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

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The churches are hell

I once served on the board of deacons at a church in Rock Island, Ill.  It was a church that was attended by most of the faculty of the Lutheran School of Theology,  which has since moved to the University of Chicago campus, and the faculty from Augustana College, of which I was one. Standing Rock native Vine Deloria, Jr., earned a degree from the seminary when it was in Rock Island.  

I still belong to a church, but haven't attended in a long time. The role of churches and schools in forming the American democratic culture is a powerful, inspiring story.  But like many people, I am estranged from organized religion.  Our schools have been diminished by the right-wing effort to make them subservient to the one percent by turning them into corporate indoctrination centers.  What genuine education is offered is provided by teachers who struggle daily to carry their mission as defined by the history of American education, not by conservative school boards that try to purge the curricula of the humanities and established science.  As for the churches, many have turned against the teachings of the Christ for whom they are named.  Many so-called Christians could not hold Christian doctrine as presented by Christ in their systems if it was emulsified and pumped up their asses in liquid form.  They call themselves a Christian nation and quote the scripture according to Mein Kampf.

The church I belonged to in Rock Island was five blocks from Augustana College and four blocks from the huge Farmall tractor plant.  A number of members expressed a desire to build a new church in a more suburban-like neighborhood.  A large Latino population was moving into the neighborhood, and the long-time residents were getting older. As a number of busy streets ran through the neighborhood and the railroad tracks were two blocks away, many transients were often in evidence. The pastor thought the church should accept a mission to serve the people in the neighborhood. The church became a site for the congregate meals for the elderly.  Vagrants often visited the church.  The pastor arranged if they stopped by when a meal was being served, they would be fed.  If they looked for a handout at other times, the pastor gave them meal tickets which could be redeemed at nearby restaurants or stores.  The church would the  pay for the meals or food.  I remember a Christmas Eve service when six or eight men in funky winter clothes showed up, attended the service, and then joined the congregation for the buffet afterward, filling their pockets with sandwiches, cookies, nuts, and candy.  Some members sniffed with indignation, but the pastor welcomed the men and encouraged them to take whatever they wished to make it through a Christmas Eve night.  The pastor also organized a group that would do grocery shopping for the elderly, particularly during the harsh winter months.  

When the talk about moving got constant, the board of deacons decided to have an every-member visitation and obtain a statement from each church member on what they thought we should do.   The deacons and other church leaders gathered for a retreat to study the results of the canvass and formulate a proposal to present to the congregation.  A large majority of members voted for the church to stay where it was and continue in its efforts to serve the neighborhood.  The pastor asked those assembled at the retreat what could be done to improve its efforts.  One man, who was a hospital administrator, spoke up and said that the only way to improve the church's programs was for the pastor to resign.

The man who said this had been complaining about the pastor's sermons that focused on the needs to feed the hungry and heal the sick.  He said the pastor was using the pulpit to preach socialism.

The chair of the board of deacons was an administrator at the college, also an ordained minister, who asked me to drop by his office a few days after the retreat.  He told me that the pastor was submitting his resignation to become pastor of a large church near Chicago.  Other churches in the synod had been observing the program at our church and had been trying to recruit the pastor.  The church council had to form a search committee to find a pastor.  When we had our meeting to organize the committee, a senior member of the council who was an attorney moved that the person who had asked for the pastor's resignation be specifically excluded from the search process because he did not represent the interests of the church or the congregation.  The vote to exclude him was unanimous.

After I moved to South Dakota, I joined a church that my children attended.  I did not become active in church business, but actively supported some of its programs.  A close family friend was very active in the leadership so I was informed about matters.  When the senior pastor took a position in the national headquarters of the synod, the church hired an unusually dynamic man to lead the congregation.  He added 1,300 members to the congregation.  

My son came home from a church program one evening and said that the senior pastor was resigning.  The daughter of a council member told my son he was being forced out because he was watching pornography on the church computers.  We asked our close friend if that was true, and she said that he was resigning but that the reason was made up by a council member who wanted to boss and bully the staff and other council members.  When the pastor opposed some of his orders, the man wanted him gone.

The accusation got to other pastors in the synod and synod officials and was the subject of a brief investigation.  They quickly concluded that the accusation was false.  The church staff said it was a made-up charge by a man who did not like the pastor's politics--he preached civil rights, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and was a strong advocate for dealing with the mental health of troubled youth.  The man had a faction within the church who supported him.  The pastor was nearing retirement age and took a job as the interim pastor for a new congregation in a very alluring setting.  Synod officials were particularly concerned because the incident would make it near impossible to find a replacement pastor.  

At the same time this was going on, my spouse who had been a staff member for Sen. Tom Daschle lost her job when Daschle lost an election.  There was a faction in the church that was opposed to Daschle and made gloating comments about his loss to her.  We realized that mean and cheap politics had subverted the church.  It had become a festering example of the kind of human meanness from which churches are supposed to be a refuge.  We realized that our children were being affected by the negative tone that had pervaded the church.  Except for weddings and funerals, we have not attended since.  Neither have our children, who are now adults.

This situation is by no means unique to us.  When speaking of the political state of our nation, the term Christian is often used as a synonym for the malicious bigotry that pervades the country.   My experience with the organized church is one shared by many people.

It explains what Sartre meant when he said, "Hell is other people."  Especially in church. 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The inevitable second civil war (or, Je suis un angry mob)

Columnist Tom Friedman thinks we are headed for another civil war.  He writes:

I began my journalism career covering a civil war in Lebanon. I never thought I’d end my career covering a civil war in America.

He explains what brings him to this point:

Sure, we’ve experienced bouts of intense social strife since the American Civil War of 1861. I grew up with the assassination of Martin Luther King and raging street battles over civil rights and Vietnam. And yet this moment feels worse — much less violent, blessedly, but much more broadly divisive. There is a deep breakdown happening between us, between us and our institutions and between us and our president.
We can’t find common ground on which to respectfully disagree; the other side is “the enemy.” We shout at each other on television, unfollow each other on Facebook and fire verbal mortars at each other on Twitter — and now everyone is on the digital battlefield, not just politicians. 
Across the land, before dinner parties or block parties, the refrain “I hope none of them will be there is uttered with increasing frequency, referring no longer to people of another race or religion — bad enough — but to people from a different political party. 
When he talks of the refrain  I hope none of them will be there,I recognize something I have thought and said and heard others say many times over recent years.   When I see a Trump sign or someone wearing a MAGA hat, I take it as a signal that they have declared themselves as enemies of democracy and benevolence.  They have chosen to pursue self-induced stupidity and malice as their way of life. They endorse and support corruption and fraud as long as it benefits them, and despite claims to be patriots, they actively undermine liberty, equality, and justice for all.  They have declared their aversion to democracy. by supporting one of the most malicious, vile persons to attain the leadership of a country.  His record of corruption, insidious dealings, and constant dishonesty is a matter of open record to which he adds more everyday.  Still, people choose him as the emblem of their principles.  These are people who, like Trump, can speak only in terms of insult and abuse and malicious falsehood.  One can expect only incivility from them.That is why I, like many, hope none of them will be at places where I wish to go.  And if they are likely to be there, I simply don't go.  You know they will use every opportunity to be insulting and obnoxious.

When the the political divide between the people in America is discussed, it usually contains a suggestion that we need to be respectful and open to hearing other viewpoints.  Those suggestions are made without examining the nature of the personal encounters that motivate the divide.  When people choose to be intractably disagreeable, they may insist they are merely using their right to free speech, but forget that other people have the right to take offense when they are disrespected, insulted, and abused and to assert their own rights.  Intelligent people understand the futility of trying to communicate with a dedicated abuser.  Rather than engage, they avoid.  And that is why the divide between Americans is reconcilable.

The principle involved is stated in our oldest wisdom literature:
Proverbs 26:3-12 (ESV) A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools. Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. Whoever sends a message by the hand of a fool cuts off his own feet and drinks violence. Like a lame man's legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools. 
Social scientists have yet to explore the effects of the social divide outside of politics.  There has been a change in the social and civic organizations, churches, and society in general.  Fraternal organizations, civic clubs,  veterans organizations, country clubs have sold off once-commodious facilities or closed all together.   Their leaders complain that people just don't want to belong to such organizations.  When pressed, they admit that people find no advantage to such organizations because they would be associating with people they have no use for.  The pastor  of a church said that membership in his congregation has remained stable, but attendance in church events has fallen so that some activities have been dropped.  He explained that his congregation comes for formal services, but avoid anything where they have to talk to each other.  

Studies have marked the decline in social interaction, and discuss the displacement of face-to-face encounters by technology and the social media, but these do not account for underlying causes.  The pastor says that politics is the wedge.  In talking with his parishioners he finds a stark difference in values, and the people do not want to deal with opposing values.  They dislike each other, and the idea of Christian fellowship is a travesty to them.  Young people drift away from the organized church because the hypocrisy is most evident to them, the pastor said.  

While she was widely criticized for it, Hillary Clinton stated the situation:  "You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about," she said.  And another perspective is when you find civility an absurd response to malice, dishonesty, insult, and abuse that is the standard fare in the Trump world, you avoid it. 

The resistance to Trump and his band of churls has been civil and non-violent.   So far.  The protests have been constant from the day of Trump's inauguration.  They have extended to accosting politicians in the street, in restaurants, on elevators, and interrupting Congressional meetings.  But the protests have not extended beyond "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."   So far.  But Trump and the GOP have chosen to portray the protests as rule by an angry mob.  And that characterization sends a strong message to the protesters that they are dismissed and demeaned and portrayed as the enemy.  The thought is circulating that Trump and the GOP need to see what an angry mob is like, and old battle plans from the late 1960s and early 1970s are beginning to be reviewed.

The conservatives have often said that they are prepared to launch a "second amendment response" to the liberal protests.  They have ignored what a major gun dealer said during one of those spikes in gun sales after a mass shooting after which gun control was proposed.  He said as many liberals were arming and stocking up on ammunition as were the "Second Amendment crowd."  They just weren't as noisy about what they were doing and why they were doing.  Both sides were preparing for potential battle.

A Washington Post analysis recounted the many people on both sides who see the U.S. as on the brink of civil war.  They see no possibility or any reason for reconciliation.  To many, the democratic principles that enable differences to be resolved through dialogue and the ballot box have been destroyed or have failed.

As the man who pretends to the presidency keeps saying,  we'll see what happens.  The election may be a declaration of war.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

A blow job for Trump?

After expressing contempt for Donald Trump when they were rivals for the Republican candidacy for presidency, Sen.Lindsey Graham has devoted himself to become an embarrassingly intense sucker of the Trump ego.  He has demonstrated the lengths to which one must go to receive the approval of Trump.  Trump expects his staff and supporters to grovel and debase themselves before him to show their loyalty.  

Brett Kavanaugh has joined the writhing mass of grovelers at Trump's feet, thus making the Supreme Court just another subsidiary of the Trump Organization.  He began the grovel the night he was nominated with an overtly political acceptance in which he credited Trump with undeserved and untruthful praise:

No president has ever consulted more widely or talked with more people from more backgrounds to seek input about a Supreme Court nomination. Mr. President, I am grateful to you and I am humbled by your confidence in me. Thank you.
He continued in that obsequious vein at the White House swearing-in (he'd already been officially sworn in) which was more a political rally than an official ceremony.  While he claimed he would be an independent justice who would focus on the law, he also specified those to whom he has obligations:

Mr. President, thank you for the great honor of appointing me to serve as a Justice of the Supreme Court. I’ve seen firsthand your deep appreciation for the vital role of the American judiciary. I am grateful for your steadfast, unwavering support throughout this process. And I’m grateful to you and Mrs. Trump for the exceptional, overwhelming courtesy you have extended to my family and me.
Mr. President, thank you for everything.

I thank the members of the United States Senate: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for his leadership and steady resolve. I thank Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley for his wisdom and fairness. And I give special gratitude to Senators Rob Portman, Susan Collins, Joe Manchin, John Kyl, and Lindsey Graham. They’re a credit to the country and the Senate. I’ll be forever grateful to each of them and to all the senators who carefully considered my nomination.

Presiding over the final vote in the Senate on Saturday was Vice President Pence. I’m grateful to the Vice President for his sound advice and faithful support. I thank Counsel to the President Don McGahn, who was a warrior for fairness and performed his critical duties in the finest traditions of our Constitution. 
 I thank all the outstanding people in the White House, the Department of Justice, and the Senate who worked day and night on this nomination.
 As a number of reporters have pointed out, it is one thing to acknowledge the work of people who support a Supreme Court nomination, but another to express a sense of debt and duty to them.  Most justices are careful to delineate their independence from the White House and the Congressional politicians.

I was near a group of people gathered in front of a television as the ceremony was being conducted.  As Kavanaugh went through his litany of gratitude, I heard someone say, "My god, I think he's getting ready to give Trump a blow job."  And someone else said, "Yeah, it's a bit much."  

And so, the Supreme Court has entered tweet land and no decision can be regarded as anything other than a political pronouncement.  Law and reason give way to another big sucking sound.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Brett Kavanaugh unmasked himself

Over 2,600 law professors from across the political spectrum and a retired Supreme Court justice have said that Brett Kavanaugh does not have the judicial temperament to be on the Supreme Court.  Their disrecommendation was the result of his performance at the Senate hearing over the accusation that he sexually assaulted Dr. Blasing Ford at a high school party.  In a Wall Street Journal piece, he tried to mitigate his performance by saying he said things he should not have.

If covering up his partisan intentions and his biased intemperance is his goal, he should not have mentioned his belief that the accusations of Dr. Blasing Ford were a conspiracy by the Democratic Party to retaliate for Trump's election and to avenge the Clintons.  But for the people, it was okay to say those things because they revealed his motives and his thinking.  He provided the most telling evidence of what kind of person he is and what kind of judge he could be expected to be on the Supreme Court.

But the Blasing Ford hearing obscures more essential demerits against Kavanaugh.  During that hearing, he also fudged on facts in ways that were alarming at a hearing on judicial qualifications.  

The first demerit against Kavanaugh is who nominated him.  Donald Trump is a malicious degenerate who only endorses people who can help him with his nefarious schemes.  He expects loyalty to him, and when Kavanaugh adopted some Trump memes, he demonstrated a loyalty to Trump, not truth.

The GOP-led Senate Judicial committee further helped cover Kavanaugh's modus operandi the  he refused to make available records of Kavanaugh's work as a political character assassin for the W. Bush White House.  The Republican committee members have whined and wailed about the Blasing Ford accusations being character assassination while covering up Kavanaugh's own work in that capacity.  The GOP has further contributed to the cover up by restricting the FBI investigation into the Blasing Ford accusation to farcical dimensions.

If Kavanaugh is seated on the Supreme Court, the case against him will continue.  The press has dozens of people to interview about their witness and knowledge of Kavanaugh.  Many accounts of his behavior have already been published. The Washington Post has found his recorded behavior to disqualify him.

In reporting on the White House, the press is largely taken up with recounting Trump's lies and demented attacks on his opponent.  That is necessary for the historic record of what may be America's failure as a nation as it descends into civil war.  Kavanaugh will be part of that story.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Double-think and double-talk in the news business

In most businesses, a promotion to a management position is considered a reward for competent, dependable work.  That custom is questionable in the newspaper business.  When a longtime beat reporter reaches a certain age, the hustle and bustle for an effectual newspaper gets draining, and it seems like the reporter's knowledge and experience can be utilized to great advantage at an editor's desk.  That is true.  Experienced, accomplished reporters understand news gathering and reporting in ways that that make them excellent in directing and supporting a news staff that works under them.  The problem is the loss of established news contacts, the rapport that has been cultivated with them,  and access to sources.  

I think of the case of Jim N.  who had been the main city hall and police reporter for many years and then was moved to the county government and courthouse.  He came to the newspaper after covering the city hall beat in another state when his predecessor, JT, at the newspaper I worked for became the managing editor.  He received a great deal of help from JT in getting to know the local routines,  the sources, and advice on interacting with the sources.  Jim was promoted to city editor, and the editor and publisher were faced with replacing him.  Jim said that even with all the help from JT,  it took years  for him to develop the contacts and ways of treating them to keep abreast of what was going on.  Every beat reporter has to develop his or her own productive relationships and rapport with the sources they meet every day on the job.  Such matters are not passed along with the job. And that is why promoting an established reporter off the beat is such a loss to a news organization.  Jim N. took his replacement around and introduced him to all his sources, but that did not mean that they would show the same kind of cooperation that Jim N. had established with them.  

South Dakota newspapers have "laid off" the premier reporter on the state government beat.  In July, the Aberdeen American News announced that it was letting go its Capitol Bureau reporter Bob Mercer along with six other newspaper employees.  Executive editor J. J. Perry explained:

Bob Mercer’s situation is a little different. He is based in Pierre, and his work is sold by our company to other news outlets in South Dakota. Those subscriptions helped offset some of the cost, but not enough. 
Rather than an immediate layoff, the Capitol Bureau in Pierre will remain open through the end of September. That will give our member papers enough time to decide how to proceed with their coverage, including of our new governor and the legislative session that opens in January. 

My deep hope is that one of the other subscriber newspapers can pick up the Capitol Bureau position, and we can subscribe or otherwise subsidize some version of what the American News has been able to provide for nearly 10 years.

That explanation was a statement that the American News did not have the moxy, financial or professional, to maintain its capitol coverage, and if there was any chance of continuing Mercer's coverage, the other newspapers would have to come up with the resources.  Otherwise,  Mercer's work would end the last of September.

Other newspapers did come up with a plan in which the American News will participate, but it did not include Bob Mercer.   On Oct. 1, J.J. Perry made a farewell tribute to Mercer and his solid journalism with this announcement of a new capitol bureau:

  Four papers — Aberdeen, the Watertown Public Opinion, Rapid City Journal and the Daily Republic — have joined together to help subsidize this bureau, and that reporting will appear in our products.

   Reporter Sarah Mearhoff grew up in Pennsylvania and graduated from Penn State University with a journalism degree. She worked as a legislative relief reporter for The Associated Press in Mississippi earlier this year.
   In 2017, she worked for the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association to provide coverage for six news outlets, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
   With this new model, we can continue to publish original reporting from Pierre. The American News will also have access to content from the Forum News Service, a distribution platform with stories out of the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

In July, the KELOland Media Group announced it was hiring Bob Mercer:
  During the past nine years, he [Bob Mercer] operated a news bureau in Pierre for the Aberdeen American News and syndicated his stories to the other daily papers in the group.   He received the Associated Press Managing Editors journalist of the year award in 1986. The South Dakota Newspaper Association honored Mercer with its Distinguished Service award in 2017.
  Mercer will begin his reporting for KELOLAND Media Group in October.  He will be based out of Pierre, serving as the Capitol Bureau Chief, but will provide statewide coverage of political and government issues.  

KELO has become a refuge for old newspaper reporters.  When Kevin Woster quit the Rapid City Journal after work conditions became intolerable,  he was picked up by KELO.

In addition to his newspaper reports, Mercer published a blog Pure Pierre Politics, which I assume will continue.  It provides important subsidiary information and background to goings on in state government.  I trust that KELO will take competitive advantage of Mercers resources and make his work a prominent and regular feature of its online presence.  As for the American News and its cohort papers, Ms. Mearhoff will be busy building contacts and sources and acquiring knowledge of how things work in Pierre.

That leaves us to ponder how the American News could join a consortium to sponsor a new capitol bureau, but not keep Bob Mercer working for it.  Money is an obvious issue, as a source of advertising revenue, the Aberdeen Mall, received a death sentence with the closing of Herberger's department store.  And the Aberdeen downtown is about six blocks of consignment stores, health spas, and pawn shops which don't provide much shopping business or advertising revenue.  

When Perry acknowledged Mercer's work, he wrote:

Mercer is a throwback to the kind of shoe-leather reporter who has everyone’s phone number and knows which doors to knock on. His sources might not always like the questions, but they talk to him because they know they are treated fairly.
That describes the essential work of any competent beat reporter.  The term throwback suggests that mode od working is a thing of the past.   No matter what the medium, the process of journalism begins and ends with the working of gathering, organizing, and writing information.  If we are to have a functioning democracy, it had better not be a thing of the past.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

What happens in high school doesn't stay in high school

The accusation that supreme court candidate Brett Kavanaugh grabbed and grappled with a girl at a party in an attempt to have his way with her has sparked much comment and conversation about the goings on in high school.  While high school kids everywhere are always testing the social boundaries, there is no common high school experience--except for the academic studies.  And they vary widely.

A professional friend of mine is an expert on the subject of what goes on in high schools.  I got to know him when he was a counselor at a high school where my spouse taught.  He was known for being unusually effective in his work and had dealt with some very violent situations.  He became nationally known for his knowledge and skill, and became part of an organization that schools bring in to help the staffs solve problems.  

He makes the point that high schools are extensions of their communities.  They are expressions of social values on which the communities operate.  If a community has serious issues of social and economic inequality, those issues will be reflected in the way the school is run and in the attitudes of the student body.  His operating principle was that schools could not change a community, but they could act as a beacon which helped students recognize factors which could limit them and show them the way to surmount those factors.

The last time I had an extensive exchange with the counselor was when he met with co-directors of the Dakota Writing Project to review the relationships the Project had with local schools and to formulate plans to make those relationships as effective as possible.  The original Dakota Writing Project was headquartered at Northern State with co-directors at Dakota State and Black Hills State.  I was a co-director and for a few years the principal director.  The Project was a totally teacher-run enterprise.  Its operation was based on the premise that talented and experienced teachers had developed strategies for teaching and developing student abilities that grew out of actual experience in the classroom.  While experts were called in to discuss these matters with local teachers, the Project's purpose was to draw out the successful experiences from the teachers and make them available to all teachers who are also searching for ways to engage their students and elicit competent and strong  achievements.  Writing Projects throughout the nation were able to show marked gains in student achievement.  Our task was to aid teachers in organizing and implementing the programs.  We had no problem in generating the interest and participation of teachers, but they often encountered resistance from school administrations which did not want autonomy among the teachers.  The counselor discussed with our Project members what they encountered and what were options for dealing with obstructions.

The counselor categorized how schools characterize themselves.  He said that very often you could determine a school's priorities by walking down the hallways during a change of classes.  The way students dressed, comported themselves, and interacted with teachers communicated much about what values guided the running of a school.  He said that in some schools, you could feel a sexual tension when you entered the building.  The girls dressed and comported themselves in ways that competed for attention and demonstrated that they thought in terms of a pecking order.  The boys displayed their attitudes by who they paid attention to.  When students were interviewed, they talked in terms of status and who were important.  Sometimes, he said, this attitude was apparent among the teaching staff.  These schools were run by cliques and students in the less prestigious cliques had disparaging attitudes about the school and education in general.  It boiled down to the community's attitude toward equality.

Those schools which serve the quest for social status have students with out-of-school life for which a major activity is drinking parties at which sexual encounters are involved.  The high school experiences for many students in these schools have been dominated by this social order.  Memories of school for the students, both those who participated in the parties and those who didn't, are of bitter social divisions and debauchery.  In communities where inequality rules as a social order, some schools are an extension of the inequality whereas others provide a refuge from it.  It is that latter function that the counselor said dedicated educators strive for.  Schools that surmount social divisions focus on the future of children, not the divisive attitudes of people in the community  they serve. 

The counselor said many schools are still segregated.  Not racially segregated, but by economic, social, and religious divisions.  However, most educators have had a required course in the foundations of American education, and adhere to the principles for maintaining a democratic society.  They believe that the survival of American democracy depends on people who know how to get informed and subject information to critical thought.  Many schools have submitted to the pressure to turn out students who will be docile workers who will never question authority.  The fact that such a large segment of Americans decry anyone who questions the authority of Donald Trump shows how many schools have become instruments of inequality.

As the nomination hearings for the Supreme Court have shown, the legacy of those schools which serve  the presumption of privilege was put on display.   Brett Kavanaugh threw a hysterical temper tantrum in which he asserted false conspiracy theories, and he was praised for "fighting back" in the Trump manner.  The fact that a nominee to the Supreme Court would do so on national television exhibits what has happened in our schools.  And, therefore, in our nation.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The danger of campaign signs

The bitter political divisions in America have turned some traditional election activities into risky actions.  Election campaign signs are intended to familiarize people with candidates and their names, and to create and interest in and show support for the candidates by the people who display their signs.  However, by displaying partisan signs, people are applying labels to themselves that identify them as enemies to the opposing party.

The problem is that the  political dialogue in our country has deteriorated into exchanges of hate speech. Donald Trump is the result of a degeneration of thought and word that has been at work for a couple of decades, at least.  People hardly ever state political disagreements in reasoned and respectful terms.  Rather, they call the opposition demeaning names and accuse them of degenerate things.  Their words do not inspire thought, but provoke anger and a desire to lash out.  Mindless anger has displaced rational thought as the currency of politics.

The seeds were planted decades ago with midnight talk radio  in which "hosts" would introduce some insanely provocative topic and invite people to call in and comment.  To keep the phone lines busy the hosts would encourage the ignorant, the stupid, and those possessed by some demented obsession to vent over the air.  The audience for the talk shows had two major components:  those people of limited intellect who were ignored in general society; and those who were entertained or made to feel  superior by foolish rantings.  Talk radio gave the stations a surprisingly substantial audience during the gloomy hours when most people were asleep.  It was a refuge for the superstitious, occult, and spurious, and popular enough so that national programs could network throughout the nation and give local radio stations a cheap way to fill the dreary hours.

Talk radio became the foster home of conspiracy theories.  It nourished and propagated them.  It gained such an audience that it was moved to prime time with the likes of Rush Limbaugh who became the voice of American conservatism.  His harangues became the model for conservative political discourse.

Limbaugh's technique is to lie about everything, insult, defame, ridicule, and violate every rule of respectful and productive discourse.  But he became one of the most prominent political commentators in the nation, and local radio stations found "hosts" who bring his debasement to local politics.  Fact checkers analyzed Limbaugh's falsehoods and found an astounding degree of untruth.  In one sampling of Limbaugh's statements, Politifact found this distribution of truthfulness:

True:                   0%
Mostly True:      5%
Half True:         13%
Mostly False:   26%
False:               31%
Pants on Fire: 26%
Limbaugh's response was to conduct a defamation campaign against fact checkers.

For the ignorant, stupid, and hateful souls who were possessed by the worst demons of humankind as opposed to Lincoln's better angels, Limbaugh and his emulators legitimatized mindless scurrility as a mode of political discourse.  Donald Trump has totally adopted the Limbaugh playbook for lies, insult, and abuse as his mode of communication.  By this summer, he was recorded as telling more than 4,200 lies to the public during his term of president.

His supporters, of course, claim that the liberals are the ones guilty of making up malicious accusations.  Consequently, the contest between Republicans and Democrats has devolved into each side regarding the other as motivated by a malicious dishonesty.  This contempt affects the way the way people hear and read political messages and how they perceive campaign signs.

I have examined responses, including my own, to signs in an effort to understand how people read and react to them.  The hateful dialogue of contemporary politics has established the context  that controls the responses.  Rather than registering the name of a person on a sign and endeavoring to assess the qualifications of the individual, the first impulse is to determine what party the candidate belongs to.  If the person is a Republican, he or she becomes associated with  Limbaugh and Trump and the people who endorse them.  Such association labels them as enemies of democracy.  

And when conservatives determine that a sign is for a Democratic candidate, they associate the displayer of the sign as a communist or a socialist or a bleeding hearted snowflake or whatever label the conservative media uses to denigrate Democrats.

So, when people move about town and see signs in private yards, they identify the householders as Republican or Democrat. And accordingly, they decide if that neighbor is an ally or any enemy.  They are reacting to the insulting, defaming, and threatening political discourse that has conditioned their response to the opposing party.

When it comes to inspiring hostility, the GOP has a strong edge over Democrats.  It has developed personal attacks and defamation as effective campaign tools.  There is no dispute that appeals to hate win elections for them.  When Democrats and independents see a GOP campaign sign, they automatically associate it with the scurrility that comprises many Republican campaigns. 

Campaigns are what has driven the wedge to American society that has made the political divide irreconcilable.  Who wants to have a friendly relationship with people who defame and disparage others as a way of life?  And so, when many people see a campaign sign in a yard, they take it as a warning that the people who live there are they kind they should avoid.  It is a matter of semiotics:  what a sign says on its surface may signal a menacing danger in its deeper intention.  The campaign season becomes not a time to make a choice about who to vote for, but a time to identify which of our neighbors to stay away from.  The signs call up the political practice that the signs support in a larger context

Political signs send a quarantine message to stay away from the people who display them.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

When police are not heroes

JT, the managing editor who had spent decades as a city hall and police reporter,  said police scandals  within a department broke about every ten years.  Then the department would follow a ritual of winnowing out the misperformers, and a new batch of them would develop.  He said the problem was with the personality traits and motives that made people want to be police.  They may say they want to serve and protect in the interest of law and order, but many really want the opportunity to f***k over people with their authority.  He also said that dealing with the lowest and meanest of humankind on a regular basis warped the human spirit, and  many officers developed a doubtful attitude about humankind.

However, JT had close friends who were or had been police officers.  When police scandals broke, JT would consult and often get quotes from them from the police perspective.  One such quote came up after a strange, but somewhat funny incident.  That night a very senior police detective visited an old friend, who was a woman who had owned bars where gambling, among other things, went on, and they sat in his police cruiser and reminisced about the good old days  when she paid for police protection.   Somehow the detective left the switch for his radio microphone on, and the entire conversation was broadcast on the police band.  Reporters who were working the night shift at the Moline, Ill., Dispatch heard it on the scanners in the newsroom.  The scanners had voice-activated tape recorders, so the conversation was on tape.

The conversation was reported in a news story, but it did not result in any court actions.  The evidence of a department on the take in the past was embarrassing to the department and to former city officials.  There was some reshuffling and sudden retirements in the police department and the incident became the spark of anecdotes and memories of the past.  A quote came from a former chief of police and friend of JT's:  "There are good cops and some who never should be cops, but most are just people trying to make a living like the rest of us.  And if they are good cops, they know their jobs and do them.  The cases of graft are more matters of the pay scale, and that's the first thing to examine if your cops are augmenting their salaries with early warnings or ignoring back room activities.  I hated having to fire cops because they were poor."

And that leads to the story about  Claus,  a long-time chief of police in Rock Island, the town abutting Moline on its western border, and Mills Cafe.   Mills Cafe was notorious, as was the 101 Club by the  Centennial Bridge over the Mississippi River to Iowa.  They were brothels.  They were fixtures so prominent that most people in the area knew about them by the time they entered high school. The clamor to do something about them was constant, so the police raided them periodically, but never managed to do so while business was being conducted.   

Until one night in the 1960s.  The state's attorney and the sheriff's department raided Mills Cafe and found the place bustling with business.  They hauled Jenny Mills, her staff of young women, and some  customers over to the county jail for booking.  Jenny Mills' first telephone call was to the home of Chief of Police Claus during which she told him she was arrested, and  asked just what the hell was she paying him for?  Thus ended the careers of Jenny and Claus.  Claus had not managed to give Jenny a warning that a raid was coming, as had been an arrangement of many years.  That was because he didn't know.  His department was left out of the loop.

Moline's chief of police stepped into the news last week when when he was stopped by an Iowa state trooper going 90 mph in a 65 mph zone.  Then he blew a .201 on the breathalyzer.  In Iowa the percentage at which one is legally drunk is 0.08. Two Moline police captains were in the truck with the chief when it was stopped.  They are all on suspension.

There have been problems with chiefs of police and other officers up here in Aberdeen.  Early in this  century, the Aberdeen police department went through a flurry of firings and resignations of police chiefs, detectives, and officers with a lot of infighting.  It was almost as if Trump was running the department.  The difference between what goes on in Aberdeen and Illinois is that in South Dakota the people are never told what is going on.  When officials in South Dakota screw up and screw around, the rule is that it is none of the people's business what officials are doing with their tax money or in their behalf. State law provides many loopholes through which truckloads of corruption and incompetence may be driven.  And officials can always fall back on the ploy that it is a personnel matter and personnel matters are confidential.

In Illinois, people are so backward that they think what goes on in government and those who work for them must do so with the people's consent.  So, all matters of how government  operates are personnel matters and the people, Illinoisans think, damned well better be told about it.  There is a lot of corruption and foolery in Illinois and we know about it because it has been exposed and dealt with.  A number of recent Illinois governors have served jail terms.  South Dakota has had the EB-5  and Gear Up scandals and the people tend to think it is really none of their business.  And no disciplinary action has been taken.   Corruption is considered good economic policy by many South Dakotans.  In Illinois an inebriated police chief racing around Iowa with two of his captains is considered public business.

Police misconduct falls into distinct categories.  Some departments have a culture of intimidating and shaking down people for bribes.  Groups of police in larger cities have run elaborate criminal enterprises.  Some police set up individual arrangements of corruption, as did Chief Claus.  Sometimes personal failings such as addictions are involved.  And there is the matter of police brutality and the individuals prone to it.

What brings all this to mind is the police response to the Colin Kaepernick-led protests against police gunning down black men, many of whom were unarmed. Police unions have joined Trump in contending that the protests dishonor the military and the first responders.  The protests are the result of the undeniable fact that unarmed black men are a constant target of police bullets. The police union complaints are gravely troublesome to those of us who support the unions.  Rather than take leadership within the profession to acknowledge the problem, examine it, and offer solutions, they join Trump and further excoriate the people they are exterminating.  They echo the Gestapo knocking on the doors of Jews.  And their refusal to confront the problem gives further reason to distrust the police.

Meanwhile, the protest against the police shootings has taken form around specific incidents.  The shooting of Philando Castile in a suburb of St.Paul, MN, has become an icon concerning the police in the minds of many.  Castile was pulled over ostensibly because of a broken tail light.  The policeman who shot him, however, said he resembled the picture of a bank robber in a wanted poster.  Castile's girl friend was sitting in the passenger seat and recorded the stop on her phone.  Her four-year-old daughter was in the back seat.  When Castile tried to get his identification. the officer shot him five times.  The officer was charged, but was acquitted in a jury trial.  

Those fives shots blasted and the acquittal blew away any pretenses that America is a country of liberty, equality, and justice.  Philando Castile and scores of bodies of dead black men gunned down by the police show that the United States  is replacing the Third Reich.  One of the latest bodies to be thrown on the heap is that of Botham Jean in his own apartment.  A police officer who lived on the floor below him entered his apartment by mistake and shot him because she said she thought he was an intruder.  God bless America.

The vast majority of police "know their jobs and do them" well.  They don't strut around claiming to make life possible for all the rest of mankind. And people appreciate when police come in harm's way in dealing with the lethal elements of society.  But police unions have established due process procedures that give police accused of misconduct extensive access to protections of justice.  That is something that is denied men like Philando Castile and those many whose right to life has been denied by police bullets.  Those who defend indiscriminate killing and want punishments for protesting it are standing up for Third Reich rule.  The protesters are the defenders of liberty, equality, and justice.

In the age of Trump, the irony of alleged defenders of American values being the ones blowing those values away is lost.

If people want a Third Reich system, they can't claim to be defending America.  The country they want is not the one many of us served and defended.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

When you let idiots lead, you become one.

It is wrenching to watch a person deteriorate.  Families often have to deal with elderly family members beset with dementia and Alzheimers.  The severity of the situations vary greatly, from forgetfulness and mental fogginess to radical changes in personality in which a once nice and pleasant person becomes angry, malevolent, and dangerous.

My mother had a perspective on dementia that I have discussed with colleagues in psychology who say it has merit.  My mother's mother had severe rheumatism which required her to use a wheelchair.  One day when she was getting out of the wheel chair into her bed, she didn't set the brake firmly, and the wheel chair scooted backward, dumping her on the floor.  She broke her hip, and was not able to walk at all afterward.  For 16 years after her fall, she was an invalid in our house, cared for by my mother.  My grandmother did not have mental issues, and was aware and coherent until her death at 98 years.  My mother had visiting nurses come in and learned much from them in the care of invalids.  After my grandmother died, the nurses encouraged my mother to become an LPN (licensed practical nurse) because they were aware of many instances when elderly needed acute care and they thought my mother was very adept at it.  So, my mother, in her sixties by then, obtained her license and took referrals for helping to care for elderly people.

During her work, she had some difficult cases in which the patients were mean.  Alzheimer's Disease had not been scientifically defined at that time and was barely recognized or distinguished from other forms of dementia.  My mother learned how to handle such patients so that they could receive care and treatment.  However, she made an observation about some that led her to say that the dementia of aging was used to excuse the behavior of people who had been mean and vicious all their lives.  I can remember one case of a man who had been a prominent businessman.  My mother was called to help care for him when a nursing home asked him to be removed because he was disruptive and a menace to other patients.  His family hired an orderly to attend to him, and my mother made daily visits to provide the medical care.  His wife, a frail, aged woman confided to my mother that his children did not want anything to do with him because he had abused them and her all his life.  

My mother encountered other such cases.  She was a devoutly religious woman who never angered or disparaged other people, but she commented how such people strained Christian charity.  She said you can't place the blame on dementia when they have been vile all their lives.

In a conversation I had with a fellow professor in psychology who had also been a minister, we discussed what my mother said.  He said it was true:  people use aging  as a convenient explanation for mean and vicious behavior that is in fact  part of some personalities.  He said such personalities gave him moments as a minister that led him to seek another vocation.

Trump exhibits all those traits that denote a vile personality.  He lies constantly, he insults and defames others, he shows no ability to apprehend facts or engage in rational thought.  A number of articles and a book by mental health professionals have recorded the symptoms in Trump of dementia.  A recent article contrasts his current state of mind with an earlier Trump.  However, his biographers claim he has also been dishonest and intellectually inept.  A retired commercial banker told me stories about how detested he was by the Chicago business community  in the 1980s for his unscrupulous business practices.  One story was about a person bringing him to lunch at an exclusive businessmen's club.  When he came in, the other businessmen there left their lunches and walked out and lodged a complaint with the officers of the club.  Their complaint was that Trump's presence tainted the club and its members with a disreputable association with him.   The lingering detesting of Trump in Chicago was evident when after his election, architects planned to float pig balloons in front of his hotel to block out his name.

Chicago architects' plan to block Trump's name with floating golden pigs.

The evidence is not that Trump has undergone mental deterioration.  As my mother put it, you can't blame his behavior on dementia; he has been a vile person all his life.

Our culture has been one that treats idiots with respect and sensitivity, but has warned against accepting them as competent to engage in public business:

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. —Proverbs 26:4 

A plurality of Americans chose Trump to be their president.  They can't say they weren't warned.

In the world, there are places where smarter people live.  We can only hope our children find those places, or at least follow their example, while the idiots of America run amok with their version of greatness.   

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The lie we tell ourselves about peaceable protest

The Occupy Wall Street movement succeeded in  creating huge demonstrations.  But the demonstrations were soon squelched and the protest against the privileges and abuses of the 1 percent faded and was forgotten.  After Trump's election, massive crowds gathered in cities across America to demonstrate their resistance.  Then they went home to confine their fussing and fuming in front of their television screens,  while Trump systematically went about dismantling everything President Obama accomplished.  Trump revived and inspirited racist America.  A black man had gained the presidency, which enraged those who cling to the order of slavery and Jim Crow as ordained by God to them, and with Trump's leadership they are going to erase any trace of what that White House "n*##--" did to the nation.  And those once-demonstrators sat in front of their televisions and watched it happen.  And they watched as the Republicans in the House and Senate became a bastion of facism and defender of the right to criminality for the rich white guys.  Trump averages telling six to seven lies a day to the American people which is celebrated as an accomplishment by the GOP because the lies keep the dumb fucks of America in line.  So they think.

We revere Martin Luther King as example of what peaceable protest and passive resistance can do and mourn the act of violence that killed him.  There is no doubt that the Rev. King had a huge influence with those who opposed Jim Crow and the war in Viett Nam in choosing non-violence as their means of expression.  However, while some people were making peaceful demonstrations,  others were carrying out acts of violence that puzzled and caused a lot of wet pants in many Americans.  The assassination of Dr. King set off riots in major cities throughout the nation.  A recent book, The Middleman by Olen Steinhauer, explores an organization that presents itself as devoted to peaceful protest and discussion, while some of its leaders plan and carry out acts of violence.  The book alludes to the fact that most instances of social and political progress in the U.S. were driven by violence.

The 1968 Democratic Convention was the occasion of a huge eruption by a coalition of civil rights and anti-war activists.  Black Panther leader Bobby Seale explained it: “We’re not here to be sitting around a jive table vacillating and bull-jiving ourselves.”

During the Occupy and anti-Trump demonstrations there has been much taunting about how fruitless the massive gatherings seemed to be.  A friend who was a part of Wounded Knee 1973 commented that the occupation rhere was followed by a period of relentless violence which forced the corruption on the reservation to be addressed.  He said the people learned that talking and making treaties never did anyone any good.  When the police who were video-taped beating Rodney King were acquitted of any wrong doing,  Los Angeles blew up.  Neighborhoods were totally destroyed, people were killed, but the Los Angeles Police Department was reformed.  The city feared total destruction if changes weren't made.

As a scholar and advocate of the use of language as the essential component of any free and just society, I have to admit we live in a time when we have failed language.  The angry divide that is putting us on the verge of civil war is a prime case of the failure to use language  as a tool which conveys and defines the facts of our existence.  People resort to violence when words become meaningless and they feel they have nothing to lose.  When grievances are ignored and dismissed without any kind of acknowledgement, people turn to other means to express their disaffections.  However, if language is to be successful in resolving human problems, it must be used with integrity and competence.  We live in a time when neither of those qualities can describe the national dialogue.

Not a word that comes out of our president's mouth can be believed or trusted.  He uses language to lie, deceive, insult and demean.  People of some education and intelligence understand that no constructive exchanges can take place with language in such a state of decay.  Trump resistors understand that there is absolutely nothing to be gained in trying to communicate with people who dwell in a universe of "alternative facts."  When facts and the accumulation of human knowledge are denied, language is destroyed, because words are the naming of natural facts.  Trump and his anti-intellectual, anti-knowledge cult have created a situation in which their words refer only to their own dementia, not to any facts which exist in any shared realty.  People of some veracity and integrity follow the Proverb "Do not speak to fools, for they will scorn your prudent words."

When intelligent language is no longer an option in confronting what is wrongful and dangerous, there is not much choice in ways to respond.  Trump sensed this when he warned a group of evangelicals that Democrats “will overturn everything that we’ve done, and they’ll do it quickly and violently, and violently. There’s violence. When you look at antifa and you look at some of these groups — these are violent people.” But as legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin pointed out, the statement was racist Trump at his worst trying to scare white America about black people.

What Trump and his apostles can't or refuse grasp is that is that their perverse obstinance is convincing many people that words are useless and it is time to act.  When the NFL players chose to kneel during the national anthem in mourning over the number of unarmed black people shot down in the streets by police, Trump and his zombies chose to call it an affront to those who serve in the military.   Ironically, the issue did not receive serious attention until a few black men fought back by targeting police officers.  That seems to be what Trump and his supporters want to provoke, a racial war.  But the Trump contention is made absurd as about 40 percent of military service personnel are minorities, and the NFL players are kneeling to protest the absence of justice for minority people.  They are protesting the betrayal of the American ideals of liberty, equality, and justice for all.

Violence is not and should never be the first option in addressing grievances.  But at times in our history it has been necessary to obtain the rights of citizenship or preserve those that have been obtained.  We do not support or encourage violence,  but urge the people to engage in the language, thoughts, and deeds that make it unnecessary.  Violence is a part of our legacy, but our legacy is also the efforts to eliminate the need for violence.

Of late, a significant number of Americans have shown that they are not up to the task.  As Bobby Seale said, “We’re not here to be sitting around a jive table vacillating and bull-jiving ourselves.”  

   Oath  keepers take up arms against "the violent left"

Oath Keepers announce national ‘Spartan’ training program aimed at ‘violent left’‘spartan’-training-program-aimed-‘violent-left’

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States