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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

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

On the efficacy of riots

During the most intense part of the civil rights era, a friend of mine became known as a devoted follower of the 
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., through his work in peaceful protests.  I became acquainted with him when we were on the same train during our induction into military service, although we never served in the same units.  When we were released from active duty, we frequently ran across each other and  chatted about our service experiences.  Mine involved integration matters, and my friend, an African American, was interested in how the process went where I served in Germany.  As the civil rights movement intensified, my friend emerged as a leader and we often crossed paths at events promoting equality and justice. When I was teaching at a college in our community, he was often on the campus working with students.

At the time, there was much violence as protestors moved from civil rights protests to Viet Nam War protests.  President Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for election because of the turmoil taking place in the streets, some of it outside the fences that surround the White House.  College students were restless and volatile, and disruptions on campuses were frequent.  My friend worked closely with college staff and student leaders to keep the protests non-violent.  

One spring day after a meeting with faculty and students about some resistance programs, my friend and I went to the union for some iced tea.  He was troubled, and brought up  a problem that had bothered him.  He studied the history of nonviolence in making social changes in the U.S., and he found a contradiction.  He said he noted that most of the major political changes came after periods of violent turmoil.  He'd noticed that nonviolent demonstrations were largely dismissed in the public mind unless there was some violence taking place somewhere to show what peaceable demonstrations were trying to avoid.   He said he had a dedicated belief in nonviolence and was committed to solving problems peaceably, but had doubts that his advocacy for peace was presenting the truth.  He noted that when the groups he worked with had productive negotiations with some official agency, they always occurred when there was violence in the news.   Citizens tended to ignore protests unless they posed some danger.

My friend said he and advocates for nonviolence talked about advancing the causes of freedom, equality, and justice through peaceful means while taking credit for what is achieved by people using more forceful methods.  His doubts began when he visited an ex-Army buddy in Los Angeles who experienced the riots in Watts over police brutality and the general discrimination against African Americans. His army friend told him the destruction to the city seemed devastating but produced the first serious attempts to address the concerns of the residents of the inner city.  No one paid attention until the city was threatened with destruction.  Nobody took the grievances seriously until people started burning things down.  

In our time, there is evidence which supports that observation.  After the massive demonstrations by the Occupy movements and the women's pink hat and anti-Trump marches, nothing seems to have resulted.  In the Dakotas, the pipeline protests have resulted in lawsuits and state officials and legislatures cobbling together laws against riots that clearly infringe upon free speech.  If there is one thing the corporate establishment and its lackeys fear, it is a citizenry in revolt.  So they create laws designed to keep the constituents in a submissive and ineffectual state.  In so doing, they make a convincing case to the public that if you want to be effectively heard, you have to put on one hell of a riot.

One law passed in South Dakota this year protects and promotes the interests of pipeline companies, SB-190.  The law clearly declares that it conceives the  purpose of the state to serve corporations rather than its citizens.  The law is entitled "An Act to promote pipeline construction and fiscal responsibility by establishing a fund, to authorize a special fee for extraordinary expenses, to make a continuous appropriation therefor, and to declare an emergency."    It does raise some question about whether it reconciles with the State Constitution:

§ 3.   Laws for benefit of corporation as conditioned on compliance with Constitutional provision. The Legislature shall not remit the forfeiture of the charter of any corporation now existing nor alter or amend the same nor pass any other general or special law for the benefit of such corporation, except upon the condition that such corporation shall thereafter hold its charter subject to the provisions of this Constitution.
The state has never let laws or any code of integrity interfere with its suppliance to corporations.

To discourage any resistance to its obsequious sucking of corporations, the GOP regime has passed SB-189, which addresses riot boosting.  It provides criminal charges for anyone who:
(1)    Participates in any riot and directs, advises, encourages, or solicits any other person participating in the riot to acts of force or violence;   
(2)    Does not personally participate in any riot but directs, advises, encourages, or solicits other persons participating in the riot to acts of force or violence;
We do live in an age in which a large segment of the population can't grasp irony.  A law which tries to intimidate people from making any vigorous statement of their grievances is a sign to many that government is so corrupt that any submission to its dictates is a collaboration with evil. The rioters in Watts thought that the destruction of their community was better than living with the evil in it, and the destruction was necessary to rid it of the evil.  Rather than live in obedience to a malignant authority, it was better to start over from scratch, if necessary.  For those whose lands were criminally taken from them and are now threatened with leaking pipelines, the collaboration with corruption is guaranteed destruction.  Why not burn down the infestation so that future generations can launch their own quest for freedom, equality, and justice?  Those laws passed for the pipeline companies were declarations of oppression, and statements of what their collaborators fear most.  The irony is that the laws make clear their malign intention in that the only registration of grievances permitted is what the authorities so blithely ignore.  

I am not advocating riots.  However, I cannot but note that the laws tell would be rioters that they have nothing to lose but oppression and the further degradation of their lands.

Remember Wounded Knee II.  

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The First Amendment needs to be better taught

It seems simple:  Congress shall make no law " abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."  Through the incorporation doctrine triggered by the Fourteenth Amendment, the obligation to observe the rights conferred to people by the Bill of Rights are extended to state and local governments.  The major misunderstanding of free speech is that people think it is protected no matter where they are or what they say.  And its application of the amendment to the press is terribly misunderstood.

Some people contend that slander and libel laws and laws against making false reports to the police violate the Constitution because they punish free speech.  Again the Fourteenth Amendment with its "equal protection under the law" clause comes into play.  That clause gives government the obligation to protect people from harm, and libel can do devastating and unfair harm.  The categories of speech which can be regulated  include "obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement, fighting words, and speech integral to criminal conduct."  The reasoning is that those categories "are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth.”  In other words, those kinds of speech have no value which contributes to freedom.  Rather, they can jeopardize a person's freedom.

Lies are covered by the term fraud in the delineation of what is not protected by the First Amendment.  In court, telling a lie is punished as perjury.  So, while purposeful speech is protected as free, there are measures to protect the integrity of speech.  People are free to speak as critically as they wish, but are restrained from vandalizing other people or the language itself.  Such restraints are necessary to prevent society from falling into to total dysfunction.

The rule of free speech protects the right of people to speak out but also the right not to be compelled to speak.  You cannot be made to say something you don't wish to. Again the Fourteenth Amendment affects this.  If you are witness to an action that harms another person, you can be subpoenaed to come to court and testify.  If you refuse, you can be jailed for contempt of court. It's a matter of giving everyone equal protection under the law.

Freedom of the press has an aspect that confounds many people.  Any medium has the right to be selective in what it chooses to print or broadcast.  That right also has limitations accorded by libel laws and the prohibition of fraud.  Although the freedom of the press gives the right of some media, such as Fox News, to dabble in proscribed practices, it also gives media the freedom to strive for excellence.  Some media does that.  Such media is selective.  It fact checks what it publishes.  It is selective about the caliber of material it uses. It insists upon literate, reasoned, fact-based writing.  And that causes many to complain.

When the Internet made it possible for readers and viewers to comment on articles, the responses flooded in.  At first, the media was not prepared to monitor the responses.  Whatever was submitted was printed and the media was inundated.  But  a Pew research study showed the media that the responses had a very negative effect.  Readers tend to perceive a medium according to the lowest and worst items it publishes.  At a time when a loss of subscribers and advertisers was forcing a retrenchment in the media, many simply ending, it was losing its most discerning audience.  Newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post started monitoring the comments although they were financially limited in how thoroughly they could do it.  They applied computer algorithms so they could weed out the most flagrant violators of thought and grammar, but they do not have the resources to edit comments to standards of informed literacy.  To maintain standards, however, the most deficient comments have to be eliminated and bad grammar and spelling makes the entire publication look bad.  With letters to the editor, staff will work with intelligent contributors to bring the level of thought, expression, punctuation, and grammar up to the level required in the medium's style book.  But no media has the money for the extra staff to accomplish that, so comments hang out there by themselves like a piece of toilet paper stuck on a shoe.  The media hopes that illiterate and incoherent comments that slip by will not dissuade readers and viewers who expect intelligence and literacy.

Maintaining high levels of reporting and writing is as much a right of a free press as expressing criticism or publishing material that some might find offensive.   It is a right that extends to bloggers.  They have the right to set and maintain standards for comments on their blogs.  Those whose comments are rejected for malice, stupidity, and illiteracy will whine about elitism, but being reasonably educated, capable of rational thought and literate expression is a goal of our democracy, not a matter of being elite.  The First Amendment protects the right to exercise intelligence as well as the right to join the idiot chorus with sound and fury,  And it gives the media and bloggers the right to reject the sound and fury.  Some fine blogs would improve if they rejected the comments by trolls.

That raises the question of some people being rejected as speakers on college campuses.  When some speakers have been rejected, they whine that their freedom of speech has been infringed.  But some Constitutional scholars have pointed out that the freedom to say what you want has a concomitant right of freedom to listen to what you want.  And that right is particularly strong when you determine that what you refuse to listen to has "no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and [is] of such slight social value as a step to truth.”  Thus, college students have the right to reject certain speakers as part of their exercise of freedom of speech.

The First Amendment gets complicated by equal protection under the law.  It needs to be better explained so that people fully understand their rights and the rights of others.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

You might not realize you are starving to death

When I was in the army, many of the cadre who trained us were World War II and Korean War veterans.  Part of the training was to instill in us the U.S. Military Code of Conduct, which had been instituted a fews years earlier under the Eisenhower administration.  It has a section devoted to how to behave if you are taken a prisoner of war.  It instructs:  Article III - If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and to aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.

The sergeant who covered that article for us had been taken prisoner by the Germans.  He and some fellow soldiers escaped from the prison camp and made their way across the Alps to neutral territory.  Their escape took some elaborate preparation.  The GI prisoners were underfed and under-clothed and in a weak and vulnerable condition so that escape was not much of a consideration.  The Germans were confident that the GIs were not in any shape to execute a successful escape.  That confidence was used against them.

The GI prisoners were assigned to do the menial tasks for the prison, such as peeling potatoes.  They were supposed to take the peelings and other waste to feed a herd of pigs that was maintained to feed the German personnel.  But all of the potato peelings did not make it to the hogs.  The GIs developed a system for diverting the peelings to two  other places.  One was to a fermentation vat where some GIs were engaged in making a crude vodka.  However, that enterprise was a diversion in case the Germans discovered some missing potato peelings and had a lockdown search of the prison camp.  The other place was a nightly enterprise of turning food waste and any other ingredients which the POWs could smuggle away into a stew rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.  Potato peelings were the main ingredient because they were the most abundant source of nutrients.

The taste of the stuff was not a consideration.  The health of the POWs was the objective.  Their diets appeared to the German guards to keep them weak and unlikely to revolt or take on strenuous tasks, so the GIs played the role of listless and demoralized prisoners, while almost every night making a concoction that kept their bodies nourished for action.  If the Germans pulled a surprise inspection, all evidence of the stew could be disposed of quickly, leaving the vodka-making apparatus as the only evidence of a surreptitious enterprise.  The Germans would confiscate the vodka for themselves, but regarded its making as an enterprise that would further weaken the POWs and divert their energies from revolt or escape.  The Germans were kept unaware that the GIs were fortifying themselves with a nutrient-laden broth and a physical conditioning routine almost every night.

I do not remember any details of the escape. I do recall that the escapees traversed some mountains in the winter, but the point of the presentation was to stay in shape as much as possible so that one could create and take advantage of opportunities to escape.  I cannot forget the part about the nutritious value of potato peelings.  When I cook potatoes, I try to leave the peelings on.  But that probably has more to do with laziness than nutrition.  Nevertheless, potato peelings are a constant reminder to me of survival in perilous times.

We have reached a point in human history where many of our brains are not receiving the essential nutrients to function.  They are getting too weak to generate logical thought.  Like people whose diet is largely junk food so that they can't digest  proteins, many peoples' brains cannot digest facts.

The fact is that the means to deliver information on a mass scale is so constricted that it does not handle essential facts well.  The human brain is getting unaccustomed to direct exposure to hard facts.

For a number of years now, the news media has pared down its editorial staffs and its coverage of events.  The Internet has had a huge effect on the distribution of information and goods.  Aberdeen, for example,  has lost department stores--Sears, Kmart, J.C. Penney, Herberger's--and other retail outlets--Osco, Ben Franklin's, Walgreens--and Shopko announced it will close in May.  The mall is half empty.  The news media has experienced a concomitant decline because of the loss of advertising revenues from retailers.  The local newspaper recently announced a serious reduction in staff.

In addition, the media has changed the way it delivers information.  Cable news finds it cheaper to fill its broadcast time with panelists who sit around and give their opinions about politicians and events rather than send experienced and competent reporters out to determine what the facts are.  And as people turn to the Internet to get news, they tend to select sites which conform to their prejudices.  Even when facts get presented with some clarity and verification, they get so mauled over by commenters on the Internet that the facts get lost in the contentious noise.  The facts get displaced by exchanges of ignorance and animus.  The internet exchanges feed stupidity.

People who realize the deficiencies of the information they are receiving become like those GI prisoners of war scrounging for nutrients to survive.  A constant message going out from the White House is that the legacy media is the enemy of the people and produces fake news.  Those who have some understanding of how real journalism works, however, rely on the legacy media to get at the true facts.  Real journalism has the job of finding and verifying actual facts, not merely passing on jabber that may or may not have any relevance to real life.  If you watch cable news or browse the Internet, there is a good chance that you won't encounter a single fact.  And when you do come across one, a swarm around you will be screaming that it's fake. 

The human brain can't function properly on a diet of opinion.  It needs the facts of the reality in which it operates to successfully deal with that reality.  And it needs the facts to analyze the coherence of the opinions it encounters.  It also needs some skill in assessing which opinions are valid and which are ignorant reaction.  Providing brains with facts and the ability to reason with the facts is the underlying objective of all education.

Many of the attacks on public education are coming from the right wing that seeks to keep students ignorant and gullible.  Right wingdings have sought positions on school boards and state legislatures so that they can tamper with education and make it a brain-washing process to create ignorant and unthinking constituents.  The Washington Post has the slogan .  The objective of many in the Republican Party is to darken public school classrooms so that democracy may die.

There is no better example of the GOP undermining education than the 2019 South Dakota Legislature.  Fortunately, it has kept the wingdingbats in check.  Somewhat. Nevertheless, the dingbats have introduced legislation that tries to overrule practices and policies put in place by the professional educators.  South Dakota Republicans have an obsession with transgender kids.  This is despite the fact that only "about 0.7 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds living in the United States identify as transgender."  Most schools make provisions for these kids to use restrooms and locker rooms according to the physical plants they have to work.  Their main concern is to provide clean and safe places for kids to go to the restroom and practice hygiene, not whether some kid might catch a glimpse of another kid's genitalia.  

The Governor is promoting a bill to require the passing of a citizenship test to graduate from high school, despite the fact that the state content standards for social studies are constructed around the development of civics and citizenship.   The Legislature is diddling around with a bill that requires each school to display the motto "In God We Trust" prominently somewhere on on the premises.  It looks very likely to be put into law.  

Perhaps the most anti-education proposal was voted down, but it proposed that the mandatory attendance age for students be lowered from 18 to 16.  The legislator who sponsored the bill is a retired high school English teacher.  Proponents of the bill said current law puts too much of a burden on schools to manage kids who don’t want to attend class. The sponsor, says the state is doing an injustice to its schools, parents, taxpayers and students.  These legislators would rather see uneducated 16-year-olds roaming around aimlessly with  no futures rather than be kept in school to improve their opportunities.  This failed bill raises serious questions about what kind of effect this former teacher had on students.  It is an example of the attacks on education within the GOP.  The goal of these attacks is to create an ignorant and inert constituency that does not question the demeaned status with which it is regarded by the right wing.

If there is one thing the South Dakota GOP hates it is that the educators might be quietly and competently doing their jobs.  The efforts to tamper with and pervert education are  a constant obsession in the GOP mentality with the goal to turn schools into indoctrination centers.  The success of those efforts is illustrated in the kind of people who are elected to office in South Dakota.   The Speaker of the House, in response to a bill for Spanish language drivers'  license tests actually said, "The idea that we’re going to dilute our population with a second culture and encourage that second culture it doesn’t advance our state at all."  He is the same man who banned a lobbyist from the House floor because she noted that a signifiant portion of the state legislators were "wackies."

While one can point to the anti-democratic absurdity of the man, one must address the people who elected him to office.  The ignorance and crude malice of the electorate is the issue, and the subversion of education and the media has contributed to the prevalence of that ignorance and the environment of malevolence that pervades much of the state..  The wackies in the state legislature are creating a stupid constituency designed to keep them and their kind in charge.  

Our young people of intelligence and talent seem to have subscribed to a civilian code of conduct requiring them to escape the state at first opportunity.  South Dakota officials have long been perturbed that it loses its brightest students at high school graduation because they tend to choose colleges out of state.  But they then lose those good students from the state's colleges when they look to advance their careers in other states.  The reasons for this are many, but a driving factor is the attitude expressed by the Speaker of the House about protecting the purity of the state culture.  To the educated, that purity means stupid and mean, and they want to move away from it.

We citizens are prisoners of a culture war.  Those who preside over us issue a mental diet designed to keep us weak, flaccid, and indolent.  Like those POWs who scrounged potato peelings while watching for their opportunity to escape, we have to be on the look out in our education system and our media for the hard facts that can lead us out of the morass of lies and deceit in which we are forced to operate.  We need to face the facts of global warming, lying presidents, a moronic state legislature, and especially our collaborating friends and neighbors who help those who wish to keep us ignorant and inert.  

Remember the potato peelings.  They may keep the democracy alive so that it might work again.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States