David Newquist thinks hard and writes big. His latest analysis of anti-intellectualism and the decline of progressivism in South Dakota deserves your attention. Permit me to focus on just one interesting element of his essay, an example of how our intolerance for real scholarship drives away economic and cultural opportunities.

Dr. Newquist says that after the 2004 election, a group wanted to establish a think tank to study political and cultural issues on the Northern Plains. Aberdeen made the short list and drew scrutiny from researchers seeking a good location for the project. Our visitors did not like what they found:

Aberdeen fit many of the requirements that had been established for the the successful operation of the unit, and the people who generated the funding leaned toward it as a good location. However, the market researchers also noted some detractions. The one that surprised and puzzled me was how they interpreted the discussion board on the local newspaper's website. The discussion board was notorious for being frequented, often dominated, by trolls, and most readers dismissed it and ignored it. The researchers did not, but cited it as the symptom of a serious problem. I commented that although the postings by the trolls were repulsive and offensive, they were the work of a very small minority and certainly did not represent the community at large. One of the team members said that the fact that the major news medium in the community allows commenters to publish insult, abuse, and often libels under the guise of freedom of speech signals an attitude toward intellectual work. He pointed out that many news organizations invite critical comment, but exercise their Fourth Estate right to edit out the malicious, the salacious, and the libelous. But beyond that, the offensive comments are a part of the community, and what organization would, in effect, elect to build its headquarters near a sewage lagoon? However, the state of South Dakota was characterized as having social and political attitudes that were not compatible with an intellectual enterprise and Aberdeen fully demonstrated those attitudes. In the end, the northern plains states did not get a think tank devoted to their study and development. Some of the funding and materials went to a university library, and some went to universities to the east that had projects underway to examine the great plains. Serious consideration of the Buffalo Commons is not done by anyone who lives there [David Newquist, "The Land of Infinite WTF," Northern Valley Beacon, 2012.11.17].

Social and political attitudes... not compatible with an intellectual enterprise... uff da. That's not the text we want on our Chamber of Commerce flyers. But it's what outsiders see when they survey our civic-scape.

Impolite language in the blogosphere is a symptom, not the cause, of South Dakota's off-putting anti-intellectualism. But Newquist reminds us that our words matter. We must speak in ways that educate, not denigrate. There are some people who need to be knocked down a peg (maybe even me on occasion!), but we must critique each other and our actions with the aim of making South Dakota better, not excluding or wrecking certain individuals. We must speak in pursuit of the greater good.


The South Dakota Republican Party and Rep. Kristi Noem are receiving some national attention. Alas, it's national attention that makes them and, if we're not careful at the voting booth, South Dakota look stupid. Here's a sampling of the national press the SDGOP and Team Noem are receiving for their absurd anti-intellectual and anti-corndog attack ad against Matt Varilek:

International correspondent Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor says the ad makes him laugh and cry... and is so absurd he had to call the SDGOP office to verify its authenticity:

...there is a certain sneering contempt for international experience and high levels of education in corners of America that this campaign ad seems to typify. Environmental issues? One can argue about whether economic interests should be sacrificed for environmental ones, but efforts to create a market in carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions is, well, a market-oriented approach.

When did education and international experience become black marks for legislators? [Dan Murphy, "In US Politics, Foreign Things Are Very Suspicious..." Christian Science Monitor: Back Channels, October 25, 2012].

Glenn Church responds sardonically:

If you listen to the ad, it sounds as if Varilek never set foot in South Dakota until he was finished traveling the world getting a higher education, working for the UN and pushing cap and trade proposals. He's actually a fourth generation South Dakotan. But that's nothing. The real attack comes with news of Varilek' corn dog parties. No, really. He held a party with 1,000 corn dogs. There was no mention that he provided any mustard though. That should settle it. Without a doubt this man is not qualified to serve in Congress [Glenn Church, "Corn Dog Parties Become Issue in Race for South Dakota's House Seat," Foolocracy, October 25, 2012].

The South Dakota GOP thinks all this attention is great. Caity Weaver of Gawker thinks the GOP's excitement may be as misguided as its "anti-relevant qualifications stance."

Fox News asks, "Best Attack Ad of the Year?" But Sarah Cobarrubias of In These Times hears the laughable backfire:

In the end, the ad leaves us asking: Is this satire? It seems more like an SNL short than a serious campaign for Congress. Rather than paint a world in which Varilek is a dangerous radical and Noem is a moral and upstanding South Dakotan, it unwittingly portrays Varilek as educated and motivated and Noem as a bumpkin who never left her home state [Sarah Cobarrubias, "Today in Laughable Campaign Ads: Congressional Candidate Portrayed as 'Corn-Dogging' Radical," In These Times, October 26, 2012].

Jess Zimmerman at Grist is appalled that voters might fall for such seething blinderism:

Seriously, you have to watch this ad to believe the depth of anti-intellectualism and anti-environmentalism at work here. The voiceover literally just reads off Varilek's impressive resume — got two postgraduate degrees, studied at Cambridge, spoke at a U.N. global warming summit — but in a tone of voice that suggests Varilek achieved all this while smearing his face with the blood of aborted puppies.

Meanwhile, Noem's achievements include receiving an award from the South Dakota Soybean Association, but at least she doesn't know anything about how soybeans work! I'm actually surprised the ad missed an opportunity to claim that while Noem did attend college, she only went because it was a requirement of her title as South Dakota Snow Queen. Surely, with a constituency that thinks attending U.N. summits and leaving the state occasionally are liabilities in a politician, that tidbit ought to make her a shoo-in [Jess Zimmerman, "GOP candidate: 'My Opponent Believes in Global Warming and Has Been to Other Countries, He Is Basically a Monster'," Grist, October 26, 2012].

I don't expect this ad to have much more impact on the Noem–Varilek race than Jeff Barth's stroke of viral video genius did on the outcome of the Democratic primary. But maybe this unforced error by Tim Rave, Tony Post, and Kristi Noem will inspire some contributions to Team Varilek and inspire some voters who believe education and experience matter to get to the polls and pick a Congressman who's qualified to do the job.


The South Dakota Republican Party is run by a guy from Minnesota. Rep. Kristi Noem's campaign is run by a guy from Minnesota. These non-South Dakotans put together an extended video arguing that Matt Varilek isn't South Dakotan enough:

Mr. Ehrisman was first to notice the ad, and he recognizes immediately how showing Matt Varilek traveling the world and working on policy issues could cast him in a more positive light than it does Kristi Noem, who stays home and "plays restaurant, cashes checks for farm subsidies, and pretends to fix fence."

Mr. Montgomery, a smart reporter here by way of Illinois and Iowa, offers a perceptive critique of the unhealthy, anti-intellectual, anti-talent attitude projected by the pro-Noem video:

...it's not like Varilek is a pure carpetbagger who lived his whole life in some other state and moved here just to run for office. He grew up here, left to go to college and to start work, then eventually married, came back home and had a few kids. I think that's a pretty common experience for South Dakotans -- an experience this video implies is suspect.

...More to the point, compared to issues like tax policy, the future of social programs like Medicare, the fate of the farm bill, and the shape of the country's laws on issues like abortion and marriage, this seems like a silly and distracting issue. And you can decide whether Noem or Varilek is the better person to tackle these issues without looking at whether they studied abroad [David Montgomery, "SDGOP Hits Varilek as Globetrotting Radical," Political Smokeout, October 18, 2012].

This Republican ad plays to the South Dakota mentality that David Newquist has explained in his critiques of small-town small-mindedness that drives away youth and talent. We tell our kids we want them to seek opportunities and do big things. The best and brightest do seek those opportunities at big universities and in big jobs around the world. But when they come back to South Dakota to contribute their time and talent and raise their families in small-town bliss, we hold them suspect. We make them feel like their studies at Carleton and Oxford, their travels overseas, and their remarkable work elsewhere somehow betrayed their South Dakota roots.

A South Dakota ex-pat friend and I were talking about exactly this issue last week. When he travels, he always manages to run into other South Dakota ex-pats. No matter how long they've been gone from the state, they speak of South Dakota with a fondness, fascination, and familiarity that seems unique to South Dakota natives. South Dakota takes hold of the souls that are born here. We create an unusual spiritual tension when we tell those successful, talented people, "We don't need your kind around here."

I can understand that, with a unintellectual Congresswoman who hasn't achieved anything, the Republicans' only resort is to portray intellect and achievement as bad things. But this GOP video comparing Noem and Varilek fosters an attitude that will only drive young and talented people away from South Dakota. That is unfair to those whiz kids, and it's unfair to South Dakota.

Update 2012.12.17: In 2010, a state legislator observed that Stephanie Herseth Sandlin has "too much talent to stay here." The GOP distaste for real talent mingles with a statewide inferiority complex.


...not that South Dakota Republicans will mind....

Nathan Johnson has a read-worthy article in Saturday's Yankton paper on brain drain, college grads in rural America, and rural economic development. Looking at data from the Center for Rural Strategies, Johnson finds that his Yankton neighbors include fewer college grads than the national average but more than the South Dakota average.

When Johnson asks Yankton economic development chief Mike Dellinger about strategies for retaining and attracting college grads, Dellinger kisses local grads goodbye and puts all of Yankton's eggs in the attraction basket:

I have always been of the perspective that we should expect our youth to fly the nest and gain life experience.... I am more interested in attracting talented, skilled workers and families to meet current need. Those who left, if willing, may return someday, but we need experience now. There is nothing better for attracting and retaining talent than creating an environment in which their prospective employers prosper and thrive.

...I believe that there are opportunities and that there is room for them to make opportunities for themselves.... Yankton has never shied away from an individual that strives to make something happen with their own talent and hard work, and our creative class continues to make gains in creating the environment in which the individual and entrepreneur can succeed [Mike Dellinger, quoted by Nathan Johnson, "Grad Rate Gradually Rising," Yankton Press & Dakotan, August 18, 2012].

Dellinger appears to tangle himself in a mild contradiction. He mentions the "creative class" and the importance of making things happen by one's own talent and effort. Yet he appears to prioritize creating a business environment for "prospective employers" to hire those people.

Maybe members of the "creative class" (my Yankton friend LK will likely go ape on this topic) aren't interested in moving to Yankton just because there are folks who will hire them. Maybe they are interested in moving to a community that clearly values education (Yankton is sending some bad signals on that count), that offers lots of opportunities for lively culture, recreation, and conversation. Send those signals to the creative class, and they'll perceive not just good quality of life for themselves in their off hours, but good market for the work they want to do working for themselves in their "on" hours.

But maybe the last thing South Dakota Republicans (hey, to what party does Mr. Dellinger belong?) want is to attract that creative class. Maybe Mr. Dellinger's focus on attracting employers first is a kissing cousin of the cultural bias against intellect that Dr. Newquist sees driving young Democrats away from South Dakota:

Students of talent and ambition found that the social and political climate in South Dakota discouraged intellectual work and lifestyles. Not until recent years did the regents acknowledge that fact and attempt to take measures for higher education that would be conducive to intellectual work. The conversion of the Homestake Goldmine into the Sanford Underground Laboratory was catalytic in the attempt to change the state's reputation for intellectual work and research.

Intellectual work thrives in a liberal climate, liberal in the sense that it is open to diversity, exploration, and innovation.

The state struggles to provide opportunities for the educated and ambitious. They generally trend toward Democratic political attitudes because of its support for equality in civil rights and educational opportunities which allow people to explore and choose lifestyles that the more staid citizenry is upset by. So, the outmigration of the young and talented continues [David Newquist, "Where Did All the Democrats Go?" Northern Valley Beacon, updated August 18, 2012].

Dr. Newquist suggests that even when South Dakota does lean toward investing in education and intellect, its business-über-alles mindset tangles things up. He cites the Homestake Lab, where he says the state's focus on the project as economic development has turned off "the National Science Foundation and all the scientists who had signed on in support of the original plans."

Maybe the Board of Regents is committing a similar error. Our Regents want to ask the Legislature to invest a million dollars in expanding research staff at South Dakota State University's Agriculture Experiment Station. It's not enough that the new researchers could do some really important science with practical benefits for farmers, ranchers, and society in general. The big sticking point the Regents see is the need to prove that the million-dollar investment will produce significantly more than a million-dollar return in grants and contracts. The Dean has to make that ROI point because the Regents have to ask for that money from the Legislature. The Legislature is controlled by Republicans. South Dakota Republicans have a hard time seeing science, education, and intellect as anything but a means to the end of business.

Life is short. The creative class doesn't have time to wrestle with such instrumentalist economic development attitudes. When you tell them, as both Mr. Dellinger and the state do, that immediate economic needs come first, you signal that their intellect and creativity may be tolerated but not really valued. In other words, you tell them, "Move elsewhere."


Alas, poor December 2011 USD graduates. They hit the books, each incur about $20,000 in debt to get their degrees, and whom do they get to honor them at their commencement? Congresswoman Kristi Noem, an insecure anti-intellectual who thinks they should have stayed home and taken online courses.

Noem's address Saturday to USD's 474 December graduates epitomized her ongoing insult to higher education. First, Noem refers to the 21-year process it has taken her to bring her own college diploma within reach. She still doesn't have it... and she continues to play dumb about it:

I have my fingers crossed because I've turned in my final paper and if it does well, I'm going to graduate with you in 2011 as well [Rep. Kristi Noem, commencement address, University of South Dakota, 2011.12.17, as quoted in David Lias, "Noem Tells USD Grads to Prepare for Life's Changes," Yankton Press and Dakotan, 2011.12.19].

Reporter Lias apparently declines to note the shrug and cheerleader giggle that almost had to accompany that line.

Is Kristi Noem really so stupid that she doesn't know if her final paper is good enough to pass? She's a 40-year-old Congresswoman, a former legislator and businesswoman. I would think she would have the confidence and self-awareness to assess the quality of her own undergraduate writing assignments... unless maybe she had spokesboy Joshua Shields write them for her.

Noem burbles on:

Boy, am I proud of you.... There are so many hurdles that keep you from getting a good, quality education, and you guys stepped through it [Noem via Lias, 2011].

A commencement address is the sort of oratory one practices and polishes. It is not an off-the-cuff chat with voters. "Boy" and "guys" are not marks of great oratory. If Noem had thought through her remarks, she also would have recognized before hitting the stage that "it" cannot refer to "hurdles."

I think you are a unique generation. You don't know of a world without the internet. If you wanted to know something or question something your professor told you over the years, all you had to do is Google it. This makes you much more perceptive ... you can tell a fake when you see it — you know when a deal is just too good to be true [Noem via Lias, 2011].

Note the dig at academia: professors are not to be trusted; they are to be questioned and fact-checked by diligent Googling. (Someone, please, get me a copy of Noem's final paper: I want to read all the citations of Wikipedia.)

After reviewing several commencement speeches online, Noem decided to crown her speech with the profound wisdom of Conan O'Brien. Oh, the insecurity: instead of citing a statesman or philosopher, our Congresswoman tries to show she's one of the cool kids.

I don't have a full transcript of her speech, so I can't tell just how much of O'Brien's 2011 speech at Dartmouth she quoted, but she appears to have borrowed from O'Brien at length. She probably didn't notice that her lengthy quotation included this passage

...[W]hether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality [Conan O'Brien, quoted by Noem via Lias, 2011].

Conviction and true originality. If only our Congresswoman could have mustered those qualities for our newest graduates.


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