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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

Friday, May 31, 2019

Trump is America's Lysenko

Our future?

Trump's fascination with Russia may have its roots in Soviet agriculture policies. The Soviet Union had a problem with recurring famines.  Its Marxist revolution had an alliance with behaviorist psychological theory developed by Ivan Pavlov, the guy who rang a bell when he fed dogs and then made them salivate by ringing the bell.  Although the behaviorists and the Marxist had some differences, the Soviet political operatives were fond of the idea that humans could be conditioned to behave on command like Pavlov's dog.  The idea fit into the Marxist belief that life is a process of being conditioned by our environment.  Therefore, in the Marxist view, whoever controls the environment controls the people.  If some people were slow learners, they were put into the environment of a prison camp for re-education.

For many decades Soviet agriculture policy was invested in a man who rejected genetics and scientific farming and imposed his own "science" on the raising of food.  His name was Trofim Lysenko.  He, for example, believed that exposing wheat to severe conditions of cold and moisture would cause it to adapt to those conditions and eventually thrive.  And then, as Marxist doctrine contended, it would pass those adaptations on to succeeding generations of wheat, which would produce bumper crops.  Meanwhile in America, colleges of agriculture were applying genetic knowledge to the breeding of plants and were producing strains of wheat that could thrive and make surpluses that could be sold to the Soviets. 

Lysenko formulated a cult of pseudoscience that became known as Lysenkoism.  Lysenko attacked the validity of science itself, subordinating it to politics.  He instituted a campaign against those who engaged in the true scientific method, which included imprisoning them when science contradicted Soviet doctrine.

I was a farm editor at the time Lysenkoism was coming to an end.  At the time many delegations of Soviet scientists were coming to the United States to visit colleges of agriculture, American farms. and farm equipment manufacturers.  The Eisenhower administration under Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson also arranged visits to the Soviet Union by farmers, professors of agriculture, and farm journalists to make a comparative study of agriculture in the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  American visitors came away from those trips understanding why collective farms in the communist system struggled to produce while U.S. farmers were coping with overproduction.  They warned about the dangers of consolidating farms into huge industrial units that operated as factories rather than as agricultural enterprises.  They said there was no appreciable difference between a system of agriculture run by the Kremlin and one run by a corporate headquarters.  Both impose the culture of a bureaucracy onto agriculture and reduce farmers to the status of serfs.

A key concept in the development of American agriculture was self-sufficiency.  Each farm supplied the food and the shelter for the family that operated it.  The early family farms contained a full inventory of the livestock, crops, and gardens that supplied their food throughout the year.  Farm life was self-sufficient but arduous, sometimes exhaustingly so. As rural America was electrified, farmers were conflicted.  Electricity could vastly improve life for them.  They realized the convenience and safety of simply turning on a switch during the dark winter mornings to do their milking rather than fueling, lighting, and moving kerosene lamps around to light the work.  But the power line coming into the farm represented a tie to a corporate bureaucracy, the acquisition of a dependence, and the loss of some self-reliance which was the basis of their independence.  There are stories told of farmers who electrified only the barn and skipped the house in order to limit the dependence, as well as keep the electric bill in check. 

When American farmers visited the collective farms in the Soviet Union, they were struck by the fact that the farmers working the land were literally serfs whose every action was monitored and supervised and whose work produced no benefits of equity for them.  The collective farms were not self-sufficient, but were  knots of dependencies that imposed limited possibilities on their residents and denied them the freedoms of choice and the aspirations to satisfying lives.  The American farmers witnessed people living lives of desperation in which self-fulfillment was not even a consideration.  The Americans recognized that while their lives required endless toil, their work with the land produced opportunities for a way of life free from want and undue interference in making their own choices.  They saw a parallel with the collective farms and the American farms that were relinquishing an agriculture for an agribusiness.

It is incongruous that rural America has embraced Donald Trump, who is the antithesis of the values that once occupied the American farmland.  As a real estate developer, Trump has been a spoiler of the land.  His plague of lies and defamations has infected the land and has emaciated the soul of rural America, as its members have chosen serfdom under him.  His policies, like Lysenko's, deny the science on which American agriculture thrived, and have replaced it with ethnic and political hatred and systematic dishonesty.  Rural America believes Trump fights for it, but there is no evidence that Trump has ever fought for anything but his greed and lust for power.  His business record is one of fraud and ruin for those he has cheated.  In a word, Trump is a criminal, and he does little but prey on the gullible. But rural America believes he fights for them.  

Rural Americans turned to Trump because they felt the country was neglecting them.  Part of that neglect was because of the federal farm programs that were once designed to support and sustain family farms were now pouring most of the money into corporate, industrial agribusiness.  Urban and suburban people, who are living paycheck to paycheck and facing infrastructure and environmental problems saw programs for rural America of a kind that is not available to them.  Rural Americans thought they were neglected.   Their alliance with Trump is making them despised.  The political and social divide becomes irreconcilable.

The failure of collective farms run on Lysenko's policies was a big factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Trump has introduced the same kind of policies into American agriculture, and as farms become industrial agribusinesses, they are under the rule of a bureaucracy that will dutifully adhere to Trump, just as the collective farm managers adhered to Lysenko.

The transformation of agriculture to agribusiness proceeds apace, as farms consolidate.  South Dakota, for example, lost 2,000 farms between 2012 and 2017. The question is if the transformation portends for America what it did for the Soviet Union.  As Trump likes to say, we'll see.

Many of us have already seen it.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Would you want to work with this guy?

He brags in lying ways about himself.  He insults those who rebuke or otherwise displease him.  His verbal discourse is below the level of elementary school kids.  He lies so much that no word coming from him can be believed or trusted. He openly commits acts of corruption in the name of deal making.  He is Donald Trump.

In a word, he is mendacious.  Here is the dictionary definition:
                        mendacious menˈdāSHəs |                                 adjective                                  not telling the truth; lyingmendacious          propaganda.
I cite the term because in every job I have held, it is listed as a reason people can be fired.  And in many professions, if it is the reason someone is fired, that person will never find another job in that profession.  That is not to say liars are not present among us.  However, they are branded, avoided, and condemned.  I worked under a college president who was a habitual liar.  He used lies to manipulate people.  He lied to make himself look good.  He lied to make other people look bad.  But he sort of admitted he was a liar, because he operated under the motto "you are what you appear to be,"  In promoting the college, he made claims about it that weren't true.  During a faculty meeting, he was called out for making exaggerated claims about the status of the college.  He gave his usual explanation, "you are what you appear to be."  A senior history professor replied, "And we appear to be liars."
The man held on to his job.  The large majority of the faculty disapproved of him, but the regents didn't.  After he was gone, it took much work on the part of the faculty and his successors to repair the damage he did to the college--the working relationships of the college and its overall credibility.  The college president was not quite as bad as Trump because many of the people who worked under him counteracted him.  They made clear that they may have had to work for him, but not with him.  They refused to be enablers. They saved the college from potential disaster.Trump has no people around him who have the intellectual wherewithal or courage to counter him. Sometimes they judiciously choose not to follow his orders.  Polls show that  more people disapprove of him than approve, but he has loyal grovelers, such as the Republican senators, who shield him and curry his favor, because they think it will help to get them re-elected.  Those who support Trump are those who cling to the notion that their destiny is in the hands of those who have wealth and power.  They invest their lives in the hope that the master's schemes will take care of them.  But, as The New York Times reports, Trump lost more money than any other person listed by the IRS.  His idolizers put their trust in a fraud, but that's the delusion they prefer to live in.  What money he has made came from fraudulent schemes, stiffing contractors, and refusing to pay workers. The latest display was an attack on Nancy Pelosi after she and Sen. Schumer said he threw a temper tantrum.  After calling the Speaker some insulting names, he termed himself a "stable genius," and then ordered some of his White House employees to testify about how calm he had been.   The complaints looked sheepish and embarrassed, but made clear that they would endure the humiliation in appreciation for being a part of Trump's power elite.  That's what loyal lackeys do.If Trump were working for an ethical, proficient organization, those who worked with him and for him would react against the demeaning and hostile workplace he creates.  And the competent would protest his incompetence.No one of my acquaintance would tolerate him as a boss or a co-worker.  That so many people do approve of him and submit to his behavior is an indicator of a culture slipping into nefariousness.  We have witnessed it happening to Germany in the 1930s.  We have literature explaining how it can happen here.  It is happening here.I would not work for or with a person like Trump.  I do not wish such a fate on my grandchildren.  Even if Trump is voted out of office, that leaves my grandchildren to deal with his supporters and enablers.  They are participants in a philosophy of criminality, in a culture of mendacity.  The future for my grandchildren is emigration.  Or revolt.


Thursday, May 16, 2019

Beyond impeachment, an indictment

The stickler of the problem with Trump is that the framers of the Constitution and its implementation never thought that a total  crook would ever be elected president.  Nixon was a crook, but the system worked so that as a case was being built against him, he saw the ultimate end and resigned.  When tapes recorded in his office were subpoenaed, he relinquished them when the court ordered him to do so, and they contained evidence against him.  He acknowledged the primacy of the democratic processes and that his presidency had to end.   Trump, however, holds democracy and its systems in disdain.  He is not capable of apprehending any value other than serving his greed and misusing power to subvert the democratic system.

The Department of Justice holds the beneficent attitude--and policy-- that a sitting president should not be impeded in doing the work of the country by being indicted.  That is a policy that ignores the possibility that the criminal acts of a sitting president could put the country in its greatest peril.  

The Mueller report detailed some acts by Trump that were clearly criminal.  Mueller did not issue an indictment because of that DOJ policy.  Many Democrats, and a few Republicans, think the Mueller report is a call for impeachment.  The report, even in its redacted form, lays out the articles of impeachment.  Speaker Pelosi has cautioned against stampeding into impeachment.  She has said that the impeachment process, however, could be used to gather more information.

If Trump were successfully impeached, he would merely be removed from office.  It is not likely that his GOP lackeys in the Senate would vote to impeach.  But if Trump were indicted, he would be brought to trial.  He would have to face and respond to the charges against him.  And if he were indicted, the case against him would be irrefutable.

Trump's crimes are a cancer on the presidency.  He is a malicious perpetrator.  If an indictment were constructed against him, it could be served and he could be tried whenever he left the presidency.  The rule against indicting a sitting president is not a matter of law.  It is a matter of executive policy that could be changed by law.  And should be.

But if an indisputable indictment were constructed for him, he would have to answer at some point and held responsible for  his criminal acts.

Justice cannot be subverted by corruption.  Let the indictment be made.

Monday, May 6, 2019

What is a real journalist?

The public's perception of how a news reporter works has been warped by television journalism.  Television news stories use video clips of people making statements as the bulk of their news presentations.  A TV reporter, as well as a radio reporter, has the primary objective of getting a statement about some matter on tape for broadcast.  Then, in the name of "balance," they will look for someone with an opposing or alternative viewpoint to make a statement.  In the electronic news business, it is considered great television if they can get a public argument going.  People like to witness conflict.

However, escalating conflict is a television producer's task, not a real journalist's.  The primary job of a reporter is to define and verify facts, not merely repeat what people may speculate or opine about the facts.  The actual news reporter will take care in presenting the facts, distinguishing them from the opinions or speculations they may inspire.  However, in the world of electronic news which thrives on agitating and titillating a public that craves conflict, few facts survive intact the mauling they go through or the jabber they accrue.  The facts often get overshadowed by the chatter.

As news media made increasing use of the internet, news organizations were enamored of the idea of increasing readership by allowing readers to interact with the media with their comments.  Comments affect the readers' responses in many ways, and many studies have examined how that works.  But some very basic facts that newspaper editors  know and work with every day came into play.  A rule of thumb is that the reputation of a newspaper is determined by its lowest common denominator.  What people retain in their memories are the typographical errors, the grammar and spelling errors, and the poorly written stories.  In an edition that might be composed of skillfully written stories, people will regard it on the basis of one story that contains an error or unclear writing.  And people will let a stupid, false, and malicious comment displace the facts in a news story.

The unforgettable sin for a real news medium is to get a fact wrong.  The unpardonable sin is to deliberately misstate a fact.  And when someone is quoted or recorded mistating a fact, the medium has a responsibility to state the fact correctly so that readers, listeners, and viewers know what the verifiable fact is.  That is an essential responsibility of a real news reporter.  The application of that principle is what distinguishes phony news media, such as Fox News, from authentic news media, such as The Wall Street Journal.   A fact is like a granite boulder.  Wind storms may obscure it at times with rain or dust or debris of human-making, but the fact remains to be discerned when the trash storm is over.  The real journalist is like an archaeologist who carefully digs for the facts and brushes away the debris that obscures and distorts them.  And that gets to the real journalist's use of journalism's absolutely essential tool.  That tool is precise but vivid language, language that accurately and sharply portrays the facts. The language used in comments on news stories is seldom precise or vivid.  That's because it does not refer to facts, but is spillage from the minds of the writers. 

Journalism has in the past been regarded as a literary endeavor.  It was rooted in the skillful use of language. The study of language delved into how language is used in trustworthy ways and how language can be used to deceive and manipulate.  The study of advertising revealed how powerfully language could be used to manipulate what people think and what choices they make.  This resulted in some universities moving their mass communications and journalism programs away from the colleges of arts and sciences into the business colleges.  They regarded mass communications more in terms of language as a  profit making device than as the human tool for examining facts and thought.  During my time as a member of the working press and later teaching writing and journalism, there was considerable discussion about whether students were better prepared for journalism by a rigorous liberal arts degree or a journalism school degree.  Editors pointed out that whatever programs the most accomplished journalists graduated from, they were all well read with a strong command of the liberal arts, but the distinguishing factor was their scholarship.  The process of gathering and analyzing information, interviewing people and searching the written record, provides the journalist with the skills needed for the job.  They know how and where to find the facts.

When a news story presentation allows for comments, the chain of responses produces a verbal smoke screen in which the facts are obscured, sometimes totally lost.  Most of the comments do not refer to the facts.  As linguistic scholars explain it, the language of comments gives us  maps of the minds of the commenters.  It deals with the prejudices, obsessions, and deviations of the commenters, seldom with the facts at issue.  For many, those products of cognitive failure are the impression that is retained in their minds.  More often than not, comment threads produce expressions of malice, which reduce the exchange into a malicious exercise.  Students of how mass communication works explain that these exchanges are in large part a cause of the hateful political divide in our nation.

Savvy editors recognize that the good work of industrious, competent reporters is defaced by horribly written and specious commentary.  Major news media edit the comments for intelligible writing and relevance to the topic.  Even so, the quality of news stories is compromised by their association with inferior comments.  Consequently, News editors are often withholding the option to comment on stories they deem of great importance, and invite would-be commenters to write letters-to-the-editor that cite facts and show their reasoning. Those editors  place the integrity of the information and the language above the marketing of their media.  They apply the standards of journalistic integrity to letters submitted to them, and reserve the right to fact-check and edit them to conform to journalistic standards of literacy.

News media and blogs which relax the standards of thought and language for comments help undercut the function they perform in informing the public.  While there is some discussion about whether bloggers or employees of the legacy media are the real journalists, what defines a true journalist is someone who presents the actual, full facts without the compromise of spin and distortion.  Regrettably, there aren't  many readers, listeners, or viewers of the news who discern the facts from the fabrications. So, a true journalist takes care that their own work is not compromised by ignorant or malicious comments.  The ignorant whine that such care is censorship, but the right to free speech also endows the right to maintain honesty and quality.  In a culture in which 60 million people voted for Donald Trump, integrity and quality are not honored.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States