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  • Things I Heard at the South Dakota State Fair

    As I mentioned, I didn’t take a lot of pictures at the South Dakota State Fair because I spent a lot more time listening to my fellow South Dakotans. Here’s a random assortment of interesting things I heard in those midway conversations (to protect the innocent, I will use no names):

    Post-Janklow Stress Disorder: A fellow member of the Resistance recalled a training session for activists where an experienced out-of-state organizer talked about a variety of practical and effective community organizing activities. My compatriot said the activities sounded great but told the organizer that they wouldn’t fly here in South Dakota many public and private employees are still politically paralyzed by the Janklow-era fear that engaging in visible political activism to challenge the status quo will cost them their jobs. (My compatriot has tried organizing various actions and encountered that fear directly.) The out-of-state organizer, who has organized in many states, said this fear seems unique to, or at least uniquely intense in, South Dakota, as if the entire state is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder..

    Land of Activist Opportunity: Having moved to South Dakota only a few years ago, this same activist friend doesn’t suffer PJSD.  This activist friend recognizes that progressive activism might make more progress in another state but wants to stay here and fight. This friend comes from a larger city in a larger state—back home, people are already doing the necessary activism and don’t really need this friend’s help. Here in South Dakota, anyone who wants to help fight for truth and justice can walk right into a meeting and start organizing.

    Soybeans, Dicamba, and Monsanto: A farmer read my post on possible herbicide drift from new dicamba products and stopped by specifically to talk to me about his experience. He said he planted Monsanto’s dicamba-resistant soybeans and applied the new dicamba herbicide this year. He said so far the beans look like the best he’s ever planted, but some of his neighbors say they’ve seen some of the signs of dicamba drift in their fields. He said one problem with identifying the cause of the apparent crop damage is that some of the possible drift areas don’t show the usual wind-driven patterns of damage that come from drift.

    This farmer explained an interesting chemistry point to me. The concern with this new dicamba product is not that the wind comes up and sweeps the herbicide across the road to the neighbors’ fields right after application. Rather, if the temperature gets warm enough, the dicamba droplets turn from liquid to gas and can travel much more easily to other fields.

    This farmer said his beef lies with Monsanto’s claim that if drift is happening, it’s probably farmers’ fault for not following the lengthy instructions on the dicamba labels. This farmer says he read the instructions provided online, attended training sessions produced by Monsanto and the Extension Service, and applied the herbicide exactly as instructed and still has reports of possible drift around his fields. If the new dicamba product is responsible for neighboring crop damage, this farmer doubts that operator error is a primary explanation.

    How to Beat CAFOs—Don’t Say “CAFO”? A Grant County friend says Turner County voters’ rejection of CAFO-friendly zoning revisions and her own experience suggest that if we want to keep factory feedlots from expanding, we won’t win by focusing on the environmental destruction CAFOs cause. Instead, mega-manure opponents need to focus on issues of property rights and local control: the Mickelson/factory-meat push seeks to remove the ability of local voters and taxpayers to get notice of new industrial developments that can impact their property values and have a say in their own zoning decisions.

    Constituent Service: One South Dakotan asked whom to contact to talk about the possibility of getting special license plates for EMTs, like the ones firefighters can get. I said check with the Department of Revenue, which runs license plates, and, if we need legislation (and since I was in the Democratic Building), contact Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton. But watch out: if the Sutton campaign comes out advocating for EMT license plates (they have them in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the Republicans will cry that Democrats are playing identity politics.)

    Smaller Talk:

    • A friend stopped by with her daughter, who’s showing pigs. This friend follows the blog, but we’re pretty sure that the last time we talked face to face was 30 years ago, right there on the Fairgrounds, just a block away, where we performed together on the Freedom Stage in the 4-H Performing Arts Troupe.
    • An acquaintance who knows of the blog told me he’s considering a career change and might like to work for the Republicans. Contrary to every impulse that should arise when I hear someone is considering leaping into the fiery pits of Hell, I did not try to dissuade this reader; I just listened to this reader’s assessment of his professional and personal situation and said what I could to help him weigh the options. (I didn’t mention this at the time, but another correspondent suggested that working for a Liz May for Governor campaign could be fun.)
    • An experienced politico talked about writing and the importance of framing our ideas and policy arguments in everyday, personal terms that people can relate to. I know, there may be only ten people in this state who can relate to sitting on the Fair midway and talking about writing… but hey! you other eight! You’re my kind of people. (That reminds me of my first unchaperoned date with a young woman who came with me to the Prairie Village Steam Threshing Jamboree and stood in the flea market/concessions area talking with me about E-Prime. Three and a half months later, we were engaged to be married.)
    • Not really a conversation, but a bit of luck: A fellow Democratic warrior was trying to get his computer to talk to the TV in the Democratic Building. He started to explain the problem; I just reached over and switched the TV off, then back on. Immediately the computer display flashed up onto the TV. When in doubt, reboot first! Now if only I could find that magic power switch for the Democratic Party….

  • Eclipse 2017—Wow!

    Like millions of Americans and welcome guests, my family ventured to the path of totality—perhaps the most cosmic-sounding thing to which we have ever traveled—looked up, and saw for the first and maybe only time the black Moon crowned by the hidden Sun.

    NASA map of eclipse path of totality across Nebraska, 2017.08.21.
    NASA map of eclipse path of totality across Nebraska, 2017.08.21.

    We almost missed it. We joined family in Lincoln and drive south toward Beatrice to a grassy triangle on Hackberry Road. The crescent Sun dodged in and out of clouds, but as totality approached, the bank of clouds that had loomed our way all morning lurched over our viewing spot. Good blue was scarce and too far. At T-minus 15 minutes, we saddled up and gambled on catching some thinner haze to the south.

    (Note for future reference: do not drive while wearing eclipse glasses.)

    We cruised along gravel, imagining a million people along this slanty sash across Nebraska going home depressed. To our southeast, a weird seam in the clouds glowed aqua green. Around T-minus 4 minutes, we called it, here or nowhere. We pulled onto the grass—no deep ditch, just a strip of mowed grass between us and soybeans. The sky west darkened beneath the rain cloud we’d fled, but below it farther west and north, the sky turned sunset gold.

    And above—yes, above, the clouds yielded to the crescent Sun, a thinner, more brilliant crescent than the Moon can ever be but which only the Moon can make. Sliver, sliverer, sliverest… and my eclipse-shades went dark. I stripped them off, thinking the clouds had w—


    My wife's camera's impression of us seeing wonder. 2017.08.21.
    My wife’s camera’s impression of us seeing wonder. 2017.08.21.
    My camera's faint impression of the wonder we saw, 2017.08.21.
    My camera’s faint impression of the wonder we saw, 2017.08.21.

    I took pictures for maybe twenty seconds. I took mind pictures for the other minute-plus of totality. Around the moon, through wisps of haze, million-degree-hot plasma driven into space by nuclear fusion 94 million miles away shone silver blue.

    The moon moved on, chasing our whirling world east, yielding to that nuclear fire that gives us shadows and life.


    Postscript: The same law firm that calculates productivity losses due to the NCAA March basketball tournament estimates that Americans lost $694 million in disrupted productivity today. Maybe, maybe not, but look unto the heavens, today and every day, and know that money isn’t everything.

  • Atheology #3: Christian Atheist, Hamlet Fan

    I don’t believe in any God, Christian or otherwise. However, I acknowledge that a bunch of people created a body of Judaic Scripture with a lot of stories and principles for living. I also acknowledge that a Jew named Jesus from Nazareth gave up carpentry, identified some flaws in that Old Testament, and won over enough followers to create a New Testament. Those two Testaments have shaped and continue to shape the civilization in which I live and think.

    I thus propose a possibly provocative description: I am an atheist Christian. Or should I say Christian atheist?

    When we pair an adjective and a noun, the noun seems to take priority. Vanilla ice cream—vanilla’s the flavor, but I’m eating ice cream. If I wear a red dress, my choice of red will create less of a stir than my choice of a dress. So which term takes priority in describing my worldview?

    I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God.

    But I’m Christian, by upbringing, social osmosis, and choice, in a lot of my principles.

    I agree with the Mosaic tablets that murder, adultery, theft, bearing false witness, and covetousness are bad. I think taking a sabbath is healthy (that’s why you’re seeing this blog post while I’m gone walkabout). The Commandments about graven images and taking God’s name in vain are useless to me, but I can say that, technically, I have no other gods before the Christian God (and wouldn’t! If I ever convert, it’s Jesus or nobody, not Allah, Buddha, or Flying Spaghetti Monster.). So I’m better than 60% on the Commandments (a better score than the current President who won the Christian vote).

    I find the Christian principle of human fallibility extremely useful and have integrated it into my worldview. Mankind stained itself and the Earth with original sin. Jesus came because we are too weak and error-bound to save ourselves. I don’t buy into the metaphysical parts of Genesis and the Gospels, but I do agree that we are fallible creatures doomed to make mistakes. We all err; we all fail; we all die. We must play to win, knowing that most of us will lose and that even the few who win today will inevitably lose someday. We should seek perfection, but we will never achieve perfection.

    Human fallibility sounds like a paradox (or maybe a death sentence), yet it helps me understand my limitations and the limitations of my fellow beings. It helps me… accept failure (I was going to say forgive, but I still struggle with that concept) as a natural, predictable part of our lives, but it also helps me get up and try again, and again.

    My acceptance of human fallibility reinforces the sense of of grace we must accord ourselves and our fellow human beings. When Polonius says he will treat the actors visiting Elsinore “according to their desert,” Hamlet famously responds,

    God’s bodykins, man, much better: use every man
    after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?
    Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less
    they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
    Take them in [William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2].

    Hamlet and Jesus say we’re all scum. We lowly crawlers deserve nothing. Yet as Hamlet found the visiting actors worth shelter, food, and honor, the Gospels say a supernatural being found us fallible humans worth the sacrifice of his son. Again, even absent the metaphysics, those stories carry a useful lesson about grace. We all screw up. If we are to put up with ourselves and with each other, we have to accept our fallibility and not base our respect for each other solely on our flawed works. We must accept that all people have some inherent dignity that transcends their inevitable failures.

    I also love a good hotdish, especially tater-nugget. That makes me at least an adjutant Lutheran, right?

    When I was at SDSU, I imagined having two philosophical “reactors” in my head. One was an atheist reactor, chugging along nicely, powering my worldview and moral decision-making. The other was an auxiliary Christian reactor, a back-up generator, ready for me to swap out the atheist reactor if it broke down and provide all the power I needed to get me through the day (or the rest of my life). All the Christian reactor needed was that one missing component, the belief in God that I just couldn’t find.

    25 years later, it occurs to me that my “Christian reactor” may not be a separate auxiliary unit. It may have been the active unit powering my worldview all along. It’s a cheap, off-brand model, with some strange parts from foreign manufacturers, and it’s still lacking that crucial God component. But like a Haier fridge next to a Kenmore, or a Tucker ’48 next to a Chevy, my worldview generator runs on many of the same principles as my neighbors’.

    So which is it? Am I an atheist Christian, a follower of Christian principles who omits the supernatural parts? Am I a Christian atheist, whose fundamental belief in the natural world excludes God and spirits but who can accommodate certain principles from a certain book with certain secular application? Or is Christianity so wrapped up with the supernatural that, without the God component, I can’t honestly use the term Christian? Am I a Shakespearean Christian, an atheist Hamlet, or just a ham?

    The term matters less than the practical outcome. I reject the belief in God of a majority of my neighbors (including a majority of the people who live in my house). Yet I share with them a lot of the Christian principles that help us get along and keep trying.

  • Atheology #2: What Does an Atheist Do (or Not Do) All Day?

    So how does being an atheist affect my daily, practical life? What do I do that’s any different from the mostly theist people around me?

    As I noted earlier, I feel a strong moral impulse, just like most of the people around me. (And yes, I do notice that the impulse to do bad things appears to be just as prevalent among believers as among non-believers.) I wake up feeling the same desire and drive I see others manifest to protect and provide for loved ones, do good work, follow (and improve!) the law, and generally take care of our planet for current and future generations. Atheism does not stop me from wanting to live well, do good, and seek and speak the truth. Arguably, my belief that we have no God to fall back on strengthens my desire to do those good things—if we want anything done right, we have to do it ourselves.

    My not believing in any God or gods seems to distinguish me mostly in things I don’t do.

    Obviously, I don’t go to church. (Neither do 10% of Americans, who say they believe but don’t attend organized services.) On regular Sundays, my Lutheran pastor wife goes to her church early to get ready for services. Later I drive my daughter to the church so she can attend one of the worship services and go to Sunday school, but I go to get groceries or work on the blog, or read a book or go for a long bike ride.

    Note that even as I don’t go to church, I don’t try to keep anyone else from going. I don’t spend time trying to deprogram my daughter from my wife’s Christian teachings. I’ll consider our parenting successful if my daughter adheres to any reasonable facsimile of my wife’s sensible Christianity.

    I don’t go to atheist meetings. Some nonbelievers host “Sunday assemblies” or “atheist church,” but my immediate reaction is, “Why? Taking one more obligation off the calendar is one of the most obvious perks of atheism!”

    Actually, I understand the impulse to fellowship. Nonbelievers may benefit as much from spending time with each other and reinforcing each others’ beliefs as believers do. But I don’t feel that impulse. I don’t feel an urge to talk about and explore my atheism on a regular basis (these essays are an exception). I’ve never sought out the company of fellow non-believers. In college, all of my friends were Christians. I didn’t seek out an atheist for marriage. I concluded at SDSU that if marriage happened, I’d be stuck with an atheist, since no sensible Christian woman would tolerate an atheist husband, but my Christian wife has proven that conclusion wrong. I attended an atheist conference a couple years ago in Sioux Falls, and while I had some good conversations with people I knew through the blog, I left early and spent the day having fun conversations with a UCC pastor, a Catholic weatherman, and a Protestant immigrant to America. Maybe I find greater fellowship in contrariness. Maybe if I turned into a believer, I’d want to hang out with atheists all the time.

    My atheism creates occasional social awkwardness. I omit “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, as did the Pledge itself until Red-Scared Congressmen added that phrase to our socialist flag-marketing chant in 1954. I don’t feel too badly—I pledge my loyalty to the United States of America every day by following the law, paying my taxes, and blogging for liberty and justice for all. Besides, an intelligent Christian critique says pledging allegiance to a flag isn’t really Christian.

    Similarly, when drawn into group prayers—grace at someone else’s dinner, invocations or benedictions at public functions—I do not participate. If everybody joins hands, I’ll usually join—nothing wrong with a physical demonstration of human solidarity. Occasionally I’ll slip and say Amen, either because I succumb to social inertia or because, on some special rare occasions, I’ll hear a public prayer so good and true that I heartily second its secular message. But usually I stay silent. Sometimes, particularly in official public or political meetings where I feel sectarian prayers are uninclusive and unconstitutional, I won’t even bow my head. I don’t raise hell, but I don’t acknowledge Heaven… or at least not inappropriately timed and placed assertions of one group’s particular vision of Heaven.

    I don’t get to resort to the same stock phrases my neighbors use to soothe others in times of calamity. I’ll pray for you… She’s in a better place now… God is watching over us… I can’t say any of those things to someone facing sickness, loss, or travail. But I also don’t take advantage of such moments to say some crass thing like, Where is your God now? I just listen, hold a hand, hug, and try to help.

    These differences in my daily life seem minor. Beliefs matter, but 99% of the time, I’m living, working, playing, and loving like pretty much everyone else around me.

  • Atheology Part 1: God Doesn’t Exist; We Do

    Two decades ago a friend asked me to write a description and analysis of my atheism, an “atheology.” I wrote an essay in response, and that “atheology” may still reside on some shelf or 3.5-inch floppy. Maybe sometime I’ll track it down and see what, if anything, has changed from the irreligious beliefs of a single Lake Herman twenty-something libertarian Republican fresh off his first round of grad school to the irreligious beliefs of a married Aberdeen dad and liberal Democratic blogger.

    I am an atheist. I use the word simply and literally: a- means not, and theist means believing in God. I do not believe in God, gods, or any supernatural entity or force.

    I’ll admit that I’m not 100% sure that nothing supernatural exists. Some people suggest that if I can’t take Pascal’s Wager (I think I’ll give that a post of its own), I might at least save myself some bad press and call myself an agnostic—a- for not again, gnostic for knowing… in this theological case, knowing whether God exists. Apparently lots of people find a Socratic shrug less scary or intolerable than outright rejection.

    I choose not to ride the agnostic fence. As with questions of science, I recognize my beliefs may be wrong, and I stand ready to change those beliefs if presented with sufficient evidence to the contrary. But the bulk of evidence so far has led me to believe that the world is really just the natural world—chemicals, forces, atoms, photons, quantum probabilities that we interpret as matter and energy—and that the supernatural not only does not exist but is not necessary to explain our daily lives.

    Many people with whom I’ve discussed these philosophical matters think that a world consisting of nothing but atoms must be a morally barren, pointless place. We’re random sheep with no shepherd (but be careful of that metaphor: shepherded sheep ultimately get fleeced and eaten). We live, we die, and nothing matters.

    Yet while I’ve been able to recognize that possibility of pointlessness. I’ve also woken up every morning with a sense that some things do matter. People matter. Earth, our fragile and thus far unique home, matters. Art, literature, science, law, and all the human institutions that make humanity—not mere biological existence, but thoughtful, purposeful, moral life—possible matter. Promises matter… and foremost among those promises are the promises we make to protect each other and to protect the planetary home and the human institutions that make it possible for future humans to enjoy the life that we have enjoyed.

    I do not yet know where that sense of purpose and moral commitment to humanity comes from. Breath of God, evolutionary advantage of social moralists over egotistical nihilists, moral algorithms coded into our brains by alien bio-engineers like Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics—there are many possibilities. But the origin of our moral impulses does not seem to affect the reality or validity of our moral impulses. We do the good because it is good, not because of who (natural or supernatural) said it is good or what reward we may get for doing that good.

    God doesn’t exist. You and I do. The supernatural doesn’t matter, but humans and humanity do. That’s my atheology in a practical nutshell.

  • Gone Walkabout—Post Your Updates and Suggestions Here!

    CAH on four wheeler
    Not quite…

    Hey! I’m going walkabout!

    For a few days, I will be incommunicado. My phone will be off. I will not go online. If Trump resigns, or if Pence and Hatch and Ryan make America great again by invoking the 25th Amendment, or if the South Dakota Libertarian Party announces at its convention that an election year with open seats and divisive GOP primaries for the top two races are the perfect time for them to get the national party to invest seven figures in a Libertarian gubernatorial candidate, I won’t hear about it or blog about it for a few days. (If you believe in fate, I’m tempting it.)

    This intermission is unusual for me. Since getting serious about blogging in late 2006, I’ve been online blogging almost every day. I’m pretty sure the last time I let a day pass without going online and publishing at least one blog post was at the end of 2012, when my wife and I led my intrepid Spearfish French students on a tour of Paris, Rouen, Caen, and D-Day Normandy. Otherwise, at home or on the road, workday, vacation day, holiday, the first people with whom I communicate at length every morning are you, South Dakota.

    Don’t get the impression that I need a break. I just want to go walkabout, and on this walkabout, as on the trip to France, that means not being plugged in. I look forward to plugging back in once I’m back.

    In the meantime, use the comment section under this post to share updates with each other and to provide me with a running list of things you think I need to write about when I get back.

    You will see some posts pop up while I’m away. I’ve worked up a religious essay that I’ve broken into a few separate posts and set to auto-publish through the weekend. Comment on them all you wish… but remember: I won’t be here to moderate or respond for a little while. I’ll let you know when I’m back!

  • Personal Interlude: Mumps, Trig, U2… and Suddenly, The Joshua Tree Is 30 Years Old

    A couple weeks ago, I told a math classroom full of sixth graders how thirty (!) years ago I was one of the happiest guys in the world, down with mumps, sitting outside at Lake Herman doing trigonometry homework, and listening to U2 on a boom box bigger than a hundred iPods.

    U2? The kids thought I was saying YouTube.

    Kids! Bone up on your cultural literacy! Here’s U2 via YouTube, on Jimmy Kimmel, joking about how one of the reasons they named their now 30-year-old album The Joshua Tree was so they could keep laughing at their manager, who always said “Yoshua,” then opening up with release #2 from that album:

    U2 still loves America, and I still love U2, even as they become to me what the Everly Brothers are to my mom.

    Funny that I still love this song, even though I’ve found plenty of what I’m looking for.

  • Subbing Notes: Student Glad Heidelberger Lost Election

    Precy Bysshe Shelley
    O, to spend my day with thoughts and thinkers, with words and souls….

    I substitute-taught today—economics and British lit. Students in the latter are reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm. While students diligently completed their worksheets (grammar! vocab! reading questions!), I paged through the C.M. Woodhouse introduction, which quotes Percy Bysshe Shelley, who wrote in 1821, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

    A student acknowledged my unsuccessful bid for Legislature between classes. He came up to me in the hall, bumped my fist, and said, “I’m glad you lost.”

    “Really?” I said, my smile unbowed.

    “Yeah, now you can sub more for us.”

    Perhaps Shelley was talking about teachers.

  • Dakota Free Press Continues Madville Times Tradition of South Dakota Blogging

    Welcome to Dakota Free Press, my new South Dakota blog.

    I have blogged under the Madville Times masthead since August 2005. I started with a Blogspot/Blogger site, then migrated to MadvilleTimes.com at the beginning of 2011. The name Madville Times acknowledged my hometown of Madison. I originally intended to blog mostly about Madison, but I quickly expanded my blog jurisdiction to address South Dakota news in general. The Madville Times survived three major job changes, a move to Spearfish, and an eighteen-month exile (self-imposed, of course) out of state.

    I now find myself happily re-ensconced in Aberdeen, South Dakota. With my family’s February move mostly complete, I’m ready to make some blog changes.

    First, let’s be clear about what’s staying the same. Dakota Free Press continues the mission and the style of the Madville Times. I will continue to afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted, raise the voices of the voiceless, promote lively conversation, and seek the truth in South Dakota. I will continue to write from an openly, unapologetically liberal Democratic perspective, but I will also continue to write what I want to write, not what anyone else—party, corporation, sponsor, etc.—demands that I write.

    I am changing a few little things. I’ll tweak the format—a little color here, different font there, etc. I’m switching hosting plans and hoping for more reliable, faster servers.

    And I’m changing the name. While most of you regulars know what Madville Times stands for, I’m choosing Dakota Free Press to express a little more clearly to newcomers what this blog is about:

    • Dakota: This blog focuses on South Dakota, my home. It is part of the South Dakota Blogosphere, the motley crew of South Dakota writers who dedicate their thoughts and electrons to this fine state. You can find plenty of pundits talking about national and international affairs; I want to give South Dakota its share of thoughtful political analysis and vigorous rabble-rousing.
    • Free: This blog is free as in freedom from control by the government, corporations, or any other outside entity. This blog shall remain free of charge for everyone to read. No paywalls, no fees, just a Tip Jar. If you like what you read, feel free to send me a contribution. Your donations will help pay for the domain and web hosting. They will pay for trips I take around the state to cover news events and interview newsmakers.
    • Press: You know the press that the First Amendment talks about? This blog is it. The press is not the exclusive club of TV and newspaper reporters. The press includes what we citizens publish. The press includes this blog, and the others from the South Dakota Blogosphere you see linked in my posts and sidebars. An essential part of this blog’s mission is to vigorously exercise and defend the freedom of the press… and to get other citizens to do the same thing.

    That’s what my blogging over the last ten years has been about. That’s what Dakota Free Press is about. Welcome to the show.