[Ed. Note: The writer referred to below as an "erstwhile member of the press" wrote to correct that designation. He states that he is "editing a newspaper in Wyoming, writing a column that is published
in several newspapers in five states, working on magazine articles,
producing blog posts and planning [his] next book." We noted that he was a staff member of the Mitchell Daily Republic who contributed to the paper's blog, and there was an announcement that that association had ended. We should have noted that his "erstwhile" designation was in that particular capacity, not a leaving of the journalistic profession. There were other corrections he suggested, but they were matters of perception and opinion, not facts. We regret and apologize for the factual error. ]
When I first moved to South Dakota, I was thrown into a state of culture shock from which I never fully recovered. It was caused by the way people talked about other people. I was not the only one among new professors at NSU who noticed. It was a topic of concern among those of us who came from other parts of the U.S., and it was a major factor in the social relationships we formed.
I first noticed it in personal conversations with some of my colleagues during which they made disparaging and somewhat slanderous comments about other people behind their backs. There are people who malign other people everywhere, but the maligners are quickly noted and avoided. The reason is obvious. If someone is talking in negative and damaging ways to you about other people behind their backs, you know that person is most likely talking about you that way also. Until I came to South Dakota, such people were kept at a distance because in any situation that requires some social tact and cooperation, these people are a destructive impediment to any human enterprise. Back-biters and slanderers were held in ill repute and were shunned and avoided. And considered to be grossly deficient in intelligence. One did not want to be associated with them.
They do occur everywhere, but the difference that caused the culture shock is that in South Dakota malicious gossip about others seemed to be the rule. That is not to say that justified criticism is not made in other places when people misbehave or are incompetent, but the way it is handled is paramount. I worked for an editor who refused to tolerate malicious gossip. Ambitious young reporters who were looking for plum assignments would often malign other reporters to him in hopes of gaining some kind of favored status. If they made a negative allegation about another person's work, he would call the person being criticized into his office and asked the complainer to present the criticism to that person's face. The person who made the criticism would have to explain the basis for his criticism and justify it, or be exposed as having malicious intent.
If a reporter or editor did show incompetence or slovenliness in the discharge of professional duties, the fact would be duly noted in the daily, early morning editorial conferences in which mistakes were noted and resolved and plans for the day and upcoming editions were covered. Competitive motives among staff members were kept in check by a cooperative attitude fostered by the management. The newspaper had developed a highly competent and smart staff and the staff members regarded each other with a knowledge of and a respect for the work they did.
The attitude at the newspaper was representative of the culture of the region. People who gossiped maliciously about other people were despised. Children who made false tattles about other children were quickly challenged about their motives by parents and teachers. Back biting was simply not socially acceptable. Complaints about other people were quickly challenged for their legitimacy, and if a child was making a vindictive accusation, the child would be held to account for it. Genuine grievances against bullying or violating activity were carefully separated from vindictive and resentful allegations.
I was shocked when I came to South Dakota and witnessed adults engaging in middle school accusations and disparagement against others, especially in a circumstance which requires professional respect and courtesy for productive work to get done.
However, with the Internet, media comment sections, and television, those middle school modes of conduct have become a significant and deleterious part of the national culture. We have an abundance of humanity at its meanest, lowest, and stupidest in reality television, comment sections, and the halls of Congress.
While I was shocked to find adults engaging in this kind of behavior toward each other in South Dakota, I found reason for great hope and expectation from my writing students, most of whom came from rural and small town South Dakota. One of the assignments in expository writing was to profile their hometowns, correlating the objective facts about their towns with what they observed. For students from the smaller communities, a common feature they described was the town cafe. Some regarded town cafes as a joke, some were a bit disapproving of the daily coffee-and-gossip, and some detested the town cafes as sources of malignancy. Whatever attitudes the students regarded the custom of malicious gossip with, their consensus was that the town and human race would be better off without it.
At one time, I was involved in placing foreign exchange students in homes in the rural communities. There were a couple of times when the students were so alarmed at the rancor they found among the factions in the towns that we had to remove them to other communities. In our exit interviews and evaluations with the host families and students, the malicious gossipers were often mentioned as a factor that detracted from the exchange experience. A number of school administrators and teachers commented that the students experienced all aspects of America, and some of it was not pleasant, inspiring, or favorable to the image of America. Host families for the foreign students were carefully vetted, but we were advised by the placement organization to note which communities had engaged in destructive behavior and not place foreign students in them.
Twinges of that old culture shock returned last week with the announcement that chair and executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, Ben Nessulhuf, was stepping down to manage a Congressional campaign in Iowa. His departure is the most recent of five prominent Democratic candidates and party officials to leave the state. The reactions to his announcement raised twinges of that old culture shock. Comments from some members of the press and comments on blogs tended toward that hateful, stupid, meanness that so often characterizes South Dakota.
In referring to Ben Nesselhuf's dual role as chair and executive director, one erstwhile member of the press said, "It was a big job, and he failed big time. His departure is the proof of that." The bitter condemnation in that statement resonates with the resentment of a jilted lover, and it refuses to acknowledge the job that Ben took on. It assumes that Ben is leaving because he failed.
Recent campaigns to gain state offices have cost the South Dakota Democratic Party a lot of money. It incurred a stifling debt load. One of Ben Nesselhuf's accomplishments was to free the party of that oppressive debt. The removal of that large obstacle is ignored in that presumption of failure. So is Nesselhuf's fifteen years of political work as a state legislator, a candidate for secretary of state, and the work he has contributed to the party over that time.
In good, old South Dakota tradition, the soul seems soothed by pronouncing him a big time failure. However, nothing seems to incite South Dakotans into a big time rage like someone else's success. And so, the convention is to pronounce a person with some accomplishment a total failure.
There are hordes of commenters on the Internet and presumably in the town cafes who remark with great authority on anything and everything. Very few have ever been a candidate for public office, run or been very active in the actual work of a campaign, or done any of the drudgery, which can be very unpleasant, of a partisan campaign. They flood the comment sections with all the cliches about organization and personalities, and they bicker back and forth and posture as knowledgeable, competent strategists. Their utterances are loaded with accusations and condemnations. And one realizes that their only pathway to self-esteem is to diminish other people through resentful, petty slanders. But one who has actually campaigned also realizes that their words come from big egos with small minds, and not from carefully analyzed experience.
Criticism of South Dakota touches a very tender spot in the state psyche. If one is critical or suggests matters that might need improvement, the inevitable response is that if you don't like it here, leave. What is referred to as the brain drain, the mass migration of young people to other places, is largely because talented people have found things they don't like here and have left. One of the major things people don't like is the constant back-biting and denigration of what other people are and do. Fair, open, and honest criticism is useful, but constant, petty carping tires the mind and weighs heavily on the human spirit. People who aspire to productive and constructive lives conclude they will have to build them elsewhere where the social and cultural climate permits.
The comments that followed Nesselhuf's departure announcement say nothing really about his performance in the work he did here. But they are quite explicit in mapping out the predominant mindset that prevails in South Dakota. They portray an endemic small-mindedness and a resentment toward those who rise to service. People support and give lip service to public service, but only for those who fecklessly serve the platitudes and carefully refrain from doing anything that rises above mediocrity.
It is that desire to rise above mediocrity that moves younger talent to leave. As the above mentioned blogger wrote about Ben Nesselhuf, "... he may need to wait for the crowd to thin to make it out the door. A lot of young Democrats had the same idea." And a lot of young Democrats are leaving a lot of people feeling jilted. And left behind. Those young Democrats all mentioned improvements in their personal and professional lives as motives for their moves.
Those left behind, no matter which party, cannot conceive of the idea that they might be what is driving young people to move to other places--places where they will find criticism and opposition, but also find an acknowledgment and respect for honest effort and hard work. And perhaps some recognition for achievement that gains national attention. As it is now, that kind of achievement is held against them.
In South Dakota, resentment is a way of life. And most young people want to leave the culture of the town cafe and rise above the small-minded platitudes and petty resentment. In a sinking culture, people wait for a leadership to descend and redeem them. A number of people with impressive credentials and work histories have stepped up in recent years. But, as Christ advised his disciples when a place rejected them, they have shook the dust of this place off their heels and left. Those left behind are enraged because a leader has not led them. It never seems to occur to them that they have to redeem themselves.
The decline of the Democratic party in South Dakota is not from a lack of leaders. In a democracy, the will of the people ultimately determines the kind of place a community is. The people get what they want, what they vote for. South Dakota likes a monolithic, single-party system. The state is not determined by its leaders. It is determined by its people and those they prefer to act as leaders. People with a different vision of the state shake the dust from their feet and move on.
They leave behind a culture that will busy itself with carping, back-biting, and petty slander. And more people will leave.