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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, January 21, 2013

An industry and culture built out of bad grammar

It takes the National Rifle Association to build a campaign for guns around resentment toward children—specifically, resentment toward two girls named Sasha and Malia.

                                                                            ---The New Yorker
The NRA is to literacy what sewage is to a mountain stream.  One can't think of a lower way to dishonor the children shot down at Newtown than to make two other children the target of their low life petulance.  But what else can you expect from an organization that is totally built on bad grammar and the misunderstanding it reveals?

The  NRA television ad that mentioned the Obama girls hit a new low for reprehensibility.  When it  was roundly criticized for using the girls in dishonest and disrespectful ways to trash Obama, a spokesman for the NRA claimed the ad was not about the girls.  Well, it wasn't totally about the girls.  It was mostly about the mentally deficient meanness and dishonesty of the NRA.  The Washington Post Fact-Checker gave the NRA four Pinocchios  for the lies contained in the ad.

And what it was really about is whether the kind of minds that contrive and support an ad such as this are the ones you want toting all manner of firearms anywhere their demented little minds take a notion to carry them.  

But these are the minds that insist that the Second Amendment gives anyone the right to possess and carry any kind of killing firearm they damned please.

 According to the standards of contemporary English grammar,  the Second Amendment is stated in a bad sentence.  It contains a danglling clause.  That means that it has a clause that has no specific meaning or interpretation in the way it applies to the sentence as a whole.  /The dangling clause is the first one In the Amendment:  “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms,shall not be infringed.” The grammarians at the NRA have decided that because the  first clause dangles,  it can just be ignored.

A number of grammarians say the clause is not a dangler.  They say it is an "absolute construction."  An absolute construction is a clause used in Latin grammar, and what it does is provide the absolute overall 
purpose for the sentence.  In this case, the absolute purpose would be to establish and maintain a well-regulated militia.  

Many of the men involved in the Constitutional Convention could read and write in Latin.  In fact, during that time,  the English grammars of the time were largely borrowed from Latin.  As English had no formal grammar of its own, grammarians applied the rules from Latin to English.  There is a problem with that borrowing, which grammarians who undertook the study of English have  pointed out.  Latin is a declined language.  The declension of words, their endings and prefixes, indicate how words relate to each other and are the basis for coherent sentences.  English, however, is a syntactic language.  The relationship of  words to each other is determined by where they are placed in a sentence relative to each other.  When one encounters a dangling clause,  it is not clear just how the clause applies to the rest of the  sentence.  And that is why so much division has developed around the second Amendment. When Latin-based grammar is applied to an English sentence,  it is a like a Rorschach blot.  People see in it whatever they want. 

When a handgun law was challenged in Washington, D.C., the lawyers representing the city enlisted some help with explaining the Amendment.  Some of the nations prominent linguistic scholars were asked to examine the Amendment in terms of whether the first clause modified or restrict the second, and to examine the early drafts of the Second Amendment to see what the writers' intentions were.  James Madison was the primary author.  They issued a lengthy and definitive study of the Amendment.   They explained the problems with the grammar in the Amendment, and they noted that the circumstances that the Amendment is intended to address and the language itself is military.  They provide a long and detailed explanation of explained in this summary of the Amendment:
...the unmistakably military language used in the Second Amendment makes clear that what is protected is the right of the people to serve in a well regulated militia and keep arms for such service.
 They found that the entire purpose was to ensure that there would be a militia available to call on as an army in case the security of the free state was threatened, and the militia was subject to regulation in order to form it into an effective army.

When the case reached the Supreme Court, the brief which explained the linquistic history of the Amendment was largely ignored.  To pay attention to why the Amendment was written the way it was and what its original intention was could be seen as a mandate to regulate the firearms industry and to piss off those people whose votes, in effect, put the Supreme Court majority in office.  

And so a bunch of ignoramuses are ready to go to war against Obama because he is issuing some executive orders and is asking that the availability of weapons of war and their use be left in the hands of a well-regulated militia, rather than be handed over to anyone who chooses to go into a movie theater or a school to shoot down people.

While some people on Saturday were gathering in Washington, D.C. to honor Martin Luther King with a national day of service,  others were gathering throughout the nation for Gun Appreciation Day.  In other words, while some people were gathering to support the idea of serving their human fellows, others were gathering to support the right to  make the means to gun down fellow humans unrestricted.  Nothing states the moral divide in the nation more eloquently or forcefully.

And those gun appreciators insist that anyone who sees the need for some regulation of the kinds and places of use of firearms designed specifically to kill other humans are out to take away their guns.  It is the hyperbolic dishonesty in discussing the issue that is most telling.

The appreciators carried copies of the Constitution and vow to use their firearms to defend.  

Even if they haven't the vaguest idea of what it actually says and why.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Who lives in this flipping county?

Brown County flipped out in 2012.  Out of being one of the most reliable Democratic counties in South Dakota. 

According to Daily Yonder, it was one of 208 rural counties in the U.S. that changed the way it voted in 2012 from the way it voted in 2008.  It was one of 128 counties that changed from Democratic to Republican in the presidential election.

In 2008, Obama received 9,041 votes in Brown County to McCain's 8,067.  In 2012,Obama received  7,250 votes in the county to Romney's 8,321.

In 2008, a total of 17,426 votes were cast for president.  In 2012, the total dropped to 16,068,  a decline of more than 1,300 votes. Total voter turnout in 2008 reported in the Secretary of State's office for Brown County is listed at 17, 676.  For 2012, it is listed at 16,276, a drop of 1,400 voters. (I assume that some people who showed up to vote did not cast a ballot for president.) 

What is significant in the numbers was that the Republican candidate in 2012 received only 254 more votes than the Republican candidate did in 2008.  However, Obama received 1,791 fewer votes than he did in 2008.  What can be concluded  from those numbers is that the election of 2012 did not have the interest of the 2008 election and support for Obama declined.  While Romney received more votes than McCain did, those vote totals would not have flipped the county to Romney if Obama had retained the numbers he had in 2008.

The flipping of Brown County into the Republican presidential column has prompted some political observers to assert that the political makeup of Brown County has changed.  However, that is not indicated by the voter registrations.

This table compares the registrations between 2008 and 2012:

                    Total            Republican    Democratic   Independent Libertarian
2008             24.089          9,800            10.928          3,260            40
2012             23,379          9,757            10,218          3,454            50
Change            -710              -225               -710            +194         +10

 The two major parties, Republican and Democratic, lost a total of 935 voters, and the Republicans gained a percentage point in 2012 with 41 percent of the country registrations.  The Democrats slipped a point and a half, but still claimed 43.7 percent of the registrations.  The Independents increased their registration 5 percentage points to claim 14.7 percent of the total registration.

There has not been a drastic shift in political affiliations, although the Independents are showing significant growth.  For those who work in political organizing, the significant shift is demographic and cultural.  The clue is in the the declining voter registration, which does not have a correlative decline in the population itself. 

Brown County Census















For the past 12 years or so,  I have maintained lists of registered Democrats who are most active in support of the party.  I have often commented on the attrition I have noted month by month of that group of people.  Many have died.  Others move away.  But what has been most concerning has been a segment that has simply lost trust and interest in the political process.  The disgust and disapproval of Congress with its bottom-dwelling approval rating of 8 percent are expressed in poll numbers, but those numbers do not reveal the depth of Congress' effects on voters and what the voters actually do about it..  To some Democratic voters, the gridlock in Congress is a sign of the end of the republic.  They point out that when an  opposing party obstructs the functions of government and refuses to govern in order to get its way,  democracy has failed.  In Brown County, many prominent  Democrats see the failure of democracy as a feature of state government.  The one-party domination with its devotion to  corporate interests is a factor in the decisions of families to center their lives in other places.  On long-time, active Democrat points to the distorted redistricting that divides Brown County into three legislative districts as evidence of the single party tyranny in the state.  He confessed to me that he didn't bother to vote because he has decided that he and his family need to concentrate on other options.  He said, just because I live in Brown County doesn't mean I think in Brown County.  That is an attitude I have seen in many of my retired contemporaries as they move away and work to center their families in other areas of the country. 

The flipping of Brown County has obvious political implications regarding political affiliations, but they are cultural more than political.  One of the Democratic activists who recently moved was a person who donated generously with money, time, and effort to the party.  One evening during the 2008 campaign, he and his spouse dropped by to help out with a mailing.  Some of the people coordinating the effort got more than a bit presumptuous about their authority and were treating some of the volunteers with disrespect and discourtesy.  I saw the man and his wife get up and walk out, but before going through the door, he looked at me, raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders.  The next day we exchanged e-mails, and I asked him if he had been offended.  He said his wife had not been feeling well of late and the attitude displayed toward the couple was more than she wanted to put up with.  The man said, you know,  South Dakotans put on a show of neighborliness and good will, but down deep many of them are not really very nice people.  He said,  we could get treated as well if we walked into the Republican campaign office.  This was a professional man who worked hard to make Brown County a working community.  In our discussion, he brought up the problems with small towns in the Dakotas, their attempts to attract people, and the many failures reported in the press.  We both recalled one which received much coverage in which a town excitedly welcomed some people from the East who purchased a home in their community and were said to signal a renaissance.  They left within months, when the factions in the town showed their true habits of vicious bickering and back-biting. Years later the man was interviewed and said he had learned something about the small-minded meanness in small towns that he would have preferred not to experience or know.  

Brown County seems to be turning Republican, but that may well be because many Brown County residents are turning away, if not physically, at least mentally.  Many of our party members have children who have moved to other communities, and I have asked them if they would consider moving back to their home country.  The usual answer is, to do what?  And they make clear that they pursued educations to qualify them to make a living and a life elsewhere.

The politics of small communities are reflected by a single-party state government and a national Congress rendered incompetent and dysfunctional by that kind of nasty disregard that drove my friend out of the campaign office that night, and eventually into another community.

Those people who are trying to attract companies, workers, and residents to the community need to look past the pretense of  bonhomie  and examine how the people actually think and treat each other.  A beginning point is a literary record of well over a hundred years that portrays what makes rural communities wither and disappear.  The flipping of Brown County may well be the latest example.  

[Williston, North Dakota, shades of India.]

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Guns for tots -- and other news from Bughouse Square

If mental competence and health become criteria in keeping firearms out of the hands of the deranged,  many gun advocates will be disqualified and restricted from possessing guns.  By now, most people are aware of one of the idiots of the global village, Alex Jones, who petitioned the White House to have CNN's Piers Morgan deported and then went bug house on Morgan's TV talk show.  Jones followed up his padded cell routine with a claim that cops and crackheads were out to kill him.  

Jones has his own talk radio show, but he frequents Coast to Coast AM a Premiere Network show that broadcasts on more than 500 stations per night, including Sirius, and has about 3 million listeners a night.  While it has some competent and intelligent hosts (George Knap and Ian Punnett),  some of its regular hosts, George Noory and John B. Wells in particular,  do fruit loop-de-loops with the  likes of Alex Jones, and their very presence on the air is enough to bring America's average IQ down to the level where custodial care seems required.

 Nighttime talk radio has displaced an American tradition for the practice of First 
A gathering at Bughouse Square.
Amendment rights where a perspective was maintained on the difference between the merely radical and the outright mentally incompetent.   Across the street from the Newberry  Library in Chicago is a park commonly called Bughouse Square.  It is where people with various viewpoints could mount a soap box and hold forth on any topic they chose.  It provided entertainment for students such as myself who did not have the money to spend on other amusements, and we wandered down to Bughouse Square to see what kind of diversions we could find on the cheap.  At that time one might come across some beat poets performing their poems, or some aspiring musicians trying to make their talents known, but mostly the performers were speakers who had some  political notion to rant about.  Although some of the speakers were from serious political movements and used the soapbox to launch some real facts and ideas into the populace,  most of the speakers were of the stripe that earned the place the name "Bughouse."   People gathered to giggle and snicker and make fun of these people, to laugh at the absurdity of their delusions and inability to reason in kind of a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I  spirit.  Some professors and other elders told us it was wrong to look at the spectacles created by people bereft of reason, but grudgingly admitted they could be amusing.  They said it was like going to side shows to see freaks and make entertainment out of the misfortunes of others.

A very prominent social psychologist  wrote an essay back in the day contending that places such  as Bughouse Square served a very important and essential purpose in social and political dialogue.  It required observers to make a distinction between those who saw flaws and dangers in our culture that we might not be aware of and those who lived in a world of misinformation and mental chaos.  He made the point that often the people who wandered to Bughouse Square to feel superior had their only acquaintance with the forms of human aberration in such occasions.  Bughouse Square provided a place for voices to be heard, but for those who listened, it also provided a context, a warning context that what one heard there might be insane and dangerous to believe.  Cults defined themselves by their appearance and their behavior.  The real danger is for the gullible, those who themselves are not equipped with information or reasoning skills to discern where discourse departs from reality and sanity.  Generally, what was said in Bughouse Square stayed in Bughouse Square. 

Cable television news, talk radio, and the Internet with interactive news and blogs have changed all that.  What is said in Bughouse Square often dominates what is being said in the electronic media.  On Wednesday night, that was the case with John B. Wells on Coast to Coast AM.  Wells had a guest who is a founder of Oath Keepers who was advising all police officers, public officials, and military personnel to revolt and mutiny if the government ordered them to register or confiscate the weapons held by people.  Their message was to resist any form of gun regulation.  Wells then went on to make statements that make Bughouse Square look an international peace summit.

Wells claimed that the Aurora, Colorado, theater massacre and the Newtown Sandy Hook Elementary massacre were set ups by the government to establish a pretext for taking firearms away from the people.  He said anyone who could not see those slaughters were set ups is a self-delusional fool.  

The problem in broadcasting these statements is that they are not given the context they would receive were they said in Bughouse Square, where people would shake their heads in disbelief at what goes on in the heads of those poor souls who put themselves on display.  To suggest that some officials in government would plan and carry out the slaughter of 20 first-graders is a serious libel that inflicts serious damage on the culture.  People like Wells need to be given the opportunity to present their evidence that such atrocities were done at the behest of government, and if they cannot should be branded as the loonies of Bughouse Square, where they can rant and rave all they want, signifying nothing.  

Anderson Cooper on CNN has taken up this issue to some degree.  There are two professors who claim they can produce evidence that the Aurora and Sandy Hook slaughters were government sponsored.   Salon has done some reporting on how quickly the nut cases took up Sandy Hook.

The responsible media fulfills a need to let the public know that the malevolent freaks are out there inflicting their insult and abuse on the victims and and their survivors of these incidents.  But what they have to  report is that malignant brain cancer is not being confined to the Bughouse, but is being spread by a major broadcast network.  

Many of the gun-cult devotees have taken up the charge that Obama's concern about the availability and use of  weapons designed only for killing people enables the epidemic of violence that some want to inflict on the people.  They compare him to Hitler's disarming of the Jews.  As many commentators have pointed out, this ill-informed nonsense trivializes the Holocaust and its ramifications and unleashes a rage among the feeble-minded that in itself threatens public safety and health.  

Let these people have their Bughouse Squares.  But let Obama and others accused of plotting atrocities have the opportunity to face their accusers, and require the accusers to come forward with their facts and evidence.  The role of the media is to examine the facts, not merely report what is contended by the demented souls in the Bughouse.  

Mental health is an issue among the gun cult.  The legacy media and sane bloggers need to persistently distinguish between the right to free speech and the right to be insane. 

Twenty first-graders and six of the their teachers deserve not to have their lives and their families profaned in the name of lunatic causes.  Our national dialogue on serious issues deserves not to be directed by the inmates of the Bughouse. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Quality Counts 2013 Education Rankings Come In: Maryland First, South Dakota Last

Education Week  has issued its 17th annual report on the quality of education in the U.S.  This year, South Dakota came in dead last.

Grading Summary
1. Maryland 87.5
2. Massachusetts 84.1
3. New York 83.1
4. Virginia 82.9
5. Arkansas 81.7
6. Florida 81.1
7. Georgia 81.0
8. New Jersey 80.8
9. West Virginia 80.8
10. Kentucky 80.1
11. Vermont 79.9
12. Ohio 79.6
13. Wisconsin 79.4
14. Texas 79.4
15. Louisiana 79.0
16. Connecticut 78.9
17. Rhode Island 78.7
18. Pennsylvania 78.2
19. Delaware 78.0
20. Indiana 77.8
21. North Carolina 77.7
22. Tennessee 77.6
23. Wyoming 77.5
24. Michigan 77.3
25. New Hampshire 77.1
26. South Carolina 76.9
U.S. Average 76.9
27. North Dakota 76.8
28. Illinois 76.7
29. Hawaii 76.7
30. Alabama 76.6
31. Oklahoma 76.5
32. Colorado 76.1
33. Maine 75.9
34. Iowa 75.9
35. New Mexico 75.9
36. California 75.5
37. Kansas 75.2
38. Utah 74.6
39. Minnesota 74.2
40. Washington 73.8
41. Missouri 72.8
42. Oregon 72.7
43. Arizona 72.2
44. Montana 72.2
45. District of Columbia 71.5
46. Nebraska 71.2
47. Alaska 71.0
48. Mississippi 71.0
49. Idaho 70.9
50. Nevada 69.7
51. South Dakota 69.3

Huffington Post reports the story.  

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Happy New Year? You've got to be kidding.

If any message came through loud and clear during the Christmas season and the end of 2012,  it was not one of good cheer or peace on earth and good will toward all people.  It was most stridently a message of ill will, violence, and promises of more to come.  Under the circumstances, wishes of a happy New Year are an impertinence.  One can only wish some cessation of the misery,  much of which was inflicted by our politics.  

The year closed with some real bangs from some assault rifles,  as their owners found an open  season for using  their cherished weapons.  A nation that was still coping with the July mass shooting at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, which renewed the anguish of the Columbine High School shooting, was given the ultimate national atrocity in Newtown, Connecticut, when 20 first graders and six of their educators were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  This was a slaughter of the moral magnitude of  Wounded Knee.  The nation was coping the with the moral enormity of killing children and their protectors when volunteer firemen went out early one morning to put out a fire in western New York state, and found the fires were a trap set up so that they could be gunned down.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.  

One of my favorite Christmas songs, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," contains the lyric "Let your heart be light, Next year all our troubles will be out of sight."   No way can that be possible.

The character that our nation has become was revealed most dramatically when the Sandy Hook shootings produced a comment from President Obama that school shootings and the  gun violence in the nation were intolerable, and that the presence and easy access to all manner of weaponry is clearly a factor.  The nation has 5 percent of the world's population but owns 50 percent of the world's guns.  It is among the nations having the highest murder rate by guns, ranking only behind South Africa,  Columbia, and Thailand.  Most stunning and depressing in the Sandy Hook aftermath was the response of the gun lobby.  It dismissed the slaughter of 20 first-graders and the effects on the community and families, but rather issued angry warnings about any talk of firearms regulation, suggesting that the only control to gun violence is more guns everywhere.  The New Yorker cover artist, Chris Ware, whose wife  teaches high school in Chicago, captured reaction of  responsible, reflective people:   

I was privy to the exchanges among my wife and her colleagues about Newtown, culminating in flabbergasted e-mails and Facebookings following the farcical N.R.A. press conference. Memes abounded, like, “First they call us union thugs and now they want to arm us?!” and self-mocking jokes about their own forgetfulness: “Do you really want to trust people like us with guns?” (Teachers are notoriously overworked and so occasionally forget their two pounds’ worth of keys in one classroom or another.) What astonished me most was that the gun lobby seemed to imply that it was somehow partly the unarmed teachers’ fault that the Newtown shooting occurred at all. Well, why not? Isn’t everything lately always somehow the teachers’ fault?
His piece states the case of a nation that is disintegrating into raging divisiveness as a maliciously small-minded and education-resistance segment of the population has found ways to shout down and obstruct any attempts at informed, reasoned dialogue. (The Onion provides a sane and coherent perspective on the matter.)

America has always had its problems and troubles with insane violence, but its attitude has been one of employing education and enlightenment as a means  of coming to some agreement on how to fix them.  If the nation is exceptional, it has been in its capacity to eventually face and and fix its ills.  No where is this illustrated better than in the change from a slave-holding nation to one which steadily extended civil rights to people of differing backgrounds and orientations.  The impossibility of productive dialogue between the nation's factions has ended that vision of America as a people that could surmount differences.  

For example, a teen-age girl was shot in the head in Pakistan for advocating education for girls.  America can no longer claim to be a culture that allows young people to aspire and grow without being threatened by violence.  Another young woman is deceived into boarding what she thought was a bus to carry her to her home, only to be gang-raped by some raging monsters and die of her injuries.   America can no longer assure that such actions will not happen here.  A couple of dead firemen in New York state testify to that falsehood.   Daily people in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan engage in mass killings of each other.  America has lost any claim that its society does not engage in such decadent massacres.  In fact, it participates in some of those killings in foreign lands. 

Americans are immersed in the mire of hatred and violence.  In the past, there has been a political leadership that has acted as a guide to ways out of human degradation.  But while this holiday season has been filled with accounts of how low and deranged society can become,  the leadership has demonstrated the arts of blame, vilification, and the refusal to find reasonable agreements for ending the constant state of confrontation and malicious exchange.  As many commentators have pointed out, the leaders cannot be blamed.  The exceptionally low approval ratings of Congress are inspired by a Congress that reflects quite vividly the people it represents.  The failure of the American republic that world observers have predicted for more than 200 years seems to be happening.

Founders such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Samuel Adams had their differences, but they firmly believe that enlightenment and education could resolve them.  As the movie Lincoln shows, that quintessential American preserved the nation and moved it through its darkest hour by employing the efforts of his political rivals to thrash out ways to surmount the differences among people.  In the darkest hours of the Civil War,  Congress devised the Land Grant College Act and Lincoln signed it to provide the building of institutions that are primarily the force behind America's rise to a world power.  The effectiveness of that act was intensified after World War II with the passage of a G.I. Bill which gave America's fighting troops the wherewithal to build the world's most successful culture and economy.  Education and enlightenment were working in just the ways Jefferson, Franklin, and Lincoln envisioned.

The decline of American culture is related to the tampering with education by people who see it only as the way to create a compliant and disposable workforce.  We have still to understand what an insidious scheme "trickle down" economics is, as it aggressively changed the American workforce from those who create and build to those who merely serve their self-appointed masters.

The blogosphere is a handy symptom of the pervasive cognitive and educational failure of America.  When one reads the comments on blogs or on the Internet news media,  the striking fact is that the commenters cannot focus upon a fact.  They are immediately set off in finding ways to invoke their own warped and false visions that they would like to impose on other people.  Our Congress reflects precisely that inability to deal with facts through the careful gathering of information and enlightened analysis of it.

In the South Dakota blogosphere, it is most significant that the two blogs in which their authors raise issues but do so in a careful tradition of learning and constructive discourse are by people who are currently teaching in high schools.  (View them here and here.) 

If America is to climb out of the morass of ignorant belligerence and intolerant bigotry into a dominating segment has brought it,  it will be through the work of teachers who study, think, and teach.  Not those who see education as a business enterprise for producing a submissive workforce that will not resist its own demise at the hands of their would-be masters.  Democracy can be revived not by the proliferation of guns, but by the growth of young minds that are allowed to aspire and develop without having to fear the tyranny of the gun cult.  

Note:  Most of the comments after a blog post or a news story seem to come from people in a special education program somewhere, so when one shows some wit and prescience,  it is a genuine event.  In a story in Talking Points Memo announcing that Joe Biden had extended an invitation to the NRA to appear before his task force on examining and proposing some new regulations,  an NRA spokesman said he would be there to listen to what the panel has to say.  A commenter posted this response:  "The location of the meeting is still under negotiation, with Biden suggesting the White House, and the NRA insisting that it take place at the OK Corral."


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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States