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Friday, July 23, 2010

Loss of faith: government by defamation

The AP carried  stories a few weeks ago on how the floundering around in the Gulf oil spew has thrown many Americans into a state of doubt. They have lost faith in the nation's resourceful ability to meet challenges with new ideas and prodigious efforts to make things work.  I would have to count myself among them.  I frankly am at a loss at the lack of decisive effort to get on top of that stupid drilling mishap,  something that was inevitable as long as the corporate suck-buddies are in charge of things.  The nation seems to have reconciled itself to the prospect of the Gulf becoming a great sea of toxic waste water.

There is an aspect of the oil spew which has not been emphasized.  Neither government or the oil industry had any kind of provision to deal with the  kind of blow-out that occurred with  Deepwater Horizon.  In fact, the engineering for drilling in such deep water into strata with which science and industry has little experience was largely experimental.  The BP engineers had to invent a solution for capping the well almost from scratch.  It has taken some inventive problem-solving to put a cap on the well, but its ultimate success depends on whether the well casing itself is engineered strongly enough to withstand the immense pressure exerted on it.  

But the oil spew is really just an extension of a malaise that became evident some years back and is part of a shifting of attitudes in the country. That sinking feeling isn't so much a loss of faith in America's ability to tackle problems as it is a growing recognition that a large portion of Americans don't want to tackle problems.  Worse than that, the refusal to address problems is more than dull obstinacy: it is an overt malevolence and exercise of ill will that some Americans bear toward their fellow citizens.  It is the inescapable acknowledgment that  a good portion of America has adopted the rule of malice toward  most with charity for none.

The malaise became evident after Tom Daschle's loss to John Thune.  A loss in a system of contested elections is expected.  It was not Daschle's loss that so dismayed people.  It was the propaganda tactics that won the election.   The dismay was that a majority of South Dakota voters bought into the character assassination by false and contorted accusations against Daschle, which included attacks on his family.  If Daschle had been defeated by a candidate who opposed him on honest differences in policy and substantiated matters of record,  the results of the 2004 election would not have had the lasting after-effect that it has.  What stunned observant people, both Democrats and Republicans, was that a majority of voters chose to accept malicious distortions and contrivances, fabrications, and insults as cogent political dialogue.  John Thune hired some unprincipled character assassins to mount an ad hominem campaign of insult, abuse, and slander against Daschle and his family,  In a state where people deeply resent, often hate, anyone who makes a mark in the world outside the state, the slanders were greedily accepted.  The most popular form of communication in the state is the malicious gossip served as entertainment in the small-town cafes and their larger-town equivalents.  The campaign was effective.

The Thune campaign in South Dakota was equaled for its degeneracy only by Saxby Chambliss' campaign against Max Cleland in Georgia.  On scriptural standards, the campaigns bore false witness. On a Constitutional standard, which gives states the power to retain all inherent rights not enumerated in the Constitution, every state has in their legal codes a right expressed in South Dakota's: "Every person is obligated to refrain from infringing upon the right of others not to be defamed."   Unfortunately, this right is countered by the protection of free speech, and in the current interpretation, defamation is free speech. Consequently, we have elections decided, as in the cases of the  aforementioned,  by defamation.  Shameless character assassins claim to represent the will of the people in Congress,  and the people have willed a government by defamation.

Since the election of 2004, I have seen many close friends leave the state.  That election was a large consideration in their decisions.  They were all people of unusual and constructive talents, and they found that their abilities could be better used  elsewhere.  I liken them to the many people I have met and known who came to America to utilize talents that were suppressed and demeaned elsewhere.  A doctor I knew, like Einstein and many other intellectuals, left Germany as the Nazi movement gained control.  A professor of mine left Latvia as the Soviet Union began its suppression of intellectuals in earnest after World War II.  And a fellow professor left Cuba where he was a newspaper editor to teach Spanish at a college where I taught.  They were welcomed and encouraged to use their talents which were regarded as demerits in their home countries.  With the resurgence of racial hatred and resentment and the anti-intellectual movement in our country, I fear that good people across the nation, like my friends who left South Dakota, will be looking for other places to exercise their talents, their aspirations, and their inherent rights.

This year, we will be spared one of John Thune's campaigns.  His previous campaigns have much to do with the Democratic Party's lack of a candidate.  No one wants to put up with the malicious abuse on which he campaigns.  No one wants to subject their families to it.  And if the people elect someone on the basis of a campaign, anyone of principle must think hard about whether he/she really wants to represent the values demonstrated.  No one of any humane decency expects anyone to endure the slanderous abuse that goes with running for office.

  We still have to see how the campaign for House seat works out.  Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin no doubt feels earnestly that her voting record in Congress reflects the people she represents.  But those votes have created a diffidence in many people who were avid supporters in the past.  She voted against health care reform, consumer credit reform, and student loan reform.  She stands strongly with the Blue Dogs on making fiscal restraint the controlling principle.  But that leaves her seeming to side with the opposition party.

Health care reform reveals the problem for voters.  Since the Nixon presidency, people have known that health care problems had to be addressed.  By the Obama presidency, there were 47 million people without health care coverage.  The country was forced to make a decision:  did it think health care should be available to everyone, or just to those who could afford it?  That question formed the political divide.  The Republicans opposed the idea that everyone should have health care available to them, and they launched spurious and inane attacks against the bill being proposed--such as the nonsense about death panels.  The big problem with the Republicans was that they merely opposed reform; they did not offer any serious alternatives that would provide reasonable access for people who needed it.  Or they did not candidly admit that they dismiss the needy as worthy only of the ultimate end that a lack of health care will provide them. 

In explaining her opposition, Herseth Sandlin said that she was opposing the bill on the basis of its cost. She specified some areas where she thought the bill could be improved.  She was firm in her opposition to the bill as  reported out to the House, but she assumed the same position as the Republicans.  If the bill did not meet her demands, she opposed it.  The Blue Dogs and the Republicans left people to ask: what are those who do not have health care and cannot afford it supposed to do in the meantime?  There did not seem to be any effort by the Republicans or the Blue Dogs to do the negotiating and compromising that goes into any piece of legislation.  It seemed that if they did not get their way, they were satisfied to let the needy languish.  This apparent dismissal of such a huge segment of Americans regarding health care and other issues and the inability of Congress to hash out solutions is the real motive behind the loss of  faith.  Congress and their constituents would rather make accusations and condemnation of each other than address the life-and-death problems confronted by a large portion of the citizens.  America resembles Germany of the 1930s when "useless eaters" were effectually given a death sentence, and it resembles contemporary Iraq in which Sunnis and Shiites would rather commit mass murder on each other than find a way to coexist in peace.  And America is sending signals to many that the great experiment has come to another brink of failure and may have to be continued in some other place and time. 

Obama's election has proven that it doesn't make any difference who wins elections:  the political climate is toxic and the poison is being brewed at the grass roots.  The politicians and propaganda media are merely serving the interests of their constituents.  So, there is a diffidence among many about voting. 

The domestic malaise is aggravated by wars that cannot be won, but will consume the lives and resources of the nation.  The Islamic mass murderers have succeeded in spreading their gospel of violence and hatred to the country they hate so much.  And Americans have, by and large, bought into it, just like they buy into the defamation and falsehoods of the political campaigns.

Americans have lost faith in each other.  When fellow citizens and neighbors show that they regard people who think and believe differently as "useless eaters" whose lives are expendable, there can be no trust or faith.  As the media cites poll after poll that indicates the low regard Americans have for Congress, it cannot grasp the idea that they are registering a disapproval of the fact that Congress would rather fight than work.  Nor can it grasp the fact that Congress is responding to the noisiest of the agitators in the media and to their adherents, not to those who expect more of themselves and their representatives.

The re-emergence of race as a political plank provides a definition of how far America has come and far it is regressing.  But race is not the only dividing point on which people arrange their favorite hatreds.  The Tea Party movement is strenuously denying that it is racist.  But its events have featured race-baiting antics in their front lines.  The racist incidents draw the most attention because they are the most offensive.  Clearly the racists form only a part of the Tea Party movement and do not represent a majority, but as a member of Congress who has chosen not to run again commented, the movement is a coalition of haters.  They are united in their hatred of anything they can term liberal.

But racism exists as a potent force.  When black congressmen were insulted and abused, the defenders of the Tea Party say that there is not one shred of evidence that the epithets and spitting actually took place.  The contention that the black congressmen are lying is ironic.  After all, we all know that their word can't be trusted because "those people" are given to "stinking, cheating, lying, and stealing," to borrow an old KKK meme.    No, there is no racism in the Tea Party movement.  It is something made up by the NAACP. 

And some people wonder why people are losing faith in America.  

Thursday, July 22, 2010

What's the strategy behind what appears to be pathetic cowardice to the rest of us?

Cenk Uygur (yeah, that's his name) states the case as well as it can be stated.  If you have the courage, read it here.

It's called subreption. In the world of writing, it's considered a crime.

CNN  did some fact-checking in the firing of Shirley Sherrod for her alleged admission that she made a decision about helping a white farmer on a racial basis.  That, of course, turned out not to be true.  What was true is that the video clip which provided the basis for her firing was an exercise in subreption. Someone had lifted a portion of the tape that totally misrepresented and falsified what Ms. Sherrod was talking about, which was confronting racial perceptions and working beyond them.

Subreption as applied to writing refers to quoting or citing sources in a way that conceals the full facts and misrepresents what is being quoted or referenced.  Another technical term for the practice is contextomy. The practice is the taking of someone's  words out of context and making them seem to say something quite different, usually contrary, to what has actually been said.

The term subreption is used more often in the field of communications because it also refers to the false conclusions drawn from the falsifications of someone's words.  It has not been established as of this  writing who did the actual editing of the video of Shirley Sherrod's speech, but Andrew Breibart posted it on his blog site and Fox News circulated it as parties to an act which was intended to discredit the NAACP and portray Ms. Sherrod as practicing racism.  The purveyors of the video clip were incensed that the NAACP passed a resolution asking the tea party movement to  repudiate the racist elements that have used its functions to broadcast their racist messages.  The intention in showing the subrepted clip from Ms. Sherrod's speech was to show an instance where the NAACP and Ms. Sherrod were engaging in black  racism.

In the field of writing and communications in general, people generally think of plagiarism as the unforgivable sin one can commit.  It isn't.  In academics, the worst act is making up or falsifying information.  Falsehoods are poison pills that destroy humans and their institutions.  They make trust and trustworthy communication impossible.   In the past, when we taught students the standards of good writing, we spent quite a bit of time on explaining and warning against plagiarism.  We did not have to warn students about the dangers of making up or misrepresenting information.  They intuitively understood why it is wrong and resented being lectured on something they already knew.  Times have changed.  Misrepresenting information is considered to be smart politics on the blogosphere.  Ward Churchill, a professor at the University of Colorado whose case  gained national attention, was fired for misrepresenting information he cited.  Subreption is a way of life for some. 

The matter of  Shirley Sherrod is a prime example of how destructive falsehoods are.  Initially, the Obama administration and the NCAAP took the subrepted clip on its face and, apparently, panicked because it seemed to bear out the charges of reverse racism that the conservative confederacy is launching against them. In drawing the conclusion that Ms. Sherrod had discriminated against a white farmer, they also committed an act of subreption.  For a time, the concocted lie worked its intended effect.  Ms. Sherrod was fired.  And the Obama administration showed that it cowers before the invective of the Breitbarts, the Limbaughs, the Glenn Becks, and all those who  put on their racist demonstrations at tea party events.  The attempts to appease conservative acrimony, much of which has an obvious racial basis, have come across as a lack of moral courage.  Good people, such as Ms. Sherrod, are maligned and hurt.

 Obviously, the USDA, Obama, and the NAACP should have demanded to see the entire video of Shirley Sherrod's speech before making any conclusions.  But that is not the way things work in the current political climate.  The  fomenting of hatred, the promotion of slander, the destruction of those who have different beliefs and values is the dominating force that motivates the way language is used.

Cable news, talk radio, and the Internet have adopted hate propaganda as its verbal currency.  One can find many examples of subreptive language in the South Dakota blogosphere on a daily basis.  That's one of the reasons that many bloggers have withdrawn or greatly curtailed their activity on blogs.  There is a pronounced division between those who vent their scurrilous malevolence on blogs and those who seek refuge from it.  It is a division between those who value language as the medium of communication and those who see it as the stuff out of which their destructive devices are composed.  The culture wars are being fought more intensely than ever.  And like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they produce nothing but death and destruction, and no one can be a victor.  People live in fear and loathing of each other.  But this is not a circumstance that can be blamed on politicians and media.  The politicians and the media simply reflect what the people want.

Sooner or later, the people must come to terms with the fact that true grassroots movement in America is the dysfunction and toxicity and that politicians and the media cater to it to get voters and an audience. 

Shirley Sherrod is not the first and only person to be sacrificed on the altar of malice that pervades America.  She most certainly won't be the last.  If the culture keeps going on the trend it follows, we'll all end up there.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The end of college

After 126 years, Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, will close down this month, it was announced Wednesday.  Five hundred students, about 40 faculty, and dozens of staff members abruptly found out that they won't have classes or jobs after this month.  In a move that says much about the priorities that govern higher education, Midland Lutheran in Fremont, Neb., offered Dana's 18 head coaches 90-day contracts.  It has also said it may hire some of the faculty, and it has made special provisions, including free room and board, for students who transfer from Dana.  A number of other institutions in Nebraska and Iowa have made special provisions for students to transfer.

Dana has been in bad financial shape for years.  It had considered merging with Midland, but it made an arrangement with a group of investors to take over the college and turn it into a for-profit college.  When the deal was announced in March, the new owners promised all sorts of upgrades and changes.  The problem came when the accrediting agency for Dana, the Higher Learning Commission, said it would not continue its accreditation under the terms of the transfer of ownership.  While it did not specify its reasons, the Commission indicated that the plans appeared to weaken the liberal arts standards in favor of a vocational emphasis, which would be a departure from the college's announced mission.

Over the years, I have seen a number of small colleges close their doors.  The economics of higher education has changed drastically and changed the factors which once made it possible for small institutions to be viable.  One factor is that campuses located in small towns have gone out of popularity.  While such institutions provide an environment that is beneficial to certain types of students, they find that they have to urbanize to attract sufficient numbers of students.  Small, quiet campuses where students can focus on their studies without diversions and distractions do not offer the lifestyle that students want and expect.  Still, what many people need to develop is how to think intensely, reflectively, and productively, and small, ordered academic communities focus on the acquisition and development of that skill.

I taught for eight years at the undergraduate college where I obtained my bachelor's degree,  When I was a student, quiet hours were  imposed on the dormitories so that noise and distraction was kept at a minimum when students were presumed to be studying.When I taught at the same institution, those rules which were geared toward doing scholarship were no longer in effect.  A walk through the dormitories during the evenings would present an environment of blaring stereos and raucous socializing.  Students who needed a quiet environment to get their work done went to the library to do their reading and writing.  But the distracting environment on the rest of the campus showed up in the student work.  It was the product of students who did not bring their full attention to study tasks.  The shift from campus life primarily geared for study had given way to a priority for student socializing and entertainment, and that change was the subject of commentary in academic circles throughout the land.

Many meetings of professors' organizations were taken up by the subject of what to do to improve students' study and thinking habits.  The more serious students found life on-campus was not conducive to the work of college.  They found apartments off campus geared their work sessions to avoid the life style that was growing on campus.

At Northern State, I had a number of occasions when I was asked to intervene for students to have their contracts to live in dorms rescinded so that they  could move off campus.  In some dorms, the students were actually harassed by dormitory mates when they tried to study and work.  The thinking was that their work habits were setting too high a standard for the student body.

Many colleges found it necessary to increase enrollments to keep up with mounting costs.  For some, that meant admitting students who did not fit the colleges' own admission standards.  At NSU, the stated standard for admission included an ACT composite score of 18 or better.  However, it admitted students with composites as low as 13.  (At the previous college I taught, the average ACT composite was 26).  While colleges have offered "bonehead English" courses traditionally to help students deficient in their writing to be brought up to college standards, the developmental courses I was assigned at NSU had students whose writing abilities were at the grade school level and who needed years, rather than a course, to bring their work up to par.  On the basis of their academic histories in high school, many of them should simply not have been admitted into college.  But the college needed the tuition money and that meant trying to work around some tepid bodies. Those students needed the kind of specialized work in catching-up that some community colleges offer.  Some worked prodigiously to make up for lost time; others complained constantly about the  unreasonable demands college made on them.

The admission of under-prepared and unmotivated students raised a concern among college faculty who think that the "higher" in "higher education" is no longer a part of the mission of  many post-secondary institutions.    Some colleges are unabashed diploma mills and the diplomas they award do not signify academic achievement or cognitive abilities. 

As admission standards were dropped and replaced with the philosophy that students are consumers and consumers are always right,  colleges set on a trend that further diminished the level of academic work and achievement expected.  Part of that trend was the introduction of student evaluations of instruction, which many faculty and administrators insist accelerated the deterioration of higher education.  Stanley Fish in The New York Times has a two-part series of essays on the deleterious effect student evaluations have had on higher education.

While I think professors need to be evaluated for their teaching performance and students need to have their legitimate concerns registered and acknowledged,  the student evaluation process contributes nothing to those ends.  As a faculty officer who negotiated the working agreements, we had the name of the process changed from student evaluations to opinion surveys of instruction and we put in measures to require that provided stipulations for how the surveys could be used in assessing faculty performance.  But they were still misused by some administrators and were a nuisance that created a barrier between faculty and students that interfered with the delivery of top rate instruction.

The problem was that some colleges began to reshape their curriculum and modes of instruction according to student standards.  At one point a study of the academic standards stated that of the 2,500 accredited four-year institutions in the U.S., about 500 of them could be eliminated and thereby raise the academic of level of higher education considerably.  The charge was that many colleges are engaged in self-perpetuation, not in higher education.

In thinking about the problem, I am reminded of the demise of Huron College.  As a private church-related college, it had a strong history, but did not have the support and resources to continue under that form of operation.  It was purchased by a for-profit group which tried to bolster its enrollments  by
offering classes that had "market appeal."  One of the classes was dog-grooming, for example.  Soon, serious students were gone and were replaced by students who thought college was merely a process of putting in time and buying a diploma.  Soon, the accreditation agencies began to question if the degrees offered were actually college degrees.  And Huron College soon was not viable as a higher learning institution.  Now the campus sits empty.

I strongly suspect that the pattern followed by Huron College is what the Higher Learning Commission saw as the inevitable fate of Dana College.  Without accreditation, the college could not obtain the loans and grants that would enable it to continue.  And its diplomas would be regarded as worthless.

The big factors in all this are academic purpose and standards.  While science and technology are getting most attention, the fact is that those specialties do not occur in a vacuum.  They are utilized best in the context of broad-based, tested knowledge.  With increased attention to the quality of higher learning, there will most likely be many small colleges following Dana College into oblivion.  But this could also mean the upgrading and expansion of community colleges.  American institutions have begun to lose their luster for foreign students.  Colleges in China and India, for example, are rivaling American institutions in the quality and rigor of their curriculum.  The anti-intellectual trend in America has taken its toll on higher education.  College as we now know it is coming to an end.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States