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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

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Turning the swamp into a cesspool

Donald Trump is desperate to win the 2020 election.  That's about the only way he can stay out of jail. The Department of Justice has decreed that a sitting president can't be indicted. When Trump is no longer sitting in the Oval Office, he could face a multitude of indictments.  

While a strong majority of  GOP voters remains stalwart in their support of Trump, and Congressional Republicans have formed a protective cadre around him, he has a few  GOP dissenters in Congress.  But he has the full-throated rejection by prominent conservative journalists, such as George Will and Bill Kristol, and the condemnation of many former GOP officials.  The media has focused on the factional disputes of the Democrats and their many candidates, but has devoted little attention to the fact that old-line Republicans are convinced that if the party is not to lose its place in the political spectrum, Trump must go.  He has put his brand on the Republican Party, and it is a brand of politics against which America has fought wars to resist.  Trump represents the antithesis of the democracy that the United States has tried to be. Recent polls indicate that a majority of Americans understand that fact.  Others don't really care what kind of government they have, only that it serves their small-mindedness and their petty hatreds.

Trump's so-called campaign rallies have become unabashed hate rallies.  At his recent rallies, he has attacked his opponents with barrages of malicious lies and accusations that defy credulity in the most casually sentient citizens.  His dishonesty and malice are an indictment of the nation that tolerates him.  Some accounts are referring to his campaign events as Klan rallies.  And some Republicans are repudiating that what he says and does has any relationship to their party.

One of his rallying cries, along with locking up Hillary Clinton and The Squad, has been "Drain the swamp."  The assumption put forward by Trump and his supporters is that all of Washington, D.C., is crooked and the offenders are their political opponents.  Trump is always claiming accomplishments that history has never before witnessed.  What history has never before witnessed is the level of corruption Trump has brought to Washington.   He has turned the city into a sepsis tank.

Any capitol city in America becomes a gathering place for hatching schemes and soliciting favors.  It depends upon people of principle and integrity to hold the grifters at bay.  Upstanding civil servants are among those who keep the government honest.  But Trump is chief among grifters.  His resume is a rap sheet.  People who support him are accomplices in the corruption.  And their first line of attack is to malign the honest and hard-working people who keep the government functioning free from the malignant infection of Trump and his followers.  That includes the press and the honest and competent civil servants.  Those who do not submit to the Trumpian plague are falsely excoriated and driven off.  

The problem for Americans now is not to drain the swamp, but to remain free from the overflow of Trump's cesspool.
Even some Republicans understand that.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

The corn picking chronicles: how farms became factories

I am so old I remember when this was how most corn was picked.  I had many uncles who were farmers in Illinois.  My dad was raised on a farm.  The farm I remember best was the one on which my maternal grandmother lived with two of her bachelor sons.  They were World War I veterans who bought a farm with veteran loan benefits.  They scrimped and struggled throughout the depression years to pay off the farm.  During World War II, the car they chauffered my grandmother around in had to have the doors held shut with baling wire. Their farm truck was a 1928 Chevrolet that they kept running.  Just before the war started, they bought a Farmall H tractor which, along with draft horses, powered them through the war.

I knew this farm because as my grandmother aged, my mother often went to help her on the farm.  I went with her, and  lived a number of summers on the farm.  In the early years, the horses were an essential part of the logistics of the farm operation.  For picking corn, they would plod along side the corn rows pulling a wagon fitted with a bang board, as pictured above, on one side.  The harvester would snap off the corn ears with a quick jerk and throw the ear into the wagon.  The toss often would be hard enough for the corn ear to hit the bang board and bounce into the wagon.  The harvesters carried corn knives which would be used to cut off ears that didn't snap off easily.   The pace of the horses would be at the speed the person picking the corn could walk along the row and snap off the ears.  The horses could be stopped and started with vocal commands, working as a team with the corn picker.
A corn husker

When a wagon was full, the horses would pull it to a corn crib with the husks still on the corn. Sometimes the corn ears were  shucked before being elevated into the cribs. Sometimes the husking was done as the corn was taken from the crib for use. The husks were removed by a corn husking machine.  Of course, at one time, the husks were removed by hand.  
A double corn crib of the kind on my uncles' farm.  Husking
and shelling was done inside.
This process was long and arduous.  Before mechanical corn pickers, the job of picking corn would last from late September through the fall into winter.  Many farmers hired help, but for many others the corn harvest was largely a family affair with children helping with the picking after school and on weekends.  Corn picking did not develop the co-operative tradition of threshing gangs that the harvest of wheat and oats and other grains did.   The husking bee at
which people ripped the husks off corn during a social occasion was one of the efforts devised to help with a tedious and time-consuming task.

The development of mechanical corn pickers is considered to have had the most dramatic impact on farming.  They provided a massive reduction in the labor needed.  But they were expensive.  During the 1930s when the transition from horse power to tractor power accelerated, farm profits were too slim to enable many farmers to buy mechanical equipment.  And some of the early mechanical pickers which could be pulled by horses or tractors were extremely awkward to operate.  Just before World War II, significant improvements were made in the engineering of corn pickers and the tractor mounted pickers (pictured above) were much easier to operate than previous designs.  However, new problems arose.  The tractor-mounted pickers had a tendency to jam and the newspapers were full of accounts of farmers getting their hands and arms caught in the pickers when trying to clear the jams.

Two of my uncles bought their farms while working as machine shop foremen at the Farmall plant in Rock Island, Ill.  So the family was familiar with International Harvester equipment.  During my freshman year in college, a high school mate started a custom harvesting business.  During the corn picking season that year, I operated an IH tractor-mounted corn picker on the night shift for him.  My uncles had taught me to shut the machine off when it jammed and to clear it with a crow bar and a knife.  My acquaintance with pickers grew, as during college, I had summer jobs at the International Harvester plant that built corn pickers and combines.  When I was released from active duty in the Army, I worked in the office of that plant for a few years.  The community where the IH plants were located was also home to the John Deere headquarters, and J.I. Case had factories there, also.  The development of agricultural equipment was the driving economic force of that community.  After I completed my college degree when I was released from military service, I got a job as farm and business editor of a local newspaper and covered farming and the farm equipment business.

However, there is a tale to tell regarding corn pickers before all that.  I had to drop out of college for a time to work. I had a job on the sports desk of a morning paper.  Because I was not attending college, I lost my deferment and got drafted into the Army.  But while I was working on the paper, a big editorial controversy came up regarding corn pickers.  When someone was injured or killed in a corn picking accident, the newspaper printed detailed stories about the accidents under the assumption that explaining how the accidents occurred was a public service that could show farmers how they could be prevented.  This produced a spate of protests from people who said we were heaping embarrassment on the people who were suffering enough from their injuries.  The paper stopped publishing the accident details.  But this produced another barrage of complaints that we weren't explaining how the accidents happened so they could be avoided.  In the end, the people who said we were adding to the woes of the wounded won out.  The editors said trying to deal with their protests was too disruptive and detrimental to the news operation, so the farm accident reports from that point on did not explain the details of what happened.  Many years later, the farm editor of that paper, who was a close associate of mine, said that decision signaled the time when the reporting of farm news became very limited in community newspapers.  He said the attitude among editors was that if someone was dumb enough to stick his hand in a corn picker, he probably didn't read newspapers anyway.

Those tractor-mounted corn pickers are things of the past.  No American companies make them that I know of, but the service parts are available to keep them running.  You can buy a new one, however, from the huge Chinese retailer Alibaba.  There is little information as to their quality.  While some smaller farmers may still use the tractor-powered pickers, most corn is harvested today with combines that can pick corn from 6 to 18 rows at a pass.  These combines run from a quarter of a million to half a million dollars a piece.   They automatically husk and shell the corn.
John Deere combines cost $380,000 to $480,000

The farm equipment business began by supplying family farmers with tools that could save labor, refine and make agriculture more productive, and eliminate some of the drudgery that made farm kids determined not to farm.  Today a small-scale farmer can't find equipment designed for his kind of operation, except for used machinery.   In the 1960s, John Deere Co. launched an advertising slogan of "The Long Green Line" to designate the history of the machinery it produced.  That history is one of producing equipment designed to help homesteaders establish their operations to the current time of building machines for huge factory-farms which are unaffordable for a family operation.    Mid-sized tractors cost between $25,000 to $50,000.  But tractors for the huge factory farms run up to $475,000.  The cost of machinery and the debt-load to pay for it during a bad crop year can put a farmer out business quickly.  That represents a change in the philosophy of farming.

My uncles who had farms were general farmers.  They rotated crops of corn, oats, hay, and sometimes specialty crops, such as barley, on their fields.  They had a herd of milk cows bred to beef bulls so that they produced both milk and beef.  They raised and fed hogs, and had a flock of chickens which supplied eggs and meat.  They usually planted a couple rows of potatoes on the edge of a corn field, and planted a vegetable garden from which they harvested and preserved enough food to last through the winter.  My bachelor uncles also had apple trees and a grape arbor.  The general farm was an extremely busy and complex operation, but it was geared to a level of self-sufficiency which enabled the farm family to survive the fluctuations of market prices and weather with which a farmer has to contend.  

In contrast, current farming is oriented to specialty agriculture,  Those who grow crops may alternate between corn and soybeans and, decreasingly, wheat.  Pork, beef, and poultry producers center their farms around confinement feeding operations.  Whereas farming was once a way to
Hogs in confinement

 achieve self-sufficiency and independence, today's agriculture is tied to corporate life.  As a consequence, farm equipment is designed to serve the corporate scale of operation, not the family-sized operation.   Tractors are available in many sizes that can be used in smaller operations, but the industry no longer makes attachments geared to support the modest operations. Economy of scale is the ruling principle that establishes the size of farms.

The corporate influence has also shaped the farm programs to push the demand for farms to get bigger.  The Environmental Working Group, which tracks farm subsidies, states:
Despite the rhetoric of "preserving the family farm," the vast majority of farmers do not benefit from federal farm subsidy programs and most of the subsidies go to the largest and most financially secure farm operations. Small commodity farmers qualify for a mere pittance, while producers of meat, fruits, and vegetables are almost completely left out of the subsidy game (i.e. they can sign up for subsidized crop insurance and often receive federal disaster payments).
Abandoned farmstead
The trend for turning agriculture into agribusiness and making rural America a huge factory system has been taking place for many decades.  It has turned once-thriving small towns into ghost communities.  The South Dakota landscape is dotted with abandoned farmsteads and deserted main streets.   A drive through the countryside is a tour of the grave markers of family enterprises that built the state.  But those remnants will eventually be removed to make way for planting as the economy of scale absorbs the land into huge factory fields.
Factory farm landscape, called intensive agriculture

Thursday, October 3, 2019

A failure of scholarship and journalism

A former colleague of mine, who is of the conservative bent, wrote a newspaper column that took up political lying and refuted the contention that universities are bastions of liberal indoctrination.  However, that was clearly not his intention.  But his column was a model of the kind of conservative propaganda that has become common in this age of Trump.  It is slovenly in its handling of facts, which would be severely criticized if the column were to be held to the standards of a professional paper.

During my many years as a professor, partisan politics was never an issue on the campuses at which I studied and worked.  Professors have political beliefs and preferences, and might on occasion let them be known, but were careful not to let them encroach on their professional duties.  They have the freedom to speak their minds in public, but did so in a way that was careful to observe their role as scholars.  For college faculty members in South Dakota, that standard is stated in the Board of Regents Policy Manual and in the collective bargaining contract with faculty:

The concept of freedom is accompanied by an equally demanding concept of responsibility. The faculty unit members are members of a learned profession. When they speak or write as citizens, they must be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As learned people and as educators, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence, they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should indicate that they are speaking only for themselves.
I did not encounter political indoctrination by professors until after I retired.  It occurred on the campus I retired from, where a coterie of "conservative" ideologues had formed and, while contending that universities were dominated by liberals, expounded their right-wing dogma.  Some students who were friends of one of my children, who attended the university for a while, told me that their cohorts were wary of this coterie, not because of their political views, but because they were presenting academic subject matter in a slanted way that made the students question the reliability of the  information they were given.

[Disclosure:  When I moved to South Dakota, I was a registered Republican, although I had never voted a straight GOP ballot.  Gov. Bill Janklow converted me to register as a Democrat.  I could not believe the things he got away with, but especially his intimidation of the press.  As someone who taught journalism, I was  perturbed at his intimidation of the press and  some of the things he said and did without full reporting and challenge by the press.]
I hold quite a different political view from my columnist colleague, but my issue with his column on political lying is with his slovenly handling of the facts.  If this column were to be presented for presentation to an organization of other historians, it would never get past the screening committee.  His column ignores the rule to "at all times be accurate, [and] exercise appropriate restraint."  The newspaper editors are also at fault because the column does not withstand a basic fact check.  

The first problem is that rather than explicitly state that his views do not represent or reflect the position of the university where he works, he pointedly states that his viewpoint is something he presents as exemplary material in his classes. He makes his identification with the university a basis for the authority he attempts to assert.  He begins with the statement that "the never-ceasing mantra of the left was that [President George W.] Bush was a liar." Then he proceeds with this paragraph:

It was curious to see pundits that had given master prevaricator Bill Clinton a pass decide all of a sudden that presidential mendacity was a big deal after all. It was curious also that the most-cited example of a Bush lie was the 43rd president’s insistence that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction” — an idea almost the entirety of the Washington establishment (both Democratic and Republican) had at one time accepted as a gospel.
The problems are:
  1. Bill Clinton's mendacity did not get a pass nor was truthfulness a concern only with Bush.  Clinton got impeached for lying, although not removed from office.
  2. The matter of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction was investigated by the International Atomic Energy Agency whose head, Hans Blix, said it found no evidence of atomic development in Iraq.  However, Blix said that the Iraq regime had not been co-operative and suggested that the agency be allowed to inspect further and keep Iraq under international surveillance for weapon development.  George W. Bush rejected that proposal and decided to go to war.
  3. The "entirety" of the Washington establishment did not accept the premise that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which was the pretext for the war on Iraq.  After much debate in the U.S. House, 133 members voted against war and in the Senate 23 voted against going to war.
Then, there is this troubling paragraph:

Like an aggrieved spouse, Bush’s more unhappy critics compiled long lists of accusations. My favorite (and the one I sometimes use in my U.S. history class) catalogues more than 300 Bush lies and scandals. Included on the list: the appointment of conservative judges, the reining in of environmental and other regulatory agencies and the No Child Left Behind Act.

  1.  Here is where the professor admits that he introduces his personal bias into class as a lesson.
  2. He does not specify the source for 300 Bush lies that he derisively mentions. It is most likely David Corn's “The Lies Of George W. Bush: Mastering The Politics Of Deception” (Crown Publishers, October 2003).
  3. He lists some acts  by the Bush administration which many people opposed as if they are lies: judge appointments, nullifying some environmental regulations, and the No Child Left Behind Act.  He is not accurately representing the sources by confusing actions taken with accusations of lies.
And there is this paragraph:
Much of the push for the impeachment of President Donald Trump is similar. On the surface, we’ve got Trump’s alleged use of international connections for his own personal, political and financial advantage. But when Bill and Hillary Clinton are given a pass for the Clinton Foundation graft machine (remember Bill’s $500,000 Moscow speech?), it’s hard to believe genuine concern over corrupt foreign dealings is what’s driving Trump’s opponents.

 The problems here arise from the tendency for Trump supporters to try the "What about the Clintons?" comparisons to the misdeeds  and scandals of Trump.  

  1. Although the point of the column is the accusations of lying against Bush, the columnist evades the biggest issue of lies facing the country right now.  Trump lies so much that the press coverage of him routinely points out things he says that have no basis in fact.  In August, the Washington Post fact checker said he had surpassed the 12,000 mark for untruths he has told since he took office. Politifact also keeps a running tally of Trump's false statements.  Both fact checkers provide the sources for correct information.  
  2. Bill Clinton's Moscow speech in 2010 for $500,000 has riled the right-wing.  Between 2001 and 2012, Clinton made $104 million in speaking fees, some for more than a half million.  You can see the list and the amounts here.  Clinton's engagements were properly cleared with the U.S. government and have been investigated.  The fees largely go to the Clinton Foundation and are put to charitable use.
  3. Calling the Clinton Foundation a "graft machine" is an unproven accusation.  Graft in the political sense is a bribe to gain some kind of illicit advantage.  The Foundation has never been found to be engaged in graft. Trump's foundation, however, was closed down by the State of New York for its nefarious activities.
  4. With the nation so suffused with lies coming out of Trump's White House, it is absurd to bring up the subject of political lies without acknowledging Trump's habitual falsehoods.
There are other points in the column that are the echolalia of Trump.  When Adam Schiff, summarized Trump's telephone call with the new president of Ukraine Zelensky in sarcastic and parodic terms, Trump was too illiterate to discern it as ridicule and termed it a malicious misrepresentation of what he said.  The professor repeated Trump's ignorant, possibly purposeful, mischaracterization of Schiff's critical lampoon.  As the saying goes, Sarcasm – the ability to insult idiots without them realizing it.” 

The issue here is not that a professor spoke out as a citizen, but that he allowed his partisan passions to overrule the critical skills that professors and journalists are expected to apply to information they pass on to others.  The result was a failure to observe the mandate to be accurate, restrained, and respectful.  It is a failure that tarnishes the profession and his institution.  And the newspaper that published it.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States