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

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Somber Christmas

In the Scandinavian Protestant church in which I was raised, there were sanctions against smoking, drinking, dancing, card playing, movies, and anything sexual.  The result in my generation was people who with a certain relish smoked, drank, danced, played cards, went to movies, and fucked if the opportunity presented itself.  And there was not a little effort expended in presenting opportunities. 

However, those restrictive sanctions, while preached with some persistence, did not define the primary mission of the church.  That mission became apparent as the Christmas season approached.  Reformation Sunday in the last week of October marked the beginning of  a massive drive to collect food, clothing, and other essentials of life for the needy.  November, December, and January were times of intense activity, presided over by the women’s missionary societies, but involved all members of the church in the collection and distribution of food, clothes, and essentials such as blankets to those in need.  Churches in general were in engaged in an enterprise now largely the province of the Salvation Army. This mission was ecumenical in nature.  It is the one area of Christian principle in which the fundamentalist protestant churches participated with the Roman Catholic church. 

 The mandate of Christ to feed the hungry, shelter the poor, and heal the sick was pursued without equivocation.  In those later days of the Great Depression and the early years of World War II, there was no absence of hunger, poverty, and illness to address.  Once a week during the wintery season, my mother drove my dad, a letter carrier, to work at 5:30 in the morning so that she could have the family car to deliver boxes of food and clothing items to people for the church.  The women’s societies had a roster of people who gathered, packed, and delivered boxes of goods to people on a list it compiled and maintained.  This was an ongoing activity throughout the week.

Whenever people worshiped or engaged in the Lord’s work back then, they wore their Sunday best as a sign of respect for the calling.  My mother dressed up, dressed me up to ride along, and went to the church and loaded the trunk and back seat of the car up with boxes and bags of food and clothing and spent the day delivering them.  I have vivid memories of delivering food to people who lived in shacks with swept-dirt floors, of elderly people huddled in blankets waiting for death or whatever deliverance from poverty they expected, of children in rags eying the winter mackinaw my mother had put me in. 

This work was not considered charity.  It was considered duty.  Although the cold months around the holiday season were when the church was most active in ministering to the needy, the principle extended to family life throughout the rest of the year,  also.  During that time, it was common for the steps to our back porch to be occupied by men who were willing to perform some work in exchange for food.  My mother fixed them scrambled eggs and toast and coffee as a matter of hospitality for a wayfarer, not as charity or with the expectation of any work to be performed.  In her broken English, my Swedish grandmother explained the premise of that hospitality.  What if Jesus came to your door in hunger, she said, and you turned him away?  The idea was not that Christ stalked the land as a hobo checking to see who followed his mandate to feed the hungry, but to remind one that feeding the hungry, sheltering the poor, and healing the sick defined what it was to profess Christianity. 

A Lutheran pastor friend of mine said that the old Swedes regarded themselves as the instruments through which Christ fed a multitude with a few fishes and slices of bread.  They spread the gospel with slabs of lutfisk, barrels of pickled herring, and loaves of limpa bread,  the Scandinavian sacraments. 

Praise the  lord and pass the lutfisk.
The Christmases of my childhood had a somber aspect, because while we celebrated with our families, the poor were a presence of which we were mindful.

One did not go around wishing everyone a merry Christmas, especially people who were thralls to poverty and need.  Instead, one did things to increase the possibility that those people might find some spark of hope, respect, and dignity in the Christmas season.
 

My wife recently had a series of jobs in which she traveled extensively in northeast South Dakota.  I often helped drive her to her appointments and meetings and took an interest in the many Scandinavian churches I found throughout the countryside.  Few of them are still operating with congregations; most are maintained as historic landmarks in the settlement and development of the Dakotas by immigrants. 

That interest in those churches actually began some years previous when another professor and I were asked to be consultants for a group that wanted to write a history of one of those churches.  There was historical information contained in the church’s documents, most of which are on file in the library of the Lutheran college where I taught for 8 years, but it was cursory and incomplete.  The people who initiated the project planned to interview the families of church members and clergy who had served the parish.  That is where the project began to stall.  We had a complete list of members over the years, but found that extremely few of the families had members left in South Dakota.  The project then involved a strenuous effort to find people whose families were members with the expectation that we could get some accounts of the church from family memories and records.  We found many of the people scattered from New York to Los Angeles and Seattle, but were surprised by a diffidence.  Their common explanation was that as young people their driving ambition was to go to college and find lives elsewhere.  The other professor and I did get some accounts about the vital role the church played in the rural community.  And we did find that the churches were the center of community life and that those Scandinavian churches on the plains  also practiced what Christ preached in feeding the hungry and sheltering the poor.  We got accounts of young people much involved in that activity, just as my mother involved me as a child. 

One of the things we young descendants also learned from the experience is that the people who formed those early congregations came to America to find the promise of equality and opportunity that had been made to them through their churches.  And they were determined not to repeat the social and economic strictures of the Old World in America. 

Most of us who went to these churches remember sitting through  sermons and being drilled on them in Sunday school on the scripture: 
 Matt 26:11: The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.

The Swedish tradition never let that verse hang out there, as it often does now, to suggest that the poor will always be around and there is not much we can do about it.  The sermons always emphasized that Christ was making the point that there will be poverty, but he would not always be present to instruct us to take action.  We’d have to act on our own initiative.  That verse was always followed by those quotations from the scripture that got very specific about how we were to treat the poor. 
 Lk. 11:41: But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you. 

Lk. 14:13-14: But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
 There are those who are content to the let the poor be among us as a state of the economy.  I read a perspective on the matter in South Dakota Magazine in a column by Ken Blanchard.  Dr. Blanchard purported to be giving a meditation on Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" as a literary work that has shaped the way we celebrate Christmas.  As one reads the column, one finds that Prof. Blanchard is talking about some versions of "A Christmas Carol" that have been made for films, not the work as it is actually written.  When Dickens wrote the story, he said he intended to "strike a sledge hammer blow" for the poor.  But Dickens guarded carefully against letting his portrayals of the poor and the causes of their condition take on a political aspect.  His concern was that his literary art portray people, not flack for any particular political viewpoint.  Prof. Blanchard, however, cannot resist bringing a bit of flack into his appraisal of "A Christmas Carol."  Although the story involves the transformational redemption of Scrooge as a human being, Prof. Blanchard finds that in his role as a businessman, Scrooge did not need redeeming: for Scrooge "was about as efficiently productive as it is possible for a human being to be, as least when it comes to cold, hard, cash. Cruel as he was, he had money to lend and a job for poor Bob Cratchit."


This contention is extended to the capitalist class altogether:  "Say what you want about the evils of capitalism, it has done more to supply the hearths of the poor than dropping alms into collection plates ever did. More Tiny Tims of the developed world have been saved by the power and prosperity of modern civilization than ever were by a ghost sprinkling Christmas cheer."



Literarily and historically that statement misses the entire point of the story. (And the suggestion that capitalism lifted the poor out of poverty does not seem to align with the facts of history.)  The ghost  of Marley bemoans that he lived his life in a mindless, capitalist pursuit:


Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise
Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!
As Scrooge is taken by the second spirit of Christmas to look in on the home of his employee, Bob Cratchit, he looks at an empty chair with Tiny Tim's crutch leaning on it and asks if the child is destined to die.  The spirit answers in Scrooge's own words:



'If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.'

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief. `Man,' said the Ghost, `if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what
men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. Oh God, to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust.'

Scrooge is rebuked for pursuing business with no concern or awareness of the effect that his mindless pursuit has for others.  That is the lesson that the three spirits all show him.  

Dickens was a contemporary of Karl Marx.  His work was seen by the Marxists as a classic portrayal of the struggle of the working class to survive against the negligence and malevolence of those who regard workers as disposable pawns in their capital schemes.  But Dickens did not write to elucidate political theory; he wrote to explore the value of all humanity.  George Bernard Shaw points out that "The difference between Marx and Dickens was that Marx knew he was a revolutionist whilst Dickens had not the faintest suspicion of that part of his calling."  

In "A Christmas Carol," Dickens did not invent the contemporary celebration of Christmas.  He recalled its celebration as it was observed by the lower classes, and he defined it as recognizing the call to duty that those Scandinavian churches tried to live by.  

Those people of my generation and later who have renounced their faith still tend to adhere to those principles laid down by Christ.  In many cases, it is the failure of the church to practice those principles that causes the loss of faith. 


For me,  Christmas will be a somber time.  Living in South Dakota where nine reservations were created and are maintained by exactly the attitude and mindset that Scrooge repudiated makes Christmas exceedingly somber.


I hope you had a somber Christmas and have the honesty and courage to see that somberness all year through. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Like it or not, Congress is a reflection of America

According to a gallery in the Washington Post,  Congress is currently more unpopular than public caning, polygamy, and Hugo Chavez.  When one gets specific about the cause of the gridlock and foolery that makes Congress so unpopular,  I suppose one can spread the blame across bipartisan lines, but one party, the GOP, does hog the deserved credit for intransigence, petulance, and all those characteristics that result in the juvenile snit fits that dominate the news.

When the public blames Congress and holds it in such contempt, it is really blaming itself and revealing the attitudes and thinking that elected the representatives and senators to the offices they hold.  Those elected officials are carrying out what they think is the mandates that put them in office.  The politics in the halls of Congress is the politics of the people.   And only those in the throes of grand mal denial can say that it is not their wishes and political preferences that is, in fact, on display on the floors of the Capitol chambers.

The evidence is overwhelming.  Begin with the campaigns of Republican candidates for president and the so-called debates they engaged in.  Those strange gatherings had little argumentation of policies involved, but more resembled group therapy sessions in the dementia ward. At times the palaver that was to pass for debate reached the intellectual level of a name-calling session at an elementary school playground--dominated by the special needs class.  But that may be because the participants were trying to reach a television audience that is most entertained and engrossed by reality television shows in which people compete in contests to debase each other.

The campaigns and attitudes and postures have brought republican government to the point that its general running is a slow grinding away like a care with sand packed in its crankcase and often a complete failure.  It is the result of an election process in which the big money that politicians grovel for comes from the smallest minds.  Cable television and the Internet have taken the lowest, meanest, and most debasing aspects of our culture and inflated it into the general standards of human thought and behavior.

A good friend of mine, a highly honored professor emeritus from Michigan State, died last week.  He asked me once how I could possibly spend any time writing and reading blogs.  A colleague of ours intervened on our behalf and said that blogs and other Internet sources needed to have the influence of higher education present.  Both of those professors, however, came to the point where they encouraged students to use the search engines of the Internet to locate sources, but they would not accept Internet citations.  They required that all sources had to be verified as published by reputable organizations and that the Internet versions were precisely what the hard copy versions printed.  When it came to the notion that the comment sections of  news publications and blogs showed a stimulation of thought and productive discussion, both men laughed and scoffed.  Nothing is gained, they insisted, by the exchange of petty malice and ignorance.

Those men pointed to blog comments as the expression of our culture that the politicians hope to ingratiated themselves to.  And in seeking the approval of those vocal factions that dominate blogs, our government has been brought to the brink of failure.

I agree with their point.  Some blogs are thoughtful, useful, and valuable, because they acquaint one with significant sources and ideas and do, indeed, try to stimulate awareness and discussion.  But then, they allow comments which inspire nothing but a despair and sense of hopelessness about the mental capacity of the people to do more than choose up sides to cast insult and abuse and repeat the ignorant cant they prefer to any legitimate form of discussion.

Shortly after losing an election, a very seasoned politician and I had a discussion about how the kind of stuff printed in blogs represented a mindset that voted him out of office.  He had often spoke about personal attack and unconscionable propaganda threatening the democratic process.  This politician said that he was convinced that if the political climate was to be saved from total disaster, the changes would have to occur at the local level of the political parties.  The parties would have to reform themselves at the municipal and county levels to have any hope of changing the general political culture.

Like it or not, the legislators in Washington, D.C., represent what the folks back home want from them.  It is simply not true that otherwise good-purposed people are transformed into partisan monsters once they reach the belt way.

We may despise Congress, but we have created it and made it what it is.  We are the ones who have shaped all of politics, which we claim to disapprove of.  As my late colleague put, people hate Congress because it does not perfectly mirror what individuals want, and what most people want from politics is to create and vanquish enemies,  those people who hold different viewpoints and aspirations.

As the trite old expression goes:  You don't like Congress?   Look in the fucking mirror.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Thune's petards hoist him to power

John Thune selects a coat-tail to ride on.
John Thune is a sock puppet extraordinaire.  He has the intellectual endowments and the moral compass of a night crawler, but, by God, he catches fish.  You know, suckers, those bottom-dwellers who bite on anything.

Obviously, I do not have much regard for John Thune as a person.  But I guess if John Thune lays a claim for personhood, so can any corporation.   Like Enron.  Lehman Brothers.  Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC.  Etc.

My disrespect for John Thune stems from his campaign against Tom Daschle.  It was totally an exercise in ad hominem attacks which were either misrepresentations through distortion or outright fabrications.  People who make up defamation solely for the purpose of damaging another person don't reach those standards of personhood that qualify for more than a studied revulsion and avoidance.   Actually,  his first indications of douchebuggery  were evident when he was a Congressman, and accomplished absolutely nothing but had his staff slink around with video cameras at public appearances made by the state's two Democratic senators of the time.   He had to be forced into opening a service office in Aberdeen, opposed all the infrastructure projects--U.S. 281 and 12, had no clue about the Lewis-Clark water development project, and did not belong to any of the agricultural caucuses,  until party members thought it might be a good idea to at least know something about those projects.  His mantra was "spend no money; funding projects ain't patriotic."

 Like his understudy in fecklessness, Kristi Noemskull, he likes to sponsor legislation against things that don't exist, except in the superstitions of the paranoid.  He sponsored legislation to prevent the EPA from regulating bovine flatulence, although the EPA said repeatedly it had no interest or intention in such regulation.  Thune understands that if there is a number of people who believe that a tooth decay fairy prowls in the night destroying teeth, he will sponsor anti-tooth-decay-fairy legislation, get lots of votes, and distract people from the things that really threaten their well-being.   Like John Thune.   Kristi the Noemskull followed his precedent and sponsored legislation against the EPA regulating farm dust, which it never intended to do.  Tooth fairies and pixie dust have a compelling attraction for their adherents.

His one strength is that he can recite scripts prepared for him by someone back in the GOP hackshop. He doesn't read them for coherence or care whether the scripts contradict themselves; he just blindly repeats those words and phrases that push the bigot buttons of his fawning constituency, which admires his Bible-college education in which he specialized in what became the gospel of St. Limbaugh.  His recitations embrace the paranoid delusions of those whose mental lives are filled with malevolent tooth fairies and fart-suppressors and they peddle the commodity of defamatory hatred, which is the big point of the gospel on which his recitations are based. 

An example of a performance early this week was occasioned by the scandal-laden failure of MF Global, an international investment company.  Thune's performance received coverage by the state's media, and here is one such report in its entirety:

In a telephone press conference with South Dakota reporters, Thune said Congress must make sure nothing like that happens again. He says those responsible should be prosecuted if they broke the law.
Thune says South Dakota’s farmers, ranchers and grain elevators use futures contracts to protect themselves against losses. He says the MF Global bankruptcy has shaken their confidence in the safety of futures contracts.

 Here John Thune advocates that stern measures be taken against an outfit that shakes the confidence of farmers, ranchers, and grain dealers.   However, he feels quite differently about the confidence of the general population in financial companies.  He opposes the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and his votes demonstrate that opposition, as reported on a web site that tracks campaign finances



The Senate is expected to vote Thursday on the nomination of Richard Cordray to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the office created as part of the Wall Street reform legislation passed in 2010.

The next day, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.)—who has threatened to filibuster any nominee unless the agency is significantly weakened—will be holding a fundraiser for his leadership PAC, Heartland Values PAC, in New York City.

This “Kickoff to the Holiday Season” is a full-weekend event, according to the invite obtained by the Sunlight Foundation’s PoliticalPartyTime website.

Two guesses on what kind of donors he’ll be raising money from in New York City. Ok, one guess: Wall Street.
Already in 2011, Wall Street has been handing over plenty of cash to the South Dakota senator.
  • So far this year, Thune has received $128,000 from the finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) sector, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
  • His PAC received $1,000 in June from Stephen Clark, a lobbyist and the author of a recent memo sent to the American Bankers Association about ways the Occupy Wall Street movement can be discredited.
This sort of arrangement might be beneficial to Thune, but I doubt the South Dakotans still struggling through the economic collapse brought on by Wall Street see it that way.

Thune voted as he promised:

 Just a day after voting with Wall Street in blocking the nomination of Richard Cordray to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), an agency created as part of the Wall Street reform legislation passed by Congress in 2010, Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) and John Thune (R-S.D.) jetted off to New York for big money fundraisers.Will they be getting their rewards from the Wall Street types who don’t want to see a functional and strong CFPB? Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) got into the act too
 
John Thune can't keep track of the contradictions in the scripts he recites, but he is creating new standards and new definitions for douchebaggery,  more accurately douchebuggery.

Douchebugs, however, catch a lot of fish.   

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

When an entire country can't pass a basic proficiency test

Schools need improving.  But striving to meet the needs of students is a continuous process in education.  Times and circumstances change, and real educators are always engaged in defining and finding ways to meet those needs.  But what educators determine as needs are often ignored and the public goes off in a fury of raucous, uninformed notions of the moment.

While the country obsesses about assessment tests required by No Child Left Behind and engages in mass disparagement of the schools and teachers, rather than make accurate assessments of where the problems in education lie, it puts on a massive display of its capacity for being dupes, ignorant, and willfully stupid.  It has great help from the media, whose operating principle is to build audiences by giving the people what they want.  And a huge segment of the population wants to be dupes fed an intellectual diet of ignorance and stupidity and to live in the delusion that the exercise of meanness against their fellow humans generated by ignorance and stupidity has something to do with liberty and free speech.   Nothing sells like dumb and mean.  And so, the media serves the interest of its advertisers, who find that dumb and mean is easy to dupe.  


Promoting retardation as a patriotic virtue.
The so-called Republican-candidate debates have given Americans great opportunity to indulge their penchant for displaying their refusals to become educated.  The first and most glaring symptom of public retardation is that it accepts the tedious ritual of reciting petty ad hominem snark as debate.  Over the weekend the most frequent news clip shown over cable television and remarked on by bloggers was when Newt Gingrich quipped that the reason Mitt Romney could not become a career politician was because he lost a Senate race to Ted Kennedy in 1994.  It is entertaining to watch a bunch of white guys try to play the dozens, but it has nothing to do with the issues that confront Americans or with the concept of debate, which is to examine those issues.


Americans are so ill-educated in what reading and writing are supposed to teach them that they are distracted and totally absorbed in the exchange of petty, irrelevant insults and regard them as the business of politics.  Nothing is more damning about our education system than the fact that the media gets by with calling mean, little entertainments a debate of issues affecting the lives of the people.  The people fail in the most basic test of education and intelligence:  they are deluded into accepting petty insult and abuse as political discussion, and then wonder why Congress acts like a bunch of dolts carousing around on spring break.  


While cable news and the Internet is pacifying an over-tranquilized public with the sound and fury from idiots, a few real issues do receive publication from the more out-of-it members of the media.  One of them that should be the focus of any debate that presumes to address any significant issues is the fact that the real unemployment rate in America is 11 percent of the population. As  Ezra Klein of the Washington Post points out:  


Remember that the unemployment rate is not "how many people don't have jobs?", but "how many people don't have jobs and are actively looking for them?" Let's say you've been looking fruitlessly for five months and realize you've exhausted every job listing in your area. Discouraged, you stop looking, at least for the moment. According to the government, you're no longer unemployed.


Financial Times' Ed Luce, writes, "According to government statistics, if the same number of people were seeking work today as in 2007, the jobless rate would be 11 percent."

 The snark recitations do not analyze facts or propose any solutions for the problems they reveal.  Rather, they are merely the pretext for ill-informed blame-placing by the participants against each other and the opposing party.  No options are offered other than invitations to join in on the inane castigation.  The real concerns facing the American people  are ignored, and the American people for the most part have become to ignorant to know they are being ignored.

These are the people who presume to reform education. 

Poster boy portraying goals of educational reform. 



 









Monday, December 12, 2011

The enigma of the Occupation Forces

For a century and a half, people have thought about occupying Wall Street.  The first that I know is the protagonist, sort of, of a short story by Herman Melville that I taught often and that many students found irritatingly undefinable:  "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street."

In short, Bartleby is hired by a law firm on Wall Street that is successful enough to have three scriveners,  that is people who write out and copy legal documents by pen.  A scrivener is a writer in the sense that he is secretary and xerox machine all rolled into one.  At first, he does very able work, but soon takes to declining the tasks assigned to him with the phrase "I prefer not to."  After a time, he refuses to do anything, including leave the premises.  The lawyer, who is the narrator of the story, feels both pity and revulsion at Bartleby, and ends up moving from the office himself.   Bartleby still refuses to move from the premises.  The new occupants enlist the lawyer's help, but to no avail.  Bartleby is finally forcibly removed and confined to jail.  The lawyer gives money to the guards to insure that Bartleby at least gets good food, but Bartleby prefers not to eat, also, and ends up starving himself to death. 


Students were frustrated by the story and irritatedly asked, "What's the point?"  Still, they found the story unsettling, some demanding that I provide them with an interpretation that made a point for them.  I suggested that they consider that a point of the story is that life as it is conventionally lived has no point to some people, and they prefer not to participate.  And also to consider how helpless the narrator felt in trying to help Bartleby who rejected all his efforts.  One very astute student likened the feeling she got from the story to how she felt when her brother committed suicide, and there is no way to make intelligible those forces that are unintelligible to others.  


The Occupy Wall Street movement has incited the most disparaging and generally false characterizations of the people who participate in it.  The responses in the media have been very much like the irritated incomprehension that students expressed about "Bartleby the Scrivener."  And there are obvious parallels to the movement and the narrative of the story.  They occupied and would not leave, until they were forcibly removed.  Most of the country has breathed a sigh of relief along with speculations that the Occupy movement has been broken and has gone away.  But like the story, the Occupy movement is still disturbing and rankles people because they cannot assign any easy condemnation to it, and have raised up old hatreds of dirty hippies whining for entitlements.


Part of the reaction is that the Occupy movement has confronted capitalism which has reached a state of perversion.  It has based itself upon the fact that a very tiny segment of the population owns the country's power and wealth and that democracy is not possible under that  circumstance.  


The origins of the movement and how it came to be organized is given a clear and coherent treatment in a current article in The New Yorker.  

In essence, the movement has spoken for the 99 percent of Americans who find themselves struggling to live while 1 percent lives in conspicuous, mindless opulence.  No kind of life, let along democracy, can survive that condition, and when it comes to submitting to it, the Occupy movement has said "I prefer not to."

The movement has been removed from the places it chose to occupy for the most part, but it still occupies the mind in unsettling ways, much like Melvilles' 1853 story, which has the capacity to rankle and irritate.

The Occupy movement has not been vanquished.  It is finding new ways and places to occupy.  

There is hope in that.  When it comes to living under the neo-feudal state that America has become,  I prefer not to.  

Sunday, December 11, 2011

How to get fired. And deserve it.

U.S. Rep.Rick Larsen (D-WA) learned at noon Thursday that three of his Washington, D.C. staff members had tweeted comments which revealed that they were behaving badly  in major ways and were insulting the congressman with some of their twitters.  By 1:10 p.m., he had fired them.  


In chatting with some former Congressional staff members, I found that they shared my incredulity that these people were ever hired as staff members.  Most staff members are people who are diligent in their support of their employers and if they do not respect their boss, they quit rather than utter any disparaging and insulting comments.  


My spouse worked for both a U.S senator and a U.S.  representative.  My blogging upset her at times.  I was critical of some of the votes and rationales offered by her representative at times, and this caused some of her staff colleagues to suggest that my "disloyalty" put her job in jeopardy.  Her colleagues were so conscientious about displaying their loyalties, that they interpreted any disagreement as disloyalty.  The problem was that I, and other solid party members, saw that the representative was alienating some of the strongest supporters in trying to appease some conservatives about matters that touched on fundamental issues of equality, liberty, and human rights.  A number of liberal bloggers showed diffidence about the election of 2010, and many people did not bother to vote, but the diffidence also has an effect on those do vote but are uncertain about the candidates.  That diffidence may well influence decisions to vote for the other candidate. 


My spouse is no longer a staff member, as both of her bosses lost elections. And while I disagree with the staff members that my blogging should be of any concern to them regarding my wife's job, I admire and am hugely impressed about the way those Congressional staff members did their jobs and what they did for people in the state.  They were efficient and effective far beyond mere competence, and they possessed the integrity and benevolent decency that can't be questioned.  


That is why I find it incredulous that the three staffers in Rep. Larsen's office had managed to land Congressional jobs.  Rep. Larsen was absolutely right in getting them off the Congressional premises as soon as possible.  Their identities and what they said and, apparently, did are known, and I would be dismayed if they ever found themselves working for Congress again.

The Congressional staffs I am acquainted with have been and are meticulous about the way they conduct themselves while working or meeting the public in any capacity.  As treasurer for the county party, I once came to my wife's office to count some money and write a deposit slip before going to the bank across the hall.  I was summarily told that any kind of partisan activity was forbidden in a Congressional office and I must do my party business elsewhere. 
Which I did, and with appreciation of the standards of conduct being maintained.


An incident involving some interns illustrates the concern of the staffs for fulfilling the nonpolitical obligations of the serving the constituents.  After a late winter blizzard and subsequent flooding devastated the ranching and livestock business in South Dakota, the state's senators had organized a very fast and effective disaster relief effort.  This was before the hurricane Katrina, and FEMA in the area was administered by a former Congressional staff member.  The senators wanted a full report on how fairly and effectively the disaster aid was delivered, and a number of people with expertise in making such reports were employed in gathering the information and writing the report.  That effort resulted in a very large and detailed document, and when it came time to send the finished product out to the pertinent  people, the combined staffs of the Congressional offices got together to do the photo-copying, collating, and envelope stuffing.  This included some staff interns.


The interns were sitting around a conference table applying address labels to envelopes, inserting the finished report,  and, as young people are wont to do, were chatting about their colleges while doing so.  The banter turned into a kind of ridicule contest about some of their professors.  However, constituents were coming in and out of the office on business, and the banter was the kind of talk that was discouraged during the conduct of official Congressional business on premises governed by the rules for Congressional facilities.  A senior staff member from Washington heard the disparaging banter and told the interns to leave and said the regular staff members and some volunteers  would finish the mailing work.  The interns were later released from their internships with a letter of explanation on how they had violated the rules of conduct in a way that compromised the non-political requirements of a Congressional service office.  The matters was especially sensitive because people of the opposing political party were coming in and out of the office to personally pick up a copy of the report, and the derisive chatter could be surmised by them to be the attitude of the office.  The senior staff member thought that immediate disciplinary action was required under the circumstances.

 Faculty served as supervisors of student internships, and the dismissal of the interns was discussed at a meeting.  I explained the situation, and one of the faculty immediately raised the matter of freedom of speech being squelched in a Congressional office of all places.  Ironically, he was one of the professors about whom comments had been made.  But that freedom of speech issue had been explained to the interns.


First of all, anyone  in a Congressional office has a right to register an opinion and ask for information.  The staff members may provide information as to their boss's stance and votes on an issue, but they are never to engage in political arguments.  The purpose of the offices is to serve the constituents, not operate as a campaign site for the legislator.  That is why campaign materials will never be found in an incumbent's office.  Operating a service office is part of the nonpartisan work that a representative or senator undertakes in representing a district or a state.  The rules that limit any kind of partisan activity are set by the sergeants at arms of the respective bodies.


A problem in politics is that the non-political work and the effectiveness with which it is done cannot be a campaign issue because much of that work is done on a confidential basis.  Some legislators strive to emphasize the competence and effectiveness of their staffs. What should be a major criterion in assessing the value of a legislator in representing and serving constituents is hardly ever alluded to.  


South Dakota has had Congressional staffs working for it that have been cited as models.  Other legislators who have wanted to establish the highest levels of service for their offices have sent their staffs to the state to observe and learn.  However, the voters have little idea of what  can be lost when a legislator who has placed priority on serving the constituents is voted out of office.


When Rep. Larsen fired three staff members for the kind of behavior they indulged in, he was serving Congress and his constituents in his home district.  But his constituents probably have no conception of why it should matter to them. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Workers, the GOP is just not into you. Except when it wants to screw you.

The November job report indicated that the U.S. had gained 120,00 jobs for the month, but it downplayed the fact that 315,000 dropped out of the labor force because they could not find jobs.  In all the chatter about jobs, hardly anyone has confronted the fact that the jobs which were lost in the crash of 2008 are not coming back.  The economy has changed.  It can no longer utilize the American work force, largely because the corporate world has no interest in labor outside of finding the cheapest source.  
Outsourcing has been the largest force in diminishing the job market in the U.S., but other factors have contributed, such as automation, down-sizing, industrial failure as occurred with the automobile industry, and the massive grab of wealth and earnings by a corporate system that concentrates the wealth and power of the country in a very small upper economic class.    There has been a huge reversal of democracy from a government of, by, and for the people to a government that operates like the feudal royalties of the Old World.  The Occupy Wall Street protests have defined the problem with their 99 percent slogan, but the real forces needed to restore democratic liberty, equality, and justice have not been martialed.  


Jobs can return in abundance only when the primary producers are put to work, and that means in large part a restoration of the manufacturing sector of our economy.  That restoration  is not possible without dismantling the current economic and governmental structure.  The shifting of the work economy from production to service was an official policy announced by Ronald Reagan, and it is the policy the corporate world has adhered to ever since.  There is acknowledgment of the forces that have changed the economy by the Occupy movement, but it has been peaceful and nonviolent on the part of the protestors so far.  It seems like nothing short of the indiscriminate and vicious guillotining of the French Revolution will produce the kind of change needed for a true realignment of the economic forces within the country.  The Occupiers realize that the ballot box does not provide any means for change, and that the country will be deadlocked as long as the current level of partisan bickering distracts the leadership from addressing the real circumstance our country finds itself in.

The November job report produced just the reaction that shows why America has become incompetent and impotent in regard to bolstering the economy.  While the Democrats took up bragging rights about dropping the unemployment rate below 9 percent, the Republicans crowed and chortled with glee about the numbers of those who have given up on finding work.  The fact is that on the political front, the jobless rate is just another pretext for the idiotic partisan prattling.  No one really gives a shit about people who are out of work because they can't find any or those who work multiple jobs and still can't make enough money to afford basic needs like healthcare.  They just provide occasion for the inane and insane rancor that has descended from the puerile malevolence of a grade-school playground to the raging fury of the asylum.

But the Republicans do take first place in the disparagement and defamation of the working class.  The OWS confuses many people, but it shrewdly recognizes that the  only chance for young people to accede to something like the middle class expectations of the past is to dismantle the government AND the social structure it reflects and to start over.  


America is still the strongest economy in the world, with China and India coming up quickly, but those who control the resources, the wealth, and the power are interested only in denying working people equality and reducing them to a mob that grovels and snarls for any economic morsels that power and wealth  deigns to throw them.  America is hell bent on diminishing its workers back into an expendable serfdom, and it is pushing them toward the angry excesses of the French Revolution--which is not pleasant or constructive to think about.  The anti-union, anti-labor measures in Wisconsin and other states are the most obvious measures in the pogrom to subjugate the working middle class, but the constant blaming of unions and teachers for the deficiencies of public education, the creation and protection of special privileges for the extremely wealthy and the corporations through which the wealth is laundered and distributed, and the anti-labor propaganda gushing from the right wing are all indicators of the anti-worker mindset that has caused the American economy to seize up.  The discourse repeats the stances of the French Revolution ("let them eat cake") and what emanated from the fascist and republican factions during the Spanish civil war. GOP candidates are unequivocal about their attitudes toward American workers.  Mitt Romney said at the Huckabee forum last Saturday that he would reduce the role of, or even eliminate, the National Labor Relations Board. He also said the federal government does have a role: attacking teachers' unions.


The circumstances of jobs in America is laid out by David Bornstein in The New York Times:  


Today, some 42 million people — about a third of the United States work force — do not have jobs in the traditional sense. They fall into a catchall category the government calls “contingent” workers. These people — independent contractors, freelancers, temp workers, part-timers, people between jobs — typically work on a project-to-project basis for a variety of clients, and most are outcasts from the traditional system of benefits that provide economic security to Americans. Even as the economy has changed, employment benefits are still based on an outdated industrial-era model in which workers are expected to stay with a single company for years, if not their whole careers.

He writes about a new union movement that addresses the changing circumstance of jobs in America.  Some new ideas and new forms of leadership in the union movement might be an alternative to the wholesale deconstruction of the American system.


Some matters of full disclosure:  

I grew up in an industrial town where strikes were common and the image of union members was projected by the media of the time as unruly goons.  When I was released from active duty from the Army, I quickly took a job with International Harvester Co., which operated as a closed shop under the labor laws of Illinois.  That meant that after a 90-day probation period with the company, one automatically became a dues-paying union member.  My ideas of what the union actually did began to change.  Seven men in the department I worked in had been company production executives during World War II.  When production shifted from wartime armaments to the production of peacetime farm equipment, the men were all laid off.  Over time they were hired back in much lower positions, but they were the ones who made the company work.  They were constantly under pressure from the company to accept promotions back into executive positions, but they refused to leave their jobs which were covered by the collective bargaining contract.  The reasoning they explained to me was that they preferred to be in positions where they could do honest, productive work rather than be bound up in the charades of the corporate culture.  The department I worked in was called Materials Control and was responsible for all the  production planning, scheduling, purchasing, and product distribution (marketing) for the plant.  These men were the key employees who determined the success and future of the plant, and the company fully acknowledged that, and created a working relationship that made full use of their experience and expertise.  That, and some experiences I had on grievance panels, changed my perception of what unions actually did.


As a professor, I quickly joined the faculty union when I came to South Dakota.  NSU was under a sanction for violating principles of due process in firing a professor.  (Eventually, the system paid some compensation to the professor to get itself removed from the sanction list.)  Over time, I served many offices--secretary, treasurer, president, and grievance officer of the local, contract negotiator, and  president of the statewide faculty union.  After serving one term as state president, I declined to run for that office again and shortly after dropped my membership in the faculty union.  I did so because I realized that the union was not effectively representing the college faculty.  I did not suspend my union activities, but quit the NEA affiliated union while retaining my membership in the Association of American University Professors, which represents the interests of college faculty on a more professional level.  After I gave up my membership in the local union, I was still consulted and asked to advise faculty on grievances and personnel actions, which pissed off everybody except the faculty members with whom I consulted. 


Unions have earned and deserved harsh criticism.  In education, they simply did not know how to represent a profession and function as collective bargainers for it.  The largest teachers union, the National Education Association, was a professional organization that worked primarily in promoting and advancing the professional developments of education.  When teachers were allowed to organize and collectively bargain, the NEA became a collective bargaining agent, but had no idea of how to fulfill its new role.  So, it borrowed the tactics and policies of industrial labor unions.  The second largest teachers union, the AFT, was part of a large industrial union, the AFL-CIO, and simply embraced its established ways of doing labor union business.

Many states, such as South Dakota, prohibit teachers from striking, which leaves the collective bargaining agencies without any power at the bargaining table.  In South Dakota, the custom is for school boards to dismiss union proposals, and then to impose the contract the school board has proposed.  Without the ability to strike, the teachers have no way to require a fair and honest consideration of their proposals.  However, teacher strikes are horrendously bad public relations, as the teachers are accused of ignoring the welfare of children in their self-interest.   Strikes do conflict with a basic premise of care and nurture for students,  but there are alternatives to strikes that the unions, except for the American Association of University Professors, have  not developed or utilized.  Sanctions against administrations and boards with records of incompetence and perfidy are matters that can be solved either at the bargaining table or made matters for the public to address.  There is a constant stream of complaints about under-performing teachers, but the public is kept unaware of administrators and board members who accrue records of incompetence, negligence, and dishonesty in the discharge of their duties. 


At one point, the South Dakota faculty organization undertook to evaluate administrators and officials in regard to their performance of their assigned duties.  We used the same instrument that the Board of Regents and administrations used to assess the performance of officials and administrators with one big difference:   we required that the judgments made about individuals be supported with factual evidence and accounts of performance, and the individual evaluation forms had to be signed by the faculty members.  The results were released to the faculty and the lead administrators on each campus, and they caused some consternation that rose to the level of panic.  A number of administrators objected to being under such scrutiny and said it interfered with their ability to do their jobs.  The end result was that the criteria used in faculty evaluations were refined to require factually-based assessments and to  limit personal judgments that could not be supported by factual evidence.   The administrators were alarmed and disturbed at how they were perceived from the professional viewpoint of the faculty.  The administrative evaluations were valuable assessments, but they involved so much effort and work that few qualified faculty thought they had time to work on them.


Nevertheless, unions have not taken the opportunity to let the public know where some of the real problems in education exist.  Many of the problems in education developed as school boards changed their role from being the conduit and mediator of information between the public and professional staffs and assumed the role of corporate boards of directors that dictated the standards and the rules.  In assuming that role, the voices of the teachers, the people who work the front lines of education on a daily basis, were eliminated from education decision-making.  The many studies which have raised problems about education include hardly any information from the classroom workers.  Rather than using their professional judgments and creative resources, teachers are expected to just do what they are told, and what they are told comes from people who have little knowledge and experience about the tasks that teachers undertake.  The dominant ploy is to blame the teachers and their unions for the short-comings of education.  That placing of blame has all but eliminated any consideration of the social and bureaucratic factors that have eliminated professional standards in teaching and reduced it to a servile nannyism.


Teachers represent just one segment of a workforce in America that is being misused and abused as a despised lower class of workers.   The anti-union, anti-worker movement  does more than force a status of inequality on the workforce and reduce the middle class; it excludes the creativity and energy of people who are willing and know how to work from participation in building and sustaining the nation. In Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana, that reductive humiliation of workers has become the governing policy in the level of regard those states have for their own employees.  


When the issue of economic inequality is raised, the conservatives in the U.S go into paroxysms of incensed offense and shout class warfare.  It is a gross perversion of language to call that label disingenuous.  It is a revival of the medieval class system that ruled society in the Dark Ages.  As Whitman said, the business of democracy is to surmount the gorgeous history of feudalism.  Mark Twain satirized that old fascination with a society that operated by designating the privileged and unprivileged in each of his works.  That fascination has been revived in the 21st century by the right wing in America.


Workers have to understand that the inequality that possesses the American economy is driven by people who want to feel that they are better than everyone else and want to concentrate wealth and power in an increasing smaller power-elite.  The observation that came from civil rights battle is strongly operative today:  the worth and sense of accomplishment of this social segment is measured by how many people they fuck over.  


One thing that might head off the seemingly inevitable excesses of the French Revolution is that resurgence of the union movement along the lines of the Freelancers Union, which operates closely to how the guild halls did in moving western society toward democracy.  America is coming to a time when it decides whether it will resolve its social and economic inequities through a weapon-wielding fury in the streets or through a return to rational and measured negotiation at bargaining tables.  But first, the American working class has to come to a full realization of who it includes and what ill and ignominious plans the self-designated ruling class has for it.  


Rational and respectful discussion and resolution, however, are not looming on the horizon as having much possibility.  The deadlock in Congress indicates the choice the  country seems to be making. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Tour the asylum




        



Today's Bonus Episode of Too Many Idiots, Too Little Space..

Thursday, December 1, 2011

American exceptionalism at work

Gingrich condemns poor children

Gingrich condemns poor children\
The former speaker says children in poverty aren’t used to work unless it’s illegal.

The Official GOP Newspeak manual for Occupy Wall Street

From Talking Points Memo 



Yahoo News’ Chris Moody knocks it out of the ball park with his latest report from Orlando, Florida, where the Republican Governors Association met with top GOP message-man-turned-Yoda Frank Luntz. The crux of their meeting? Learning how to wiggle out of uncomfortable moments whenever questioned about the politically inconvenient Occupy Wall Street movement.

Staring down a crazed youth angry about inequality? Don’t panic, says Luntz. Instead, follow this handy-dandy guide guaranteed to help pacify your subject, explain that things actually aren’t all that bad, and that Republican policies can make it better.

Check out the top 10:

    1. Don’t say ‘capitalism.’

    “I’m trying to get that word removed and we’re replacing it with either ‘economic freedom’ or ‘free market,’ ” Luntz said. “The public … still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we’ve got a problem.”

    2. Don’t say that the government ‘taxes the rich.’ Instead, tell them that the government ‘takes from the rich.’

    “If you talk about raising taxes on the rich,” the public responds favorably, Luntz cautioned. But “if you talk about government taking the money from hardworking Americans, the public says no. Taxing, the public will say yes.”

    3. Republicans should forget about winning the battle over the ‘middle class.’ Call them ‘hardworking taxpayers.’

    “They cannot win if the fight is on hardworking taxpayers. We can say we defend the ‘middle class’ and the public will say, I’m not sure about that. But defending ‘hardworking taxpayers’ and Republicans have the advantage.”

    4. Don’t talk about ‘jobs.’ Talk about ‘careers.’

    “Everyone in this room talks about ‘jobs,’” Luntz said. “Watch this.”
    He then asked everyone to raise their hand if they want a “job.” Few hands went up. Then he asked who wants a “career.” Almost every hand was raised.
    “So why are we talking about jobs?”

    5. Don’t say ‘government spending.’ Call it ‘waste.’

    “It’s not about ‘government spending.’ It’s about ‘waste.’ That’s what makes people angry.”

    6. Don’t ever say you’re willing to ‘compromise.’

    “If you talk about ‘compromise,’ they’ll say you’re selling out. Your side doesn’t want you to ‘compromise.’ What you use in that to replace it with is ‘cooperation.’ It means the same thing. But cooperation means you stick to your principles but still get the job done. Compromise says that you’re selling out those principles.”

    7. The three most important words you can say to an Occupier: ‘I get it.’

    “First off, here are three words for you all: ‘I get it.’ … ‘I get that you’re. I get that you’ve seen inequality. I get that you want to fix the system.”
    Then, he instructed, offer Republican solutions to the problem.

    8. Out: ‘Entrepreneur.’ In: ‘Job creator.’

    Use the phrases “small business owners” and “job creators” instead of “entrepreneurs” and “innovators.”

    9. Don’t ever ask anyone you want them to ‘sacrifice.’

    “There isn’t an America today in November of 2011 who doesn’t think they’ve already sacrificed. If you tell them you want them to ‘sacrifice,’ they’re going to be be pretty angry at you. You talk about how ‘we’re all in this together.’ We either succeed together or we fail together.”

    10. Always blame Washington.

    Tell them, “You shouldn’t be occupying Wall Street, you should be occupying Washington. You should occupy the White House because it’s the policies over the past few years that have created this problem.”

    BONUS: Don’t say ‘bonus!’

    Luntz advised that if they give their employees an income boost during the holiday season, they should never refer to it as a “bonus.”
    “If you give out a bonus at a time of financial hardship, you’re going to make people angry. It’s ‘pay for performance.’”:

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