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

Friday, July 29, 2011

Even the cougars migrate away

Maybe I'll go for a walk.
A cougar was struck and killed by a car in Connecticut, which has not been home to cougars since colonial times. Wildlife officials wondered where it could have come from and traced it through DNA to the Black Hills of South Dakota, 1,500 miles away.  No one can suggest why a cougar would be lured so far away from home.

Unless it is following the general human trend of the nation.  The population shift from rural to urban areas has become  pronounced. Demographers say that the lines demarcating rural and urban areas may well be totally obliterated so that although the rural areas are being abandoned and small towns are emptied out, the urban overflow with a growing population may fill those rural reaches up again with an urban-patterned style of life.  

The migration from the rural areas has been a steady trend since the early part of the 20th century.  It is led by young people who are looking for better and more satisfying opportunities to earn their livings and find sex.  The driving forces in population  shifts are more jobs and money, and the prospects for better food and better sex.  Those quests are not necessarily  realized, but that doesn't keep the young and restless from looking.

For the cougar, the sex with no other cougars around Connecticut does not seem to be a motive.  Unless it decided to emulate the U.S. Congress and screw the pooch.  Which might be, because dogs are one of cougars' favorite food items.  They are easier to find and catch than other wildlife.

For young humans, the new motto may well be "Follow the cougar."  But while we may speculate about what is luring our young people away from rural America, we have a record of what is driving them away.  Wonder if our fine folks in South Dakota will ever have courage to face that question.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Praise the lord and rape the children

The remains of the house in Sisseton, South Dakota, where Tekakwitha Orphanage’s director, Father John Pohlen, lived and allegedly abused young children, when he wasn’t raping them behind the nearby church altar.

South Dakota Boarding School Survivors Detail Sexual Abuse

Read the story in Indian Country Today





Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A fine way to run an airline. Right into the ground.

Aberdeen is facing the risk of losing its air service.   Delta airlines has notified its affiliated feeder services that it is losing money in supporting air service to smaller communities and will no longer continue to do so.   Delta cites the costs, especially fuel, and paltry number of passengers. Aberdeen is served by its Mesaba subsidiary.

The year I came to Aberdeen, the town was served by the newly formed Republic Airlines, which was created in 1979 through the merger of North Central Airlines and Southern Airlines. I do not have the statistics on passenger boardings over the years, but the business then seemed brisk.  (The last decade shows the dwindling passenger trend:  Aberdeen had 24,608 passenger boardings during 2000 and 20,089 during 2010.)  Republic served as a regional carrier, and from Aberdeen, one could fly directly to Minneapolis, Sioux Falls, Brookings, Pierre, Rapid City, Bismarck,  and Fargo.  You could make connections with other airlines at the larger of those airports.  The aircraft used were turbo props that weren't as sexy as jets, but they were roomy, could hold all the passenger luggage, and, I understand, were cost efficient and stable for pilots to fly.   

Then came deregulation and the direct routes to towns in the Dakotas were abandoned.  Mesaba became a carrier charged with feeding passengers into the central hub in the Twin-Cities.  If you wanted to fly to Sioux Falls or Rapid City, you had to go through the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.  The tickets got very expensive, and for business travel the college where I worked found that it could afford airline tickets only to very distant destinations.  The rest of the time, we were instructed to drive. Also, Mesaba abandoned the Republic turboprops and began using much smaller aircraft, which were not particularly comfortable and could not hold much luggage.  The cost accountants figured that the central-hub arrangement was more cost effective, but they did not account for the loss of passengers.

When shuttling passengers into central hubs and redispatching them to their destinations became the airline rule,  air travel became very inconvenient.  One of my last trips by air was to Rapid City.  I took one of those dinky planes to the Twin-Cities,  waited around the terminal for a couple of hours, and then caught another fairly dinky plane for Rapid City.  The planes were too small to hold all the passenger luggage.  So, after I got to Rapid City, I had to leave my hotel and room number with the ticket agent there so the airline could deliver my luggage, which came in on another plane later.  Much later.  There were items in the luggage I needed for the meeting I was sent to attend, and they were not there.  

At one point, Republic had one daily jet flight on a DC-9 between Aberdeen and the Twin-Cities.  The jet came from the Cities in the evening, parked overnight, and returned to the Twin-Cities early the next morning.  That did not last long.

There was another merger when Northwest Orient Airlines bought Republic.  Northwest dealt with low passenger numbers, but did upgrade the aircraft so that one could be fairly certain of having one's luggage when one arrived at the destination.  And then there was another merger between Northwest and Delta.  Delta upgraded the planes again, and now serves Aberdeen with jets.  The problem is that the jets are expensive to run, so Delta cut back on flights.  Now it has given notice that it wants to terminate service altogether.

Airline deregulation made it possible for airlines to make more money on flights out of their hub cities, but it also left passengers in smaller communities without service.  As happened in Aberdeen, both business and casual travelers simply found it necessary to find other modes of travel, meaning by car.  

What is happening to the airlines cannot be attributed solely to changing economics.  While airline officials talk about the costs of fuel and security matters raised by terrorists, a big factor has been the invasion of the bean-counters,  the MBA-trained business theorists who can bolster bottom lines only by cutting expenses.   What they cannot do is build businesses,  find ways to provide services and products that are needed, and build a customer base that supports a profit margin.  

The airlines are part of a business activity that centers on acquisitions and mergers to reduce competition, not on engaging in the business of extending their services to more customers.  In the mid-1980s, I was part of a group that was asked to do a market survey for a man who represented a group of investors.  The man had been involved in the formation of Ozark Airlines, which once served Sioux Falls.  Ozark was then bought out and merged with TWA, another carrier now on the defunct list.  The man had the idea of using the money he got from the merger to start another regional airline that would cover routes that were abandoned when airlines stopped serving small communities and flew only from hub to hub.  The man said there was a huge market to be tapped for a carrier that re-instituted direct air service between smaller communities, as well as feeding passengers to central hubs.  He and his fellow investors decided to put their money into another enterprise, but not because a smaller, regional air carrier could not get passengers and make money. When the deregulation of airlines took full effect, airlines shifted their emphasis from serving its regional routes to limiting their  flights to their hub-to-hub routes.  That aspect of air service got very competitive, but there was no competition at all for the kind of inter-regional service with which airlines, such as Republic and Ozark, had their beginnings.  One of the problems that the potential investors a smaller regional airline found was no satisfactory aircraft were being designed and built to adequately service shorter, regional routes.  Just as the airlines focused on hub-to-hub routes, the aircraft manufacturers focused on huge, fast jets for that service. The rule was that any air routes that could not support huge jets with masses of passengers would simply not be served.  They were outside the interests and abilities of the companies to find feasible ways to provide economical, reliable service.  

The corporate world likes to talk about market-driven business in a competitive world.  But as the history of corporate mergers and acquisitions shows, the main concern of big corporations is to eliminate competition by consolidating industry and creating monopolies which can control and manipulate the markets. There is money to be made by smaller airlines that operate smaller, more economical, and thereby less sexy aircraft, but the profit margin is not something the major airlines want to bother with by finding ways to make them profitable.  And the profit is not big enough to bother with.  The profits are too paltry for an executive corps that expects million-dollar salaries and bonuses. The idea of businesses built on service to communities and their people is as obsolete as the family farm. 

Those who have some kind nostalgic yearning for the glamor of feudalism defend and apologize for what modern corporations actually do.  The original idea that drove business was to fulfill the need for a product or a service and find ways to meet the need in a way that made a profit.  Today's business theory regards communities and consumers as something to exploit, not to serve.  

Aberdeen does not at the present time receive an essential air service subsidy, but it qualifies for one.  The airport manager and board suggest that air service could continue in some fashion on that basis, but then cite the Congressional furor to cut spending, which makes such a subsidy very iffy for Aberdeen.  The Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce and Development Corporation have protested the service cut to Delta, but they support the business policies that make justify a cut in service as a good business decision.  

The problem is how the American business community has come to regard itself as a new royalty and the cowed consumers who do not question why businesses exist and how they are run.  They have accepted being exploited and then discarded when businesses decide they don't need them anymore. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


An agriculture that exists only in Terry Redlin paintings
Friday a seed and livestock feed store with a long history in Aberdeen closed.  The closing was a small and quiet event indicative of a huge transformation in American life.

The man who had managed the store for many years was quoted in the local newspaper 
"We are closing because of the changing dynamics in agriculture," he said. "Producers are raising less livestock and growing more crops. This has been going on since the 1990s."

What he states is a clearly evident trend that can be demonstrated with census and USDA statistics.  But those statistics also reveal an aspect of that trend that goes much deeper than changing production commodities on the farm.

Sometimes this trend is referred to as integration, which is further broken down into vertical integration and horizontal integration. Vertical integration is when individual farms are linked to the food production system by contracts.  Horizontal integration is when farms are merged and absorbed into larger farm units, usually through a corporate scheme.  In either form of integration, it means that farm production is coming under corporate control. 

This process is usually referred to as consolidation,  which means the gathering of smaller economic units into large ones through the integration processes.  Consolidation has political and social implications that reach far beyond changing who does the farming and the shift from agriculture to agri-business.  It has political and social ramifications that are altering the form of government that rules over us.  In fact, consolidation could virtually eliminate government by and for the people.   As is evident in who currently wields the most influence and power in Washington, we are rushing for government by and for the corporations.

Consolidation and the industrialization of agriculture is not the only factor contributing to the control of farms by corporations and the shift of political power from the people to the corporate board rooms.  The biggest motive behind the settlement and cultivation of the land was the idea and the fact of an agrarian democracy. Jefferson envisioned a nation of yeoman farmers who were self-reliant in building lives for themselves and their families.  Although Jefferson came to abandon that scheme for the design of America, the idea was operative in shaping America until the end of World War II.  People could homestead and invest in farms, build an economic base for their families, and be relatively independent and self-sufficient in providing for their lives.

The migration away from farms began with the second generation of settlers.  Farmers tended to have large families, and it was apparent to the children that the homesteads could not accommodate many who might want to stay on the farms.  However, few children  to chose farming as a way of life.  Other ways of living and working were far more attractive to them.

The migration of the young off the farm and away from the small towns is recorded in some detail by a strain of American writing referred to as the "revolt from the village."  It is treated both in sociological and historical studies and in imaginative American literature.  Part of the motive was resentment at being bound to the land.  Thoreau explains that resentment in the opening paragraphs of Walden:

  I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt?(8) Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? They have got to live a man's life, pushing all these things before them, and get on as well as they can. How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables (9) never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot! The portionless, who struggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.  
Thoreau observes that "men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men."

It is more than ironic that the land which enabled their fathers and mothers to establish a livelihood and way of life free from the repressions of feudal bondage to a master becomes an enslavement.   Certainly, they had to deal with mortgages on their property, but they had a chance to work free of them.  Many were defeated by their struggle with the land, but just as many succeeded. In both cases, the struggle to earn a new status and freedom inspired a fierce desire for independence.  The early American farmer could not wait to be free the bondage of debt, he distrusted banks, and he avoided any transactions which would make him dependent on businesses or anything off the farm.

Farmers on the Dakota plains fought and organized against the railroads.  When electricity became available in the early 20th century, they saw the great convenience and saving in time and effort that electricity could provide, say on those cold, early mornings when they went to the barn to milk cows.  They recognized what an improvement it would be to walk into the barn and simply flick a light switch, rather than have to fill, light, and carefully place kerosene lanterns, the Chicago fire much on their minds.  So they relented and asked the electric companies to run a wire to their barns.  But the utility companies could not make money running wires to light a few bulbs in the barn, and the farmers could not see the expense of electrifying the entire farm.  The solution was the formation, with government help, of the rural electric co-ops.  Little by little farmers accepted conveniences to escape the constant labor for them and their families.  Self-sufficiency and independence was labor intensive and required an oppressive work load of the farmers, their wives, and their children. An old saw of the time was that nothing sent young men looking for their fortune in town faster than a 90-degree day in a hay mow.  A common rule of wisdom among young women was never to marry a farmer.

The establishment of rural communities resulted in the near-simultaneous establishment of churches and schools.  Young people quickly grasped education as a path away from the drudged labor they experienced on the farm.   For the more ambitious, the land grant colleges offered opportunities that their parents never dreamed of.   

Those factors discussed above all played a role in the consolidation and industrialization of farming that we see today.  The struggle for independence and self-reliance is deeply overlaid by the more recent history of federal subsidies.  Government farm programs were created as a way of preserving  family farms, of maintaining a a large base of people self-employed in agriculture, and of keeping a plentiful and stable supply of food for the American people.  When agricultural producers were asked to ramp up production for World War II, they did so with amazing success.  After the war, huge surpluses were the problem, and agricultural subsidies were instituted to keep people on the farm, to keep rural communities intact,and to avert an economic disaster that could affect the entire country.  Corporations muscled into the agricultural subsidy system through many routes.  The biggest 10 percent of the producers
 get 74 percent of the agriculture subsidies. 

Agricultural equipment makers decided that making fewer highly expensive tractors and implements was more profitable than making machines that were affordable and efficient for the smaller-scale producers.  Instead, they made machines that require huge acreages to make them cost effective.  Banks introduced what they initially called "capital farming."  It was a scheme which provided revolving credit accounts so that farmers could purchase the expensive machines, enlarge their acreages, and keep a brisk revenue flowing into the banks.  The excesses and greed of capital farming was the major factor in the agricultural crisis of the 1980s, when many farmers could not keep up their payments to banks and were foreclosed or forced off the farms.  The great recession of 2008 was a repeat of this scheme, only this time it involved the mortgage business on private homes.  The corporate control of agriculture is particularly strong in the control of commodity markets.  Four corporations control 80 percent of the meat production in the U.S.  A few corporations control the marketing of grains.   Practically speaking, there is no open and free market for agricultural products.  Production is controlled by the consolidated corporations.  An example is the trading of frozen pork bellies from which bacon is derived.  For four decades after pork bellies were traded on the futures market as one of the most active commodities, the integrated market has so regulated pork production to processing demand that the Chicago Mercantile Exchange is discontinuing trade in pork belly futures. 

When I was a farm and business editor for a newspaper in a town that was called the agricultural equipment capital of the world in the 1960s, the trend toward consolidation and industrialization was a forgone conclusion.  I was an officer and newsletter editor for an organization of farm journalists, and one of the facts the membership dealt with was that the farm population had shrunk so much that newspapers were dropping their farm sections.  Reporters and editors on agriculture knew their jobs would soon be eliminated.  We wrote "urban oriented" stories on the demise of the family farm and what it would mean for consumers.

 One of the things we reported is that agricultural consolidation would put the supply and price of food in the hands of a few corporations who would set the prices and availability of food.  If you have noticed the steep rise in the price of food lately, you are seeing the effects of corporate control come to pass.  Some corporate spokespersons say famines in other parts of the world are resulting in a higher demand in the market place and, therefore, a rise in  prices.  Others say that the diversion of corn into the production of alcohol is causing the food market to rise.  But there is no marketplace that regulates price.  Prices are set by strategies in the corporate offices.
If you long for the days of an agrarian based democracy and family life on the farm,  you have to buy Terry Redlin prints to capture the time.   If it ever really existed.

The days of family centered agriculture and inexpensive food are over. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

South Dakota Homeland Security conference falls for phony

Walid Shoebat
 At a Homeland Security Conference in Sioux Falls,  South Dakota, in 2010, a featured speaker was liked by the attendees so much that he was invited back to speak at a conference May 11, 2011 in Rapid City.   

The speaker, Walid Shoebat, claims to be an ex-Islamic-terrorist who found the Christian god and reformed.  He now goes around telling American audiences, including at many colleges, about the threat of terrorism.

Among his claims is that most Muslims are devoted to Al Qaeda  and that President Obama is a Muslim. 

The only hitch in his last appearance in Rapid City came when the Rapid City Journal asked the conference sponsors how much they were paying to the speakers at the conference and was refused that information. The Journal filed a Freedom of Information Act request and the information was released. Shoebat was paid $5,000 for his appearance.  The money for speakers is supplied by the federal Department of Homeland Security.

Reporter David Montgomery covered his speech, and reported that former U.S. Senator James Abourezk said of Shoebat,   “He’s a scam artist and he’s a liar.  He doesn’t have any credibility when he claims he was a PLO terrorist.”  Abourezk is a Christian of Lebanese descent. 

Shoebat's background has been investigated by a number of news media.  CNN is currently running a story for which its bureaus in the Middle East have checked out Shoebat's claims.  Its researchers were unable to find substantiating material, but found much disputing those claims.  The CNN piece can be read at this link

Let's have a picnic and kill Casey Anthony

That Wednesday, October 29, 1845,  was clear and cool as a huge crowd of people gathered at the gallows on the lawn of the courthouse in Rock Island County, Illinois.  Three men were to be hanged that day.  On the Fourth of July that year, while his family was attending patriotic celebrations in town, men broke into the home of Col. George Davenport on the Rock Island in the middle of the Mississippi River looking for a fortune he was reputed to have hid there and murdered him.   The ones accused and convicted of the robbery and murder were led to the gallows for sentence to be carried out. 

Great occasion for a picnic
The people who gathered at the gallows  got up before dawn throughout the countryside, packed picnic baskets, and came to town for the occasion.  Some had reason to feel that the hanging signaled the end of a scourge that had held the countryside in terror.   The men to be hanged were identified as members of the Banditti of the Prairie, a loosely associated group of outlaws who roamed the region robbing, burglarizing, and murdering, and exerting a great deal of control in some northwestern Illinois counties.    Others came out of a great human tradition that regards public killings as great entertainment, a source of pleasure at seeing other humans die in a suffering end.  As in the case of this hanging, they could not care less about whether the hangees were actually guilty of the crimes with which they were charged.  The men were brothers  John and Aaron Long and Granville Young.  There is some doubt that Granville Young was part of robbery and death of George Davenport.  It didn't matter.  People wanted the spectacle of revenge against somebody, anybody, and the luxurious thrill of feeling that they were watching the struggling demise of someone over whom they could feel power and superiority.

As time neared for the hanging, some people in the crowd saw clouds of dust raised by galloping horses on the horizon.  They shouted that the Banditti of the Prairie were charging to rescue their cohorts, and the crowed panicked.  However, when it found out that the riders of mounts and wagons were just folks like them whipping their horses into gallops to make sure they wouldn't miss the hanging, the crowd settled down and prepared for the day's entertainment.

It was a real good hanging.  When the trap doors were sprung, one of the men slipped through the noose.  The executioners made him mount the platform again, put another noose around his neck, and released the trap door.  This time they grabbed his dangling feet and pulled down on them to make sure he was dead. 

Great show.

And now we have Casey Anthony and her acquittal of the murder of her child. The aftermath of this trial resulted in a tide of rage sweeping through people who felt that their appetite for revenge and punishment had been cheated.  

I make no conjecture about Casey Anthony's guilt or innocence.  I do offer observations on the trial.   I was among a small group of journalists who said that O.J. Simpson stood a good chance of being acquitted.  These journalists were from a group who had vast experience in covering trials in local areas.  They were not the grand-standing talking heads of television or the authoritative poseurs of the Internet.   They were the reporters who had covered courthouses and court proceedings every work day. 

People reacted with great anger and indignation over the possibility of O.J. being acquitted, were incensed at those who suggested he could be, but they did not follow the reasoning.  The experienced and knowledgeable observers based their view of possibility on a trial maneuver that was successful.  O.J.'s lawyers succeeded in getting a change of venue from a court district composed of white upper class people to a district that contained many black and Latino people.  People, including the whites, who lived in that district were well acquainted with tactics of police intimidation, including the planting of evidence if necessary.  If during the trial, the question of planting evidence was raised, jurors drawn from this district would not have doubts about it being a strong possibility.  Defense lawyer Johnny Cochran pounded on this possibility in his reference to the glove brought into evidence that linked O.J. to the crime:  "If it doesn't fit, acquit," Cochran frequently intoned.  The glove didn't fit OJ.'s hand. Reasonable doubt had been introduced, and it won the case.

I had not paid much attention to the Casey Anthony case until some of the same people who commented in an e-mail group on the Simpson case began to analyze the trial proceedings.  All of the evidence was circumstantial.  None of it made a direct link of Casey to the death of her daughter.  The word circulating on that e-mail forum was that the prosecution had a very weak case.  Every piece of evidence had large areas of reasonable doubt.  The comments in the e-mail forum kept pointing out the trouble that conscientious jurors would have with the evidence.  

Another point frequently made was that the media had gone into a frenzy over the Casey Anthony case in its furor to attract viewers, listeners, and readers. The people who so long pined for Casey's conviction, and the death penalty the charge could carry, were responding more to those on cable television who agitated against her than to any critical examination of the evidence.  Commenters on the Internet took up the cause by the millions, and inflated the claims made on cable television.  Jurors are carefully coached not to make decisions on accusations.  They have to look at the evidence and find for the defendant where there is any reasonable doubt.

But a significant portion of people were enraged when the jury acquitted Casey Anthony of murder.   They professed wracking grief over the death of her toddler daughter, but they clamored for some kind of revenge on Casey.  They took to the streets and raged. They raged against a court system that did not follow their wishes.  The U.S. Senate Minority Leader said it showed the terrible faults of our courts and showed why terrorists should never be tried in our civil courts.  

The good folks were pissed because they felt the court cheated them out of a good hanging.  Or its equivalent in our times.  

In past times, both in America and other parts of the world,  executions were festive.  People gathered in hordes to watch somebody die,  and they hoped it would be a suffering and grotesque death.  That's why the courthouse square was so jam packed in Rock Island on that day in October 1845.  A triple-header.  Triple-necker, to be more precise?

It is the same impulse that boils up from the reptilian cortex that drives lynch mobs.  Those people taking to the streets in a rage over Casey Anthony's acquittal were a lynch mob.     

The first issue here is that members of the jury did not feel good about the verdict, but the prosecution did not come up with convincing evidence for a conviction.  But the second issue is that those people out there angrily demanding some kind of vengeance on Casey Anthony did not examine the evidence or have any interest in doing so.  They were reacting to that new-media inflamed desire to see someone punished.  Their interest in punishing Casey Anthony belief any humane motives they claimed for her dead little daughter.

The Casey Anthony trial and its aftermath has deep implications for the political attitudes gripping many in the United States.  A significant number of people are far more interested in venting some innate need to hate and harm other people than they are in solving the social and political problems that face America.  

The fact is that our justice system in her case was applied and produced a result that it was designed to do.   It found the evidence against to be insufficient from which to draw a supportable conclusion of guilt.   Millions of people demanded her conviction and punishment in spite of the facts.   Vengeance and justice are not the same things.  Justice is a matter of holding someone accountable for their crimes and providing some compensation for those who are harmed.  Vengeance is a matter of inflicting punishment on someone out of rage and resentment.  

When justice is compromised, liberty and equality are superfluous notions.

The lynch mobs are with us.   Will they rule us?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Celebrating the Fifth or Sixth of July

I tend to avoid paeans to the Fourth of July on the Internet.  Many of them celebrate an America that is not the one I have lived in and served or want to live in.  They tend to envision a regression into the very morass of human meanness that the country has struggled to surmount.  The founding of America was announced with a goal for which the new country would strive, not with a summation of what it then possessed: "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It would take much arduous and patient work to reach that goal. 

America, to be America, would always be in a state of becoming as it sought to define and realize what liberty, equality, and true justice would entail.  Revolution is a continuous process in American life of striving to realize those goals it has announced.  However, the opening words of the Declaration of Independence do not merely announce a separation from Britain in the quest for those conditions of life, but they state a political principle that might be invoked again should America fail in realizing its stated mission:  "When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them..."  Human events may require that people dissolve their political bands in the future if those events prove unsatisfactory to Americans.  Revolution is a continuing presence in America, and dissolving nonfunctional bonds and severing human connections is an imminence. 

The Fourth of July is the day to acknowledge the birth of our nation, but the day after is more significant, for that is when we go to work on the measures directed toward realizing the potential of that birth.  That is when we set the course for what we will actually become.

Our celebrations of the Fourth tend to take on a militaristic cast and ignore the fact that the Declaration is not merely a shout of independence, but is a literary document that grew out of the emerging American history and it records the words that drive that history.

The writer of one of the earliest histories of the American Revolution (1789), David Ramsay, states, "In establishing American Independence, the pen and the press had a merit equal to that of the sword."  In many observances of the Fourth of July and other political holidays, the soldier is held up as the hero of Independence to the belittlement of the people whose work with words motivated, defined, and provided the intellectual energy for the revolution.  Fireworks are more exciting than the scratching of pens and the articulation of precise words, but they are gone in a flash and bang while the words endure and continue to do their work.  

Those words influenced the direction of my own life.  My graduate education was in modern letters, which covered British and American literature from 1800 to the present.  However, one is required to have course work and be examined over all the eras of English language literature to provide a sound background for ones specialty.   My studies were directed toward doing scholarship in Native American literature, so I found that American letters exerted a strong pull.  The courses at the University of Iowa, where I did my work, cover not just the literature, but also examine the history and the culture, and, therefore, the contexts of the works.  I found that in the literature of the two countries, there was a breaking of old bands of thought and expression, that America was going about the business of creating a new culture that often repudiated the assumptions of the Old World.  

The Revolution began in Europe with writers who saw the lingering culture of feudalism as a barrier that kept most of its people in virtual work camps in which they had to live out their lives in servitude.  As the French writer Crevecouer observed, the seeds of hope and vision were planted in the new soils of America where they bloomed and came to fruition. 

In my first teaching job, I was assigned to teach the survey course in early American literature.  The college had a tradition of rigor and thoroughness to which all faculty were held, and the interest and general knowledge I had about early American literature became part of a vocation, and I found myself immersed in a time and place through a body of literature unlike any other in the world.  It is often said that America has the most thorough, diverse, and well-crafted  account of its founding in its literature.  Many students, who prefer imaginative literature of fiction, poetry, and drama, are dismayed to find that the early American course is filled with journals of colonizing and settling, letters, essays of exploration, and documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  It is a literature not written just as artistic expression, but artistic expression with a purpose:  formulating and building a new kind of nation,  creating a New World.  

Whitman as a young man. 
America's most profoundly incisive and prescient philosopher and writer of American democracy, Walt Whitman, set the defining task for the country in his "Democratic Vistas": 
The United States are destined either to surmount the gorgeous history of feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous failure of time.
Whitman details the obstacles of human meanness and social injustice that America must surmount to realize its promise, and he sees the key factor to be that Americans perceive that they possess in themselves the power to create that New World:

How much is still to be disentangled, freed!  How long it takes to make this American world see that it is, in itself, the final authority and reliance!

That lingering hold of the Old World ways is one of the major obstacles:

For feudalism, caste, the ecclesiastic traditions, though palpably retreating from political institutions, still hold essentially by their spirit, even in this country, entire possession of the more important fields, indeed the very subsoil of education, and of social standards and literature.
 And he saw enlightenment, which to people of his time meant liberalism, as what would create the conditions for true liberty, equality, and justice:

The true gravitation-hold of liberalism in the United States will be a more universal ownership of property, general homesteads, general comfort--a vast, intertwining reticulation of wealth.

 Whitman fully acknowledged a churlish and backward streak in many of his countrymen.  But, like the founders and intellectual political philosophers of the time, he saw education as the means of lifting the populace to a higher state of literacy and thought.  He advised young people to fully participate in politics, but not in partisanship:

America, it may be, is doing very well upon the whole, notwithstanding these antics of the parties and their leaders, these half-brain'd nominees, and many ignorant ballots, and many elected failures and blatherers.  ...I advise you to enter more strongly yet into politics.  I advise every young man [note; women could not yet vote, but he does foresee that eventuality in his essay] to do so.  Always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote.  Disengage yourself from parties.  They have been useful, and to some extent remain so; but the floating, uncommitted electors, farmers, clerks, mechanics, the masters of parties--watching aloof, inclining victory this side or that side--such are the ones most needed, present and future.  
 After the fireworks, pseudo-patriotic ritualism, and celebratory gatherings of the Fourth of July, the thoughts, words, and deeds memorialized in our literature must be fronted to understand the constant effort needed to surmount those attitudes that linger from the feudal world.  The cliches and banalities that pervade cable news, talk radio, and so much of the Internet need to be countered by a rebirth of true literacy if our republic is to continue its upward ascent.  To do so requires, as Whitman suggests, for us to step away from the trite, the small-minded, and the misinformed language of partisanship and ponder those words that have lifted America in the past so we know how much heavy lifting is required in the future.   

    Friday, July 1, 2011

    Wisconsin enacts its Declaration of Dependence

    As we near our 235th Fourth of July, the nation's de facto birthday,  it is the end of an era.  As of Wednesday the labor unions representing people who work for the State of Wisconsin will no longer have collective bargaining power.  Those workers no longer have rights in the workplace.  The workers join that horde of individuals whose status reverts to that of serfs when they walk through their workplace door.  They are now dependent on the whims of their bosses regarding their well-being and their treatment as serfs.

    I have a long history with labor unions, from disdain to becoming the state president of one.  I grew up in a factory town and many of us children had a disdain for labor unions.  The basic disdain was  not actually connected to labor unions.  It was a disdain for the labor involved in factories.  The overwhelming motivation that drove my schoolmates was not to be a factory worker as many of their fathers were.

    Their main goal in life was not to get trapped in a life of drudged, repetitive, mind-suffocating piece work on a factory line like their fathers.  Or to reach middle age in a state of exhaustion, humiliation, and poor health.  In my lifetime, the life of  factory workers has changed from that of expendable drudges, about whom John Deere said they needed only a lunch bucket and change of clothes, to respected people who would be regarded in full personhood in a democratic society.  Labor unions are what transformed those lives.  And also the workplaces in which they  lived and expended their efforts eight hours a day.  

    I worked in factories many summers as I worked through college,  on the production lines and in offices.  However, in Illinois, a closed-shop state, summer employees were not required to become union members, unless they worked more than 90 days.  When I was released from active duty in the Army, I went right to work for International Harvester Company, and worked there for about four years while I completed my undergraduate degree.  After 90 days, my union membership became automatic.

    I was not active in union business, but I got pulled into it as a member of a hearing panel.  Most of the men in the department I worked in, Materials Control, were former company executives.  When the plant production shifted from the manufacture of war materiel to peacetime production, the men were laid off.  The company did not need as many executives when it shifted from making war machines back to making agricultural machines.  It summarily dumped the executives, but did provide them the option of applying for lesser jobs in the bargaining unit.  It was a difficult time for these men.  As soldiers were being discharged and came back home, they were given hiring preferences over those who had not  served in the military.  However, as peacetime production began to ramp up, the company found that it needed experienced hands in its offices as production forecasters, material schedulers, and purchasing agents.  Over time, men and women who had been let go were hired back to facilitate and trouble-shoot the managing of materials.  The returning service men, as it turned out, were more interested in going to college on the G.I. bill than to working in the  factories, as their fathers did.  Consequently, the fired executives comprised a corps of experienced and capable managers, and the company found a bit of a surprise when it tried to promote them back into executive positions.

    The men turned down the promotions.  They refused to move from the bargaining unit covered by the union contract into management, where they would not be covered.  They had been dumped by the company once, and they would not be put in that situation again.  International Harvester, as a consequence, proposed an unusual clause in the collective bargaining contract. It asked that bargaining unit members could be designated as lead workers in their sections and as part of their duties "educate and direct" the work of people in their section.  That way, the company could make use of the experience and abilities of the men as managers while keeping them in the bargaining unit. The union agreed and set up an arrangement that was of huge benefit to the company and a comfortable arrangement for the men and women.

    My job at IHC after being released from active duty was on the correspondence desk.  It was my job to maintain a log of all business correspondence that came into the department and to bother the recipients to which it was assigned if they were not answered in three days.  Often, they gave me the information and I wrote the actual letters in answer.  The lead men were very prompt and efficient.  Sometimes those who were full managers got a bit surly at my reminders.  But the people I worked with most were those lead men, because they possessed the information required, did the coordinating between sections, departments, and other company plants, and made most of the decisions, which were endorsed by the department heads as managerial actions.  A few of the executives appreciated the array of talent and ability of their workers and worked very closely with the lead men in administering the work and keeping current on information and developments.  The key factor was, however, that while the lead men did work that was of great financial and public relations advantage to the company, their first loyalty was to the union.  Nothing could move them from the bargaining unit into management, and they insisted that one of the things that benefited the company most is that the machines it sold were union made.  

    My first real involvement in union business came one day when one of the lead men asked me to serve on a hearing panel.  Some workers had been caught stealing from the company.  They were pilfering valuable materials off of machines and supplies in the storage yard and depositing them next to the river by the barge docks.  At nights they came in fishing boats, posing as fishermen,  waited for the security guards to pass by, and then loaded the pilfered items into the boats to haul away.  The company caught them, fired them, filed criminal charges, and made them ineligible to collect pension benefits from the company. The men filed an appeal with the union, so the union assembled a panel to hear the appeal.  The panel upheld the company's actions without hesitation and issued a sanction from the union against the men. 

     Although many anti-labor factions contend that unions coddle the incompetent and protect the unproductive and dishonest, such was not the case.  Although there were some malcontents who filed complaints and grievances frequently, the union investigated them and decided on them by their merits.  The fact is that unions share the responsibility of administering the terms of the contracts with the companies,  and maintaining productivity and guarding quality is the prime concern of both parties.  Some grievances deal with allegations of discrimination, but the grievances I recall that had merit and were vigorously pursued by the union were those that dealt with charges that the company was trying to speed up production and take shortcuts that would affect the quality of the products.  The people who actually build the machines feel shame when something they make turns out to be defective or fails in the field.  The union constantly had to battle accusations by the executives that such failures were the fault of the workforce.  

    For a time, I worked on a customer service team that investigated customer complaints.  Often when machines failed, company representatives blamed the customers for abusing or misusing the machines.  Our team found that most of the problems could be traced back to the factory and to bad decisions.

    An example was the plant I worked in, which made harvester threshers, and the tractor plant across town.  Both laid off workers and shut down operations to save money to cover a massive recall of our machines.  Both the tractors and harvester threshers used the same main axles.  An executive engineer had come across a process for heat-treating the axles, which hardens and toughens them, that could save the company millions and millions of dollars.  To get the axles treated by the new method onto the machines as soon as possible, the executives decided not to subject them to the full process of test engineering, in which the durability and reliability of the machines is fully tested under field conditions. Instead, they limited the testing to laboratory tests for stress and endurance.  The axles passed in the laboratory.  But after the machines were used in the field for a while, they started breaking down in massive numbers.  The company service representatives were frantic to get replacement axles that could get the farmers working again--fast.

    The plants were closed and the workers were laid off for what was to be a period of two or three months.  The company executives were stymied as to how to deal with the problem.  After being off for about a week, I received a telegram at home to report back to work first thing Monday and be ready to put in some overtime.

    Some of the lead men in my department had checked their inventories and their material records and found that they could find enough parts manufactured under the old process to make axle assemblies to replace most of the break downs.  It meant having to set up production lines, organize assembly teams, and then work out ways some of the factory workers could go into the field with the service representatives to repair the machines.  This was worked out with union help.  Teams were sent to key dealerships where the broken machines were hauled in and reworked.  Dealers were open 24 hours a day during that time with our people putting in 12 hour shifts to get the job done.  It did cost the company some money, but the workers were glad to receive bonuses for overtime and off-site work, and the dealers were particularly happy at the effort put in by the company to serve and satisfy their customers.

    However, a number of farmers gave up in disgust, told the dealers to come and get their damned machines, and went to competing dealers to get machines with which they could finish their work.  Our company, which had built an international reputation, was hurt by this incident, and some others that followed.  

    The demise of International Harvester Company was not the fault of its workforce.  Union stewards and local leaders were constantly trying to alert the company to problems that the workers saw developing, but as newer people took over management, the attitude toward company-union cooperation changed.  The new managers resented the workforce having any kind of voice in how the company was run. 

    My own attitude toward unions changed, too, when I witnessed the efforts of union members to contribute to the businesses they worked for.  

    As a faculty member, I was not a union member until I came to South Dakota.  At the previous college where I worked,  the administration urged its faculty to be members of the American Association of University Professors, which worked with the profession to maintain academic freedom and enhance teaching and research.  When collective bargaining came to education, the AAUP and the National Education Association, which had not been collective bargaining agents, took up the role of representing teachers at collective bargaining.  It joined the American Federation of Teachers, which was affiliated with the labor union, AFL-CIO.  

    I was very active in the faculty union in South Dakota, having served as a local officer, including president, as a member of the bargaining committee, and as statewide president.  After serving one term as state president, I chose not to run again, and shortly after let my union membership drop.  When I first came to South Dakota, 75 percent of the faculty at NSU had joined the newly created union.  However, the number began to dwindle away to a very low percentage.  One reason is that the union has to represent all faculty in the bargaining unit whether they are members or not, and many faculty could not see reason to pay dues if the union had to represent them even they were not members.  It takes money to run an effective union, and the dwindling dues greatly limited what we could undertake.  A major problem was that our union, which was an NEA affiliate, kept claiming that the problems faced by college faculty are identical to that faced by k-12 teachers.  All teachers have some common concerns, but those concerns vary widely according to the levels at which they teach.  After watching some individuals very badly damaged because the union was not able to understand and represents their interests,  I found that the union was simply not fulfilling the role it claimed.  I let my membership lapse.  However, I maintained my membership in AAUP.

    In South Dakota, public employees cannot strike.  The right to strike is not something I would work for.   First of all, unions experience very serious public relations damage when public workers go on strike.  There are other sanctions and contractual remedies unions can employ to exercise power at the negotiating table, but little effort has been made to adjust tactics to changing attitudes.  Those adjustments are worthy of a book.

    Public workers in Wisconsin have been stripped of rights and responsibilities that unions earned for them 50 years ago.  This stripping of rights is accompanied by a lot of talk about balancing budgets, fairness in the workplace, and union power.  The bottom line is that collective bargaining rights only give workers the opportunity to come to the negotiating table and work out agreements.  Unions cannot impose anything on governments, school boards, or companies.  And that bottom line is that the people dominating Wisconsin government right now simply do not want workers to have a voice in their working conditions or their benefits.  It wants them beholden to and dependent upon their employers for what the employers will give them, not what the employees can rightfully earn.

    And so, Wisconsin enacts its Declaration of Dependence of workers.  

    Will the workers allow themselves to be thrown back into the status of serfs?

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    Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States