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.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States