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

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Snow days and Covid-19 droplet days

A friend and colleague who teaches at a college in a neighboring state published his resignation on a web site last month.  Covid-19 is the reason he is quitting.  He explained:

This has been a very difficult decision, but my wife and I are at elevated risk from the coronavirus. Even though [name of college deleted] is taking admirable steps to attempt to control the virus, I would still be in a poorly-ventilated classroom that would be crowded at or beyond social distance capacity for a certain number of hours a week, not to mention other possible "walking about" exposures on campus.  We did a lot of soul-searching and decided that this is the best course for us.
The professor was able to take retirement, an option that most people who must return to classrooms don't have.  The considerations he cites, however, are ones that everyone who is returning to school this year must face.  The coronavirus is virulent.  If you are exposed to it, you are very likely to get it. And the U.S. has been so inept in its mitigation efforts that you are very likely to be exposed to it.

Much argument is made about doing what is best for children, and the president and our governor are pushing to reopen schools with an astounding disregard for the contagion and lethality of this pandemic.  Their argument makes an appeal to the concern for  the well-being of children.  And they inflate the fact that children are not as severely infected as adults into the contention that children are impervious to it.  In an astoundingly stupid campaign letter, Noem  states the premise that children deserve all the opportunities that adults can provide them.  She "encourages" that all children be sent to school.   And, she emphasizes, "without masks."

Apparently, in Noem's mind, children deserve every possible opportunity to contract the coronavirus.   They can carry it home to give to their families.  And as many families are multi-generational, grandparents can share the virus without having to go out in public and combat social distancing and people with masks to participate in the virus fest.

Children are prodigious coronavirus vectors.  And schools, where students can crowd together without masks, make super-efficient distribution centers.  While social distancing and masks limit the spread of pathogens, the virus can still find its way through the barriers of space and filters.  And those who want to force the opening of schools are approving the sacrifice of school personnel and families and to keep the schools functioning.  They haven't given much thought to how pathogens are spread and who they endanger.  

Relative to the concerns about exposing children to the virus is the question of who should be given priority for treatment when medical facilities are overloaded.  Some contend that younger people should have priority over the elderly.  In a country which was formed around the principle of equality,  such decisions force someone to determine that some people are more valuable than others on the basis of age.  Such decisions deny that "all men are created equal," by asserting inequality as the factor that determines their demise.  When some criterion of unequal human value is imposed, the Declaration of Independence and the consequent Constitution are essentially nullified.  The coronavirus pandemic is a test of the concept of democracy.

For schools, which routinely designate snow days when a blizzard makes attendance hazardous and impractical, the safest decision would be to suspend classes until the pandemic is brought under reasonable control.  Resorting to online instruction is an alternative, but one that is not a possibility for all families.  Parents have to work and some are not able to supervise the instruction of their children--for many reasons.The development of a vaccine seems like the ultimate solution and a great deal of hope is placed on it.  But waiting for an uncertain vaccine in the future is to impose disease and death on many in the present.

Schools are designed to provide the opposite experience to that required by social distancing and the wearing of masks.  Enough people are opposed to those measures, although effective, to insure their failure as a means of gaining some control over the pandemic.  Quite a few people, such as the president and the South Dakota governor, deny the seriousness of the pandemic.   4.6 million sick from the virus and the families of more than 155,000 people who died from it no doubt think it is quite serious.  If it were a blizzard, the school officials would call a snow day.  Everybody stays home.

Experienced, competent K-12 educators think the solution is to suspend traditional classes and to work out curricula and instructional schedules that allow education to continue by using  electronic communication systems to eliminate in-person contact among students and staff.   Traditional classes and classroom configurations would need to be replaced by systems and procedures designed to prevent the coronavirus from entering the educational setting.  This would require a strenuous effort to co-ordinate the needs of families regarding childcare with the processes of educating children.  A major factor of concern expressed by administrators is protecting teachers and school staff from exposure to the coronavirus.  Balancing the need to keep children safe with the need to keep the educators safe will require drastic revisions to the way schools operate and their relationships to the communities they serve.   Forthright educators think there will be community resistance to the changes required.  Many teachers will decide, as did my professor colleague, to leave the profession rather than risk their own health and that of their families.  Shrewd educators are skeptical that public education can survive in an America that is divided the way it is.

The pandemic has not only put the nation under a siege of disease and death; it has exposed a prevalence of ignorance and malice in the nation.  Those who dismiss the fact of Covid-19 are the type who think the law of gravity can be repealed.

For the schools, we may be headed for the equivalent of a permanent snow day.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Please, don't tell me we'll get through it.

Even politicians who have earned some credibility by stating facts about the pandemic become absurd when they to find something hopeful to say to their constituents.  They look earnestly into TV cameras and try to reassure us that "we'll get through this pandemic."  To which I reply, "You mean like my 150,000 dead fellow citizens got through it?"  And I could add, like the 4 million survivors who may have after-effects for the rest of their lives?

Saying  we'll get through it, while meant to be encouraging, only reminds us that we aren't getting through it.  And the daily reports indicate that the death and illness tally is mounting and the U.S. is lagging far behind other countries in dealing with the coronavirus.  Trump thinks as the national CEO, his false claims will be believed by a majority of dupes, but the facts refute all his claims.  When someone says we'll get through this, they seem to ally themselves with Trump and assume they think we are the kind of gullible, mindless fools that Trump thinks we are.

A very large part of the American population has not gotten through the pandemic.  Those who were afflicted but survived or have friends and relatives who were afflicted find the cheery proclamations  inane and cruel.  It is a perverse denial of the facts to insist that we'll get through it.  The facts are that many were destroyed by Covid-19 and the disease continues to surge in the number of cases throughout the nation.  Refusing to acknowledge the devastation of the disease rather than confront it morally and intellectually has contributed to its spread.  America has become the object of ridicule for its incompetent response to the pandemic.

Being told we will get through only insures the disaster for which we are headed.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Captain Queeg is president, and the ship of state is sinking.

The Caine Mutiny is a novel and subsequent movie about a ship's captain who is so deranged that he puts his ship and crew in danger.  Officers on his crew apply a Navy regulation to remove him from command.  The instigators of the move are later court-martialed on a charge of mutiny, but are acquitted when Captain Queeg displays an unfitness for command on the witness stand.  After the trial, the successful defense attorney berates the officers for not supporting Queeg at a time when he needed it.  There has been much discussion about what kind of support could be given, but most commenters take the side that Queeg had to be removed to save the ship and the crew.

With Donald Trump as president, we face a parallel situation regarding the ship of state.  The House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump, but the Senate  voted not to remove him.  Day after day, Trump displays his corruption, incompetence, and derangement.   His interview with Mike Wallace on Fox News showed him flailing and floundering,  far out of his depth.  His GOP votaries support him  during the pandemic while his incompetence and corruption plunges the nation into third world status.  While other countries have managed to control the Covid-19 pandemic, the United States is being devastated by it.

The 25th Amendment of the Constitution provides other procedures  for removing a president when cabinet officers and/or Congress determine that he is unable to discharge his duties.  However, Trump's votaries are willing to cover for him in order to keep power, no matter what the effects on the country are.  Rather than join with their Democratic colleagues to work out some plans for addressing the problems facing the country, they join Trump in his malevolent absurdity and widen the divisions within the country.  And rather than suggest to Trump that he change course on his most errant directions, they fawningly fall in line behind him.  

Current polls show that Trump is held in disfavor by  a wide margin.  And there is a strong opposition, such as with The Lincoln Project, in his own party that opposes him.  Trump's constant outpouring of malice and juvenile petulance is an offense that some dedicated Republicans cannot tolerate.   But Trump has a base that regards his depravity as a virtue.  While some commentators have raised the question of how Trump will respond should he lose the election, other students of history say we should be more concerned about what Trump's acolytes will do.  

If even a few of the GOP senators had the intelligence and honesty to examine the corruption of Trump's actions for which he was impeached, it would have sent a signal to his base that his behavior violates the standards of equality, decency, and justice he swore to protect.  It is clear that the GOP has no interest in the principles the republic was established to serve and protect.  The GOP priorities are the greed for money and power to which Trump is dedicated.  The signal received from the GOP is that it will protect and serve venality and fraud as its primary concerns.  

Trump has received in fact the kind of support that Capt. Queeg was denied by his subordinates.  The Caine Mutiny raises questions about how much  loyalty can be extended to a person of defective mind and character.  Or if loyalty to the country is the priority.  

Trump supporters may well erupt in violent insurrection if he loses.  But if he wins, those who oppose him may feel that mutiny is the only way to save themselves from the malignancy of Trump.  The issue is the survival of democracy, and violent times seem almost a certainty.  

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Do you know the day America died? Do you want to celebrate it?

During a visit to my brother's house in the mid-1980s, a fellow house guest brought up Donald Trump as an example of a fraudulent businessman.  It was a time when Trump was launching his first book about himself.  The house guest was a retired commercial banker from Chicago and I was the former business editor for a newspaper.  We got into a discussion about how unscrupulous business people tarnished the reputation of the business community for ethical businesses. That's when he brought up Donald Trump.  Some of his associates had encounters with Trump and had definite opinions about him.  They loathed him.  They wanted no part of him or his schemes.

Since that time I have never heard a good word about Trump from anyone with knowledge of him.  Those who support Trump automatically put themselves in the category of the stupidly malicious.  People who have known Trump say he has always played the schoolyard bully, lauding those who fawn over him, insulting and denigrating those who don't.  The retired banker said his associates claimed that it was impossible to have a substantive, coherent conversation with Trump.  His conversational efforts were devoted to self-inflation and self-promotion.  And when he wasn't defaming other people, he was telling lies.  

He is loathed by conservatives within his own party.  Columnist George Will has conceded that Trump and his cohorts have pretty much destroyed America:  "Under the most frivolous person ever to hold any great nation’s highest office, this nation is in a downward spiral. This spiral has not reached its nadir, but at least it has reached a point where worse is helpful, and worse can be confidently expected."

Other Republicans who formed the Lincoln Project are issuing warnings about the demise of America.  But there are  others who think America has been irreparably damaged and will never again be the country it once was in leading the world in extending the benefits of democracy.  For many people, America has been declared dead.  It has ceased to function.

Trump's "news conference" Tuesday evening, July 14, in the White House rose garden  was actually a declaration of death for the nation.  For Richard Nixon, it took some time before the general public and members of his own party decided he had to go, but that time came.  He resigned when he realized impeachment was inevitable.  While Trump was impeached in the House, the Republicans in the Senate endorsed his corruption and incompetence.  When a party in power gives support to a depraved and deranged president, it sacrifices the basic virtues of honesty and decency for that power.  Rather than engage in a bipartisan effort to restore the integrity of our democracy, the GOP has thrown itself on its back with its legs in the air like a post-World War II Berlin street whore when the Hershey Bar truck rolled by.  

It is not Trump who has betrayed America. It is the political party who chooses to keep him in office.  In its loyalty and obeisance to Trump, the GOP, except for a few like Mitt Romney, has given up the essential virtues of our republic.  It has taken three years for Trump to kill America.  July 14 was the day he showed us the country was dead.  On what is Bastille Day in France, the day the French Revolution, turned in favor of democracy, the United States was pronounced dead in the Rose Garden.

But it might be the day that causes Americans to launch their own version of Bastille Day.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Opening schools without the teachers

As an old man, I find myself often in situations where I sound like a fading codger reminiscing with old war stories.  That is the problem with having lived a long time.  You keep remembering things that worked and things that didn't, and what the factors were that made the difference.

An article in The New York Times provided one of those occasions. It is about a group of young teachers in Newark who will run their school.  I immediately recalled a situation where I witnessed one of the most effective elementary schools I have ever come across or heard about.  And that led to  my thinking of a number of situations where I saw what worked and what did not in education,

The elementary school I refer to was in a rural community and it served both farm and small town students.  Some of those small town kids lived in families for which the small towns were bedroom communities for parents who worked in the Quad-Cities of Iowa and Illinois.  My occasion to know this school was because two of its teachers were in a master's degree program in which I taught, a program that provided teachers with a curriculum which intensively studied their region through its  history, its literature and arts, its religions, its sciences, and social sciences as they were applied in the area.  

The two teachers were fifth grade teachers.  One of them taught social studies half-time; the other half of the time she served as the school's principal.  The teachers had worked up a curriculum on the native America presence in the area.  I and another professor, a geologist, were asked to evaluate the study unit.  One part of the unit involved the kids in archaeology.  They were invited to bring artifacts in that their families might have.  The classroom was filled with stone points, axe heads, and stone tools.   The kids were to obtain as much information as possible about the items in terms of their age, what culture produced them, and what they showed about the people who once lived in the area.  That also involved teaching them about the procedures used by archaeologists to establish the significance of items.  A farmer volunteered a corner of a field near a creek, where he had come across some artifacts, and the kids applied archaeological procedures.  They set up grid lines, methodically scraped down layers of soil, and actually found items which they noted on grid maps.  They were able to determine that the field lay on what was at the edge of a prehistoric village.  They were even able to identify some post holes that held the frames of lodges and they made a drawing laying out what the village looked like. The geologist and I had to tap every professional contact we had to help identify the artifacts and provide information to interpret the site.

The unit attracted the attention of parents, too.  They came out in the evenings and on weekends to watch and help the kids.  One farmer said he had been coming across artifacts all his life but had no idea what they meant.  The unit ended when the class held a school house potluck, at which my colleague and I were asked to give our educational assessment of the project.  There were no surprises, as the teachers and the evaluators conferred often as the project progressed, and the only problems were with getting information on some interpretive matters.  That potluck was a memorable occasion because  students, teachers, parents, and professors chatted into the evening about what had been learned about that rural community,.  But a major point that occurred to the professors and other consultants they had pulled into the project was that it worked because one of the teachers was an administrator and was also a neighbor to the families whose children were being taught.  The school board had deferred to the teachers' knowledge of their subject and their students in supporting the project.

The memory of this occasion triggered some criticisms of  education that I came across when I was a stringer for a newspaper and helped it cover 12 school boards in its coverage area.  School boards generally regarded their function as being a conduit and mediator of information between their constituents and the professional staffs. The school systems where this function was the main priority operated smoothly and delivered effective educations.  However, many boards had members who had agendas, sometimes political or religious, that they wanted to impose on the professional educators.  Those boards regarded teachers as low-grade servants who should be allowed to do nothing without the express permission of their superiors on the board.  Those people often had no idea of what education is, how it works, or its role in a democratic system of government.  They dominate education in parts of the country and are typified by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is as undemocratic and uneducated as it's possible to be.

The people who do the work of teaching and assessing its effectiveness are the most informed and trained to make educational decisions.  When they are assigned administrative duties, they find them to be a burden that detracts from their primary engagement with students.  However, their consultation and advice is an essential component of successful educational programs.  Nevertheless, when a problem or a crises, such as the coronavirus pandemic, occurs, the teachers are often left out of the discussions of how to handle matters.  

In its report on opening schools, The New York Times does not even mention teachers: "...there is enormous pressure to bring students back — from parents, from pediatricians and child development specialists, and from President Trump."  But when teachers are asked about opening up schools, they cite the real risks and problems to be faced; they don't recite the political folderol that does not address the actual issues.

Education is too important to have its decisions made by  the likes of Trump and DeVos.  But it is probably a far-fetched hope that it will be put back in the hands of people who actually know something.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Every village has an idiot. Some folks thought the nation needed one.

Trump supporters complain that Trump dislikers think they are stupid.  But when they offer reasons for supporting Trump, they cite false facts and are incoherent.  The only ones whose reasoning contains anything akin to veracity are the ones who say it was about time we had a dumb dolt for president; they are weary of those who act presidential.

That explains what many people see as the explanation for America's descent into a demented state.  Whether one liked Obama's politics or not, he was a scholar of Constitutional law, eloquent, a man of integrity and social grace.  Except to those who would apply the n-word to him, of course.  But the question is how could a nation go from electing a man of his decency and dignity to choosing a churlish ass like Trump?  However, H. L.Mencken predicted it:  " On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."

There is no excuse for not knowing what a depraved person Donald Trump is.  As Trump closed in on the Republican nomination, the conservative establishment led the discussion about his deficiencies and disqualifications to be president.    In the minds of the mentally functioning conservative leaders, the choice facing America was not  a matter of partisanship.  It was a matter of recognizing a person whose depravity and gross defects of mind and character were well known and out there for all to see.  Trump represented a perversion of the principles on which our democracy is based.  People voted for Trump not because they were ignorant about the kind of person he is, but because he represents their values.  And those values have nothing to do with freedom, equality, and justice for all.  They are the values of greed, malice, and oppression.  America has a large contingent of the population who are grotesquely stupid and simply not decent people.  

The news cycle is organized around the daily question of what the nation's moron has done or said for the day.  His supporters will fawn in adulation over his latest affront to decency, while others will register how much closer it has moved America to being a "shithole country."  

It is a time of strident social protest, but the protests do not just make corrections in the symbols of our values, such as with the removal of statues honoring the Confederacy.  They also unleash the idiots.  A group recently demolished the statute of a soldier in Madison, Wisconsin, but it was the statue of an anti-slavery militant who was killed as an officer in the Union Army.  Such stupidity reduces protests to acts of mindless vandalism and simply adds to the general stupidity.

Anti-Trump people can be vocal and demonstrative, but they can also be stridently stupid.  And ultimately, Trump is not all we need to rid the country of.  He is merely the expression of a country caught in a struggle to see whose kind of stupidity will win.


Saturday, June 13, 2020

The Digital Age: "He stuck his finger in your what?"*

**A line from Support Your Local Sheriff starring James Garner

It's a false dilemma.  It arises from a slovenly use of language.  But a good portion of the nation will thrash around about it rather  than engage in some critical thinking and apply knowledge.  

It is the matter of accusations of sexual harassment or assault.  Women's complaints of sexual harassment in the past were ignored and dismissed.  In the early 1990s, feminists worked hard to establish that when women complained of sexual mistreatment, they should be believed.  The #Me Too movement created the slogan "Believe Women" to promote taking women seriously when they registered a complaint.  However the slogan morphed into "Believe All Women" which somehow was interpreted as "Believe Women Always." 

The Tara Reade accusation against Joe Biden has challenged that slogan.  There is much about her contention that is hard to believe.

If the idea of equality is taken seriously, women should be as free from diminishing and assaulting behavior as men are in regard to their gender.  When they say they have been sexually mistreated, their complaint should be acted upon through the procedures of due process.  But equal treatment also invites an examination of the credibility of the  accusation.  Men sometimes exaggerate and lie.  Women do, too.

As a matter of disclosure,   I was once the president and grievance officer of the faculty union whose job it was to ensure that due process was followed for both the accusers and the accused in sexual discrimination and harassment matters.  FortunateIy, I had few such cases to deal with.  On the campus where I worked, the president asked the college attorney to devise a special set of procedures to handle sexual harassment complaints that would protect the complainants from embarrassment and further harassment.  The process that was devised violated so many principles of due process that the university could have been sued out of existence if it applied them. Administrators fear nothing more than being sued.  So, the procedure  was scrapped.  The school had cases which involved the firing of a couple of horny deans.  And there were some verbal exchanges about which complaints were  registered, but they were matters of people objecting to coarse language, not sexual harassment per se.  There was a case in which a student was angered by a failing grade on a test and she ended up accusing the professor of sexual harassment.  He had been accepted for a better job at a more prestigious university and, fearing that his new job might be in jeopardy, he hired a high-powered law firm to handle the complaint.  The lawyers quickly obtained evidence that the student was acting in retaliation for a failing grade and was lying about the harassment,   and she and the university could not withdraw the complaint fast enough when they realized the matter was headed for court.

What the university and I learned from that incident was that accusations have to be intensely but confidentially examined.  The young professor's family had connections with powerful lawyers and the money to pay for them,  and they were able to gather hard evidence that the accusation was false.  His case demonstrated that accusations were sometimes false and vindictive.   But the young professor's case was unusual in that there was documentation and witnesses for every interaction that he had with the irate student.  For most sexual harassment cases, there is little specific evidence recorded about what actually took place.  They are usually "he said, she said" matters for which no objective evidence can be found.

Tara Reade has made changing, inconsistent contentions.   The circumstances she describes do not fit the incident.  Fellow employees recall that she did not do her job competently.  She describes an incident that took place in a remote, isolated hallway.  All the hallways in the building she refers to are open and bustling.  She claims she was asked to serve drinks at a fundraiser, but that would be against the rules that apply to Senate employees.  And longtime employees on Biden's staff cannot recall any reports made about him, and the accusation is contradictory to the character they know.  Reade has been found to be so mendacious that court cases at which she testified as an expert witness are now under review for possible appeals. Finally, her lawyer withdrew from her case.   Her own account of her experience on Biden's staff contains comments that suggest that she was not considered competent and urged to find another job for that reason.  The tone of her account is typical of a retaliatory tale told for vengeance.

Some enterprising reporters attempted to recreate the incident with Biden as Reade has told it.  Her story is that she was told to deliver a gym  bag to Biden so that he could work out.  When she delivered the bag, according to her story, they were in remote hallway where he grabbed her, tried to kiss her, and vaginally penetrated her with his fingers.   The reporters found no out-of-the-way corridors on the route to the gym, but a hallway well-traveled  by senators and their staffs.  Reade can't remember what happened to the gym bag during the scuffle she portrays.  The press says three people corroborate her story.  They don't corroborate the facts; they corroborate  that she told them that story.  But she told different, conflicting versions to other people.  Joe Biden has emphatically declared that the incident never happened.

Ultimately, the accusation against Joe Biden is a symptom of politics which have sunk to stupidly malicious personal attacks.  Even some Democrats are caught up in the pandemic of malice.  A disappointed Bernie Sanders supporter picked up the Reade story and dismissed Joe Biden on the social media as just another old, white rapist.   Trump's puerile malice is infectious.  The fact that the president tweets false accusations seems to be taken by some people as license for them to do so, also.

When the politicians have been asked about the Reade accusation, they tend to respond that they believe  her, but will vote for Biden.  They dare not say that they have doubts about her story.  They are caught in  the contending ire of misogyny and misandry and the fear of offending opposing bigotries.   The fact is that the stories told by Reade and her corroborators are incoherent.  When asked about the contradictions and inconsistencies, they reply that is the way the story came out for them.  Whatever that is supposed to convey.  

The story has preposterous aspects.  Its reporters are suggesting that both Reade and Biden should be believed.  But before they ask us to believe anything, we should ask them to check the facts and explain the contradictions, inconsistencies, and improbabilities.  That's what reporters are supposed to do.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States