll think that you’re really anti-social:-)

  • Tommy Erst

    Agree with the article or not, this is the type of stuff that keeps me coming back to rideapart. Bike reviews are cool and stuff, but honestly how many of those bikes actually interest me. The “state of motorcycle culture stuff” is much more entertaining. Keep it up.

  • Piglet2010

    Peter Fonda’s character should have ridden a Bonnie that would have been fast enough to get away from a pick-up truck. Every time I see a picture of the “Captain America” bike, what comes to mind is how poorly it must perform as a motorcycle.

    • Jeremy Chittenden

      I get to ride over that bridge from time to time, the thought of a coonass coming up next to me with a shotgun could still happen in this day and age….. which is why I’m taking your advice, but using a Speed Triple instead.

    • Davidabl2

      It WAS almost twenty years 1969. Began life as a LAPD bike in 1952…

    • Stuki

      Screw half measures; he should’a ridden a Hayacruza….

  • Chris Cope

    So go out there and split lanes, motherhuggers!

  • Afonso Mata

    Great article, Carter. Thank you :)

    btw: am I the only one who thinks that in that picture, in that angle, Peter Fonda looks so much like our friend Jamie Robinson?

  • appliance5000

    Re your Easy Rider image:At the end of Easy Rider they were both shot dead. Jack Nicholson was beaten to death with a baseball bat. Fairly prescient.

    There’s an ironic scene in the TV show Crash where Hopper is hallucinating in the back of a limo and a rider on a chopper pulls up next to him and gives him the finger. He goes crazy and wants to blow him away.

    Things are pretty locked down and sadly most people like it that way.