South Dakota Top Blogs

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

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Who will oppose John Thune?

Larry Pressler made national news when he tried to exit from a dais and walked into a closet. He was known among the press corps as Press Release Pressler, because he issued pronouncements on almost everything but accomplished little.

Now comes Throwback Thune   He accrued an astounding record in the House of Representatives for fecklessness.  He is currently engaged in devising legislation to ward off threats that exist only in his mind  (such as bill to prohibit a flatulence tax on cattle), which actually devises only those things scripted for him by his puppet masters.  His 2004 election campaign stands among the top two or three in the nation for its slander and malicious dishonesty.

That makes him an idol of rock star proportions for his blogosphere supporters, who see in him the objects of their obsessive fantasies.   With talk that a tough opponent might be warming up in the political wings, the wingdings are hallucinating with great gas and gusto.

Here is how they see him:

 Sibby Online:   Jesus wants him for a sunbeam.

South Dakota Politics:  He's the ultimate alpha male.

South Dakota War College:   He's one of us. 

Emma, a commenter at Badlands Blue, has quite a different vision of what she wants in a U.S. Senator:

  • * Stands up against corporations that sanction rapists.
  • * Offers a plan to rid America's addiction to foreign oil.
  • * Has the guts to fight global warming.
  • * Shows me a plan to create thousands of clean energy jobs in South Dakota and is not a slave paid by Dirty Coal companies in Wyoming and Exxon and Big Oil.
  • * Can stand up for the middle ground position of a public option for health care.
  • * Will put Main Street South Dakota ahead of Wall Street and corrupt multinational oil corporations.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Monsanto State University in the Sacrosanct State of Sanford

The small-minded, mean, and ignorant carping of the small-town cafes has been interjected into the discussion of SDSU President David Chicoine's dual service on the board of Monsanto, for which he gets paid $195,000 plus that same amount in stock.  That amounts to a value of $380,000 compared to his annual salary at SDSU of $320,000.

 I am not sure at what point it became permissible for a university president to serve for remuneration beyond expenses and professional courtesies to facilitate that service.  In my time as a faculty member, such service would be assumed to be a conflict of interest between the disinterested research function of the university and the pecuniary interests of a corporation.   There are severe restrictions on faculty members who engage in outside consultation as governed by the Regents Policy Manual and the collective bargaining agreement.    However, the concept of management of colleges and universities has changed from regarding their presidents as the lead professors and academic officers to that of  corporate CEOs.  

In the latter part of the 20th century, it became a popular cant to run academic institutions like businesses.  In accepting that cant and the status of power and rank it served, academic presidents and school superintendents began calling themselves CEOs.  It fulfills America's deep longing for royalty and provides an escape for the indignities of equality for many.  In America becoming a CEO and being asked to serve on corporate boards is the equivalent of induction into the privileges of royalty,  and few people ask just what CEOs do that earns them so much power and money.  Our recent history with CEOs in finance, banking, and automobile manufacturing have made clear that the privileges they receive have nothing to  do with their knowledge, skills, and performance.  The conservative defense of corporate American is clearly based upon the desire to conserve medieval notions of rank and privilege and class.  

The evolution of academic administration from the collegial generation and transmission of knowledge to  corporate authoritarianism is just another aspect of the shifting political and social mindset.  David Chicoine comes from the College of Agriculture of the University of Illinois, which has many and long dalliances with corporations.  When I was the farm and business editor of an Illinois newspaper, the University's relationship with corporations was of constant concern with faculty, students, and members of the agricultural community. Some Illinois College of Agriculture faculty members went to great lengths to make known that they did not approve of or participate in the coziness with corporations.   Colleges of agriculture at sister universities in the Midwest were often harshly critical of the U. of Illinois' corporate ties.   They thought that those ties formed the channels through which independent, family-owned farms were being integrated into corporate agri-business.  They warned that  work as professors was shifting from devising and teaching in support of independent farmers to serving the corporate interests of agri-business.  While the merits of corporate-run agri-business versus independent, free-market agricultre  may be argued, the fact is that independent, free-market agriculture is a nostalgic memory.  

The professors who work under President Chicoine must abide by a policy in regard to their outside work and consultation.  It is:

Professional employees should avoid entering into outside employments, occupations or endeavors for profit of any kind that may reasonably be thought to influence the decisions that they make in their capacity as Board employees, the degree of thought and effort that they devote to their responsibilities as Board employees or, in any other manner, the loyalty and diligence with which they pursue the best interests of the Board and of the students and citizens who rely upon the Board and its employees. [South Dakota Board of Regents Policy 4:35.B]

State Representative Bernie Hunhof and State Senator Frank Kloucek have raised the issue stated in this policy in regard to President Chicoine.  The policy is based upon the fact that academic work and corporate interests are often in conflict.  The conflict is that academic research and teaching when conducted with full academic freedom and integrity does not always produce results that will serve corporate interests.  Just as corporations lobby Congress to formulate legislation that serves their interest rather than that of the general public,  corporations exert the same kind of influence over research and teaching in which they get involved.  They do not give financial support to programs that might raise criticism about their corporate practices.  The outstanding example of corporate-directed research is the paying of "scientists" to deny the link between tobacco usage and cancer in humans.  

Monsanto is involved in many ventures about which there are questions of environmental deterioration and hazards.  Agricultural research is much involved in assessing the effects of agricultural chemicals, bio-engineered crops,  agricultural practices, and marketing arrangements.  Agricultural researchers on one hand are supposed to operate free of outside influences, but still their projects are often funded and sponsored by large corporations.  The question is if SDSU researchers come up with information that is detrimental to Monsanto,  will a Monsanto board member vote in detriment to the corporation or to the university.

President Chicoine has been cited for supporting Democratic candidates.  South Dakota conservatives have tried to portray this as Democrats as turning against their own, as if a political party cannot engage in making critical examinations of issues.  The suggestion is that raising the question of whether the state's written policy applies to President Chicoine is a kind of betrayal of loyalty.

This comes in the context of a middle-school maligning of Sen. Frank Kloucek, even to the circulation of a story that a legislator gave him a suit to wear when he first entered the legislature.  While some recognize that some wit-challenged bloggers and their commenters regard crude insult and abuse as clever political repartee,  the fact is that low-minded scurrility represents the way a dominant political faction thinks and operates.  The reality is that such petty and mean scurrility represents the way the state's academic institutions are perceived and influence.

Ultimately,  President Chicoine has a career choice of whether he side with those low-level serfs in the classrooms or identifies with the royalty who is exempt from questions of conflicts of interest.  More likely, the Regents will find some way to  amend their policies to forestall anyone having to make such a decision.

In the dominant party,  academic integrity, freedom, and intellectual process are not considerations, as long as the royalty gets its money and privileges. 



Thursday, October 22, 2009

At least give the Black Hills land back

After I posted a a link to a  photography feature from The New York Times Tuesday, five other South Dakota blogs picked up the feature and linked it from their sites.   Some acknowledged our original posting; some did not.  That is a matter of who knows and understands the procedures for properly establishing attributions and the provenance of information in journalism and writing in general, and it is connected to what "use" blogs make of a powerful and significant piece of journalistic work. 

The photo-essay covers the conditions of poverty on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  The responses to it reveal a deeper source of the poverty that holds South Dakota in its grip.    The differences in the quality of comments posted on the feature at The New York Times site and on the South Dakota citations is indicative of the difference between people who try to grapple with the moral and intellectual issues in our Indian reservation system and people who can only recite uninformed cant--and in the process reveal those less-than-admirable traits of human mind and character,  racism, mindless hatred, dishonesty. 

The New York Times blog entitled "Lens" was initiated in May to provide photographers and other graphic media specialists a venue for their work.  As a former photographer-editor for newspapers, I found one of the hardest parts of the job was to select one or two photographs from  50 to 75 shots to illusrate a story.  The better the photography, the harder the job.  The photographers and editors often complained about how much good photography went to waste because we did not have the space to display some vital pictures that came from assignments.  The huge advantage of the  Internet is that galleries and extended photography sequences can be published and create presentations based upon what can be included, not what must be excluded.  Still photography has resumed its important place in graphic communication.

The New York Times feature, "Behind the Scenes:  Still Wounded," is  exceptionally  powerful, as attested to by it being referenced by six South Dakota bloggers.  But photographer  Aaron Huey is steadfastly careful to use his skills and art to portray what he finds and sees, and is as steadfastly careful in the interview portion of his photo-feature not to make any glib, superficial explanations of what causes the scenes that he captures.  That his photographs are chosen to move people is without question.  That they move many people to displays of cultural dementia is probably inevitable.  And they provide tacit evidence of what is the essential cause of the degradation in which some people live at Pine Ridge, Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, all of South Dakota's reservations.  

In looking at some of the comments,  one is confronted with the systemic malice and stupidity that is the foundation of the reservation system:

  • A good lesson as to why the federal government expanding it’s role in anything should scare the pants off of most Americans.
  • This is what happens when the Federal Government provides everything for a society. Free health care, subsidized housing, free food, energy assistance for winter heating, etc. Law enforcement is a whole other chapter and the mess that has been created, along with the tribal court system that is in shambles.
  • If this situation is to be improved, it needs to be changed. Do away with reservations and the gov't dependency it fosters. Bring the Native Americans into complete citizenship with the rest of the US; no more separate laws that hamper business growth, no more handouts that destroy self-esteem. They should be able to keep their culture, but that doesn't mean a sovereign nation within the US with Uncle Sam providing everything free. That never works, and is proven here.
The comments in The New York Times blog are, admittedly, moderated to be commensurate with the level of presentation established by the feature.  And the South Dakota comments probably represent fewer people than seems apparent.  Some bloggers who permit anonymous comments  (and ban certain IP addresses) write such anonymous comments to reinforce their own posts.  They are unaware that their thoughts and writing styles are as distinguishable as fingerprints, and readers of any literary sensibility at all can identify them.  

Cory Heidelberger of Madville Times moderates the comments on his blog and requires commenters to identify themselves. Comments on his blog often reflect some informed intelligence:
  • South Dakota needs a vibrant and strong Sioux Nation. We can achieve that by returning land to the Sioux that is held by the federal government.
  • After decimating their culture we are frustrated they haven't assimilated. Who would?
  • Even now the conversation tends to be how can we get them to change, be like us and have our values.
In addition to being heavily populated with reservations,  South Dakota has produced a prodigious amount of literature by and about American Indians.  When The New York TImes feature is viewed in that literate context, it projects a vision of hope by positing the cause of hopelessness.  An encouraging aspect of the comment about a "vibrant and strong Sioux Nation" is that it is made by a Republican candidate for the U.S. Congress,  Thad Wassom.  One commenter tells Thad that his comment eliminates him from any serious consideration as a candidate, but Thad has done something that has become rare in South Dakota politics.  He raises an idea that send candidates of both parties into fearful sweats.  He suggests that the treaties under which the Sioux were given reservations be carried out.  {He sounds like the Republican Party I once belonged to.)

If the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, the violation of which is the basis for the award of millions of dollars held by courts in compensation, were to be fully observed,   all of West River would be returned to the Sioux.  It is not merely a matter of territorial occupation; it is a matter of a profound cultural and spiritual identity with the land, an identity that is deeply rooted in the nature of the land.  This identity is taken up in this year's Book One, selected for study by the South Dakota Humanities Council:  Buffalo for the Broken Heart by Dan O'Brien.  The book chronicles the reasons and actions of O'Brien to convert from cattle ranching to bison ranching as an enterprise more consistent with the resources and natural features of the West River land.  

While blog commenters may rail about reservation subsidy and dependency on the government, they do not acknowledge that all of West River exists on that dependency because  agriculture and ranching is largely a failure.  It is a false myth, not an operative reality.  O'Brien summarizes the reality:

The mythic American character is made up of the virtues of fairness, self-reliance, toughness, and honesty....It's [the West River land of independence and self-reliance] also a place that does not exist and never has...

The truth is there has  never been much fairness out here.  The homestead acts were mostly ways to get serfs onto the fees of eastern and European industrialists.    When the land, the economy, and the climate revolted,  these people had to suffer or be supported by the government.  Self-reliance went out the window.  As for toughness,  the vast majority of homesteaders failed and either gave their land back to the government or sold out to a neighbor at pennies on the dollar.  There wasn't all that much honesty out here, either.  From  cheating the Indians out of their birthright and culture to pervasive homestead fraud in the form of filing for people who did not exist, pioneers proved to be just as human as the next man, maybe more so. 

As Thad Wassom suggests,  a first step in dealing with the reservation problems is to restore as much of the Sioux birthright as possible.  The reservations are part of the Great American Holocaust of slavery and genocide against the Indians.  They are concentration camps onto which the Indians were confined.  They were supposed to subsist on a kind of agriculture for which the land is totally unsuited.  (One of the reasons that Sitting Bull was considered dangerous is because he tried farming and found it an ecological absurdity and said so.)  The religion, the language, and culture of the Sioux was suppressed and banned.  They were lied to, betrayed, degraded, and killed at every opportunity.  And the stupid and illiterate wonder why they choose alcoholic destruction over the culture we  offer them.

The worst thing that could happen to the Sioux would be for them to accept the money awarded by the courts for the swindling and armed violation of their treaty rights.  The elders prefer that the federally-held portions of the Black Hills be returned to them.  Few politicians in South Dakota dare propose such a measure.  

The proposal first raised by the Bradley Bill would turn national forest and grazing lands held by the U.S. government back to Sioux control.  That could mean that some people occupying and using reservation lands might have to leave.  Heaven forbid that any honkeys experience the dislocations and deprivations forced on the Sioux.  Well, politics forbids it, any way.  

It is more politically expedient to let the genocide rage on.  And we can look at Aaron Huey's pictures, and cluck our tongues, and post stupid comments.

The land of the free and home of the brave, you know. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Somebody did it.

Okay, who did it?  

He did it.

I think you did it, sir. 

Pete Souza, the White House photographer, did it all. .

The  one place the Internet has improved journalism is in photo-journalism.  It has increased access to and interest in photography with the many picture galleries available to viewers.

This gallery is the October in the White House feature that captures the many activities taking place there.   Click here to see the gallery.

The poverty of Pine Ridge through the eyes of the New York Times

The New York Times features a stunning series of photographs from the Pine Ridge Reservation.  

Here is the account by NY Times blogger James Estrin.
Aaron Huey arrived on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota at the start of a self-assigned photographic road trip to document poverty in America.

The poverty he found on the reservation stopped him cold.

“Pine Ridge is the scariest place I’ve ever been — more so than in a Taliban ambush,” Mr. Huey said. “It was emotionally devastating. I‘d call my wife late at night crying.”
 Overwhelmed by the poverty — and at the same time by scenes of people trying to maintain the Lakota way of life — Mr. Huey abandoned the rest of his nationwide project to focus on Pine Ridge. Five years later, he’s still photographing on the reservation, which includes the Wounded Knee battlefield.

This is something that most South Dakotans will not and don't want to see.  See the gallery of photographs here.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Thank you, Susan Klebold

In thirty years of teaching writing and literature and 55 years of editing writing, I have been asked what I think are the most significant works I have encountered.    It is hard for me to list "favorite" authors because I appreciate the accomplishments of so many writers, including some whose works I don't particularly like but who have command of their art in ways that require that attention be paid to them.  But some of the most affecting and significant works that come to mind were written by non-professional writers and student writers.

One such example was in the take-home part of a final examination for the early American literature course, which covers little fiction and poetry and much in the way of letters exchanged between people like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and critical essays such as The Federalist Papers, speeches, and many personal journals and accounts.  In recent decades, "literature" has come to mean fiction, poetry, and drama. Those other genres are not considered literature.  But they are, and they are essential to any understanding of what comprises good literature and how it operates within a culture.  The question on the examination asked students to choose a work covered in the course and explain how it illuminated their understanding of the history and circumstances in which the work was produced. 

The essay that still has a hold on my mind came from a young woman from a South Dakota reservation.  She wrote about Mary Rowlandson's account of her captivity by American Indians during which her five-year-old daughter died in her arms from injuries the child received from the attack on the household.     The student noted the racial attitudes and bigotry expressed in the account but she also could feel the desolation and hopelessness that Rowlandson experienced, and she admired Rowlandson's strength in faith.  And she noted that readers tended to express great sympathy for Rowlandson but could muster little understanding of why the Indians attacked the settlement where Rowlandson lived and why they took her captive.  The part that the young woman found most moving and informing was the account of Rowlandson carrying the wounded child from place to place as the Indians moved  to avoid pursuers.  The Rowlandson child dies and is buried in the wilderness, and the student found a point of conciliation in the death of the child.  This young South Dakota woman recalled sitting in a desolate shack on the reservation holding her baby sister while the infant died from a severe respiratory infection.  She noted that what she and Rowlandson shared was a lack of sympathy or comfort in their great distress and grief.  The captivity narrative did not provide any consolation or comfort for the student, but it did demonstrate to her that she needed to look for such things in her own culture.  And to do so with greater appreciation and discernment was why she was attending college.

What the young woman did that she had in common with great writers was to take the reader on her quest for understanding and finding the resources of spirit that can sustain one.  She was drawn out of herself by Rowlandson's account and found that she could look at the situation surrounding the death of her infant sister as a hard reality to be confronted, not as an occasion for sympathy.  Her conclusion was that there are people who do not wish others well and one has to build life around those who do.

The image of that young woman in a reservation cabin holding a dying infant is one that is always present with me.  It was a literary gift.

When people write of great, anguishing human tragedies with honesty and perception and tell of their own quests to reach points of understanding,  we have the stuff of true literature, whether fiction, poetry, drama, or prose accounts.  The shootings at Columbine ten years ago have produced such attempts.  The most comprehensive and literarily rendered is Dave Cullen's Columbine which was published last spring.  Cullen blew away myths about the Columbine incident and the two shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.  Cullen covered the Columbine incident from the day it occurred and searched out and analyzed information relentlessly.  In checking and verifying the facts, he performed a great journalistic service for those who care about knowing the true facts and realities and think they are the basis for any progress humanity makes.

During the past week, another dimension was added to the literature about Columbine that complements Dave Cullen's.  Susan Klebold, the mother of one of the Columbine shooters, has written an essay providing a response to what it is to be the parent of a troubled child who is driven to such violence.  Her essay appears in the November issue of Oprah Winfrey's magazine. In a time, when a large part of the nation is consumed by carping against other  people and fabricating blame to place on them for the nation's ills, Susan Klebold has written an account of the Klebold family that offers a truthful and unsettling account of Klebold family life.  I am sure that it will be maligned by the malice-minded, but for those who earnestly want to solve problems, the essay provides a basis for new understanding.

What is unsettling about the account is that Susan Klebold had no inkling of Dylan's mental state.  It took her ten years, but she came to recognize the fact that when Dylan left the house that April morning, he did not intend to ever return.  He intended to take lives and commit suicide.

The conventional notion promoted by people singularly unqualified to offer advice is that when young people are troubled, they telegraph their troubled state.  Good parents, the notion contends, will spot the signals and intervene.

As a parent and professor,  I know that is not true.  Young people are very good at masking and hiding their troubled states from those they are close to.  They do not want to burden those they love and regard with problems.  A highly respected high school counselor told me some years ago that the most unpleasant part of his job was to inform parents of problems with their children that the parents did not know about.

While the media like to take up the issue of peer pressure,  it is banalized and reduced to simple-minded and absurd axioms.  The impulse in young people as they enter their high school years is to reject parental influence.  It has always been so.  But during the latter decades of the 20th century, adolescents became recognized as a market.  All-pervasive marketing messages are directed toward them.  This occurred simultaneously with the conferring of autonomy on adolescents that severely limited parental influence and discipline.  They were given the power and the means to reform society on their terms.  My high school counselor friend called it "The Lord of the Flies" syndrome.  The most pronounced symptom of this syndrome is juvenile gangs.

The counselor says that kids cannot think past lunch, but they are empowered to make and enforce value decisions.  Those decisions often evolve around cliques and factions, and kids see these cliques and factions as the controlling factors in their destiny, not their families.  In fact, families are rendered powerless to counteract the social predations in teenage society.

All the high school and college shooters have a sense of alienation and oppression in common.  The psychic disturbances that most adolescents experience drive some into depressive trauma.   It is built into the culture and the time.

Susan Klebold, like my student writer from the reservation, had to come to terms with something she had not suspected:

"From the writings Dylan left behind, criminal psychologists have concluded that he was depressed and suicidal. When I first saw copied pages of these writings, they broke my heart. I'd had no inkling of the battle Dylan was waging in his mind."
"For the rest of my life, I will be haunted by the horror and anguish Dylan caused. I cannot look at a child in a grocery store or on the street without thinking about how my son's schoolmates spent the last moments of their lives. Dylan changed everything I believed about myself, about God, about family, and about love."

Progress is made only from the confrontation with harsh and unpleasant facts.  Thank you, Susan Klebold, for guiding us to such a confrontation.  You have given people of good will and good purpose and intelligence something to work with. It will be noted and not forgotten.  

Susan Klebold and Dylan on his fifth birthday. 

Saturday, October 17, 2009

What if Hitler had written "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"?

South Dakota likes to claim inspiration for L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz on which the movie, The Wizard of Oz was based. Although a prolific writer who produced 50-some novels in a benign vein, Baum is remembered in Indian country for recommending genocide against the Lakota people.  He wrote two editorials on the subject in The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, the first less than a week after the Wounded Knee Massacre. One wonders what inspiration South Dakota contributed to this call for genocidal atrocity. 

Tim Giago asks the question that bothers literary scholars and serious readers of literature.

When the movie was released in 1939, it was indeed a wonder. It was an exciting children's fantasy movie with vivid colors, great songs, and it was a movie with a message. Should this great movie be tainted by the racial sins of the man who wrote the book, L. Frank Baum?

Baum and Adolph Hitler had one thing in common: both called for the genocidal extermination of a race of people; Hitler the Jews, and Baum, the Sioux people of South Dakota.

In an editorial written six days after 300 Lakota men, women and children were massacred at Wounded Knee, Baum wrote, "Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untameble creatures from the face of the earth."

Baum followed that editorial with another. He wrote, "The whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit is broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are."

Fifty years later, another man set out to "annihilate" a race of people. Adolph Hitler did manage to exterminate six million Jews before the roof caved in on him. Hitler also wrote a book called Mein Kampf. In the book he wrote, "Was there any form of filth or profligacy, particularly in cultural life, without at least one Jew involved in it? If you cut even cautiously into such an abscess, you found, like a maggot in a rotting body - often dazzled by the sudden light - a Kike."

For arguments sake, suppose an enterprising producer had made a movie based on Mein Kampf. Would that movie carry the stigma of the author? Perhaps, but critics would argue that Hitler actually accomplished some of his mission in exterminating the Jews, while L. Frank Baum only editorialized about it. But there is no difference in their message. Both called for the genocidal extermination of a race of people.

Then why is L. Frank Baum so loved while Hitler so eternally hated? Suppose the book Mein Kampf was actually a children's book about a fantasyland in the Bavarian Alps. And further suppose that the book was then made into a movie that was highly acclaimed. Would the fact that Hitler wrote the book and that he also called for genocide against the Jews diminish the popularity of the movie? There are probably a plethora of answers to these rhetorical questions. Could it be that the lives of the Jews were more important than the lives of the Indians? After all, the Indians stood in the path of Manifest Destiny and therefore it was God's will that they be removed or eliminated. That makes it alright in the minds of most Americans.

 Read his entire column at the Huffington Post.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

It was not just Wall Street. Main Street failed years ago.

Intellectually and morally America is in decline. It has turned from a country that gets things done to a country that is mired in small-minded bickering and destructive abuse.  Its business community failed the country in massive dimensions, as the historic business narrative from Enron to AIG demonstrates.  Its politics have become the epitome of small-town, small-minded resentment and vengeance.  But the signal failure of America was not what Wall Street did.  The failure begins on Main Street and has a long history that can be traced through the decline of small towns and rural America.

A recent census report shows that the great plains is continuing its decline, which actually began about a century ago.  Some communities reached their high points during the early years of the 20th century.  Others reached their flourish during the 1950s.  But the indisputable fact is that small towns in rural communities are not places where young people and adults in their productive years want to live.  The reasons are provided in sociological studies, but they are more thoroughly and comprehensively examined in that genre of American literature called "the revolt from the village."

In my time at Northern State, I was struck by how a theme in American literature emerged with great consistency and frequency in student papers.  When writing about their hometowns, students showed a fondness and appreciation for small town life, but shrewdly identified detractions that make life in the rural communities undesirable and in some cases impossible.  A basic reason is that small towns just do not supply employment opportunities, especially for the college educated, and are devoid of the cultural opportunities that make life in a community mentally and culturally sustainable, let alone bearable. 

But the biggest detraction in small towns is typified by the town cafe, where people gather and spend the day gossiping.  And the gossip that student writers find offensive and repelling is not the community happenings and stories that have a basis in fact.  What they found so repulsive was the small-minded flow of malicious lies and speculations that characterized the conversation.  One young woman, who worked as a waitress at a town cafe during high school, recalled how the older people would gather over coffee and generate evil and destructive lies about other people in town. She recalls how town elders would gather at the hour school let out and comment on the students as they passed by the window of the town cafe.  All the comments were false and malicious, but she recalled how these elders reacted to one of her classmates, a young woman who came from a family of little means.  As the young woman walked by, they made comments about the young woman's sexual activity, her honesty, and her general worth as a human being.  According to the student writer, it was all false, but the malicious defamations spread throughout the town and gave the young woman a reputation that she had not earned in any way and was totally untrue.

Unlike most of the stories about the effects of human malice,  that one had a happy outcome.  The young waitress was so upset by the gossip that she talk to her employers and parents about it.  Her parents brought it up with their Lutheran pastor, who was a woman that the town elders said was a lesbian.  The pastor talked with school authorities and found that the maligned young woman qualified for a special program at a denominational college.  When she graduated from high school, she was able to leave the town and enter a program that gave her a job and a tuition scholarship at a college.

Another young woman from a town not far from Aberdeen was so offended by the destructive gossip that emanated from the town cafe in her town that she refused to return to the town even to visit her family.  Her paper about the town chronicled instances of malicious slander, but also other kinds of abuse.  Her parents were extremely upset by her refusal to return to the community and asked her academic counselor to intervene.  The matter was referred to another counselor who tried to resolve the problem by having faculty that the young woman respected talk to her.  The young woman never returned to her hometown as far as I know, but her family came to understand the reasons for her intense objections to her community.  They arranged to have their family holidays with relatives who lived in Aberdeen.

My own experience with some of the town cafe-centered community attitudes came when my wife and I were representatives of an agency that placed foreign exchange students at the high school and college levels.  In one case, we placed a young woman from Japan with a family that had two daughters of high school age.  We found that the town was divided into bitter, malicious factions and the family with which we placed the student was the object of vicious treatment by a faction that did not like the family.  The treatment was extended to the Japanese exchange student, and we received an emergency call from the agency with which we worked.  International good will came to an abrupt end on main street of that town.  The exchange student had called her parents with reports of what was going on in the town and the high school and the agency  informed us and asked that the exchange student be removed from the town immediately.  We were able to place the Japanese student in another home in Aberdeen.  The original family with which the young woman was placed decided that their daughters would be much better off if they attended a different school in a different community, too.  Their daughters transferred to the same school where we placed the Japanese student the second time, and the young women remained friends.  Within months, the family moved out of the small town and made its home in Aberdeen. 

The small-minded and malicious culture that pervades some small towns is chronicled in the works of Sherwood Anderson.  Sinclair Lewis has earned the hatred of small Midwestern communities by portraying the predatory and destructive malice  that pervades small town.  Willa Cather captures  the spirit-killing aspects of small town life, particularly in her novels My Antonia and  Song of the Lark
The protagonists in their works all leave the small towns in order to find productive lives.  A more recent novelist who writes of small town life is Jon Hassler, who died last year.  His novel Staggerford, a town featured in many of his novels, gives an appreciative perspective on small town life, but does not spare the negative aspects.  He does the same with academic life in the upper Midwest.

What these literary works attempt  is to show the destructive effects of people who form societies around malicious purpose.  Their only sense of power and consequence is to malign and destroy other people. People of this nature live in every community, but in some communities they dominate and even rule.  In other communities, they are kept in check by the more benevolent people.

As a journalist, I covered small towns from many aspects, including their school boards.  Some small towns were friendly, efficient, and comparatively free from factional animosities.  Others were characterized by constant fights, slanders, and accusations.  Those latter towns had a difficult hiring good teachers.   Their turn-over got as high as 50 percent a year.  Sadly,  children who needed the best kind of instruction did not receive it, and the town passed a mean legacy on to the children.  In one case, the parents petitioned out of the town's school district and sent their children to school in another county.  In other such towns, people simply moved out as soon as they had opportunity, leaving the towns to those who gave them such negative reputations.

That is the process that so many of my former students described in the papers they wrote about their hometowns.  They were anxious to get away from the small-mindedness, the malice, and the destructive environment they witnessed.  In the great plains, the outmigration continues while development corporations and committees fix on trying to create jobs that will retain and attract the young, and the talented, and the ambitious.  They cannot grapple with the fact that the culture is what the bright and talented find repeling.

To get a full sense of the forces that drive people away, one need merely browse through the South Dakota blogosphere.  The majority of blogs are devoted to maligning other people.  While they claim to discuss issues, they are filled with slanders, accusations, false representations, general scurrility, and all the other forms that character assassination takes.  While some bloggers who try to maintain a standard of sanity and decency struggle with commenters,  others simply turn their attention to more constructive pursuits.  As a fellow blogger put it to me recently, he noted that, aside from some national blogs, the blogosphere is devoid of anything that might termed creative or inspiring.  And so, he decided to join those who revolt from blogging.

There are more intelligent and informing ways to spend one's time and effort. 

It's the culture, stupid.  The culture from Main Street. 

Friday, October 9, 2009

The desperation for hope

The Nobel Peace Prize committee obviously did not consider how awarding President Obama the prize would fan the sparks of political and racial hatred into flames in his own country.

People from both parties are puzzling over how and why he was nominated only two weeks into his administration.  The complaint is that he has not accomplished all that he has set out to do.  Preventing him from any accomplishments is the controlling goal of the GOP at this point,    The GOP and the Taliban condemn awarding the prize to him. 

The Nobel Committee made clear its reason for the prize.  What Obama accomplished was simply not to get drawn down by the undertow of malice. character assassination, and oppression that is the mission of the American right wing.  Instead, his very candidacy brought a new expression of good will and constructive approaches to a world that was under a blanket of belligerence, ethnic and religious hatred, and an obsession with violence as the dominant form of self-expression.  His accomplishment was to shine a benevolent light in the dark age of malevolence.

Some have said that the Nobel award was a direct slap in the face of President Bush.  Bush did not throw the world into the corrosive mire of hopelessness  and despair by himself.  He had the support of politicians and citizens who wanted only to match hatred, belligerence, and violence directed at America in kind.  Obama's election suggested to the world that Americans wanted to focus on reason, good will, and peace, and even while being embroiled in terrorist attacks and wars which were only exacerbating hatred and violence upon innocents, they wanted to try negotiation instead of arms.  Simply put,  the world was given a glimmer of hope.

The Nobel Peace Prize demonstrates the depth to which the world and America had sunk.  America is about evenly divided between those who want to try Obama's way and those who want to revert to oppression and violence as abiding values.

The prize is also an admission that American politics is no longer leading the world in establishing equality, justice, and peace.  The prize seems to express the vague hope that those values can be revived and made operative. 

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Hildebrand excoriates Congress

In a posting on Huffington Post, Steve Hildebrand goes after the reasons for the partisan failures in Congress.

You show up for work a few days a week, dine with fancy lobbyists and take taxpayer-funded junkets around the world. Maybe we could live with that if you solved a few pressing problems along the way. But you failed to solve our country's problems, and therefore you failed us. Maybe it's why the latest Gallup Poll shows that 72% of the American people aren't satisfied with your job performance. Clearly I'm not the only one.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A clean, well-lit barn

Rainy Monday.  It was a good day to be in a barn.  The weather outside was wet, muddy, chilly, and just nasty.  And I failed in the meager task I was assigned at the Farm Forum of Rep. Herseth Sandlin and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.  I was supposed to have a small propane heater warming the two speakers as they sat on a big flatbed trailer for a stage.  The heater was working fine until it emptied one cylinder.  When  I replaced the cylinder with  a full one, it would not start again. 

Then I was one of the people attending to a farmers' market that some event sponsors wanted in order
to show off local produce and pumpkins and gourds.  It was across a roadway from the big implement barn where the people gathered.  By the time the meeting started, the rain had created a moat between the two buildings, and when people left the meeting, they wanted only to get in out of the cold and wet and get into their warm cars.  A few people did stop by, however.

But that wasn't the real disaster.  After all the people left, we had a couple hundred folding chairs to load up and put in the cargo area of a small moving van to take them back to the rental place.  My wife, Virginia (who is in the photo above in the light-colored coat standing to the right of the podium) put some poles and buntings in the van and was stepping down from it on a tailgate step.  The step was wet and slick and her feet went out from under her and she came crashing down on her left arm.  She said immediately, "I broke my arm."

I  got the car into the barn, loaded her into the passenger seat while she tightly held her arm in her lap, and got to the emergency room within 20 minutes.  She was right  She broke her arm.  After about five hours which included some surgery, she had two steel pins in it and a fairly good prognosis.

The Farm Forum, which one might term a township barn meeting, took an unimaginable amount of organization.  In part, this is because some segments of agriculture are experiencing some tough economic times in addition to disastrous weather.  Sec. Vilsack is in much demand from rural communities who have some problems to confront and solve.  As his appearance in Brown County is the only one he is  able to schedule in South Dakota,  event organizers had to notify constituents throughout the state so that people with various concerns would be represented and heard.

Leaders from various farm organizations and farm-related groups expressed some concern that the forum could turn into something akin to the town hall and tea-bagger demonstrations of August, and that people with serious and legitimate questions and concerns would be shoved aside by those whose only purpose would be to disrupt and harass. Notifying the people who need to present and assuring them they would be heard and respected was a prodigious task.  It got done. 

Everybody in attendance had earnest reasons for being there and had important questions to ask and concerns to pose.  Well,  almost everybody.  As the meeting broke up, a group of women who were all dressed the same slogged through the mud to their car.  Another person in the Farm Market shed said those are the people who protested Tom Daschle's appearance at the health forum in Aberdeen.  I said they did not say anything while I was in the meeting.  Did they protest something?  No, said a farmer who was buying carrots and onions and potatoes for a beef roast he said was in the oven.  I think they sensed that this meeting was all business and the crowd would not tolerate any nonsense, he said.

The questions ranged from whether counties in the state would qualify for disaster assistance and what the clean energy bill might portend for farmers in the state.  Disaster assistance seems on its way.   Work is being done to help out pork producers who are besieged by very high costs and very low prices.  There is a push to move toward cellulosic ethanol and a higher ratio of ethanol in gasoline to further diminish dependency on foreign crude.  And if the U.S. does not adopt clean energy legislation, it will give farmers a disadvantage in the international marketplace.

The information was not the kind of stuff you read on blogs or hear on cable news.  The question period lasted almost two hours.  It involved an earnest exchange of perspectives and information.  It was politics in the good sense.

I would not go so far as to say it was worth  a broken arm, but it was an honorable occasion in which to be injured in the line of duty.

That's more than I can say for most of the events I've witnessed in the past two months.  Sanity in the rain restores some confidence in the political system.

It's time to go administer some pain medication.  For the arm.  Not the political system. 

Friday, October 2, 2009

Plumbing the depths of the mean and petty

The most significant aspect of the choice of Rio de Janeiro as the site of the 2016 Olympics is the way it was played in the press, both traditional and internet.  Because Obama made a pitch in behalf of his hometown, the press went into one of its mindless frenzies of speculation about whether the choice represented a world rejection of Obama, whether it represented a huge failure in his presidency, and if it took another notch in the presidential tree in the conservative effort to make it fail.

The Olynpics are a judged sporting contest.  And the performance and judging begins with the site selection.  There were four finalists.  One had to win.  The others had to  lose.  As it most athletic contests, winning or losing does not represent any great measure of power and status.  Playing the game with full effort and honesty and fairness is the purpose behind the Olympics to bring the best competitors into contest with each other.  Losing has no great moral or hierarchical significance.  Losing simply means one did not win.

The U.S. did not win the 2016 site selection.  That is not really too surprising to those who mind the tote boards  and place wagers on the outcomes. Rio de Janeiro has been a favorite from the outset, largely because it will be the first South American country to host the  Olympics, and many;, many people in the world community have thought it was time to bring South America into full participation in the global  good will ceremonies.  Many in U.S. diplomatic circles have said as much,  and thought that Rio, despite its need to do some massive infrastructure building, was too attractive a choice to turn down.

Some have said that the Olympics will do for Rio what the World Columbian Exposition did for Chicago in 1893.  But instead of seeing the choice as the inclusion of a developing country into the community of nations, many prefer to find the most negative possible interpretations of  the selection as a personal degradation of Obama's presidency and a great national embarrassment.  That thinking shows the perverse stupidity that has gripped cultural and political discussion in America.

Like those town gossips who drive promising and aspiring people away from the small towns in America, America itself has become a nation devoted to back-biting, birching, slandering, and spreading ill will. 

It's enough to make one pack one's bags and trek off to Rio.  Or maybe Winnipeg or Vancouver.  America in its mean and petty state gives plenty of reasons for disapproving and disliking it. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States