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

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

South Dakota Democrats gear up to extend record of losses

South Dakota Democrats are in a great position to extend and deepen their political losses.  They know the secret of discouraging likely supporters.   After the loss in 2010,  Sam Hurst  summarized the party's position:

Let Democrats worry about the fate of the party. It is at rock bottom. It stands for nothing. It has virtually no ability to raise money or mobilize its base to action on behalf of its candidates. It has no influence over politicians elected in its name. It cannot compete. Not forever, not for always, but right now, South Dakota Democrats need leaders who will yell, “Charge!” And it needs soldiers willing to aim their sabers into the fire.
The base in action
The part about mobilizing  the party base is complicated.  I am well acquainted, I guess, with what is termed the base.  I have been a county party officer, a delegate to state conventions, and active in many campaigns for the last couple of decades.  As a county secretary and treasurer,  I watched the list of active members dwindle away as people died and moved elsewhere with hardly any people replacing them.  I have been involved in trying to recruit candidates and in the campaigns and attempts at party support.  I have a perspective on mobilizing the base.  The party may need soldiers willing to aim their sabers,  but the base is clogged with know-it-alls who kibbutz, criticize, and complain, but never engage in any action.   Rather than aim sabers, they tend to whip out their throbbing little egos and give them furious frictional succor while others watch with distaste   A song dedicated to them is, "Your mind is on vacation, but your mouth is working overtime."*

Political campaigns in South Dakota are like fantasy football.  People spend inordinate time and energy exercising what they  presume to be political acumen, but they never engage in the game on the field.  Most of those who pronounce what campaigns need to do have never done the grunt work of retail campaigning.  The problem facing Democrats is not how to convince Republicans and Independents to throw some votes their way; the problem is providing Democrats good reasons not to leave the party. 

Bob Mercer made his monthly report on voter registrations and it notes the trend that has become routine:
As of Aug. 3, Republicans had 243,714, up from 243,173 on July 1. Democrats lost ground, dropping to 175,287 from 175,335. And all others, primarily independents, climbed to 110,749 from 109,742 a month ago.
For each registered Democrat, there are two voters who are not.  And, of course, the big question is, why are Democratic rolls declining each month while others are increasing?  There are many factors.  A huge demographic shift  has been in progress for decades, although loyal South Dakotans don't like to admit it.  It is the brain drain, and it means that people of education, ambition, and a responsible attitude toward society aligned with Democratic policies  do not find South Dakota an economically or culturally viable place to live.  They get out as soon as they can, leaving the state to that brand of conservatism which is actually backwardness.  To see this trend in action, one merely has to ask where recent Democratic candidates for federal offices are now.  A majority found opportunities elsewhere and have become part of the  talent migration.  

But that does not account for why Democrats who stay in the state are leaving the party.  The 2010 election identified a major split in Democratic ranks.  The progressive base found that its stances on health care, the environment, marriage equality and other key issues were sacrificed by those in power in an attempt to appeal to conservative voters.  That's what Sam Hurst was referring to when he said the party stands for nothing.  Progressives felt that the party betrayed them, and many saw no issue-based reason to vote. 

The internal conflicts within the party have not been resolved because up to this time the conflicts have not been openly confronted.  The very nature of politics is to deal with differences and conflicts, but the South Dakota Democrats have shown an inability to engage in the most fundamental dialogue of democratic process.  Rather than engage in respectful and informed dialogue, the party splints into angry factions which tear away at the  party. 

Party leadership has not handled internal disputes and resentments well.  And the ill-feelings that arise from them do spread with lingering effect and drive people away.  An instance I tracked began  at a state convention during the approval of delegates to the national nominating convention.  Delegates from the Sioux Falls area displayed an imperious attitude toward other delegates and pulled some rather hostile, belligerent  maneuvers in the approval of delegates that was like an episode from "Mean Girls."  The Brown County delegates were disappointed, but the real effect showed up four years later. At the county meetings, we found no one really wanted to be a delegate to the state convention or to stand for election to the national delegation.   As a result, the elected delegate from Brown County was a person who never participated in party activities, never offered support, and just showed up to try to wangle her way to the national convention.  No one cared enough to oppose her.  The delegate certainly did not represent the perspective of Brown County Democrats and her performance at the convention was clearly an ego  trip, not an attempt to represent Brown County interests--of which she was apparently unaware.  That chain of events gives important clues as to the decline of the South Dakota Democratic Party.

Then when Rick Weiland ran against Mike Rounds for the U.S. Senate, the self-suckers came out like May flies in the spring.  The Democrats had failed to muster a candidate against John Thune (and I attest that it was not for a lack of trying) and some likely candidates declined to run against Rounds.  When Rick Weiland announced his candidacy, Harry Reid made some dismissive comments, but comments coming from inside the state did more to erode potential support.  This comment was posted on a Democratic blog:

Go ahead and have Rick run, he will get beat hands down. I am a Democrat but after what Rick's brother Kevin did to SHS in her last election I have no time of day for that type of candidate.
I repeat what I have said before, most voters are MODERATE and if liberals think that they can win this election with that type of candidate in this day and age they are living in a dream world!
And this comment:
[I refuse] to volunteer for a sure loser. The entire purpose of this campaign is to fire a shot at Stephanie inside the party. Anytime that emotion is stronger than defeating Republicans it's a sure sign of a bad start.
These comments are made in the midst of all the whining about not mounting a candidate against Thune.  It never seems to occur to these self-sucking twits that they are a large part of the reason it is difficult to find candidates.  Qualified, viable candidates make assessments of the kind of support they will get from the party.  Those comments provide a concrete basis for deeming a run for office a waste of time and effort.  You can't win elections when you run against stupid in your own party.  Sam Hurst said the party "cannot compete," and those comments provide evidence as to why.

Rick Weiland ran a model campaign.  Some of the Democrat fantasy game players think that Democrats need to take on the Republicans in kind through personal attacks and false accusations.  But most Democrats understand the difference between examining the political records of opponents and requiring that they account for what they do and don't do. Rick Weiland's campaign went to the people in an exhaustive tour of the state, made an open and honest statement of positions, and brought a level of energy and integrity to the campaign that stands in sharp contrast to the campaigns of Thune and Noem.  Rick lost to Mike Rounds by 20 points, but he established a standard of personal and political integrity that put the Democratic Party on the high road.  Still, within the party, he had to contend with those who  constantly send up a screed of petty, ignorant carping that throws a detrimental shadow over the party.

Another of Sam Hurst's observations is that the Democratic Party  has no influence over the politicians elected in its name.  We witnessed this on the national level when the Blue Dog faction ran counter to the Democratic planks and took positions which split the party and helped lose elections that it shouldn't have.  But the problem affects politics at the local level.  During the time I have held office in the Brown County Democrats, we have been approached by lawyers who run for the county office of State's Attorney. Usually, after we give an initial endorsement, we never hear from them again.  The lawyers as a group raise funds for individual candidates, but never associate or join in with Democratic Party activities.  In one case, the State's Attorney became a vocal opponent of the Democrats because of a disagreement on the women's choice issue.  In another case in which I personally contacted him in  regard to a state agency violating both the law and state policies in a due process matter, he cited a federal law that had no relevance.  But the biggest offense committed by a State's Attorney running on the Democratic Party name was the case that arose out of criminal proceedings involving a foster parent sexually abusing native American children put in his charge.  

The case became alarming when the State's Attorney, Kim Dorsett, ended up firing the deputy state's attorney, Brandon Taliaferro, and filing criminal charges against him and child's advocate, Shirley Schwab, for witness tampering and perjury.  The case was so contrived that the judge threw it out of court, citing internal politics and a lack of evidence to support the charges.  Many of us in the Democratic Party were dismayed that someone who had used the party name would violate the essential principles the party stands for in such a malicious and sordid episode.  We still wonder why no discipline or censure was ever considered for such a violation of the justice system.  It demonstrates that the political party has little power and influence over how its name is used or over a crucial matter of justice and honesty which is an operating principle on which the party is based.  

The attitudes and actions of some of those presumptive "leaders" in the party have driven off  supporters in other ways.  Once when a staff member of a Democratic official chose to characterize a grievance by a labor union as whining, the county party lost the support of the union PAC which had donated in-kind services worth $18,000 in setting up telephone banks for campaigns.  The union decided that having a legitimate issue dismissed as whining indicated that the party was not interested in their issues.

Another incident I witnessed involved a loyal and generous party member who answered a call for help with a mailing.  He asked a question about sorting the letters, and the person who was attempting to organize the work answered with curt and insulting reply.  The man and his spouse soon walked out.  The next day I saw the man and asked if something was wrong,  He said if he wanted to be treated that way, he'd go hang out at the Republican headquarters.  And then he said he wasn't sure he wanted to be associated any longer with a party of assholes.  Shortly after, the  man decided to move to another community, although in previous conversations he had indicated he planned to live in Aberdeen because that is where his friends and associates were.

The Democratic Party promotes good will, fairness, and decency as the basis for its positions on human affairs  When people associated with the party demonstrate contrary qualities, they diminish the credibility of the party, and they drive people off.

The South Dakota Democratic Party, in the 2-to-1 deficit in voter registrations, has a daunting task in trying to regain viability.  It has new officials who need to deal with the paralyzing internal bickering, backbiting gridlock that party officers have had to deal with. The party needs to face that its most destructive  opponents are internal, and that business needs to be conducted in a matter that is open to the expression of viewpoints, but that they have to be dealt with respectfully and critically.  Political decisions based upon personality preferences are destroying the party.  

The party needs to shift its focus to the performance of the Republican  party, particularly in Pierre.  The corruption that has built up there during single-party rule needs to be under a constant challenge in ways that shine a strong, penetrating light on how South Dakota is governed.  The EB-5 affair has involved nefarious dealing, such as Joop Bollen's absconding with records from NSU, and the exact role of the governor's office with Bollen and Richard Benda.  Foreign investors lost tens of millions of dollars through a program conducted in the name of the people of South Dakota, and the people have the right to knowledge about just what happened to that money and who was responsible for it.  The Better Government Association in Chicago can provide examples of how secret activities can be exposed.  If the Democratic Party does not take aggressive and effective means for a full accounting of the EB-5 affair and similar ones conducted by state government, it will continue to be regarded as inconsequential in the state.

There is also a matter of the actual legislative records of John Thune and Kristin Noem.  While a representative, John Thune was remarkable for his ignorance of and opposition to issues important to the state's economy.  That ignorance re-emerged when he tweeted that Obamcare is bad, in effect, because six million people were in danger because of the law suit the Republicans had filed against it.  Thune has never been able to function without a script prepared for him by his party's operative.  His sterling piece of legislation was aimed at preventing the government from taxing cow farts, although the government had never proposed any such thing.  

Some people are promoting Sam Hurst as a candidate to run against John Thune.   He has a major demerit which will turn off the voters, including the know-it-alls in the Democratic Party, from the outset:  he is genuinely intelligent and talented.  As the Democratic Party flailed and thrashed about as it began its descent,  he was one of the few people who had the acumen and the courage to point out its problems.  While he would make a critically thoughtful and constructive candidate, the party would be better served to closely examine his diagnosis of its ills and formulate ways to actually help candidates rather than discourage and undermine them.  

South Dakota is in desperate need of people in government with intelligence and integrity.  And the Democratic Party needs people who can demonstrate that it actually stands for the principles it says it does. 

In the meantime, join me in singing the hymn of the day. 

**The South Dakota Democratic Anthem
**You're sitting there yakkin' right in my face
I guess I'm gonna have to put you in your place
Y'know if silence was golden
You couldn't raise a dime
Because your mind is on vacation and your mouth is
Working overtime

You're quoting figures, you're dropping names
You're telling stories about the dames
You're always laughin' when things ain't funny
You try to sound like you're big money
If talk was criminal, you'd lead a life of crime
Because your mind is on vacation and your mouth is
Working overtime

You know that life is short and talk is cheap
Don't be making promises that you can't keep
If you don't like the song I'm singing, just grin and
Bear it
All I can say is if the shoe fits wear it
If you must keep talking please try to make it rhyme
'Cause your mind is on vacation and your mouth is working
By Mose Allison

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The appeal of Donald Trump and ISIS

The news is filled with accounts of mass murders, enslaving, rapes, beheadings, almost any atrocity one can think of by ISIS.  And the group publicly brags about them.  There are detailed accounts of the  capture, enslaving, and repeated rape of young women like Kayla Mueller.   Still, the group manages to induce very bright young people to defect from their countries and to join ISIS in Syria.  Experts claim that ISIS offers young people an ordered life free from the frustrations of western culture and a chance to help oppressed people.  They do not venture into much analysis about why young people allegedly in quest of doing good seem to be duped or supportive of an organization that does so much obscenely bad things to other humans.   Or that ISIS is contrary to every other cultural and religious premise, and operates a constant, vicious holocaust.   

Most of the young people who join ISIS, or attempt to, have Muslim connections.  While it is a serious error--and problem--to suggest that the mad-dog Islamic jihadists represent the principles of the Muslim religion,  the experts on radicalization point out that the appeal of ISIS is based on Muslim expectations and the promise that ISIS provides a way to fulfill the demands of Allah.  To those who practice religions that preach a benign and accepting attitude toward fellow humans,  the vicious malevolence of Islamic jihadists is incomprehensible.  How do bright young people reconcile the rabid dementia openly proclaimed by ISIS with an alleged quest for helping the oppressed?  How can they respond to western decadence by joining an organization that practices the most heinous outrages against humankind as a liturgy to the divine?  

When 9/11 happened, people had  and still have a hard time grasping the idea that young men will volunteer for suicide missions to kill thousands of people who never displayed any animus or threat to them.  The conclusion is that these people, while showing some intelligence, have grave intellectual and moral defects which make them a danger to the world.  They are like rabid dogs which are incapable of responding to any benign suasion.  

The presence of Islamic jihadists and their destructive acts against humanity have not resulted in a submission to them that their acts of terror are supposedly committed to inspire.  Rather, they have caused thinking people to make critical appraisals of the ignorant, destructive, and hate-inducing elements in all religions.  Young people in the western world who have been raised in churches show a skepticism and aloofness from the dicta of their religions.  They are more struck by the fallibility and perversity of some of the notions they were taught under the guise of religious morality.  The perverse destructionism of the jihadists has called all religious belief into skeptical and critical question.  Those who are attracted to ISIS are those who are not intellectually equipped or strong enough to realize that their defects of mentality make them vulnerable to men of perverse purpose.  And so, young teenagers fall prey to ISIS recruitment.

Another aspect of human deterioration is the social media.  The sight of students streaming  out of high school with their eyes locked on the cell phones in their hands is portentous.   The social media is the major recruiting tool of the jihadists.
It comprises the environment in which many people spend their time and focus their attention.  They live virtual lives, artificially contrived for them.  They have few reference points in the natural world.  Youths have alwaysl formed cultures that often resent but challenge the cultures their elders handed down to them.  At some point the adolescent revolt is confronted with reality.  In some of those confrontations, such as during the civil rights movement and the Veit Nam War, those confrontations involve contending viewpoints within the general culture, and the qualities of liberty and justice are improved and expanded.  But when people are absorbed by and into the social media, they are isolated from the intellectual and social currents that swirl around them.  The social media can be both liberating and confining, and, as George Orwell warned, can be used to reduce humans to automatons under the control of minds who create holocausts.  Our education systems and our media have not learned how to put the social media in a critical context so that we can distinguish between the media and the messages they carry and perceive them through critical ilntelligence.

Donald Trump is a prime example of the grave intellectual failures of the electronic media.  The news media's major concern is to gain audiences so that they can attract advertisers.  Twenty-four hour cable news and its online components have long relinquished real news analysis to broadcasting spectacles that attract attention.  Rather than focus on the actual news, the media fixes on controversies, because controversies and the spats they produce attract more attention than news reports.  Then it assembles panels of "experts" to endlessly jaw about the controversies.  

Donald Trump is media-savvy enough to know that he can say outrageous things that get attention and that the media will fix on the outrage and controversy he generates, not on the facts of what he says.  He also knows that there are people of a mindset out there that resent the intellectual activity of trying to discern what is true and what is not, and they find that Trump's performances compatible with their attitudes.  A factor in  Trump's performances is that people are tired of gridlock in Washington and the constant rain of petty obstruction and accusation poured down on the nation.  Trump presents himself as a man who  gets things done, and there is a strong appeal in that posture.  The trouble is that the media is not examining just what Trump has done.  It fixes instead upon his words and his quarrels with the media and other candidates, and Trump knows that the quarrels are what the media will broadcast, not the actual facts.

An example is Trump's take on jobs.  He contends that China has stolen America's jobs and that he will return them to this country.  The falsity of that  contention is that China did not steal the jobs.  When China offered to do the jobs cheaply,  American corporations rushed to send the jobs to China, where they did not have to deal with employees, union contracts, or fringe benefits.  The rush toward cheaper jobs resulted in almost every manufactured product sold in the U.S. being manufactured in China.  Trump is the head of a large corporation which is part of that corporate culture that eliminated the manufacturing jobs in this country.  Mitt Romney was identified as a part of that corporate culture when his company was directly responsible for firing American  workers and sending their jobs off to China.  The question raised by Trump is how would he get other corporations to bring back the jobs they sent to China.  And what corporation will reject cheap labor?  It is not something that can be done by presidential decree.  

Another claim that Trump makes is that Mexico deliberately selects criminals and the poor to send into the U.S. so that Mexico does not have to deal with them.  Mexico is not the only source of undocumented workers, and American companies hire them because they work cheap.  The media does not fact check Trump, because it is too busy broadcasting his claims and endlessly reporting on the controversy those claims generate.  

Trump also gets by with constant denigrations of his opponents and other people with insults and accusations that are totally expressions of his attitude, not statements reasoned from facts.  He blurts that Jeb Bush is unelectable and of low energy.  Bush does not have the blustering personality of Trump, if that's what low energy means, but that is a difference in personaiity, not a requisite quality for a president.  He makes personal dismissals of other people, often labeling somebody as horrible.  

Trump is the quintessential schoolyard bully.  He marshals support by scapegoating and attracting the support of that segment of the population that needs targets for blame and hatred. Just as Hitler blamed the Jews for the misfortunes of Germany and the  jihadists blames western culture for all the ills they see in the world, Trump focuses on Mexicans and other groups, hurls insult and abuse at them and excites hatred in the mindless dupes who will make up his base.  Like all schoolyard bullies, he is a shameless demagogue.  He gives the personal desires and prejudices of the sulking and resentful a voice and a chance at power.  

Those attracted to Trump are like those teenagers and other insentient souls who are isolated by lonely ignorance in their quest for someone who will lead them into a life.  Those young people attracted to ISIS are incapable of perceiving that the evil ISIS does to its scapegoats is the same evil it might do to them.  The people attracted to Trump are incapable of seeing that the vileness with which he treats his opponents and others he scapegoats might at some time be directed toward them.  

The culture of America has regressed.  The simmering and seething racism, for example, that was capped and kept hidden after the civil rights movement has bubbled back to the surface of American life.  The motives of those who have vowed to defeat and suppress Obama have emerged into open racism.  The shootings of so many unarmed black people and the disproportionate incarceration of minority people have revealed a race war.

In an article in the Washington Post, a Muslim examines how an old classmate of his interprets his religion in a way that causes him to join the Islamic State. The author explains:
Mainstream theologians who cater to the majority of lay Muslims, both Sunni and Shiite, are unable to address such critical moral and theological challenges as evolution, gender and sexuality, or the role and meaning of sharia in a modern nation. That’s because theological education is steeped in ancient texts with little attention to reinterpretation. 
Groups like the Islamic State propound antiquated teachings still held to be true by many orthodox authorities. These include enslaving prisoners of war and taking female prisoners as concubines.
The people who follow Trump and other demagogues in the current campaign similarly are fixed on disproven interpretations of the Bible,  misinformed notions of the Constitution, and are locked in the bonds of bigotry.  They see the advances made in equality and justice as threats to the world they prefer to live in.  They, indeed, take refuge in their Bibles, their guns, and in the hatreds that form the boundaries of their universe.  

The significance of the 2016 election will be to determine if America will continue the struggles and advances that serve all its people or whether it will slip back into the mire of old racial and sectarian hatreds.  Some states such as Wisconsin have made that choice by scapegoating teachers and government workers as "union thugs," by imposing strictures on one of the nation's premier higher education systems, and by turning the state over to a corporate oligarchy.  The nation could go that way.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Where in the world is Jim Clark?

Last Thursday night Jim Clark, host of South Dakota Public Radio's "Jazz Nightly" suddenly quit.  Someone at the station posted a notice on the program's Facebook page,  saying they were surprised but respected his decision. That is all that the station has said.  All references to Jim Clark have been deleted from SDPB's web site,  and when one click's on "Jazz Nightly,"  the message "Access Denied" comes up.

His sudden departure with no word about why or to where is  like a scene in George Orwell's 1984, when the protagonist comes to work one day and finds a colleague gone with absolutely no evidence that he had ever been there.  He was said to have been vaporized.  

The departure leads to inevitable conjecture.  To those who are familiar with the politics and culture of organizations such as South Dakota Public Broadcasting, there are two likely possibilities.  One is that Jim Clark got fed up with something or somebody to an intolerable degree and decided to end the relationship right then and there.  The other is that somebody found a way to force a resignation.

Judging from the language used in the Facebook announcement, the former seems more likely.  Jim Clark was not treated well by SDPB.  In 2011, when legislative budget cuts seemed to require a staff reduction, the management  decided Clark was the on-air talent that had to go.   The station also said at the time it was also cutting the Education and Outreach Department, and other cuts in engineering, television and marketing.  

However, in March 2012, Clark returned to SDPB and "Jazz Nightly' resumed.   After being conferred the distinction of being the only on-air talent to be dumped, it surprised many people he would return.  And he had been there for ten years.  The situation is one in which it is obvious that someone in the organization was not a fan of Uncle Jimmo.  What the circumstances  were for his return, besides finding the funds, was never revealed.  But after another three years, Uncle Jimmo is gone again.  Vaporized.    

Jim Clark was an on-air personality that continued the tradition of the jazz disc jockey that presented a special kind of music to people.  When I was in college in the early 1950s,  jazz had come to carry a a vital message.  It was the accompaniment for our troops in World War  II and carried forward the culture that originated it into confronting the internal battle for civil rights in our own country.  Charlie Parker and Dizzy  Gillespie had created new musical horizons that inspired people to reach for new social horizons.  The desegregation orders were being issued to the military, while returning black veterans found themselves bound again by Jim Crow.  Disc Jockeys spread the music which carried the sounds of change throughout the nation.  Names such as Symphony Sid, Jimmy  Lyons, Daddy-O Daylie, Al "Jazzbo" Collins, Jean Shepherd played the music for the change of a nation.  Jim Clark carried on that tradition for 15 years on South Dakota Public Radio.

I tell the story of the culture shock I experienced when I moved to Aberdeen to teach at NSU.  In many ways Aberdeen and South Dakota were and are culturally desolate.  If you wanted to listen to music, the choices were country and shlock rock.  Occasionally, I could pick up a radio signal from afar that carried some sounds of jazz.  At that time, a pubic radio station in Fargo played 24-hour jazz, but the FM signal seldom carried down to Aberdeen.  Sometimes in the deepest dark of night, the need to hear the freeing sounds of jazz was so urgent that I would get in the car and drive north toward Fargo until I could pick up the radio signal and listen to some comforting jazz.

Northern State was also a source.  Professors in the music department encouraged students to explore jazz.  They had contests for high school jazz bands which used to feature a performance by major jazz talent, such as Woody Herman.  (Duke Ellington once played the Northern homecoming dance.)  Among those professors was Jack Berggren who martialed the support of music lovers to bring public radio to northeast South Dakota.  His efforts proved fruitful, and in addition to bringing classical music to the region,  jazz programs were featured.  One of the first would play entire albums by featured players. 

Jim Clark brought some production talent to "Jazz Nightly" in 2001.  Many years in the past, disc jockey shows were put together with the help of music programmers who paid attention to things such as pacing, variation, themes, etc., to keep the attention of the audience.  Jim Clark did that.  As good jazz disc jockeys do, he was always meticulous about announcing the players and the date of each selection.  In addition, he posted a playlist of each song he played so that listeners could go back and find recordings which particularly interested them.

Uncle Jimmo also played a good representation of the various forms of jazz.  He featured artists and played numbers that reflected their development and influence.  His selections adhered to one quality:  they had to swing.  He avoided playing what I call academic jazz, which one can arguably question if it is actually jazz.  It uses improvisation, sometimes employs jazz chord progressions and rhythmic structures,  but just doesn't swing.  It does something jazz should never do;  it bores musically.  Jim Clark never permitted that to happen.

So, where in the world is Jim Clark?  Wherever he is, we hope he is out there somewhere working up a playlist to bring the music to people in desolate places who need the comfort and reassurance of the creative energy of jazz.  

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The teacher shortage is matter of climate

And the effects are probably irreversible at this point.  

South Dakota is experiencing a teacher shortage.  It shares what is a nationwide problem.   However, South Dakota has peculiar aspects that affect the education climate in the state.  Its prevailing attitude toward education has a history of long entrenchment, and it is a political one that has been enforced by the state legislature.  Like other states, such as Indiana, the legislature has been  called upon to do something about the shortage.  It has instituted a "blue ribbon" panel to examine the issue of funding, as the state has distinguished itself for having the lowest pay for teachers in the nation for decades.  

The national press has taken up the examination of teacher shortages and why people are leaving the profession and declining to enter it.  A Washington Post story about Indiana's problem summarizes what is actually the national situation:

What’s going on? Pretty much the same thing as in Arizona, Kansas and other states where teachers are fleeing: a combination of under-resourced schools, the loss of job protections, unfair teacher evaluation methods, an increase in the amount of mandated standardized testing and the loss of professional autonomy.
However, the same press was until very  recently running stories about the deplorable state of American schools,  how impossible it was to fire bad teachers,  the overreaching power of the teacher unions, and the need to hold teachers accountable.  The attacks on education started 30 years ago with a critical examination called "A Nation at Risk," and have become a staple of pseudo-journalism ever since.  In 1995, a book was published which examined what it found the criticism of education to be:  The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, And The Attack On America's Public Schools.  The issues that the book and subsequent studies brought up never received the attention that the attacks on education did. It is easier and more popular to incite the ire of a media-conditioned public by maligning education.  That is not to say that education, as it evolves in a changing world, does not have challenges to meet, but the popular, usually misinformed harangues impede and discourage genuine examinations and proposals to meet those challenges.  

I have often noted from my time when I reported on school districts that an essential change in education was when school boards stopped thinking of themselves as conduits of information between the public and the professional teaching staffs and began to conceive of themselves as corporate boards of directors.  Rather than consult the teachers through the principals and superintendents about educational matters,  school boards pre-empted teachers as professionals and regarded them as low-level laborers who had to be told what to do and monitored.  The cliche that schools had to be run like businesses became the law, and the climate for education changed.  Teaching became a  lousy job.  

At one point while I taught at Northern State University, the institution supplied half of the teachers working in South Dakota.  Until 1964,  Northern was Northern State Teachers College, and while it expanded its curriculum, it maintained a strong teacher education program as part of its mission.  However, some presidents gave the teacher education program diminished attention and support as they focused on other aspects of the college, and the Department of Education weakened in effect and reputation.  It hit bottom under the presidency of John Hutchinson when it lost accreditation by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (now called CAEP).  Northern went through a series of presidents who were mere surrogates for the Board of Regents, not practicing scholars who presided over the integrity and quality of  academic programs.  

Northern's teacher education program was eventually re-accredited but ran for a time  on its past reputation.  Our strongest English majors were in teacher education, some of whom I had as advisees, and I saw a change taking place among graduates and recent graduates who were teaching.  I received requests for letters of recommendation from all over the US, and my files contain letters to California, Nevada, New York, Iowa, Florida, and Massachusetts for people who were the strongest students.  They were looking for jobs outside of South Dakota, and those who had  teaching jobs in the state were looking to move.  

The motives behind the moves were not only for better pay.  The lowest teacher pay in the nation is an expression of the value placed on education and the low regard in which the ruling party of the state holds teachers.  The low pay has been accompanied by an aggressive disparagement of teaching and education that has created a climate of disrespect and insult and abuse as a working condition for teachers.  This climate was apparent to students.  The most t talented students chose not to go into teaching and those who did seldom stay  in the profession past five years. 

Cory Heidlelberger at the Dakota Free Press has taken up the matter of teacher pay and states, as many do, that the teacher shortage can be solved by offering better pay.  The nation has worked hard in the last 30 years to castigate, discredit, and debase the teaching profession.  South Dakota has effectively claimed itself as winner of the teacher degradation festival with its lowest pay in the nation.  And, as I stress, that pay is an expression of an overall attitude that creates the climate for education in the state.

Teachers, like all professionals, want to work where they are allowed to  practice their profession and fulfill their potential by working where hard successful work is appreciated and life is not a daily battle with those who would discredit them.  Low salaries is not the only problem South Dakota.  It has a long and virulent record of anti-intellectualism and mean ignorance that defines its educational climate   

A major factor in the teaching staff that exists is that the teachers are South Dakotans who want to be near their families.  But why would a young person with potential choose South Dakota?  Especially when promising teacher candidates are told to identify those school districts which will allow them to work and grow and provide compensation commensurate with the job.  Such districts are devoted to educating children to continue the advances for the nation that public education has made possible.  They concentrate their job hunts on those places.  That pretty much eliminates South Dakota from consideration.  

It's not just the pay; it's the climate.  And South Dakota has worked hard to create a bad climate for education.  And the social and political conditions of the state make a change in the climate for education almost impossible.

Good teachers will not work where they are not allowed to practice their profession or where their profession is defamed.  

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Seventeen landed in the cuckoo's nest

The internet and news media are all abuzz about who won and who lost the first Republican primary alleged debate.  There was one huge loser:  America.

Some watched the performances because they fit their concept of politics.  Others watched because the performances were entertaining.  There is sheer hopelessness among those who think the kind of middle school insult and abuse exchanged between candidates has anything to do with the actual challenges America faces.  And for those watching as entertainment, there is not much more hope.  They recall a comment made by the city editor from my newspaper days.

Every year, a state mental institution. held an open house so that the public could observe how the patients were treated and were faring.  And every year the press was asked to cover the event, although no photographs or verbal identifications of the patients were permitted.  The young reporter who was assigned by my paper to cover the event was presumed to get quotes from a few visitors and write up some nice observations on how healthy and happy the patients seemed.  Most of the employees who directly cared for the patients were African American women, and they had made comments and complaints about the open house to the pastor of a church many of them attended that the patients were made a spectacle of.   The reporter was one of those who did not like writing up puffery, but tried to  dig out information about what was really going on.  She made inquiries and found out about how the employees regarded the open house.  She and the photographer assigned  to cover the event worked out a deal.  When they got there they found, as they had been warned,  that many people at the open house chortled and made fun of the behavior of some of the patients.  It was the disrespect and  ridicule directed at the patients that their caregivers had objected to.  The photographer took photographs of some visitors and the reporter got some quotations about how nice the event was, but she also recorded in her notes some instances of where the patients were made the objects of ridicule and denigration.

The next morning during the daily 6:45 a.m. editorial meeting, the reporter's story dominated the discussion.  Some editors thought it might be too inflammatory and enrage the community against the newspaper.  The city editor said, "Our job is to report what actually happens.  And what kind of people take a Sunday afternoon to go make fun of the feeble minded?"  The story ran, covering the nice aspects of the event, but reporting on the instances, without names, in which patients were held up to  ridicule.  The hospital superintendent had no idea that the patients were being subjected to ridicule, and that was the last open house at that hospital.

So  what kind of people wiil spend a Thursday night chortling over the derangements of politicians who are devoted to misanthropy?  There were some questions posed that got at issues, but very few produced responses that were more than pretexts for the performers ito launch personal insults and abuse, often at each other.  

Then, of course, there is Donald Trump who used the occasion to boost his campaign for king of human abomination.  Trump says and does everything that illustrates a debased  character, a malevolent personality, and the mentality of a grade school bully. There are those who watch him and report on him because it amuses them and gives them a sense of superiority to watch a wealthy man writhe spastically in grotesque seizures of dementia.  But  there are those who support him and have put him in the lead of the GOP dog pack.  

Who are they and what do they see in Trump?  A New Hampshire newspaper publisher saidTrump’s base is more the people who used to have season tickets to the Roman Colosseum.  Not sure that they vote in great numbers, but they like blood sport.”  That view of his base is supported by a former contestant on his television show who says his base is of that mentality that dotes on reality television.

Trump does inspire humor

The phony debate and its aftermath is more significant for what it says about us than it is the candidates.  The fact that we look and listen to them indicates how much the reality television mentality has infected our culture.  Some are so stupid and malevolent that they believe in the many falsehoods designed to stir up hatred, fear, and rage.  Others watch because they like to see people reduce themselves to infantile rages and humiliate each other.  

The GOP slate bases their campaign on the juvenile personal attacks on others and incident the rage among those weak minded enough to believe.  The fact that Obama's place of birth is still questioned, the contention that his recommendation for sane gun laws is a scheme to take all guns away from people,  that he is a Muslim in cahoots with extremist are all semitones of a massive failure of intellect within the American people.  

Some GOP candidates try to make the issue that Obama has divided the country.  The country is divided over Obama, but the cause is something that comes from the people, not him.  As people of color and women have made progress in moving up into positions  of prestige and authority once  reserved for white males,  there have always been those who disintegrate into a resentful rage when women or  people of color are put in positions of authority over them.  This rage takes the form of making false and slanderous accusations against the person, and attempts to undermine and sabotage anything the object of their resentment attempts to do.  From the day Obama took office, his opponents have vowed to obstruct and impede him and to remove him from authority.  It's the old story of racial hatred and resentment operating under the guise of political difference.

Obama's presidency has been unbearable to the racist contingent, and racial hatred which has festered in American society since the civil rights movement has bubbled up to the surface   We now confront Obama hatred as a racial matter and the killing and imprisoning of black people by the police and our justice system as evidence of racial hatred that has never gone away.  

The spectacle of 17 adults gathered in front of national television casting juvenile insult land abuse and Donald Trump performing as the quintessential asshole is America seeing itself.  In an article that lists arguments advanced for supporting Trump,  one is that he is not the president America needs, but the president America deserves.  The kind of people and the campaign tactics of personal insult, abuse, and destruction are America getting what it is asking for.  

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The killing of Cecil

The killing of a well-known lion personality for a trophy sparked such an angry response against his killer, that he apologized and then gave up his dental practice.  The social media, in effect, destroyed him.  Wildlife authorities want to talk to him but they can't find him.

You begin with the fact that animals have personalities.  Anyone who has pets knows that.  This personality, who presided over two prides and wore a tracking collar for an Oxford University research project, captured a large coterie of fond admirers with his personality.  The same week he was killed, five elephants were poached.  Not having reached the personality status of Cecil, hardly anyone noticed their deaths, except a few wildlife advocates.

The rage against the killing of Cecil is composed of many factors. One is a growing fury at the cavalier attitude toward killing that is so dramatically demonstrated by the police shootings of unarmed people and the rash of deaths of minority women in our jails.  These incidents of killings and unexplained deaths widen and define the cultural divide among Americans.  There is a rage against abortion based upon an alleged respect for life, but there is a great tolerance for death by firearms,  based on a claimed Constitutional right.  That rage and and that tolerance are often held by the same people.  Beyond the factors of lack of education and low intelligence, there is a prevalence of mental incoherence and thought disorder that makes it impossible to comprehend the conflicting stances assumed by many people.  However, the swell of disapproval against the killing of Cecil is indicative of a moral strain that runs  powerfully through Americans.  It unleashes an anguish over the needless but persistent deaths that plague American society.

America does have a tradition of hunting big game that is expressed in its mythology.  We have many stories about skilled hunters, such as Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone, but we also have stories of the wasteful and greedy slaughter of the bison left to rot on the plains.  The slaughter of bison was permitted and encouraged as a means of subduing the Indians who were trying to retain the plains as their vital habitat.   Such profligate waste is inconceivable and not tolerated among Americans whose families grew out of the ethical climate that was once rural America.

I come from that background.  Both my mother and father had farm backgrounds.  And we hunted.  But there were strict rules about hunting and the handling of firearms.  If a child pointed a finger at someone in a pistol fashion, an adult would quickly and sternly chide the child, even raise the threat of breaking the offending finger off.  Even a childish and playful charade of shooting and killing was regarded as an expression of character and values.  There were guns on the farmsteads and in the households, but children were disciplined for playing "guns."  But we did hunt.

When  I was a child during the depression and World War II,  hunting was still done to augment the food supply.  Along with digging dandelion greens in the spring, and picking wild berries in the summer, we hunted in the fall.  At the time, there was no big game to hunt in Illinois, but we did hunt rabbits and wild fowl.  The rule was that you ate what you killed.  You did not kill anything you did not intend to eat.  No one hunted for trophies.  People who killed as a sport rather than as a harvest were considered perverted and morally dangerous.  That was the ethic of the time. 

The ethic was that one shot animals for food or that were a threat to the farm and the safety of the humans and farm animals.  Rifles and shotguns were kept nearby as tools for dealing with predatory raccoons that broke into chicken houses or foxes that stalked baby pigs.  One of my cousins, who could shoot a pheasant out of the air with a .22, hunted fox and other fur bearers for the money.  But he was also an avid conservationist who warned against the dangers of wiping out the species he hunted.  When he observed a decline in the population of a species, he stopped hunting it. 

I associate hunting back then with food.  I can recall a special family dinner of my grandmother's mushroom and sage-stuffed quail.  And another meal of roasted squab, wild young pigeons.  As a boy, I  clipped recipes from a magazine called Open Road for Boys and learned to fry rabbit or make hasenpfeffer, as well  as hush puppies to go with the catfish and perch we caught.  My mother stressed how our hunting and fishing stretched the food budget.  We stressed that it was good food.

I also recall that hunting involved a degree of custom and ceremony that had to do with our relationship to the outdoors.  As a young man, I duck hunted with friends on the Mississippi River.  In late August and September, we registered for site drawings in the chutes and sloughs on the river, and then constructed blinds in preparation for the water fowl season.  When the season opened, we got up long before dawn, trekked to the river, got into boats, and took up positions in the duck blinds to be in place when the sun rose.  As we sipped from our Thermoses of hot coffee, the the river echoed with the occasional squawking of duck calls, as hunters tried to lure the ducks in.  There would be sporadic flurries of shotgun firing. We got ducks, but actually the ritual of being on the river during those crisp mornings was the real reason we were out there.  On many mornings, we shot no ducks.  Ducks were  the reason we were out there, but not the primary motivation.

Two of the  men in the group I belonged to were brothers who ran a river road restaurant in one of the small towns  on the river.  One year one of the men got a mallard so beautiful that he had it stuffed and put it in his office.  But most of the ducks we shot were cooked.  One of the brothers was a chef who had worked in a restaurant that featured game on its menu.  He would cook a bunch of ducks we bagged for a late-season dinner the group held with their families at his restaurant.  Many people do not like wild duck because it tastes fishy.  Ducks and fish share the same habitat and the same diet of aquatic vegetation.  But the chef could prepare the ducks and roast them so that they were so crisp of skin and tender and richly flavored of flesh that the families talked about those meals all year.  They included other gifts from the river, such as turtle soup, and produce from the rich river valley.  They were part of the Thanksgiving season that reminded us of the beneficence of nature.   

The ethic of that group of river people was that you didn't kill anything you did not eat.  Killing was not considered a sport.  Hunting was an activity in which humans engaged their dependency on nature.  It involved the application of skills and ethical relationship with nature.  No one in that group killed for trophies, nor did most of the hunters I knew back then.  In fact, we were disdainful and wary of people who killed as a sport.  We were also skeptical of the idea of propagating wildlife so that people could kill it.  It seemed a perversion of the relationship that humankind had with nature.  

There are those who enjoy killing.  As commercial hunting preserves were established, we made fun  of people who thought that "shooting fish in a barrel" demonstrated some kind of manhood.  Those commercial hunts required no knowledge, little skill, but mainly provided participants bragging rights to say they had killed something.  

The social media contains many reactions to the reactions against the killing of Cecil. The many wasteful and depressing deaths that occur in America are all deserving of notice and examination.  But the killing of Cecil as a trophy triggered an old ethic rooted deep in the land, in nature, against killing as a sport or an expression of manhood.  That ethic is one that divides the nation.  It is a battleground in the culture war.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States