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

Sunday, September 18, 2022

That gorgeous history of feudalism consumes us again

The United States are destined either to surmount the gorgeous history of feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous failure of time.--Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas

The death and funeral arrangements of Queen Elizabeth II has dominated America's attention and news for the past weeks.    The United States have serious problems to confront, such as the overt criminality of Donald Trump and his deflation of the nation, but people are too absorbed in the British monarchy, whose rejection was the founding of our nation, to give much concern to the state of America.   Americans are generally not very savvy about what defines their republic, and raise the question, as Ben Franklin did, of whether we can keep it.

Americans are enamored of royalty.  Pomp and luxury define for many status and success.  Some prefer a monarch to an elected president, despite the fact that the British monarch wields little political power.   British royalty is a matter of feudal nostalgia, not functioning government.  Where democracy has taken root, homages to royalty are reminders of a rejected past.

Some members of my mother's family claimed to have royal blood.  My oldest brother and some cousins did a genealogy of the family and found it wasn't true.  When we asked my grandmother, who with her sisters emigrated to America from Sweden, about it, she said no: royalty was what they came to America to get away from. 

But the fascination with royalty lingers on in many who think it distinguishes them from the rest of the American hoi polloi.  This fondness for a higher status reveals a misunderstanding and sometimes an outright rejection of the concept of equality as the basis for our government and culture.   Many people, if not most, believe in social ranking as an organizing principle.  They believe in class stratification as an inherent force in society.  They accept class division and intensify it. They really don't like democracy.

No one understood the attraction and destructive effect of feudalism better than Mark Twain.  He portrays it in all its forms in his written works.  Slavery, he shows, is the extension of the feudal mentality.  And so is the mind and manner of Donald Trump.  His regime as president was a return to feudalism.

The point to understand is that it is what many Americans want.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

The American lesion

  Prominent political observers have noted that the political divide in America could evolve into a civil war.  Anti-Trump Republicans, such as members of the Lincoln Project, have commented on the possibility in recent weeks.  The news media tends to treat the opposition to Donald Trump and his supporters as a matter of partisan politics, Democrats versus Republicans, liberals versus conservatives.  That is a grave mistake.

The contempt for Trump and his kind is far deeper and more fundamental than the political preferences that exist within a democracy.  America was founded on principles of equality, liberty, and justice.  Its history is one of a struggle to instill those qualities into the life of all its citizens.  There have been failures, but it has progressed through a civil war, world wars, and a civil rights movement to move the country toward those ideals.  The presidency of Donald Trump brought that movement to a halt and reversed the trend.  Trump represents the odious aspects of mind and character that America was designed not to be.   

Trump is a despicable person.  He is a prodigious liar.  He is petty and mean-minded.   He is vengeful. His history of bankruptcies and business failures show him to be incompetent.    We ask what there is about him that his supporters like, but it is more to the point to ask what kind of people admire  him.  The answer provides the reason some observers see the potential for a civil war.  And the answer identifies the lesion that festers and mars the American political  body.

Business executives do not make good public officials in a democracy.  A few try  to practice the concepts of a democracy in their business practices, but business corporations and democracies have opposing purposes.  Businesses are organized on hierarchical lines with ascending ranks of authority.  Executives measure their success according to how many people work under them, not how many people they serve.  Corporations are feudal in nature, and America's founders were committed to overturn feudalism on America's land.  Slave-holding plantations were an extension of the feudal system, and the Civil War was a battle between democracy and feudalism.  Walt Whitman stated the American agenda:

The United States are destined either to surmount the gorgeous history of feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous failure of time.

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency signaled a failure of democracy among the American people, a return to feudalism.  While commentators keep stating that he has put democracy itself in danger, the public seems to regard those warnings as the usual partisan rhetoric.  They fail to recognize that there is a significant segment of fellow citizens who define liberty as a right to discriminate against other people.  The Trump mentality from which these people draw their inspiration is not one embraces human rights and equality.  It stands in direct opposition to government for, by, and of the people. As noted in a recent Washington Post story, America is in a state of decline and the rest of the world has noticed.

And Trump and his followers are leading the way.  They are a lesion on democracy.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

When kids go to school and no teacher is there

The shortage of teachers has causes that are deeply engrained in our culture.   A Washington Post article outlines the many causes:

...pandemic-induced teacher exhaustion, low pay and some educators’ sense that politicians and parents — and sometimes their own school board members — have little respect for their profession amid an escalating educational culture war that has seen many districts and states pass policies and laws restricting what teachers can say about U.S. history, race, racism, gender and sexual orientation, as well as LGBTQ issues.

As we near the beginning of a new school year, there are news stories of districts scrambling to fill teaching vacancies.  At the beginning of the month, South Dakota still had 300 positions to fill.  A number of internet sources that track teacher staffing are reporting shortages with no prospect in sight for relieving them.  Schools of education are not producing enough graduates to fill the vacancies, so panicky measures with no regard for training and qualifications are being taken to get someone in the classrooms when the students arrive.  The Florida governor is trying to supplant the teachers with military veterans who have no training in education, in some cases very little education.  That act is evidence of how education is a negligible priority in the exercise of political power. 

South Dakota's shortage of teachers has gotten the attention of national media

South Dakota has long faced a teacher shortage due in part to low salaries and large class sizes, but a new factor seems to be worsening the problem: politicization of education, South Dakota News Watch reports.

The politicization of education actually has been taking place for a long time.  We are feeling the effects of it now.  Some years ago experienced teachers who were friends of mine were advising their children not to go into education for the reasons listed in the sentence above.  The Governor, whose college degree is questionable, has commissioned Hillsdale College, a bastion of conservative anti-intellectualism, to write a set of standards for teaching social studies, as if social studies teachers or the colleges from which they obtained their degrees or the schools they work in have never considered how effective teaching is done or been exposed to what the subject matter entails.   The Daily Beast details the political intrusions into education in South Dakota:

State officials are taking a more hands-on approach to education—recently, lawmakers have tried to regulate the treatment of transgender students, the state DOE removed references to Native American culture in social studies guidelines, and the governor banned critical race theory, even though it is not taught in public schools. Parental presence is also increasing, and some educators have faced criticism about their classroom decorations. The state’s secretary of education said there are programs to help recruit and retain teachers, but some education experts fear that the K-12 system may begin to unravel due to the heightened micromanagement of teachers

The news makes clear that the political interference is eliminating education and replacing it with indoctrination in our schools.   There is a national shortage of teachers, as people who would become teachers realize that they will not be allowed to educate in many schools.  Politicization is displacing education as the dominant principle in the management of our schools.  People who value true education cannot and will not teach under political dictatorships.  That unraveling of the education system that is so feared is well on its way.  Competent teachers will go to where they can teach, and that is not the South Dakota of Kristi Noem.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

It's the politics, stupid.

American democracy is being dismantled.  The fundamental and essential act for a democracy, the vote, is being subverted. People who want to abolish basic American rights, for various reasons, are putting elections under siege by making false claims that they are fraudulent.  Donald Trump and his loony goons have adopted the mantra that the election in which he was defeated was stolen.  There is no evidence of serious voter fraud, but a unanimous documentation that it was conducted with efficient integrity.  However, true to the Trump tradition of lying dishonesty, he and his cronies hew to the Hitlerian principle that if you persistently repeat a lie, people will come to believe it.  Trump is on record for telling 30,573 lies during his presidency.  He is persistent, if not good, at lying.

The Trumpists scheme that their way to  power is to undermine elections.  To do so, election officials try to overturn elections won by Trump opponents by attacking the certifications.  Officials at various levels of governed sign certifications that votes have been properly cast and counted.  The insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, was an attempt to interfere with the 2020 presidential election.  While there may be much talk about election fraud, the body of laws and rules governing the vote makes cheating very difficult to get away with.  The process of checks and balances is in place from when individuals cast their votes through the counting and announcement of the tally.  Incidents of incomplete or miscounting are rare.  After the 2020 election, more than 70 suits were entered into the courts charging election fraud.  All were dismissed because there was no evidence to support charges of fraud.

Honest elections are simple to determine.  You count the votes, and who gets the most wins the election.  But when you get a group of people who think democracy is just a contest to see who wins the power, you get false and absurd claims about fraud and sinister conspiracies and a government that doesn't function.  And you get demands for recounts of the vote and constant bickering over how to count. Politics has become just a form of incoherence.

When incoherence rules, democracy doesn't.  Then, chaos rules.  A good portion of the country is wallowing in chaos.  Our politics have devolved into such a demented state that they no longer sustain democracy.  They are the enemy of democracy.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Speaking of pissing in the punch bowl...

Joe Biden stutters.   During his election campaign and his election to president, there has been much media coverage on this fact.  (Put joe biden on stuttering  in your search engine to see all the references.)  He did a television special on how he overcame the problem.  He said, stuttering doesn't define you.  The BBC pointed out that he is the first person with a stammer to be elected to the American presidency.   King George VI had this speech impediment and in 2010 a movie, The King's Speech, was made about it.

That information somehow evaded the writer of a letter-to-the-editor in the Aberdeen American News.

  Joe Biden recently put his cards on the table. More precisely, he turned his instruction card around for everyone to witness his feeble-mindedness. The leader of the free world needs a cheat sheet to undertake basic tasks like entering a room, sitting down and departing.  After all, that's a lot juxtaposed together, and Joe

wouldn't want to get them out of order.   

   The most interesting directive from Joe's handlers was, "You take your seat." Apparently "be seated" or "sit down" weren't specific enough and confused Joe. Clarity on who's sitting and standing is vital as Joe once encouraged a wheelchair-bound paraplegic to stand and take a bow.

   I'm sure it's amusing to the millions of legitimate voters, who'd have gladly voted for a reeking sock puppet over Donald Trump, that Trump lost to someone so cognitively diminished. As you laugh about that, think back a year ago when Joe Biden met with Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland. How many note cards do you think Joe needed? Do you think Putin noticed Joe shuffling through his cards? Did somebody slip in a "Go ahead, invade Ukraine" card or did Putin just assume that?

   Out of respect for Joe's mental decline, everyone who cast a vote for Joe should seek to emulate him. Take a 3-by-5 card and write "you wasted your vote" on it. Take it along to the grocery store, gas station, airport and everywhere else as a reminder that you got what you voted for. You took Dr. Jill's advice, held your nose and voted for Joe, the sock puppet. 

   Dan Oliver, Aberdeen

The newspapers I've worked for would never have allowed that letter to be printed.  It is premised on no factual basis and is totally devoted to committing a libel. The writer seems to think puerile taunts are witty, but the incoherent references make one wonder why the newspaper did not return it for some intelligible revisions before being published.  Such writers will howl with wounded claims of censorship if their letters are rejected, but reputable newspapers will insist on some standards of probity to justify what they choose to publish.

The letter is of the same level of communication as taunting cripples.  It only contributes to the evidence of how degenerate humans can be.  And it contributes no perspective on a political circumstance, but only offers an example of the befuddled state in which some people live their lives.  And the writing provides disheartening evidence of the failures of our education system.

We would never take a swallow of punch into which some demented soul has pissed, but we live in a democracy that is shaped by votes of people whose political choice is malicious libel.  The person who wrote that letter was allowed to exercise his freedom of speech, so we'll exercise ours by pointing out that feebleminded shouts of malice contribute nothing to the political dialogue.  The letter is just another dribble of piss in the punch bowl.

Friday, July 29, 2022

We are very good at killing kids and other atrocities

Something went terribly wrong at Uvalde, Texas.  Most people would think that the killing of two teachers and seventeen kids in a school is wrong,  but such  shootings are so common in America that they are one of the things the country has become known for.  Wrong, certainly, but routine. 

Somebody released videos of the almost-400 law enforcement officers at the shooting site which inspired malicious criticism of the officers.  In one case, an officer is shown looking at texts on his mobile phone.  People were enraged that an officer would be diddling around on his cell phone when he was supposed to be dealing with an active shooter.  They flooded internet sites with their angry disparagement of the officer.

It turns out that the officer's wife was one of teachers shot, and he was responding to messages from her.  She later died from her wounds.

Another video shows an officer going up to a hand sanitizer dispenser in the school hallway and applying some to his hands.  That action also inspired a spate of angry derogatory remarks about the officer.

It turns out that the officer had been instructed to help medical attendants with aiding the shooting victims.  The medics wore sanitized gloves and the officer thought he should take some sanitary precautions when handling wounded children, too.

The people who jumped to disparaging conclusions about the policemen's actions are typical of that portion of the population that chooses to live in a state of small-minded malevolence.  Their main contribution to society is a hateful stupidity. They are the people who are always ready with some carping criticism about the events and people they observe, and some of these people have influence.  Over the years, I have noticed how such people are a pernicious force that, like a malignant tumor, contaminates and infects the life around them.  They are part of what went terribly wrong at Uvalde.  

One evening at a professional meeting in Dallas, I was seated at dinner with a woman professor from a fairly reputable college in Minnesota.  She launched into a denigrating harangue about  the personality traits of one of the presenters at the meeting, who was a well-known, acclaimed scholar, and she  spent the evening denigrating a host of other people, interlaced with accounts of her own importance.  She was accompanied by two young male professors from her college who seemed to be in a state of thralldom and nodded agreement with her malign pronouncements.  More than 20 years later, I regard her as one of the nastiest horrors I've encountered.  I was stunned that a professor would exhibit such a degree of petty but intense malice and get away with venting it in front of professional colleagues.  That episode that night, however, illustrates a factor that underlies the mass shootings and other gun violence that pervades the nation.  A toxic social environment emanates from people like her and poisons the atmosphere.

The police presence at the Uvalde school and the 77 minutes of their bumbling around before taking down the shooter are cause for intense and aggressive examination of what was going on.  The Texas legislature issued one of the first reports, which said:

“Other than the attacker, this report did not find any ‘villains’ in the course of its investigation. There is no one to whom we can attribute malice or ill motives.”

They had not, apparently, included all the comments elicited by the police performance as part of the total incident.  They focused on the flaws of the shooter, but not on the social malignancies with which he lived.

National Public Radio News summarized the boy's life:

By the time he reached fourth grade, investigators say he was clearly struggling academically as he was identified as "at-risk." A speech impediment that was not addressed or treated likely contributed to an overall lack of friends and bullying by other students, according to testimony from his family members.

Problems continued into middle school and high school, when the gunman "had declining attendance, with more than one hundred absences annually beginning in 2018 along with failing grades and increasingly dismal performance on standardized and end-of-course exams."

At age 17 he had only completely ninth grade and was then involuntarily withdrawn from Uvalde High School because of his lack of attendance and poor academic performance. After dropping out of high school, the gunman "turned down a dark path," becoming more isolated from those around him, according to the report.

This account details the failings of the shooter.  But it also details the failings of the people and agencies around him.  People will talk endlessly about what a horrible person he is and the awfulness of his background with no realization that their sanctimonious chatter is perpetuating and intensifying those toxic conditions so that other young people may get caught up in them.

A factor evident in mass shootings is that the shooters know their own lives will end.  They shoot themselves, as the Columbine shooters did, or commit suicide by cop.  Very few are captured alive.  In the aftermath of a shooting incident, mental illness is usually brought up, but that evades the real question:  What has brought the shooters to the point that they think no life, including their own, is worth living?  In all the analysis of shooters'  motives, this question never seems to be asked, and certainly not answered.  There is a lot of discussion of what constitutes psychopathology, but little about what influences in the shooters' environment make them give up on life.  Investigators seem to avoid trying to identify the ways that other people and influences contribute to a shooter's mentality.

The pissing in a punch bowl theory applies here.  That theory holds that a drop of piss ruins not just the punch but the whole party.  As teachers understand,  you can have a great class of interested and cooperative kids, and one resentful, complaining student will join the class and it turns into an unruly, clamoring mob.  One person can unsettle a group, a community, even a nation.  

When mass shootings occur, particularly of children, we suffer national heartbreak, and the media leads us in a ritual of commiseration.  We would be more to-the-point if we asked if our words and actions contribute to the infirmity that pervades our country.  The refrain that we have freedom of speech is what people invoke to justify what they say, but many seem to think that freedom absolves them from the effects of what they say or do.  Still, we know that accusing and slandering words contribute to the minds of those looking for reasons to  commit malefic acts.

We may despise and condemn mass shooters, but we first need to find out what made them that way.  Maleficence is contagious.  Have you pissed in the punch bowl lately?

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

What happened to Dr. Downs after he was let go at Northern State?

Timothy Downs and friend
In April 2021, Northern State University suddenly announced the resignation of its president, Dr. Timothy M. Downs.  The press release said he was pursuing another opportunity in higher education.

A news story by Jonathan Ellis of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader at the time reported that some state legislators were upset with programs that Dr. Downs was putting in place to meet the standards for diversity that are of concern throughout higher education institutions.  They were circulating the draft of a letter telling Dr. Downs to either curtail the measures he initiated or resign.  The report did not indicate if the letter had been received by him, but if news reporters knew of the letter, Dr. Downs would certainly be aware of it.  Attempts by reporters to obtain more information were met with the response by regents that the press release contained all the information that would be given out.  It was assumed that Dr. Downs accepted the invitation to resign.  In effect, he was fired.

The circumstances of his leaving are important because they indicate that the university system has been compromised politically.  Regents, like school boards, are supposed to mediate between the public and the professional staffs responsible for the operations of the universities.  When politicians intrude directly into the running of universities, academic integrity is compromised, and the degrees they confer lose their credibility as authentic badges of academic achievement.  

Informed members of the public are aware of the political status of universities.  They select colleges which offer reputations for academic freedom and honest scholarship.  The South Dakota system has experienced a significant decline in enrollments over the last decade.  Its headcount enrollment has slipped from 36,430 students to 33,445 for a decline of 8.1 percent.  In terms of full time equivalent enrollment it has gone from 26,468 to 23,964 for a decline of 9.6 percent.  The state system has received a national ranking as the worst in the nation.

Northern State has gone from a headcount of 3,622 to 3,340 for a drop of 7.7 percent.  Its full time equivalent registration has gone from 2,157 to 1,750 for an alarming decline of 18.8 percent in ten years. 

When the faculty has been approached about the administration of the college, its leaders have been defensive and resentful.  Whereas, the faculty for 40 years had been operating under a collective bargaining contract through which it could exert some influence on academic performance and scholarly reputation, the state legislature passed a law in 2020 banning faculty unions.  When approached about how the faculty regarded the dismissal of its president, a faculty senator complained that the questions amounted to "bagging" the faculty.  When the reputation of a college is tarnished by political interference, the faculty is damaged the most.  And potential students look elsewhere to advance their educations.

The firing of Dr. Downs occurred during the floundering of state higher education as it dealt with unabashed political intrusion.  His performance as president was notable for raising $110 million and the building of new facilities on campus.  No information has been offered about his academic leadership, but we do not live in a time when college presidents are appraised for their scholarship.  Nevertheless, the handling of personnel matters in Dr. Down's case indicates that higher education leadership had other things on its minds than the efficacy of instruction delivered to students in South Dakota.

Professional academic organizations require that professors who are fired be given reasons of just cause and that due process be followed.  Reputable universities abide by those rules as a matter of protecting academic freedom and the critical exchange of ideas through which knowledge is established. While college presidents generally work under a contract with a governing body, they should receive the same procedures of due process as their professors.  When institutions fail to observe basic standards of academic integrity in their personnel actions, they call into question their status as valid organizations of higher learning.  Often such violations of standards of personnel procedures result in censure by professional organizations. From 1962 through 1991, South Dakota was on the list of censured administrations by the American Association of University Professors.  It looks as if some legislators and officials are working to get the state on that list again.  Even if no formal censure is made, the action against Dr. Downs is known among prospective students and professors, who will not recommend South Dakota as a reputable place to study or work.

In took a year for Dr. Downs to find that opportunity he wished to pursue.  A few months ago, Cal Poly Humboldt, a state university in Arcata, California, made this announcement:  "On May 1, Timothy M. Downs became Interim Chief of Staff in the President’s Office. He steps in for Sherie C. Gordon, who is currently Interim Vice President for Administration & Finance."

The Cal Poly Humboldt president for whom Dr. Downs is working is Dr. Tom Jackson, Jr., who was president of Black Hills State University from 2014 to 2019.  It is tempting to wonder if those two former South Dakota university presidents are trading tales about what it was like to work for those idiots back in South Dakota.

Here is what the announcement said further about Dr. Downs:

Downs brings decades of higher education experience as a scholar, educator, and leader, and as an advocate for diversity and equity. Downs is also committed to creating and sustaining learning communities that prepare students for careers and rewarding lives.

His academic career began at Cal State LA, where he was a professor of Communication Studies and served as the assistant vice president for Academic Affairs. He has held the positions of dean for Emporia State University and Gannon University. Later, at Niagara University in New York, he served as provost and chief academic officer until 2016 when he was named president of Northern State University (NSU) in Aberdeen, South Dakota. During his tenure at NSU, the university developed over 20 new programs; increased student retention by 10%; increased graduation rates by 5%; stabilized undergraduate enrollment, and increased graduate enrollments by more than 25%, and improved campus facilities.  

Throughout Downs’ career, he has championed equitable treatment and professional growth of students, faculty, and staff. This perspective is confirmed by his development and support for student success centers and programs at three universities. He has advocated for education leading to professional development and worked diligently to provide career advancement opportunities for employees. As an ardent supporter for the liberal arts, he believes in all students developing outstanding critical thinking skills. As a result, he was the driving force behind NSU joining the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges. Downs holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Communication Studies from Sacramento State and West Virginia University. He also earned a Ph.D. in Organizational Communication from the University of Oklahoma. 

It is significant to note that the announcement stresses Down's academic efforts at Northern State, although it does not mention the $110 million raised during his tenure there. 

It raises a question about whether Northern is run by politicians or professional staff and if it is a reputable place to study and work. 

Monday, July 11, 2022

America aborted democracy

July 4, 2022:  America's landscape.  Highland Park, Ill.  Let freedom reign.

Under all the optimistic chatter about America's future as a democracy, there is an implicit recognition that it could fail. The more astute scholars of political history point out that it has, in fact, often failed, and has many current indicators of failure.  (Watergate, Trump, et al.)  America seldom realizes what it aspires to be in the minds of the benevolent.  Strides toward equality, liberty, and good will toward all are always blocked from actually being realized. There is a large contingent of the populace that want such things for themselves, but not for others.  They use democracy as a means of imposing prejudices, not surmounting them.  The fact is that most people like to exercise control over others. As Abigail Adams wrote to her husband: "Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could."  That lust for the power to oppress is the big unsettled question that underlies the failures of democracy.  As a professor of politics once said to me,  politics is not a matter of establishing personal freedoms, but a matter of establishing who gets to fuck over whom.  

Although America likes to think of itself as the bastion of freedom, it is in constant conflict over what freedoms are exercised and who gets to exercise them.  No subject defines the conflict more emphatically than abortion.  It devolves into an argument between self-determination and social control, between whether women have sovereignty over their bodies or must live in obeisance to those who would assert authority over them.  

Opponents of abortions may have moral pretenses regarding the preservation of life, but their arguments place a diminished value on the life of the mother.  The hopes and aspirations of the woman for her own life are irrelevant and must be sacrificed to the gestation and delivery of a living baby.  Once the baby is delivered, what happens to it and its mother is no longer a concern of the anti-abortionists.  Their commitment to pro-life seems to expire at birth, for the most part.  The obscene sham of their claim of right-to-life is revealed in the laws they concoct to criminalize abortion for the mother, the provider, and anyone who helps arrange it.  The crowning hypocrisy of those laws is that they call for imprisonment and even the death penalty for anyone involved in an abortion.  And the anti-abortionists have the supreme malice or the abject stupidity to call themselves pro-life.

As a professor, I have never been involved in advising women about pregnancies, but I have been witness to many  circumstances of unplanned pregnancies, which have been both carried to term and aborted.  My role has been to make it possible for students to complete work toward their degrees and make arrangements to achieve that end.  The instances are not numerous, but not really rare.  When I worked with some other professors to provide the means for some pregnant young women to complete their educations, we were accused of promoting promiscuity.  It became clear from the inane accusations that some people were much more interested in condemning and maligning young women than they were in helping them build their lives.  And the need some people have to demean and disparage others is the gravest threat to democracy. 

As far as I'm concerned, abortion is none of my business.  What is my business, as it is with every United States citizen, is the integrity with which we apply the three essential principles of our democracy:  freedom, equality, and justice.  When I was a young professor, I struggled with the matter of abortions.  They were a choice that affect college-aged women, and at the time a great many of them were back-alley affairs.  If young women wanted to have authority over their lives, an unplanned child could put an end to their personal aspirations.  The concern at the time was to make abortion a safe and efficient medical procedure.  A compelling reason for an abortion is to save the life of the mother, and that includes saving the life to which she aspires.  That was the context in which Roe vs. Wade was decided:  the right to save a life in progress.  To maintain that right to a life, a woman might have to choose an abortion. I, like many people of the time, saw it as a choice that needed to be considered in many cases.  

A concurrent matter that occupies America as much as abortion is mass shootings and gun violence overall.  Gun violence is so common that it defines America.  There is news of a mass shooting almost every week.  Sandy Hook with 20 six-and-seven-year-old students and six teachers is the image of America now.  Uvalde, Texas, with 19 young children and two teachers shot replicates that image.  The Highland Park Fourth of July parade presents to us what America has become in reality beneath the patriotic banners and the trite and untrue slogans.

There are no images of the bodies mutilated by bullets and the blood of victims smeared over the school room floors or on the route of the Highland Park Parade.    The images of children torn to shreds by gunfire are withheld in deference to their families. No one wants to see the remains of their kinfolk held up as an example of the realities of gunfire.  Consequently, Americans are spared having to face what their country has become.  Some Americans have said that the photos of Sandy Hook are posed and that the incident never happened.  They say it was staged as a pretext to take away firearms from the people.   Democracy and civil rights don't mean much when the right to slaughter seven-year-old kids in their classrooms takes precedence over their safety and their lives.

A woman runs with her children toward safety after the Sandy Hook shooting.  
This is what America has become.  Land of the free and home of the brave.

Few people have the courage or the integrity to take an honest look at what America has become.  

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

What do you do if you don't want to be an American anymore?

My grandparents emigrated to America because they did not want to be part of the social and political systems of their old world country.  It offered no promise to them.  So, they emigrated to America, the women to take house servant jobs and the men to join the farm and factory workforce.  The men and their descendants soon invested in farms.  Some became factory foremen while operating farms at the same time.  However, their guiding goal was to invest in the land.  They wanted to own a chunk of America.

Owning land had much to do with having sovereignty over one's own body and one's life.  Having dominion over a piece of land gave one the resources to assert independence and self-interest.  Willa Cather's Neighbor Rosicky stated the premise:  "In the country, if you had a mean neighbour, you could keep off his land and make him keep off yours." 

In today's urbanized America, it is extremely difficult to avoid mean neighbors.  They are part of the democratic process.  When the majority votes to make Donald Trump president,  the minority lives under the conditions of their values.  There are no refuges of self-sufficiency to retreat to.  Trump does not represent just a set of policies;  he represents an entire culture. That culture affects the country, and even if Trump is not in office, his followers impose the Trumpian culture where they can.  The song is over but the melody lingers on.

Trump sparked a discussion that is unusual among Americans, and has not been widely considered since the expatriate movement of the 1920s.  During his tenure as president, some people seriously talked about leaving the United States for a more amenable democracy.  Quite a number actually did it.

The significant aspect is that the talk about alternatives to living in America is not just speculative chatter. It reflects a deep dissatisfaction with American life by some people on both the left and right political wings. 

A source of discontent is the gun violence in America.  The frequent and constant shootings have become part of the American way of life to the point that they are a defining aspect of our culture.  Most people in other countries hold the United States in disdain because of the gun violence.  We are an outlier in the rate of deaths by guns.  It is cited by many U.S. citizens as a major detraction of the nation and something they'd like to move away from.  Seventy percent of Americans think our democracy is under assault.  Thirty-eight percent have indicated they have thought of leaving America.

Many people think America needs to change, but the divide among them has become too formidable to make that a possibility.  An increasing number of political scholars think a civil war is a likelihood.  Recent Supreme Court decisions concerning abortion, gun rights, and public religious practices have caused many to question if they should try to regain rights they have lost or try to find a more amenable way to live.  That process could involve moving or dissolving the union and staking out a new democracy in a different configuration of the states.   A song lyric by John Prine captures what many people are experiencing:  "I still love America, I just don't know how to get there anymore."

The divisions among Americans is not a matter of political disagreements.  Such differences have a chance to be moderated.  The divisions are between cultures that cannot stand each other, divisions for which reconciliation is not even a consideration.  The contending forces do not want to fight.  They simply do not want anything to do with each other.  They find the talk about common ground and unity an absurdity.  We cannot resort to the ballot box as a way of resolving differences because one side is insisting that the elections are fraudulent, although multiple investigations have found that is not true.

The conclusion of some political scholars is that the country will be experience massive acts of civil disobedience in which half of the people will refuse to participate with the other half.  The country will be deadlocked and will just disintegrate.  And perhaps different forms and different societies will emerge.

We may still love America, but in reality there is no such place to get to anymore.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Can videos save America?

The video camera is the major factor in police reform during recent decades.  It came into prominent notice in the case of Rodney King.  On March 3, 1991, King, a black man, was driving on Interstate-210 in Los Angeles when police thought he was behaving in a drunken manner.  They gave chase, and he gave high-speed flight.  When they finally stopped him, they put him on the ground and did a drum-corps routine on him with their billy-clubs and stun guns. A guy named George Holliday captured the performance on film from his apartment house balcony and sent it to the local television news station KTLA.

King was charged with the felony of evading the police, but the charges were dropped and the police chief said the four police would be disciplined.  When King was released from custody, the press interviewed him as he sat in a wheelchair.  He had a broken right leg in a cast, a cut and swollen face, a bruised body, and burn marks on his chest from the stun gun.

The four policemen were charged and brought to trial in a state court.  The jury returned a verdict of not guilty, which caused Los Angeles to erupt in a riot that lasted six days.  Sixty-three people were killed, 2,383 were injured, more than 12,000 were arrested, and estimates of property damage were over $1 billion.  The National Guard, the U.S. Army, and Marine Corps were needed to help control the situation.  

However, two of the officers were convicted later in federal court for violating King's civil rights.  He also sued the City of Los Angeles and was awarded $3.8 million in damages.  

Hundreds of videos of misperforming police have circulated in recent years.  When in situations involving  the police,  savvy citizens turn on their iPhone recorders.  One of the most notable is the video 17-year-old Darnella Frazier took of George Floyd being choked to death by a policeman.  That young woman's video literally set the world on fire by recording 10 minutes of America's holocaust.  The constant shooting of unarmed, often guiltless, black people is the moral equivalent of putting Jews and other minorities into gas ovens because of the race of which they are a member.  Darnella's video captured one of America's atrocious failures as a democracy and showed it to the world.  

People of the United States prefer to deny the failures of their country, for the most part.  They have neither the intelligence nor the courage to confront them. and they call that deficit patriotism.  They think the protests of Black Lives Matter and the antifa groups are unAmerican.  We've got the point where some politicians cite Hitler as an inspiring figure.  America has become the kind of country that we once fought against.

The videos of the American police state form a record of a nation in serious intellectual and moral decline.  One may hope that when people watch those videos, they come to a realization of what we have become as a nation, that we have abandoned the premises on which our Constitution was written.

But people move to states like South Dakota to evade any attempts to confront the ways in which the nation is rebuking the ideas of liberty, equality, and justice for all. When they chant make America great again, they seem to be recalling the antebellum South.

And so, we look to those people camera recorders and mobile phones to take the pictures that might save us from ourselves.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

The thing about Trump that is seldom mentioned

There is a fact about  Donald Trump that is seldom broached in accounts of his behavior.  But it is apparent in what he says and does.  Donald Trump is an incredibly stupid man.  He has the intelligence of a bucket of rocks, and he constantly puts it on display.

Lately, however, some news sources have compiled accounts of Trump's stupidity.  Salon put together a list of Trump's most stupid acts:

1)That time Trump suggested injecting household cleaners into people's lungs to cure them of the coronavirus.

2) That time he looked at a solar eclipse without eye protection — after everyone was repeatedly told not to look at the eclipse without eye protection. 

3) That time he couldn't admit he was wrong when he tweeted that Hurricane Dorian was going to hit Alabama, and so he drew on a weather map with a Sharpie to make it seem like he was right. 

4) That time he threw paper towels at people in Puerto Rico who had just endured Hurricane Maria.

5) That time he asked members of the National Security Council if they could nuke hurricanes rather than letting them hit the U.S. 

6) That time Trump was told to talk about Frederick Douglass at a Black History Month event, clearly had no idea who that was, and while trying to bullshit his way through the talk, implied that Douglass was still alive. 

7) That time he suggested that his much-desired border wall could just maybe be buttressed with alligator moats. 

8) That time he asked Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, "Didn't you guys burn down the White House?”

9) That time Trump "liked" a tweet praising Rihanna. 

10) When he called the Second Epistle to the Corinthians "Two Corinthians."

This leaves us to ponder about the intelligence level of the nation that elected him to be its president.

Friday, June 3, 2022

Profile of a shooter: abject nihilism

The school shooting in Texas came at a time when a man I correspond with had raised a question about whether our society is creating an entire class of alienated people who get desperate for some sense of equity within that society.  We were discussing the motives of mass shooters and had noted that some seem motivated by racial hatred, like the one in Buffalo, N.Y.,  and some by a sense of retaliation for being excluded from the category of those whose lives matter.  

We were recalling a mutual friend who was a high school guidance counselor who had received recognition for his successes in helping troubled young people find their ways to more untroubled lives.  Our mutual friend is no longer with us, but the principles of respect and fairness he lived by stay with anyone who knew him and the school he worked in.  He said that a functioning high school did not allow social hostilities to develop  on campus, and he was adept at helping students find constructive pathways to the recognition they sought. Violence on campuses reflects social problems in the community.  The hard task for educators is to make schools a refuge from those community hostilities, providing students with a vision of a beneficial way of life.  American public education was notable for its successes in that regard--until politics intruded into it.  The counselor said that many students believe the world is out to oppress and defeat them, because that is the face it shows them.

Salvador Rolando Ramos

He made the point that while counselors advise students on academic matters and their plans for the future, the aspect of their work that was most demanding was dealing with troubled adolescents.  What troubled young people in school the most was the problems they brought with them from their families and the outside community--racism, gender attitudes, religious bigotry, and social and political prejudices.  The counselor developed policies and programs in coordination with school administrators and teachers to insure that those attitudes were excluded from the way the school operated.

When schools launched anti-bullying campaigns, he upset many education officials when, in a speech he made at a teachers' convention, he said that any educator who glibly talked about bullying didn't know what they were talking about.  He said it was a misleading term because people think it is a matter of students physically intimidating the weaker kids.  That is not the problem.  The problem is students bringing prejudices, hatreds, and bigotries from the outside into the school setting.  Students bring to school personal histories and experiences  and the attitudes they absorb from families and the social milieu in which they live.  The term "bullying" is used to cover hate-motivated acts of prejudice and discrimination practiced in the community. The  counselor said he objected to the term because it was used to cover up more insidious motives for student misbehavior, such as racial, religious, and gender hatred.  

When the counselor retired, he was often hired as a consultant to school districts who were reorganizing to address issues they were facing.  This was shortly after the Columbine massacre, and he was asked to explain the reasons that a couple of young men could hatch such a plot.  He said he couldn't; reasoning was not part of it.  He said you have to begin with the fact that the majority of adolescents "can't think beyond lunch."  To say that is not a disparagement of teen-agers, but an acknowledgment of the stages of human development.  Kids are making the transition from dependency to independence and need to understand that education is provided to save them from living by trial-and-error, which few of them would survive.

As for the Columbine shooters, much conjecture has been made about what motivated them, but the counselor said there was one irrefutable fact that is known:  they had reached a state of abject nihilism.  It is true of many of the mass shooters.  They plot the mass killings and then kill themselves.  The big question is how and why they reached that state.  The answer will be complex.

It was reported of the Uvalde shooter:  "The gunman in Tuesday’s elementary school massacre was a lonely 18-year-old who was bullied over a childhood speech impediment, suffered from a fraught home life and lashed out violently against peers and strangers recently and over the years, friends and relatives said."  But the most troubling question is why he chose to kill elementary school children.  

And, of course, there is the matter of easy access to weapons of war.

Mass shootings have become a routine part of American life.  But there are also many who claim that the contention that America leads the world in mass shootings is a myth.  The nation is unable to deal with mass shootings, so they keep happening and keep increasing.

Abject nihilism defines us.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

He's gone, but the disease isn't.

Voting Trump out of office was like surgically removing a malignant tumor.  The noxious growth is cut away, but infected cells are left behind to spread and attack the body again.  America is in a state of remission, but diseased cells are festering away in the body politic, evolving to flourish again in a deadlier form.

Trump's critics habitually say that Trump brought American democracy close to failure. They are wrong.  American democracy did fail in many aspects during Trump's tenure.  Although Joe Biden won 81 million votes to install him as president, Trump nevertheless got 74 million.  When 47 percent of the people vote against the principles of equality and justice, we have already lost the republic.  The nation has descended into a state of dysfunction in which the principles of democracy cannot work.  In such a state, democracy can be considered, but not practiced.

The case is illustrated by what the many Trump cabinet officials have  said.  Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said:  

“If we do not as Americans confront the crisis of ethics and integrity in our society and among our leaders in both the public and private sector — and regrettably at times even the nonprofit sector — then American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years.”

The people who voted for Trump made an explicit statement that they prefer corrupt authoritarianism over honest democracy when they cast their votes. In the states where they hold majority rule, the democracy is not merely in a state of decline.  It is dead.  The laws passed to limit voting rights and criminalize abortion are issues of a police state.  And the persistent lies  about voting fraud and the creation of a criminal class is setting up a system as oppressive as anything the Nazi regime or the Soviet dictators could devise.  Half the nation is not interested in freedom and equality, but in establishing a system in which it can imprison and execute people they do not like.  

Above are some South Dakota politicians who are proudly standing up for the traditions of lying (more than 26,000 lies on Trump's record as president), crotch-grabbing, malice toward all, and deep dives into incompetence.  They are the malignant cells, the pall bearers of for democracy.   The criminal class  has its cheerleaders.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

America was killed by its firing squad

America, rest in peace.

Every bullet fired in a mass shooting strikes the heart of America.  And America leads the world in the death rate from mass shootings.

Typical (Median) Annual Death Rate per Million People from Mass Public Shootings (U.S., Canada, and Europe, 2009-2015):

  1. United States — 0.058
  2. Albania — 0
  3. Austria — 0
  4. Belgium — 0
  5. Czech Republic — 0
  6. Finland — 0
  7. France — 0
  8. Germany — 0
  9. Italy — 0
  10. Macedonia — 0
  11. Netherlands — 0
  12. Norway — 0
  13. Russia — 0
  14. Serbia — 0
  15. Slovakia — 0
  16. Switzerland — 0
  17. United Kingdom — 0

The press and most people do not want to admit that the shootings are the main symptoms of America's failure as a nation.  It has failed in meeting its purpose as laid out in the Constitution:  "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty."

That's because the prevailing notion in America is that the major blessing of liberty is the right to stalk around the country with an assault weapon and blast the life out of anyone you feel like.  That right takes precedent over any matters of domestic tranquility, common defense, general welfare, or justice.  The right to bear a lethal weapon any time or place you choose and blast away with it overrules your right to life.  Unless you are a fetus.  According to the prevailing powers that be.  

We had a great weekend highlighted by America's favorite patriotic sport:  the mass shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., one in Milwaukee; one in Laguna Woods, Ca.; and one in Houston.  Are we a great country or what?

When Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem to note one of America's defining failures regarding the shootings of unarmed black people by police, he was widely denounced as unpatriotic.   When Black Lives Matter organized to protest those killings, the brilliant retort was that all lives matter.  But week after week, the news reports that in America, lives do not matter at all.  And that is the will of the people.  It was affirmed in the jury trial of Kyle Rittenhouse in the killing of a couple of people in Kenosha, Wis., for which he was acquitted.

The America envisioned in the preamble to the Constitution is dead.  For some people, it was never alive.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Lynch them abortionists, burn them books

I have lived in South Dakota for 43 years, half of my lifetime. After four decades, South Dakota has never become home to me. The state has some attractive qualities, but they are overshadowed by some corrupting factors that are a serious malignancy. I ended up here because I found a professor's job here at a time when the U.S. higher education system had produced far more doctorates than there were jobs nationally. I felt fortunate to get the job. At the time South Dakota was not much different than its midwestern neighbors. But as the 21st century progressed, the state went on a regressive course that disqualifies it from being considered a democracy.

I moved here from Illinois where I was a registered Republican, what is termed a Lincoln Republican. My special area of study and teaching is Native American literature. Before moving here, I had developed many contacts within the state with whom I met and corresponded in the course of my work. But after I had been here for a while, I noticed a coolness from my Native American associates. I mentioned it to a friend from Pine Ridge. He said the coolness was because I had become an employee of the state of South Dakota. Therefore, my contacts were not sure I could be trusted.

That situation was a reflection of a defect in the state that has grown into a major deformity. With nine tribal nations holding territory in the state, there has always been tension since the western Indian wars. But rather controlling and diminishing discrimination and racial hatred, the state has firmly developed in a way that establishes those defects of mind and character as an identifying part of the culture. It has established a single-party system of governance that solidifies and perpetuates a philosophy that is in basic contradiction to the moral and intellectual premises of American democracy. Ignorance and malice are considered admirable traits. When it came time for me to vote, I registered as a Democrat.

The problems in South Dakota are reflected in the daily news:

  • A hotel in Rapid City posts a notice that it will not allow Native Americans to stay there.
  • Some school board members announce that they intend to destroy some books.
  • The people establish a referendum to decriminalize the possession of marijuana. It passes, but the governor finds a way to obstruct it.
  • A panel of 40 people, many of them classroom teachers, produced a set of standards for teaching social studies in the public schools. The Department of Education edited out requirements for Native American history and sent it to the governor who rejected the entire project and appointed a panel of her pet hacks to create standards more to her liking.
  • South Dakota still vies for top place in leading the nation in the brain drain, the loss of talented and educated people to other states.
  • SmartAsset ranks the South Dakota higher education system as the worst in the nation.
South Dakota has created a fantasy that it is a place of honest, kind, hard-working people of good will. The news coming out of the state refutes that myth. So does the voting record of its people during the 21st century.

The facts show that if you wish to live in a place of good will, nice people, and a functioning democracy, South Dakota isn't it.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States