News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Who shall we oppress next?

Many people are upset over a South Dakota bill that dictates where transgender school kids can go toity. One argument against it is that it gives South Dakota a bad name.  That argument belies the provincialism of even the more tolerant, benign people in the state.  The state already has a bad name, which it got the old-fashioned way.  It earned it.  

During the 1980s South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow and Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich began to exchange some good-natured insult jokes about each others' states.  The public joined in.  Examples were:

Q: Did you hear that the governor's mansion in South Dakota burned down?       A: Almost took out the whole trailer park. 
Q: Why do ducks fly over South Dakota upside down?                                         A: There's nothing worth crapping on.
It wasn't long before the public exchanges were not good-natured.  Officials and community leaders became concerned that South Dakota was on the receiving end of some very derogatory comments that were affecting the public perceptions of the state.  A sports writer from Minnesota published a column that, while in a humorous vein, was dead serious about the state being a refuge for the stupid, mean, and degenerate.  This was at a time when our universities were very active in trying to recruit out-of-state students and administrators advised faculty not to engage in any between-state joke exchanges because they invited unfavorable  comments about South Dakota that many took seriously.  At a state meeting of humanities scholars,  one university president noted that the state had some cultural and intellectual shortcomings to face and urged faculty to work at rectifying them, not emphasize them by making jokes about them.  

Those aspects of the state have, over the years,  gotten worse instead of better.  A major source of derogations comes from the state's history with American Indians.  It has nine reservations within its borders and the racist denigrations and exclusions from the white population were intense.  The term "prairie nigger" was used in common parlance and people made jokes about playing "Indian golf."  That was a game occasioned by spotting an Indian walking alongside the road.  The objective was to drive up close to him in a speeding car and open the door to knock him into the ditch.  When explaining the game, it never seemed to occur to the explainers that they were revealing a stunning racial hatred and attitude of violence.  And a hopelessly stupid meanness. The attitude expressed informs the frequently cited estimate that the genocide committed by the white race in America against the Indians numbers 100 million.  

The same attitude has been expressed against other groups of people and has been used in election campaigns.  In history it was demonstrated against German-speaking Hutterites who were driven out of the state during the First World War and did not return until after the Second World War. The  Klu Klux Klan has a history in South Dakota, although it made Jews the major target of its oppression.  But the hatred and defamations have not been limited to ethnic groups.   The state  has developed a tradition of hate toward labor unions, teachers, environmental conservationists,  out-of-staters, the highly educated, and on and on.  Elections are won by castigating politicians and others for being successful in the larger world, for being educated at prestigious universities, and for showing tolerance and respect for women and social minorities and the poor.  

The state's recent legislative sessions have built upon the state's predilection for hatred and oppression by writing laws that have little or no basis in fact but are an expression of the hateful rage which an apparent majority of the citizens prefer as a lifestyle.  The bills aimed at transgender school children are merely the latest efforts at designating a group, which consists of a dozen or less students, so that they can be put on display for convenient oppression and defamation.  

For years I have written about how the dominant culture of South Dakota drives the young, talented, and ambitious out of the state.  I have noted hundreds of former students who retain a fondness for the families and the communities that raised them in South Dakota, but do not find the state a place where they can live.  A young lawyer from South Dakota who now lives in Denver has written about it, explaining how the need to live a constructive life overrules the loyalties that pull at one:

The harder part to explain is that many of those people are people that support these types of hateful legislation. 
Having to explain the context of backwards legislation brought by people we love is difficult and in many ways confirms why we left. But it doesn’t hold a candle to the idea of living in a place where our queer friends would be gawked at if they came to visit or worse: refused service. 
We left because it’s easier not to deal with those explanations and difficult situations. Or worse, we left because actually experiencing the effects of this ruthless discrimination and hateful rhetoric hurt us deeply. 
Bottom line: we left because it’s easier to come back and relish in the things we love and return to the comfort of other places we now call home, places that don’t use twisted ideas of religious freedom and “conservative values” to perpetuate discrimination and hate of things they don’t understand.

South Dakota, we love you and we miss you. And you’re right: we’ve changed. But we’re not coming back until you do.

The political climate is one that coddles corruption.  The same legislature that revels and rails its hatefulness and stupid prejudices ignores and even condones practices such as those apparent in the EB-5 scandal.  Still, the good people choose the corruption by electing its perpetrators and keeping them in  office. 

The South Dakota GOP has openly advanced an agenda of discrimination and hatred as its operating principle.  The people have fought back through initiated referendums, but find that the legislature is ready to overrule the will of the people.  The  GOP has established a record of fomenting and prosecuting its pet hatreds almost to the exclusion of legislation that helps and supports people, such as facilitating education and the maintenance of infrastructure.

It is not insignificant that the slate of GOP candidates for president, except perhaps for John Kasich, all subscribe to the same kind of hateful aggression.  In that regard,  South Dakota is a bellwether state.  Politics is  no longer about choosing the best ways to get constructive things done;  it is a battle between those who wish to oppress and those who wish to advance freedom, equality, and justice.  And it is about getting the benign people to recognize that those who oppose them are people who would betray them in the same way that Germans of the 1930s betrayed the Jewish people  And for the same kinds of reasons.

In response to the bills aimed at persecuting transgender kids and people of differing sexual orientations,  some are recommending a boycott of the state.  Bernie Hunhoff asks why hurt the good people engaged in the tourist industry?  He has a point.  However,  boycotts work.  Cory Heidelberger has proposed a boycott of the businesses that are associated with one of the offensive hate bills.  Carefully targeted boycotts are an effective way that the minority in South Dakota can register their objections.  But others are pointing out how dependent the state is on federal funds.  They resent their tax dollars being used to support a government that funnels the ;money into schemes of graft and embezzlement.  They are reaching out to legislators form other states to disqualify South Dakota and other states form receiving such funds when the money supports oppression and vicious discrimination.

But a lot of people simply leave the state or make plans for doing so.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughts and your insightful blog. One nit to pick with this post: I have done some working studying the history of the KKK in South Dakota and, from what I could determine, it was relatively minimal even during the boom years of the 1920s for the KKK across other parts of the Midwest (this was the period when they essentially ran Indiana, for instance). There was some KKK activity in the Black Hills, but I believe the thrust of it was targeted toward Catholics rather than Jews. There was an effort to keep Catholics out of the Homestake Mine and some anti-Catholic KKK activity at BHSU. Are there instances of anti-Jewish KKK activity in South Dakota?

David Newquist said...

You are right about the West River KKK being concerned most about Roman Catholics. In my comments on the anti-Jewish aspect, I was thinking of some information that came out of book discussion series of the Humanities Council at which efforts to discourage Jewish people came up.

mike from iowa said...

Excellent post,Mr Newquist,again. Some day the pendulum will swing back in favor of less discrimination and more towards equality for all.

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States