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News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Friday, February 28, 2020

Pissing duels and bitchy fights are irrelevant to politics of democracy

Those sessions with presidential candidates held on television advertised as debates are not debates.  A debate is when a proposal is raised as a subject and debaters present the facts and reasoning for and against the proposal.  Those televised spectacles are to debating what a drunken barroom brawl is to an olympic boxing event.  

As such an event approaches, the news anchors speak of it as a fight event.  They talk of attacks, striking out, swinging knock out punches.  Lost in their fight club frenzy is any marshaling of facts or cogent reasoning.  They see the alleged debate as a brawl intended to hurt and destroy.

Conflict is one of the criteria that the public responds  to in news stories. It is one of the features editors look for in evaluating a news story.  But it is also an aspect which has a special appeal to some people.   A segment of the population loves to see a fight in which one party will get humiliated.  Tabloid and cable news goad debate participants to move beyond mere disagreement over some issues into open anger, hostility, and malice.  Some of these alleged debates have had all the coherence of a fight over a swing on an elementary school playground.   To those of us involved in teaching human communication, these occasions are evidence of a massive failure of our education system.  Most educated people who note the gross deficiencies in these so-called debates dismiss them with a shrug of the shoulders.  The commentators who presume to divine the winners of the debates do so on the basis of who dominated and put on the most brash performances.  They assess the presentation of ideas and supporting arguments far down on their lists of comments.  But their guiding principle is to produce the angry conflicts that make "good television"--fodder for the dolts.

The cable news anchors have goaded some thoughtful and articulate candidates to act like Donald Trump in order to get some positive notice from them.  And Trump has been thoroughly diagnosed by experts on human behavior as entering an advanced stage of dementia.  The candidates have submitted to the demands for performances rather than focus on ideas and supporting information.  The American people have accepted this as the way democracy works, unaware that Big Brother has manipulated them so that they can't see what is before their eyes or hear what is actually said.

For those who may wish to know what the real issues are for American democracy, there is the written word still being produced.  And there are some town halls during which candidates actually provide information.  But how many people care or know how to avail themselves of that information?

Monday, February 17, 2020

What makes brains circle drains?

JohnTsitrian over at the South Dakota Standard takes up a favorite state aphorism recently recited at a legislative cracker barrel.  It is, "if you don't like South Dakota, get out."  Cory Heidelberger's Dakota Free Press covered the latest outburst.

And that is exactly what many bright and talented people do. They leave when they get the opportunity.

Having been retired for a long time, I no longer have daily encounters with college students, but when I did, getting out of South Dakota was the prime goal for many of them.  They wanted to live and work some place where their educations and abilities were recognized and appreciated.  And for a time, their goals were the cause of an almost-war declared by state officials and leaders.

Northern State, where I worked, was primarily a teachers' college.  It was a successful one.  It excelled in teacher education, but over time gained a reputation for the strong programs in the subject matters that teachers teach.  Consequently, students in other disciplines found that it made  them competitive in many fields of endeavor.  

I recall writing letters of recommendation for students, not only to surrounding states, but in places as distant as California, Massachusetts, and Florida.  At one point, state officials and leaders were made aware that there was a migration of our strongest students from the state.  School principals and superintendents were finding it difficult to fill vacant teaching positions because so many candidates were taking jobs in other states.  They complained to the department of education and the regents that the state schools were not helping supply the best teachers.

A president of Northern State was called on the carpet because the school was advertising as part of its recruiting program its success at placing students out of state .  It was using the term "gateway institution" as a way of emphasizing that it provided a pathway to other places.  It appealed to students whose goal it was to get out of South Dakota.  The college president was severely rebuked by state officials for using the term.

The faculty was asked to help the administration address the matter of the brain drain, and our first task was to define just how serious the problem was.  With the help of some school districts, we found that there were two waves of outmigration in the state.  The first was when students graduated from high school and went out of state to college.  The second occurred at graduation from college when students who went to college in South Dakota left the state to take up their careers.  What we found was that the bright students were motivated early in their educations to set the goal of leaving South Dakota.  Programs such as special scholarships were established to lure bright students to stay in the state to go to college, but such efforts only delayed the point at which they would leave.

The students told us the reason for their goals to leave.  They aspired to live and work in circumstances not available in South Dakota.  The pay, particularly in education, was much better elsewhere.  And so were the commensurate working and living conditions.  Parents and teachers encouraged young people to seek productive and satisfying lives, and they sought such lives where they were available--wnich was seldom in South Dakota.  

One of the measures of a state that is used by market analysts to identify the attitudes that shape the intellectual environment within a state is to trace where prominent people choose to live when they retire or move out of state. Many retirees move because of the winter weather.  They join the migration from the Midwest in general to retirement communities in Florida, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, etc.  Winter in South Dakota can be confining.  And many move to where they have family, whatever the weather may be like.  But a significant number move to places where the culture is more sustaining.  Around the time I retired, a number of fellow retirees moved to Minnesota suburbs within an easy commute to the Twin Cities.  They sought a change in intellectual climate.   When one of them was queried about why he moved from South Dakota to a similar climate, he said, "My idea of retirement is not sitting in a boat on the world's biggest stock dam [referring to Lake Oahe] trying to catch the world's dullest fish, or blasting away at the world's dumbest game bird while trying to avoid getting shot by some of the world.s dumbest hunters."   He then cited the cultural opportunities of the Twin Cities and access to a huge university library where he could continue to participate in the work of his chosen profession in a more leisurely manner.  He did not endear himself to many South Dakotans.

Dedicated South Dakotans find it difficult to deal with the fact that some people find the state less than appealing and uplifting, and they get angry and hostile and tell those people to leave if they don't like it.  Then they get peevish when people do.  

Despite a climate that can reach the extremes of unpleasantness, the state has a variety of geographical features that make it interesting and stimulating.  Or at least, they could.  But the human environment countermands that potential.  While people blithely speak of South Dakota nice as a social characteristic, the dominant traits that pervade the state are small-mindedness, resentment, and often outright malice.  Those are the things that people of some knowledge, intelligence, and good will want to eliminate from their lives.  And so, they move on as soon as they can.

The degree of outmigration is given numbers in an article in The South Dakota Standard by attorney Jay Davis on the massive demographic shift that has taken place within the state during the last 50 years.  While two urban areas have experienced vigorous growth, outlying counties have experienced population losses up to 46 percent.  Brown County, where I reside, has about held its own since 1970, showing a population loss of only one percent.

But the loss of physical bodies is the outward sign of a loss of human interest.  I have written frequently that people who don't move their persons out of state often withdraw their participation in their communities.  I have noted this in South Dakota for many years.  Some civic and cultural organizations in which I once was active simply do not exist.  Veterans and fraternal organizations which once ran vital facilities in town have folded up and receded into the background.  

Josh Marshall of The Talking Points Memo writes about this despair and withdrawal on the national level:

 ...people...find the news so bad and toxic that they are trying to make a voluntary exit from the public sphere – withdraw into work, family, hobbies.
Both Jay Davis and Josh Marshall see the advent of Trump as the signal of the intellectual and moral deterioration that is changing the social and political direction of the country.  One political faction is behind legislation introduced throughout the country which is plotted to subsume the privacy and freedom of designated people and impose oppressive and punitive measures on them.  The South Dakota legislature has almost abandoned legislating to build the state to devote its efforts to repressive and punitive laws.

Donald Trump is the voice and the personification of the people who put him in office.  Their notion of making America great resides in an incompetent alleged businessman--six bankruptcies, who brags about groping women, a briber of women with whom he has cheated on his wife--a violation of law for which the lawyer he ordered to make the payments is in prison, and a prolific liar who has tallied over 16,000 lies in the conduct of his presidency.  His character was thoroughly revealed in the news and in the way he conducted himself at his rallies and public events.  There is no way his supporters could not know this.  He is what they want.

They represent what people who do leave South Dakota are  getting away from.  But now the malice and dishonesty that seethes beneath South Dakota nice is a national issue.  If there is no place to go, people withdraw and retreat into enclaves.  Even if Trump is voted out of office, the people who endorse dishonesty and corruption with malice toward all who don't will be with us.  It is government by the people and about half the people want national degeneracy.  It is not a matter of partisan politics.  It's a matter of moral choice.

Intelligent and honorable people would rather avoid the degenerate.  Brains and aspirations are circling the drain looking for some positive hope to grab onto before they are swept into the great American sewer.  Even churches are not a refuge from Trump's contaminants  which are as virulent as coronavirus and have the same effects.

During the impeachment trial, there was much quoting of the founders, especially from The Federalist Papers. They were invoked as sophistries to obscure the nefarious ways of Donald Trump.  But our current times make the revolutionary words of Thomas Paine more relevant, as he wrote "These are the times that try men's souls." He offers some words to grab onto:
~It is an affront to treat falsehood with complaisance.
 ~That God cannot lie, is no advantage to your argument, because it is no proof that priests can not, or that the Bible does not.

~We have it in our power to begin the world over again.

Monday, February 10, 2020

*The stable genius destroys an honor*

"For the President of the United States to bestow one of the nation’s highest laurels on Limbaugh is a morally corrosive and politically cynical act. It is a kind of assault on the achievements of so many previous award winners, a list that includes Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Václav Havel, Rosa Parks, and John Lewis. It is appalling to see Rush Limbaugh’s name listed alongside theirs."

If Donald Trump has any genius, it is his talent to destroy human decency.  He is totally driven by malice.  

There is a long list of people who over the years have been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Most are people who have contributed to the advance of democracy in some way that can be acknowledged, if not totally agreed with.  The criteria for the awards  are  contributions to: "(1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors".   There are quite a few from the political world and they cover the spectrum from rigid conservative to progressive liberal.  Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, for example, are recipients, and while we who lean to the left oppose their policies and their political machinations, they did not descend to a level of perfidy and contumely in the way they conducted themselves.  

That is not so in the case of Rush Limbaugh, who was made a recipient by Donald Trump during his State of the Union speech.   Trump and Limbaugh share a trait.  They never say or do anything out of good will.  Even benign words out of their mouths have a malicious purpose.  Trump emulates Limbaugh, who is also driven by malice.  

Limbaugh is a prolific spreader of lies.  He has earned a reputation for his malicious attacks and lies. When his broadcasting network is confronted about the damaging things he says, they reply that he is not a journalist, but an entertainer who performs for his audience.  The inference that can be drawn from that is that Limbaugh's audience is composed of the kind of people who once packed their picnic baskets to attend public hangings to make holidays out of them.  Nothing is as entertaining as watching other people humiliated and strangled to death.  

Limbaugh is a master of scurrility.  He maligns hordes of people.  But he keeps a lot of fact-checkers employed.

In one stroke of reality television, Trump turned the Presidential Medal of Freedom into a badge of dishonor.  Now good people live in fear that someone might want to hang one around their neck and put them in the same category of dishonor as Limbaugh. 

Friday, February 7, 2020

The U.S. is primed for an explosion

From The Onion:  Satire comes true
I claim no status as a predictor of public events.  But sometimes the indications that something is about to happen are so abundant and so compelling that the conclusions are obvious.  The indications that the United States is about to erupt in a violent rebellion have reached that point.  

I came to such a conviction many years ago when I worked for a newspaper in Illinois.  I spent a weekend in September in Wisconsin at a  workshop held by a journalistic organization.  As I drove back to Illinois late on Sunday afternoon, I was passing by Lake Geneva in the company station wagon assigned to me.  A large group of college-age people who had apparently gathered to enjoy an early autumn weekend had turned to demonstrating.  Civil rights, the draft into the Vietnam War, poverty, women's liberation, and many other things motivated them to abandon recreational pursuits for expressing their dissatisfactions with the direction the country was headed.  They crowded the highway I was on and were obstructing the traffic.

There were some young people who seemed to enjoy the opportunity to act out, but most of them were expressing their opposition and anger at the political attitudes dominating the nation.  They halted the traffic, were shouting and waving signs of protest, and  milled around to avoid the police who had converged to try to restore order.  One young man in an effort to evade the police jumped up on the hood of my station wagon as he ran from the police.  He left a big dent from the boots he was wearing on the hood.  I was going to have a hard time explaining that dent to the fleet manager when I turned the car in.  But the major impression left on me was that the country was headed for a time of violent rebellion.

And, indeed, it exploded

There was much violence in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  The Detroit riots, the Democratic Convention in Chicago, Kent State, and a multitude of other eruptions are forgotten as dominating the social history of the time.  There was something about the intensity of the young people surrounding my car that Sunday afternoon that projected a sense of the tumult to come.  And it came.

For the past few years I have felt a sense of foreboding like that again.  As massive marches have been organized to protest what Donald Trump stands for and does,  I've expected the peaceful demonstrations to explode into a flash of anger.  The impeachment of Trump has brought the nation to its flash point.

Democrats are widely criticized for the impeachment.  They knew the Senate would acquit him of the charges.  Conservatives have obtained a lot of enjoyment out of deriding the Democrats' defeat and what they regard as the triumph of Trump.  They gloat that the American people are watching Trump deny and evade any responsibility for his attempt to extort the Ukraine president into performing one of his malignant schemes.  But the impeachment had a different purpose than punishing Trump.  For those who have the intelligence and moral courage to face unpleasant truths, the impeachment detailed an instance of Trump's belligerent malignity and the GOP senators' cowardly servility and anxious will to make a mockery of their oath of impartiality in service of their master.  Together, they cancelled out the respect this nation has earned as it strove to be the world's leading democracy.  The impeachment detailed how low this nation has sunk and who is sinking it.

But that is all a prelude to the explosion of rage that has been building up with each lie Trump has told and each nod of assent to his lies by those who join him in the debasement of the nation--whether out of fear of him or the desire to be like him.  

As I heard Trump make his petulant and juvenile rant during his "victory celebration" and heard and saw politicians prostrate themselves before him in an obsequious fervor through their applause and laughter,  I could sense the revulsion being inspired throughout the nation.  It was a pageant of obscenity.

An election is coming in November.  But the vibrations I am sensing make me doubt that the nation will hold together that long.  Trump and McConnell put on a very convincing demonstration that facts and Constitutional procedures can easily be subverted by people who would rather have kings and courtiers.  People who saw this demonstration for what it is will not be so foolish as to believe the democratic processes have any integrity left in them. 

Let's see if the Capitol is standing by election time.  Or anyone gives a damn if it is.  If they survive what promises to be an angry summer.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States