Northern Valley Beacon

News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Friday, February 28, 2020

Pissing duels and bitchy fights are irrelevant to politics of democracy

Those sessions with presidential candidates held on television advertised as debates are not debates.  A debate is when a proposal is raised as a subject and debaters present the facts and reasoning for and against the proposal.  Those televised spectacles are to debating what a drunken barroom brawl is to an olympic boxing event.  

As such an event approaches, the news anchors speak of it as a fight event.  They talk of attacks, striking out, swinging knock out punches.  Lost in their fight club frenzy is any marshaling of facts or cogent reasoning.  They see the alleged debate as a brawl intended to hurt and destroy.

Conflict is one of the criteria that the public responds  to in news stories. It is one of the features editors look for in evaluating a news story.  But it is also an aspect which has a special appeal to some people.   A segment of the population loves to see a fight in which one party will get humiliated.  Tabloid and cable news goad debate participants to move beyond mere disagreement over some issues into open anger, hostility, and malice.  Some of these alleged debates have had all the coherence of a fight over a swing on an elementary school playground.   To those of us involved in teaching human communication, these occasions are evidence of a massive failure of our education system.  Most educated people who note the gross deficiencies in these so-called debates dismiss them with a shrug of the shoulders.  The commentators who presume to divine the winners of the debates do so on the basis of who dominated and put on the most brash performances.  They assess the presentation of ideas and supporting arguments far down on their lists of comments.  But their guiding principle is to produce the angry conflicts that make "good television"--fodder for the dolts.

The cable news anchors have goaded some thoughtful and articulate candidates to act like Donald Trump in order to get some positive notice from them.  And Trump has been thoroughly diagnosed by experts on human behavior as entering an advanced stage of dementia.  The candidates have submitted to the demands for performances rather than focus on ideas and supporting information.  The American people have accepted this as the way democracy works, unaware that Big Brother has manipulated them so that they can't see what is before their eyes or hear what is actually said.

For those who may wish to know what the real issues are for American democracy, there is the written word still being produced.  And there are some town halls during which candidates actually provide information.  But how many people care or know how to avail themselves of that information?

Monday, February 17, 2020

What makes brains circle drains?

JohnTsitrian over at the South Dakota Standard takes up a favorite state aphorism recently recited at a legislative cracker barrel.  It is, "if you don't like South Dakota, get out."  Cory Heidelberger's Dakota Free Press covered the latest outburst.

And that is exactly what many bright and talented people do. They leave when they get the opportunity.

Having been retired for a long time, I no longer have daily encounters with college students, but when I did, getting out of South Dakota was the prime goal for many of them.  They wanted to live and work some place where their educations and abilities were recognized and appreciated.  And for a time, their goals were the cause of an almost-war declared by state officials and leaders.

Northern State, where I worked, was primarily a teachers' college.  It was a successful one.  It excelled in teacher education, but over time gained a reputation for the strong programs in the subject matters that teachers teach.  Consequently, students in other disciplines found that it made  them competitive in many fields of endeavor.  

I recall writing letters of recommendation for students, not only to surrounding states, but in places as distant as California, Massachusetts, and Florida.  At one point, state officials and leaders were made aware that there was a migration of our strongest students from the state.  School principals and superintendents were finding it difficult to fill vacant teaching positions because so many candidates were taking jobs in other states.  They complained to the department of education and the regents that the state schools were not helping supply the best teachers.

A president of Northern State was called on the carpet because the school was advertising as part of its recruiting program its success at placing students out of state .  It was using the term "gateway institution" as a way of emphasizing that it provided a pathway to other places.  It appealed to students whose goal it was to get out of South Dakota.  The college president was severely rebuked by state officials for using the term.

The faculty was asked to help the administration address the matter of the brain drain, and our first task was to define just how serious the problem was.  With the help of some school districts, we found that there were two waves of outmigration in the state.  The first was when students graduated from high school and went out of state to college.  The second occurred at graduation from college when students who went to college in South Dakota left the state to take up their careers.  What we found was that the bright students were motivated early in their educations to set the goal of leaving South Dakota.  Programs such as special scholarships were established to lure bright students to stay in the state to go to college, but such efforts only delayed the point at which they would leave.

The students told us the reason for their goals to leave.  They aspired to live and work in circumstances not available in South Dakota.  The pay, particularly in education, was much better elsewhere.  And so were the commensurate working and living conditions.  Parents and teachers encouraged young people to seek productive and satisfying lives, and they sought such lives where they were available--wnich was seldom in South Dakota.  

One of the measures of a state that is used by market analysts to identify the attitudes that shape the intellectual environment within a state is to trace where prominent people choose to live when they retire or move out of state. Many retirees move because of the winter weather.  They join the migration from the Midwest in general to retirement communities in Florida, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, etc.  Winter in South Dakota can be confining.  And many move to where they have family, whatever the weather may be like.  But a significant number move to places where the culture is more sustaining.  Around the time I retired, a number of fellow retirees moved to Minnesota suburbs within an easy commute to the Twin Cities.  They sought a change in intellectual climate.   When one of them was queried about why he moved from South Dakota to a similar climate, he said, "My idea of retirement is not sitting in a boat on the world's biggest stock dam [referring to Lake Oahe] trying to catch the world's dullest fish, or blasting away at the world's dumbest game bird while trying to avoid getting shot by some of the world.s dumbest hunters."   He then cited the cultural opportunities of the Twin Cities and access to a huge university library where he could continue to participate in the work of his chosen profession in a more leisurely manner.  He did not endear himself to many South Dakotans.

Dedicated South Dakotans find it difficult to deal with the fact that some people find the state less than appealing and uplifting, and they get angry and hostile and tell those people to leave if they don't like it.  Then they get peevish when people do.  

Despite a climate that can reach the extremes of unpleasantness, the state has a variety of geographical features that make it interesting and stimulating.  Or at least, they could.  But the human environment countermands that potential.  While people blithely speak of South Dakota nice as a social characteristic, the dominant traits that pervade the state are small-mindedness, resentment, and often outright malice.  Those are the things that people of some knowledge, intelligence, and good will want to eliminate from their lives.  And so, they move on as soon as they can.

The degree of outmigration is given numbers in an article in The South Dakota Standard by attorney Jay Davis on the massive demographic shift that has taken place within the state during the last 50 years.  While two urban areas have experienced vigorous growth, outlying counties have experienced population losses up to 46 percent.  Brown County, where I reside, has about held its own since 1970, showing a population loss of only one percent.

But the loss of physical bodies is the outward sign of a loss of human interest.  I have written frequently that people who don't move their persons out of state often withdraw their participation in their communities.  I have noted this in South Dakota for many years.  Some civic and cultural organizations in which I once was active simply do not exist.  Veterans and fraternal organizations which once ran vital facilities in town have folded up and receded into the background.  

Josh Marshall of The Talking Points Memo writes about this despair and withdrawal on the national level:

 ...people...find the news so bad and toxic that they are trying to make a voluntary exit from the public sphere – withdraw into work, family, hobbies.
Both Jay Davis and Josh Marshall see the advent of Trump as the signal of the intellectual and moral deterioration that is changing the social and political direction of the country.  One political faction is behind legislation introduced throughout the country which is plotted to subsume the privacy and freedom of designated people and impose oppressive and punitive measures on them.  The South Dakota legislature has almost abandoned legislating to build the state to devote its efforts to repressive and punitive laws.

Donald Trump is the voice and the personification of the people who put him in office.  Their notion of making America great resides in an incompetent alleged businessman--six bankruptcies, who brags about groping women, a briber of women with whom he has cheated on his wife--a violation of law for which the lawyer he ordered to make the payments is in prison, and a prolific liar who has tallied over 16,000 lies in the conduct of his presidency.  His character was thoroughly revealed in the news and in the way he conducted himself at his rallies and public events.  There is no way his supporters could not know this.  He is what they want.

They represent what people who do leave South Dakota are  getting away from.  But now the malice and dishonesty that seethes beneath South Dakota nice is a national issue.  If there is no place to go, people withdraw and retreat into enclaves.  Even if Trump is voted out of office, the people who endorse dishonesty and corruption with malice toward all who don't will be with us.  It is government by the people and about half the people want national degeneracy.  It is not a matter of partisan politics.  It's a matter of moral choice.

Intelligent and honorable people would rather avoid the degenerate.  Brains and aspirations are circling the drain looking for some positive hope to grab onto before they are swept into the great American sewer.  Even churches are not a refuge from Trump's contaminants  which are as virulent as coronavirus and have the same effects.

During the impeachment trial, there was much quoting of the founders, especially from The Federalist Papers. They were invoked as sophistries to obscure the nefarious ways of Donald Trump.  But our current times make the revolutionary words of Thomas Paine more relevant, as he wrote "These are the times that try men's souls." He offers some words to grab onto:
~It is an affront to treat falsehood with complaisance.
 ~That God cannot lie, is no advantage to your argument, because it is no proof that priests can not, or that the Bible does not.

~We have it in our power to begin the world over again.

Monday, February 10, 2020

*The stable genius destroys an honor*

"For the President of the United States to bestow one of the nation’s highest laurels on Limbaugh is a morally corrosive and politically cynical act. It is a kind of assault on the achievements of so many previous award winners, a list that includes Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Václav Havel, Rosa Parks, and John Lewis. It is appalling to see Rush Limbaugh’s name listed alongside theirs."

If Donald Trump has any genius, it is his talent to destroy human decency.  He is totally driven by malice.  

There is a long list of people who over the years have been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Most are people who have contributed to the advance of democracy in some way that can be acknowledged, if not totally agreed with.  The criteria for the awards  are  contributions to: "(1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors".   There are quite a few from the political world and they cover the spectrum from rigid conservative to progressive liberal.  Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, for example, are recipients, and while we who lean to the left oppose their policies and their political machinations, they did not descend to a level of perfidy and contumely in the way they conducted themselves.  

That is not so in the case of Rush Limbaugh, who was made a recipient by Donald Trump during his State of the Union speech.   Trump and Limbaugh share a trait.  They never say or do anything out of good will.  Even benign words out of their mouths have a malicious purpose.  Trump emulates Limbaugh, who is also driven by malice.  

Limbaugh is a prolific spreader of lies.  He has earned a reputation for his malicious attacks and lies. When his broadcasting network is confronted about the damaging things he says, they reply that he is not a journalist, but an entertainer who performs for his audience.  The inference that can be drawn from that is that Limbaugh's audience is composed of the kind of people who once packed their picnic baskets to attend public hangings to make holidays out of them.  Nothing is as entertaining as watching other people humiliated and strangled to death.  

Limbaugh is a master of scurrility.  He maligns hordes of people.  But he keeps a lot of fact-checkers employed.

In one stroke of reality television, Trump turned the Presidential Medal of Freedom into a badge of dishonor.  Now good people live in fear that someone might want to hang one around their neck and put them in the same category of dishonor as Limbaugh. 

Friday, February 7, 2020

The U.S. is primed for an explosion

From The Onion:  Satire comes true
I claim no status as a predictor of public events.  But sometimes the indications that something is about to happen are so abundant and so compelling that the conclusions are obvious.  The indications that the United States is about to erupt in a violent rebellion have reached that point.  

I came to such a conviction many years ago when I worked for a newspaper in Illinois.  I spent a weekend in September in Wisconsin at a  workshop held by a journalistic organization.  As I drove back to Illinois late on Sunday afternoon, I was passing by Lake Geneva in the company station wagon assigned to me.  A large group of college-age people who had apparently gathered to enjoy an early autumn weekend had turned to demonstrating.  Civil rights, the draft into the Vietnam War, poverty, women's liberation, and many other things motivated them to abandon recreational pursuits for expressing their dissatisfactions with the direction the country was headed.  They crowded the highway I was on and were obstructing the traffic.

There were some young people who seemed to enjoy the opportunity to act out, but most of them were expressing their opposition and anger at the political attitudes dominating the nation.  They halted the traffic, were shouting and waving signs of protest, and  milled around to avoid the police who had converged to try to restore order.  One young man in an effort to evade the police jumped up on the hood of my station wagon as he ran from the police.  He left a big dent from the boots he was wearing on the hood.  I was going to have a hard time explaining that dent to the fleet manager when I turned the car in.  But the major impression left on me was that the country was headed for a time of violent rebellion.

And, indeed, it exploded

There was much violence in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  The Detroit riots, the Democratic Convention in Chicago, Kent State, and a multitude of other eruptions are forgotten as dominating the social history of the time.  There was something about the intensity of the young people surrounding my car that Sunday afternoon that projected a sense of the tumult to come.  And it came.

For the past few years I have felt a sense of foreboding like that again.  As massive marches have been organized to protest what Donald Trump stands for and does,  I've expected the peaceful demonstrations to explode into a flash of anger.  The impeachment of Trump has brought the nation to its flash point.

Democrats are widely criticized for the impeachment.  They knew the Senate would acquit him of the charges.  Conservatives have obtained a lot of enjoyment out of deriding the Democrats' defeat and what they regard as the triumph of Trump.  They gloat that the American people are watching Trump deny and evade any responsibility for his attempt to extort the Ukraine president into performing one of his malignant schemes.  But the impeachment had a different purpose than punishing Trump.  For those who have the intelligence and moral courage to face unpleasant truths, the impeachment detailed an instance of Trump's belligerent malignity and the GOP senators' cowardly servility and anxious will to make a mockery of their oath of impartiality in service of their master.  Together, they cancelled out the respect this nation has earned as it strove to be the world's leading democracy.  The impeachment detailed how low this nation has sunk and who is sinking it.

But that is all a prelude to the explosion of rage that has been building up with each lie Trump has told and each nod of assent to his lies by those who join him in the debasement of the nation--whether out of fear of him or the desire to be like him.  

As I heard Trump make his petulant and juvenile rant during his "victory celebration" and heard and saw politicians prostrate themselves before him in an obsequious fervor through their applause and laughter,  I could sense the revulsion being inspired throughout the nation.  It was a pageant of obscenity.

An election is coming in November.  But the vibrations I am sensing make me doubt that the nation will hold together that long.  Trump and McConnell put on a very convincing demonstration that facts and Constitutional procedures can easily be subverted by people who would rather have kings and courtiers.  People who saw this demonstration for what it is will not be so foolish as to believe the democratic processes have any integrity left in them. 

Let's see if the Capitol is standing by election time.  Or anyone gives a damn if it is.  If they survive what promises to be an angry summer.  

Thursday, January 30, 2020

When did lying become okay?

I spent many years reporting and editing for newspapers.   During that time, the matter of reporting lies was not much of an issue.  We knew that people lied sometimes, but not many did.  That's because people then feared the great humiliation they would receive if being exposed as liars.  

Sometimes people would be mistaken about things they said,  and would acknowledge their errors when pointed out to them.  But no one wanted to be accused of telling a deliberate lie.  

A reason for few lies getting published had to do with a basic rule of journalism.  When reporters were not present at some event or it was not recorded in some official, verified document, it had to be verified by other independent sources.  The policy book at the last newspaper I worked for required at least three such sources.  Reporters were expected to be diligent about making sure that any account published was verified as accurate.  Fact-checking was a fundamental part  of reporting, of composing a news story.  The editor, who was also a half owner of the paper, said never to print any you knew was not true without stating it wasn't true.

But electronic journalism and its obsession with sound bites changed that procedure.  In broadcast journalism, the priority is to obtain video or sound bites of newsworthy people saying things.   Sometimes those sound bites are live and on the air, so that they can't be verified before being broadcast.  But what is said is not fact-checked before it is broadcast.  What the important person said is considered newsworthy because someone of authority and prominence said it.  However, because much of dubious truth is circulating among us, the role of fact-checker has been created.  A fact-checker is sort of a scatologist, one who examines excrement.  The job is to sort out truth from scat.  But a lot of scat passes as information before it is identified as such, and people are making decisions based on scat.  And many have no compunction about telling lies, as long as they confirm their point of view.  To them, facts and truth do not matter.  They prefer their alternative facts.

When it comes to the telling of lies, we have learned that one cannot believe or trust a word that comes from Donald Trump or his staff.  But Trump is not the cause of America's descent into scurrility as a currency of the realm.  He is the result of it.  He is president because he represents the value system embraced by a dominant faction of the nation.  Whereas once about half of the nation desired and advocated slavery as a way of life, now  about half the nation endorses and advocates ignorance, dishonesty and criminality as a right for those who choose them.  Supporters of Don Trump so chose.

The lying of Trump is chosen as a preferred way of life.  People accept it as okay, as a way of conducting the transactions of life.

The United States has experienced a precipitous drop in its reputation among nations.  People in other countries no longer respect or trust us.  The Pew Research Center reports:
In countries where confidence in the U.S. president fell most, America’s overall image has also tended to suffer more. In the closing years of the Obama presidency, a median of 64% had a positive view of the U.S. Today, just 49% are favorably inclined toward America. Again, some of the steepest declines in U.S. image are found among long-standing allies.

Trump represents America to the world.  America chose him and what he stands for.  Americans got what they wanted, a reflection of what they have become.  They say lying is okay.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sex and the confused persons

State legislators are toying around with legislation [HR 1057] that would criminalize people who deal with sex change medications and surgery.  It would make it  a felony to perform gender-related medical procedures on someone under 16.  This is a matter of a bunch of semi-educated rubes deciding that they need to impose their manure-booted expertise on when and how to do brain surgery.  That is literally the case because gender issues involve the brain.  But those issues need better brains than the combined intelligence of South Dakota legislators, who would better concern themselves with proctology.  Because that is the area where their heads seem to be stuck.

College professors, of which I once was one, come across young people who have gender identity problems.  In their role as academic advisors, they have students who occasionally seek their help regarding such matters.  An adviser in such situations is caught between two obligations. The first is to provide advice and guidance that will help students succeed in their academic studies.  And when students are in turmoil about some gender matters, their studies are affected.

The second obligation is to refrain from giving advice and guidance on matters that fall outside one's areas of expertise.  There are seldom people on campuses who have knowledge of all the implications involved in transgender issues.  That includes the student counseling services.  So, the best an advisor can do is direct the student to some competent help. And that is difficult when there is no competent help around.

Fortunately, instances where such help is need are rare.  But when they do occur, there is an aspect of desperation involved.   In cases I know about, the young people were referred to medical and psychiatric resources that could help them understand the complicated issues and make informed decisions.  The point is to give people the chance to build productive and satisfying lives, not to find a reason to punish someone  for indecision about sexual identity.   

Only one legislator at the Cracker Barrel session of area legislators opposed the bill.  Sen. Susan Wismer, D-Britton, was reported by the Aberdeen American News as the only one to speak in opposition:  '"All I know is that God made all these people," Wismer said, also noting they weren't meant to suffer about how God made them. "We make them suffer every time we contribute to these culture wars."'

The rest of the legislators were fervently in favor of saving the genitalia of young people from scalpels and other instruments of genital reassignment.  Nothing brings on the legislative rage in the South Dakota like LBGT and transgender people being left unpunished.  While the associated school boards have intelligent and humane proposals for handling gender issues, the legislature loses its collective mind at the thought of where transgender kids might choose to go toity.  Probably because of the rural nature of South Dakota, the legislators seem to envision gender reassignment in terms of guys in manure bespattered boots hacking away at calves and pigs with sharp castration blades.  The legislature does its hacking with dull laws.  They enjoy watching different people suffer.

As South Dakotans with pets and livestock know, the gender of animals can be fixed.  But the legislature is proving once again that you can't fix stupid.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

The feudal state of America

Walt Whitman wrote in his pamphlet Democratic Vistas that "The United States are destined either to surmount the gorgeous history of feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous failure of time." 

He wrote this shortly after the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.  The piece was, in part, a response to British historian Thomas Carlyle who disparaged American democracy.  Carlyle did not believe that ordinary people had the intellect or moral stature to govern themselves, but Whitman had "faith in the genius of ordinary men and women."  He saw that "the capacity for strong original experience, rather than being confined to a small number of geniuses, heroes, and eccentrics, should become widespread among ordinary people."   In contrast, Carlyle believed that an aristocratic elite of mind and manner was required to govern appropriately.

In our time, we don't see feudalism as a threat.  Our main concern is fascism and communism. But Whitman regarded Carlyle as making "certain judgments from the highest feudal point of view."  His contemporary Mark Twain's writing dealt extensively with critiques and satires of the remnants of feudalism that operates in our culture.  Those remnants are still with us.  And no one revives those remnants with more effect than Donald Trump.

According to Whitman's standards, America has failed.  It has chosen as its president a man possessed of the malice, depravity, and dishonesty of the worst feudal lords and who rules with with their precedents.  People who voted for him said they did so because his wealth was a sign of his business acumen.  There are people in America who still bow down to the lords of the current manors.

Neo-feudalism is the guiding basis of Trump's life.  He is the heir to a feudal estate.  He inherited a family business from his father.  He is notorious for welshing on his bills.  His business has declared bankruptcy six times.  At least 25 women have accused him of sexual misconduct.  According to the Washington Post scorecard, Trump has told the public 16,241 lies while he has been president.  Trump announced that the Constitution grants him the power to whatever he pleases.  What pleases him is unbridled corruption.  That quality of abject dissolution apparently also pleases those who support him.  They like the idea of holding other people in a state of vassalage.  They believe the way to self-elevation is to suck up to their masters.  So, they join their masters in denigrating fellow citizens. And they suck Trump and with Trump.

Trump's reversion to feudalism is shown in the fact  that he is a business man, and the business world is run largely on feudal principles.  Corporations do not try to reconcile their intra-organization administration and politics with democratic values.  Many companies deride and scoff at the idea.  So, when most people clock in for work each day, they step out of a nation which confers on them the rights of freedom, equality, and justice into a vassal state.  Where workers are under  collective bargaining contracts, that state of vassalage is mitigated, if not eliminated.  But in at-will states such as South Dakota, workers who are not covered by a collective bargaining contracts can be fired without cause at the whim of their employers.   They spend their working days as vassals devoted to serving their employers' whims so that they can keep their jobs--if their job is necessary for their survival.  

A popular cliche' among people aspiring to some public office is that government should be run like a business.  Most people have no idea of how badly many businesses are run.  The reasons they don't know is the media which is financed by advertising does not run critical information about their advertisers.  And so, the public generally believes that  business is a model for efficient and skillful management.

There is a fundamental reason why government in America should not be run like a business.  The job of government is to implement the premises of its founding.  Those premises are stated in the Declaration of Independence:  

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
The implementation of those premises is laid out in the preamble to the Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Those are not the priorities of the people in government who try to run it like a business. Trump is a reversion to authoritarian government.  He runs it just like he runs his business.  A statement from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace points out the dangers of Trump:
Under Trump, U.S. democracy policy has reached its lowest ebb in forty years. If the United States continues this course for two more years, it will be stranded on the sidelines, or even on the wrong side, of the global democratic struggle.

Politico compiles a list of executive actions with which Trump abolishes democracy and converts America into a feudal state.  Trump really can't help it.  He is running America in the only way he knows how.  Like a business.

But Trump is doing this with the consent of the governed, at least those who voted for him.  They want to be his vassals.  They want to live in a feudal state.

Do you want to be a vassal, too?


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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States