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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, February 17, 2008

Hope and expectations for Northern Illinois University

When a place you know well becomes the site of a horrific tragedy, the landscape is irrevocably altered. A tragedy becomes part of the history and, therefore, the identity of a place, but there is a danger in letting the shadows of horror and grief obscure the bright and vital essence of a place. That is true for Northern Illinois University.

The University launched so many productive and distinguished lives, the recent shootings should not be allowed to discourage or dissuade people from perceiving it as a place of opportunity and resource for building and sustaining significant lives.

NIU is a part of my personal landscape. As an undergraduate at Augustana, I had many friends who came from the area around DeKalb--Sycamore, Downers Grove, Rockford--and we had much interaction with students from what was then Northern Illinois State Teachers College. It had a reputation for being a classy state college with an educational emphasis, and I can recall one gorgeous spring afternoon on the campus for a tennis match.

I have other memories. My ex-spouse earned her master's degree there, and I was impressed with the caliber of instruction offered. A cousin went there for a time. I worked with faculty and staff from there on academic and moonlighting projects and always took pleasure in visiting the campus. Its ivy-covered brick buildings seemed the epitome of the Halls of Ivy kind of institution.

Like all education institutions, NIU has had its time of trial. In the 1950s, it was a teachers' college much like the institution from which I retired, Northern State University. As enrollments burgeoned during the 1960s and it was transformed from a teachers' college to a university of 25,000 students, it struggled with poorly designed and badly constructed buildings. An arboretum near the campus became better known for sexual assaults than for tree specimens. And once when a car struck a student and sped off, a coed recognized it as belonging to the university president. Like all communities, universities have their problems. But they are also equipped better than any other kind of community to confront and solve those problems.

While we give our condolences and best wishes to the families of the young people who were killed and to the wounded, we also need to keep them in our memories as a reason to resume the business of the university and get back to work on February 25.

School shootings are a problem that needs the best information and the most dedicated minds brought to bear on it. The faculty, staff, and students at NIU can lead us out of this dark time in higher education. They have our thoughts, best wishes, support, and appreciation.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

It's the deadlock, stupid

[First, a note about the absence of blog posts: severe carpal tunnel aggravated by getting rear-ended on I-76. Relief is spelled S-T-E-R-0-I-D-S. Surgery scheduled.]

The driving issue of this election campaign is glossed over by the traditional media, and consequently blogs, as an incidental strategy. The issue is the deadlock between the branches of government and within the legislature. In recent years, the public has ranked the performance of Congress as low as it has ranked the performance of George Bush—in the 30 percent range,

People do tend to get impatient with the workings of checks and balances in our government. The intended effect of checks and balances is to produce workable compromise and solutions to problems, to slow down stampeding legislation, or to sidetrack legislation that would work to the detriment of a significant part of the population. When differences devolve into angry intransigence and vengeful ploys, the result is deadlock and deadly incompetence. Once insult, abuse, and false representations enter the political dialogue, they create the conditions of war. Legislators are transformed from representatives of differing viewpoints to enemies, and deadlock is means of engaging enemies. It renders them powerless. It renders everyone powerless.

The aftermath of 9/11 has been the institution of an Orwellian regime presided over by a corporate plutocracy with pronounced fascist leanings. The Bush regime has used deception and intimidation to create a climate of fear, suspicion, and hatred that has permitted it to suspend civil rights, to sacrifice the lives and well-being of our military, and to institute a binge of war profiteering. The Bush regime and its Congressional allies have received carte blanche on the war. Resistance to the Bush juggernaut in Congress has resulted in deadlock.

Deadlock is the overriding issue. Past Congressional leaders met at the University of Oklahoma early in January to identify deadlock as the major problem facing our government and to recommend ways to surmount it. The low rating of Congress in opinion polls is tied to deadlock and the constant exchange of accusations, insult, and abuse that signals deadlock. The press, operating on the basis that conflict makes news, inflates every difference of viewpoint and statement into a fight. The press and bloggers who glean the press for every tid bit that can be the basis for accusations and condemnations play a major role in bringing America to a state of deadlock.

Barack Obama’s success in his campaign has been built on the promise of surmounting deadlock. When the Clintons were being goaded into the personal attacks that lead up to deadlock, the endorsements of Obama by key political figures caused them to change tactics. John McCain has promised in public statements to engage in dialogue rather than the tactics that lead to deadlock.

The significant divide in America is not between what defines liberal and what defines conservative. It is between those who see politics as a nasty game of impugning character and the mindless exercise of power and those who see it as the process of finding acceptable solutions to problems we face.

The primaries and caucuses signal that a majority of Americans want the end of deadlocks. That is the deciding issue in this election cycle.

You won’t find that issue much acknowledged in the press or the blogs. Listen, instead, to the candidates.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

And what about our right to bear shovels?

Madville Times confronts the absurdity of a bill in the S.D. legislature to allow students to have and carry weapons on our college campuses. Cory points out the redundancy of the bill. For "redundancy" read "fence post dumb." On some days, students have enough trouble managing their pencils, and now firearms are being added to the academic mix.

I have a solution for the bill being proposed, HB 1261, that might save face, ass, and the sanity of the constituents in whose behalf the law is allegedly being offered. Amend the bill so that the world firearm is replaced with the word shovel. As in:

Section 1. No public institution of higher education may regulate or restrict the right to carry or possess a firearm [shovel] in accordance with state law. No public institution of higher education may expel, dismiss, or penalize any person who carries or possesses a firearm [shovel] in accordance with state law. However, any public institution of higher education may require that any firearm [shovel] in a campus dormitory of a public institution of higher education not in a person's immediate possession be stored in a locked gun [shovel] safe.

We need a Second Amendment to reaffirm our shovel rights in order to maintain a well-regulated militia. Here is the' story behind the idea:

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. (AP) — It looks like a couple of suburban St. Louis purse snatchers picked the wrong women to attack. The victims fought back — with a snow shovel.

Police in Maryland Heights released details of the Sunday incident outside a Schnucks grocery store. The women were unloading groceries when the thieves tried to steal two purses from their cart.

One of the women grabbed a shovel from the suspects' pickup and smacked one of the men upside the head. The other woman jumped into the cab and attacked the other suspect, then grabbed the keys so he couldn't drive away.

Police tracked the men to a hotel. The man struck with the shovel required staples to close the gash in his head.

Both are jailed and charged with robbery.


Friday, February 1, 2008

No nasties in Camelot

Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Barack Obama has deep cultural implications. Along with Caroline Kennedy's and Patricky Kennedy's support for Obama, it is a repudiation of the kind of politics that that characterizes recent campaigns. As reported by The New York Times and Time, Ted Kennedy had conversations with the Clintons about the tack Hillary's campaign took in adopting the Republican strategy of "defining" Obama. It has led to other politicians, who see this as the Republican style of campaigning. to throw their support behind Obama.

When people are attacked in demeaning, untruthful, and accusatory ways, they are sorely tempted to respond in kind. The exchanges between John McCain and Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee exemplify this tactic. Romney himself has termed some of the attacks on him as a return to the Nixon era. When the Clintons decided to play rough with Obama, they appeared to be adopting those Republican tactics and, consequently, offended a large portion of their own party. The Kennedys' endorsement of Barack Obama was a repudiation of the kind of "rhetoric" that has damaged politics and lead to the deadlocks in Congress. Personal animus displaces reason and intelligence.
When Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama faced each other Thursday night, they avoided the querulous rancor that so delights the electronic media which promotes intense animosity between debaters because they assume that is what people want to see and that's what attracts viewers. Instead, Senators Clinton and Obama engaged in a conversation that was civil, articulate, respectful, and, most of all, substantive. If people did not know what distinguishes the positions of the two candidates after that debate, they are not capable of knowing. The debate was an exchange of information and perspectives--an expository performance that is essential to any true debate. And that confounded those who think debate occurs only when there is nasty exchange and rancorous denouncements of other participants in a debate.

Bill Schneider of CNN opined that Obama did himself no favor by being nice. He said that Obama needs to make a more forceful assertion of himself, presumably by a personal attack on Sen. Clinton, if he us to attract needed support. Behind that statement is the assumption that the American people are drooling idiots who can respond only to Jerry Springer-like confrontations of mindless rancor. It is the opposite of Ralph Waldo Emerson's appraisal of audiences: "There is also something excellent in every audience,—the capacity of virtue. They are ready to be beatified."

The Republican National Committee in one of those mean, jeering school-yard taunts that passes for wit and satire among its witless and petulant minions, issued issued this "actors' awards" statement about the debate:

Actor in a leading role: Barack Obama, for his performance as Clinton's "friend" after snubbing her three days earlier.

Actress in a leading role: Hillary Clinton for her performance reaching out her hand "in friendship and unity" for three days. (This claim of a snub has been soundly refuted as a contrived ihterpretation by a press corps that wants and needs a fight.)

Writing (Adaptation of a screenplay): Hillary Clinton for rewriting her record.

Director: John Edwards for dictating the first 15 minutes.

Cinematography: CNN for capturing Hollywood's love of the Democratic candidates

The Kennedy endorsement was a call for politics on a higher plane. It is not a one family issue.

The press also totally ignored a bi-partisan conference of leaders at the University of Oklahoma early in January called to deal with the partisan gridlock that impedes the national business. The press could only fix on Mayor Bloomberg of NYC and whether he would announce as an independent candidate for president.

The Kennedy endorsements of Obama were a repudiation of those factors that cause the gridlock in Congress and affect the national business generally. While some people like to think of the Kennedy era as Camelot, the Kennedys represent a long tradition of New England reformers of which Ralph Waldo Emerson was the best known because of the lectures he delivered in out- of - the - way places throughout America. Obama's offering of hope is in that tradition. He echoes these words of Emerson's:

  • Government exists to defend the weak and the poor and the injured party; the rich and the strong can better take care of themselves.

  • Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding.

  • Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.

  • The people know that they need in their representative much more than talent, namely, the power to make his talent trusted.

  • We shall one day learn to supersede politics by education. What we call our root-and-branch reforms of slavery, war, gambling, intemperance, is only medicating the symptoms. We must begin higher up, namely, in Education.
You can be assured that the attempts by Ted Kennedy to raise the level of campaign politics will be met by the Republicans and their blogging automatons with recitations about Chappaquiddick and Obama's secret life as a Muslim and a member of a black-racist church in Chicago.

In their last debate, Senators Clinton and Obama gave us a glimpse of what good will, good preparation, and substantive purpose can product. That is not to say that they did not make some factual errors during the course of their discussion. But what a relief it was from the tabloid fixations of the press and the relentless malevolence of the blogs.

While I am sometimes accused of being anti-blogger, my criticism of blogs is that they seldom rise above the level of petty meanness, malevolence, and self-absorption. That brings to mind another observation from Emerson:
  • There can be no high civility without a deep morality, though it may not always call itself by that name.
The interest in the younger voters generated by Obama is from his offer of hope in a political culture that often serves the meanest motives rather than the highest aspirations.

The time of Emerson is called the American Renaissance in literary circles. The efforts to elevate political debate from the degraded depths is an attempt to capture that spirit and purpose again. There are many people who want that rebirth of decency.

The conference at the University of Oklahoma, the Kennedy family endorsement of Obama, and the debate that ensued show us what politics can be. The voices of good will and justice get outshouted in the malign clamor that forms the official style book of one of our major political parties and adopted by much of the media. We heard the voices of good will and justice in at least one debate, if anyone cared to listen.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States