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

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Wolf packs, chicken flocks, and pits of vipers

Todd Epp on his blog and Tom Daschle in a campaign e-mail have commented on the attitude, especially in the Republican camp, about people whining, and carping, and speculating--always negatively or with the negative clearly present--about Sen. Tim Johnson's illness. Todd likens it to wolf-packing in which a once dominant alpha or beta is weakened somehow and all the resentmentful pups down there in the omega zone gather around and try to provoke his demise.

Actually, it is worse with chickens. When one of their fellows is weakened they can't resist the chance to peck him down to the bottom of the pecking order, usually to death.

Vipers don't do that. They don't run in herds or flocks. They do other things, like squeezing things to death or ingesting them alive, or occasionally taking one of those chickens, but it is done in their quest for food.

I have been suffering some after-tremors from cultural shock ever since I moved to South Dakota. There are cultural differences between various regions. I have never gotten used to the fact that people talk viciously and malevolently about other people behind their backs up here. It may be that way generally now, but when I moved up here the practice gave me great discomfort. People did it where I came from, but the people who did it were shunned and avoided. People with at least pretenses toward decency did not want to be associated with them. The premise was simple: if someone maligned or defamed someone to you behind the person's back, you could pretty well bet that the maligner was doing the same to you. You may have had bad thoughts about someone, but you kept them to yourself. If someone did something that could be talked about as an established fact, it was permissible to discuss.

One learned very early in my household not to utter malcious gossip about anybody unless it had a factual and utilitarian basis, like "Jimmy Snodpod steals our lunch money everyday." But to say something like "Jimmy Snodpod is a moron" would earn you all sorts of punishment. The lowest form would be a sermon on whether you wanted Jesus to hear you say something like that and what if he did and told his father who might turn you into a moron so you could see what it was like. The middle range punishment would be the threat to be lashed across the back of the knees with a bridal wreath switch. That's what happened to me the first time my mother heard me use the word fuck.

The worst punishment resulted when you talked about someone you didn't like very well who was sick and you were clearly entertaining ill thoughts about the prospect for recovery. My mother would give you a glance that would give testicles a reason to descend again, if they had already descended. An uncle once expressed a negative prognosis about a boss of his who was sick, and my mother's glance sent his maleness into such a retreat that they turned into ovaries. We tried to get her to open a surgery-free sex change clinic, but her eyes started to knot up and we boys apologized profusely and looked for a tornado cellar to stay in until her wrath subsided.

My mom was a Republican. But she was a guardian of culture who tolerated no idle and malicious gossip. I am not saying some people of the liberal persuasion do not lapse into ad hominem trash talk or show a certain glee at someone's bad health, but when it comes to Tim Johnson, the would-be Republican political strategists have shown the principles of their strategy: Stand at bedside and do the verbal pecking routine about him being so busy recovering that he doesn't put himself on display for all the ill-wishers to peck and cluck about. It started within days after his illness. The obligatory good wishes expressed by them does not hide their negative hopes.

Oh, I wish I had my mother's eyes.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States