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View from Outside: South Dakota Inhospitable to Intellectual Enterprise

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.


  1. Bill Fleming 2012.11.20

    Good post Cory. Puts me in navel-gazing mode. Mea culpa.

  2. Michael Black 2012.11.20

    When the posts and comments of certain blogs are consistently abrasive in tone, it is easy to make harsh judgments on character of the people involved. That one topic that they just can't let go affects readers' perceptions.

    A few years ago when we went to Aberdeen, we saw a billboard that said something to the effect of "Judge us by our people, not our newspaper."

  3. WayneB 2012.11.20


    Interesting topic.

    I'm curious how this revelation has changed your opinions about posters' comments on your blog (if at all)?

    It intrigues me, when talking at length with my very conservative father & grandmother, how anti-intellectual they are, yet also how they lament the lack of good high-paying jobs in this state (which one could rationally assume require a well-educated, intellectually rigorous population).

  4. hmr59 2012.11.20

    People with an intellectual bent don't want to work in call centers for $10-12 an hour. That would hurt the "business" climate here in South Dakota. Therefore, the GOP in our fair state continues to sacrifice education to the great god "economic development"...unfortunately not realizing how investing in the former leads to advances in the latter.

  5. Dana Palmateer 2012.11.20

    excellent post Cory. Definitely makes me go, "hmmmm".

  6. Steve Sibson 2012.11.20

    Let this be a lesson to Fleming and also the anonymous flame throwers at the SDWC.

  7. Les 2012.11.20

    Very good Corey. A look see inside is always a good idea and only one post so far finding blame. Good job!

  8. Les 2012.11.20

    Oops, Sib slipped in while I was posting. Only two finding blame. Sorry Sib, still appreciate your effort.

  9. Tom Emanuel 2012.11.20

    I know that as a progressive young adult, I had absolutely zero desire to stay in South Dakota, applying to and getting accepted at many out-of-state institutions. I ended up here due to financial considerations, and now am here for a couple years before grad school due to a family emergency last year, and I really do love SD in many ways. But our politico-intellectual climate is most definitely not one of them. That Varilek ad Newquist mentioned is the perfect example of how and why this state is bleeding itself of its best and brightest. And evidently East Coasters are getting the same impression of us as our native (with a lower-case n, although possibly with an upper-case N too) intellectuals. Yeek.

  10. Steve Sibson 2012.11.20

    How many understand that there is a difference between intellect and wisdom?

  11. vikingobsessed 2012.11.20

    Just a thought...we "intellectuals" must not be too smart if we just roll over and let this be the impression that others have of our state. It is easy, especially here west river, to give up on politics since our voice is not heard in our state government. Maybe we should rethink the seen-and-not-heard policy of Democrats/Progressives statewide.

  12. Joseph G Thompson 2012.11.20

    Would be interesting to know if the organization that was considering establishing a think tank in Aberdeen was right or left leaning. My gut reaction tells me it was left leaning.

    Don't know how to tell you this Mr. Emanuel, but east coaster, west coasters and most everywhere else think anyone who lives in the Dakotas' have a screw loose and have thought that since the 1890's. It is not something new. Out of state employers value the ethics we bring to their businesses and commend us for being smart enough to leave the Dakotas', but would never re locate their hi tech business here because of perceptions, most false.

    Don't think the Dakotas' are as anti intellectual as intellectuals are anti Dakota.

  13. Jerry 2012.11.20

    After seeing the results from the last election for the US House, I do not think a "think tank" and South Dakota should be used on the same page, ever. Spend a little time out there shooting the breeze with the ladies and gents from our state and you come back from that feeling like the only thing that keeps you tolerating it all is alcohol. So drink freely my friends and await the day when other organic substances are available, legally of course, and smile that knowing smile.

  14. Joseph G Thompson 2012.11.20

    Jerry's post is the exact reason why Democrats in South Dakota remain an irrelavant party. A smuggness that says I am smarter than you and and the smug all knowing smile.

    I have said it time and again on this blog, until Progressives abandone that mind set and try to understand the majority of South Dakotans the movement(which has much to offer) will remain dead in the water.

  15. Steve Sibson 2012.11.20

    "Progressives" died with World War 1. They have been reinvented into the "New Age Movement". The difference is secularism has been replaced by pagan panthistic monistic short, the occult.

  16. larry kurtz 2012.11.20

    "Talk to your doctor to ensure that you are physically healthy to engage in sexual activity with the one you love." Psychology Today.

  17. Jerry 2012.11.20

    Well Joseph, I would not say smugness enters the picture at all. How can that be smugness when we cannot even muster a "think tank" here. I think disappointment would be the correct response. When you have no argument to a situation, all you can do is smile because you know better. As far as being irrelevant, I disagree. We are more moderate in our voting to some extent, except for this last one. Still baffles me that a proven looser could win here, amazing. There are plenty of Democrats that are listed in this state, there are just more republicans. It is all a numbers game much like the Electoral College and the fact that republican candidates, before they even start, are given the Southern share of 100 or so.

  18. Joseph G Thompson 2012.11.20

    If you and I are argueing a truthful point, using truthful facts(which is the only thing I'll do) and you are unable to refute what I am saying then you lose. If your final arguement is that smile, you and I will probably never have another conversation because I will understand that regardless of the points I make you will never accept them, because you know better. Life is too short just to argue for arguements sake.

    Mr Sibson, you delude your self if you think the real Progressive movement is dead or is an occult religion in this country. The Progressives I have face to face contact with, Eve being one, are God fearing, church going people who want for the American people the same things I do, it is just that the path they wish to take to get there is different than the one I would choose. Doesn't make them wrong or me right, just proves the solution is somewhere between where I want to walk and where they want to walk. Respect them just the same because we share a common love for this Country.

  19. Douglas Wiken 2012.11.20

    "South Dakota of all places"always seemed a bit ironic to me as a positive slogan.

    I don't see much reason to be optimistic about South Dakota's future.

  20. larry kurtz 2012.11.20

    Nutwatch race between #sdleg and #mtleg officially on: I see your personhood amendment and raise with mandatory sidearms for the pre-born.

  21. Les 2012.11.20

    I drove through eastern Montana this morning thinking of this very good post by Corey and Flems equally good first response.

    I get back to the Black Hills to find hell breaking loose. I won't point fingers, but, if we are to ever find common ground, this post needs to be taken seriously.

  22. Richard Schriever 2012.11.20

    Steve - do you think it "unwise" of intellectuals to avoid places that are unappriciative of intellect? BTW - it's Pantheistic. And, is a world-view that sees God in everthing antithetical to traditional religious values in your opinion. Pseudo-intellectuals seem to me to have a tendency to use words like panthiesm, progressive, or secular without fully recognizing their meanings. You can always tell when they do this - as they tend to spew them out as if they are curse-words rather than representational of actual ideas. Would you agree?

  23. Bree S. 2012.11.20

    Pantheists don't believe in the personhood of God.

  24. larry kurtz 2012.11.20

    Dark matter detector bolted to the 4800' level of the Homestake: AP.

  25. Bree S. 2012.11.20

    Problems, problems, more problems. Is this state just a pile of problems that need fixing? What will turn up under the next rock?

  26. Donald Pay 2012.11.20

    When I lived in South Dakota I had a problem with people from outside the state coming in and making these sorts of judgements. I don't think they really understand South Dakotans.

    Yes, there is a very mean, anti-intellectual streak in South Dakota, but the big issue to deal with is the control of the state by the business elite. Out-of-state foundation people don't understand you can actually work with some of the meanest conservatives out there. And if you work with them on one issue, you come to realize there are a few more issues you can work on together, even as you fight over others.

    I worked with the Technical Information Project and other citizen groups that tried repeatedly to secure funding for our work from liberal-leaning foundations. They really didn't understand how to organize around issues. Mostly they turned us down, because they thought we should pursue a "sit around the table and discuss things and compromise" intellectual approach to bridging differences over issues we were concerned about. Conservatives respected the fact that we wouldn't compromise with the elites. In fact, a conservative-progressive alliance against the middle is how the public wins against the business elites in South Dakota, starting with the Oahe Irrigation Project right up until the defeat at the polls of HB 1234.

    The anti-intellectual crowd can be your allies. It's too bad the intellectual crowd doesn't understand that.

  27. Joseph G Thompson 2012.11.20

    Mr Pay,
    Disagree with your statement that there is a mean anti intellectual streak in South Dakotans, but that is the only thing I disagree with. You are spot on, most true Progressives and Conservatives have much more in common with each other than with the political parties that claim them.

  28. Bree S. 2012.11.20

    If we could just get the people who come up here to enjoy the ancient splendor of the Black Hills to put down roots, maybe the state would get a little smarter.

  29. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.11.20

    Wayne, I quoted that portion of David's article quite specifically because it raises the question you ask: might I be harming South Dakota by hosting conversations that sometimes draw some hostile, anti-intellectual sentiments?

    I could shut down the comment section, but it seems I would then just be hiding sentiments that are out there. I'm not as negative about the usefulness of the blogosphere as Dr. Newquist. In this case, the blogosphere doesn't create a problem; it exposes a problem. I'd like to think that if we can draw some of that problematic thinking out in the open, we can challenge it and change it.

  30. mc 2012.11.20

    Don't confuse wisdom with intellect. One can read many books, attend various schools of thought, and still have no idea how or why things are done here.
    I hope some of these good folks will come back and spend a year on a farm or ranch. They might get a real education.

  31. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.11.20

    Joseph, that mean streak exists. I am intrigued by Donald's suggestion that it's not as big as I may think. I take well his point that conservatives and progressives can work together on political issues against the business elite. But that cooperation doesn't diminish the anti-intellectualism.

    Here's one small potentially relevant anecdote: when I was circulating petitions to refer HB 1234, a lady down the street signed, saying those darn teachers don't need any more money. I held my nose and took her signature. I accepted that we could use that anti-education attitude to defeat bad education policy. But now we have to turn around and fight that same attitude to get better education policy.

    Our conservative opponents seem willing to work with us only so long as we don't challenge their wrong-headed distaste for our values.

    One more thing: I'll agree with Joseph that when some intellectuals look at South Dakota, if they look at South Dakota at all, with disdain. Some of that's just prejudice and snobbery; some of that's a predictable reaction to things like the Noem corndog video. But they still hire our graduates. They still send us all those federal subsidies. They still come see Mount Rushmore. To the extent that anti-rube prejudice exists, does it do us (or them) any harm that compares to the losses we suffer when our anti-intellectualism drives away young talent?

  32. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.11.20

    Sure, MC. Now let me play with your words:

    Don't confuse saddlesores with wisdom. One can ride many horses, attend various ranch-hand meetings, and still have no idea how or why things are done elsewhere in the world.

    I hope some of these good Dakota folk will go abroad and spend a year studying in a French university. They might get a real education.

    Hmm... whose version sounds better?

  33. mc 2012.11.21

    Cory you can play with the words all you want (it is your blog afterall) Why a French university? Why not a German one? or even one either coast?

  34. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.11.21

    MC, why a farm or ranch? Why not a construction site? Why not a restaurant? Why not a stock broker's office? Why not an internship in Kristi Noem's or Tim Johnson's office?

    Playing with words isn't just an exercise in spin. Playing with words can reveal some truths about what we are really saying.

  35. mc 2012.11.21

    I selected a farm or a ranch because they have been doing the same thing, the same way for generations. A constuction site would be okay, however once the building is built, they move on to the next job. An intern at Kristi Noem's or Tim Johnson's office would be okay while they are in office. there is a possible end to their job.

    on a farm, they work never stops, as there is something that needs to get done.

    I agree there are some here who can learn a few things from the intellectual types, and they can learn a few things from those who work the land. But it has to be a two way street. They have to be willing to accept what we know as fact. They have to come here as open minded as they want us to be.

  36. Les 2012.11.21

    I don't think you appreciate the intellect Monsanto brings to SD any more than I do Corey. Intellect is as much destroying the family farm as anything out there.
    But, I the old hard nose, love the Roundup product as it allows a scale of economy unheard of prior. I'm not sure you like it on your bacon and eggs though.
    South Dakotans have always been fiercely independent and I feel most of the issue could be the self aggrandizement by some intellectuals.

  37. Jerry 2012.11.21

    It is morning and a new day here in Soth Dakota. A place that I was born and have lived most of my life. I grew up Democrat in a family of Democrats, not progressive, just down to earth Democrats. I see that there are many Democrats that are in office here in both houses of our state. They are evolved in that they have the good in both parties and are now RINO's for the most part.

    There is a link that was mentioned in this series about Minnesota and how it got DFL'ers into office. Good read and the truth. It takes money to get the word out and that is something that Democrats do not have a lot of here and nationally, it is not on the radar screen for the party. If you check out how much money that Noem had to work with and take a look at what Thune has in his war chest, it is formidable to say the least. So, is that gloom and doom, nope. Fight the good fight for sure, but know that in the end, we will continue this same talk. Keep a smile on your mug and move on.

  38. Bree S. 2012.11.21

    Sibby is correct. Wisdom is more valuable than intellect.

  39. Steve Sibson 2012.11.21

    "Pseudo-intellectuals seem to me to have a tendency to use words like panthiesm, progressive, or secular without fully recognizing their meanings. You can always tell when they do this - as they tend to spew them out as if they are curse-words rather than representational of actual ideas. Would you agree?"

    I agree that happens. I hope you understand that too often those who glorify the terms "panthiesm, progressive, or secular" have the same problem.

  40. Douglas Wiken 2012.11.21

    " Sibby is correct. Wisdom is more valuable than intellect."'

    Wisdom is worthless without intellect. Wisdom and ignorance are not a probable combination, but that combination seems to be the preferred mythology of the retrograde elements in SD.

    Intellect without wisdom and knowledge is wasted.

    One bit of hope for SD. The athletic contest between SUSD and USD apparently generated only a fraction of the expected crowd. That is a ray of hope.

    It is time the SD Board of Regents decided that college students intent on study should not be required to pay athletic fees just to take a course of calculus or creative writing.

  41. Donald Pay 2012.11.21

    A lot of outside intellectual sniffing at South Dakota and its politics stems from being hesitant to be in the minority. Academics, especially, tend to want validation for their ideas, and are a bit put off by push back. If you can't handle the heat, don't come to South Dakota, because you are going to get an argument.

    A good role model for an intellectual type who gained a lot of credibility in South Dakota was George Piper, who had a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard but came back to farm. He put his academic credentials to work in helping found and providing and coordinating the research for United Family Farmers, who spent a couple decades battling against the Oahe Irrigation Project. He was a mild mannered person, but he didn't back down.

  42. Dougal 2012.11.22

    Cory – Let’s hope everyone read Dave Newquist’s entire excellent and insightful essay. I thought the last two sentences were the most revealing: “The political strategists who appeal to the affinity for ignorance and small-mindedness are not calling up a sunrise, but are digging into an age of darkness. Meanwhile, the talent and the intelligence emigrates to the light.”

    To win statehouse races, Democrats must produce and sell a smart, compelling agenda in the next legislature with an aggressive mainstream and social media strategy to break through the information blockade that has become worse with every legislative session. Indeed, talent and intelligence does emigrate to light, and I still think most-likely voters are intelligent and considerate in their daily lives. After each election, people generally hit the reset button to evaluate what their elected leaders are doing in Pierre and Washington. If they learn Democrats in Pierre are doing something meaningful in the session, they’ll pay attention. Positive opinions will grow.

    The lesson I learned from the 2012 election was that voters know what a bad idea looks like, which is why they rejected the GOP measures to hand out even more taxes to corporations and to wreck tenure for educators. However, they did not link the bad ideas to the bad actors who proposed and voted in those bad ideas.

    Don’t wait for Republicans to appeal to the higher aspirations of the average South Dakota voter. Their strategy is to excite their narrow base and to prevent voters from discovering the corrupt machine churning out bad ideas while grabbing and clinging to power. For Democrats, the best path is to produce an easily understood and compelling agenda that solves problems and makes a difference in the daily lives of everyday people.

  43. Bill Fleming 2012.11.22

    Okay, I think I figured it out.

    Sibby's, Bob Ellis's, Stace Nelson's and Brad Ford's blogging behaviors are the reason people don't want to put a progressive think tank in Aberdeen.

    That's the bad news.

    But the good news is, there may be some serious tourism entrepreneurs who want to put a big entertainment attraction dunk tank (televised nationally and starring the above cast of characters) in Mitchell, thus saving the Corn Palace from monochromatic paucity due to persistant, global-warming-fueled drought.

    Cory, Newquist, thanks for the inspiration.

    This could turn out to be a real winner.

  44. Bill Fleming 2012.11.22

    p.s. Happy Thanksgiving all.

    Especially you turkeys (you know who you are ;^)

  45. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.11.22

    No, no, no, no, Les: the big problem here is not the perceived arrogance of intellectuals. Thinking you are better than someone else is not unique to any group. We all are susceptible to the urge to validate our own chosen professions, places, hobbies, belief systems, etc. by denigrating the choices others make. You'll find some snob intellectuals who think dirtying your hands with tractor grease or cow manure is beneath them; you'll find rednecks who think artists and computer programmers are useless sissies. You'll find country people who think a desire for urban dwelling is a sign of mental and moral deficiency; you'll find city people who think the same of country folk. That personal provincialism, rooted in insecurity, happens in every group, and we should challenge it.

    But let's look at the two-way street MC says we need to build. The problem here is that South Dakota sends a very clear one-way message. South Dakota venerates the Kristi Noem lifestyle: work on the farm, ride a horse, have a family, wear a checked shirt and boots. That's the image and experience that springs immediately to MC's mind as the template for "real education." Real—as if the Matt Varilek lifestyle—get degrees from Carleton, University of Glasgow, and University of Cambridge; teach and travel; participate in UN conferences; work as an economic development expert for a U.S. Senator—are not real.

    The South Dakota template has all the respect it needs in South Dakota. No South Dakotan who wants to farm or ranch or mine or build houses and roads (and what else could we add to this list?) ever feels unwelcome here. No one from elsewhere who moves here to live out the Noem template ever feels like South Dakota says, "We don't need your kind here." South Dakotans who feel at home in the creative class do not feel at home here. Folks from elsewhere who engage primarily in the intellect and the arts feel much more like outsiders when they come here.

    If anything, we South Dakotans exaggerate the arrogance of "outside" intellectuals to reinforce our own bunker mentality (LK and Brother Beaker formulated this idea in a conversation I had with them a couple years ago). South Dakotans seem to derive a sense of identity from viewing themselves in opposition to snooty outsiders who don't appreciate our rustic rural way of life. We think the problem is eggheads putting us down, when the bigger problem and the one we can do something about is our own intolerance for anyone who tries to broaden the old-fashioned vision of what it means to be a South Dakotan.

    David Newquist is looking squarely at the big cultural problem we need to solve. We need to get out of our mental bunker and recognize that both Kristi Noem and Matt Varilek are equally "South Dakota."

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