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

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Who isn't part Native American?

Elizabeth Warren has taken a lot of heat for saying she has Native American blood.  She never, however, claimed it as her ethnic identity to obtain benefits available to minorities as part of the civil rights effort to make up for past discrimination against them.  Trump calls her Pocahontas as a pejorative.  In response to all the accusations about what her claim meant, she submitted her DNA for analysis.  The result was an estimate that her Native American content could range from 1/64 to 1/1024.  Finally, she just apologized for bringing the matter up.

It is a bad time to deal with matters of ethnic heritage and culture.  There is much outrage about cultural appropriation, in which people from one ethnic group use cultural elements from another.  There are certainly cases where people exploit borrowed and exchanged cultural practices for personal gain in a disrespectful, demeaning way.   But the U.S. is a country built on diversity and massive cultural exchange, and culture is not a matter of exclusive franchises.  To accuse a person of some offense when espousing a cultural practice from a different culture is in itself a bigoted offense.  And the way the idea of cultural appropriation is bandied about makes it almost impossible to talk about cultural matters for a productive purpose.  A preferred term is cultural misappropriation, which limits the accusation to acts of intentional dishonesty and fraud.  Elizabeth Warren's claim was never made for such purposes.

She shares a claim to American Indian ancestry with many people who are not enrolled tribal members.  Such claims became frequent as the civil rights movement gained momentum.  People who had suppressed information about American Indian blood in their families because of racial discrimination began to talk openly about it.  Many were proud of that heritage, but were guarded about it to keep it from being exposed to malicious or belittling attitudes.

I have no American Indian blood, but grew up in a community that had once been a trading center for many tribes and was home base for the Sauk and Mesquakie (Fox) people.  I was surrounded with Native American names and reminders of who lived there before the white invasion.  The most prominent name was the warrior Black Hawk's, largely because he had a war named after him and dictated a book about his life.  My interests led to doing doctoral research and to studying and teaching Native American literature.  

I was asked to be an advisor to a Native American group, the Intertribal League of American Indians, that had formed in the community.  Its original purpose was as a resource for Native Americans who worked in the area to make contacts with other tribal members and support their cultural interests.  Many people whose families claimed Native American ancestry made contact with League members to investigate their heritage.  While genealogy groups could help them trace their families, they came to the League to learn about the historical cultures in their backgrounds.  And the League learned much about Native Americans.

After the Black War of 1832, the Sauk and Mesquakie people were largely driven to reservations, but there was much intermarriage between American Indians and white settlers.  In some cases Native people melded into the population rather than go to a reservation.  The people who joined white families through marriage were absorbed by white culture and some lost contact with their Native relatives. although others never relinquished their family connections.  Most, however, were not listed on tribal rolls, but tended to maintain an interest in their heritage.  Tracing Native American ancestry and heritage is extremely difficult because of the devastation caused by their removals and subjugation. 

People had stories about Native ancestry and sometimes family histories, letters, and artifacts that were passed down. As with Elizabeth Warren, their family histories were vague, however.  What surprised members of the Intertribal League was how many families had suppressed stories about their Native pasts and were encouraged during the civil  rights movement to pursue information about them.

One young woman's family had kept alive tribal traditions in a deliberate effort to keep children aware of their heritage.  The woman's family observed Thanksgiving as a harvest festival in preparation for the coming of winter.  It emphasized survival and generosity as the main focus of that holiday. She recalled a prayer said by family elders and a few words from the tribal language.  What she remembered was that the prayer, usually said by an elderly uncle, repeatedly contained the phrase "weeping, weeping is the earth," and it left her and the other children with a very sad feeling.  She found that the phrase came from a ceremonial song of the tribe she was told was in her ancestry.  In her case, she was able to reconcile family stories with other accounts and put together an informed if brief account of her ancestry.

Other people who have accounts of Indians in their family past are not so fortunate.  They live with family legends that they can't substantiate.  If their DNA reveals Indian blood within a range of ratios, as Elizabeth Warren's did, that may be as much as they will ever know.  When it seemed no longer that American Indian heritage needed to be protected from racist malice, people showed a pride and became active in exploring that heritage.

Ultimately, whether or not we have Native America in our blood, it is hard to escape the fact that we adopted much of their culture.  We certainly did misappropriate their land and learned from them how to manage on that land.  The corn and beans rotation of crops and their fertilization we learned from them.  Much of the food we eat originated with the Indians.  The affordable balloon construction of our houses--frameworks covered by a thin outer shell--was adapted from the construction of teepees, wigwams, and long houses.  When the U.S. founders devised the framework for our nation, they borrowed heavily from the Iroquois Confederacy.  In many ways, we have absorbed American Indian culture as part of the way we live.

The current discussion about diversity ignores the fact that human history is one of people of widely divergent backgrounds exchanging cultures.  Exchange and appropriation are the elements of the freedom, equality, and justice that define our nation's goal.  Resisting and maligning human diversity are obstacles to attaining democracy.  Current partisanship is not a matter of differing opinions about how to achieve democratic goals; it has devolved into camps of people who want democratic benefits for all and those who don't.  And that latter group is strident about the fact that it works for the exclusion of people who are different from them.  Comtemporary "conservatism" wishes to conserve the system of exclusion.

Elizabeth Warren may have only a small amount of American Indian in her blood, but it is something of which she is proud because her recognition of it is the expression of a much greater understanding of what America means.  She did not appropriate that identity as a political scheme, but as an embrace of the process that creates liberty, equality, and justice for all.  Our history of settlement by immigrants is one in which seeking those benefits for themselves the immigrants deprived the American Indians of  them. Those people who understand and revere the culture of the First Americans and want that culture to be respected and valued go beyond appropriating the culture to nurturing those aspects of it which benefit humanity.  That nurturing makes them part Native American, as a matter of pride.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

A moron walked into the Oval Office...

              This motto is required to be displayed in every public school by order of the President

I am not sure what is considered correct to call people who aren't all there.  Especially when there seems to be no there there.  In my youth, the term "feeble-minded" was applied delicately to avoid any sense of opprobrium.  For a time "retarded" was applied as sort of a medical term, but when the noun "retard" entered the vocabulary, use of the term was discouraged in respectful society.  In most communities, such people were often roaming about and their fellow citizens treated them with a caring deference.  The problem with them was when they participated in areas of community life that were far beyond their comprehension.

For a time there were a couple of such souls who frequented the college campus where I worked.  Students and faculty were accustomed to seeing them around, and would sometimes exchange casual greetings with them.  Well, not  both of them.

The one called Gus rode his bicycle and collected aluminum cans out of the trash and wherever he spotted them.  Gus was in constant conversation with some unseen and unheard person or thing, and nobody wanted to interrupt his conversations.  He occasionally checked the trash cans in the library where the workers asked him not to talk and disturb the patrons, but he ignored the request and continued his conversation, which was kind of mumbling anyway.  I could not make out much of what he said, but once I think he said, "The goddamn tater tots is rotten."

The other man, who I will call Ike, was distinguished looking and did not outwardly seem to have problems.  I did not realize what was different about Ike until the incident with the flower garden.

There was a courtyard between a pair of twin buildings in one of which my office was located.  In the center of the courtyard was a flower garden in which some very tall, stalk-like plants with flaming red flower heads were planted each year.  They reached their peak bloom early in the fall semester.  It was also a custom for students from nearby dorms during homecoming weekend to smash them down during some beer-fueled frenzy in the night.

One Monday morning I came to work and saw that the flower bed was trampled down.  Ike was loitering about the courtyard that morning.  

"Looks like there was quite a celebration here," I said to Ike.

He said, "It was the aliens, you know."

 I said, "Aliens?"

He said, "This is their landing spot, you know.  I see them land here when they come.  They park here when they read our books."

I hastened to my office to check on my books.

The two men were only occasionally a bit of concern.  When there were meetings open to the public, Ike would show up.  When the university had guest lecturers of some note, their lectures were open to the public, and the audience was invited to ask questions.  At one such lecture, a futurist who was an expert on designing environmentally healthy urban infrastructures finished his talk, and Ike was one of the first to raise a question.  Ike asked, "How do you keep people from peeing in the water?"  The lecturer was stunned and asked for clarification but the professor who was moderating the program took the lecturer aside and apparently explained about Ike.  Meanwhile, the audience sat in confusion while lecture sponsors buzzed about trying to figure out how to handle the situation.  A town official approached Ike, put a hand on his shoulder, said something to Ike, and then Ike followed him out of the lecture.  The people in charge tried to continue the question session, but those in attendance felt a sense of disorder and the discussion petered out.

As it turned out, Ike also attended city commission meetings where he anxiously awaited for the citizen comment and question sessions that were held at the close of every meeting.  It had become the custom not to call on Ike until everyone else had their turn, and as Ike talked, the commissioners would file out leaving the mayor to deal with Ike.  One of the commissioners learned from people who were acquainted with Ike that he could not resist an invitation to have a cup of coffee.  He thought that being invited for coffee was an acknowledgement  of his importance, and he would happily break off whatever he was doing to go for a cup of coffee.  The town official who intervened at the lecture had invited Ike to go for coffee, and Ike could not resist.

That was not the end of the matter, as students made a meme out of Ike's question and were heard quipping things like, "Aw, go pee in the water,"  and "Let's go pee in the water."  It became an issue with faculty who gave public lectures and brought guest lecturers on campus.  Faculty and administrators discussed the incident at meetings.  A senior faculty member asked the faculty to consider how it would feel to give a serious lecture on one's life work and the most memorable thing recalled about the lecture was some question about peeing in the water.  The guest lecturer had told his hosts that, while a bit amusing, the question had a disconcerting effect on him and the audience. Many people had stories about previous encounters with Ike on campus.  The senior professor reproved his colleagues by pointing out how Ike's question had occupied and distracted the campus  so that instead of talking about important ideas about planning healthy and reliable infrastructures for our communities, we're babbling about the ravings of an idiot.  That, said the professor, pretty much brings the campus down to his level.  He made the point that we should treat such individuals with respect, kindness, and consideration, but they should never be part of purposeful conversations on important matters.  We have free speech; our job is to provide coherent and responsible speech, he said.

Some objected to the harsh language of the senior professor, but the strong consensus was that he made a valid point.  The essential discussion that the lecture was intended to provoke had lurched off into the world of  incoherence.  The basic purpose of a university is to practice and teach the critical skills of coherent speech.

But it is in the world of incoherence that the United States find themselves.  When Donald Trump walked into the office, coherent and responsible speech left.  When Trump states something as fact, it is likely to be a lie.  As of this month, Trump has racked up more than 12,000 false statements since he became president.  

The most crucial point about Trump is the way his constituents react to him.  Part of the problem is press reports.  It is the job of the press to report on what government officials do and say, and what Trump says and does needs to be reported.  But the result is like musing over the latest antics of the village idiot:  what nonsense has he been up to now?  And so, the nation has been reduced to moronic babble.  

Recently after Trump made some brazenly racist tweets about four congresswomen of color,  the House voted in rebuke.  But the Republican members angrily defended him.  And so, a country that has worked its way out of slavery and segregation toward a working equality and sense of justice has regressed back into being a nation divided by racial hatred.  The divide is deeper than racism.  It is a divide between those who believe in freedom, equality, and justice for all, and those who want those things only for themselves. In the Age of Trump, when the country's leader can openly cast aspersions against those of differing colors and beliefs,  the goals of democracy are no longer a consideration.  The right to cultivate hatred is paramount.  And so, we babble and shake our heads, and act as a nation reduced to moronic passions.  

A few months ago, the Mueller report was released, which detailed efforts to subvert our democracy from foreign detractors who were given a receptive welcome from within.  In the raging sound and fury about the antics emanating from the Oval Office, the report has largely been forgotten.  Although about 62 percent of the people say they disapprove of Trump's performance, the national discussion is about the antics of a moron, not about those factors in the nation that made rule by Trump possible.  

The nation is divided by those who believe in the virtues of democracy and those who pursue the power to exercise their bigotry.  It is a hard fact to face that about half of the country prefers fascism to those human potentials outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.  Instead, we babble about the latest antics from the morons in the Oval Office.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Who'll turn the lights out in Aberdeen?

I heard a woman make some angry comments about shopping in Aberdeen while waiting for my car to be serviced recently.  She apparently was raised on a farm in a nearby community, and recalled when coming to Aberdeen to shop meant visiting a number of stores in the downtown area, eating at a restaurant, and going to a movie.  She was in the state to attend the birthday party of an aged relative and wanted to buy a gift.  So, she went to the downtown area and found nothing but health spas, pawn shops, and consignment shops.  Then she looked for department stores.  Within the past year or so, Aberdeen lost most of its major retailers, including:

  • Kmart
  • Shopko
  • J. C. Penney
  • Herberger's 
  • Sears
  • Conlin's 

The woman asked if the shopping mall was being converted into a mausoleum.  Walmart and Target remain  on the other side of Highway 12.  Kohl's moved in where J.C Penney left in the mall.  A number of other retailers have moved in and out of the mall, but the choices for people are slim.

The internet is cited as the main factor in the store closings.  Kmart, which is a part of Sears, J.C. Penney, Shopko, and Herberger's all were closed by parent companies whose sales were lagging because of competition from internet sales.  So they say.  But some people who study the retail markets have a different perspective.

A college classmate of mine got into the market analysis business and formed his own firm.  Many years ago when some broadcast media in the Aberdeen area were up for sale, his firm was hired to assess the potential for the market.       The results of the study performed were not encouraging.  Aside from economic factors, the study found some cultural attitudes that affected the Aberdeen market.  Analysts found that the community was diffident about supporting and sustaining new enterprises, whether they be restaurants or  technologic ventures.  The interest was just not there. People had developed the habit of going to Sioux Falls, Fargo, or the Twin Cities for their serious shopping. And there was a strong vocal opposition against any kind of enterprise that carried "liberal" connotations.  

When I moved to Aberdeen, there had been a real estate boom.  I moved into a brand new house that had been on the market for quite a long time.  The boom was spurred because of what seemed to be a trend toward growth.  When I moved into town, a new residents organization acquainted me with other people who moved into town. Two of them came from Illinois, as I did.  The town seemed headed for development in high tech.  The two Illinois men were executives in a factory that had been purchased and enlarged by a company that specialized in power transmissions.  The computer company Control Data had a plant with 800 employees.  3M had opened a new plant.  

The town had a population of about 25,000 and economic developers were predicting that it would soon be over 30,000,  (It is currently about 29,000.)  But instead of growth, there was a downturn in population.  Control Data moved its production to the Pacific Rim.  The transmission company sold its plant back to local owners.  This left retail businesses in an uncertain state, where they have hovered until recently, when the internet intensified the competition and local retail closed so many stores.

But those other perspectives raise questions about whether the closing of stores is actually in response to declining business locally.  All of the stores listed above are owned by large corporations.   Some of those corporations have failed, and others decided to close selected stores throughout the nation.  At the corporate headquarters, Aberdeen is just one site on a list.  In some cases, their Aberdeen store may not have been generating a profit.  But as corporations are loathe to reveal corporate data, local people will not know whether an Aberdeen store was failing or whether some executive just decided the company did not want to bother with it.

Over the years, many large companies, for example Walgreens and Osco, have dropped Aberdeen as a site.  Market researchers can make informed assessments of how well stores are doing from sales tax data, but that is not like being able to examine an actual financial statement.  However, past experiences with the closing of retail outlets in Aberdeen have shown that large corporations periodically review their operations to see where they might cut costs in order to increase stock dividends and values.  A store may be holding its own, but the corporate heads want to give a quick boost to their bottom line and just do not want to be bothered with management details in podunk.  And sometimes corporate headquarters make decisions regardless of what is going on with the local market.

Aberdeen was very late in developing a shopping mall.  In fact, when it opened its mall, some malls in other parts of the country were shutting down.  And many of the businesses that opened in the Aberdeen mall were transients--they came and went.  Some of those businesses did not fit the local market.

One market researcher pointed out a puzzling decision that the management of J.C. Penney made when it moved to the mall.  Two of its major departments in its downtown store were men's workwear and children's clothes.  They took up prominent space in the store, were popular with shoppers, and did a brisk business.  When the store was moved to the mall, the new store was more in line with the "boutique" stores that are standard in malls.  Such stores are fashion trend oriented and they are designed to operate with seasonal inventories which turn over fast. Men's workwear and children's departments were considerably reduced in the mall store.  The merchandising strategy was set by the corporate offices, not by local managers who knew their market.   J.C. Penney's became a different store when it moved to the mall, and did not seem to cater to its old clientele.

An unusual aspect of retail in Aberdeen is that  two major grocery operations are locally owned and managed. Their main competitor is Walmart.  Another merchandise area in Aberdeen that has undergone a shift  is hardware.  When I first came to Aberdeen, it did not have a full-scale hardware store.  To get hardware to finish off the new house I moved into, we had to go to Fargo.  Then a local family started up Prairieland, a farm-and-fleet-type store that carried a full line of hardware.  It was later purchased by Runnings, a regional company that operates a chain in the northern tier of states.  Then Menards came to town.  These two businesses, which serve contractors as well as farmers and home-owners, have busy parking lots from  early in the morning into the evening.  They clearly meet a local need.  A contractor who has done work on my house says he when he needs some supplies, he checks the two stores through the internet to make sure they have them and then goes and gets them or sends someone to do it.  This is a procedure that can be done at Walmart and Target.  You can search for particular items on their websites which will indicate if the item is in stock at their Aberdeen stores.  The internet can be used  in this way to enhance local sales as well as be competition with local stores.  Food and hardware are two areas in which retailing is stable in Aberdeen.

It is widely accepted that internet sales are responsible for the massive closings of retailers.  When it comes to store closings, economic development workers are confronted with a problem of  not having complete information about why individual stores close.  Their parent companies  send out a notice that a store will close, and that's it.  Local managers are forbidden to say much other than that they will abide by the orders and stick to the closing schedules sent down from headquarters.  Consequently, it is difficult for economic analysts to know if a store was closed because it wasn't performing, or if the store was eliminated because a company wanted to downsize, or wanted to get rid of a store that requires extra effort to serve.  Knowing the actual circumstances of a closing is essential for city planners and prospective businesses.

The closing of Herberger's in Aberdeen left customers and business people a bit stunned. The parent company, Bon Ton Stores, at the time one of the biggest department store chains in the U.S., went bankrupt and closed all of its 256 stores, which employed 23,000 people.  People in the know said its Aberdeen store was doing well and it was unfortunate that a thriving business could not be taken over by a more successful company.  But running a department store on the scale of Herberger's is a complex business that involves buyers who can anticipate what kind of inventory customers will purchase, personnel in advertising, marketing, and sales who can appeal to and create a clientele, and logistics personnel who can get merchandise from manufacture to market at just the right time.  It is not a business that local and regional businesses are equipped to take over.

In the struggle to compete in the contemporary world, retailers have tried to save themselves by mergers into larger companies, a strategy that nearly always results in failure.  Banks can be too big to fail, but retailers can be too big to succeed.  Huge corporations are too blubbery and slow-witted to make timely decisions in meeting the conditions of the evolving retail market.  Walmart, Target, and Costco lead the field, but their strategies do not apply to more upscale stores.  Bon Ton ran seven chains--including Bon-Ton, Bergner's, Boston Store, Carson's, Elder-Beerman, Herberger's and Younkers--but no one has identified the successful stores among the 256 or devised a way to keep functioning stores open.

And so, Aberdeen loses not just five major department stores, but its largest upmarket retailer.  Officials attribute the closings to the routine trends in retailing and assure residents that the town will survive.  However,  retail sales tax figures from the state and city budgets indicate that retailing in Aberdeen has declined in three out of the last five years.

Fiscal YearAmount of retail sales tax due AberdeenAmount of retail sales tax budgeted by AberdeenChange from previous year budgetedPercentage of change


The 2019 Aberdeen budget reflects the loss of retailers, it would seem, but the overall sales tax receipts for 2019, which include sources other than retail, show an increase to $9,074,000.   However, revenues collected from the financial services, insurance, and real estate sector have fallen from $13,719,539 in 2014 to $7,804,388 in 2017, a 43 percent drop in three years.  2018 and 2019 figures for that category were not yet available.   But available numbers show a drastic change in the kind of business activity taking place in Aberdeen.

(It should also be noted that in 2015 the sales tax rate was raised from 4 percent to 4.5 percent, which skews comparative figures a bit.)

Market analysts look at retail sales as a prime indicator of growth in communities.  The retail sector in Aberdeen in terms of the number of retail operations and the revenues generated shows a marked decline.  While internet sales are a factor, the ability of local business enterprises to serve and sustain the citizen population defines the viability of a community.  Online shopping may be a competitive factor, but it may also offer Aberdeen residents the only shopping choice they have.  There is certainly little reason for people in the surrounding area to travel to Aberdeen to shop. 

Aberdeen is hit especially hard by the wave of store and mall closures.   It is part of a national trend.  It is futile to look for national companies to come in and rescue the retail business.  Huge corporations have shown that they do not understand what is taking place in the retail business.  People who work retail do not make enough money to shop.  At a meeting of employees of one of the stores being closed, they made the point that they had neither the money or time to shop.  They were too busy trying to make enough to pay their bills, and when they did need something, they did it on the internet when they found the time.

If retail is to survive, it will have to face the fact that in a time of economic expansion, the people who do the work are struggling.  Some companies around Aberdeen have complained that they cannot find workers, and workers complain that they cannot find jobs that pay enough for them to meet their needs.  

If people who study the economy cannot focus and shed some light on the way the economy works and does not work,  they may have to close shop and turn out the lights.

Friday, August 9, 2019

The pogrom against immigrants from 13 years ago

Trump's racist rants are designed to excite old hatreds and prejudices that are part of America's history.  We are proud of that history for the way it has confronted the enemies of democracy and slowly prevailed.  Trumpism is an overt war to overturn the accomplishments of justice and equality and return the nation to the rule of racism and hatred.  Here is a post from 15 years ago that gives perspective to that fight against racism.

Hurry, build some gas ovens, papa. The immigrants are coming

July 7, 2006

Some local business people have obtained necessary rezoning to build a proposed beef-processing plant at Aberdeen. As happened when Aberdeen was in the running for a turkey processing plant, a significant number of people have ranted and raged about the kind of people such enterprises would attract. The Aberdeen American News reported this reaction at a hearing on the rezoning:
Some audience members were more blunt. Jerry Mork of Aberdeen said the plant would create "a new underclass of citizen." The crime rate will go up and it won't be safe to walk city streets at night, Mork said. He said he recently moved back to Aberdeen from Grand Island, Neb., where a meat-packing plant has caused serious problems.

"If this foolishness gets approved...your (city) slogan needs to be 'Life was good in Aberdeen,'" Mork said, referencing the "Life is good in Aberdeen" motto.
Some very disturbed citizens have e-mailed me with a link to the Aberdeen American News discussion board, which contains a number of comments in a similar vein. When people on the board point out that such comments are racist and discriminatory, the commenters get indignant. They aren't racist, they insist, they are just concerned about the ethnic purity and the social conditions of pristine little Aberdeen.

I received the e-mails because I am a candidate for the state legislature and the writers expect their representatives, present and potential, to do something. The authors of the racist comments may be a minority, but they do succeed in coloring the whole community with a brush of intolerance, ignorance, and hatred. The ultimate issue arising from such a reaction is, as one correspondent put it, why any business would come to Aberdeen when its potential employees will be greeted with prejudice, malice, and discrimination. Having worked for consulting firms that have done attitude surveys in market areas, I say unequivocally that businesses do not come into communities where their workers will be subjected to ethnic and class discrimination. It affects productivity and quality and creates problems that savvy businesses know they have to avoid. So, even if the hatred exists among a small minority, shrewd business owners know it is an insidious force that can kill a business that is trying to get underway.

I come from immigrants. All of my grandparents came from Sweden. When I was a child, I heard every Polish joke cast as a Swede joke. The Swedes came to Moline, Ill., in droves to work in John Deere's factories, and they were charged with overrunning the community and creating an underclass that had difficulty with English, was inherently stupid, and did not wash their pits sufficiently.

South Dakota has a long reputation for its racial intolerance. Alexander McKenzie, once the boss of the Dakota Territory, attributed the Swedes with genetic mental defects. The author of the Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum, wrote a couple of newspaper editorials in Aberdeen calling for the extermination of the Sioux. Hutterites and other German-speaking people were driven out of South Dakota during our conflicts with Germany. I still hear the terms "niggers" and "prairie niggers" coming out the mouths of people regarded as solid citizens.

There is not much a state legislature can do to cure endemic hatred and racism and malevolent bigotry. Legislation cannot eliminate ill will toward humans and the desire for ethnic strife and its ensuing violence. One commentator in the discussion thread suggested that the 2,500 soldiers who have died in Iraq did so to preserve his right to express his hatred against immigrants. Legislation can only indirectly counter this kind of thinking.

There are two major things that can work to identify and contain the sources of hatred. The first is absolutely open government. Legislation, as has been enacted in most other states, can require that every government activity that affects the people be done in the open and with public access to its records. Some people connected with government who are posturing for the Aberdeen beef plant are the very people I have heard in private settings make vicious comments about ethnic minorities and the working class in general. If all government functions were done in the open, the people would at least know what kind of thought processes and aspects of character were shaping their community.

The other matter that could use legislative help is education. Education has failed the people of South Dakota. It has failed because it is run by politicians who feel indebted to a power structure that really does not want public education and fails to give it adequate funding and adequate freedom for competent and dutiful teachers to do their jobs.

As for Aberdeen, I don't think any legislation can change the justified perception that it is a town held hostage by ethnic intolerance and is a backwater of mainstream America. The problem can be addressed by the community's journalists, its churches, and its schools if the teachers had the authority and support to banish the class discrimination and hatred from their schools. Anyone who is connected with education, whether as a teacher, a parent, or an alert observer, knows that social forces in schools are an obstacle to learning for some kids and is, in fact, creating a new class of alienated children and dropouts.

Businesses will go where they can operate without social obstacles interfering with their operation. People will go where they can realize the promise of America. Where does that leave Aberdeen?

Saturday, August 3, 2019

The brainwashing of America

Brainwashing is the concept that the human mind can be altered or controlled by certain psychological techniques. Brainwashing is said to reduce its subject’s ability to think critically or independently, to allow the introduction of new, unwanted thoughts and ideas into the subject’s mind, as well as to change his or her attitudes, values, and beliefs. 
When Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, agreed to testify to Congress, he was very emphatic and explicit in stating that he would let his written report to speak for itself and would not expand or comment beyond what it reported.  As members of Congress cited information from the report, he repeatedly asked them to cite the page numbers they referred to and kept checking to see if their reading was an accurate representation of the written word.  This was all recorded on television, and reports of his appearance characterized it as being stumbling and halting and disappointing to the Democrats because it contained no explosive, dramatic revelations.  

The Columbia Journalism Review took issue with such assessments.  It contended that journalists who reviewed Mueller's appearance as entertainment rather than for the substance he offered weren't doing their jobs, which is to focus on the facts.  Those who did watch Mueller's testimony for its factual content noted that he answered questions by underscoring what the report stated, asking for the specific citations being referred to, and by attesting to the accuracy of the report.  He clarified that while the Trump campaign did not conspire with the Russians directly, it welcomed Russian intervention and made use of the disinformation in the campaign.  He also clarified how Trump's efforts at obstructing the investigation precisely met the defining conditions of what obstruction of justice is.  

The Department of Justice has a rule that forbids the indictment of a sitting president, but the factual record of Trump's violations is as strong as the charges through which Mueller has indicted 34 of Trump's associates, obtaining seven guilty pleas and one conviction so far.  For those who looked for the factual aspects of the report and did not find Mueller's verbal footnoting a distraction, his testimony affirmed a very strong case against Trump.  But those who have been mentally conditioned by what is considered "good television" will interpret Mueller's plodding and cautious responses as reason to doubt his acuity.  But they will carefully report Trump's incoherent, unpredicated sentences as having made some kind of determination.

It is no accident that Trump's favorite medium of expression is Twitter.  By its very nature Twitter is incoherent.  It is the medium of primal screams.  Sometimes people will use tweets in a conversational context, but most tweets are unintelligible shouts, like infant cries, that leave others to wonder what they are all about.  To get any notion of what most tweets are about, the reader has to try to establish some context, determine if there  are any factual references, and then check to see if the facts are true.  An example of a Trump tweet is this one about Rep. Elijah Cummings:

Rep, Elijah Cummings has been a brutal bully, shouting and screaming at the great men & women of Border Patrol about conditions at the Southern Border, when actually his Baltimore district is FAR WORSE and more dangerous. His district is considered the Worst in the USA......
The questions raised by this tweet are numerous:

  1. What has Rep. Cummings said or done that could be described as bullying?
  2. What has he done that is "brutal"?
  3. When and where did he shout and scream?
  4. What members of the Border Patrol did he address?
  5. If he addressed them, when and how?
  6. What conditions at the border did he address?
  7. What conditions in Baltimore are worse and in what way?
  8. What is more dangerous?
  9. Who considers his district the worst in the U.S.?
  10.  How is Rep. Cummings responsible for those conditions?
  11. Is there any truth and factual support for the allegations against Rep. Cummings?
  12. What is the factual, comparative truth about Baltimore?
The problem is that a large portion of the American public will accept Trump's pronouncement without asking any of the questions about its veracity or what it is referring to.  That leads to an unpleasant fact about the state of American politics. Trump lies constantly.  He makes statements as fact that are provably untrue.  Fact-checkers at such sites as the Washington Post and Politifact struggle to keep up with him, as he has made over 10,000 false or misleading statements to the public since he took office.  Trump is a pernicious liar, and has proven every day of his life that his word cannot be believed or trusted.  Still, almost half of America hangs on his every word.  And the other half questions why.  The reason why is the reason behind the severe political divide in America.

The fact that a man of Trump's disreputable character could gain such a hold over the country is a symptom of a malignancy in the culture.  The Dunning-Kruger Effecis pandemic in the United States.  In simple terms, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is when stupid people think they are smart.  To see symptoms of that Effect, all one needs to do is read the comments following news or blog articles.  Many, many people who record their illiteracy and ignorance in print think, like Trump does, that they are smarter than almost everybody else.  And like Trump's tweets, many reveal their inabilities of thought and expression through mangled sentences filled with errors of diction.  The way people use language is an indicator of intelligence and character.  

Trump's incompetent and incoherent used of language is taken by  his supporters as a confirmation of their own stupidity.  Having a president who is an illiterate liar signals to them that it is okay to be stupid, greedy, and malicious.  He is supremely successful at those traits and his followers can share in that kind of success.  Being stupid is the smart thing to do.

It is an attitude that descends to us from feudalism, from that portion of serfs who saw the way to worthiness was to suck up to and emulate the old master of the estate.  It is part of our history that to indoctrinate workers, whether employees, field hands, or slaves, in beliefs that support class system in which people are led to believe that they can "become somebody" by servicing the ruling class.  The goal is to keep the underclass docile and dependent on the good will of their masters.  Workers with their own agendas are a danger to the feudal estate.  And the most prominent example of such a corporate feudal estate at this time is the Trump Organization.  Whatever is proclaimed by the master, no matter how incoherent and without substance, is regarded by his loyal underlings as gospel.

The reason for such a large portion of the population's submission to Trump's deranged whims is that these are the people most susceptible to the brainwashing at work within our culture.  The media offers entertainment which excites the desire in some to be like their masters.  Their workplaces promise them promotion if they extol the doctrines preached and practiced by those they have chosen as their masters.  And our schools, which are to provide experience in acquiring knowledge and critical thinking skills are being subverted to become propaganda sites for the suppression and control of the masses.  Just as communist China during Mao's cultural revolution used schools and other public buildings to besiege the people with propaganda in support of the revolution, American states are passing laws to require schools to post slogans in support of evangelical fundamentalism.  This year all South Dakota schools are required to post the motto "In God we trust" prominently on every school building.  This has the same effect as Orwell's "Big Brother is watching you."  The message is that if you do not accept the thinking that the masters choose for you, you do not belong here.  A good portion of the students out of  fear of exclusion will submit.  Another portion will leave the place that dictates such thinking as soon as they find a way.  

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution of Mao, all public buildings were required to post slogans support the Revolution.
South Dakota passed a law requiring every school building to post the motto "In God we trust," as shown in this elementary school in Rapid City.

This tactic of telling people that they will be excluded if they do not conform is the principle behind much consumer advertising, and it does sell products.  When it becomes part of education, it creates a constituency that will think and do what the masters tell them.  And that constituency will also hate and oppress those who do not conform.  

As the 2020 election nears, Trump rallies will give us vivid demonstrations by the constituency which regards Trump as master and savior and behaves as he does.  They are the products of years of brainwashing, which is revealed by their slavish repetition of what they hear from Trump and Fox News.  They may have heard of Trump's serial business failures, his fraudulent enterprises such as Trump University, his habitual adultery, and they witness his constant state of malice, but their brains cannot register them.  They have been flushed of the ability to register and retain facts.  An so, they ignore and deny the climate change that is transforming the environment that sustains human life or the forces that are evident in undermining our democracies.  They can only focus on what the masters permit them to.

Brainwashing is popularly regarded as something that totalitarian communists practice, but it is in fact a technique of control and oppression that has a long history of practice in America.  It can be part of any political agenda, and it can be the operating principle of a culture, as it is in South Dakota, where if you prefer ignorance and stupidity, you are in the elite.  The state has one of the lowest wage averages in the nation, the most people working multiple jobs to survive, and ranks as one of the most corrupt states.  But over the recent years South Dakotans have voted to intensify the feudal rule that keeps so many struggling to avoid poverty and its brightest moving away.  The majority of residents vote strongly for Trump and those like him in the full belief that lying and cheating is the basis for the good life.  Their brains have been purged of the cells that understand honesty and decency.  

The hard fact is that those concepts are being washed out of the American mentality.   And the possession or the absence of basic decency is what divides America.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States