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 MinneKota@gmail.com

Sunday, January 30, 2011

It's the pits

I am the 76-year-old person who was mentioned in today's paper as being one of 7 people and one dog in town who had an encounter with a pit bull last year.  I ended up in the emergency room to have my lip repaired with 12 stitches.

The newspaper story was occasioned by the animal control officer of the police department proposing an ordnance that would ban pit bulls in Aberdeen.  About 75 people showed up at the city council meeting to voice objections to the proposal.  I am not necessarily for such an ordnance, but neither am I against attempts to establish rules that enhance public safety.  In that regard, I think dog regulation is a bit absurd considering the number of human idiots who run around unleashed with firearms.  I have had only one encounter with a pit bull.  In my life as an outdoors person and a naturalist at state recreation areas, I have dealt with many, more serious threats to public safety than that posed by a dog hard-wired for aggression.  I say turn the errant pit bulls loose in Custer State Park and let the mountain kitties regulate them.

I like dogs.  I like nearly all animals, with some exceptions like bed bugs, which I have never encountered and hope I am never afforded the opportunity.   I am a bit bigoted about animals that might feed on my blood.  However, I like most animals in their natural settings, but I also recognize how hugely important it is for people to have pets as role models for humans, which keeps the predatory nature of humanity somewhat in check.

Ingrid and me in an aggressive moment. 
We have a dog, who is a retired athlete.  She is a greyhound named Ingrid.  Her racing name was Damadge's Connie, and she went around Colorado tracks 85 times in full competition.  She won or placed in 34.  We got her from the Denver greyhound rescue organization.  She figures into the pit bull story. 

 Greyhounds were bred in Egypt as lion hunters.  Some people in the U.S. who hunt mountain lions and coyotes still use greyhounds in hunting  because they are tracking hounds and they are fast.  However, they are, for the most part, unusually gentle animals.  They like to play with other dogs.

That is how I had the encounter with a pit bull.  A friend of my son's obtained this pit bull from the local animal shelter recently.  When he went on a business trip, he had to have some friends take care of the dog.  However, my son's friend got stuck out-of-town past the time he said he would return and the people who were looking after his dog  had to leave town, also.  My son was recruited to look after the animal.  He thought it needed some outdoor exercise, so he brought it to our house to play with Ingrid.  The dogs played.  Ingrid got a chance to show off her speed and agility, and the dogs had a nice play date.

I entered the picture when I stepped outside to see how the dogs were getting along.  As I opened the door from our screened in  patio, the pit bull came rushing up, barking somewhat menacingly. However, I let him sniff me, and I petted it, and it seemed like it wanted to get back to romping with Ingrid.  As I turned to go back into the house and opened the screen door, it jumped up into my face.  I don't know if it intended to bite or just give me a "head butt" but my son informed me that blood was pouring from my lip.  Whatever the dog's intentions, its nose smashed my upper lip against my teeth and opened a gash that left a trail across the kitchen floor into downstairs bathroom, where I went to inspect the damages.

I called my doctor's office and said I thought my lip needed some expert medical attention, and the nurse told me to get my ass along with my lip over to the emergency room.  I did.  The ER doctor looked at it and said he was calling in a surgeon who would have to do the needed work.  So, I was sitting on the table waiting when a police officer showed up.  He explained that the hospital was required by law to report such incidents and he said he needed to file a report and take the dog into custody for observation and safety reasons.  I told him what happened and got him in touch with my son to turn the dog over to the police.  I received 12 stitches and a prescription for anti-biotics, which prevented me from taking the self-medication I had looked forward to in the emergency room.  Single malt tends to nullify the efficacy of anti-biotics.  By the way, that little visit cost more than $1,500, which could probably keep me supplied with self-medication for the rest of my life.

My understanding is that pit bull was confiscated from its owner because he is not in a position to provide the kind of care and monitoring a pit bull needs.  The plan was to turn the dog over to a pit bull adoption agency, but the dog lacked the training to be given to another family and had this history of aggressive and unruly behavior.  So, I hear, it was  put down.

The problem with pit bulls and other aggressive dogs is not with their doggy nature.  It's with their human nature.  Some dog breeds have been selectively bred to make the aggressive and vicious aspects of their natures a defining characteristic.  The American pit bull has been bred to fight other dogs.  That part of its physical characteristics and its temperament involved in the history of lethal attacks by pit bulls is a matter of the dogs doing what they were created to do.  They were created to be lethal by humans.  And when their genetic programming is in control of the dogs, they pay little attention to human cease and desist orders.

While in the service, I bought a beautiful and intelligent German shepherd puppy from a German who guarded our base by contract with his dogs.  His dogs were obedient, but they could be very aggressive and effective when ordered.  On one occasion when I was not present, some men teased the puppy.  He never forgot, and went into attack mode whenever he encountered those men.  If I was not present, the dog was near uncontrollable.  And not being in a position to have the dog with me at all times, I had to give him back to his breeder.  When he matured, he would be a menace to others if an experienced handler was not with him.

Breeds like German Shepherds were created to look after sheep and cattle and to herd them, but also to protect their charges from predators.  In the cases of guard and attack dogs, that protective nature has been developed into an aggressive nature.  When dogs pack up and go on a killing spree (I once covered 80 sheep killed by a pack of otherwise peaceable farm dogs), they are said to be going feral.  They aren't.  They are going human. 

The old saying goes, never give a baby or an idiot a gun.  It should be updated to state, never give a baby or an idiot a gun or a pit bull.  Animals bred for their ferocity are like carrying a loaded gun.  Their lethal nature is easily triggered, and some people are just not equipped to have them. Police and control officers are not happy to get a call to take a ferocious dog into custody.  The danger stems not from the dogs, but what humankind has made of them.

The solution might be the one used by people in Mississippi Valley during the 1840s when a criminal gang called the Banditti of the Prairie held them in terror.  Everybody carried a gun and people shot other people as a pre-emptive measure.  Soon, people were begging for laws about when guns could be carried and used.  They ended up terrorizing each other more than the Banditti did.  History may have to repeat itself.  People may fire away at suspicious acting people and dogs.  History does seem to repeat itself, despite our contention that we learn from history.

I side with the mountain kitties.  Let them have an open season on their tormentors, too.

Friday, January 28, 2011

He learned all he needed to know about politics from a DARE class

Duh?  No?
Aside from the Republicans who are trying to give themselves colonoscopies with their own heads, voters in northeast South Dakota know John Thune as a person who learned how to say that obstinate and petulant "no" as a child and never got over it.

As a congressman, Thune had a hard time figuring out what the job was. He thought that the only thing he had to do was recite the script written for him by those who know he needs scripts.  It was fairly easy for him to learn it.  It consisted of the word "no."  But, by gosh and golly, once he had learned, he was going to use it, and he did on every occasion he could find.  He's still doing it.  Infrastructure is the biggest solicitor of a howling no from John Thune.

The first problem with John Thune was that he did not think Aberdeen needed a service office.   The big problems came when proposals were being made to construct a bypass for U.S. 281 around Aberdeen ad to make U.S 12 from Aberdeen to I-29 a four-lane.  John got out his old script and recited no.  When asked why not, he said we couldn't afford it.

The woman who was heading up the group which recommended making U.S 12 a four-lane highway was a prominent Republican.  When a series of public hearings were set up, she insisted that John attend one of them.  That's known as the night that Helen Miller stood John Thune in a corner with a dunce cap and administered some remedial instruction. As he stood in the corner in a petulant seizure, he relented somewhat, but he always pouted.   Luckily, two U.S.Senators, Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson carried the project forward and got the by-pass for 281 and the four lanes for 12 built.

At one point, the U.S. 12 project hit a snag when an environmental impact study raised a question about its impact on the Waubay Wildlife Refuge.  To resolve the problem, people gathered at the VFW hall one morning to have a telephone conference with Sens. Daschle and Johnson.  John Thune sent his staff to distribute flyers complaining about environmental concerns being such an obstacle to progress. 

When it  came to water development projects,  Thune recited his script.  When it came to attending agricultural caucuses to review legislation that would affect his state,  Thune just said no.

And now that President Obama is proposing work to repair a deteriorating infrastructure and bolstering educational competitiveness, there is good old John Thune saying that one word he has rehearsed throughout his political life.  

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Kristi Noem: how hot is she?

The Huffington Post balloted 10,000 readers on who the hottest freshman member of Congress is.  Yep.  It's Kristi Noem. If you ain't got no moxie, heat and speed will do.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The GOP resurrects Marx

 Marxism seemed dead and buried in the U.S.  But the GOP has revived it spectacularly. 

After the Soviet Union disintegrated 20 years ago, Marxism seemed to die as a viable political theory.  Aside from being a violently oppressive form of politics in practice, many of its theories were absurd.  In the minds of many, Marxism is what went on in the former Soviet Union.  But there are many versions of Marxism and some forms of communism that are not based upon Marxist theory.  The dismantling of the Soviet Union occurred because the Kremlin brand of politics simply did not work. The Bolshevik revolution was driven by a desire to be free from the tyrannies and gross inequities of czarist rule, but it was soon taken over by the lust for power and oppression of Stalin and his cohorts.  It's an old story.  People looking to be freed often follow those who lead them into another siege of oppression.  Stalin rivaled, often surpassed, Hitler and the Nazis in reigning by prolonged atrocity.

Americans at the prompting of the brain-washing media have so fixed on Soviet Marxism as the defining form that they are totally ignorant of how Marxist theory is applied in China or what is taking place politically in South America.  The countries which are displacing the hegemonic dominance of America are doing so with policies and practices that draw from the range of left-wing theories--socialist, communist, yes Marxist, and forms of regulated capitalism.  The last election campaign was fraught with charges of Obama and the progressives being Marxist, anti-American, and hell-bent on instituting totalitarian communism in America.

While much media attention is being paid to the Republican takeover of the U.S. House, its gains in the Senate and state governorships and legislatures, and the influence of the tea party movement, the attention neglects the obverse effect that the invocation of Marxism is having.  The Republicans, tea party spokespersons, and American conservatives in general have incited a new interest in Marxism.  A Pine Ridge colleague commented sarcastically that if these people are so vehemently against Marxism and communism, it probably deserves another look.  It must embrace something of virtue.  That Pine Ridge viewpoint is informed by author Adrian C. Louis, who worked and lived on Pine Ridge for a time:  

This country was founded on violence. So its kind of like karma coming back to haunt us, you know. When the Spaniards came into the towns here they killed more Indians than Hitler killed Jews in his ovens. It's a greater holocaust here than there was in Europe during World War II. That's a historical fact. America is a schizophrenic country. On the one hand, it purports to be the peace loving center of the universe. On the other hand, it's got everything it has from violence from taking and taking.

Revolutions are nearly always motivated by the desire to free people from oppressive discrimination, violence, gross inequality, and economic bondage.  People who are looking for liberty, equality, and justice follow the movements that seem most able to put those qualities into operation.

No one in America would choose Chinese communism with its oppression, bureaucratic control, and human rights record as a form of government, but that should not hinder an American from recognizing what Mao and his successors have accomplished with China since World War II.  Over the years, I have had many students from China, including some who protested in Tiananmen Square in 1989.  I directed the master's thesis work for some who  examined how American writers, such as Pearl Buck and Edgar Snow, presented China to American and  other English-speaking readers.  The students had a fondness and appreciation of America, but also a sound knowledge of the turmoil and hopeless  poverty in their own nation.  While some of them admired American democracy, they could not escape a history of exploitation within their country and the huge task of liberating and developing their country out of the caste-systems that denied livable lives, let alone opportunity, to so many people.  Whatever one thought of Mao, and he was reviled in the conservative west, he was making changes for his people.  My students stressed the improvements time and again.  Now that China has become the biggest world economic power next to the U.S. and holds much of the U.S. debt, there is a grudging admission that, with all its drawbacks, the Chinese government is doing something right and is making progress for its people.  It is tempting for Americans to say the successes of China rest  on its adoption of  capitalist economic policies.  There is a big difference in people protesting political repression and seeking the overthrow of communism.  People will not generally overthrow the government that moves toward freedom and offers opportunity to rise out of poverty.  The number of poverty-stricken people in China's rural areas decreased to 14.87 million in 2007 from 250 million in 1978.  A World Bank report released in 2007 said that China accounted for 67 percent of the achievements in global poverty reduction in the past two decades.

Left-wing regimes have made similar advances in Latin America.   Brazil inaugurated Dilma Rousseff  as president this month who had been imprisoned for being a left-wing guerilla fighter.  She is expected to follow the policies of the former president in whose cabinet she served in continuing to lift Brazil  from poor and bankrupt to one of the most promising economies in the world.  Former president de Silva reduced the percentage of people living below the poverty line in Brazil from 28.2 per cent in 2003 to 22.7 per cent in 2005.

Left-wing governments are holding power in other Latin American countries, including Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, and St. Vincente and the Grenadines.


While these countries are reducing their poverty rates, the U.S. is going in the opposite direction.  Last year, the U.S. saw those living in poverty raised to 44 million, or one in seven residents, 14.3 percent.  The country has seen wealth and wages concentrated in the top 20 percent of the population, with the middle class being pushed toward the poverty level, as:
The GOP sees attempts to extend some economic equity, honesty, and fairness as establishing socialism and Marxism.Perhaps, most significant is that the GOP doesn't see poverty levels, income and wealth distribution, or the decline of the middle class as a problem.   My Pine Ridge friend comments that Americans congratulate themselves on what a great country they are while its people sink economically and politically and the rest of the world overtakes it.   He refers to it as the United States of Delusion.

As Adrian Louis says, America established itself through violence, taking land by genocide and establishing wealth through slavery.  It returns to the obscenities of its past while the rest of the world is trying to rise above theirs.  The view point from Pine Ridge is a look at the realities of America which give Marxism, socialism, and all the alternatives to the GOP vision a more hopeful and positive outlook on what is possible.

While the right wing rails about the left wing concern about the struggle between classes, the GOP engages in war that pits the 20 percent privileged against the 80 percent being dispossessed.   The Pine Ridge sage says the fight between Republicans and Democrats is an absurdity.  To the people being oppressed, it doesn't make any difference if the oppression emanates from the Kremlin or Beijing or the corporate offices and financial houses on Wall Street.  Partisan politics is irrelevant to the real struggle facing America's working people. When one looks at the way the GOP regards them, Marx seems to offer a more viable future.  Of course, one might look at Lincoln, but the GOP claims the franchise on him. 

UPDATE:  An indication of the degree to which the GOP is declaring war against workers is in proposed South Dakota legislation to outlaw governments from  collective bargaining with public employee unions. 





    Saturday, January 22, 2011

    Anatomy of some of those health care lies

    For some time, conservatives have been making things up out of that well spring of hatred that seems to have become a cultural feature.  Here is a story that traces how an e-mail sent to a company's employees by one of its executives was created:  Washington Post:  A judge's letter on health care and an email gone viral.

    Friday, January 21, 2011

    The best health care delivery system in the world?

    John Boehner said again that the Affordable Health Care Act needs to be repealed so that it doesn't "ruin the best health care delivery system in the world."  I continue to be puzzled at where that "best health care system in the world" comes from.  

    • The number of uninsured in the U.S. climbed to 50 million last year.
    • One-third of American adults forgo recommended medical treatment because it is too costly. 
    • Only 15 percent of Americans surveyed think it is the best health care system in the world.  The majority think it is mediocre.   
    • Americans spend twice as much as residents of other developed countries on healthcare, but get lower quality, less efficiency and have the least equitable system.     
    In his remarks, Boehner is referring to that 20 percent of Americans who holds 85 percent of the nation's assets and 93 percent of its wealth.  This is the economic alignment of medieval Europe that America was invented to free people from.  The health care debate indicates that 80 percent of Americans are dismissed as being expendable. 

    Wednesday, January 19, 2011

    Don't call it rhetoric, Shirley.

    In the furor over whether the toxic verbal atmosphere of contemporary politics inspired the attempted assassination and mass shooting in Tucson, the term "rhetoric" keeps getting used.  Rhetoric is generally defined as the art of using language effectively and persuasively, but those who study and use the art of rhetoric have a more specific definition.   Rhetoric is the art of refining knowledge and using fact and reasoning as the basis for making arguments.  One of the textbooks on the theory and practice of rhetoric I used a few years ago defined rhetoric as the making of knowledge.  The kind of discourse we have witnessed coming into prominence is the unmaking of knowledge.  It is the use of words as weapons, not as vehicles of knowledge and understanding. 

    Popular usage has devolved into using the term rhetoric to describe any kind of utterance in a political context.  And so, people confuse non-rhetoric with rhetoric, and while we are currently seeing attempts to upgrade the study of math and science in our schools, the study of language as the primary vehicle of learning is rare,  although it thrives in some places. Propaganda is confused with rhetoric, and fewer and fewer people understand the difference between the two. 

    A part of the study of language that is largely neglected is, at the least, an overview of the basic principles of semantics.  Semantics is the science of meaning in language and it analyzes how words derive and convey their meanings.  The study of semantics is often divided into two branches:  objective semantics, which examines what words refer to in a general culture and how they obtain specific meanings;  and subjective semantics, which examines how individuals receive and respond to words.  A more common way to divide these branches is to refer to the language of reports,  objective words which refer to the hard facts apparent to conscious humans; and the language of judgments, which are subjective, the language of what people think and feel, even if what they think and feel has little relevance or relationship to what the language of reports conveys.  The crucial semantic distinction is when judgments are formed on an apprehension of the facts or when they are based upon predetermined attitudes and conditioned verbal responses. 

    The language of reports registers the observations of people as they witness the universe.  The language of judgments registers the prejudices, personal preferences, and the mental distortions and hatreds that have developed in a personality. The language of reports provides us a map of the universe.  The language of judgments provides us with a map of the mind of the speaker.  When judgments are based on reports and some rigorous reasoning, they provide valuable perspectives worthy of consideration.  When judgments are merely the uttering of postures and prejudices, they give us views of failures of intellect and  of the human mentality at its meanest.  


    Most political discourse is the language of judgments--judgments arising from prejudices, calcified mindsets, and that region of human personality rooted in power and dominance, not in ideas of equality, freedom, and justice.  Political discourse of recent times has been dominated by the propaganda of war.  And I'm  not talking about propaganda to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or on the Mexican border.  I refer to the propaganda of war engaged in by groups of Americans who would like to see other groups of Americans vanquished.

    After the shootings in Tucson, Sheriff Dupnik said, "People who are mentally unstable are susceptible to the rhetoric going on in this country."  He said in an interview,“The kind of rhetoric that flows from people like Rush Limbaugh, in my judgment he is irresponsible, uses partial information, sometimes wrong information... he attacks people, angers them against government, angers them against elected officials and that kind of behavior in my opinion is not without consequences.”

    Aside from the use of the term rhetoric instead of propaganda, Sheriff Dupnik's assertions about language are supported by the science of semantics and psycholinguistics and how language works on the minds of people.  So is accused shooter Jarod Loughner's contention that language can be used to control minds.  He also indicated his sense of dislocation through language when he asked a friend, if you can't trust language, what good is government?   What is missing from the all the talk about language is how it can be used to free and empower minds.

    The denial that what people say in political comments and how they say it does not create a climate which induces violence is like denying the law of gravity.  Language is the medium of culture.   It registers the mindsets of the culture and is integrally involved in shaping them.  When the language of a culture centers on hostilities and hatreds, the culture is forming the conditions for violence.  Propaganda that incites contempt, anger, and hatred has the intention of doing verbal violence on people.  Physical violence is a natural consequence.  The words announce the intention.


     The Nazi propaganda campaigns had a marked effect on the teaching of rhetoric in high schools and colleges.  For a couple of decades after World War II, every freshman composition course in colleges had a component that dealt with the study of propaganda, how it is recognized, and why it is false discourse.   An often cited quotation about the Holocaust was "how could this happen in the land of Bach, Beethoven, and Goethe?"  The answer was that the people fell under the spell of a massive propaganda campaign that exploited their sense of humiliation from the loss of World War I.  Hitler and Goebbels were shrewd enough to understand that people need someone to blame for their misfortunes and their failures.  The Reich mounted a propaganda campaign centered on The Big Lie, which Hitler explained in Mein Kampf  as a lie so "colossal" that people could not believe anyone "could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously." The Big Lie promoted by Hitler was that Jews were responsible for all the ills of Germany and the world because they are a nefarious and inferior group.  He and Goebbels used The Big  Lie as the central idea in the propaganda campaign that motivated the war and the Holocaust.  Hitler explained his propaganda strategy:

    The art of propaganda consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings, in finding the appropriate psychological form that will arrest the attention and appeal to the hearts of the national masses. The broad masses of the people are not made up of diplomats or professors of public jurisprudence nor simply of persons who are able to form reasoned judgment in given cases, but a vacillating crowd of human children who are constantly wavering between one idea and another.
    The purpose of propaganda in this context is to incite anger and hatred and to direct these elicited responses to the destruction of a designated group of people. People so aroused by the propaganda can be offered a chance to express their raging anger and hatred through violence that seems to have the sanction of their peers.  The destructive energy of that "vacillating crowd of human children" can be directed and controlled by those who devise the propaganda.  Goebbels did this by orchestrating the infamous Krystal Nacht, when German people went on rampage burning synagogues and attacking Jews.  He then claimed it was a spontaneous act of the people, although the propaganda was massive and Nazi agitators and organizers were involved in abundance.  But the main incitement was the propaganda campaign.

    An important signal that distinguishes propaganda from legitimate rhetoric is the presence of the ad hominem attack, the assault of a person.  Citing factual and proven faults of a person is a legitimate consideration in evaluating a person's credibility and trustworthiness.  Defaming  a person, however, with falsehoods, false accusations, and derogatory labels and identifications is a signal that malice is in control.  When people defame another person with slander and libel, they intend to inflict harm; they are acting out their ill will.  They are laying down the foundation for violence.


    What many students of propaganda point out, but seldom gets mentioned in the popular media, is that Rush Limbaugh's propaganda campaign against liberals parallels the campaign against Jews preceding and during World War II.  His Big Lie is that liberals are the cause of all the ill in the U.S. and the world, and his method is to constantly make personal attacks against individuals and groups.  Limbaugh claims he is primarily an entertainer, but the entertainment offered consists of maligning, defaming, insulting, and otherwise abusing liberals and anyone else who Limbaugh wishes to attack.  It is entertainment of the kind enjoyed by that "vacillating crowd of children" on the playground who line up behind the bullies, shouting their taunts, insults, and threats.  Playground bully sessions often go from the verbal to the physical.  As Sheriff Dupnik contends, Limbaugh attacks people and creates anger among his audience against them and the government.  However, Hitler and Goebbels openly admitted the purpose and effects of their attacks against Jewish individuals and people to be oppression and extermination.  Limbaugh and his followers deny the consequence of their words, even thought the very purpose of defamation is to inflict harm.  Only the most uneducated can regard the constant flow of ad hominen attacks as "vigorous debate."  Defamation is not debating; it is the infliction of harm.  


    However, Limbaugh is a symptom of a larger intellectual failure within the American psyche.  Certainly, there are those from the left who are guilty of the tactic of defamation.  The right is louder at this time.  But the media is in full complicity.  Cable news, talk radio, and Internet blogs thrive on conflict.  And no conflict is easier to exploit than that raised by false accusations and defamation.  The media amplify petty examples of stupid malice into major talking points.  The media may know the difference between rhetoric and propaganda, but it thinks that the generation of a huge audience rests upon the debasing conflict of defamation, not the rational discussion of real issues.

    In the history of the world, hate-inspiring propaganda has always laid the foundation for violence and atrocities.  It has displaced reasoned discourse as the mode of political discussion in the U.S.  It creates the climate in which the disaffected and mentally unstable form their plots of action.  And that action tends toward violence, not vigorous debate.  The mass killers nearly always act in a political context, expressing alienation in violence against what they regard as political enemies.  


    So what is the solution?  New York Times columnist Bob Herbert says we have to face some harsh facts about our country first: 

    If we want to reverse the flood tide of killing in this country, we’ll have to do a hell of a lot more than bad-mouth a few sorry politicians and lame-brained talking heads. We need to face up to the fact that this is an insanely violent society. The vitriol that has become an integral part of our political rhetoric, most egregiously from the right, is just one of the myriad contributing factors in a society saturated in blood.


    Native American columnist Mark Trahant, who asks "Are we a nation doomed to be violent?", cites specific examples of violence-inducing propaganda:

    Just Google the words “Democrats are …” Some 6 million entries pop up filling in that last word as being Marxists or a willingness “to rob us of our freedoms.” These words go beyond a simple political disagreement: We on the other side are wrong or evil. We listen to calls for us to be exorcised from the nation’s discourse.


    Both Herbert and Trahant suggest that America's violent tradition has to be faced as we make careful distinctions between honest dissent and hate propaganda.  In this the media has failed.    The Columbia Journalism Review makes a specific diagnosis:



    Too many reporters hack their way past policy debates by simply quoting political actors on each side, without making an effort to track down the facts, examine the logic, and flesh out the context. A twisted idea of fairness, combined with simple laziness, ends up obscuring issues, making them boring and complicated rather than big and vital. 
    One wonders if the press can take up its responsibility for freeing the language from its use as a weapon and restore its integrity as a device of communication as long as the press is controlled by audience ratings and advertising sales.  If bloggers ever fulfill their claim that they can supply what the press cannot, they will have to learn that distinction between rhetoric and propaganda and emphasize it.  Up to this time bloggers have been more attracted by the wiles of defamation than the thoughtful plodding of real rhetoric. 

    The future depends on language.  And how it is used.  

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011

    One less pulpit for bullies

    Blogs, like mayflies, are ephemeral.  They swarm into existence for a brief time and then die, leaving little behind but an unpleasant stench.  The blogosphere in South Dakota illustrates what seems to be a life history of blogs.   Many of what once were prominent blogs have passed away.  Now the Keloland issues blogs follow the pattern.  They will succumb on Wednesday.


    This is not a surprise.  What is surprising is that the demise of the KELO issues blogs has been such a long time coming.  When ostensible news organizations  host blogs,  they face consequences that individual bloggers and those who comment on blogs do not. There is the matter of legal issues when bloggers or commenters venture into libel.  Newspapers and radio and television stations can be held liable for libel if they demonstrate attempts at editing content.  However, other providers of access to the Internet are immune, under the Communcations Decency Act of 1996, if they are serving as distributors, not as publishers of comments in response to blogs.  Anyone who makes a defamatory statement may be sued, but one is hard pressed to find a lawyer who would recommend suing for damages.  Most people who comment on blogs do not have the financial resources to make such a suit probable.  The cost of a suit is generally more than the damages that could be recovered.  So, many defamers are not challenged because it would be too expensive.


    But the publishers and access providers have  other issues to consider, such as the reputation of the media they sponsor.  Many colleges and universities do not allow students to cite materials from Internet sources unless the students provide evaluative analysis that the sources are reputable and reliable purveyors of information.  When a news organization such as KELO allows blogs and comments that are considered of questionable merit and display a mean disrespect and disregard for other people, the organization pays a heavy price in loss of credibility.

    While the interactive aspect of Internet media is highly touted, and may seem to attract readership, the actual content and value of what is exchanged in comment sections does not contribute much to the information and exchange of valid perspectives.  In fact, most of the comments following news stories and opinion pieces are mean,often scurrilous, and unabashedly stupid.  They tend to drive away the intelligent readers who are looking for information and well-constructed viewpoints.  Much of the media has either dropped the comment sections or instituted formats that do not give comments prominent display.

    The Keloland issues blogs attracted a cohort of commentators who seemed to sit at their computers waiting for a reason to burst forth with scurrility.  Their comments invariably had the same characteristics:

    • They never addressed the main point of a blog.
    • They nearly always fixed on a word or a phrase and made that the focus of verbal temper tantrums.  In terms of reading comprehension, sentences with subordinating clauses and qualifying modifiers was beyond their ken; whole paragraphs seemed insurmountable; and therefore entire blog pieces were not even a possible consideration.
    • Their comments always turned to personal attacks with insult and abuse. 
    The country has been much upset by bullying in our schools, and the use of Internet media, social networks, and telephone texting have become the media of bullying.  While educators and concerned officials mull over the problem of bullying among students, they do not examine the context in which the bullying occurs.  They do not consider that bullying is a tradition throughout the new media, and little that provokes actual thought  or elevates discussion takes place.  The Internet, talk radio, and cable news is devoted largely to propagating and reacting to the human mentality at its meanest.  


    The  Internet is too valuable an asset to be allowed to be so undermined by verbal vandals.  What valuable discourse occurred on the Keloland issues blogs became compromised by the perverse.  People of good intent and constructive purpose simply found what passed for discussion to be something they avoided, and over time the readership declined.  I had many people tell me that they stopped reading the Keloland blogs because of the level of comment.  


    When some personnel changes were made a Keloland, the blogs became an afterthought, and access to them was made more complicated.  Now they will be gone.  And for the sake of language and constructive communication, it is probably a good thing. Perhaps the Internet can be rescued from juvenile bullying and ad hominem exchanges.  







    Thursday, January 6, 2011

    Old hatreds, new faces

    Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander: The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo

    The New Yorker delves into the question of the immense popularity and success of the Millenium trilogy novels and films of Swedish writer Stieg Larsson.**  (He died at 50 before the novels were published or films  were made.)  The New Yorker critic suggests that if you have  not  read the novels, you "have been in a coma, say, for the past two years."  I seem surrounded by the comatose, but I also have friends who find the novels too brutally violent to read.

    For people like me who read  crime and mystery fiction late into the night as a  way to wind down from more serious and cerebral works, I sympathize with those who do not find the violence entertaining or diverting.  There are numerous best-sellers  being written by teams of formula hacks who work on the premise that gratuitous and perverse violence must punctuate "a good read."  I, also, find that many of the characters in contemporary popular writing are so contrived with smarmy appeal that they might deserve to suffer all the violence inflicted on them.  There are not many writers, such as the late Tony Hillerman with his Navajo police stories, who craft popular fiction that has genuine literary merit. And by literary merit, I mean largely characters who are not drawn from the formulas of archetype and stereotype and who provide an informing perspective on some of the realities that actually exist on the planet.  Literature, as opposed to hack fiction, works at uncovering the truth in all its nuances and complexities.  Hillerman made this the center of his writing enterprise; Larsson in his way does, too.  

    For American readers, Larsson provides some important aesthetic distance.  His setting of Sweden is far enough removed from America that the aberrations portrayed do not demand self-identification, but it is similar enough to America to make them plausible.  The Sweden portrayed is not the land of Raoul Wallenberg  and Dag Hammarskjold, but a land that contains its share of human predators--Nazis, biker gangs,  various species of haters.

    All four of my  grandparents were emigrants from Sweden.  My mother's mother, with whom I was best acquainted, and her two sisters came to America as single women.  Their brothers stayed in Sweden.  The reason single women left their families and came to America on their own is not often explored in the stories and history of immigration.  Those motives are totally lacking from any current discussion of illegal immigration into America.  They are essentially the same:  the quest for freedom, equality, opportunity, and justice--the escape from political and social systems that rank humans according to some system of human worth and consign them to lives of desperation,   As children, we used to beg for stories of my grandmother's girlhood in Sweden.  She would oblige us to a point, then finally say in her heavy Swedish accent that these things were what she left Sweden to get away from.  We children did not understand that what seemed to us like exotic tales were set in the context of a culture that predestined the lives of its people to oppression and drudgery.  I used to introduce my American literature surveys with the Swedish film "The Emigrants" so that students would have a background  in what motivated the invention and founding of America.

    Literature which speaks cogently and powerfully to the situations people find themselves in provides a means to define, analyze, and understand those situations so that they might be changed or surmounted.  The appeal of Larsson's trilogy is that it reflects the contemporary emergence of a mentality that is hard to ignore, but just as hard to define with the besotting vocabulary with which the media obscures some otherwise naked truths.  After the name calling frenzy inspired by Barack Obama's ascension to the presidency, it is hard to tell when the terms Nazi,  fascist, communist, racist, etc., actually name some discernible trait or whether they are just the mindless sound and fury coming from the Limbaugh and Beck echo chambers.  Larsson's books provide narratives and imagery that give sharp definition to some of the things those terms apply to.

    My family history and my education are steeped in the lore of Sweden.  I grew up in a town settled by people of Swedish descent.  I attended  a Swedish Lutheran college and later taught there.  During my teaching years there, I learned some facts about Sweden that have surfaced in Larsson's novels.  As a young professor, I was given a special duty assignment to review and help with the indexing of some personal papers that had been bequeathed to the college.  The papers dealt with local history, particularly as it involved native Americans.  Native American literature and culture was one of my specialties, so I was assigned to work in the archives in organizing those papers.  The college provided office space for retired professor in the archives, and some of  the emeritus professors gathered there to continue their own work and asked me questions about the project I was working on.   This prompted much discussion about political repression and discrimination that occurred in the world.  One of the retired professors was one of my philosophy professors.  He had been a professor at the University of Latvia, which is directly across the Baltic Sea from Sweden, until 1944 when he fled to Germany to escape the Soviet invasion of  Latvia.  In 1949, he was hired by the college out of a displaced persons camp in Germany.  Latvia had been invaded by the Soviet Union early in World War II,  then taken over by the Nazi Regime, and then repossessed by the Soviets in 1944.  Many Latvians fled to Germany and Sweden to escape the Soviets.  My former professor  who became a colleague was vehement in his denouncements of the Soviets.  Other of retired professors were informed about the role of Sweden at this time, and the matter of  the Nazis was talked about gingerly.  I was made aware that although Sweden was a center of resistance against the Nazis, it had its sympathizers, and there was much talk about the repression of minorities and the people who struggled against such oppression.  This history reemerges in Larsson's trilogy and sets the backdrop for the action.  Immigrants and displaced people are the catalysts that revive old hatreds into action. 

    Sweden, like much of Europe and the U.S., has experienced an influx of immigrants, both invited and  uninvited, with the globalization of the world economies.  In response against the immigrants, a number of people have reacted by adopting conservative attitudes.  Larsson brings into play the racial and ethnic hatreds as they are revived from the past and he explores how they penetrate the culture and the government.  Sweden, which has joined other European nations in expelling Gypsies and other ethnic immigrants, is no longer a safe haven from the insidious hatreds of the Nazis and the brutal repression and violence of the Soviets.  His novels portray the revival  of hateful mindsets and those who resist and fight against them.

    His novels contain many literary faults, which are covered by The New Yorker article, but they contain a power that attracts and engages a huge audience of readers and film-goers.  They manage to cut through the cacophony of media-driven politics to take a stark look at the moral ills that infect the human race.

    During the past week a hate manifesto has been circulating the Internet and was reposted on South Dakota blogs. It is a list of old hatreds that has plagued the civilized world until it started working with the ideas of democracy, equality, liberty, and justice. It is a rather detailed map of the mentality of what is emerging as conservatism in the contemporary world.  It seethes with racial animosity, anti-intellectualism, misogyny, defamation of anyone and anything that does not conform to the mentality it maps out.

    It is the expression of the hatreds and the mindsets that compose the villains in Larsson's novels, and it speaks strongly to our time.  And it is in that definition of the threats to democracy and its most vital tenets that define what the real divide is between what we think is liberalism and conservatism.  We can look at some distance at the destructive forces at work in Larsson's Sweden, and maybe we can recognize them when we find them in our own back yards.

    **[Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy books—“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2008, American edition), “The Girl Who Played with Fire” (2009), and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2010)]

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