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

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

We have met the real problems in our schools and they are us.

A well-established proposition that is totally left out of any discussion about education is that school is a damaging and destructive experience for many students.  For them, going to school is like going to the dentist every day, or being interned in a concentration camp, or being lynched.  The factors that make it so are beyond the ability of  teachers, administrators, and school boards to do anything about.

Those factors are generally matters inherent in the communities where the schools operate.  The term bullying hints at the problem, but raises a very simple-minded notion of the social and cultural attitudes and behaviors that make school such oppressive misery for some students.  The social and cultural attitudes that some students come to school with are often what determines the characteristics of a school and shapes the kind of experience that it has for some students.  The nature of a community has as much to do with the success of the school as does the quality of teachers and administrators. 

Cliques and factions form in most schools.  But in some, the degree of of malicious hostility and vicious discrimination that exists between factions is of such intensity that it forms the most prominent characteristic of a school  An objective of public schools was, and still is for most, to provide students with a sense of equality when they enter school property.  But parental attitudes, influence, and interference can make the attempts to enforce an atmosphere of equality and social justice futile.  The nature of a community cannot be stopped at the school house door.  


Any ranking of teachers on the basis of educational accomplishment by their students that does not take into account the nature of a community and its influence on the schools is an absurdity.  It ignores the biggest factor in academic success or failure.  When teachers devote much of their time and energy to moderating the hostilities of factions, there is not much opportunity to raise academic achievement.


In recent decades, the intrusion of social factors into the classroom has become pronounced.  It reflects the power of the media and popular culture to influence and shape young personalities, and it is related to the growing divisiveness of the adult population.   The belittling and demeaning debate over the quality of teachers is a misdirection away from dealing with the real issue affecting the quality of our schools and the academic competitiveness of our students.  


As a college teacher, I did not have to deal with students who really did not want to be there.  Those who were truly disaffected by college generally withdrew themselves or flunked out along the way.  The k-12 schools do not have the luxury of eliminating those students who bring bad attitudes and severe social pathologies to school.  They are required to deal with them.  But I was made fully aware of the nature of the schools from which my students came.  


An assignment that was designed to develop the critical evaluation abilities of students was for them to describe the attributes of their hometown and assess what were advantages and what were detractions. Most communities had the usual distribution of both, but some emerged as very unpleasant places to live.  And some schools came off as the worst place one would want to send a child.  Often, students found a refuge from the small-minded meanness they had experienced in their high schools when they came to college.  It was gratifying to see students transcend their hometown environments. 


For a time, my wife and I worked for a foundation that placed foreign exchange students in homes.  There are always some problems to be ironed out where adolescents are concerned.   That is routine.  But the problems that exist in some communities, and therefore its schools, are almost impossible to deal with.


One occasion that lingers in mind involved a couple who worked in Aberdeen but lived in one of the outlying small towns. Placement of the foreign students involves a series of interviews and background checks, and this family, with two high-school age daughters, seemed like they could provide an ideal experience for a young woman from Brazil.  About a week after the placement, we received a call from the foundation headquarters and were told to go get the young woman and see if we could find another placement for her.  She had called her parents in a frantic state of mind and asked them to get her home immediately.


We went to get her that evening and brought her to our house where she talked with our daughter about the reason for her extreme unhappiness.  And as is required when placements go wrong, we investigated and wrote a report on what happened.  Sometimes a student and the host family just do not hit it off.  But that was not the case here.  The problem was at the school.


The daughters of the host family were the targets of a clique that did not like them and constantly bullied them.  When the Brazilian woman went to school, the clique made overtures to her, but made it clear that their friendship would be conditional upon her participating in the rejection and harassment of the girls from the host family.  The daughters from the host family were good students who participated in school activities.  The reasons for the hostilities directed at them seemed inexplicable.

In preparing our report to the foundation, we had an interview with the high school principal, a guidance counselor, and a teacher in an attempt to determine what issues were behind this crisis in human relations.  They made clear that they were perplexed and frustrated by the situation, and they made some very guarded observations that the in-school cliques reflected attitudes within the town.  What they described was a "mean girls" syndrome in which the students were caught up in a furious competition for dominance and power.  The host family had a history of working its way out of very poor circumstances and the town regarded the fact that the parents had good jobs in Aberdeen as some kind of ostentation on their part. 


I made the comment that we would be able to move the foreign exchange student to a new host family, but the plight of the two girls from the host family worried me more.  The school personnel agreed that the situation was unfortunate, but as we were leaving the school after our meeting, the teacher came up to us and said that we should, perhaps, talk to the parents in the host family about transferring their daughters to a school with "better circumstances."  


We found a host home for the young Brazilian woman in Aberdeen where she was happy and soon was caught up in school activities.  We did not need to suggest to her original host family that their girls might be better off in a different system.  The incident with the Brazilian student convinced the family that their situation in the little town was no longer tenable, and with help from the school personnel and our recommendation, arrangements were made for them to transfer within a matter of weeks.  They ended up going to the same school with the Brazilian girl and remained friends with her.  Their parents moved shortly thereafter.  The situation seemed to have a happy ending, if one chose not to ponder what kind of experience other students in that small town school were having.  


Graduation ceremony.
The shooting and killing of three students in Chardon, Ohio, is a reminder of the desperation that some young people feel.  In a national ritual of denial, the media and commentators treat the incident as a singular anomaly.  But we remember Columbine, and the fact that incidents like this occur with regularity and are symptoms of a constant in our schools.  
What is becoming part of the curriculum. 
The student shooter from Chardon was in an alternative school for at-risk students.  That indicates that the school recognized some problems and was doing what it could about them. To fellow students, the boy's actions seemed incomprehensible, other than the fact that he became "goth" of late. 


Young people who are troubled are not finding solutions to their problems or resources for dealing with them in the schools.  The nature and emphasis in our schools is being determined by those with agendas of power, control, and diminution of teachers.  Our general popular culture as transmitted through the media is providing the solutions:  gangs, guns, and drugs.  As in South Dakota, teachers are being judged and held in regard in terms of how well they can turn classrooms into indoctrination centers devoted to conditioning, not learning.  

The alternative schools are evidence of how the problems in young people have been acknowledged in the past, but once they are a part of the educational bureaucracy, they become impotent and irrelevant to dealing with problems. During the tumultuous years of the civil rights movement and anti-war protest, as a journalist and then a professor, I was pressed into extra-curricular duty to provide help to young people who were struggling with school.  I was asked to devote some time in community centers by tutoring young people.  Later I did the same in an after-school program organized by members of the church I belonged to.  We did not save the world, but we did offer some young people recognition through efforts to give them alternatives to what they regarded as the oppression and hopelessness of school.   At least, a few saw alternatives and realized that a few people were trying to understand their frustrations and offer some positive direction.  

A distinguished and highly successful guidance counselor coached us in our efforts.  He stressed that kids have huge potentials, but they can't think past lunch.  When they congregate with their peers and react to problems, they tend to come up with destructive solutions that are suggested to them by their fads and their diversions, such as video games and cult movies.  For many students, schools have no authority regarding their circumstances or their shaping of goals.  Schools are not run by educators, but by members of the public with political agendas.  Schools are no longer the major influences through formative experiences for students, but they are the settings for crises.  

The salient fact about schools is that in many cases they are merely the places where cliques vie for power and control.  The "mean girls" are symptoms of the struggles of mean people to impose their values and political bigotry on others.  True teaching is, indeed, a subversive activity, and teachers who do not conform to the power factions will be maligned and eliminated.  

The real problem is a public that is too fucking obtuse to confront the facts, even if they are spread out in the dead bodies of innocent students.  As one Manhattan teacher put it, “How many times do we have to get kicked in the teeth before we realize we can’t work with these people?” And how high does the body count have to get before we realize that there is something terribly wrong?  And what is wrong is us.

If education is to count for anything,  real educators must expend their efforts in venues that meet students where they live, not where we, in effect, incarcerate them.  That is not to say that most teachers are not striving to provide genuine educational opportunities for their students.  But they do so in spite of, not because of, the support of their administrations and communities.  I, for one, am ready to go to work wherever opportunities for learning can be offered.  As for the people who presume to run our schools, it is time for teachers to recognize that you can't deal with them.  Educators have to create some new choices if they want to practice their profession.   

Sunday, February 26, 2012

NSU, WTF? Are you the cover for a drug operation?

I am almost embarrassed to admit that I retired from Northern State University when I see stuff like this on its website.  

In working on the previous post, I was looking for some information about the South Dakota International Business Institute, which once had offices on the NSU campus.  The only mention I could find for it was on the College of Business International Business page in this sentence:

The South Dakota International Business Institute supports the Governor's Office of Economic Development in facilitating and enhancing international trade in the State of South Dakota. For more information, please see: http://www.sd-exports.org/
I  clicked on that link and was put on a page that advertised some kind of pain-killing drug called Tramadol.  In reading further, I found that I was on a page that said you could  get this and other drugs from this source without prescriptions.  The only problem was that I had a bit of a problem deciphering the English in which the page was written, mostly because it made me giggle a lot.  The first paragraph reads: 

If you suffer from continual problems, you know how significantly it can interfere with your day-to-day schedule. It can come to be virtually not possible to get even the smallest of tasks performed. Not only can your good quality of lifestyle endure, but so can your spouse and children, profession and social duties. Prescription drugs, these types of as Tramadol, can make it a great deal simpler to get back again to everything you will need to do. In the past, when you desired to acquire Tramadol, it was necessary to have a prescription and go into your neighborhood pharmacy. The good news is, you can now obtain Tramadol on the net with no prescription. When you invest in Tramadol on line without a prescription you are able to just take advantage of a selection of positive aspects. A single of the most essential positive aspects of getting ready to order Tramadol on-line not having prescription is that you do not have to stress about getting time out of your schedule to bodily go to your pharmacy. For several people this can be a substantial inconvenience. You must possibly end in on your lunch break or make certain you arrive in time following perform in advance of the pharmacy closes. For individuals who may possibly be disabled, it can be even more of an inconvenience. Now you do not have to fret about any of that since you can obtain Tramadol devoid of a prescription.
Hey, Northern, can I get any of this stuff on campus.  I am fretting because I am devoid of a prescription so the good quality of lifestyle may endure.

Just what kind of a buzz can I expect?  And it is so good to see an institution of higher education get out of that stuffy ivory tower.  As the good book on Internet says, by their links ye shall know them.



Trouble keeps dogging Northern Beef Packers

 Because I have written about Northern Beef Packers on this blog and elsewhere, I have received telephone calls from people who have been probing for information.  The last two calls mentioned the EB-5 through which investments are being made in the company.  Both of those callers suggested that the EB-5 situation might prove interesting.  I haven't been paying much attention of late, so I started asking and looking. Yes, it is interesting.

The EB-5 Program is an immigrant investment program through which foreign investment is invited into community projects that will help to create jobs.  For a $500,000 long-term investment, an investor and family receive a green card which allows residency in the U.S.  It gives the investor and the family conditional permanent resident status, which becomes unconditional after two years.


The current owner of Northern Beef Packers is listed as Oshik Song from Korea and 69 other Korean investors under the EB-5 Program.  Oshik Song is an electronics manufacturer who currently lives in the Twin Cities.  Northern Beef Packers has been six years in the making and has been mired down in  financial troubles.   At one point, the company had $8 million in contractors liens field against it.  However, with the influx of EB-5 investments, the company has settled the liens and is finishing construction on the facility.  It was scheduled to open this past December,  but that has been delayed with no specific time set, although plant officials say it will open early this year.  

The EB-5 Program has rescued and revived the plant, but it also poses the latest threat to the plant's opening.  A group of Chinese EB-5 investors have filed a law suit against the man and his organization which have handled the EB-5 investment contracts.  The lawsuit filed October  18, 2011, in the US District Court in Sioux Falls states the complaint:


1. This dispute relates to a limited partnership that was formed for the purpose of investing in a project by Northern Beef Packers Limited Partnership ("NBP") to build a beefprocessing plant here in the State of South Dakota (the "Project"). Specifically, the Investors,along with dozens of others, paid $530,000 dollars each to invest and become limited partners in SDIF Limited Partnership 6 ("SDIF LP 6"), a South Dakota limited partnership, which was created and promoted by Defendants SDRC and Joop Bollen, and is managed by SD Fund 6(through Joop Bollen) as the sole general partner.
2. As further discussed below, SDIF LP 6 was an investment vehicle designed and promoted by SDRC (through Bollen) under a federal program known as the immigrant investment program (the "EB-5 Program") which is designed to facilitate foreign investment in certain communities in the United States for projects that will significantly benefit those communities by creating needed jobs. See generally I U.S.C.$ 1 153(bX5). In exchange for making such long-term investments, the foreign investors, their spouses, and any children under 2l years of age, are granted conditional lawful permanent resident status, which can become unconditional after two years.
The entire complaint can be read in PDF form here

The law suit does not involve the Northern Beef Packers corporation directly.  It is not a defendant in the suit.  The suit is directed at the person and the organization contracted by the state to handle the recruiting and processing of investors under the EB-5 provisions.  It lists the defendants as:

SDRC, INC., a South Dakota corporation;
SD INVESTMENT FUND LLC 6, a South
Dakota limited liability company; and
JOOP BOLLEN, an individual resident of South
Dakota,
 SDRC is the South Dakota Regional Center which describes itself as "the overarching management company that operates and manages the regional center on behalf of the SDTSD(South Dakota Department of Tourism and State Development). Additionally, SDRC Inc. operates as the general partner for the South Dakota Investment Fund Limited Partnerships (EB-5 entities) to assure that the interest of the limited partners are met, including the creation of necessary job credits needed for the I-829 process and the repayment the loans."  The SDTSD was reorganized under Gov. Daugaard so  that now economic development activities fall under the Governor's Office of Economic Development.  The i-829 process referred to in the description is the process through which conditions are removed from the visas given to the foreign investors as they qualify for permanent residency.  


The SD Investment Fund LLC 6 is where the funds contributed by the investors were deposited and held for eventual distribution to Northern Beef Packers.  The Plaintiffs allege that the Investment Fund was mismanaged in contradiction to the agreements signed onto by the investors.  

Joop Bollen is listed as the sole originator and manager of the SDRC and the SD Investment Fund 6, so the suit specifies him as the actual sole defendant.  


The plaintiffs are listed as:


 Plaintiff Zhang Zhenis a Chinese national with conditional lawful permanent resident status. currently resides in New York City, New York, and is thus a citizen of New York.   
Plaintiff Feng Wei is a Chinese national with conditional lawful permanent resident status. Feng Wei currently resides in Walnut, California, and is thus a citizen of California.  
 Plaintiff Ma Yirong is a Chinese national. Ma Yirong currently resides in China,and is thus a citizen of China.  
 Plaintiff Yao Xiao Ping is a Chinese national. Yao Xiao Ping currently resides in China.
A web site which tracks EB-5 transactions throughout the country offers a perspective on the lawsuit.  It contends that the instigator of the lawsuit is an organization named  Henry Global Consulting Group.  According to the post, Henry Global was the organization that was contracted to do the actual recruiting of EB-5 investors for Northern Beef Packers.  Henry Global did not come up with the agreed number of investors, and Northern Beef Packers determined that Henry Global had not fulfilled the contract and declined to pay a 10 percent commission fee,  amounting to $50,000
Joop Bollen posing for a photographer at NBP.
per investor, to Henry Global.  Henry Global is nowhere mentioned in the law suit filing. 

According to the website, Bollen contends that the deficiencies in performance cited in the lawsuit against him were the responsibility of Henry Global.  Prior to his current business,  Bollen was the director of the South Dakota International Business Institute which was headquartered at Northern State University. 


Bollen further claims that he was not involved in the contract between NBP and Henry Global, and that Henry is trying to obtain the commissions which NBP does not think it earned through him.  


The most recent action on the lawsuit was on December 21, 2011, when Bollen and his attorneys filed a motion in the US District Court to dismiss the lawsuit on the basis that it had been improperly amended when plaintiffs in the original suit dropped out and were replaced.  Judge Karen E. Schreier denied the motion. 

Concern about the project seem to have been raised by the announcement Tuesday that two Tax Increment Finance bonds of $250,000 issued through the county were purchasedJoop Bollen bought one, and Pyush R. Patel bought the other.  About $8 million in TIF bonds are authorized.  According to a newspaper report the  "Korean investors, vested in the plant through the EB-5 program, wanted a show of local support in the plant. He [County Commissioner Duane Sutton] said the sale of the bonds should satisfy them."

Thursday, February 23, 2012

College degrees in being irrelevant


There is a story in the Washington Post that claims there are many jobs to be had in the U.S. that can't be filled because there are no qualified applicants.  They are manufacturing jobs that require knowledge of computers and computer-run machines.  

 The reasons for the skilled-labor shortage are summarized:


Through a combination of overseas competition and productivity gains, the United States has lost nearly 4 million manufacturing jobs in the past 10 years. But many manufacturers say the losses have not yielded a surplus of skilled factory workers.

Instead, as automation has transformed factories and altered the skills needed to operate and maintain factory equipment, the laid-off workers, who may be familiar with the old-fashioned presses and lathes, are often unqualified to run the new.

Compounding the problem is a demographic wave. At some factories, much of the workforce consists of baby boomers who are nearing retirement. Many of the younger workers who might have taken their place have avoided the manufacturing sector because of the volatility and stigma of factory work, as well as perceptions that U.S. manufacturing is a “dying industry.”
It outlines the prospects for filling those jobs:

But attracting younger workers onto the factory floor can be difficult. Machine-shop classes have been cut in some high schools. Many high schools, moreover, would rather focus on helping children get into four-year colleges than preparing them for vocational pursuits.






The story may reflect a trend, but one must be cautious because it does not accurately summarize the history of how and why manufacturing jobs were eliminated, nor does it accurately portray some facts about the workforce and the reasons there are not enough workers to step into the work of automated assembly lines. 


 It brought to mind some curriculum changes at Northern State University which have long puzzled me.  Northern State had two programs which were quite successful, but which disappeared.   Some higher powers somewhere decided they weren't needed or wanted and got rid of them.  When I say they were successful, I mean that they attracted students and seemed to supply a need for people educated in specialized areas.

One program was Industrial Technologies.  The other was Special Education in communication disorders.  There is still a special education program, but it is not the one that focused on those with cognitive and communicative challenges.  

 What puzzled me about the communication disorders program, which includes speech therapy, is that we had a good number of students majoring in the field.  During the summers, the school parking lots were filled with cars from North Dakota because teachers came to Northern for the course work necessary for them to maintain their certification.  Oddly enough, the president who was at Northern during the time that the program disappeared had a doctorate in communication disorders.  I remember asking some of the faculty who worked in the special education department why the program was being eliminated and they attributed it to  trade-off demanded by the Board of Regents to make the University of South Dakota the sole state school to offer the program.  Augustana College also has a program in communication disorders.  

The industrial technologies department was another puzzle.  Initially, the program was largely geared toward training teachers who would teach drafting and industrial shop programs in high schools and vocational schools.  However, as manufacturing machinery became more automated, the program shifted toward training people in the computer and programming skills for operating machinery and in related areas of management and technology.  I do know that when the department was put in the college of business, administrators began working toward the elimination of the program. I had students in the required supporting English classes who told me they would have to transfer to another state to get the courses they needed in the field.  The business faculty seemed to look down upon the department as a kind of college manual arts unit.  What seemed like a program that could supply people who could operate the high tech manufacturing equipment and train others to do it came to an end.  Northern offered both associate and baccalaureate degrees in the field at one time.

If I recall conversations I had over coffee over the elimination of the Industrial Technologies Department, there was some problem in recruiting faculty who could teach the technology and a matter of coming up with the money for the machinery and computers needed for an industrial technology laboratory.  The NSU faculty had the concept, but not the support or resources.  Ironically, people who  can train workers in the new technologies are now what is in such short supply, and it is affecting the job market and America's competitive place in manufacturing.  

However, there is an aspect of the history of America's decline in manufacturing that is not accurately presented.  While cheap labor in other countries was a factor, it was not an imperative one.  Corporations have wanted to kill off the unions, if at all possible.  Executives do not want to negotiate wages and working conditions; they want to dictate them.  And when they had a president who took the lead in breaking unions, as Ronald Reagan did with the air traffic controllers, the anti-union movement was given a boost.  When Reagan further announced that the American economy was to change from a manufacturing and production economy to a service economy, he gave a signal to American companies that unions could be defeated with the full sanction of the federal government by taking manufacturing offshore.  There was no effort at all put into keeping manufacturing in the U.S. and to develop workforce that could handle the new technologies.  

If American industry is having trouble finding workers to staff its production facilities, it is because it got exactly what it wanted.  And the people have had to pay.  Heavily.  







 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sign of the time

Ought to sell well at tea parties.

How to exterminate the middle class

It is happening in our time with a vengeance.  But people have been so pummeled and besieged by the forces that connive their oppression that they cannot grasp what is happening.  

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau warned us about it a century and a half ago.  It is when language gets detached from actual events that have occurred or are taking place around you.  It is a definition of insanity.

While the voices that presume to interpret the world for us talk of the decline of the middle class, class warfare, the things that threaten us, they speak in terms that misidentify, by intent or ignorance, what is actually taking place to push the middle class into a subservient state.  

There are two major fronts in the assault on the middle and lower economic classes, both of which are designed to push that mass into a lower cultural class that is too mentally benumbed to understand what is happening to it, and rendered too impotent politically to do anything about it if they did. Those assaults are on education and organized labor, the two major resources that have allowed people to rise up economically and culturally.  And those assaults are conducted by detaching words from their history, from the facts they were intended to described.

  Emerson said it this way:


A man's power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth, and his desire to communicate it without loss. The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language.


When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise,--and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will, is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not.



George Orwell took up the idea in his examinations of how language can be used politically to deceive and condition people until they are in a state of unquestioning mindlessness in which they accept political propaganda as representing reality.  He says, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”  And, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”



For the sake of keeping language useful and usable, Orwell recommended fixing on the primacy of facts in a way that kept corrupted language from entering the process through which people perceive what is going on around them: "Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose -- not simply accept -- the phrases that will best cover the meaning."


[A good analysis of how language is used in another country to induce a paralyzing insanity is here in regard to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.]



From the inception of America, education and learning has been regarded as essential to democracy.  As rural communities took shape, one of the first things people did was to provide for schooling for their children.  Churches and one-room school houses were built as soon as people constructed shelters for themselves.  In the formula of reading, writing, and arithmetic,  the study of language constitutes two-thirds of the curriculum.  There is a reason why elementary schools were called grammar schools. And people who rose into leadership and shaped America were those who were educated through an intense immersion through the study of language.  Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln were self-educated, but exhaustively read.  They understood language and used it in ways that built an America based upon the realities of the forces that confronted people.  Thomas Jefferson was more formally educated, but his directed education consisted of exhaustive reading, and he accumulated a personal library that rivaled those of the higher education institutions of the early years of the nation. 



The idea of public education was to create a constituency of citizens in which each individual was able to participate by understanding their circumstances and articulating their concerns.  Students were taught and drilled in the constructs of grammar and the formulas of mathematics in ways that related to their application to their daily lives.  For many, their basic education whetted their appetites for greater knowledge and skill, as they wanted to learn more about the world in which they lived. They wanted to exert more control over their lives and participate at a higher level in the national life. 


A factor that never  occurred to Emerson but became a major theme of Orwell's was how electronic media would intrude and control people's perception of the universe.  Emerson advised people to form an original relationship with the universe, a relationship that was not mediated by political or religious figures.  Orwell advocated essentially the  same kind of relationship, but saw vast dangers in a culture in which people became habituated and dependent upon media as their point of  contact with the universe.  If the media became largely composed of propaganda, which it has, the people who depended upon the media would have their perceptions shaped and controlled by those who use the media for just that purpose.  We call it spinning, but we tend to ignore the fact that almost everything we read and hear in what purports to be news is spun.  Reporting which is devoted to a exposition of the facts seldom occurs in the contemporary media.


The media was not the creation of a government devoted to controlling people.  It is the creation of a corporate world which used advertising to get people to buy its products and shape its behavior to to serve its interests, and advertising is the  source of income for the media.  Therefore, advertising has become the primary and controlling purpose of the media, and it controls the content.  Nothing is to interfere with the advertising messages.  Politicians trying to sell themselves to the public have appropriated the media as primarily the conveyor of propaganda. Political strategists find that they can control what a large portion of the populace thinks and knows.  People can be conditioned to believe what the conditioning messages tell them, not what the facts reveal.  Politicians will perversely repeat false statements in contradiction of the facts, knowing that a media-besotted populace will absorb the repeated falsehoods as beliefs. 


Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the recent Republican propaganda fests which are so facetiously referred to as debates.  Exchanges of personal accusations and misrepresentations are not debates.  While there have been some feeble attempts to check the facts for the exchanges, there is no attempt by journalists as a whole to report the facts.  Rather, the focus is on the squabbling and rancorous exchanges of the candidates.  


One of the areas of fact that has been almost obliterated by propaganda in the media is education.  There is endless jawing in the media about what is wrong with education and how to fix it, and there is no doubt that American public education is facing some problems.  But there is no reporting on what is working in education to give a larger context of what the problems are and where they occur.   An occasional piece of reporting does occur in the parts of the news media which still indulge in reporting, but such reporting gets lost in the incessant recitations of banalities from those who wish to control education and reduce its essential role in the American promise.  One such report which focuses on what is affecting education comes from The New York Times:

Education was historically considered a great equalizer in American society, capable of lifting less advantaged children and improving their chances for success as adults. But a body of recently published scholarship suggests that the achievement gap between rich and poor children is widening, a development that threatens to dilute education’s leveling effects.


...We have moved from a society in the 1950s and 1960s, in which race was more consequential than family income, to one today in which family income appears more determinative of educational success than race.


In the discussions about what ails education, we are besieged with repetition of the stupidly annoying cliche that "you can't improve education by throwing money at it."  And thus, those who strive to gain political dominance by preventing learning avoid addressing the real problem in education:  the distribution of wealth and opportunity.  No one, in my hearing, has ever recommended throwing money at education.  Many people have  advocated insuring that the money is adequate and spent intelligently on programs that have some educational efficacy.  


But nowhere is the disjuncture between language and factual realities more exemplified than in the South Dakota legislature which is advancing education legislation based upon an absurd disjuncture between the language of the bill and the reality of education.  It is a case-in-point of a legislature that is reacting to its own fabricated political language and acting upon it as if it is reality.  The Governor claims that education in South Dakota is failing and he proposed some actions which he says will correct those failings.  The actions are not directed, however, at determining where and why aspects of education seem to be ineffective.  They are totally aimed at disenfranchising teachers by eliminating due process as a condition of their employment and to reduce their status to that of bonded servants who have no professional status or rights in the work the place.  The premise is that the problems in education are bad teachers and the solution is to be able to fire teachers at will.  On framing this legislative assault on education, teachers were conspicuously left out of any consulting process.  The condemned did not have the chance to testify in their own behalf.  Or to introduce knowledgeable materials on delivering and organizing pedagogy.  The representatives of education involved in promoting the legislation were those with demonstrated loyalties to the political forces in power.  The few true educators who were allowed to testify against the legislation were dismissed as inconsequential.  The entire process was a massive application of political propaganda with careful safeguards against factual and knowledgeable information. 
 Testimony on the education bill in South Dakota was reduced to the fatuous absurdity of the the all-male panel in the U.S. House testifying on contraception.  Language disassociated from empirical human experience and need gushed forth like the language of Shakespeare's idiot, signifying nothing.  

The legislation is designed to enforce a conditioning of students by teaching to test objectives and rote, uncritical, memorization.  Students who do not  demonstrate sufficient conditioning through standardized tests will be presumed to be insufficiently indoctrinated and programmed by their teachers.  The teachers will be fired.  Teachers whose students show the results of intense conditioning will be rewarded with bonuses.  And thus, the education system will be "improved" by transforming it to meet the political agenda of subjugation. 

Nationally, the discussion of education harps incessantly about bad teachers.  And nationally the proposed action is to remove their collective bargaining rights, which establishes by contract the compensation and the working conditions.  What is conspicuous in the the constant maligning of education is the absence of any  acknowledgment of where it works and is successful.  And just as conspicuous by its absence is any definition of what is being cited as bad teaching.  The language upon which so much energy and attention is being expended has no grounding in what is actually taking place in our schools.  The focus on school failures is on the inner city schools, which are plagued by the problems of the disparities of economic resources.  Teaching children who come to school from dysfunctional homes, who are ill-fed and are the products of a culture of deprivation do not respond to the the traditional theories and practices of pedagogy.  Teachers who spend their days combating insolence and insurrection do not have much time and opportunity to deal with subject matter.  A typical solution is to create charter schools which are given the luxury of choosing which students they deign to teach, which are, of course, the most tractable and motivated, leaving the public schools to deal with the accumulated discontent that possesses so many students.  The critics of education insist that great teachers are the solution to the problems in schools and they should be rewarded with bonuses while the others are put on the firing tracks.  No one has acknowledged what happens to earnest and competent teachers after a few years of being unable to teach because of children who are in no mental state to be receptive to learning.  


The South Dakota Governor and legislature has committed itself to compounding the conditions for education failure while totally ignoring its successes.  It is so wrapped up in its corrupted language, which proceeds more out of the racial and class resentments of those who deny the enforced inequalities of the dominant culture that it cannot perceive or deal with some harsh realities of how and why education seems to be faltering.  It takes refuge in trite irrelevant slogans about throwing money at education an purging it of all the bad teachers.  


The problem is not bad teachers, but bad legislators and bureaucrats who have a political agenda of making education an indoctrination process that ranks students and teachers by some set of criteria that has no relationship to the processes of learning.  It is an agenda of designing a class of bad teachers and students who will be dismissed to the human refuse pile.  The cogent study of language is dispensed with because teachers or students who might connect language to the actualities of their situations are a threat.


While a provision to take away collective bargaining rights of  teachers was proposed, but rejected, the fact is that collective bargaining is a farce in South Dakota.  Because of the vagaries of state law, school boards can refuse to consider teacher proposals and finally impose a contract of its own devising on the teachers.  This has been done repeatedly in both K-12 and higher education negotiations.  The objective of those states that are taking away collective bargaining rights and states like South Dakota which allow imposed contracts is prevent teachers, the educational laborers, from having any voice and influence on education.


The attacks on labor are directed toward the same agenda.  With all the ranting about union bosses, there is no talk of collective bargaining being a process that gives each side a chance to air grievances and propose solutions.  The last thing those who hope to be included in the ranks of the 1 percent want is for the people they wish to oppress to have any power. 


Class warfare?  Hell yes.  A political idea has possessed conservative America.  It's called fascism.  And to realize it as the ruling political force, education and labor must be suppressed.  That's why all the talk is about eliminating and intimidating teachers, eliminating labor unions, and not about what is actually working and not working in education or how to give working people the benefits of their work.  The middle class is an obstacle to those who wish to live in the manor houses.  


And the key to eliminating the middle class is through the corruption of the language.  Right now, it is about as corrupt as it can be. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Is Bill Clinton really so passe?

I was drafting an open letter demanding Bill Clinton's resignation with some other people who were as exasperated as I was.These were people who had some political clout and could really generate pressure.  

It was over the Monica Lewinsky affair.  Our exasperation was that every time the nation went through a news cycle, it seemed that Bill Clinton was being accused of something,  And knowing that his opponents were on the constant alert for anything they could accuse him of, he had handed them a lewd and salacious event that promised to distract the nation for months and months.  We felt it was time for him to step aside and let Al Gore finish out the term.  

A prominent senator's office was in full knowledge of our plans.  Those of us involved received a request to put the letter on hold and meet with a Washington, D.C., staff member to discuss the letter before we sent it out.  He was a policy specialist in food and agriculture, who was working on some legislation that was of particular significance to South Dakota, but of great benefit to the U.S.

When we met with him, he explained the legislation and the politics needed to get it approved.  It was something that President Clinton had been much involved with, and the staff member said that despite the Lewinsky distraction, Bill Clinton was needed to finish the business, as well as many other areas of legislation he was involved with.  As angry and frustrated as Clinton made many people in his party, he was still needed to get the legislation done.  His departure would leave a void, and much progress would be lost as Al Gore worked up to speed on the issues. 

The staff member cautioned us not to get caught up in cable news-tabloid obsessions.  He said many people were disappointed in the president's actions and disapproved, but when it came down to the real work politics is supposed to accomplish, they needed him to finish the work they started with him.  Do not, the staff member advised, let your personal preferences and attitudes become obstacles to your goals.  You won't accomplish anything if you do.

After much discussion among those of us calling for Clinton's resignation, we grudgingly acknowledged the staff member's point and withdrew the letter.  The news media was not reporting on the fact that business had to go on in government as usual.  Many of the most exercised members of Congress were so caught up in the impeachment proceedings, that they left the real legislative work to staff members and agreed to legislation rather routinely to get it out of the way for what they really wanted:  a deposed president.

What  raises these memories of the Clinton era is the announcement of a PBS documentary "Clinton" which will be airing on public television Monday and Tuesday.  The Washington Post has a rather inane review of the documentary. It's premise is that the 1990s seem so old and passe.  The review has all the intellectual depth of a Gothic girl reviewing the flouncy fluff fashions of the 1950s. The reviewer is more concerned about asserting his au courant tastes than in assessing whether the program presents a coherent summation of the recent past.


Just the announcement of "Clinton" made me think about that incident in which I and some other people had to be educated in the difference between politics as carried out in tabloid headlines and politics as carried out by people who daily go to work to do well for the nation.  There is a huge difference.  And in the midst of a Republican primary season which has turned into a huge festival of the absurd, a review of the Clinton years will be very instructive. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Monday, February 13, 2012

Vergangenheitsbewältigung

The matter was dealt with in a George Clooney movie that came out in 2006 called The Good German.    I had dealt with it for 50 years by that time.  But not as intensely as a correspondent who occasionally writes to me about some of the stuff she reads on blogs.  I call her Anne.  So does she.  She is a court administrator who I became acquainted with through political work.


We discovered we had it in common.   I was forbidden to mention it.  Anne dealt with it.   The "it" is the fact that the German people knew what Hitler was doing to the Jews and others, but for the most part claimed that they didn't.    

As a soldier stationed in Germany during its reconstruction, I and other soldiers were told not to bring the matter up to Germans.  Many of our cadre were veterans of World War II and had married German women.  They explained the sense of fear and helplessness in which many Germans lived during the Nazi reign.  But they did not explain fully that those people who lived in fear and helplessness were afraid to express any disapproval of the Holocaust because of what the preponderance of Germans who lived around them might do.  In short, the German people were not guiltless.  But we soldiers were cautioned not to raise hostilities by discussing the matter.  

 French resistance fighters execute Vichy collaborators. 
A discrete silence on participation in the Nazi pogroms was part of the Cold War strategy.  The allies did not want to stop the stream of defections from East Germany by raising the possibility that anyone was looking for Nazi  participants to punish, so the subject was avoided. Retribution against Nazi party members and collaborators was a  fact of post-war life that was an open, festering psychic wound in the countries that were liberated from Nazi occupation.  When  the allies freed France, the Netherlands, and Scandinavian countries from Nazi dominance, the citizens of those countries, led by their resistance movements, hunted down those who had collaborated with the Nazi regimes and executed them or arrested them as war criminals.  The divides between partisan patriots and former Nazi sympathizers and collaborators was so intense that the governments, much to the dismay of Jewish organizations, softened up on the prosecutions against collaborators to try to heal national wounds that threatened to divide and destabilize their countries.  NATO and other allied organizations urged conciliatory measures as strategies of Cold War diplomacy. 


Anne's circumstance was different from mine.  She was a "military brat" and went to a Department of Defense high school in Germany, one which had a very progressive curriculum for talented and ambitious students.  It included a program in which German students and American students would take classes together to learn each others language and culture.  Anne says the German students she knew were extremely resentful at being associated with the Germany of the Hitler years and became quite defensive and hostile when the sins of the past were brought up.  Still, Anne was able to talk about it with her peers and to develop information that her parents were cautioned to avoid talking about for diplomatic reasons.  


Anne went to a progressively rigorous U.S. college where a senior thesis paper was required for graduation.  She was able to pursue the matter by returning to Germany and developing a paper on the propaganda and the social controls that created the environment in Germany leading up to and during the Holocaust.  Her thesis was that the Nazi propaganda machine  did not create the racial and ethnic attitudes that drove the Holocaust; it very shrewdly exploited a cultural attitude that held dominance among the people, who tacitly approved of the propaganda and were willing to act in behalf of the Nazi regime.  Certainly, there was a significant portion of the population which did not approve, but their ideas were suppressed by intimidation and the belligerent actions of those who worked in concert with the Nazi leadership.  Those who worked against the Nazi cause, such as the Lutheran minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were imprisoned or put to death.  Disapproval and protest was driven underground.


As the Nazis took control of much of Europe,  they had collaborators in countries such as the  Netherlands, France, and Norway.  Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy, which includes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,   raises the matter of Nazi sympathizers in Sweden, which is usually regarded as a country which remained steadfast in its neutrality.  There have been a horde of books, both fiction and non-fiction, which have raised the matter of the support and collaboration of people in various countries with the Nazi principles.   One of those books in America is The Good German by Joseph Kanon on which the George Clooney film is based.


Good fiction, whether popular or more deliberately literary, introduces disturbing ideas and facts to the public under the guise of entertainment and diversion.  It allows people to maintain distance from the ideas because it is, after all, just a story.  But after people have lived with the fictions for a time, they are ready to confront whether the circumstances in the stories have any reflection on reality.  And we have reached the point where we can seriously talk about the role of the people in the Holocaust. The title of Kanon's book has become a term used to examine the facts of Nazi history as writers and scholars refer to acceptance of and service to Nazi pogroms as The Good German Syndrome.  

The Germans that Anne and I encountered who have acknowledged this unpleasant fact of history use the term  Vergangenheitsbewältigung,  a word for the process of coming to terms with the past.  It often refers specifically to coming to terms with the Nazi past.  It means facing some unpleasant facts, not denying or dismissing them.  And it means recognizing that there are those among us who not only tolerate the evils of ill will, but who are willing to promote it and act upon it.  


One of the matters that Anne and I have exchanged comments about is how the angry political divide in contemporary America resembles the obsessive malevolence that possessed some of the German people and created the conditions for the unbridled power of the Third Reich.  Many observers of American attitudes have noted the divisive malice in American politics.  Voices of dissent are branded as unpatriotic and subversive.  The dissenters in the Nazi era looked for an alternative to Naziism, and many looked to communism and socialism as a source of liberation.  Some recent literary works also have taken up the anti-Nazi underground in Germany and its efforts to mount a political force that could mount some organized opposition to the Nazis.  Those stories merely emphasize the potent control that the Nazis exerted on the people. As Anne, I, and many other commentators have noted, the American conservative movement has adopted a hate-driven belligerence against minorities and those who defend them much like that exerted against the targets of the Third Reich hate 
 propaganda.  The same hate objects that were the targets of the Nazi propaganda machine
and its fans have emerged as the hate targets within contemporary America:  ethnic minorities, homosexuals, laborers,  Marxists, and the liberals who defend them.   Those hate objects were not the contrivances of the propagandists; those who devised the propaganda merely appealed to and aggravated the bigoted rages of the people.  The propaganda was used to encourage and develop the proclivities of the people.  


During the time after World War II when many governments tried to bridge the dangerous divide between their national partisans and the Nazi sympathizers, they allowed the Nazi participants and collaborators to retreat into the excuse that they were the victims of a propaganda storm and the constant threat of violent retaliation by the Nazis and their followers if they did not submit and comply.  But as recent examinations of the facts have revealed, the Nazis appealed to the attitudes held by many of the people and those people were pleased and fully in support of the Nazi pogroms and take-overs of  Germany's neighbors.  Those countries which were taken over had their share of people who wanted to be full-fledged citizens of the Nazi empire.


America has its own problems with coming to terms with history,  On both the national and regional levels, there is a revival of old bigotry and hatreds which dominate our political dialogue.   In South Dakota, with its one-party rule, there is little attempt to cover malicious intentions with democratic pretenses.  The state has whole-heartedly joined the national political movement to define and subjugate the people it wants to hate and suppress.  The state's nine Indian reservations were designed as detention camps and remain so as functioning monuments of the the political realities.  The reservations are at once justified and condemned with accusations of racial and cultural inferiority.  Some of the state's scholars have become extensive apologists for L. Frank Baum's call for genocidal extermination of the Sioux nation.  How could the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz really promote racial extermination?  How could people in the land of Goethe, Bach, and Beethoven really participate in the Holocaust?  It's a matter of coming to terms with history.


Now the state is considering a piece of legislation that purports to be a way to improve education, but it has not one provision in it that actually addresses the factors that have stalled the achievements of public school students.  In the name of improving education, the legislation is totally devoted to disenfranchising the teachers, the workers of education, by maligning them, taking away their due process, and offering rewards only to those who conform to the political agenda.  It is significant that in devising this legislation, teachers have been totally excluded from the process of forming it and have been treated as a group of unwanted aliens that must be dealt with harshly.  


South Dakota has not even begun to think about Vergangenheitsbewältigung.  It has nearly all of its history to come to terms with.  And that history is one of the character and the will of the people.  Its politics are a reflection of who and what the dominant segment, about 60 percent,  of the population are.  While the nations of Europe are coming to terms with the realities of their histories, South Dakota is mired in the contrived mythology of pioneering and hard work, oblivious to the fact that all that pioneering and hard work was expended on stolen lands.  Lands which are heavily subsidized by the federal government.


South Dakota has a government by the will of the people.  Not all the people, by any means.  Those who are not represented will have to find ways to come to terms with that fact.  They  might take a clue from the resistance movements that the Europeans are currently re-examining. 


One might hope that people in the state could be educated before that is necessary. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The history of interns and fellatio in the White House

Book out today.
I have never been among those who are given to  adoration of John F. Kennedy.  Or any other president, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln.  I may approve of their political actions and admire their intelligence, but have reservations about certain aspects of their lives.   It was so with John Kennedy.  Like a friend on Pine Ridge, I found the entire myth of Camelot in America an embrace of medieval pageantry that contradicted what America was founded to be and wanted to become.  My Pine Ridge friend asks if one can point out what relevance King Arthur, knights in shining armor, and damsels in castle towers could have for Indians other than to identify the source of their oppression.  The same question can be asked by any American whose family history emerges from the "huddled masses." 

My occupation put me in a situation in which I knew about things going on during the Kennedy years.  I was a section editor for a newspaper, and within days after the assassination of President Kennedy, I was in Chicago with a large gathering of other editors and reporters for major newspapers.  In those years, the day after Thanksgiving was the start of two huge  events of importance to rural America that took place in Chicago each year:  the National 4-H Club Congress and the International Livestock Show.  Farm editors and writers came to cover those  events and spent a hectic and exhausting week running back and forth between the Conrad Hilton Hotel and the International Amphitheater, filing stories and photos to their home publications.

The refuge from the frantic was the press  room at the International Livestock Show.  There was a free bar there and a lavish buffet sponsored by the Meat Board.   The lunches were not to be missed, but it was also a place where one could take a break over a cup of coffee and chat with ones colleagues from news organizations throughout the nation.  In 1963, much of the talk was about the assassination of the President and the kind of life he lived.  Many of the reporters had Washington assignments at times and knew the White House press corps.  Some of them had contact with the Kennedys in various contexts and had personal experiences to relate.  But something that the conversation kept coming back to was John Kennedy's extra-curricular affairs with women and the fact that so many people knew about them.  The White House made little effort to keep them discreet, and the press knew about them and could name times, places, and names.  


A news service photographer I came to know quite well had White House credentials which were revoked.  They were revoked because he took and published a picture of Jackie Kennedy at a banquet with a cigarette in her hand.  Photographers had been warned never to do that, but my friend managed to get an unusually good shot and forgot about the prohibition as he put the photo on the wires.  The next time he showed up for a White House assignment, he was informed that he no longer had credentials and was refused entry.  


He said he  was not surprised.  He called Jackie Kennedy a super-bourgeois bitch who spent much time venting her ire and revenge on people who did not show her a groveling deference.  Few of his encounters with her were pleasant, as she instructed the press on how she wanted her image presented.


Another reporter, who had worked in Boston, claimed that when a Boston newspaper did not support Kennedy in his run for the Senate, his father bought the newspaper.  And another told a story of a photo opportunity in the White House with a physically and mentally challenged person and the President seemed to register some distaste in posing for it. 


I hasten to stress that these conversations did not reflect disapproval or approval of the Kennedys.  They simply reflected the facts of life that reporters lived with.  The real significance is that the press did not mention President Kennedy's dalliances.  At the time, publishing such stories would have offended the readers to the point of cancelling subscriptions.  Thirty-five years later when Bill Clinton dallied with Monica Lewinsky, reporters could not wait to get the stories in print and readers could not wait to read them. 


The press in my time was cynical and skeptical about people who held power.  We kept our reporting focused their official jobs, not on their extra-curricular activities.  As I said, the big reason was that tabloid-like stories were not permissible in family newspapers at the time.  There was also quite a different attitude about how far one should probe into a person's private life, whether a public figure or not.  A different standard was applied to the right to privacy than is today.  


The news media did not set the rules but reflected the standards held by the general public.  Today while anything goes on the national stage, quite different standards apply at the regional level.  I have been told of dalliances involving state officials, including names, dates, and places, but never a hint of them has been broached by the South Dakota news media.  As I say, people of power are allowed to operate by different standards than the rest of us.  As a business reporter, I knew some CEOs and corporate officials who were incorrigible reprobates.  The most perfidious person I have ever known was a university president.  However, the press never felt compelled, and for the most part still doesn't, to inform the public of the kind of people they are, even though they control much of what goes on in public.


Mimi Alford and her paramour.
Today is the release date for a book by a young White House intern who, at the age of 19, had an affair with John Kennedy.  It is Once Upon a Secret:  My Affair with President John F. Kennedy and It's Aftermath, by Mimi Alford.  It will revive many of those questions that the reporters in the press room at the International Livestock Show were discussing in 1963.  It will raise the question about why some very powerful and attractive people are given license, and others are condemned for the happenstance of their birth.  


Today's press is still very selective about whose personal lives it chooses to intrude upon.   I, for one, do not enjoy reading about personal betrayals inside families.  On the other hand, some basic issues of character about leaders that we should know are revealed.  But the character that is revealed the most is that of the people who dwell on other people's lapses and flaws of character.  And that seems to be a majority today.  




A New York Times book review link. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go yell slurs at women outside Planned Parenthood.**

 **From The Onion. 


The Washington Post constructed this chart to show the actual work done by Planned Parenthood in response to the Susan G. Komen Foundation fiasco.  

The right wing furor to discredit Planned Parenthood, as you can note, is based upon only three percent of what the organization actually does.  Contraception advice comprises 35 percent and is a big offense to the right wing because it actually allows women to plan and manage their own lives. 


Sixty-one percent of the organization's work is other women's health services. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

S.E.C. Is Avoiding Tough Sanctions for Large Banks

That's the headline in The New York Times.

By granting exemptions to laws and regulations that act as a deterrent to securities fraud, the S.E.C. has let financial giants like JPMorganChase, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America continue to have advantages reserved for the most dependable companies, making it easier for them to raise money from investors, for example, and to avoid liability from lawsuits if their financial forecasts turn out to be wrong.  


In the current state of inequality, some criminals are too big to hold accountable for their crimes.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Who cares about the very poor? They have a net.

It's called death.


On one section of the reservation, people must boil drinking water because chemicals, possibly the result of the oil and natural gas drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, have contaminated the water supply. And fearing the chemicals might explode in a home, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered residents to run fans and otherwise ensure ventilation while bathing or washing clothes.
From a New York Times story on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.  The crime fighting efforts that worked at Standing Rock in North and South Dakota did not work there.

 A photo gallery here.



Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Deconstruction of the nation

Robert V. Remini:  a chronicler of compromise as a political necessity.
During a recent election campaign, I stopped in at the printers to pick up some work they did for the party.  As I approached the service desk, I simply told the clerk "Brown County Democrats."  A woman behind me suddenly exploded with a sneering "Democrats!"  And she proceeded to rage with a litany of all the foul things she thought Democrats were,  none of which had any basis in fact, but were the features of some odious stereotype with which she lived.  The printer heard her and motioned me over to a side room, as he prepared the bill for the materials.  "No one who comes in here needs to be abused," he said.  We left the clerk behind the front desk to be the recipient of the woman's tirade.  

That encounter was indicative of what the media call the divisiveness that is rending the nation apart.  And it is not a unique instance, as people recount confrontations they experience over partisan politics constantly.  A pastor has told of the effects partisan politics has had within his church, and all the attempts to advise the congregation to put aside its partisan ideologies when they come to church fall on deaf ears.  He said people much prefer to  rage at each other than to quietly listen to the words of peace and conciliation from Christ.

However, that encounter also illustrates a gross misperception that the media advances.  The customary view advanced by news organizations is that national leaders shape the public attitudes and perceptions.   In fact, leaders feed on and serve the attitudes and notions they find in the public.  Occasionally, a leader occurs who inspires change in public attitudes, but most politicians try to shape themselves to fit the dominant public attitudes.  While Congress and the bureaucracy has its faults, the people ultimately determine who represents them and the character of the country.  At the present time, the USA suffers from some grave defects of character.  That woman at the printers portrays what America has become. 

The issue was raised in a recent Washington Post article headlined: 
Obama: The most polarizing president. Ever. 
The piece does qualify that headline with the assertion:  "While it’s easy to look at the numbers cited above [a Gallup Poll citing the growing polarization of the USA] and conclude that Obama has failed at his mission of bringing the country together, a deeper dig into the numbers in the Gallup poll suggests that the idea of erasing the partisan gap is simply impossible, as political polarization is rising rapidly."

Nevertheless, the article raised the ire of a staff member for the Senate Majority Leader whose rebuttal was published.  While he took exception to the thrust of the article, he conceded that events thwarted Obama in his quest for political comity:  "I guess the larger point that I am trying to make is that President Obama should not be blamed for the sharply polarized tone of the current political process because Republicans have made such an aggressive shift to the right. Or, put slightly differently, the President CAN be blamed for his unwillingness to go further to right than the American people are comfortable with — and for that he has been demonized and vilified by the right.

In the midst of the debate steps an old professor from the University of Illinois in Chicago who is a historian of the pre-Civil War era in American history.  I am acquainted with Prof. Remini who was featured this weekend on C-Span's BookTV in discussing his book At the Edge of Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union.  Dr. Remini, who has been historian for the U.S. House of Representatives, at the age of 91 is still an engaging speaker whose lectures are almost choreographed as he strolls back and forth on the stage engaging his audience.  His prefacing remarks stressed the point that Henry Clay shaped and concluded a compromise in the U.S. Senate that made it possible to preserve the union of the states and, therefore, the nation through and after the Civil War.  His point was that compromise is an essential tool of governing, but is not understood today.  Compromise is regarded as a surrender of values and principles, not the working out of solutions that conciliate differences, not require one group to subject itself to the demands of another.  As Prof. Remini points out, the U.S. Constitution is, in fact, the compilation of compromises on a number of sensitive points.   As the pastor observes about his congregation, the American people would rather rage at each other than find ways to accommodate each others interests and viewpoints and find ways to get along. 

The Washington Post article makes reference to a lengthy analysis of Obama's decision to shift from advocating comity to aggressive personal confrontation in his primary contest with Hillary Clinton.  The article, which has received much attention from serious students of politics, is by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker.  The Post article quotes this point by Lizza:


The Republican Party has drifted much farther to the right than the Democratic Party has drifted to the left. Jacob Hacker, a professor at Yale, whose 2006 book, ‘Off Center,’ documented this trend, told me, citing Poole and Rosenthal’s data on congressional voting records, that, since 1975, ‘Senate Republicans moved roughly twice as far to the right as Senate Democrats moved to the left’ and ‘House Republicans moved roughly six times as far to the right as House Democrats moved to the left.’” In other words, the story of the past few decades is asymmetric polarization.

Lizza goes on to cite a new book by Thomas Mann, of the bipartisan Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks:

 One of our two major parties, the Republicans, has become an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

Lizza concludes:

It would be hard for any President to reverse this decades-long political trend, which began when segregationist Democrats in the South—Dixiecrats like Strom Thurmond—left the Party and became Republicans. Congress is polarized largely because Americans live in communities of like-minded people who elect more ideological representatives. Obama’s rhetoric about a nation of common purpose and values no longer fits this country: there really is a red America and a blue America.

As a new President, Obama did not anticipate how effectively his political opponents would cast him as a polarizing figure.

David Brooks in The New York Times takes up the issue of the nation's polarization, which he calls the "great divorce," as he recounts another book on the subject,   Coming Apart by Charles Murray.  Brooks says:

The word “class” doesn’t even capture the divide Murray describes. You might say the country has bifurcated into different social tribes, with a tenuous common culture linking them.

Murray’s story contradicts the ideologies of both parties. Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses.

Democrats claim America is threatened by the financial elite, who hog society’s resources. But that’s a distraction. The real social gap is between the top 20 percent and the lower 30 percent. The liberal members of the upper tribe latch onto this top 1 percent narrative because it excuses them from the central role they themselves are playing in driving inequality and unfairness.

Among those who study and think about politics, there is, then, a growing consensus that does, in fact, cross party lines that the country is dividing itself again along lines not seen since the Civil War.  The trend as noted puts the 2012 election in a much different light than choosing who will preside over the country.  All the authors cited above see the preservation of the nation as what is at stake.  So, the question inevitably arises as to who, if anyone, can lead the nation back into a functional unity.

I will further heap the majority of the blame, as the writers cited above do, on the Republican Party and those it serves.  The people who have put on the primary campaigns and debates this month have clearly disqualified themselves as having any interest in mediating the concerns of the country.  The primary process did eliminate an alarming dingbat caucus from its ranks as Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain dropped out of contention, after demonstrating uncanny inabilities to handle facts.   But those who remain have put on "debate" performances, campaign appearances, and advertising onslaughts that make the sleaziest of the television reality shows look like high culture.   Does anyone who really cares for the country want anyone who operates on this intellectual and moral level to run the nation?

That would seem to leave Obama as the only option.   Ryan Lizza takes an optimistic view:

Obama promised to transcend forty years of demographic and ideological trends and reshape Washington politics. In the past three years, though, he has learned that the Presidency is an office uniquely ill-suited for enacting sweeping change. Presidents are buffeted and constrained by the currents of political change. They don’t control them.

 
Obama didn’t remake Washington. But his first two years stand as one of the most successful legislative periods in modern history. Among other achievements, he has saved the economy from depression, passed universal health care, and reformed Wall Street. Along the way, Obama may have changed his mind about his 2008 critique of Hillary Clinton. “Working the system, not changing it” and being “consumed with beating” Republicans “rather than unifying the country and building consensus to get things done” do not seem like such bad strategies for success after all.


But Lizza's article contains a huge cautionary note.  That note is in the account of Obama revived his campaign against Hillary Clinton by going on the personal attack:  the "campaign was entirely a character attack on Hillary as a liar and untrustworthy. It wasn’t an ‘issue contrast,’ it was entirely personal.   And, of course, it worked."

Of course, it worked.  And that is the caveat about bringing any unity to a country so bitterly divided.  When political strategists are questioned about negative personal campaigns, they always reply, they work. The fact that ad hominem campaigns work says much more about the declination of the electorate than about the shrewdness of the strategists.  A possible majority of the people either do not possess the level of literacy that allows them to understand the fallacies in negative, personal attacks or their political choice is simply not to care.

If Obama allows himself to get drawn into the kind of campaign being put on by Romney and Gingrich,  the intellectual and moral loss will devastate the nation.  If he does not participate in the kind of pandering dissembling of Willard Romney, he may well lose the election.  But at least he would preserve some element of human integrity that a segment of the population might use to rebuild their lives in other circumstances.  And we can study the examples of conciliation put forth by people like Professor Remini. 

The Occupy movement remains as the most positive political force, despite the fact it has been infiltrated by some violent and criminal elements.  The nature of the divide in the nation is one that is headed for the viciousness and violence of the French Revolution.  The Occupy people who have shown a peaceful but persistent civil disobedience offer a way to deconstruct the nation, if that becomes necessary, gently and without the violent fury of those who seek power and domination over other people.

The current campaign within the Republican Party has revived Obama as a symbol of hope.  The arguments over health care, deficits, regulation, and wars are insignificant from the perspective of whether the union is to be maintained.

For people like the woman at the printers who tried to confront me, the union probably does not matter.  She is a reminder that whoever gets elected this November is irrelevant.  It's the people who will make the decision whether this nation is to continue or finally give up the great experiment in democracy and concede its failure. 




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