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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

Saturday, July 30, 2016

A nation flunking English and denying the White House slaves

Both of the Obamas have committed what has become an unforgivable sin in our current culture.  They went a bit literary on us.  

It may be that in our current digital state of affairs  we have lost the ability to handle any messages more than 140 characters long or to understand any expressions more complicated than howls of anger or squeals of delight.  Entering Facebook or the comment sections on news media and blogs is like stepping into a pit viper den.  Its inhabitants are able only to strike out at the intrusion,  and then coil back down to ready their reptilian brains to strike out again.  

Barack Obama's DNC speech had political purpose,  but it was largely an essay on how American democracy has evolved so that the facts of our political status fit the aspirations of the language in which the nation's founding was framed.  He emulates the speeches of Lincoln, which are part of America's literary canon.  

In providing courses in literature in our schools,  we strive to enable the students to understand communications that have cognitive content, that consist of more than squeals and howls.  Literature consists of much more than imaginative fiction, poetry, and drama.  It also consists of modes that deal with facts: exposition, narrative, and the methods of analysis, such as cause-and-effect and comparison-and-contrast. The objective is for students to recognize and understand such forms of communication when they encounter them and to be able to use them in their own thought and expression.  Working with language in its various forms is what literacy is.  

Michelle Obama's speech to the DNC produced an outpouring of illiteracy.  One part of the speech became the focus of many demonstrations of the ignorance of language: 

That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.   [Emphasis is mine.]
And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.
That phrase "a house built by slaves"  spurred some howls of rage from those who identify themselves as conservatives, whatever that means in their minds.  It sent Bill O'Reilly  off into claiming that the slaves who worked in building the White House were well fed and well housed,  as if that mitigated that they were held in bondage and required to do the work.  And a comment at the Dakota Free Press accused Michelle Obama of being a liar:

I see Michelle repeats her prevarication of a slave built White House. The historical truth is that the White House was built almost entirely by Scottish masons and their apprentices, local tradesmen, local carpenters, immigrant Irish and Scottish laborers and free blacks. Slave labor was used primarily for rough cutting stone and timber. Scottish stone masons were even used in the quarries to train the slaves on how to quarry the stones. To claim that slaves built the White House one would also have to claim that wheat farmers bake wedding cakes and lumberjacks build houses.

The White House Historical Association refutes that:
The D.C. commissioners, charged by Congress with building the new city under the direction of the president, initially planned to import workers from Europe to meet their labor needs. However, response to recruitment was dismal and soon they turned to African American—enslaved and free—to provide the bulk of labor  [my emphasis] that built the White House, the United States Capitol, and other early government buildings.
The significant aspect of those who fix on "a house built by slaves" is their illiteracy, their inability to handle any form of communication that is more than a howl or a squeal.  Michelle Obama's speech is devoted to showing what is right with America:
So, look, so don't let anyone ever tell you that this country isn't great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this right now is the greatest country on earth!
She uses the story of her daughters to illustrate that the greatness of America is in its striving to live up to its call for freedom, equality, and justice.  To do this she uses the imagery of a house built by slaves and two young descendants of those save now being occupants of that house and playing on the lawn with their dogs. The imagery captures the progress the nation has made from being built on slave labor to the free and happy young women playing on the lawn of the house that represents their nation.

Michelle Obama's speech clearly states what she is illustrating:
That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.
The comments from O'Reilly and the Dakota Free Press display minds so intent upon diminishing and dismissing someone for whom they harbor a visceral, racist hatred that they cannot read or hear the the purpose and point of the speech.  They fasten upon a phrase that they would like to deny because of another reptilian aspect of their mentality.  Racism has wrapped itself around their minds  like the coils of a snake and so constricts them that they cannot apprehend a communication, but only a phrase that feeds their hatred.

This is why the "conservative" attacks on public education are so harmful.  In their purging of the curricula of the language arts and the fine arts,  they are reducing the number of people who have the intellectual skills to understand the history of our nation as it is contained in  language.  That has brought us to the point that half the people in the nation can endorse Donald Trump who is the antithesis of everything that education tries to develop in students:  the recognition and understanding of what it is to be free, equal, and just.  

There are many peoplewho are rejecting,  consciously or not,   the premise on which the nation was built.  


Saturday, July 23, 2016

Anatomy of a defamation: the attempted lynching of Michelle Obama

As the GOP grappled with hard evidence that Melania Trump incorporated  verbatim portions of Michelle Obama's speech into her own, without acknowledging the source, it put forth the charge that Michelle's speech was plagiarized.  It is the juvenile tactic of 
trying to deflect blame for wrongdoing by accusing someone else of the same act.The claim is that Michelle Obama plagiarized a part of her speech from Saul Alinsky. 

Here is the part of the speech that was said to be plagiarized:  

Barack stood up that day and spoke words that have stayed with me ever since. He talked about the world as it is and the world as it should be. And he said that all too often, we accept the distance between the two and settle for the world as it is — even when it doesn't reflect our values and aspirations. 

The claim is that she plagiarized that from Saul Alinksy's Rules for Radicals:

3. As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be — it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.
Michelle Obama is not  claiming or implying that the words about the "the world as it is" are her own.  She is recounting a speech she heard Barack Obama give to some people in Chicago at a neighborhood organizing event.  Her reporting of the words she heard in someone else's speech can in no way be contorted into an act of plagiarism.  The question could be raised about whether Barack Obama gave attribution for those words, but that would be straining to make a blameworthy point.  The words about the world as it is and as it should or could be have been used in discussions by social philosophers throughout recorded history.  Socrates raised the issue with quite a different take:  “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” 

Snopes investigated the claim against Michelle Obama and also found it abjectly and stupidly contrived out of malice, not fact:

A simplistic comparison of Alinksy and Mrs. Obama's uses of "the world as it is" and "the world as it should be" (phrases that were arguably exceedingly common in concept for policy speeches) suggested a surface likeness. But Alinsky's purportedly plagiarized half-sentence was part of a passage about adopting a realistic approach to "the world as it is" versus "the world as it should be." By contrast, Michelle Obama was paraphrasing her husband's lamenting acceptance of "the world as it is" when "the world as it should be ... reflect[ed] our values and aspirations" and was not expressing it as her own thought. 
As such, the plagiarism claim applied to Mrs. Obama was weak on its face, given that it involved a mere eight common words supposedly lifted from the oft-invoked Alinsky and expressed a notion opposite to the one offered by Alinsky.

Alinsky was a social organizer in Chicago.  His radicalism was not based on a particular political idea other than that social organization can be used to help people who need it.  Conservatives intensely hate Alinksy because his causes addressed economic and social inequalities imposed on them by the system under which they lived.  What enraged conservatives was his success in throwing off the oppressive factors in south Chicago.  He thought that ruthless repression had to be met with ruthless opposition.  

When Ben Carson identified Hillary Clinton with Saul Alinsky and Lucifer,  he did so with profound ignorance and malice.  Hillary wrote her baccalaureate thesis on Alinsky and had personal contact with him,  but she also had reservations about some of his tactics.  Barrack Obama was a social organizer in the same area that Alinsky worked, and he would obviously be acquainted with Alinsky's theories and methods, but own approach was often the opposite of Alinsky's.   Too conservatives, Alinsky is a pariah, and they constantly try to link their opponents with him.  

Politics has always had the willfully ignorant and malicious.  In our time, cable news and the Internet have given them amplifiers.  Those who circulate the charge of Michelle Obama plagiarizing Alinksy are members of that group and need to be identified as such.  What they say rises from endemic untruthfulness and malice.  And that is what defines defamation.  

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Fussing over the fuzz

JT, the managing editor who had worked his way up from city hall and police beat reporter,  said that police department corruption ran in ten-year cycles.  Every ten years,  police departments would have a  scandal in which some of its members were exposed for corrupt relationships or practices.   He said   that low pay and constant contact with criminality wore away at some officers and they gave in to the temptations of money or angry rage.

I remember the night that the Rock Island Police Department teamed up with the sheriff's department and raided Mills' whorehouse, which had been in operation for decades.  They arrested Jenny, the madam, who was allowed her one phone call and made it to the chief of police.  "Goddamnit, Klaus," she said,  "we paid you to warn us when a raid was coming."  Klaus soon found himself out of a job and opened an antique store.   Jenny retired, too.

And  I remember Big Joe, a lumbering 6-foot-6-inch cop who wasn't the brightest but maintained a rigid Irish Catholic honesty and an intolerance for police misbehavior.  So,  he was assigned to the night beat foot patrol in the merchant area of the downtown  when there were no enterprises open that might invite police collaboration.  There were some bars where workers from the factory area would stop by after the second shift for boiler makers and occasionally get a bit out of control.  Big Joe would lumber in, wrap the offender in a bear hug, and assist him out the door.  Often,  he'd summon a squad car to drive them home, even though the squad drivers wold protest that they weren't running a taxi service.  Other times, he would call for a family member to drive the drunk home.  Joe arrested very few people.

There wasn't much gun violence back then.  It was against the law at the time to carry a gun into a bar.  When one was displayed or discovered,  Joe would approach the armed person and tell him that weapons had to be checked outside.  Joe would "take charge" of the weapon and check it in at the police station,  where it could be retrieved when the owner was fully sober.  A factor in Joe's ability to maintain the peace was that he was the department's best marksman.  He consistently scored the highest in the qualifying tests and was a frequent winner at sports shooting contests.  He was known for stopping attempted night time burglaries of stores on his  beat and of spotting incipient fires and busted waterlines and of helping vagrants find shelter for the night.  He knew his beat so well  and was  so alert and conscientious that he could spot problems in the making.  He was affable but no one messed with him.  If someone misbehaved, they would usually straighten up when people threatened "to call Joe."

I knew him from the time, as a college student, when I had a job in a shoe store.  I special ordered his work shoes for him.  They were size 18.

Joe was a peace officer from a different time and a different theory of policing.  Many of his colleagues operated on the theories of "police science,"  which  advocated a more commanding presence for the police.  Their relationships with the public were more authoritarian.  They dominated the hierarchy and were the kind that  reporters dealt with most often.   They tended to not like reporters.  That was because reporters kept track of habeas corpus matters and insisted upon reviewing the records on a daily basis.  Police found this inconvenient at times.  One reporter was grabbed by the neck by a duty sergeant and lifted off the floor.  JT published the incident in the metro section and sparked an investigation of police brutality.  That reporter and I are still friends on Facebook.

One of my first journalistic encounters with police came as a student newspaper reporter in Chicago.  Some students who worked at concession stands during sports events witnessed police accosting people in restrooms and arresting them for various  violations such as soliciting sex.  Then they would try to extract a bond or a "fine" from the accused.  The editor of the student newspaper, who was a veteran of the Korean War,  was told about the scam and managed for reporters to witness the operations and then interview the victims and other people who were witnesses.   The stories were picked up by a major newspaper and some reform ensued.  But the Chicago police departments have a long and varied history of cop crime.  JT would point out that they aren't alone.

There are good cops and bad cops.  There are cops who act with respect for liberty, equality, and justice and try to follow the requirements of due process.  There are cops who think only in terms of their badges of authority.  Some are focused on their clearance records.  And there are cops who make one question if they are bright enough to be wearing a badge.

Police departments are often fractious organizations.  The rivalries, resentments, and animosities threaten their ability to function.  Aberdeen went through an extremely tumultuous period about ten years ago when detectives and patrol officers suddenly resigned or were fired,  chiefs resigned or were fired, and the public did not know if the city was running police department or  producing a reality television show.

This kind of dysfunction was demonstrated last week when some off-duty officers were working as security for a Minneapolis Lynx basketball game.   When the players, in response to the police shooting of Philando Castile during a traffic stop,  came onto the floor in T-shirts that supported Black Lives Matter in protest of the pointless shooting, the police walked off the job.   Their petulance and support from the police union spokesman received a rebuke from the mayor and police chief.  Their action demonstrates the racially charged attitude that questioning police actions in the apparent executions of black men is an attack on law enforcement.   Exhibiting that attitude places the police in a posture of justifying lynching,  rather than making earnest attempts to deal with gratuitous killings.  The more police try to dismiss or justify the executions, the more reason the public has to be wary and skeptical of the police.  When the public "honors" the police, it is put in the position of honoring the executions.

The killing of five policemen in Dallas and three  in Baton Rouge exposes the added complication that our gun culture adds to racial discord.  A few years ago,  the Colorado legislature reacted to the mass shooting at an Aurora movie theater with a number of restrictive gun laws.  Those laws were later repealed, but they caused a sharp spike in the sales of assault rifles.  The gun advocates contend that people need to arm themselves against their government in case it tries to take away their liberties, and the increase in gun sales was attributed to this faction.   However,  one gun dealer said it wasn't only the NRA types who were buying guns.  Many people were arming themselves to protect themselves against the NRA types should they go on a rampage.

When the advocates of arming the citizenry said arms were needed if the government encroached on their lives,  the message got through to some people.  Micah Johnson and Gavin Long were paying attention. Both military veterans, they armed themselves with assault rifles* and semi-automatic pistols.  They used their training and their weapons to attack the police. And both men cited the police executions of black men, some unarmed and others not showing any evidence of drawing weapons, as motives behind their attacks.  They saw the police shootings as evidence that the government was engaging in combat against black men.  They were acting upon what they saw as the eventuality that the gun advocates warned about.

The police serve an essential function in society, often at the peril of their own lives.  No one disputes that.  And no one disputes the fact that the police are assigned the task of protecting the public and most do it well.   But that does not mean that when the public sees corruption and unwarranted killings on the part of the police that its expressions of concern and protest are anti-police.  Its concerns are anti-corruption and anti-murder.

When the police hide and defend actions by their members that violate the right to life and due process,  they comprise a danger to the public.  They are seen as the blue  menace, not the badges of protection and service.  Anti-police attitudes are something that the police have earned through their tolerance and protection of misconduct of their own.  They need to fight the crime in their own ranks as stridently as they go after civilian offenders.

That would be their strongest antidote for a bad public attitude toward them.  And a more scrupulous image would diminish the motives of people who see them as a part of government that has declared war on black men  That is something that  Big Joe understood.

*  Johnson had  an IWI Tavor SAR 5.56-millimeter rifle and a Stag Arms M4 variant 5.56-millimeter, and Long had the same set,  an IWI Tavor SAR 5.56-millimeter rifle and a Stag Arms M4 variant 5.56-millimeter rifle, according to police accounts.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States