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

Saturday, September 29, 2012

What could bring Obama down

Reaper drone
Predator drone

These babies.

While conservative commentators keep droning with intelligence-challenged and stupidly contrived criticisms against Obama--birth certificate, inability to understand or do anything, all racial-based cant--some critics on the left raise issues of genuine import.  The Displaced Plainsman reviews them in a post that explains why LK cannot support either presidential candidate.

There are two major charges against Obama:  he has illegally ordered drone strikes that have killed innocent people in Pakistan and Yemen, and he illegally dispatched troops to Libya.

The charges about his actions in Libya are dubious.  During the Arab spring uprising, he refused to lend active on-the-ground military support to the rebels.  He let the United Kingdom handle that.   He did commit Air Force resources to enforcing a no-fly zone to protect the rebels from air attacks.     

This month after the violence against embassies relative to the stupid video that Muslims took offense to for insulting Mohammed, he did send combat-ready troops to Libya and Yemen to protect American personnel after the killing of the U.S. ambassador in Libya. 

In the matter concerning Libyan rebels,  Obama was severely criticized because he did not do more, but then was criticized by the GOP because he did not inform Congress of his actions in the required timeline.  State Department and administrative counsel provided a detailed statement on the legality of that level of support.  He is being criticized for not anticipating the attack on Ambassador Stevens and for sending armed troops into Libya and Yemen without Congressional approval, but his duties as commander-in-chief permit and require him to take measures to protect American personnel deployed in foreign countries for diplomatic purposes.  Those criticisms are carping, not substantive.

The matter of the drone strikes is quite different.  What makes it different is that we have never before had the technological means to seek out declared enemies of the U.S. in remote places and use remote-controlled armaments to take them out.  Furthermore, the matter of security and military secrecy compounds the issue.  Early on, The Columbia Journalism Review and more recently Mother Jones has reported on the complications involved in those actions.

Obama is charged with violating the Constitution when he approved of a drone strike that killed American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim iman who turned against his country.  The charge is that he ordered the execution of an American citizen without any form of due process through the courts or military tribunal.  There may be convoluted legalities involved in that killing, but it recalls for me an operating principle from my days in the U.S. military:  if a person openly betrays and is traitor to his/her country and  advocates and plots against it, the person is regarded as a declared enemy who can be disposed of by military means.  In effect, the person has disqualified himself from any protections due an American citizen and the rules of war apply.

Obama's vulnerability is in the "collateral damage" done by the drone strikes, the killing of civilians not directly engaged in combat.  We've been there before. 

When Lyndon Johnson made his decision not to seek a second full term as president, the deciding factor was the anti-war protests sweeping the nation.  Those protests were expressed and motivated by a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a little Vietnamese girl running naked down a road with other children aflame with napalm from American aircraft.  

Nick Ut, a photographer with The Associated Press in Los Angeles, won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1973 for the photograph of 9-year-old Kim Phuc running along a road with other children following a napalm strike on the village of Trang Bang, 25 miles west of Saigon, Vietnam. The photograph was titled, "The Terror of War." 

 Obama's critics on the left are the ones to examine this issue.  Obama has claimed that every precaution is taken with the drone strikes to prevent any civilian casualties, but according to diplomatic personnel from the countries involved, those casualties are the source of anti-American attitudes that are growing in those nations. 

The protests against the killing of innocents has not reached the intensity of that which brought down Lyndon Johnson as of yet.  The picture that provokes that level of rage has still to be published. 

The Vietnamese were not associated with any direct attacks on America such as 9/11, which may explain the absence of rage against the innocents killed in drone attacks.  However, the potential is there on the left wing.  

[Note:  When blogger published this post, it eliminated some of the links to sources.  I have restored them.]

Thursday, September 27, 2012

When the town cafe rules the town

Blogs are to the literate world what the Mexican drug cartels are to the world of free enterprise. Many of my friends and associates never read blogs and the fact that I blog is regarded by some of them as a social disease that they pity and wish I would get over. 

Some people like to call blogs "citizen journalism."  And some bloggers try to maintain a level of information, thoughtfulness and civility on their blogs that rise above the mean, the petty, and the stupid.  But the people who choose to comment on the blogs soon reduce them to scurrilous exchanges of made-up, false information and puerile name-calling and accusations.  Some blogs, however, emanate from those same kinds of voices that drip with petty hatred and the intolerant resentments that possess America's educational failures.  

If blogs are journalism, their big story is the chronicling of the nation's intellectual and  moral failures.  They are part of the social media's role in the dissolution of civility, intelligence, and good will. They record the fact that education, true literacy, and decency are not values honored by many in current society. 

The social media have formed themselves on the lines of a much despised and ridiculed feature of small town life:  the town cafe.  I have not had much personal experience with small town cafes, but I have read thousands of student papers in which they were brought up as a detraction of small town life. 

One of the  most frustrating writing assignments for students was for them to analyze their home towns, putting their own perceptions in the context of scientific and more objective sources of information.  It was also one of the more productive assignments because it required students to gather and use the materials of critical reasoning and confront the way their affections and disaffections related to cold, hard facts.  For the professors who read the assignments, the information and thinking presented by the students made the assignment much more informative than most and often even pleasurable to read.  The experience was like visiting the towns they described.

For the students who came from the smaller towns, a central topic was the town cafe.  The students were asked in their planning and pre-writing to think about social detractions in their towns.  The town cafe was almost universally mentioned by the young writers from smaller towns, and very seldom in a positive way.  Some students described them with good-humored ridicule.  Many avoided and dismissed them as a feature they would not bother with, if at all possible.  Other students reviled them as a decadent and destructive force in town life.  Some of the bitterest accounts came from young women who worked in town cafes as waitresses during their high school years.  They could provide detailed recounting of the gossip sessions they witnessed in the town  cafes and how the people who gathered over coffee would turn speculations about some young people in town, particularly attractive young women whose parents were not prominent, into vicious and destructive slanders.  The  bitterness of such accounts remains in my memory with intense vividness.

My personal observations of the town cafe culture became focused when my wife and I were involved in placing foreign exchange students in homes.  The small town placements were where the real problems occurred, and we had to find different settings for the students.  The problem was that the small town culture is often divided into warring factions between a self-appointed elite and an underclass.  The would-be elite was generally the group that dominated the town cafe and issued its pronouncements on the town population.  The exchange students found themselves being vied for and forced to side with a town faction.  The experience was horrible and bewildering for them, and we spent a great deal of time  working with teachers and administrators on the problem, extracting the students from the situation, and finding different homes and communities for them.  We had to write detailed, documented reports which were reviewed by the sponsoring organization along with people from State Department, and the communities were put on a confidential list of schools and communities for which we were forbidden to make placements.  I've often wondered if these communities realized that they had earned that distinction.

However, the hundreds of accounts of small town life and the role of the town cafe presented in student papers comprise a formidable condemnation.  In talking about those papers with a school district superintendent, he commented that when small towns teeter toward the brink of collapse, a first measure they should take is to close the town cafe to the coffee-drinking gossips.  He said they drive people away from the community and destroy the good will needed to sustain main street.  

Discussion boards, blogs, and the social media have spread the verbal destruction of the town cafe.  Most newspapers have dropped their discussion boards, although some of them invite comments after individual stories in an attempt to keep the discussion news-inspired.  That doesn't stop the ignorant, stupid, and mean from asserting themselves.  What the media have found, and bloggers in the competition for hits are slow to understand, is that the comments of the trolls and impaired define the nature of the community.  The fact that they comprise a minority doesn't change the fact that they inject an element that diminishes the integrity of the medium, and therefore the community.  The comments on Internet media reflect the worst that humans can think and say and drive away people of loftier and constructive intent.   

The Northern Valley Beacon began to be a voice for a county political party, and four women signed on as contributors.  At first, the blog was an open forum where the contributors signed their names and tried to maintain a level of civility and intelligence, but very quickly they began to find themselves the targets of insult, harassment, and abuse.  One of them was the target of an insulting and abusive phone call that was answered by one of her children.  Others found that they were the targets of that peculiarly puerile form of insult and abuse that once characterized playground bullies but became the standard of wit and expression that characterizes many blogs.   Eventually, all my co-contributors quit blogging.

The experience with blogging motivated one of them to go into the study of communication and rhetoric.  She is working on a group project that analyzes the content and influence of blogs.  One of her concerns is the few women who produce politically-oriented blogs and how quickly and irrevocably women tend to abandon them.  One of my former blogging associates, Val, says she doesn't frequent blogs for the same reason she doesn't go to biker bars:  a repulsive and objectionable clientele.  Erin, who is working on the study, tells me that is the attitude she finds among women.  They see the customs and behavior on blogs of same kind encountered from grade school bullies.  And as they did in grade school, women simply dismiss them as inconsequential to their lives and avoid them.

My own persistence in blogging--although I am becoming convinced it is a waste--comes from my interest in the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web as communicative tools of infinite possibility.  But when even the most useful and constructive tools are put to destructive and degrading use, their value is diminished to the point that we must consider whether they have an ultimate value.  

The Internet is a tool through which anyone with access to a computer can exercise free speech in front of an audience.  But what many of those who exercise their right of free speech do not understand is that while they have an inherent right to express themselves, the right to be heard has to be earned.  And people have the concomitant right to evaluate and dismiss what they hear.  Much of what is transmitted on the Internet is the exchange of ignorance, the utterance of the product of incompetent reasoning, the expression that issues from a degraded, petty malice.  Its authors retreat into the justification that they are participating in political dialogue and are exercising the right to voice their opinions.  Opinions are not equal in terms of the facts on which they are formed and the reasoning process by which they are formed. 

At the behest of the non-literate portion who uses it, the Internet has become the town cafe of the world.  It has not become the medium of exchange of critical information and informed discussion that it has the potential to be.  It is still used for that, but in carefully secured and guarded forums that the general public does not and cannot have access to.

The question facing the literate world is if it wants the culture and its politics shaped by the worst and lowest that humankind can think and say.  in all the discussion about education and the future of the country, that question is the overriding one.   

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The global industry of outrage and stupidity

When French philosopher Bernard-Henry Levi wrote his tribute to Ambassador Christopher Stevens after the ambassador was killed in Libya, he concluded, "This time, the imbeciles have won."

The country he had so ardently defended and the city of Benghazi, which he had helped to save and he so loved, proved his undoing. Ten years after the death of Daniel Pearl, another American who respected Arabs and Muslims and who admired, like Christopher Stevens, the wisdom of true Islam, Stevens fell victim to the same fanaticism, the same blind and tragic barbarism. The United States has lost an ambassador. The Libyans have lost a companion and a friendThis time, the imbeciles have won.

People who cover international news speak of the industry of outrage in the Muslim world. It is a means through which one small group exercises influence and control over others.  They use indoctrination from childhood to keep their masses ignorant and free of reasoning and critical-thinking skills so that they can elicit desired behavior upon demand.  Like suicide bombings and attacks on consulates and embassies of countries who do not subscribe to their bigoted dogma.  The industry of outrage is not, however, limited to Muslim countries.  We have our version of it in America. It's the corporate culture and its Republican priesthood.  Radical Islam has its imams; we have our corporations.  They both foment outrage to get their dupes to do things against other people.  

The ostensible motive in the uprisings against America in the Middle East is the crude and utterly stupid video titled "The Innocence of Muslims,"  which you can view below if you can tolerate profoundly and genuinely stupid and crude videos.  There is some question about whether the attack that killed Christopher Stevens was motivated by the film or was, in fact, a planned attack by some kind of anti-American cell in Libya.  It was probably both.  Those who would attack America have consistently shown that they are shrewd enough to take advantage of events to launch their attacks.  

However, columnist Ross Douthat zeroes in on the real motive and portent behind the ostensible demonstrations against that crude film:

 What we are witnessing, instead, is mostly an exercise in old-fashioned power politics, with a stone-dumb video as a pretext for violence that would have been unleashed on some other excuse.

This has happened many times before, and Westerners should be used to it by now. Anyone in need of a refresher course should consult Salman Rushdie’s memoir, due out this week and excerpted in the latest New Yorker, which offers a harrowing account of what it felt like to live under an ayatollah’s death threat, and watch as other people suffered at the hands of mobs chanting for his head.

What Rushdie understands, and what we should understand as well, is that the crucial issue wasn’t actually how the novelist had treated Islam’s prophet in the pages of “The Satanic Verses.” The real issue, instead, was the desire of Iran’s leaders to keep the flame of their revolution burning after the debacle of the Iran-Iraq War, the desire of Pakistan’s Islamists to test the religious bona fides of their country’s prime minister, and the desire of religious extremists in Britain to cast themselves as spokesmen for the Muslim community as a whole. (In this, some of them succeeded: Rushdie dryly notes that an activist who declared of the novelist that “death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him” would eventually be knighted “at the recommendation of the Blair government for his services to community relations.”)
It is difficult for Americans to understand why the idea that the President did not stop this insult to Mohammed can enrage a bunch of Muslims.  It is also difficult for them to understand that other countries and cultures do not have America's First Amendment protection of free speech and do not comprehend the reasons for it.  

Underlying the turmoil and outrage is a theological difference between Muslim and Christianity.  Jesus Christ, the historical person, was one of the greatest, most influential political philosophers of all time.  He instructed his followers to love their enemy and turn the other cheek when affronted by assault, verbal or physical.  He instructed his followers to make  peace, not war.  Of course, that part of Christian theology is largely ignored by the neocons who lay claim to Christianity as their motivating creed.  Mohammed has some caveats about that making peace business, and says it may be necessary, according to some Imams, to take up arms in defense of their religion and its people.   

While some in American insist upon their right to freely practice their Christian religion, they deride and condemn those Christians who take Christ's words about peace-making as sissies and unpatriotic, subversive appeasers and deviants.  God is great, you know.

The GOP has also honed the business of outrage to manipulate the capacity for rage in its minions.  They are very  adept at locating the words that can trigger rage, take them totally of context usually, and repeat them over and over again to excite the slavering mob.  Mitt Romney's entire campaign is based upon inducing slaver.  That is one of the motives behind the constant stream of stupid that comes out of his mouth.

In being stupid, he establishes a kinship with a huge bloc of voters and relates to the people in this way.  He capitalizes on the  tradition of Palin and taken up by nearly every potential candidate in the Republican primary, except for Jon Huntsman.  What is so frustrating about the progressive in dealing with Romney is that they always preface their criticisms of him with the statement that he is a smart man.  Smart people do not constantly say stupid things.  Stupid comments are the prime symptom of a mentality that has limited sentience.  Mitt Romney is a dolt.  And that is precisely his appeal to those he appeals to.  

Americans who marvel at the capacity for outrage, ignorance, and stupidity in the Muslim world are, like Romney, obtuse about the stupid in their own milieu.

And if you love stupid, you will love looking at this video.  If you are somewhat educated, discerning, and literate, you are advised to avoid looking at it.  It will only remind you that the human race is losing the battle against ignorance and stupidity. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Choosing sides in the class war

It turns out that Mitt Romney was right. There is class warfare being waged in the 2012 campaign. It is Mr. Romney who is waging it, not President Obama, and he’s stood the whole idea on its head.  [New York Times
 Romney was videotaped at a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser in Boca Raton, FL, last May when these unambiguous words of his were recorded:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.
[The entire video can be viewed here.]

Conservatives bristle at any mention of the gross inequities that the corporatocracy has managed to build into the economic system since the 1980s as the upper five percent garners more and more of the nation's wealth and earnings.  Romney clearly articulated the thinking that drives this appropriation of wealth and exerted program to diminish the middle class.  By those who  subscribe and defend his words, you know who the real enemies of freedom, equality, and justice are.

It seems the time has come to choose sides and engage the real fight.   

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Royal hooters flash by Sturgis

H/T to Bob Newland

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge seek private moments to air their flesh from the French Alps to a multitude of other  climes, where they try to spread good will and British charm.
Here they salute a photographer as they seek anonymity (as so many blog commenters do) and a peaceful moment by melting in with the crowds at Sturgis.  

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Addendum: To feel consequential in this country, everybody needs somebody to screw over

Read this important piece related to what teachers actually face in the classroom.

CHICAGO –- Two weeks before teachers here went on strike, shutting down the third largest school system in the nation, a teenage boy was shot and killed in a rough neighborhood on the South Side.

At Morrill Math and Science Specialty School, the shooting prompted teacher Monique Redeaux to scrap her regular social studies lesson, a unit on Christopher Columbus. Instead, she guided her seventh- and eighth-grade students through a discussion on violence and inner-city poverty.

There is an attitude about teachers that lingers from the 19th century.  It is implicit in the rancor and false representations about teachers' unions.  A large portion of the public thinks of teachers as bonded servants and resent any independent status and freedom that teachers have obtained.  

The servitude of teachers was defined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by rules such as these typical ones:
1. Teachers are expected to live in the community in which they are employed and to take residence with local citizens for room and board.

2. Teachers will be required to spend weekends in the community unless permission is granted by the Chairman of the Board.

3. It is understood that teachers will attend church each Sunday and take an active part, particularly in choir and Sunday School work.

4. Dancing, card playing and the theatre are works of the devil that lead to gambling, immoral climate, and influence and will not be tolerated.

5. Community plays are given annually. Teachers are expected to participate.

6. When laundering petticoats and unmentionables it is best to dry them in a flour sack or pillow case. (So no one sees them hanging on the line to dry).

7. Any teacher who smokes cigarettes, uses liquor in any form, frequents a pool or public hall, or (for men) gets shaved in a barber shop, (or for women) bobs (cuts) her hair, has dyed hair, wears short skirts (could not be any shorter than 2 inches above the ankles) and has undue use of cosmetics will not be tolerated under any circumstances.

8. Teachers will not marry or keep company with a man friend during the week except as an escort to church services. (The only man a woman teacher could be seen with was her father or her brother).

9. Loitering in ice cream parlors, drug stores, etc., is prohibited.

10. Purchasing or reading the Sunday Supplement on the Sabbath will not be tolerated.

11. Discussing political views or party choice is not advisable.

12. Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly.

13. After 10 hours in school, the teacher should spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.

14. Women teachers who marry or engage in other unseemly conduct will be dismissed.

15. Every teacher should lay aside from his pay a goodly sum for his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.

16. The teacher who performs his labors faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of 25 cents a week in his pay providing the Board of Education approves.
Not much has changed in a hundred years.  When a 19th century teacher was asked if she  liked teaching, she said:  
You ask if I like teaching. Oh, yes, the teaching part but not the discipline. I had to keep all my scholars but one in at recess today, and I had to whip one boy—the first punishment of that kind that has been necessary. Then it is so hard not to like some children better than others, and there are so many little disputes to settle. But I do like teaching.
The matter of student behavior has been a major factor in public education from its outset.  During the time I was a director of the Dakota Writing Project, it came up constantly.  A frequent criticism of Project programs was that we did not provide much in the way of classroom management and discipline resources.  We didn't, because the Project was devoted to ways to get students involved in activities that would improve and refine their writing skills, and the Project assumed that discipline issues were covered by teacher training and system policies and procedures.  But as one experienced teacher said during one of our evaluation reviews,  the ideas presented were innovative, valuable, and highly effective, but teachers cannot make much use of them when so much of the time and energy is devoted to dealing with recalcitrant attitudes and creating conditions in which the techniques of instruction presented by the project could be implemented.  The project had a basic premise.  While it brought in outside experts to discuss effective, successful methods that they were involved in, the premise of the project was for working teachers to share successful procedures with each other and to engage in a constant process of exchange, review, and analysis with fellow teachers in their school setting.  The Project was not limited to English teachers.  It involved teachers from all grade levels and and disciplines to make writing something students used as a learning tool in all their classes.

One of the problems faced by teachers who became fellows of the program and tried to utilize it at their schools was the fact that their schedules provided little or no opportunity to engage in the consultation, exchange of information, and review that made the program work.  At one campus where we had a successful program in process, it ended when the school board increased the teaching day from seven to eight periods.  Many of our fellows found that their principals had no interest in making the arrangements whereby teachers could engage in professional development that originated and was conducted by the teachers themselves.

At a school we were using as a model for implementing the processes of coordination and collaboration, the unified efforts to improve writing skills ended when the school board introduced merit pay.  To meet the criteria for qualifying, the teachers found they had to compete against each other rather than collaborate.

 One of the dismaying aspects that the Project confronted was the diffidence of administrators.  For its summer institutes, the Project required a letter of recommendation from the supervisors of the teachers who applied for admission.  Many of the administrators told the teachers to write their own letters of recommendation and the administrators would sign them.   They had little interest in the professional aspects of the Project or results of the research and practices it presented to teachers.

The second most troubling problem the Project confronted was that matter of classroom discipline.  Our most successful and effective teachers said that they did, indeed, spend too much time working with discipline problems before they could engage students in the learning process. Effective teachers create atmosphere and attitude in the classroom that engages students in learning, but a multitude of outside factors determine classroom attitudes more than the skills of the teacher. 

One of the writing exercises introduced to Project participants by a highly successful teacher from California was "the class from hell."  Teachers were asked to write about a class that presented unusual challenges in terms of attitude and discipline and how they dealt with it and how successfully.  Every teacher could readily cite problem classes.  And they cited a number of causes for bad student attitudes:

  • Students came from homes that denigrated school as a boring, punishing burden that  they were expected to endure.
  • Students came from dysfunctional homes or chaotic neighborhoods that disturbed them too greatly to be able to concentrate on school.
  • Students had mental and emotional problems that were barriers to their learning ability.
  • The schools were located in communities that had did not value education or schools.
  • Schools were run by administrators who were more interested in exercising power over the teaching staff than in supporting and participating in the educational efforts.
  • The board, administration, and/or constituency denigrated the status and role of teachers.
  • The values of the board, administration, and constituency emphasized vocational training over education.
  • Administrations were disruptive and dysfunctional

There were administrations that were competent, involved, and supportive of their teachers.  But a sad aspect of teachers we encountered was ones who had long careers in teaching and had earned recognition for their effective work, but who said, given the student attitudes they encountered, would not go into teaching in today's social climate. Their complaint was that the they had no support in dealing with the discipline and classroom management problems they encountered.  A man who had gained national recognition as a guidance counselor told us that teachers can endure the belligerence and disrespect of students only so long and eventually their own psychic survival, not delivering education, becomes their goal. 

The discussion and proposals for improving education all deal with citing teachers as the source of problems, and the attitude that they are bonded servants who need constant and detailed supervision has returned as the way society chooses to regard teachers.  

All of the proposals for improving education focus on teachers and holding them accountable and providing for discarding them if they don't measure up to someone's evaluation scheme.  None of the proposals deal with the matters of student attitude and discipline, with the attitudes of the communities that students bring into the classrooms with them.  No proposals are put forth to evaluate the school boards and the administrations that presume to evaluate the competence and effectiveness of teachers.

This is what the Chicago teachers want fixed.  They realize that effective teaching requires community support and knowledgeable and competent leadership.  They don't want to be designated the sacrificial goats for the the problems of school systems of which they are only a part.  Any plans to improve education will have to hold school boards and administrations and the parents of students equally accountable for their performance in the classroom. 

The video of school bus monitor Karen Klein being abused by middle school boys was played throughout the world, but there was almost no commentary or recognition that what Ms. Klein endured was something that teachers confront every day.  All the proposals to improve education deal with holding teachers accountable, but the real question is who should be held accountable for the attitudes and behavior displayed by these children?


Sunday, September 9, 2012

It's the culture, damn it.

I've been gone a while making a circuit that involved some grueling driving to Denver, Casper, Helena (all but the eastern edge of Montana is under a blanket of smoke from wild fires) Medora, and home.  This involved visiting one of my new grandsons and his parents, some old friends, a relative undergoing chemotherapy, and a need to visit some old haunts.  

Smoke from wild fires cover the Montana mountains.
Early on in Denver, something went wrong with my laptop and it would not connect to the Internet.  That was troubling because just before I left on the trip, I assented to a request to write something relative to the rural revival and why young people leave South Dakota.  I had to borrow my son-in-law's computer for a couple of days to stay in contact with people for essential business.  And that meant that I did not have access to my personal e-mail account nor was I able to browse blogs and other web sites.  That disconnection was therapeutic.  It served to emphasize that the Internet, while intended and designed to facilitate communication, is more influential as a diversion and distraction to sound information and serious thought,  Both in content and primary concerns, it is a mire of mindless and petty squabbling and misinformation.  Being free of the Internet for a few weeks was like a remission from the flu or some other feverish disease.  But it was a reminder, too, how the culture of the small town cafe with its mindless and malicious gossip has become the culture of America,  largely propagated by the electronic media.  

Matthew Arnold, the British critic of culture, posited that the role of letters was to publish and record the best that is thought and said within the culture.  The Internet has become repository of the worst that is thought and written.  Some blogs are monuments to the petty and degenerate scurrility that forms the culture of dementia that comprises the intellectual level on which many Americans live.

But as I began this  trip thinking about why young people migrate and where they go to, I kept thinking about what I would be doing if I were 60 years younger.  It made me very conscious of the 20-somethings I encountered along the way and where they seemed to be headed.  In particular, I paid special notice to how the young people related to those around them, particularly the diversity of age and ethnicity.  I thought about what kind of decision I would make regarding college if I were facing it today.

As a retired professor, I am daunted by the cost of college.  If I were to attend my undergraduate institution, Augustana in Rock Island, Ill., I would be facing tuition and fees of $34,000 a year, excluding room and board.  I attended Augustana because I could live at home and its costs were manageable for someone who had to work.  That is not the case, today.  Today, my choice would probably be limited to Black Hawk College in Moline, a junior college, which when I entered college operated in the high school from which I graduated.  Today it has a sprawling campus of its own and the tuition and fees would amount to about $2,000 a semester for a resident.  Another choice not available when I was a student is a Moline campus of Western Illinois University, where the resident costs would be just under $5,000 a semester.  Augustana's $17,000 a semester eliminates it as a choice by comparison.

Facing the same situation where I now live, Aberdeen, would most  likely make my former employer, Northern State University, my only option.  Its tuition is about $125 a credit hour, but the fees add another $118 per credit hour for a total of $243.  A semester would cost just under $4,000 for a course  load of 16 hours.  The other choice in Aberdeen is Presentation College for which the block tuition for a semester is $7,900.  That is almost double the cost at Northern, but Northern has another factor.  Presentation has a rapid turnover of faculty with uncertain credentials while Northern has a faculty of tenured and credentialed professors with educations from reputable graduate schools.

King Center on the Auraria Campus
Another option is to move out of Aberdeen,  live and work in a place long enough to establish residency, and attend college there.  My daughter did that when she left Northern State, moved to Denver, and finished her degree at Metropolitan State Univeristy near downtown Denver.  Metro State is on the Auraria Campus which it shares with the University of Colorado Denver and  the Community College of Denver.  It has an enrollment of almost 24,000 students. A resident student's full-time tuition and fees is about $2,700 per semester.

On my visits to Metro and the Auraria Campus, I have found the campus invigorating.  Unlike many campuses today, it is bustling with student activity. The library is full of students and the campus mall teems with students pursuing their interests. I am always impressed with campuses where students are visibly (and often audibly) engaging their educations.  It inspires people to get to work and accomplish something.

As I was working on why students leave the rural areas, I was very much aware of the degree to which young people participate in the communities around them.  I find Denver a place which is not segregated by age.  But a place that struck me over how much 20 and 30-somethings are a powerful presence in community activities is Helena, Montana.  I noticed so many young people on the streets that I thought they must be college students roaming the town on Labor Day weekend.  Helena, a capitol city, has a population of about 28,000, just a bit bigger than Aberdeen, and like Aberdeen, has two colleges, Helena College, a community college part of the University of Montana system, and Caroll College, a Catholic institution.  The combined enrollments, however,  have about 3,000 students, and as I drove by them there was no sign of student life.  Colleges did not explain the visible presence of young people engaging in community life.

On Saturday morning, Helena blocks off two blocks of a main downtown street for a farmers' market.  As I was ask to cook a batch of ratatouille, I went in search of ingredients and found them all at the many food stalls interspersed among the crafts.  The three places I bought produce were all run by growers of Asian extraction, and I was informed that they are descendants of people who  came to work the mines and build the railroads and settled in the area.   At the farmers' market, there was an abundance of young people strolling through, stopping at market stalls, and visiting and chatting.  The people at this market were unusually eager to meet and learn about other people they encountered.  And while in Helena visiting my sister-in-law who is undergoing chemo-therapy, I was struck by the friends who kept dropping in to check on her and wish her well.  The genuine demonstration of concern and care was remarkable.  It contrasted with something I note in the Dakotas.  While the people boast of their friendliness and generosity, there is a forced and strained bonhomie that soon melts away and people start talking about others in malign ways.  Its in the culture.

Sign at Montana rest areas.
I have never gotten over the fact that people so readily speak ill of others.  Where I come from, there are those people who do, but most people realize that when someone so easily condemns other people, that person is probably doing the same thing to them.  And such people are best avoided.  In South Dakota, to see demonstrations of this obsessive malignity, one need only to read the comments on blog posts which allow them.   It's in the culture.  And it is used successfully to win elections. 

A few years ago, a small town in North Dakota recruited people to move to it.  Much ado was made about a family that moved from an urban area looking for a more peaceful, less stressful way of life, and the press printed accounts of the good will and neighborliness they said they found.  Within months, the family  packed up and left.  The accounts in the press were more restrained about their moving out, but the locals disapproved of these outlanders and could not accept them.  It's in the culture.

Some years back, the town of Ipswich found itself without a physician.  It made special provisions to support a clinic and recruited one from Chicago.  The press gave his glowing accounts about the efficacy and beneficence of small town life, but within the year, the physician was suddenly gone.  The press made no attempt to cover the reasons, but people I knew from the area said his family could not stand the small-mindedness and seething resentment that characterized town relationships.  It's in the culture.

As someone who is involved in the arts,  my circle of associations is largely among people who create things, grow things, and make things.  I suppose that explains the difference in people I encounter in Denver and in Helena.  People involved in creating, constructing, and nurturing cannot indulge in the destructive resentments that possess others.  It's in the sustaining culture.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that people move to the cultures that support their values.  And that seems to explain why life is so vigorous in some places and so barren in others.  It's the culture, damn it.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Who dat in the empty chair?

Clint Eastwood says he got the idea to address the empty chair for his endorsement of Romney at the last minute.

Eastwood has had a remarkable career.  He gained recognition in spaghetti westerns, expanded into the Dirty Harry roles, and then became a distinguished producer, director, and actor in his own films.  A jazz fan, he made "Bird." the story of Charlie Parker.  His performance at the Republican National Convention probably cannot be explained as a lapse into a racial stereotype.    Bob Newland at Decorum Forum attributes his performance to a bad case of doddering. 

I picked up his performance in the middle of a grueling trip during which my laptop malfunctioned and cut me off from the usual sources I would turn to when I ask WTF was that all about.  But in the performance I saw something that was sort of a standard routine during the civil rights era.  It is a stage technique made most famous by Bob Newhart's routines when he engages a presence who is unheard and unseen on stage, and whose persona is defined by the imagery and dialogue that the audience imagines. (Newhart has commented on Eastwood's routine.)

However, this technique was used widely by civil rights era comics to satirize the white attitudes toward blacks.  Richard Pryor, a genius at miming and imitating voices would also use this technique in his sketches to imply rather than portray things being said.  It was used particularly by comedians to satirize white racial attitudes as black characters responded to racial insults and attitudes that did not have to be stated because everyone knew what they were. The images that came to mind  were grounded in the facts of common experience.  

The problem with Eastwood's characterization is that what he tried to evoke was  based upon contrived and false party-line propaganda.  He claimed he was going to ask the imagined Obama about his broken promises.  The first semantic problem is in calling goals iterated in the campaign promises, some of which goals were achieved, others which were obstinately and openly obstructed by the Republican opposition.  Three of Obama's responses that Eastwood wanted to imply in the minds of the audience was Obama telling someone to go fuck themselves.  This was merely a throw-away cliche which in no way characterizes the attitude or speech of the circumspect Obama.  The attempt at criticism and satire was totally based upon party-line cant, not upon any actual situations that could be satirized.  It was merely an attempted  comic exercise.

But as a number of commentators have pointed out, the ill-imagined and impertinent little skit did capture the intellectual deficiency and disarray that drives the Republican party.  There are very legitimate criticisms that can  be made about Obama's performance and policies, but ironically they come from the dedicated left, not the petulant, often racist,  and incoherent right.

Like many people who find the current political dialogue to be the ravings of  deranged and deficient mentalities, I find the outcome of the election really doesn't matter much.  If Romney wins and the 30-year history of diminishing and disenfranchising the middle class is given national sanction,  the left will have to directly confront the political reality of the nation.  If Obama wins, the obstruction and obeisance to a corporate monarchy of the GOP will frustrate any goals he will work toward.  

A year ago, the anti-fascist movement puzzled the nation with the peaceful demonstrations of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Although the movement has been relatively quiet since a year ago, largely because of police suppression, it has not gone away.  Its activities during this campaign are largely conducted through the Internet and social media, but the forces are there to be martialed.  What its activism of last year taught it was that peaceful and non-violent demonstrations can be easily suppressed and are not effective in voicing concerns that will be heard for long and respectfully considered.  

The political future of the U.S. is unlikely to be decided in Congress and the state legislatures.  It is being relegated to the streets, where the side with the most fire power will probably win.  If there can be such a thing as a winner. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States