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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, December 21, 2008

Here comes the revolution

Gerald Celente is a trend forecaster who is credited, largely by himself, for predicting such things as the end of the Soviet Union, the bursting of the bubble, the boom in the price of gold, the success of Starbucks, and many other booms and busts in human affairs. His latest predictions are that we are headed for a depression that will make the 1930s look like a summer camp outing. He says that this time around, there will be a social upheaval that will result in rioting and revolt. He even predicts that some states will become so incensed with the way the federal government is running things that they will secede from the union.

Celente joins that persistent chorus of voices that keeps predicting dire things for Obama. There is a stream of negative forecasting, especially among the regressives, that insists that Obama and his liberal notions will sunder the ship of state. The nature of the anti-Obama criticism--which is accumulating before he takes office and has a chance to implement his plans--makes clear that for some the first black president is not a cause for celebration. Many out there are smarting at the thought of having a you-know-what in the White House in a capacity other than butler. The real motive behind the derisive contempt expressed for Obama is clearly evident in the nature of the criticism.

However, there is a possibility for revolt that reaches far past the lingering racial resentments. Obama's efforts to civilize political dialogue through the appointment of cabinet members and officials of differing perspectives is being done at a time when corporate fascists are on a particularly damaging rampage. The real cause for potential revolt emerges from the stipulations attached to the loans to the auto companies.

The anti-union stance of the Republicans in the Senate is expressive of a class notion that is rooted deeply in the feudal past. The false information that UAW auto workers were making $73 an hour was circulated to appeal to the class rage of those who hope to identify with the fascist hierarchy. The Senate, and then Pres. Bush in stipulating the terms of the loans, insists that the workers be put on an "equity" basis with autoworkers in the foreign-owned auto factories. In other words, lump the proletariat into one big despised class. This insistence that union members have their wages and benefits stripped from them comes when the managing class in the American business world has put on a demonstration of incompetence and avarice that is the real cause of the depression we are entering. As a condition of granting the loan, the labor force will be required to have their jobs eliminated, their wages cut, and their benefits curtailed.

This demand is made at the same time that executives have collected $1.6 billion in perquisites from the $700 billion bailout fund. This kind of class-based discrimination is the stuff revolutions are made of. Elements of our government have sent a clear message that they embrace the fascist consignment of working people to an underclass whose lives are disposable while a privileged class lives high on the sacrificed lives of others.

Most people want Obama and America to succeed. But there is a virulent opposition to freedom, equality, and justice that wants to conserve only the fascist past and privilege. The question is whether they will push America's working people into a massive revolt.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The nostalgic odor of corruption

“I can smell the meat a-cookin’,” Illinois Secretary of State Paul Powell liked to say when he was working one of his political deals. When he died in 1970 , authorities found $800,000 in cash squirreled away in a shoe box in his closet. I don’t think they ever figured out exactly where the money came from, but as a journalist who worked with a corruption-fighting organization on a Paul Powell enterprise, I have a pretty good idea.

In its lip-smacking euphoria over the contemplated unspeakable acts of Rod Blagojevich, the media and its blogging parasites are recalling Illinois’ rich, as in lots of money, history of corruption. What it is ignoring are the efforts in that state to fight corruption. Before Lincoln ascended to prominence, the state maintained some of the busiest branch lines of the Underground Railroad. Its citizens fought the predations of a group of associates called the Banditti of the Prairies, which utilized the Mormon city-state of Nauvoo to peddle its stolen gains. A citizens group was formed to resist and overthrow the mob rule of the Capone era and later.

One of the corruption-fighters was a mentor of mine, George Thiem of the Chicago Daily News. An unassuming man of small physical stature, George won two Pulitzers for his investigative reporting. The first came when he and an associate from the St.Louis Post Dispatch uncovered the fact that Gov.Dwight Green was maintaining 37 newspaper editors on his payroll to write laudatory editorials about him. George won another Pulitzer when his patient, methodical searching flushed out $2.5 million from a kick-back scheme run by the Illinois state auditor. The Daily News was an early casualty of the shifting market for journalism, and ceased publication in 1978.

The Better Government Association works with members of the media to expose and correct problems it finds in Illinois. My newspaper received a call one hot July day asking if we would care to participate in an investigation of something that Paul Powell’s department seemed to be involved in.

I worked in Moline, Illinois, on the banks of the Mississippi River. At that time, two bridges crossed the Quad-Cities area between Iowa and Illinois. The Secretary of State’s office, which is in charge of regulating motor vehicles and their drivers, has its own police department to enforce the regulations. The Better Government Association had found out that Powell’s police had set up a check point in Rock Island at the foot of the bridge that came over from Davenport. They were stopping trucks that were not licensed to operate in Illinois. They would not let the trucks proceed into Illinois, but made them fill out applications on the spot and pay for the license needed for interstate commerce trucks to travel through Illinois. This practice seemed to circumvent more routine procedures for obtaining and issuing licenses, and the BGA was suspicious of it.

I spent a long hot day at the foot of the bridge with a BGA representative monitoring the business being conducted. A number of trucks did not have the required license and the drivers were filling out application forms and writing checks or paying in cash for permits that would allow them to proceed through Illinois. The transportation police were amiable and even let us sit in their air-conditioned cars, and, although the circumstance was unusual, we found nothing that was illegal.

However, we knew that the money being collected would have to be traced through to its deposit in a state account. That is where the investigation faltered. This kind of tracking of paper work was something George Thiem was an expert at doing. But by this time he had retired, had served a term in the state legislature, and was involved with a farm he owned in a neighboring county to where I lived. No journalists were available to go to Springfield and trace down the money being collected from truckers for their permits. We thought that money was not finding its way into appropriate state accounts, but we could take time off from our duties to do the necessary checking and no one else was available.

I think that at least part of the $800,000 in Paul Powell’s shoe box came from the collection for the trucking permits. In the 1990s, when George Ryan, who is a former Illinois governor now serving prison time, was secretary of state in Illinois, his office was selling driver’s licenses to truckers, rather than making them take the necessary tests to qualify.

Another man who did much to clean up and keep business clean in Illinois was the late Senator Paul Simon. He recognized the unusual talents demonstrated by Barack Obama in the state legislature and urged him to run for the U.S. Senate. Paul Simon also was a journalist who used his profession and his newspapers to make things right in Illinois.

George Thiem and Paul Simon represent the other tradition in Illinois.

Folks in South Dakota might have a tendency to feel superior, but at least Illinois has people and organizations who worked to get at the facts and hold people accountable for what they did. A few years back, South Dakota officials were putting funds from arrangements they had with bank card officials into secret accounts and would not tell the state treasurer where the money was or how much it was. When some legislators and other government officials probed into the matter, the governor got the legislature to pass a law (the infamous "gag law") that made it a crime for any state official to make public any investigations involving the state and its private dealings with corporations.

Just as we never found for sure what Paul Powell was doing with the money he was collecting, South Dakotans never found out what was in the secret banks accounts, where it came from, or what it was being used for.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Whirling around the Blago-sphere

I hate to seem unduly cynical and skeptical, but there are aspects of the Blagojevich arrest and its subsequent wetting-pants-with-delight reactions among the media that seem beyond credibility.

What sets off my poltical GPS alarm is the intensity with which Patrick J. Fitzgerald went after Blagojevich and the gingerly and gentle treatment he gave Karl Rove.

Perhaps as the case moves through the grand jury stage, we will have some insights into just how much partisan politics may be shaping this case.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

South Dakota blows off the wind

Sam Hurst makes some very shrewd points about the political climate of South Dakota. His comments regarding the state's development of energy are pertinent and prophetic:

South Dakota is perfectly positioned to lead the nation to energy independence, but will, no doubt, squander the potential and watch other states who are willing to tax for investment race past, while the legislature squabbles about taxes and...abortion.

The tough fact is that South Dakota is selling off its resources for the development of renewable energy and allowing foreign companies to reap benefits that could boost the economy of the state and give its people opportunities to create and determine their own destinies.

The state has, in fact, realized some benefits from the production of ethanol. However, ethanol is a transitional fuel. As the nation moves away from petro-power and into clean energy power, ethanol will be displaced as a major ingredient of the nation's fuel. Corn producers have realized some significant profits for the first time in decades while corn is the major commodity from which ethanol is made. But the shift from food-destined crops to fuel ingredients has caused a rise in food costs which, on top of exorbitant fuel costs, has hit the consumer hard.

For the purposes of making fuel, switch grass and other cheaper biomass crops are needed as a raw product. As the bankruptcy of Versa Sun and the shaky financial condition of other ethanol producers indicates, a cheaper commodity as the raw product is required for ethanol to be competitive. Crop producers have some tough decisions to make as to what they will grow on their farms, but for some time now it has been clear that the days of farm programs for food producers are coming to an end.

Farm subsidies have, in fact, subsidized cheap food for the consumer. Those days are probably over. Farm subsidies did slow down the integration of family farms into the corporate economic scheme, but the fact is that farming no longer operates on a free market. Through contracts and closed markets, food production has been fully absorbed into massive systems run and controlled by corporate headquarters.

Farm subsidies have also contributed to an assault on the wetlands again, as some farmers in the pothole regions have plowed them up to grow crops that are currently profitable. Agriculture is again experiencing conflicts between profit and conservation. The development of clean energy may make those additional croplands superfluous.

Farmers have missed opportunities to take advantage of opportunities to add the production of clean energy to their production systems. A few years ago, Deere and Co. announced that its financial division would make loans to farmers who wanted to construct wind generators for electricity on their farms. Deere's concept was that a farmer could have one or two generators on a farm joined to a network with neighboring farmers to supply electricity to a grid. There is opoposition in the corporate world to generators on individual farms. When a firm with plans for such a network in Dickey County, North Dakota, found it would have to observe zoning rules so that their wind generators would not interfere with other aspects of agriculture, they canceled their plan for such a network.

In South Dakota, as Sam Hurst suggests , non-corporate wind turbines were not even a consideration. While an officer of a small corporation that owns some land in the prime wind areas, I found that South Dakota indeed squanders ts opportunities to participate, let alone assume leadership, in the production of clean energy. When a few of us raised the possibility of organizing a cooperative wind turbine system, the electric cooperatives and the state immediately said the absence of transmission lines excluded that possibility. The site I was involved with was a little over a mile away from an electrical substation which could have served as a distribution connection. Farmers were not much interested, either. The prevailing mindset could not consider such a possibility. While we were trying to drum up interest, big foreign corporations came in and arranged to obtain electrical distribution facilities that state officials and electrical distribution organizations said prohibited participation in the production of electricity.

So, the major wind farms in South Dakota are being operated by for foreign corporations, not South Dakota ;businesses and individual.

Babcock and Brown, an Australian corporation is erecting a 34-turbine unit on 3,000 acres near Wessington Springs.

Acciona Wind Power in Madrid, Spain, whollly owns Tatanka Wind Power on the North and South Dakota Border. It operates 59 turbines in McPherson County, South Dakota, and 61 turbines in Dickey County, North Dakota.

Iberdola, a corporation headquartered in Bilbao, Spain, is developing 77 acres in Brookings and Deuel Counties where it will produce 306 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 148,000 homes. It has not as yet decided between putting up 204 1.5 megawatt turbines or 123 2.5 megawatt turbines.

South Dakota is rated as fourth in the nation for wind resources. It ranks 18th in the development of those resources.

South Dakota again wants to stay in previous centuries while global corporations take over its resources. It is getting late to participate in the development of 21st century energy.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

What's going on in North Dakota?

While the rest of the country sinks deeply into a recession, North Dakota has had one of its most prosperous years, according to an article in The New York Times.

  • North Dakota state government is working on how to handle $1.2 billion surplus.
  • New car sales are up 27% over last year.
  • The foreclosure rate is "miniscule."
  • Homes are making modest gains in value.
  • Unemployment is the lowest in the nation at 3.4 percent.
  • Currently 13,000 jobs in the state are unfilled.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The gas ovens of Wasilla. Or Dearborn. Wherever.

When the automobile big three were asked to come back to Congress with a plan before getting any bail out money, they did, indeed, come back with one. The individual corporate plans call for massive lay-offs, plant closings, and down-sizing. They also demanded, and got, renegotiations of union contracts.

These measures may save the automobile industry. But what happens to all the people who lose jobs and the health benefits that go with them?

Oh. They are expendable. We must save the auto industry. Not the people.

The American dream. Poverty, illness, and death are just around the corner.

We would not want to commit socialism to let a few worthless people live on. The workers of the world are still being sacrificed to save the monarchies, or those who play that role.

The fascists still are winning.

They shoot innocents, don't they?

My colleague Dr. Silas says that reading blogs for intellectual content is like going to a roadside latrine bespattered with graffiti for words of spiritual inspiration. Blogs do not strive to put forth the best that is thought and said, but quite the inverse: they revel in the mean, the petty, the carping, the uninformed. It is in that context that I came across militarism as a recommended measure for securing the world from terrorism. A writer said that the only solution to acts of terror such as in Mumbai is military and the perpetrators need to be hunted down and killed.

The writer seemed not to notice that the 10 young men who carried out this attack did not, as was also the case in 9/11, intend to survive it. When the perpetrators will be dead by their own volition, just who is left to hunt down and kill? Or is there such a thing as double-dog dead? We still have hopes of finding bin Laden, but once we start purging the support network of those who carry out the acts of terror, we run up against complications. We have held men at Gitmo whose roles in terrorist acts are dubious. We waged war on Iraq under the reasoning that we were going after terrorists who were plotting to destroy us. The WMDs were not found and were shown not to have existed, the link of Saddam Hussein with Al Qaeda was disproved, and we ended up killing 4,100 of our own troops, maiming another 26,000 and blowing billions and billions of dollars. We are still counting. Our military has paid a heavy price for a war that was contrived from a need to posture. The American people have paid heavily both in material and moral terms.

There are times when solutions to threats against us need military action. We do need to aggressively hunt out and nullify those who plan, contribute to, and support acts of terror. But when the troops are regarded as expendable pawns to be wasted on futile missions based upon someone's need for revenge against undefined targets, there is a serious betrayal of democratic principle involved. It is one thing to send troops on a mission that has a defined and understandable objective. It is another to set troops up for massacre because someone wants to bully or exact revenge from someone else. Such missions show a profound disrespect and a devaluing of the life of the troops. Fighting at the behest of war-mongering belligerents is not the same as fighting for our country.

As an old soldier, I witnessed the deep resentment that troops have when their countrymen give them patronizing pats on the ass and tell them to go be good soldier. We don't like to bring up how close the troops came to mutiny in Viet Nam when they realized they were perceived as expendable non-entities. Gen. James Jones, the National Security Adviser designate, recalls having doubts about his role as a platoon leader in Viet Nam. "Why am I doing this?" he asked himself, and considered resigning his commission. Soldiers have lives. When they fight, they fight for their lives, as well as for the good of their country. When it appears that they are being used stupidly or for the bad of the country, soldiers have doubts. They need to be assured that their commanders do not regard them as negligible expendables.

That is one of the reasons a military man with a record of critical sentience about the role of military is a huge step in the right direction with the appointment of Gen. Jim Jones as National Security Adviser. The troops will know that their value as humans will be a prime consideration in any military actions taken.

The military has found itself facing unprecedented circumstances after 9/11. We old soldiers spent much time discussing the fact that if anyone had said, before 9/11, that 20 or so men would hijack airliners and crash them into buildings, we would be reluctant to believe. As old American troopers, we could not imagine 20 of our colleagues volunteering to die in order to massacre thousands of civilians. Neither can we imagine strapping on an explosive vest and detonating it in a crowd of civilians going about their daily lives. We can imagine going on missions that had purposes of defense and security in which the likelihood of our own deaths is likely, but that is quite different than malicious suicide.

We Americans have little acquaintance with creeds that promote violence. We experienced it within the Christian community with the open warfare and terrorism between the Catholic and Protestant factions in North Ireland. Suicide, however, was not a part of that terror campaign. We find it difficult to understand the appropriation of Islam for the purposes of breeding suicide bombers. We tend to think that the Muslim religion shares our values of peace and good will. We find it incomprehensible that people are totally brain-washed into believing that they were given their bodies to sacrifice as weapons against those who believe differently than they do.

When Colin Powell addressed the accusations that Obama was a Muslim, he asked what is wrong with being a Muslim? He was addressing the conservative predilection for assuming guilt by association, that all Muslims embrace Islamic terrorism as part of their creed. In that distinction between the manipulation of young minds to become suicide killers and the promulgation of religious values to promote peace and good will is defined the real task of dealing with suicidal terrorists. To chase down and kill all those who may harbor and tolerate terrorists leads to genocide. The military can resist terrorism and protect the country from it. It cannot provide the solutions. Unless one accepts the massacre of the innocent as tit-for-tat fair play.

We cannot punish those who are already dead. We can make sure that the world knows just what goes into the creation of suicide bombers and shooters.

Carl Bernstein who along with Bob Woodward uncovered the Watergate plot has a suggestion that might be part of the solution. As he listened to the Richard Nixon tapes on MSNBC's Morning Joe in which the president listed his enemies and called for the fire-bombing of the Brookings Institute, he said we need psycho-biographers to help us understand the Nixon types and what shapes them. Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle added Dick Cheney's name to the list. He said former colleagues of Cheney's in Congress said the man he is now is not the one they knew. Both journalists suggested that there is something about the way we do politics that creates deformed and dangerous personalities.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson was chided for not being more activist in ridding the world of slavery, he said why should he be so concerned about what is taking place in the Barbadoes? He said it is the wood chopper in his back yard that concerns him. The idea fits the matter of terrorism. Before we go punishing people in other lands, we'd better take care of the monsters developing in our own. You want to know how to find them? Begin with the comments at South Dakota War College.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The myth of competition

A potentially more insidious bit of news than the 190 people gunned down in Mumbai and the eight gunned down in Juarez, Mexico, one of my old haunts, was the story about 64 percent of high school students saying they had cheated on tests, 36 percent said they had plagiarized from the Internet, and 30 percent said they had stolen from stores.

This information came from surveys conducted in classrooms containing 29,760 students. You have to take their answers with belts of tequila and liberal grains of salt. Kids of high school age find it hilarious to respond to intrusive questions about their personal attributes with answers designed to put the fatuously righteous into frenzies of tongue-clucking indignation. They aren't alone. When a researcher administered a questionnaire to students at a campus where I worked probing their sexual habits, they made up tales of innovation, agility, and endurance that astounded the researcher and kept the students amused for years.

The same thing happened when anthropologists interviewed Native Americans about their lifestyles. You want wildness, the Indians would say to themselves, I'll give you wildness. They were so annoyed by the persistent intrusions of one famous collector of data that they made up a myth that found itself a featured presentation at the Smithsonian. While the researcher pompously presented his findings, the Indians laughed and giggled and chortled--for generations.

So when one presumes to ask questions on a survey that probes private areas of people's lives, be aware that the respondents will give the researchers what they seem to want and then sit back and giggle at their inventions and at the dupes who so dutifully report them.

Nevertheless, the two-thirds of students who say they have cheated on tests and the the third that claims to have plagiarized off the Internet do reflect an attitude toward scholarly dishonesty, if not a true portrayal of dishonest acts committed. I have caught a majority of students in classes cheating. It takes extra work but it is not hard to devise a testing strategy that exposes the cheaters. And we used to call the research paper season the annual plagiarism festival.

Some students plagiarize because they are slovenly about the rules of documentation and paraphrase. Requiring that they submit their drafts to editing panels of their peers eliminates much of that, and computers have made such reviews a quick and efficient process. Others plagiarize with every intention of submitting someone else's work as their own. The underlying problem is that our culture demeans scholarship and intellectual integrity as the fixations of irrelevant teachers and nerds. Schooling is largely regarded as a hazing process designed to impose boredom on lively young minds. That explains why 93 percent of the students surveyed saw nothing wrong in the cheating they admitted to. It is all just a game, and the object is to see what you can get by with.

Students see examples of cheating everyday. When No Child Left Behind tests were instituted, multiple instances of cheating on the part of school administrations were uncovered. One district in Houston was even giving workshops for teachers on how to insure that the students under their charge got respectable scores. The educators feared low test scores more than being found out as cheaters.

We have adopted a simple-minded dogma that the world is divided into two classes: winners and losers. Nobody wants to be a loser, someone who does not rank at the top with test scores and any other enterprise that ranks humans. Gaining knowledge and working hard is for losers. Just ask any CEO involved in our economic crash. They may be incompetent, ignorant, and totally self-serving. But they are winners. And that's all that counts.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States