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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sign posts on the journey to dysfunction

The attempted bombing of the Detroit-bound airliner has produced a classic epidemic of Monday-morning-quarterbacking.  And we hasten to point out that the term "Monday Morning Quarterback" is not exactly a compliment.  It designates those people whose only sense of consequence is to sit by while other people engage in all the work and action and then bicker and criticize, even though these kibbitzers have never had what it takes to play the game in which they pose as experts.  Monday Morning Quarterbacking is a harmless pretense, unless it is mistaken for informed intelligence.  When it is taken seriously, it becomes dangerous.  It has become dangerous.

Current polls show that few Americans have any confidence in Congress.   Many informed observers have written about the escalating dysfunction of Congress and its inability to do much more than bicker, obstruct, and resolve itself into resentful factions.  The real significance is that Congress is a direct reflection of the American people.  The country that fought World War II, moved forward with civil rights, and produced ideas and products that made it the world leader no longer exists.  The resentment, petulance, and petty malice demonstrated in Congress shows a deterioration of intellectual discernment,  The irrelevant and often foolish quibbling of the Monday Morning Quarterbacks are being taken seriously, probably because members of Congress are so slavishly devoted to garnering votes, no matter what level of inanity.

Discussions of national security are immersed in the muck of that petty  egotism which deludes people into thinking that inane bickering is intelligent discussion.  A survey of of the media and the blogosphere reveals how mired the nation, and therefore Congress, is in the sloughs of contention.  The Dutch government, for example, is planning to subject all airline passengers going through its terminals to full-body scans.  Many commenters decry that this technology has not been put in place sooner.  They forget that when full-body scanners were developed and demonstrated, there was an outcry about their invasion of privacy because the images of the full body included rather detailed scans of the genitalia.  A blocking device could be put in place over the crotch, but savvy would-be bombers would fasten their explosives in the crotch area somewhere.  This is exactly what the Nigerian Christmas bomber did.    The TSA delayed implementation of full-body scans because there was so much opposition to imaging the public's pudenda.

Then there is much criticism and accusation about the fact that the Nigerian's father informed the Dept. of State that his son was being radicalized by Islamic terror groups but he was not put on a list that  would have prevented him from boarding a U.S.-bound flight.  While the critics think he should have made the A-list of potential terrorists, they conveniently ignore the ruckus raised about just what criteria must be applied to curtail people's rights.  Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, has said that we need to practice outright discrimination in order to  prevent Islamic terrorists from entering the country or engaging in activities within it.  Some people have been wrongfully placed on lists and some have been subjected to humiliating searches and interrogations.  These instances show actions taken against people on the basis of false accusations.  With the aborted airliner bombing and the shootings at Fort Hood, we are told that the security measures following 9/11 are not working as well as they should be.  We even have some valid analysis as to why they have not worked.  But the questions of abandoning our fundamental principles of freedom, equality, and equal protection of the law loom over all information and discussions of deterrring terrorisim.

Predominantly, we have the  Monday Morning Quarterbacks sending up their sound and fury. Cogent and valid analysis gets intermixed and lost in the raging babble.  Instead of rolling up their sleeves and asking just what caused the malfunctions of the security system and what is the best way to correct it, the people in charge are busy looking over their shoulders to hear what the pundits will say, how the polls will respond, what the bloggers say, and what kind of political spin missiles they will have to deflect.  Responsible government is confused with responsive government.  And it is dysfunctional.

The loudest voice in all this is those who could care less about what happens to the people of the country as long as they can find some pretext in terror attacks for accusing the Obama administration of dire things which they hope will lead to its defeat.  Former Vice President Dick Cheney is the  loudest cheerleader for failure.   His latest sally can be easily demonstrated to be an outright lie, but truthfulness and accurate representations are not part of his party's operating standards.  That fact accounts for why government will not in the current intellectual climate be able to formulate a competent and effective means for dealing with terrorists.  A nation possessed by an unstable mentality lacks the capability of dealing with other unstable mentalities.  The insane asylum is being run by the insane.

Dealing with the pathologies in the human personality is the toughest of jobs.  It would much simpler to, as New Gingrich suggests, give in to an open policy of discriminating against anyone against whom we have suspicions.  We would become like Nazi Germany, the Stalinist Soviet Union, and contemporary Iran, China, and North Korea.  We would simply kill or incarcerate those we suspect or dislike.  And, of course, we would lose America in the corrosive mists of our reptilian past.  Those mists are present in the petty and often stunningly stupid discussion about how to deal with terrorism.  They are our biggest national threat.

The difficulties of making sound and justifiable decisions about people who pose possible threats is covered in two Washington Post articles of intensive reporting on the Nigerian bomber and on the Fort Hood shooter.  In both cases, the clues about the directions that these men took are ambiguous and not definitive.  They follow a pattern of men who live in isolated devotion to their religion.  If they were Christian, they would be termed monkish.  The recriminations about missing the clues they presented are demonstrations of how much easier it is to be stupid than intelligent.  People have a right to their opinions, but we have a dire need for cogent criticism of the presumptuous opinions of those who choose to be dummies.

America has gone about the business of defining itself since colonial times.  It wrote itself in lofty and inspirational words and went about the business of growing into those words.  During the last half of the twentieth century, America flourished.  But in the 21st century, the language that dominates American consciousness has changed.  It is the language of bickering, quibbling, carping, and denial.  If one gauges America's destiny by the quality of its language and the reach of  the words that define its sense of purpose, we clearly live in an age of intellectual decline.  When people become dysfunctional, their language expresses it.

As an old man, I have seen much failure.  I have seen corporations descend into failure.  (I worked for one of the  nation's most spectacular failures, International Harvester Company.)   I have seen colleges and universities lose their way when the small mindedness of the educational bureaucracy stifled the intellects of its scholars.   I am watching such a case now.  I have seen communities wither away and die when the petty resentment  and bigotry of the carpers in the town cafes characterized the town culture.  And we have entire states, such as California and New York, demonstrating the processes of dysfunction and failure.

There was a time when Americans for the most part could recognize when a job had to be done, such as in confronting Islamic terrorists.  They realized that something had to be done and there were multiple ways of accomplishing any such task.  They also realized that there are a number of ways of accomplishing a task, but that the real goal is to accomplish the task and not get diverted by bickering over just how to go about the task.  America, as in World War II, put aside petty preferences, rolled up its sleeves, and concentrated on accomplishing the task to be done.

As we have seen in the last Congressional session, that kind of cooperation and focus on end results is not possible.  Instead, we are immersed in the language of dysfunction and personal insult and abuse.  This state of affairs is exactly what terrorists hope to accomplish.

The better angels of human nature are being vanquished by its most insidious demons.  
The  language what swirls around us foreshadows an age of darkness, a return to those dark ages that the Age of Enlightenment dispelled.  Our country is being rendered incapable of cogent resolve and competent action.  The terrorists are winning because they know how to manipulate the strings of the dummies. 

The map to America's future has been drawn in words and images.  How many will follow it? 
[A state employee in Colorado is facing disciplinary action for 
circulating this picture  from her office computer.]

Monday, December 28, 2009

The holiness of mangers

 I admit to being a great admirer of  animals.  They buoy the spirit.  And although I have never been in a situation to own a horse, boy, have I coveted.

 Here is a photo gallery in the Washington Post about how the Army horses at Arlington Cemetery that pull the caissons with the caskets of service people killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are helping cure and rehabilitate wounded veterans.  Horses, even the ornery ones, can be therapeutic. 

During eight years of war that has generated nothing but news of human degeneration, these horses bring a message of beneficence that is alarmingly absent in current human affairs.  

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas as offense

When people exert themselves during the year expressing ill will, maligning other people at every opportunity, and working hard at fomenting malice, it is offensive when they get sanctimonious at Christmas time and profess messages of peace and good will.  A "merry Christmas" from the mouths of the perpetually malevolent desecrates the message of Christmas, which is one that has significance for people of all creeds and beliefs.

The blogosphere is cheerless during the holidays, because most bloggers who engage in ad hominem  malice seem to realize that words of cheer and good will coming from them will be taken as an obscene besmirching of what some people hold sacred and uplifting.  Some bloggers try to enlist Christian theology in support of their verbal pogroms of defamation and hate.

Educated people, whether they receive those educations form their native intelligence or formal schooling, know the difference between an honest statement of opinion and an ad hominem attack.  They know that people who  constantly contrive defamatory accusations against others are not engaging in debate, but in hateful slander and libel.  The problem is that the educated tend to avoid the blogosphere as the province of the malicious, and expressions of malice and defamation go unchallenged. 

There is a parallel problem in the major religious communities.  Theologians from both the Muslim and Christian beliefs have a task that they aren't carrying out very effectively.  The Muslim theologians have to teach more effectively that Islam is a religion that teaches peace and good will.  Christian theologians have the same problem.  There are those who use Christianity to foment hatred and discrimination and destructive action just as the jihadists use a perverted version of  Islam.

Perhaps the attempt by a Nigerian to set off an improvised explosive device on a Northwest flight coming in to Detroit was our best Christmas gift.  It reminded us that there are those out there who do not want peace and good will.  And the incident can remind us of the consequences that  malicious words lead to.  

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Obama dilemma

In the frenzy between attempts to pass health care reform and to destroy it, no one seems to be asking what happens if no reform is passed.   That question seems to be in the minds of the White House, but no one has flat-out addressed it.

Part of  the problem is that Obama finds himself cornered by trying to be considerate and nice.  He won the nomination as Democratic candidate because he refused to engage in the ad hominem tactics that caused people to side against and defect from Hillary Clinton.  As the Democratic candidate, he steadfastly stayed above the cheap defamation and false accusations that came from the McCain-Palin campaign.  The mindless yawp of Sarah Palin was a major factor in Obama's margin of victory.  Obama's articulateness and intelligent bearing offered a dramatic relief from the dull incompetence and deception that created a huge intellectual gap between the red and  blue factions during the previous eight years.

Obama projected a promise to lift politics out of the blogger level of endemic malice and petty resentments that are rooted more deeply in infantile egotism and the hubris of ignorance than in any coherent political positions based on facts.  Obama's supporters were so buoyed by the optimism of returning to intelligent dialogues befitting the democracy envisioned by the founders that they neglected to assess the motives of their opposition and their intensity.

Obama's promise was:

  • to extract the U.S. from its futile waste of life and taxes in Iraq and to put the nation on a course toward a constructive solution in Afghanistan;
  • to end the demolishing of American policies of decency represented by water boarding and other extreme measures and the threat to American standards of justice represented by  Abu Ghraig and Guantanamo;
  • to end the rapid dissolution of the economy and rescue a financial system that had become totally driven by greed and predation;
  • to deal with the mounting costs and inaccessibility for many of health care.
There are other hopes, of course, but these are the top ones.  Health care  receives emphasis because it is consuming family budgets at a an alarming rate and is projected to continue.  In 2005, a Harvard Medical School study found that 60 percent of the bankruptcies filed in the U.S. were triggered by medical bills.  A 2007 study confirmed that figure and indicated it is rising.

While one can Google for refutations of those studies, none of the denials are based upon actual criticisms of the study protocols.  In other words, there are denials of the figures, but no valid critiques which examine the actual numbers cited.

There is also a loud denial of the 47 million people who do not have health insurance and the number who are underinsured. It has become customary among the Republican misanthropes to dismiss this by saying such things as these people chose automobiles or other frivolities over health care.  The demographics  and the magnitude of the number indicate the absurd falseness of this dismissal, but the stance reveals the moral dimension of the reform opposition.  The opposition has chosen to bare its soul and put on a display of ill will that resides deep in the reptilian cortex.

The Republicans claim they have plans to reform health care, but no such plans were reported in the congressional committees that dealt with health care bills.  What has been expressed most loudly and consistently is the desire to demean and destroy any plans that come from the Democrats.    

The tea party movement was motivated by a supposed opposition to aspects of reform, but the dominant message was one of racist  belligerence.  The signs and slogans which contained false accusations and openly racist insults showed the nation that racial hatred is still a driving force in American politics.  While some tea party celebrants insisted that their participation was based upon earnest opposition to policy, they made no attempt to disassociate themselves from those who came with AK-47s and signs depicting Obama as a witch doctor.  In fact, they generally defended the right of racist belligerents to express themselves.  But they resented the right of observers to  conclude that their protests were grounded in plain, old-fashioned racial malice, not in any knowledge of what health care reform actually proposes.  And the progressives' notion that the election of Obama signaled a post-racial era is now recognized as a hopeful silliness.

If no health care reform is passed or if it is so watered-down that it doesn't extend coverage and reduce costs,  this episode will be a triumph for those who contend that people who do not have the wherewithal to have health care coverage are undeserving of it.  The term "fascist" has been used to so much in the right wing sound and fury that it has lost its meaning.  But real fascism advances the belief in  designating an underclass as inferior and, therefore, qualifying for denial of humane consideration.  That designation has been made stridently by the right wing.  People who for all the various reasons do not have health care coverage or for whom it is inadequate deserve, in the minds of the Becks and Limbaughs who speak for the right wing, all the pestilence that can be heaped on them.  Racial hatred is the paradigm for health care protest.  Mitch McConnell standing before the Senate vowing to block any health care reform is the reincarnation of Orville  Faubus blocking black students from entering the Little Rock high school.  The  main difference is that the hatred has  expanded to encompass anyone of any race who is designated by Beck and Limbaugh as liberal.  It is about the right wing obsession with exclusion as its fundamental political motive. 

Obama has extended the hand of civility and friendship to the right wing.  It has consistently been spurned and even slapped down with vehement fury.   His pledge to restore intelligence, comity, and basic respect to the governing processes has exposed him to all the denigration, obstruction, and destruction that his opponents can dream up.  His dilemma is that being nice has greatly impeded his agenda, and his supporters think it is time to get on with business--the rage, the obstruction, and petulance of Republicans be damned.

Howard Dean has commented that if the Republicans were in the majority and were promoting health care reform, it would be done by now.  They extract jack-boot discipline from their party members, and they are not  concerned about decency, unless it can be used a pretext for their outbursts of phony outrage. 

No matter what Obama does, he will lose support, as he has been.  People are impatient for results.  Progressives think he should have used the economic crisis as the chance to purge those responsible for America's failures--the auto industry, the financial industry, the war mongers.  Moderates realized that a summary disposal of the misperforming factions would make the Great Depression look like a minor discomfort in comparison. The country would have to go through economic hell while it tried to rebuild its financial and industrial infrastructure.

Similarly, on the other fronts, Obama chose to work as much as possible with the people who were in place in the military, in the intelligence agencies, and in health care.  Progressives think doing so was a mistake.  Moderates are wary of any consideration given to those who begged for bailout money, then moaned and whined at conditions put on it--and later rebuffed Obama's attempts to get them to reform their practices.  The ridiculous bonuses to those who almost brought the country down are a case in point.

But health care is the focal  point.  If nothing is changed or the changes are inadequate, what will those who voted for it do?  The flagging approval ratings give a hint.  Obama seemed like the last best hope to restore American democracy.  While the right wing rails about what Obama is doing to America, the America they treasure was the America of military belligerence, unconscionable deceptions of the people, special privileges for an overclass, and a version of patriotism that was carefully modeled on obedience to the fascist precepts it followed.  This is what the right wing wants restored, and the left wing wants to move away from.

The  political divide is made for civil war.  As the polarity between the left and right wings increases, the differences become irreconcilable.  As a former colleague in political science put it when asked to be on a discussion panel, it is hard enough to be on the same planet with some of these people, let alone in the same room.

It would be a serious error to read the flagging poll ratings of Obama as a loss of faith in him alone.  The disapproval ratings of the political parties must be pulled into the context.  The loss of faith is in America.  It is simply dysfunctional. 

What happens in health care is the touch stone.  If nothing happens, the left wing will not wait another 15 years.  While the Republicans seem able to exert control over their minions, the Democrats are not so tractable.  The poll numbers and the more reasoned commentators identify dysfunction in government as the reason behind the declining approval ratings.  And only one political party can claim unequivocal sponsorship of the  dysfunction.

Since the election of 2004, a number of friends left South Dakota because of what they regarded as an unhealthy political climate.  The restlessness that drove the pioneers and early settlers from one state to another is not dead.  Just as our children accept the fact that there is little in the state that can satisfy their ambitions and aspirations, they question whether the America that can be dominated by perverse hatefulness is a place worth bothering much about.  I also hear this from contemporaries who have been politically active in the past, but who now regard voting as a joke.  The government has become incapable of registering what they voted for.  And they point to the election of 2000 as the ultimate desecration of the ballot box.

America is not too big to fail.  Many doubt that it has the intellectual acuity or the moral substance to rescue itself.  Obama's biggest dilemma is the doubt that possesses some of his strongest supporters. They are carefully watching what happens with health care reform. And whether there is much to hope for in America anymore. 

    Monday, December 14, 2009

    Pine Ridge gangs covered by The New York Times

    Ever since birth
    I been waitin’ for death ...

    The South Dakota media, legacy and new, seldom bother to cover the reservations.  The New York Times features a a front page story today on the burgeoning of youth gangs on Pine Ridge.  Other reservations, such as Standing Rock, Cheyenne River,  Rosebud, and Sisseton-Wahpeton also have severe problems with gangs and crime and hopelessness.  The press in South Dakota does not function beyond its pseudo-political pontificating.  Except for an occasional flare of intelligence and enterprise, the South Dakota media is as dysfunctional as reservation life can be.

    Thursday, December 10, 2009

    Did Obama sell out the U.S. to Wall Street?

    One of the few bloggers who build cases that require serious attention is Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stones.  Many of the more astute of bail outs and health care reform proposals are concerned that the measures being advanced under the Obama administration are give-aways to Wall Street, bankers, and insurance companies.  Read Taibbi's case here.

    Thunacy: Let them die, quickly or slowly.

    John Thune has become the voice of the GOP--Groundless Obstinence and Petulance--according to the Huffington  Post.  He says his party will unanimously oppose any reform, no matter what it proposes. 

    Wednesday, December 9, 2009

    Where politics has no business

    The past weekend was one of  celebration.  My daughter Leslie is graduating from Metropolitan  State College of Denver and presented her senior recital Sunday afternoon.   On Thursday night we heard her perform in a music bar, Old Curtis, with a band which draws on a mix of musical genres.  (The band instrumentation is amplified ukulele, keyboard, electric bass, drums,  violin, viola, two cellos, trumpet, and tuba.)  Then Friday night was the Metropolitan State music department's Christmas concert at which Leslie played in the wind ensemble and the brass ensemble.  Great performance.  Full house for Friday and Saturday nights.

    The creative excitement and accomplishment I witnessed over the weekend reminded me of why I became a professor.  But Metropolitan State has something going on that reminded me of why I hesitate to advise talented young people to become professors.  It is the educational bureaucracy which seems more focused on suppressing and destroying talent than in developing and promoting it.

    The quality of a higher education institution is determined largely by how campus politics are managed.  Colleges and departments are in competition for funding and acknowledgment.  Good institutions pay meticulous attention to seeing that its academic units and personnel are given equitable treatment.  It takes superior people to maintain equitable standards.  Poor institutions, on the other hand, encourage rivalries among departments and personnel, and those rivalries produce factions and divisions among the faculty.  Faculty caught up in factional disputes are dysfunctional.  Consequently, the institutions in which such divides exist are dysfunctional. Their students are denied the experience of how people of diverse and differing viewpoints conciliate to produce a cohesive and inspiring academic experience.

    In recent years, partisan politics have become an issue on campuses.  In my time as a professor, we may have been aware of the political stances of some of our colleagues, but partisan politics were never permitted to intrude into academic business.  That is no longer so.  In the lesser institutions, partisan politics have become just another dimension of faculty divisiveness.

    I am a firm believer that faculty who violate any rules of academic integrity should be stringently disciplined.  That means that any faculty who plagiarizes  or fabricates or misrepresents evidence should be fired.  I have sat on review panels in which such firings were upheld.  Academic incompetence, slovenliness, and dishonesty, I think, must be dealt with decisively.

    Recently,  my son had a conversation with a music professor where I last taught.  The professor told my son he could never agree with my politics.  I have never had a conversation about politics with this professor.  I have no idea why my political party or convictions would be relevant to any conversation about academic business, but party politics has become a malignancy on some campuses that saps the intellectual vitality out of the collegiate environment.

    In campuses where the culture has degraded into personal rivalries and resentments among faculty, the politics of the malformed egos are enough to contend with.  Professors in such places find that they have to remain aloof from the campus milieu if they are to do their teaching, scholarship, and service with any effect.  Shortly after I retired, I started writing a newspaper column.  Some colleagues and students told me that doing so had raised resentment  and ire among some former colleagues in that I did not deserve recognition for doing something they thought they could do better.  Even though I am retired, I am still engaged in academic work, both in terms of scholarship and faculty issues.  As a former officer on both the state and local level of faculty organizations, I am often asked to review cases where faculty have gotten into difficulty to see if there are violations of academic freedom involved and if the organizations might wish to intervene.  Sometimes faculty are at fault; sometimes administrations are at fault.  But in most cases, ego-driven rivalries and resentments inflate the issues into major problems, problems that would not become so if true intelligence were exercised and if collegial purpose was pursued as the driving force in the institutions.  But I must say, the most admirable and accomplished people I have known were professors.  But so were some of the vilest people I have known.  Jealousy and resentment and a belief in their superiority is the first mark of a faculty member striving for vileness.  They serve their egos, not their discipline or their profession, and they are the most threatening pestilence in academic life.

    Leslie began college at Northern State University.  She played in the brass ensemble for the graduation ceremony at which my retirement was acknowledged.  She credited  her studies there in the program for her senior recital.  However, shortly after I retired, Leslie decided she needed a change.  She did not play her tuba, or any of the other instruments she plays, for about three years. I do not know the specific reasons for her loss of interest, but those faculty politics I mention are not well managed at NSU and I have seen all too many promising students lose interest and get discouraged.

    As an officer in faculty organizations, I was often involved in dealing with grievances and issues of integrity and fair play with faculty members.  There were people at the university who did superb scholarship and provided students with knowledge and find examples of academic purpose.  There were others who were devoted to personal resentments, bitching, and backbiting.   In the 1980s, a change in administration operated by fanning those resentments and rivalries as a means to divide and conquer the faculty.  In this context, programs and course offerings were cut, and cost-accounting rather than academic leadership and building and maintaining strong programs became the rule.  The fact that Northern is the only state institution to experience declines in enrollments in recent years has much to do with how the university is managed and the kind of academic experience students find there.  Under the cosmetics of slogans and claims are seething blotches of intellectual failure. 

    When Leslie moved to Denver and enrolled at Metropolitan State, I was pleased.  I was more so when she resumed her musicianship and responded to new opportunities and a challenging and rewarding environment.  Over the years, I have visited the Metro campus and met some of her professors, and have been impressed with the environment and the sense of direction provided students.  Metro has an enrollment of about 22,000 and shares the Auraria Campus in downtown Denver with Denver Community College and the University of Colorado at Denver.  A walk on the  campus is invigorating, as students bustle about their business with energy and purpose.  Metro feels like a campus should.

    Leslie has met success and achieved a goal, and plans to keep moving forward.  Metro supplied the opportunity and the atmosphere for accomplishment that one hopes every student will find when they enter college.

    But Metro has those problems of faculty politics, too.  It fired a professor of 20 years of unblemished tenure in an instance that emits the strong reek of faculty rivalries and resentment.  According to an account first published in the student newspaper, the professor was undergoing her annual performance review and listed a publication which had not, in fact, been published. She presented the paper at a professional conference and paid a fee required by the organization for it to be published in its journal.  She had contacted the journal's editor and says she was told it was being published.  The Metro administration and board said she had deliberately lied about the publication, and it fired her for academic dishonesty.

    As I stated, I believe that professors who plagiarized, manufacture evidence, or misrepresent materials that they cite should be fired.  But unlike the case with Ward Churchill, who was fired from the University of Colorado, no question about the integrity of the information in the paper was raised.  The paper was written and scheduled for publication,.  The professor made a mistake in not having the publication on hand before listing it.  In light of the professor's 20-year record at Metro, firing seems like an extreme measure.  Charges of racism have been raised, and the professor had testified in behalf of another professor who was terminated, but then was awarded $300,000 in compensation for a hostile work environment.  The firing under the circumstances seems terribly vindictive and vengeful.

    I have been impressed with Metro.  I hope it is not headed into that state of dysfunction that faculty politics can result in  when they are not intelligently and effectively dealt with.  And I hope Leslie's experience, not that of fired professors, is what will define Metro State. 

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    Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States