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

Monday, November 28, 2011

The faces of Occupy Wall Street

Right wing politicians and commentators are trying to portray the protestors of the Occupy Wall Street movement as dirty hippies who have never worked for anything, don't want to work, and are trying to get a perpetual free lunch.  The fact is that the majority of the people in the movement are college students who are facing the reality that there are no jobs for them, and they are protesting the regression of the American economy into corporate feudalism with a few extremely privileged at the top--the 1 percent--with the rest of the people regarded as serfs.  The New Yorker has their photo gallery of the participants who are anything but what the right wing is trying to portray them as being.  Take a look.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Black Hills Are Not For Sale

This mural was installed today in Los Angeles. 

Northern Beef Packers hopes to ride the sustainable farming, local foods wave

Construction workers are putting the finishing touches on the Northern Beef Packers plant in Aberdeen for an opening in early 2012.

Journalists on food and agriculture are watching developments which trend away from corporate-based, industrialized agriculture. The market for locally grown food coming from smaller-sized farming operations has become significant.  The USDA reports that food which is locally produced and sold through farmers markets and specialty stores was a $4.8 billion business in 2008 and is projected to reach $7 billion this year.  Driven by reports on the health problems of obesity, diabetes, food-borne illnesses, reactions to chemicals and anti-biotics, some prominent food distributors are beginning to promote healthier, locally-raised food to their customers. New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman recently reported on a letter a beef distributor wrote to his customer-chefs that advocated the better flavor contained in what is called non-commercial beef.  A distinction is made between industrial-produced beef and that coming from smaller, controlled operations where the beef is not fed with chemicals and anti-biotics in confinement feeding operations.  The Times also reports on a number of meat markets opening in New York City which handle the locally produced, non-industrialized beef, and the emergence of sustainable farm operations as a force in the marketplace.  

Commercial farming has been profitable of late largely because of the diversion of corn from livestock feed into the production of ethanol.   Consumers are experiencing very significant rises in food prices and are becoming much more aware and concerned about the quality of food available to them. Industrial-raised meat is dependent on hormones to stimulate the fast and cheap growth of meat and on antibiotics to control disease in confinement-raised animals. 

Evidence is mounting that practices associated with industrial agriculture are dangerous and endangered.  Monsanto's Roundup weed killer is spurring nature to develop strains of weeds which are immune to the herbicide and are unusually aggressive when they establish themselves in crop fields.  In response to questions raised about health dangers in the genetic-modified crops designed to be grown in Roundup-applied fields, scientists say they frankly don't know, but there are some indicators of health and nutrition concerns that need to be investigated.  Many foreign countries have banned  genetically-modified crops from importation.  

A trend away from industrial-produced meat and poultry is spear-headed by quest for more flavorful and healthy food among gourmands.  They have created a market for heritage plants and animals.  Burpee's seed company now features seeds from old-line tomato plants, which chefs and food-crafters say are much more flavorful, nutritious, and satisfying.  This Thanksgiving, Huffington Post published a feature on old breeds of turkeys that retain a flavor that has been bred out of the commercial Broad Breasted Whites, which were created for production in confinement cages inside buildings.  The heritage breeds are raised outside, are much slower growing, and are not fed hormones, anti-biotics, or chemically-processed feed.  Food bloggers wrote about where the heritage breeds were available, and reported on how accessible they were.  One story pointed out that orders for a heritage turkey for Thanksgiving had to be placed by August and cost $125 to $150 per bird.   In some cases, they were delivered live.  

I've read other stories by my farm-writer colleagues that tell of people who sell chickens and eggs produced by "kitchen flocks. The birds are old-line breeds that, in addition to being fed grains, are allowed to roam and scratch for food outside.  These, too, are pricey, but capture the tastes and flavors that have been bred out of the commercial versions of the birds.

Pork produced by animals kept  outside is also becoming available.

I would be the first to caution that not everything that claims to be raised organically and naturally is necessarily good.  As a living history re-enactor (my period was the Civil War), I was involved in an event at which we were serving a banquet of food raised and cooked as it would have been in the 1860s.  A woman in our group found some chickens she said were "organically" raised outside.  My job was to cook them in Dutch ovens on wood coals, a method of cooking that is generally flavorful and interesting.  Those chickens were dreadful.  They were tough and stringy and made one of the re-enactors comment that they made one realize what kind of shit our ancestors had to ingest, at times, to survive.  The person who saved the day was E.W. from up in Jamestown who had brined a deer he shot and roasted a haunch of venison over wood coals, basted with a sauce of currants picked along the James River.  That was elegant.  

Heritage, naturally produced foods have to be raised with an objective of quality, and quality takes a lot more attention and work to  achieve in more natural settings than in confinement operations.  A good farmer can produce products that are, indeed, more flavorful, nutritious, and tender than their industrial counterparts, and the sustainable trend is part of a revival of agriculture as opposed to agribusiness, for which the bottom line is the controlling criteria.

That leads to the prospects for Northern Beef Packers, the new packing plant in Aberdeen which is preparing to go into operation early in 2012.  The Brown County Democrats hosted a company representative, Richard Benda, recently at one of its Dollar-A-Month Club lunches.  Many of the Democrats active in northern East River politics are in the beef business and are interested in the prospects that a local packer could provide for them.  The Northern Beef Packers is of great interest because it would offer a local, convenient market for their beef, make them less dependent on the corporate whims of the big three beef packers in the U.S., Tyson, Cargill and JBS SA (headquartered in Brazil) which control almost 90 percent of the beef production in the U.S.  In addition to the economic advantages NBP could provide for regional producers, cattle growers see advantages for them of using the land and local feed supplies toward raising a higher-quality product.  

The development of NBP has a shaky history.  The idea for a regional plant often got bogged down by competing schemes and schemers who had little moxy in how to get a beef business going and made promises they were unable to keep.   However, people in the cattle business were optimistic because NBP had hooked up with a distributor of high quality beef, Premium Angus Gold, and had a market for its product once the firm was up and running, which is the biggest factor in a proposed packing plant.  A place to sell the beef produced is, obviously, essential to the prospects of success.  

 One afternoon at a Democratic fund-raiser, a man who operates a prominent cattle auction in our region told me he just heard that Premium Angus Gold had backed out its arrangement with NBP.  Apparently the organization grew frustrated at the many delays and the legal and business snarls that the plant kept encountering.  Since that time the plant has been taken over by investors from Korea, and its bills from contractors and its county taxes have all been  paid.  And Mr. Benda said that the plant is reconnected with Premium Angus Gold and is aiming to take advantage of the premium beef market.

When NBP buys a load of cattle, the purchase will include detailed breeding and feeding records for each head.  In other words the entire life history of each head brought in for slaughter can be tracked.  This information is part of the quality control, and the company can identify the origins of the best quality beef.  That information will also be used to help producers in striving to produce consistent and dependable quality.  

The firm lists the following USDA Certified Beef Programs and Brands in what it will offer to consumers: 
  •     South Dakota Certified Beef
  •     South Dakota Certified Natural Beef
  •     Northern Beef Packers Premium Black Angus Beef
  •     Northern Beef Packers Premium Beef
  •     Northern Beef Packers Grass-fed and Pasture-fed beef (with enough customer interest)
Involvement in these high-grade programs will extend its ability to produced boxed beef of superior, dependable quality, also.  The business plan is aiming high.  This is, in part, because Japan and Korea are among the biggest importers of premium quality beef and the Korean backers of the plant know that potential.

If all goes as planned, South Dakotans will have a value-added enterprise in their state and beef consumers will have options that is emerging from the sustainable, local production movement.  And its success will provide significant economic growth for Aberdeen and Brown County.

You will know the plant is a success when Tyson, Cargill, or JBS SA think it is offering significant competition and offer to buy it out.   However, consumers of good beef and advocates of a healthy agriculture wish NBP success in making its plans work.  


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Black Friday

When a day of the week is designated as "black," it usually is to commemorate some huge failure that occurred on that day, such as a stock market crash.  I wonder if the people who termed the Friday after Thanksgiving "Black Friday" did so for what American culture has become.  Something to drape in black.

For some employees, Black Friday begins at the stroke of midnight on Thanksgiving night.  Some Target employees have signed petitions to the company headquarters over the matter.  Last year, Target opened its stores at 5 a.m. for Black Friday.  This year, the employees must report to work for a midnight opening, which means employees must use most of Thanksgiving for sleep if they wish to be properly rested to be ready for work at midnight.  Macy's, by the  way, is among the stores who are going for the midnight opening.  Never to be outdone, Wal-Mart is beginning its Black Friday sales at 10 p.m. Thursday.  

These early openings have a huge effect on the population in general.  Those who participate in America's version of the running of the  bulls, a stampede to be the first in the doors of the stores to stay ahead of that rampaging mob running amuck to acquire a bunch of shit they have been told are bargains, now don't have to get up  early or wait out in the cold for the crack of dawn to hoist a holiday petard or two.  Instead, they can just stay up late and they can wait for the grand openings in the evening hours.  They may have to give up Thanksgiving dinner and football to wait in line, but they could make Thanksgiving a tailgate event with turkeys being transformed into globs of saturated fat in deep fryers in the parking lots.  Fun.

The new hours are better for the news media, too.  Now the reporters don't have to get out of bed early to stand around with their video cameras to catch footage of the idiots trampling themselves to death as they burst through the store doors.  They can just stay up late and have their exciting footage ready to go for the Friday morning shows.  Now, that will be good television.

Some perpetual grumpers have noted that Black Friday is starting so early that it's displacing Thanksgiving.  They say we are getting so worked up for Black Friday that we are neglecting to observe the purpose of Thanksgiving to give thanks.  For those of us in Indian Country, Black Friday is actually a more fitting expression of the values for which we are supposed to observe some reverence.   Indians have always had festivals of thanksgiving to acknowledge the beneficence and bounty of the natural world in which they lived.  When the honkeys gathered at Plymouth to celebrate a harvest that wasn't a total failure, the Wapanoags came with some game that they had gathered to augment the festivities.  Their generosity was repaid a few years later with a massacre of their people at Mystic River.  And the great tradition of genocide and oppression was launched, which is  why our national holiday of Thanksgiving, which was devised be elementary teachers, not historians, is resented by the Indian people.  

 Many times over my years teaching in colleges, I was the faculty adviser for the student newspapers.  I've always had a respect for student journalism, because the young observers and reporters had not yet lost the ability to see the contrived myths about America and its culture for what they are--exercises in self-delusion.  A columnist at the University of Nebraska student newspaper issues a take on Thanksgiving that puts it in a more accurate and realistic perspective without giving up the fact that there are, indeed, things for which we can be thankful.  For young minds like his, I am thankful.

Bourbon Red:  a turkey of my youth.
Admittedly, I prefer to think of the Thanksgivings of my youth on what were truly family farms operated by some of my mothers seven brothers, their spouses, and their children.  They were true times of celebration and thankfulness, and even Uncle LeRoy's interminable prayers of thanksgiving seemed appropriate and significant.  My mother and her brothers have long since passed, and so have the family farms, having been absorbed into larger corporate enterprises.  The turkeys weren't Butterballs, but were Bourbon Reds or Narragansetts raised on neighboring farms.  They descended from those original wild birds that were said to be part of the original Thanksgiving, and their flavor was not that of those birds bred to make big breast meat as quickly as possible in cages and then over-processed to make them somewhat edible.  I am thankful for that generation with its authentic values and the fruits of its honest labor and the legacy which is still available for those who wish to understand it.

Like my Indian compatriots and the young columnist at the University of Nebraska, I'll take Thanksgiving for what it can mean over Black Friday.  And I am thankful for people who understand why.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The desecration of George Orwell

While the nation obsesses over public education and pushes to elevate student knowledge in mathematics and science,  the driving forces behind the technology, the promotion of illiteracy is ramped up quite a few notches.    It is not insignificant that a major political party is fielding an array of  candidates who are virulently anti-intellectual and take great pride in displaying ignorance and contempt for knowledge.   Using language precisely and well is no longer a value.  In fact, for conservatives, it has become regarded as a defect of character.

George Orwell used language carefully and effectively.  Although he is best known for his satirical novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the preponderance of his work was journalism--reporting and analytic commentary.

Two of his essays which are widely anthologized in college composition texts, drawn from Orwell's experience as a colonial official in Burma, stand out as stunning, incisive observations on human proclivities:  "Shooting an Elephant" and "A Hanging."  His experiences in the Spanish Civil War, as recorded in Homage to Catalonia, provide some deep and detailed insights into what shaped his political thinking.  It also provides the interpretative context for his satiric novels.  In addition, Orwell was a critical linguist.  His "Politics and the English Language" is one of his significant studies in how language is the transactional currency of the intellect and its role in human behavior.  

A fundamental premise of Orwell's work is that the meaning of words is determined by their accrued history,  Accumulated human experience is stored in the language.  An emphasis in Orwell's work is that language used honestly, accurately, and skillfully is requisite to a healthy political climate.  He writes:  

Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. 
 A symptom of the deleterious effects of slovenly language is in the use of the word "Orwellian."  Advocates in both political parties charge the opposing party with "Orwellian" language when they   take offense at a linguistic ploy of their opponents.  The tactics they cite are what Orwell satirized and criticized, not what he advocated or practiced in his own use of language.  To label misused  and ill-used language as "Orwellian" is to miss the point.  When many commentators on blogs and cable TV liken their political opposition to what is portrayed in 1984, they reveal that they have never read the book or had much comprehension of it if they did.  When conservatives cite the book as evidence of the wrongness of liberalism, they misrepresent the  book and Orwell.  The novel is inspired by Orwell's exposure of Stalinism as the  most pernicious of political cancers.  He says of himself that he was "AGAINST totalitarianism and FOR democratic Socialism."  He sees the evils in both Capitalism and Communism, as he writes in a book review:  

Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics. Capitalism and Communism: Two Paths to Slavery.

With a sense of irony and despair at the intellectual morass in which contemporary American politics is mired, I see Orwell enlisted into the partisan causes, when in fact he explicitly disassociated himself from the kind of petty and baseless bickering that makes up much of popular political discourse.  The GOP bears a particularly heavy burden because its members make accusations of Orwellianism while it adopts as its propaganda playbook the very distortions and misuses of language that Orwell satirized and criticized.  He saw that the electronic media could be used to monitor and condition humans by subjecting them to repeated "messaging."  Even if the words of the messages had no basis in reality but were used as conditioning devices to purge minds of original observations and thoughts and supplant them with constantly repeated words, a vulnerable mentality could be shaped around the message that the political party wanted it to believe and act upon.  And in the concerted attack on liberalism and the relentless repetition of contrived, accusatory messages, the GOP adopts precisely the messages and their constant drumming through the media that Orwell portrayed as destructive of competent mentality.  No processes of cognition and ratiocination are engaged.

The GOP has simply employed the techniques of media-delivered advertising, and in a public undereducated in letters and literature, those techniques are effective.  That is what is  behind the harping in education against the "liberal" arts in favor of technical matter, which can be instilled by rote, not by utilizing the critical processes of mind that language and thought employ.  That is also why the kind of testing and evaluation of education through the tests devised by the No Child Left Behind program are such inadequate measures of learning. 

Orwell is often invoked as support for the right wing attacks on anything liberal.  A recent headline on a blog aggregator is typical:  To Understand America’s Growing Nanny State, Read Brave New World and 1984.  On its face, the headline was inane.  Orwell criticized totalitarianism and the use of language to administer operant conditioning to a weak-minded public.  He favored a democratic socialism that organized itself to provide basic needs required to achieve and sustain freedom, equality, and justice,  

I find that much of the commentary on blogs is the symptom of minds purged of the basic tenets of democracy and, yes, Christianity, and can repeat only mindless sound bites and slogans they receive from the heroes they worship through the media.

It is time for those who read, think, and write from the literary traditions of Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Lincoln, and their fellows to assert a little unabashed elitism and call for the restoration of the liberal arts as the most fitting and effective tool of democracy.

We cannot survive under the rule of the pridefully ignorant,

Monday, November 14, 2011

As goes Penn State, so goes the nation

The scandal at Penn. State, which alleges that a former assistant football coach sexually abused young boys on the campus, has had the effect of exposing something that has happened to the nation at large.  It also has demonstrated to the public a reality about the kind of thinking that rules higher education.  

Much of the press coverage has taken the form of accusations and speculations against the Penn. State administration, and the public has responded in lynch mob fashion.  The charges against Jerry Sandusky are for horrendous acts, to be sure, but the public response has been to make speculations about who knew what and then to demand action on the basis of the speculations, not on facts that an investigation should probe.  Consequently, legendary football coach Joe Paterno and the University's president were summarily fired, in an action by the board of trustees that reveals how boards of regents and trustees operate.  

The Washington Post Ombudsman has written that the coverage of his newspaper on the matter was left to opinion columnists, not to on-the-ground reporters who would be going after the facts. Under the pretense of indignation and outrage at the plight of what is alleged to happen to children, the columnists and the commenting public have furiously demanded vengeance on the coaches, the college administration, and anyone else who can be associated with the charges.   One columnist even castigated Jerry Sandusky's wife.  Not one of them proposed any positive actions to be taken for the alleged victims.  

And only a few stories brought in the  complicating fact that Sandusky and his wife raised six adopted children, in addition to starting the Second Mile facility for young boys in need, through which Sandusky is alleged to have made contact with victims.    I don't know the significance of the facts of Sandusky's family and social life, but at this point, neither does anyone else.  There are many aspects of the situation for which a full assemblage of facts is needed, but the journalists and public have shown that they are not capable or willing to deal with complicating facts. Rather than insist upon and support a full investigation leading to a trial, they are insisting on vengeance against anyone in power and authority that they can think of.  It's the lynch mob mentality at work.

I think of a scene from the movie "Powwow Highway," which has some sharply penetrating moments in it.  In one the protagonist, Buddy Red Bow, gets into a scrape at powwow at Pine Ridge and is saved by the intervention of a fellow Viet Nam veteran.  The veteran, played by Graham Greene, a native American actor who has done some brilliant work, is highly decorated for his valor in combat, but is afflicted with an incapacitating stutter. He cannot articulate what he wants to say to Red Bow.  He finally gets out the phrase, "You got mean."  As one browses through all the commentary on the Penn State scandal, one cannot escape the fact that America got mean.  That meanness does nothing to create a rehabilitative circumstance for any possible victims.  It merely serves what has become the great American indulgence:  the need to feel superior  by condemning other people.  And when the condemned is a famous football coach and the president of a big university, people luxuriate in their feeling of superiority.  America got mean.  

I make no case for Joe Paterno or President Graham Spanier.  They were fired and may well deserve it.  But I do know the reason they got fired, and it has nothing to do with the lives involved in the scandal.  It has everything to do with the fact that they could be accused of allowing a scandal, and their sacrifice to public anger elevates the trustees to a position of superiority,  where they hope to evade their moral responsibility as the officials who set the policies and procedures and the lines of authority to be followed.

Universities are populated by very young adults who sometimes do unthinking foolish things.  And by professors who are sometimes overcome by professional rivalries, jealousy, or disappointment, and sometimes lechery.  They, too, do destructive and foolish things.   What drives universities is the quest for money,  much more than the quest for talented students.  The money comes from alumni and benefactors from the business world, and the first and most stringently followed rule is to never cause scandal.  And to never reveal scandal.  Those who expose a scandal are much more despised in the administrative mind than are those who  actually cause a scandal.  The first actions taken by governing boards are to cover the flabby asses by sacrificing some well-known figures.   That takes the attention away from the board as the people indulge a morass of speculations and accusations about the important figures.  The termination of Graham Spanier is a big sacrifice, because he brought $3 billion in philanthropic donations to Penn State.  

I know two former prize-winning reporters who now make their livings writing crime novels.  Both have made comments that the public does not understand what a grand jury indictment actually is.  The public assumes that a grand jury report is a final finding of guilt, not a finding of possible cause on which a suspect may be arrested and made the subject of a thorough investigation.  The two writers both commented that the grand jury report on Jerry Sandusky contains inconsistencies and improbabilities which need a thorough examination of evidence and analysis to clarify and strengthen the charges brought against him for trial.  The fact that he was released on $100,000 bond indicates how tenuous those charges are at this point.*** 

Children who are in fact abused are owed a thorough and honest investigation.  Responsible action in child abuse cases is compromised by the hysteria and speculative frenzy with which people respond to the charges.  On one hand there are cases like those brought against the McMartin Preschool in Los Angeles, which after the longest criminal trial in U.S. history resulted in acquittal and dismissal of charges, and in Jordan, Minnesota, where testimony from children was found to be coached and did not stand up under cross examination.  On the other hand are cases involving U.S. Army day care centers at the Presidio in San Francisco and West Point in Maryland, where physical and forensic evidence was amassed from children, but was weakened by upper echelon  dismissals and inadequate preparation for trial.

Child abuse is too serious and has too many deleterious implications for those on whom it is inflicted to be examined by those possessed by hysteria and twisted agendas.  It isn't just children who are endangered; it is the possibility of any real justice for anyone. 

***Another complicating update:  The judge who released Sandusky on bail is a volunteer for the Second Mile organization.

And, David Brooks makes a shrewd assessment.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Assassinating Lincoln--again

Banned at Ford's Theater
The Ford Theater National Historic Site, the place where Abraham Lincoln was shot, has banned  a recent book on Abraham Lincoln co-written by Bill O'Reilly because of the number of factual errors it contains. The book is titled Killing Lincoln.  To qualify to be carried in the site's bookstore, the book must  be  historically accurate,  have relevant citations and use primary resources with documentation, according to the site's standards for selecting books on Lincoln to further knowledge about him.  The book by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard meets none of those qualifications. 

Columbia University historian Edward Steers, Jr., who has written an acclaimed book on Lincoln says,  "The authors have chosen to write a story based . . . [on] a few dozen secondary books that range from excellent to positively dreadful . . . [with] no vetting . . . treating them as equal," reported the Washington Post.  

Rather than offering lessons in leadership or solutions for a politically divided nation, the book unwittingly exemplifies some of the greatest failings of our current mass mediated political discourse. There is the oversimplification of complex realities, the appeal of crass sensationalism, the stereotypical pigeon-holing of public figures, the innuendo based on hearsay and scant evidence. Throughout the book, in fact, O'Reilly strongly implies that Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was a party to the assassination, a conspiracy that he hints may have included members of Congress, Army and Navy officers, bankers, industrialists, journalists, and a sitting governor. Of course, he is careful to cloak these allegations in the kind of accusatory rhetorical questions that are now so commonly employed by the punditocracy.
Lincoln was a figure who was so revered in Illinois, where I grew up, that my mother had a bust of him on a living room table.  In the laboring community where we lived, Lincoln was revered for an aspect that is not often emphasized.  He resented that his father put him to work cutting fence rails and other arduous tasks and then collected the money Abe earned.  Many biographers of Lincoln have noted that this resentment formed a part of Lincoln's attitude toward slavery based on the conviction that every person should have the rewards of their labor.  Lincoln biographies were required reading in Illinois schools and his philosophy about work and fair earnings was one of the inspirations behind the labor movement.  

I developed a fascination for Lincoln from home and school which increased as I became older. After reading Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, I wanted to read every good book about Lincoln that I could.   Because of the heavy reading involved in my work as a professor, I had to postpone that endeavor until my retirement.  There are more than 16,000 books and articles on Lincoln, and many, many aren't so good.   I limited my reading to those which had received critical acclaim and were regarded as worthy by scholars, but that still leaves a lot of good material that will remain unread.  

The great interest in Lincoln is that he faced such tremendous adversity and faced it with an intellect and a character that has been possessed by very few men or women throughout history.  One reads not just for inspiration, but to find that source of mind and spirit that made Lincoln such a transforming leader.  There are enough excellent books that conduct that search so that one does not have to bother with pot-boiling trash like O'Reilly's book.  Bad history is the basis for desperate futures. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

The great GOP gaffe exchange

Wednesday night two revealing moments in the talking points recitation that is being called a Republican debate were published  on the  front page reports.  One was Rick Perry's comedic moment when he said there are three cabinet departments he'd eliminate from the federal government, but could only think of two.  The other was when Mitt Romney said, "President Barack Obama gave GM to UAW, he gave Chrysler to Fiat.”

The story on Perry's gaffe was still prominently featured on the Internet pages of the media Thursday morning.  But the story on what they called Romney's "clunker"  had disappeared and was replaced by accounts of how Romney's steady performance would put him in the lead for the  nomination.  Of the two gaffes, Romney's was by far the most serious.  Where Perry made a fool of himself that can  really harm no one but himself, Romney stated a falsehood that does damage to the integrity of the country.  What he said  is not true and gives voters misinformation upon which they can base further bad decisions of the kind that created the Great Recession.

Of the major news sources which published the story about Romney's "clunker" on Wednesday night and dropped it on Thursday morning were The Washington Post, the Associated Press, The Chicago Tribune, and The Rapid City Journal.  Here is the Post version of why Romney is wrong:

THE FACTS: That’s not what happened in the bailout.

A trust owned by the United Auto Workers received a 17.5 percent ownership stake in GM to help that trust pay for its retirees’ health care. That stake has declined since then, after the company went public in November 2010. The trust now owns about 10 percent of General Motors. That’s much smaller than the government’s stake of about 30 percent, and it doesn’t support the notion that the government “gave” the company to the union.
Moreover, the union did not get free rein in return for its share. It was barred from going on strike over wage issues during recent contract talks with GM and Chrysler, as a condition of the bailouts.

Nor did Obama give Chrysler to Fiat.

The Italian automaker Fiat received an initial 20 percent stake in Chrysler as Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy in 2009 in exchange for only management expertise and technology. Since then, Fiat has paid $1.8 billion to boost its stake to 53.3 percent, including a $500 million payment to the U.S. Treasury to purchase the government’s 6 percent share of the company.

Whether Romney said what he said  because he has not bothered to apprise himself of the facts or whether he is simply lying as part of his campaign to discredit Obama makes little difference.  He made a false accusation, and the last thing we need is a perfidious weasel leading the country.  That's what got us into Iraq, cost the lives of four thousand soldiers, pissed a trillion dollars down a rat hole, and left another 30,000 troops wounded.

The press and commentators have missed the telling aspect of Romney's attack on Obama.  In claiming that Obama's policies are wrong, he does not analyze what he thinks are flaws in the policies.  He instead takes the ad hominem track of saying they are wrong because the person who implements is inferior.

The press is not savvy enough to see how Romney's attacks are received by African Americans.  Some that I know see this as the old racist argument that blacks are inherently inferior and may be okay to perform menial service to the master class, but should never be put in charge of a household to run it.  They are not capable.

In pursuing his ad hominem denunciation of Obama, Romney is reviving an old Mormon premise that the church officially abandoned in 1978.  Up until that time, blacks were denied the priesthood in the Latter Day Saints church.  All male heads of households are regarded as priests and have priestly duties and privileges in the Mormon church,  Blacks could ally themselves with the LDS church, but they could not exercise any of the privileges, such as be married according to laws of the church.  The rule stemmed from Brigham Young's pronouncement that "The Lord had cursed Cain's seed with blackness and prohibited them the Priesthood."

Romney's persistent attack on Obama's competence and qualifications as a person equal to the task he has assumed follows that old racist rule.

But Romney is by no means the only  Republican who is using the technique exposed by George Orwell for conditioning the unwary and gullible by constantly repeating a lie.  The entire GOP field of  candidates likes to harp on the notion that government regulation is the big obstacle to economic advancement in the U.S.  They are trying to condition the  electorate into thinking that regulation is an evil so that the restraints that keep the corporate world from bilking, fleecing, and cheating the consumer can be removed.  The GOP wants to restore the very practices that produced the Great Recession. 

Here is the Fact Check on the contention the regulation is the basis for our economic problems:

THE FACTS: It has become an article of faith in the GOP field that regulations are a leading drag on jobs, but Labor Department data show that few companies where large layoffs occur say government regulation was the reason. Just two-tenths of 1 percent of layoffs since Obama took office have been due to government regulation, the data show.

Moreover, there is little evidence that the regulatory burden is any worse now than in the past or that it is costing significant numbers of jobs. Most economists believe there is a simpler explanation: Companies aren’t hiring because there isn’t enough consumer demand. And economists believe high levels of economic uncertainty are a leading complication for business, arising more from struggles over taxes and spending in Washington than from regulations — an unwelcome quantity, for sure, but a known one.
The technique of repeating the Big Lie until people accept it is being used by the perpetrators of the Great Recession to escape responsibility for their practices and the mess they create.  The Big Lie seems all that GOP has to run on at this time. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The matter of obituaries for the living

Bill Janklow's announcement of his impending death from brain cancer is a test of journalistic integrity.  He was undeniably a political force and his announcement recalls incidents and episodes in his career that are overcast with deep, dark shadows.  Which incidents and episodes prevail in the mind is probably dependent on one's partisan alliances, but for journalists they pose a problem in how to summarize his life.  The fact that he is alive and sentient to read the accounts will make journalists shape their stories according to their beliefs in how the dead and dying should be treated.  And in some cases to maintain the obsequious posture  that they always displayed toward Janklow.  Their decisions will give historians plenty to  ponder and evaluate as they grapple with making an assessment of Janklow's legacy.

Most obituaries these days are written by or for the family of the deceased, full of cloying sweetness and smarmy assessments of the deceased's life, often totally fabricated. Their objective is not so much to memorialize the deceased as to avoid anything that might embarrass the family.  In years past, obituaries were written by reporters and were carefully confined to the facts of a person's biography.  If the family wanted smarm and professions of sweetness, that is what the memorial bulletins handed out at the funerals were for.  Major papers like The New York Times assigned accomplished writers to write biographies of public figures so that the newspaper had the obituary material on file and could pull it out for publication within minutes of the person's death.  I think the increase in diabetes in the country could well be related to reading too many of those sugary paeans of praise that pass for obituaries today.  I was once sitting next to a college dean at a funeral service for a college president when, for his wife's benefit, he crossed out the first sentence in the obituary on the church bulletin and penned in, "This man was a supreme asshole."  His wife took it from him, crumpled it up, and stuck it in her purse so that nobody else would see it.  But not before she had scribbled an "amen" in the margin.

The idea of a wake and a funeral is to celebrate a person's life by concentrating on the positive achievements and ignoring those minor detractions from perfection that everyone possesses.  A worthy life must be acknowledged for its worthiness.  But in some lives the detractions cast too dense a shadow to ignore, and they define a major aspect of the persona.  In  some cases predatory and heedless menace are the persona.   In Bill Janklow's case, there is no question that he accomplished things and worked hard for the state, but in some quarters he is regarded primarily as a destructive and damaging force.  The problem for the press is how to handle the conflicting aspects of his career.  For the most part, the press accounts on the occasion of Janklow's announcement were either personal anecdotes that avoided a larger look at his life or were collections of quotations from other public figures

One of the comments regarding Janklow from another politician was that people should not allow his manslaughter conviction for running a stop sign and killing a motorcyclist be their most prominent memory of Bill Janklow.  For a number of people, that incident is one in a long string of incidents that recall the shadowy side of Janklow.  While the legacy media came up with fond memories, which did hint at the darker perceptions of him, Internet sources, particularly those based on Indian reservations and those dealing with civil rights, recalled the menace and the damage Janklow represents to them.

Those recollections are not based upon mere political disagreements.  They are based on basic moral issues of a more personal nature.  One of the laudatory memoirs tries to make the case for Janklow as a kindly friend and parent and asserts that what Janklow did was intensely personal.  There is some truth to that:  Janklow defined himself to some as a particularly vicious enemy with an agenda of personal destruction.

There are things that Janklow did that can be criticized as politically questionable.  His support of the ETSI coal slurry pipeline, a scheme eventually abandoned, seemed a bit ignorant and silly.  On the other hand, the state purchase of the old Milwaukee rail line was a government intrusion that preserved an important piece of infrastructure.  His pushing for the repeal of usury laws to give South Dakota a large niche in the credit card industry certainly brought growth to the state, but also some exploitative and destructive credit practices.  Janklow did form alliances with Democratic politicians, such as Tom Daschle, to get things done for the state, and he did accomplish things.

But some of those accomplishments had destructive effects.  His idea for turning juvenile detention facilities into boot camps resulted in the death of 14-year-old Gina Score and the revelation of practices that eventually led to their abandonment.  He purged the Board of Regents of any professional educators and established it as a body of lawyers and political loyalists who served the governor, not the people.  But the Janklow Indian wars were an episode that for many will represent the Janklow legacy.

Larry Kurtz of the interested party blog calls attention to a very instructive piece by Lakota journalist Tim Giago, which gives an outline of Janklow's war on Indians. The shadowy past of William Janklow is cast on the Indian reservations. He began his law career as a Legal Aid lawyer on the Rosebud Reservation.  That is where one of the most troubling accusations against Janklow originated, which Tim Giago summarizes.  He was eventually barred from practicing law on the Rosebud by a tribal judge on the basis of a rape accusation by Jancita Eagle Deer, for whom Janklow acted as a guardian.   She testified that while driving her back to her lodging after baby-sitting for the Janklows, he raped her.  When those allegations were covered in Peter Matthiessen's book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Janklow sued the author, the publisher Viking Press, and Newsweek, which included the allegation in a review, for libel.  He also threatened and temporarily closed book stores which sold the book.  His suits were dismissed on the First Amendment basis that the author and publications were reporting on the legal actions surrounding the allegation, not originating or making the allegation themselves.  It is an allegation that lingers and was intensified by the events surrounding Jancita Eagle Deer's life and death.  She was involved in AIM activities and was urged by the organization to make her charges against Janklow.  She offered her testimony in the hearing which led to Jankow's disbarment by the tribal court in October 1974.  In April 1975, she was killed in a hit-and-run on a highway in Nebraska, an incident that was never fully investigated or explained.   Her mother, Delphine Eagle Deer, pursued the rape allegations after her death and was found beaten to death on the Rosebud reservation nine months later.  The unexplained, violent deaths are part of the murky shadows that create suspicion and distrust.

There is also a tribal police report from the Lower Brule Reservation that states that Janklow was chased down by tribal police at Fort Thompson in 1973 for drunken driving.  When he was stopped, he wasn't wearing any pants, according to the report.

In 1974, Janklow was elected attorney general of South Dakota and succeeded in a number of prosecutions of American Indian Movement members.  He was elected as a conservative law-and-order attorney, but many native Americans wryly question what law and what order?

As one who has been involved with organizations and activities that work on wrongful convictions, I am acutely aware of the unreliability that exists in accusations that are not carefully documented.  The failure to investigate murky incidents and to document the findings contributes to the conspiracy theories that surround the perception of Janklow.  They are fed by people who have experienced Janklow's bullying and vindictiveness.

Janklow is a reason why I switched political parties when I moved to South Dakota.  I was what is called a Lincoln Republican in Illinois, although I was alarmed when the party in that state became dominated by corporately-allied conservatives who refuted almost everything that Lincoln represented.  But on my way to South Dakota to find a house after taking a job here, I heard Janklow, recently elected governor,  give a speech over the car radio that convinced me he did  not represent any of the values I held.  I knew about him, as I was active in a group called the Intertribal League, a group of native Americans in the Quad-Cities of Iowa and Illinois.  Some of the young people associated with that group were getting active in the American Indian Movement, and Janklow was prominently named as a concern of theirs.

My only personal confrontation with Janklow was one I invited.  As a congressman, he was invited to Aberdeen to make a speech at the dedication of a huge flag which flies in Wylie Park.  I was part of that dedication as the honor guard from a Civil War re-enactment group.  Janklow gave a speech devoted to militarism;  he said it was not the poet, the reporter, the lawyer, or the organizer who have us or freedoms;  it was the soldier.  In a snarky newspaper column, I took exception to his statements because they are, first, a distorted falsification of who and how our freedoms were established and are maintained, and, secondly, because he seemed to be justifying the police state he sometimes commanded.  He responded through a piece probably written by a staff member.  He belittled the fact that I attended the event as a re-enactment soldier, a play soldier, as he termed it.  The response did not even consider that I am, in fact, a veteran, and my participation in re-enactments stemmed in part from my knowledge of the manual of arms from being a drill instructor.  Nor did it occur to him that I could be proud of my own service.  I did not diminish the role of the soldier, but took exception to his excluding every endeavor but soldiering as the source of our freedoms.

In the course of trying to figure out why he would make such a contention, I discovered that he had plagiarized that portion of his speech from a poem that circulates on the Internet.  (You can see it below.)
The whole incident is consistent with a reckless negligence of the sort that in courts is regarded as the product of malice.  For many, when they think of his manslaughter conviction, they will also recall numerous other incidents, particularly those related to his war on the Indians.

I often thought that the jail sentence he served for the manslaughter conviction pointed up the weaknesses of our criminal justice system.  I wished there would have been some way to make him do community service of the nature that earned him a good reputation as a  Legal Aid lawyer on the Rosebud.  Janklow has talents that could be used in a redemptive manner.

Still,  I, like many, am saddened by his cancer.  It does make one thing about the positive things he accomplished and was capable of doing, and I wish he could be alive quite a bit longer to extend the good things he did and erase that dark legacy that will shadow him for many people.  

*The plagiarized Internet poem for whom the author has not been established.

It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.

It is the Soldier, not the poet,
Who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer,
Who has given us the freedom to demonstrate.

It is the Soldier, not the lawyer,
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the Soldier, who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protestor to burn the flag.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The theory and practice of Caining

The Republican primary campaign is getting as nuts as the people in it.  The only candidate who has demonstrated any intellectual competence is Jon Huntsman, who obviously cannot compete in the GOP idiocy test with the likes of Palin, Bachmann, Perry, etc.  Mitt Romney who has a more sedate history is out there flopping around like a beheaded chicken.   Voters ultimately determine the outcomes of our elections, but the question is, who determines the mentality of the voters? As we know from the history of Germany in the 1930s, Joe McCarthy's inquisition, and other deviant episodes in human history, whole cultures can go bonkers. But this episode is driven by the voters who have the politicians groveling to be one of them, not led by politicians trying to persuade voters with ideas and plans, however nutty.  It is a time of the pettiest, meanest, and lowest kind of ad hominem frenzy, like the inmates of a loony bin having a gossip fest. 

The accusations that Herman Cain engaged in sexual harassment occurs in a context in which all allegations are suspect.  I must admit to a jaded attitude about sexual harassment charges.  As a local and state officer in a college faculty organization that dealt with matters of grievances and due process,  I ended up on a list of faculty from which outside review panels were formed when a professor requested an independent study panel to review personnel actions taken against him or her.  Sexual harassment charges dominated the actions reviewed by panels on which I served.  I hated those panels.  They involved a degree of work that intruded upon professional and family life, and they exposed one to sides of humanity that one would like to think are rarities in the higher education profession.   The reviews indicated an even, 50/50 split on sexual harassment charges.  About half of the actions taken against professors were fully warranted.  Some professors did use their power and authority to force sexual situations.  Some people were justifiably fired.  However, about half were matters of vindictive retaliations or the ruthless pursuit of ambitions or perverse states of mind.  Students or colleagues would conflate innocuous banter with examples of sexual aggression, sometimes in  cases when they were unhappy with grades or felt slighted somehow in the course of academic business.  Some cases were downright fabrications.  Most of the dubious accusations were overburdened with a malicious intent. 

A big problem in sexual harassment cases is that to save legitimate complainants from undue stress and embarrassment, organizations adopted procedures for dealing with the complaints that circumvent Constitutionally-derived due process.  The charges and proceedings were kept confidential, and were not available for critical examination.  In many cases, the procedures assumed the guilt of the accused, and some organizations even went so far as to suspend the person charged until some kind of administrative decision was made.  And that administrative decision was based upon a presumption of guilt, and the accused had to prove innocence.  Most organizations wanted to dispose of any such charges as fast as possible in the most expeditious manner possible.  Often they would buy off the complainers to get around any prolonged investigations, with little concern about whether the accusations were true.  The review panels did not get cases where there was irrefutable evidence that sexual harassment had occurred.  Guilty individuals in those instances did not ask for reviews.  The panels got the cases in which there were serious questions.  They generally fell into the contention of he-said-she-said, and the review panels had to grapple with conflicting accusations, twisted interpretations, and sometimes downright lies, which the panels generally could detect.  But the real depressing aspect of such cases is the damage they do.  The people involved never get over it, and the institutions are damaged.  That is why many administrators just want the people involved to leave and take the issue with them.  When the credibility of the accused and/or the accuser is in question, it is like implanting cancer cells in all the people around them.  The tear in the social fabric is irreparable.  

Sexual harassment is a very serious business.  When it occurs, it needs to be eliminated.  But due process is also a very serious business.  It is often eliminated, and needs somehow to be restored.

The Herman Cain  business illustrates all the defects in the procedures for dealing with sexual harassment.  There is evidence that harassment complaints were filed, but the facts are hidden to fester and ooze.  However, one huge fact stands out even if the details that led to a settlement are not known.  Because Herman Cain held the status of CEO, he was not the one asked to go.  The apparent object of the harassment was paid off to leave.  The procedures were not designed to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace and make it possible for people to concentrate on their work; they were designed to defer to and protect the status of the CEO and get rid of the person who filed the complaint. The offender in a case like this is the person against whom the offenses were committed.  Such a settlement does nothing to eliminate sexual harassment from the workplace; it defines instead who is bestowed the privileges of harassing and who must submit or get out.  Justice and the due process that delivers it is not a consideration.

The media plays a difficult role in matters of sexual harassment when a public figure enters the political arena and becomes a contender for an office which has a significant influence on how justice is delivered.  The political magazine Politico received a tip on the Herman Cain matter, and decided to publish the story referring to anonymous sources.  During my time as a full-time journalist, that would not have happened, except in the tabloids.  The rule back then was to aggressively and thoroughly investigate any such information, but not to publish it until the reporters had a person or a document they could cite to back up the allegations.  Anonymous sources used in a story only when a situation seemed so urgent that the story needed to be told even if sources could not be identified.  Recall the accounts of Watergate and the strenuous efforts of Woodward and Bernstein to verify their story. 

 At that time in the  not-too-distant past,  journalistic credibility and careful attribution were the primary considerations in handling such stories.  News media went to great lengths to give its audience substantiated facts.  The criteria today shows how the success of tabloid journalism has eroded the standards of reliability.  The major concern today is to be first with the story, which is why so many stories are based upon anonymous sources.  And a semi-literate public does not really care about authenticity and accuracy as long as it gets its does of titillation.  The media is a huge determiner of the public mentality, and it has created a simple-minded audience.

The fact that politicians such as Palin, Bachmann, Perry, and Cain make unabashedly ignorant statements and brandish them as badges of conservative merit is a measure of why the media has had more influence on the minds of the people than have the schools.  Herman Cain's display of ignorance about China and its nuclear status is a case in point. 

A symptom of the new literacy and what is purported to be a standard of journalism is South Dakota Politic's assailing of the Politico story as irresponsible journalism. Politico decided to abide by legal agreements made with the National Restaurant Association with the complainant not to disclose any details of the incidents.  South Dakota Politics contends that the fact that a legal agreement prevented disclosure made no facts available and therefore rendered the Politico story worthless, except as a hit piece on Herman Cain.  The fact that such an agreement exists is strong authority for a story, even though the details of it are guarded.  Politico decided it was important to know something about the history of a man who is in contention for the presidency, and published what it had. 

The huge irony is that no blog worships at the altar of ad hominem sacrifice with the devout fervor of South Dakota Politics.  It is a priestly order of defamation, and has turned it into a denomination of political science, which is among the most pseudo of the pseudo-sciences to start with.  Its efforts to present President Obama as a shambling houseboy who suddenly found himself in charge of the house is a classic scenario from the priestly order's liturgy. Irony abounds for those who recognize it.  The tabloid mentality prevails. 

The harassment accusations against Herman Cain have seemed to increase donations to his campaign.  Actually that is somewhat intriguing.  I never thought I'd live to see a black man become presidency.  Now, we have the prospect of two black men running for that office.  We seem to have made some kind of progress, but then one looks at the matter of what is presented to us through the sexual harassment story.  We see a concept of justice in which a CEO gets a pass and an alleged victim loses a job (although she  reportedly now works for the government, which the Conservatives would like to get rid of).

Politico did its job as a member of the Fourth Estate.  And for that, it must be castigated.  If America is to be the big serfdom for the rule of CEOs and we are bonkers enough to let it happen. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States