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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

Thursday, January 30, 2020

When did lying become okay?

I spent many years reporting and editing for newspapers.   During that time, the matter of reporting lies was not much of an issue.  We knew that people lied sometimes, but not many did.  That's because people then feared the great humiliation they would receive if being exposed as liars.  

Sometimes people would be mistaken about things they said,  and would acknowledge their errors when pointed out to them.  But no one wanted to be accused of telling a deliberate lie.  

A reason for few lies getting published had to do with a basic rule of journalism.  When reporters were not present at some event or it was not recorded in some official, verified document, it had to be verified by other independent sources.  The policy book at the last newspaper I worked for required at least three such sources.  Reporters were expected to be diligent about making sure that any account published was verified as accurate.  Fact-checking was a fundamental part  of reporting, of composing a news story.  The editor, who was also a half owner of the paper, said never to print any you knew was not true without stating it wasn't true.

But electronic journalism and its obsession with sound bites changed that procedure.  In broadcast journalism, the priority is to obtain video or sound bites of newsworthy people saying things.   Sometimes those sound bites are live and on the air, so that they can't be verified before being broadcast.  But what is said is not fact-checked before it is broadcast.  What the important person said is considered newsworthy because someone of authority and prominence said it.  However, because much of dubious truth is circulating among us, the role of fact-checker has been created.  A fact-checker is sort of a scatologist, one who examines excrement.  The job is to sort out truth from scat.  But a lot of scat passes as information before it is identified as such, and people are making decisions based on scat.  And many have no compunction about telling lies, as long as they confirm their point of view.  To them, facts and truth do not matter.  They prefer their alternative facts.

When it comes to the telling of lies, we have learned that one cannot believe or trust a word that comes from Donald Trump or his staff.  But Trump is not the cause of America's descent into scurrility as a currency of the realm.  He is the result of it.  He is president because he represents the value system embraced by a dominant faction of the nation.  Whereas once about half of the nation desired and advocated slavery as a way of life, now  about half the nation endorses and advocates ignorance, dishonesty and criminality as a right for those who choose them.  Supporters of Don Trump so chose.

The lying of Trump is chosen as a preferred way of life.  People accept it as okay, as a way of conducting the transactions of life.

The United States has experienced a precipitous drop in its reputation among nations.  People in other countries no longer respect or trust us.  The Pew Research Center reports:
In countries where confidence in the U.S. president fell most, America’s overall image has also tended to suffer more. In the closing years of the Obama presidency, a median of 64% had a positive view of the U.S. Today, just 49% are favorably inclined toward America. Again, some of the steepest declines in U.S. image are found among long-standing allies.

Trump represents America to the world.  America chose him and what he stands for.  Americans got what they wanted, a reflection of what they have become.  They say lying is okay.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sex and the confused persons

State legislators are toying around with legislation [HR 1057] that would criminalize people who deal with sex change medications and surgery.  It would make it  a felony to perform gender-related medical procedures on someone under 16.  This is a matter of a bunch of semi-educated rubes deciding that they need to impose their manure-booted expertise on when and how to do brain surgery.  That is literally the case because gender issues involve the brain.  But those issues need better brains than the combined intelligence of South Dakota legislators, who would better concern themselves with proctology.  Because that is the area where their heads seem to be stuck.

College professors, of which I once was one, come across young people who have gender identity problems.  In their role as academic advisors, they have students who occasionally seek their help regarding such matters.  An adviser in such situations is caught between two obligations. The first is to provide advice and guidance that will help students succeed in their academic studies.  And when students are in turmoil about some gender matters, their studies are affected.

The second obligation is to refrain from giving advice and guidance on matters that fall outside one's areas of expertise.  There are seldom people on campuses who have knowledge of all the implications involved in transgender issues.  That includes the student counseling services.  So, the best an advisor can do is direct the student to some competent help. And that is difficult when there is no competent help around.

Fortunately, instances where such help is need are rare.  But when they do occur, there is an aspect of desperation involved.   In cases I know about, the young people were referred to medical and psychiatric resources that could help them understand the complicated issues and make informed decisions.  The point is to give people the chance to build productive and satisfying lives, not to find a reason to punish someone  for indecision about sexual identity.   

Only one legislator at the Cracker Barrel session of area legislators opposed the bill.  Sen. Susan Wismer, D-Britton, was reported by the Aberdeen American News as the only one to speak in opposition:  '"All I know is that God made all these people," Wismer said, also noting they weren't meant to suffer about how God made them. "We make them suffer every time we contribute to these culture wars."'

The rest of the legislators were fervently in favor of saving the genitalia of young people from scalpels and other instruments of genital reassignment.  Nothing brings on the legislative rage in the South Dakota like LBGT and transgender people being left unpunished.  While the associated school boards have intelligent and humane proposals for handling gender issues, the legislature loses its collective mind at the thought of where transgender kids might choose to go toity.  Probably because of the rural nature of South Dakota, the legislators seem to envision gender reassignment in terms of guys in manure bespattered boots hacking away at calves and pigs with sharp castration blades.  The legislature does its hacking with dull laws.  They enjoy watching different people suffer.

As South Dakotans with pets and livestock know, the gender of animals can be fixed.  But the legislature is proving once again that you can't fix stupid.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

The feudal state of America

Walt Whitman wrote in his pamphlet Democratic Vistas that "The United States are destined either to surmount the gorgeous history of feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous failure of time." 

He wrote this shortly after the Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.  The piece was, in part, a response to British historian Thomas Carlyle who disparaged American democracy.  Carlyle did not believe that ordinary people had the intellect or moral stature to govern themselves, but Whitman had "faith in the genius of ordinary men and women."  He saw that "the capacity for strong original experience, rather than being confined to a small number of geniuses, heroes, and eccentrics, should become widespread among ordinary people."   In contrast, Carlyle believed that an aristocratic elite of mind and manner was required to govern appropriately.

In our time, we don't see feudalism as a threat.  Our main concern is fascism and communism. But Whitman regarded Carlyle as making "certain judgments from the highest feudal point of view."  His contemporary Mark Twain's writing dealt extensively with critiques and satires of the remnants of feudalism that operates in our culture.  Those remnants are still with us.  And no one revives those remnants with more effect than Donald Trump.

According to Whitman's standards, America has failed.  It has chosen as its president a man possessed of the malice, depravity, and dishonesty of the worst feudal lords and who rules with with their precedents.  People who voted for him said they did so because his wealth was a sign of his business acumen.  There are people in America who still bow down to the lords of the current manors.

Neo-feudalism is the guiding basis of Trump's life.  He is the heir to a feudal estate.  He inherited a family business from his father.  He is notorious for welshing on his bills.  His business has declared bankruptcy six times.  At least 25 women have accused him of sexual misconduct.  According to the Washington Post scorecard, Trump has told the public 16,241 lies while he has been president.  Trump announced that the Constitution grants him the power to whatever he pleases.  What pleases him is unbridled corruption.  That quality of abject dissolution apparently also pleases those who support him.  They like the idea of holding other people in a state of vassalage.  They believe the way to self-elevation is to suck up to their masters.  So, they join their masters in denigrating fellow citizens. And they suck Trump and with Trump.

Trump's reversion to feudalism is shown in the fact  that he is a business man, and the business world is run largely on feudal principles.  Corporations do not try to reconcile their intra-organization administration and politics with democratic values.  Many companies deride and scoff at the idea.  So, when most people clock in for work each day, they step out of a nation which confers on them the rights of freedom, equality, and justice into a vassal state.  Where workers are under  collective bargaining contracts, that state of vassalage is mitigated, if not eliminated.  But in at-will states such as South Dakota, workers who are not covered by a collective bargaining contracts can be fired without cause at the whim of their employers.   They spend their working days as vassals devoted to serving their employers' whims so that they can keep their jobs--if their job is necessary for their survival.  

A popular cliche' among people aspiring to some public office is that government should be run like a business.  Most people have no idea of how badly many businesses are run.  The reasons they don't know is the media which is financed by advertising does not run critical information about their advertisers.  And so, the public generally believes that  business is a model for efficient and skillful management.

There is a fundamental reason why government in America should not be run like a business.  The job of government is to implement the premises of its founding.  Those premises are stated in the Declaration of Independence:  

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
The implementation of those premises is laid out in the preamble to the Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Those are not the priorities of the people in government who try to run it like a business. Trump is a reversion to authoritarian government.  He runs it just like he runs his business.  A statement from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace points out the dangers of Trump:
Under Trump, U.S. democracy policy has reached its lowest ebb in forty years. If the United States continues this course for two more years, it will be stranded on the sidelines, or even on the wrong side, of the global democratic struggle.

Politico compiles a list of executive actions with which Trump abolishes democracy and converts America into a feudal state.  Trump really can't help it.  He is running America in the only way he knows how.  Like a business.

But Trump is doing this with the consent of the governed, at least those who voted for him.  They want to be his vassals.  They want to live in a feudal state.

Do you want to be a vassal, too?


Thursday, January 23, 2020

Is there such a thing as a perfect phone call?

per·fectadjective ˈpərfikt | having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to belife certainly isn't perfect at the moment | a perfect summer's day• free from any flaw or defect in condition or quality; faultlessthe equipment was in perfect condition• precisely accurate; exacta perfect circle• highly suitable for someone or something; exactly rightwith a little help you can create a room that is perfect for you | the perfect present for golfers everywhere• Printing denoting a way of binding books in which pages are glued to the spine rather than sewn together• dated thoroughly trained in or conversant withshe was perfect in French[attributiveabsolute; complete (used for emphasis)a perfect stranger | all that Joseph said made perfect sense to me   ******************************************Donald Trump says he made a perfect telephone call.  If you or I said that, the people around us would ask what comprises a perfect telephone  call.  They'd say something like, WTF is a perfect telephone call?

A call informing you that you won a million dollar lottery might be considered perfect.  A phone call in which you obtained  something you wanted might be successful. A phone call that elicits information you need might be productive.   But how can something as amorphous as a phone call be defined as perfect?  

The problem is not a matter of laboriously making a list of attributes that could comprise a perfect phone call.  If a term of language does not make much sense,  it may well be a language error:  "errors are thought of as indications of an incomplete learning, and that the speaker or hearer has not yet accumulated a language knowledge which can enable them to avoid linguistics misuse."  

In other words, the error might be yours if you have not enough vocabulary to understand what a competent user of language is saying.  Or it may be that the user of language doesn't know enough to make a competent statement.  In the case of Trump's "perfect phone call,"  the latter case applies.

Trump speaks in superlatives.  Everything he does or likes is the "greatest thing in the history of the world."  People he doesn't like and the things they do are "the worst disasters" that has visited the world.  Trump's use of language reveals a mind that has never progressed beyond its childish likes and dislikes.  He has never mustered the intelligence to rise above a juvenile ego. Consideration of what could comprise a perfect phone call is beyond his thought process.

Take a look at the key passage from the transcript of his "perfect" call to the leader of Ukraine:

The President: I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike ... I guess you have one of your wealthy people … The server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you’re surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it. As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.
What is most notable about this passage is the absence of a coherent sentence.   While Trump is making reference to a number of matters, some of which involves a conspiracy theory proven false, not one sentence makes a clear predication.  This jumble of incoherent references and mangled grammar is part of a perfect telephone call?  Put yourself in the Ukrainian presidents shoes and between his ears and write down a list of the things Trump has referred to.  Then in a sentence write down exactly what he is requesting.  
In other words, make something coherent of what Trump is saying.   If you succeed let us know.

We all know that Trump wanted Mr. Zelenksy to make  public announce that his government was investigating Joe Biden and his son, but analyze that passage for its competence of communication.  Remember.  This is your president speaking.  

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

This is what kills democracy

Since U.S. forces killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, commander of Iran’s elite security and intelligence forces, there has been much discussion about the way the assassination was carried out and what the result will be.  But I have not heard one word in the media or in conversations "defending" Iran.  So, when I encountered this picture on the social media, I wondered who had heard someone actually defending Iran.  That country has been a troublesome, often deadly, perpetrator of international misdeeds since 1979, when it took members of the U.S. embassy staff in Tehran captive.  Since then, I have heard accounts of why and how Iran became an international malefactor, but I have never heard anyone outside of Iran speak in its defense.  I have heard many people question the the rationale and the circumstances of the extermination of Gen. Suleimani, but I haven't heard anyone defend him.  I wondered who the creators of that poster had been listening to.

I didn't wonder long.  A moment's reflection makes obvious that the poster's creator was not listening to any intelligent being.  The author was listening to his/her own ignorant and misinformed mind.  And that mind is one of those paranoid types that projects its own malice onto fictions it makes up about some people, somewhere in America defending Iran.  There are people who know about Iranians who analyze the direction Iran has chosen, but they are not defending the country.  They, in fact, are critics of the country. There are a few who feel the people of Iran were disrespected by the assassination.  That does not mean they are defending Iran.

That poster has a more ominous aspect.  I was not able to trace the origins of that poster, but it is typical of the type of propaganda that Russian cyber operatives like to plant.  It appeals to that type of person who harbors paranoid malice against people who do not share their political beliefs.  And that type of person is the typical Trump supporter, who gets enraged at the idea that someone would defend Iran, even though the defenders may not exist.  The poster is intended to inflame the Trump wing and feed their hatred of the liberals who oppose Trump.  In their minds, anyone who  criticizes  Trump's assassination of Gen. Suleimani must be defending Iran.  The poster gives people an excuse to vent their hatred for liberal Americans under the cloak of patriotism.  Rep. Doug Collins illustrated the effects of such baiting  with malicious and stupidly false accusations against Democrats.  He was praised for his lying defamations by the White House staff.

And when liberals see that poster, they assume its author and its adherents are mindless, uninformed bigots bereft of any intellectual capacity.  Thus, the divide between Americans widens and becomes a toxic morass.  

People, such as me, who served in American armed forces after World War II in foreign lands were trained to be alert to such propaganda.  Some of us were given special training to recognize and understand it in order to explain it to the troops so that it could be effectively dealt with.  Its primary purpose is to create anger and hatred in those susceptible to such effects.  Their ire can then be directed to specific people as the targets of hatred. 

We live in a time of hatred.  In his novel Extreme Prey, John Sandford notes the characteristic of our time:
The civil rights and feminist movements had been about gender equality and freedom; and the anti-war movement about the blind stupidity among certain parts of the political class that wound up killing sixty thousand Americans, mostly young draftees, and wounding another hundred and fifty thousand, to say nothing of a million or more Vietnamese.   The leaders of all those protest movements had been optimists, trying to pull people together.

Now the echoes of those movements seemed mostly about hate--about hating your opponents, on either side of any of the questions.
 It is expressions of hatred such as the poster above that generate hatred.  Their purpose is to create suspicion and animosity among the people and divide them into enemy camps.  Once the people are divided, aspiring dictators can step into control the nation.  It is people possessed of depravity and malice, such as Donald Trump, who try to tell is where to direct the hatred.  Unfortunately, there are many who willingly submit to that direction.  That's why Russian propagandists plant that type of disinformation.  It gets people hating each other, venting political malice, and weakening the nation.  And that weakness gives nations like Russia more power and influence in the world.  

America has fallen into the status of a flawed democracy.  That is not because of the existence of the poster.  It's because of the mindless, uninformed Americans who choose to believe and post it on the social media.  They are precisely the ones killing the America they think they are so proud of.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States