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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, 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.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States