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, January 30, 2007

"Daddy, he tried to touch my peepee." And other Dakota legends.

One good thing happened in the Gropegate matter: The state legislature conducted its business openly for all to hear and see. What came out was not what salty-earth South Dakotans want to hear or see, but it is there for the good citizens to deal with. The question is whether they want to deal with it or will do so.

Over the weekend, I was attending to some official duties in St. Paul, when it was said by a chap who maintains the Minnesota-South Dakota insult tradition of the Janklow-Perpich era that South Dakota is planning to add the images of zygotes and page peepees to its Mt. Rushmore attractions. Gropegate provided much derisive entertainment for the occasion. "Finally got a bit of open government?" a former journalist quipped. "Enjoy it while it lasts."

The state senate hearings on the Sutton-Wiese affair did not produce any conclusive information. But they sure produced a lot of hard evidence of the small-minded pettiness and buffoonery that dominates state government. Perhaps the most revelatory discussion was how much callow vagaries of youth seem to drive the proceedings.

There was a great deal of testimony about the extra-curricular activities of pages and the culture that has grown up around them. It seems that in apparent attempts to maintain a grasp on some sort of juvenile vitality, many legislators affect adolescent fads and fashions to appear "cool." And the pages appear to cow some legislators into unseemly postures in order not to appear "uncool."

Exchanges of rhetoric always occur in four phases: pretext, text, context, and subtext. People who have studied the rhetoric that grows up around incidents know that there does not have to be a calculated conspiracy for people to make what they say and do conform to the pressures exerted by pretext and context. And the subtext of any incident like Gropegate pretty writes itself. So in the statements of Austin Wiese and his father, we have an accusation. In the statements of Dan Sutton, we have denial. The two sides accuse each other of lying. And so, the regression of adult culture into playground squabbling is complete.

"He touched my peepee."

"Did not."

"Did, too."

"Well, yo mama is so ugly......" And on it goes.

Both men were adults when the alleged incident took place. One putative, the other approaching middle age.

From the outset, this story was driven by blogs, which put into electronic print the malicious speculation and mindless scurrility that once was spoken and left in the town tavern or cafe. But some bloggers delude themselves into believing that what they are doing is something akin to journalism. If it has anything to do with journalism, it is a few notches below the supermarket tabloids. And they do have their devotees.

Some blogs have done an excellent job of defining the essential points in this story, principally the Argus Leader blog and Denise Ross' Hoghouse blog. Both practice the essential function of journalism in focusing on the facts of the proceedings, not, as is the case of South Dakota War College, emphasizing the lewd and salacious to incite a wannabe lynch mob into declaring the guilt and just punishment for the accused.

I do not know Sen. Gene Abdallah, R.-Sioux Falls, other than by name and a little about his past work. He spent some time parsing the pretexts and subtexts of this incident and found that he was the subject of some bantering taking place on a taped phone call between Sutton and Wiese. The young man mentions having talked to Abdallah at a saloon in Ft. Pierre. Abdallah commented that he does not go to the saloon and was in Sioux Falls during the night in question.

Denise Ross put a video of his comments on her blog. Abdallah concludes his comments with the statement that many of the elements in the business made no sense to him. Bob Newland comments at the bottom of the post: "Lots of things don’t make sense to the pathetic ole drunk Gene."

As I said, I do not know Sen. Abdallah. But I do know that that even if such a comment had a basis in verifiable fact, it would have gotten the publications I worked for sued and me fired for allowing it into print. It makes a factual allegation that addresses a matter of character. What it says about politics in South Dakota is profound. Both text and subtext.

In looking at this and other parts of the testimony, one gets the impression that legislators are trying to ingratiate themselves with the callow vagaries of youth, not that pages are being taught the essentials of respect and decorum.

Whatever is wrong in Pierre goes far beyond a senator and a page sharing a queen-sized bed. It is not a matter of poor judgment being exercised; it is a matter of judgment being called for in such matters at all. In most places
with page programs, for example, underage drinking means immediate expulsion from the program. I know. I had to take the heat from some irate parents whose children violated the rules set down for interns and pages and were sent home. They are there to serve and to learn, but in Pierre they seem to get reinforced in the techiques of disrespect, juvenile bigotry, and malevolent foolery.

Well, we did, indeed, get our dose of open government. It was not pretty. It was not a moment of pride in good government and the rules of due process. It was Pierre, South Dakota.

And so, we can now get down to business with a new abortion ban, more assaults on working people and their claims to equity, and more diddling around with education. Some places give young people images and aspirations to surmount the small and mean-minded context that mires so many people down in the muck of petty jealousy and resentment. South Dakota gives them Gropegate.

Does anyone really wonder why the bright and talented young people leave the state as soon as they can? Does anyone really wonder why responsible people encourage them to do so?

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States