Thursday, December 26, 2019

Yes, it is Special!

Christmas Day?
Last week I posted what I called "a special Christmas" blog, but one reader inquired on face book why I thought it was a special blog post for Christmas.  Here's my answer, and I consider it such an important Christmas reminder that I am keeping this week's post short to encourage readers to scroll down and read last week's post!

Christmas is a time when families often come together, young and old.  Because my father had inherited the family home built by his grandmother and his father, our home was the family gathering place, and I have wonderful memories of aunts, uncles, and cousins filling our home for the holidays.

How I wish that my memory contained all the family history shared during those holiday gatherings!  Last week's blog, which I hope you will scroll down to read if you missed it earlier, shares the importance of teaching young people their history--family and American.  I am fortunate that my mother chose a genealogy book with blank spaces to fill in family history as a shower gift for me when my husband and I married, and because of her unusual gift, I asked questions in order to fill in the spaces in that book.  (By the way, that was a wonderful gift for a young couple merging two families by their marriage.)  Yet, I wish my memory still contained all the family stories shared over the many holiday gatherings of my youth.

I suspect the picture above was taken on Christmas day when I was the little girl on the left and my cousin Anne was the taller girl with the hooded jacket.  The picture was taken in front of our farm house on an obviously cold day.  Anne's doll might have been a Christmas gift.  (The doll still had both shoes--and it seemed like doll shoes were often lost quickly.)  I appear to be holding something small that I cannot identify, and my guess is that we were told to select a favorite Christmas gift and to go outside to pose together.  Unfortunately, that is one of those family memories that I no longer remember. 

I hope all of you are having a wonderful winter holiday season, reminiscing and creating new memories!

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Awareness of Our Past

Lest We Forget
Last week's post examined "What Makes America Great?" with the focus on our Constitution and the unique form of government our founding fathers created.  This week's post emphasizes the importance of the continuing need for Americans to know our history.  I have written in this blog just how difficult it is to interest young people in the importance of history, given their tendency to think that anything that happened a few years before they were born is ancient history and probably not worth knowing.

I just read a wonderful collection of speeches given at several universities by David McCullough in a book titled The American Spirit, Who We Are and What We Stand For.   One of those speeches, titled "Knowing Who We Are" given in 2005 speaks directly to the importance of knowing our past history.  McCullough writes:  "And it seems to me that one of the truths about history that needs to be made clear to a student or to a reader is that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened.  History could have gone off in any number of different directions in any number of different ways at almost any point...  Actions have consequences.  These observations all sound self-evident.  But they're not--and particularly to a young person trying to understand life."

Visiting Historic Sites
McCullough offers several suggestions for making history more accessible to students, starting with doing a better job of making sure our teachers know history so that they can tell the stories of history in a more exciting way than by sticking closely to the dullness of textbooks.  His further suggestions for improved teaching of history include improving textbooks so that they are not so dreary, avoiding content that reads as if done by committee, and expanding the teaching of history to young children when they have a particularly facile ability to learn.  Beyond the classroom, encouraging parents to take children to historic sites, and to share with their children history and biography books they particularly enjoyed.  McCullough also urges parents to talk with their children "about what it was like when they were growing up in the olden days.  Children, particularly young children, love this." 

The last suggestion I referenced above had a particular resonance with me.  Recently, my husband and I were having a wonderful dinner with friends.  The father began sharing an interesting memory about his grandmother's brave immigration to America just in time to escape the Russian Revolution.  His story was filled with details that held the interest of everyone at the table.

Sharing ancestral history, in this case, my father's grade school
When he had finished, my husband spoke directly to the man's college-age children, urging them to find a way to record these family conversations, and urging them not to  delay too long.  Holidays are a perfect time to spend an evening with family, listening to and recording these wonderful  stories.  My husband asked if they had heard the stories their father had just shared, and when they replied that they had not, he emphasized that if these family stories were neglected, once their father was gone, the stories would be lost forever.  "If you wait too late," he warned them, "you would no longer be able to ask your dad to repeat them, would you?"

"No," both young people admitted, but the man's son added, "But, I could look the Russian Revolution up on my phone," pulling his phone out of his pocket.

Learning how choices make a difference
I confess.  These are good friends, and we are fond of their kids, but his flippant reply annoyed me, and I blurted out, "That sounds exactly like the smart-aleck reply a young man would make."  I probably should not have been so outspoken, and while I tried to make it a bit of a joke, I meant it.

Fortunately, our friendship is close enough that my comment did not end the discussion with hurt feelings, and everyone recognized the difference between imagining an ancestor in a historical moment and reading online a summary about immigrants leaving Russia for America.  It also sunk home with the young man that had his great-grandmother waited too late to leave, his ancestral line would have been interrupted and he would almost certainly not have been born.  That was a real opportunity for our young friend to recognize, as McCullough said, "that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened" in history.

To emphasize how stories can bring history alive, McCullough references E. M. Forster's definition:  "If I say to you the king died and then the queen died, that's a sequence of events.  If I say the king died and the queen died of grief, that's a story.  That's human.  That calls for empathy on the part of the teller of the story and of the reader or listener to the story."  Historian Barbara Tuchman understood that the secret to teaching history is simple:  "Tell stories."

Sharing my own  stories with high school graduates
American history is filled with compelling stories--exciting, tragic, triumphant--but we tend to teach them sequentially, like marking off years on an empty calendar, with the stories reduced to dates.  The more that family history is shared in stories the better their children will place themselves within historic events, and the more that teachers bring history to life with stories and biographies the more interesting and memorable history can be.

Our own lives, like the life of my young friend whose great-grandmother fled Russia, were shaped by our family history.  Collectively, our nation's past shaped the America in which we now live. How can we truly understand and appreciate what those generations before us did to shape this nation and give us the freedoms we enjoy if we are ignorant of our past? And, how can we recognize our own responsibilities if we ignore that inheritance from them?  As McCullough says:  "...we should never take for granted...all the work of others who went before us.  And to be indifferent to that isn't just to be ignorant, it's to be rude.  And ingratitude is a shabby failing."

Happy Holidays to all of you who have supported this blog.  Perhaps, if you gather with family during the holidays, you may find time to share family stories and create an awareness for the youngsters listening of their family's personal history and how the events and choices made by their ancestors brought them into existence.  As McCullough reminds us, nothing had to happen just the way it did.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

What makes America Great?

Some of you who follow this blog may not realize that I am a published author of two books, one published by a university press and the other published by a respected New York publisher.  This means that both books faced the scrutiny of scholars or other knowledgeable reviewers to examine my research and reasoning.  For one of my books I was recognized as the Georgia Author of the Year for Nonfiction during the time we lived in Atlanta.  Both books dealt with history and the American Constitution.

I mention this to explain my motivation to devote nearly a decade to researching and writing a book about the late 1800s from the perspective of a community in southcentral Kansas.  The community in which I grew up was part of a movement strong and successful enough to have created a third party that challenged the two old political parties.  The People's Party of the late 1800s, created largely by farmers, laborers, and small businessmen, was one of the most, if not the most, successful third party in America's history.  Many people living today have never heard of the People's Party, although their ancestors may have been a part of the Populist Movement. 

They believed ordinary Americans mattered, and they believed in our Constitution.  What they also believed was that education is essential if America is to work as the founding fathers intended.  They knew what the Constitution said and how it was meant to work.  Although the People's Party faded into history, their movement left behind many of their goals, assimilated by the two old parties and adopted into laws we accept today without recognizing their roots in the forgotten People's Party.

Antonin Scalia
In a past post, I shared the words of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (1936-2016) from a speech he gave in 2011.  Although he acknowledged that most Americans consider the Bill of Rights  the source of America's greatness, he disagreed.  "The real key to the distinctiveness of America is the structure of our government," he insisted.  In other words, the separation of powers--a President, a House of Representatives, and a Senate, each operating as a check on the others is the source of our greatness.  As Scalia said, we Americans should "Learn to love the separation of powers..."

The founding fathers did not want our government to be a smoothly operating machine where there was no debate, no conflicting perspectives.  The House of Representatives has members elected by voters from various districts within their states, a mix of urban, rural, conservative, liberal, multiracial, of different faiths, educations, and income levels.  The Senate has two members from each state and must consider the entire population of the states each represents.  While these Representatives and Senators serve the people who elected them, they are not compelled to ignore their own knowledge nor conscience, and they are entitled to benefit from their own experience and judgment in deciding matters that come before them.  What amazing wisdom the founding fathers showed in creating America's unique system, with the checks and balances necessary to represent such a diverse citizenry.

James Madison
James Madison said it well:  "The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department of the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachment of the others.  ...It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.  ...In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this:  you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

So long as the men and women we send to Washington remember their responsibilities under the constitution, America will be great, but when they forget their personal responsibility to serve as the check and balance on our system of government, the very foundation of the Constitution begins to crack.

In Isaac Werner's time, the common man had begun to believe that those they sent to Washington and their state capitals were answering only to the wealthy, and they formed a third party to remind their elected leadership of the corruption of power and the danger of serving only one segment of the population, or of forgetting the importance of each of the three parts of our system checking and balancing the other two.  Every generation needs to be aware of what truly makes America great and every generation needs to remind those they elect of the danger of forgetting that the abuse of power can eventually be cast back on them when they are no longer the ones in control.

The Populist Movement had its roots in Texas, but at the peak of the movement, Kansas was at its center.  Finding the Journal of Isaac Werner was an exciting discovery, and it was his Journal that enticed me to learn more about the Populist Movement.  My Civil War veteran great grandfather did not join the movement, but two other great grandfathers that lived in the community did participate.  Perhaps some of you who follow the blog also had family in Kansas during the late 1800s that may have been part of the Populist Movement.  I hope my blog acquaints you with a historic political movement that swept our state and in which your ancestor might have been a part.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Getting to Know Willa

Photo Credit:  Larry Fenwick
Last Monday evening was an Art Walk in Pratt, Kansas, and although it is primarily for artists, photographers, and crafts persons with things to sell, I was invited to share some of my work.  While I paint and draw for my personal enjoyment, and occasionally to do portraits for friends, I had a good reason to attend.

The centennial celebration of Willa Cather's My Antonia was last year, and for a special edition of the Willa Cather Review, Vol. 61, No.2 I did a series of six portraits of the main characters.  The original pastel portraits and a copy of the Journal are on the table in the photograph.

I am a stickler for illustrations that respect the text of the author.  If L. Frank Baum says that Dorothy wore a blue and white checked dress, that is what I expect the illustrators of the Wizard of Oz series of books to depict. 

So, naturally, before selecting which characters from My Antonia I wanted to portray, I read passages written by Willa Cather to learn how she had described them.  The portraits displayed on the table included cards with descriptive passages taken from Cather's novel that I used in deciding how to portray each of the six characters.

Photo Credit:  Larry Fenwick
I didn't have any art to sell, but instead, I sold Willa!  I shared how she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, how she grew up just a few miles from the Kansas border, what a wonderful place to visit Red Cloud, NE is with so many recognizable sites from Cather's novels and short stories, and how much in common her stories have with Kansas during that era.  

I recommended my favorites, in addition to My Antonia--O Pioneers! and One of Ours, as well as a favorite short story set in Kansas, The Sculptor's Funeral.  I had checked the Pratt Library shelves with the librarian, and I told visitors that there are several of Cather's books available at the library.  One young couple that stopped by were intrigued by what I shared, and he took a photo on his phone to help him remember Cather's name, while his wife pondered which of Cather's books to recommend for her book club.

Photo Credit:  Larry Fenwick
We are very fortunate in our region to have several local libraries that are wonderful, in addition to the recently remodeled Pratt Library.  Among those I visit are the libraries in Macksville, St. John, Stafford, Kinsley, and others a bit further from our home.

When I participate in the Art Walk and Plein Aire at the state fair, I always enjoy the children.  Because the Art Walk was in the evening, only a few children visited, but they were curious about the portraits.  One little boy was particularly proud of himself when he recognized that I was the woman in the drawing on the stand.

Thank you to the Library and other sites for hosting us, to those who organized the evening, and to those who came out on a calm but chilly winter's evening to support the Arts.  Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge them,

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Thanksgiving & Family

Happy Thanksgiving

     Happy Thanksgiving from our home!

The family farm to which my husband and I have retired has hosted many Thanksgiving Dinners!  We are the fourth generation to call this farm home, and as a child I sat in the dining room pictured at right many times with my parents and brother Clark and a crowd of aunts, uncles, and cousins, grandparents and friends.  This week's post honors all of them and the gatherings of family and friends of all of you who follow this blog.

Among my childhood memories are the days when the Saturday Evening Post came in the mail.  My family would await its arrival so that we could discuss Norman Rockwell's cover illustration--and like many families, we discussed every detail.  With hindsight, I believe my parents often used his paintings to teach my brother and me important life lessons.  Because so much of Thanksgiving is about family, I thought Rockwell's A Family Tree was the perfect cover to share.  

Among Rockwell's fans are astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who wrote "His insightful work--often filled with optimism and humor--accurately and affectionally shows America and Americans at their best."  Or, Arnold Palmer, "To so many of us, the paintings of Norman Rockwell told the story of everyday America as nobody else ever has."  And, Dick Clark: "...he immortalized the simple things in life that mean so much to all of us, as well as some of the major changes that are about to happen in our world."  Norman Rockwell said of himself, "I am a story teller."

The image below is part of one of Rockwell's "Four Freedoms."  I recently finished reading David McCullough's The American Spirit, Who We Are & What We Stand For.  It is a thin book of 15 addresses given by McCullough at graduations and other occasions.  On November 22, 2013, he spoke in Dallas, Texas at a ceremony honoring John F. Kennedy, in which he recited several passages from Kennedy's Inaugural Address.  One section he quoted seemed to go particularly well with the Rockwell painting, "A Family Tree," and the spirit of Thanksgiving illustrated as one of America's  "Four Freedoms".

Kennedy said:  "This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds.  It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened...The heart of the question is...whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated."

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!  My thanks to the many of you, those I know and those I have never met, who have followed my blog for so very many postings.  I am thankful for your support and the encouragement your comments have given me.

A part of one of Rockwell's 4 Freedoms

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, The Closing of the Series

From The Pratt Tribune
The same week I began this series about the role of muckrakers and the important role they have played in print news, our local newspaper announced that it was going to a single paper each week.  I identified with J.S. who wrote:  "Wow, quite a change...when I worked there... we printed Monday-Saturday…"  

I grew up with our family getting The Pratt Tribune, (and some of you may recall my blog about finding an old copy of that newspaper inside the wall when we did our recent remodeling at the farm).  Back then, when we walked out to the mailbox, the news was only a day old.

The same week that my Battling Abuses series began, the CBS Sunday Morning show broadcast a special interview of Pete Hamill that included respect for his fellow reporter, Jimmy Breslin.  Breslin died in 2017, and Hamill has slowed down considerably from the days when the two of them were, as filmmaker Spike Lee described:  "Back in the day, I mean, you would buy the paper to see what Jimmy Breslin's saying.  You know, what Pete Hamill [says]…[T]hose guys were like superstars."

I have written in past blogs about the essential role of journalists for our democracy, and we cannot forget their importance.  Our Founding Fathers recognized the importance of a Free Press, but too many of us fail to respect the absolute necessity of the role played by the press.

Ad from a local business in Isaac's time
On the CBS Sunday Morning show October 6, 2019, Hamill explained:  "The papers gave a sense of meaning.  It was a binding element.  You could see it on the subway.  You [reporters] were trying to help the new arrivals to understand the city, and the older people to understand the new arrivals."    Small town newspapers play that role as well, but not if most of the contents are canned stories written by strangers.

After my father died and my mother moved into town, she became a reporter.  She loved it.  Being a reporter gave her an excuse to attend community events and to get on the phone and call people for news about visitors or trips or achievements.  It may have been small town news, but it was consistent with the role Hamill played in a big city--binding the people who lived there to one another.

Times change.  The number of shops that lined Main Street in small towns and cities are no longer there, so far fewer local ads that supported local papers now exist.  Today people are warned to protect personal information, making them less willing to supply the stories that would once have appeared in the newspaper.  The internet has replaced chatty phone calls and handwritten letters, and now it is replacing small town newspapers.  Even large city newspapers are struggling.

Once there were both morning and evening editions for newspapers, but today we want our news as quickly as it happens.  "Hot off the press!" isn't fast enough, nor is Uncle Walter* on the evening news.  Now we have televisions and the internet with constant news reports, crawls across the bottom of the screen, and news fed to our phones.

Political Cartoon about a biased press
In earlier blogs I have emphasized the importance of professional standards for the news reporters we read and to whom we listen and watch.  For me, biased news is like reading fiction, or, at its worst, propaganda.  If we are to keep news reporters accurate, we need to take the time to find the original source at least occasionally to check it for ourselves.

We also need to stop watching/reading only those with whom we agree, especially if we catch them twisting the truth.  Like the old saying when computers were new, junk in--junk out.  I realize that it is easier for some of us to fact check than for those employed 8+ hours a day, those busy raising children and caring for elderly parents, or those otherwise involved in commitments that fill their days, but it is important that all of us to try to be accurately informed.  We need to be clear about the difference between those delivering Opinion Editorials, those intentionally slanting  or distorting information, and those abiding by professional standards for the delivery of news.

I will close with what I found most interesting in the interview of Pete Hamill.  He was asked, "Would you say you grew up poor?"

"Oh, we grew up poor, but not impoverished," Hamill said.

What's the difference, the interviewer asked.

"The library." 

Hamill continued, "I wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for the lessons I learned in this place.  [the public library]"  Later, Hamill added an enlightening story about fellow reporter Jimmy Breslin.  "One day he needed to find something in his desk.  And he asked me to go to his desk, 'open the drawer and it'll be on the right-hand side.'  Lying in front of me is The Collected Poetry of W.H. Auden."  Being literate was part of being an educated person in those times, even if you were a hard-nosed reporter like Breslin.
Recognize propaganda (from my old text book)

With our present day 'need for speed,' and consumer ratings, not only are newspapers dying, so is the habit of reading.  Authors and poets have time...time to reflect, to compose, to edit, to lay their work aside and look at it with fresh more critical eyes later, to seek the opinions of respected friends and others knowledgeable about the subject...time to perfect what they publish.  Even as newspaper reporters facing quick deadlines, Breslin and Hamill knew that it was important to make time for books and poetry.  It remains true today that to be informed and literate, our reading needs to be supplemented by more than the "breaking news" that scrolls across the bottom of our screen.  Magazines are struggling to find readers, and it is important to have access to their more reflective news that gets at least a few days or weeks of research and investigation before it is published.  Before print magazines go the way of newspapers, we need to subscribe to the ones we respect for more in depth news reporting.  

Recognize propaganda (from my old textbook)
The responsibility to be reflective rests with all of us-- to read history, to check the constitution, to read biographies and non-fiction related to the subject, to see what another channel on tv or commentator on the internet or newspaper reporter with more time to check facts has to say.  To be fooled requires two people--the one who seeks to fool and the one who falls for it!

The 'Abuses in the 1800s' that Isaac and his contemporaries faced were not entirely unlike our own examples.  Today's abuses may come at us faster and from more directions, but we also have more access to ways to check what is accurate.  We need muckrakers today as much or more than ever.

*For younger readers of the blog, Walter Cronkite delivered the evening news for CBS, and had a reputation for accurate reporting.

Remember, you can click on images to enlarge.     

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, A Series, #7

There is an old saying:  "There are lies, and then there are damn lies."  Last week's post quoted Machiavelli, writing, "occasionally words must serve to veil the facts."  If presented with artful deception, charts and graphs can also veil the facts.  Recently I found an interesting paper on the ways statistics and other information can be presented in such a way as to mislead, while remaining arguably accurate.  "Five Ways Writers Use Misleading Graphs to Manipulate You," Ryan McCready, September 11, 2018.  .

The graphs I am using in this blog come from Mr. McCready's paper, and I strongly recommend that you go to his site to explore his full paper.  So much information is presented to us in charts and graphs, and we need to be able to recognize when it has been presented in a intentional way to mislead.

The two bar graphs above present the same statistics, but can you see what has been done to manipulate your reaction to the numbers?  Which one gives you the more accurate impression of the information?  Notice where the bottom of the graph begins.  The one on the left begins at 50, and using that manipulation of the numbers, it appears to exaggerate the differences between Group A and the other two groups.  As Machiavelli would have said, 'the facts have been veiled.'

Again, the same statistics are presented in these two graphs, but notice the numbers on the left side on the charts.  The chart on the left goes from 0 to 40, producing a flatter climb, while the chart on the right goes from 0 to 15, creating an abrupt climb between 2019 to 2020.

This time the trickery appears at the bottom of the charts shown above.  The chart on the left shows monthly changes, while the chart on the right shows yearly changes.  If the text or title make clear what the chart represents, there might be no trickery, but if the user has cherry picked data only from the period that reinforces his argument, the data can mislead.

 Author Ryan McCready has included this chart to show that to convey accurate or easily read information, one type of chart may be better than another.  He suggests that bar graphs are better for showing differences between groups.  In the graph on the right, Team B stands out, while Team C lags behind both other teams.  Yet, if you look at the round graph on the left, the differences are less apparent.

McCready also points out that sometimes using different colors can confuse, especially if one color is commonly used to represent particular information.  Thanks to Ryan McCready's paper, examples of how abuses through the presentation of information may be as deceptive as words can be, in other words, examples of ways to 'lie without lying'.  (See 11- 6 -2019 blog below.)

Battling Abuses by the manner in which graphs present information may be more difficult for muckrakers to expose, but I hope this week's blog has made you more wary about accepting information contained in charts and graphs.  Next week the Series concludes, and if you have not been reading the full series, you may wish to scroll through earlier posts.    

Remember, you can click on the charts to enlarge them.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, A Series, #6

Muckraking is generally applied to searching out the truth about individuals and events, but can the importance of muckraking be applied to exposing the misuse of words?  In Isaac Werner's time people were hungry for education.  Farmers and businessmen spent evenings together reading Shakespeare.  Populist gatherings included study, and as scarce as cash was, they pooled resources to buy books.  Populists experimented with phonetic spelling to assist those who were illiterate or who did not speak English in being able to read.  School terms were short for farm children, but building a school in every community was a top priority, and the difficulty of student tests from the period show that despite the shortened school terms, children were expected to be scholars.  Knowledge and words mattered.

From my high school English text book
As a former high school English teacher and a writer, I have great interest in and respect for words.  I am not referring to grammar, although I also consider that very important.  Rather, I want to confine this post to the abuse of words, intentionally or negligently misused.

In my classroom I focused on words in several ways--developing vocabulary to enhance the ability to choose the right word to express a thought, choosing the right word grammatically, and understanding informal and formal word choices among others.  However, I also taught students how to recognize words being used to mislead.  In that sense, perhaps I was doing a bit of muckraking.

With my students, I often used television ads to illustrate how words can be manipulated to mislead, since my students were familiar with the ads they saw on tv.  A student once asked me whether I watched the programs or flipped channels to watch only ads, perplexed by my familiarity with so many  advertisements.  Even today I am guilty of correcting grammar, word choice, and pronunciation of people on the television, as if the speaker could hear me, when only my poor, suffering husband can.

Portrait of Niccoli Machiavelli
Sadly, perhaps no profession practices the art of using words to mislead and deflect more often than politicians.  An adviser to a former British Prime Minister claimed to have mastered the art of "lying without lying," confessing that he had a "talent for avoiding the truth without lying."  (BBC article by David Edmunds, 12-1-2015)  The article pointed out that politicians that want to get elected and re-elected are more likely to succeed by telling voters what they want to hear than by "confronting them with miserable realities."

Researcher Dan Ariely told CBS newsman Brian Montopoli that his research found that "Americans have a high tolerance for dishonesty when it comes from their own candidate."  In the August 3, 2012 interview, Ariely said, "Many voters have become so cynical that they really don't expect candidates to speak the verifiable truth, and they accept these exaggerations, these mild falsifications, as just part of the game."

You may have noticed that the articles I am citing are not current.  I do not intend this blog to be a comment on specific current politicians but rather an exploration of how words can be abused in marketing and politics to mislead us.  The practice isn't new.  Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, "occasionally words must serve to veil the facts."  Distant past, recent past, or current comments, misleading and outright lying exist.  The BBC article from 2015 concluded, "modern politicians mislead every day of their lives [which] is directly 'connected to the fact that trust in politicians has been corroded over the last 40 years.'"  I fear that corrosion has not improved since then.

Portrait of Edmund Burke
News men and women may attempt to draw attention to falsehoods, but too often readers, listeners, and viewers simply go in search of a source more sympathetic to their point of view, rather than appreciating having been alerted to the falsehoods of someone they like.

Probably the closest thing we have to word muckrakers are our modern day fact checkers.  One has even taken that name for their site: .  They are a nonprofit website that describes themselves as a "consumer advocate for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception in American politics."  Two other sources that might be considered muckrakers for words are Politifact and  Snopes does not confine themselves to political fact checking but checks all sorts of rumors and myths.

Unfortunately, with the internet assisting, lies and half- truths can outrun fact checkers before the absolute truth that Teddy Roosevelt demanded can be determined.  As a consequence, the words of Edmund Burke from 1796 that "Falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatsoever..." may no longer be a social norm.  However, what is certainly true is Burke's conclusion:  "But, as in the exercise of all the virtues, there is an economy of truth."

The muckraking series continues next week.



Thursday, October 31, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, a Series #5

This post will share what brought me to the idea of exploring the history of muckraking and its current status.  You will probably be surprised to learn that it was a picture of a mural by British artist Jules Muck.

She describes herself as a Mural and Graffiti Painter, whose current work was inspired by meeting a mural artist whom Muck refers to as the "legendary" Lady Pink.  Their meeting resulted in an apprenticeship with Pink in New York, and Muck was inspired to paint on street walls.

Jule Muck's Larry Bird mural after tattoos removed
I learned about Jule Muck when I happened to see a mural she painted of former NBA player Larry Bird.  She had worked from a photograph taken when Bird was a young college player for Indiana, using it to paint an accurate portrait--EXCEPT, she had covered his exposed skin with tattoos.  Bird had no tattoos when he played college ball nor has he had any tattoos since.  When he saw her depiction of him, he asked her to remove the tattoos.

As an attorney, I was interested in the legality of a famous person's right to his own image.  Muck's comments about his request seemed to indicate that she didn't believe he could demand changes to her art, although she did remove all of the tattoos except the "Indiana" on Bird's arm.  Among the other tattoos that were removed were a large black spider's web on Bird's right shoulder and a pair of mating rabbits on his left arm.

Larry Bird was clear to state that he had nothing against tattoos.  Many of his friends have tattoos, as anyone who watches pro-basketball already knows, and that is fine with him.  However, he felt a depiction of him should not make it appear that he has tattoos that he has never had.

Their dispute caused me to wonder about her unusual last name.  Is it her actual surname or is it a name she chose to use as an artist?  Her website doesn't say.  The dictionary defines "muck" as "soft moist farmyard manure; slimy dirt or filth; and defamatory remarks or writings."  Looking at examples of her murals at her website, I noticed that her name is often a prominent part of  her work.
Investigative reporters often disliked being described as muckrakers, and I could not help but wonder whether Jules Muck chose her professional name or simply accepted the surname with which she was born.

But, back to Larry Bird and his request that she remove the offending tattoos...

We are living in a world where the saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words" doesn't always apply.  Recently a video appeared on the internet which had been altered to make it seem that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was slurring her words drunkenly.  In fact, an authentic video had been altered to make a false impression.  In that case, no fancy technology was involved.  The culprit had simply reduced the speed of the video and tweaked the pitch of her voice in the slowed version.  People continued to post and watch it even after it had been debunked.

Perhaps even worse are examples of realistic face-swaps.  The technology works by using a computer program to find common points on two different faces, and if enough common points are used, the face of the victim can be "stitched" over the source to create a faked image capable of fooling viewers.  This has already been done to embarrass celebrities by face-swapping them into pornography.  Imagine the harm that could be done to politicians by their political enemies through face-swapping them to appear to be saying things or being places that were false.

Perhaps you have seen examples of using facial recognition for security purposes, in which a person's face is used to gain entry rather than using a key or a card that might be lost or stolen for someone else to enter secured areas.  This facial recognition works by mapping faces for 'landmark' points, like the corners of eyes and mouth, nostrils, and jaw line contour.

President Theodore Roosevelt
These technologies are rushing forward, spurred by positive uses but surely likely to be abused for reasons less acceptable.  How could most of us even begin to recognize such abuses?  If a mural could make us believe that a basketball player known for his positive character had tattoos of spiders and mating rabbits that he didn't have, what sort of muck is ahead to mislead us?

This technology, it seems to me, calls for a new generation of muckrakers to be our watchdogs against a world increasingly unable to recognize the truth amidst the fakery.  As President Roosevelt said, "There are, in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them.  There should be relentless exposure of and attacks upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life.  I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful."

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, a Series #4

From the late 1800s and the early 1900s, muckraking journalists deserve credit for exposing many social wrongs--political, corporate, coal mining, unsafe working conditions, meat packing cruelties and others.  Some muckrakers embraced the name, but many found it demeaning.  The fact that the name was affixed to them by President Roosevelt was particularly disturbing to them, as they felt they had treated him fairly in the press.  In fact, however, Roosevelt did support the need for "relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or social life."  He encouraged writers, speakers, and publications that called the guilty out, but included this admonishment:  "...provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful."

Edward R. Murrow
The tradition of investigative journalism continues today, although the term "muckrakers" has largely disappeared.  Who might be considered muckrakers among commentators and journalists during the last one hundred years?

Edward R. Murrow, 1908-1965, would probably be on most lists, and his March 9, 1954 See It Now special titled "A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy," if nothing else, earned him a place in broadcasting history.  Ironically, the Senator himself knew that Murrow was one of the best, for in his statement attacking the criticism, he acknowledged Murrow's reputation in his own condemnation of the program, saying:  "...Murrow is a symbol, a leader, and the cleverest of the jackal pack which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose individual Communists and traitors."  The show exposed McCarthy for what he was and marked the end of McCarthy's popularity.  Murrow's last major show on CBS Reports, "Harvest of Shame," was broadcast in November of 1960 and was in keeping with his reputation to expose controversial issues, focusing on the plight of migrant farm workers.

Rachel Carson, 1907-1964, did her muckraking in books like the sea trilogy:  The Sea Around Us,  The Edge of the Sea, and Under the Sea Wind.  But, her book that brought the greatest changes in Americans' thinking was Silent Spring.  It changed the way we regard pesticides, inspired the environmental movement, and lead to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  What might she be writing if she were still living today?

Rachel Carson
The reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for The Washington Post in connection with the Watergate break-in in 1972 certainly placed them in the ranks of political muckrakers.  Because many of their sources were anonymous, including William Mark Felt, Sr., their key source who was  identified only 33 years later as being "Deep Throat," The Washington Post put great trust in the young reporters.  Initially, they, and the New York Times, were nearly alone in recognizing the importance of  the events that eventually brought down a president.

The New York Times broke another story more recently that has had significant social ramifications beyond the original events they reported.  On October 5, 2017, reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey appeared under the headline, "Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades."  That accusation not only brought forth more women willing to accuse Weinstein but also fueled the #MeToo movement, with accusations against other men.  A report by the Women's Media Center in 2018 pointed to the increase in articles on sexual assault since the Weinstein article was published.  Weinstein continues to deny the allegations.

The role of being a muckraker, breaking news of misdeeds by powerful people, can be dangerous, and on October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, never to be seen again.  Khashoggi was a Saudi Arabian dissident, author, columnist for The Washington Post, and editor-in-chief of Al-Arab News Channel.  His newspaper articles critical of the Saudi government earned him powerful enemies.  Postumously,  Time Magazine named him its "Person of the Year" for his journalism, referring to Khashoggi as a "Guardian of the Truth."  Along with their recognition of Khashoggi the magazine recognized other journalists who face political persecution for their work.

As Roosevelt said, the need for men and women willing to expose evil presents an "...urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them."  For our democracy to survive we need these "Guardian[s] of the Truth."  Whether they like the name or not, we need Muckraking journalists and commentators, and newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters courageous enough to bring their reporting to the public.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, a Series #3

Reform-minded journalist had existed during earlier years of the 1800s, but as the century drew to a close a new crop of journalists known as Muckrakers appeared.  The earlier journalists had been more likely to write their articles for newspapers, but in the late 1800s magazines gained popularity, and longer, well-written stories had a place for publication.  McClure's was one of these magazines, willing to give journalists space to develop thorough examinations of business, political and social abuses in need of reform.  These magazines became known as muckraking magazines, and the journalists, and occasional fiction authors whose stories exposed abuses, were called muckrakers.

The term is attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, who borrowed the term from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. In that classic, the Interpreter shows Christiana a man who can "look no way but downwards, with a muck-rake in his hand...[raking] to himself the straws, the small sticks, and dust on the floor."  Christiana understands what she is being shown, for the man is so focused on the muck that he is ignoring the Celestial crown being offered to him.  She says, "I know somewhat the meaning of this, for this is a figure of a man of this world, is it not..."

Although most of us have not read Pilgrim's Progress, it would have been familiar to his listeners in 1906 when President Theodore Roosevelt used a reference to the book to criticize journalists who took their investigative writing too far.  The President said, "the men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck."
In oposition to Muckrakers were other Newspapers

The issue with investigative reporting was then, and continues today, to be judged by whether journalists are an essential check on a free society or are a disruptive nuisance.  The founding fathers understood the importance of freedom of the press to enlighten an informed citizenry.  Unfortunately, the professionalism of members of the press has always varied, from those who speak and write with a commitment to accuracy versus those who distort the truth to intentionally mislead readers or to slander public figures for readers' amusement.  

At the same time ethical journalists were producing reform articles, other writers published in so-called yellow journals, hawked stories of scandal, crime, and sensationalism for entertainment and malice rather than purposeful information.  Those publishing motivations continue today.

That is not to say that legitimate journalists should never write stories involving scandal, crime, and sensational facts, whether they were writing in the 1800s and early 1900s or today.  The distinction is that yellow journalism (or what we refer to today as tabloid stories) invent and exaggerate stories with little regard for accuracy, to titillate, shock and amuse readers, in contrast to ethical journalists who seek to report information in an objective, impartial way.  While the facts may still be sensational, reputable journalists rely on accurate sources and avoid exaggeration.  Or, as Roosevelt said, ethical journalists "know when to stop raking the muck."

The subjects reported by professional journalists in the late 1800s and early 1900s have similarities with what journalists cover today, although news today is more likely to be seen on television than in newspapers.  Today's news still includes subjects reported in Isaac Werner's era, such as: Lincoln Steffens "Tweed Days in St. Louis exposing political corruption; Ida Tarbell, exposing ruthless business tactics and influence; and Samuel Hopkins Adams, revealing false claims by pharmaceutical companies.

In Isaac Werner's times, U.S. Senators were not elected by popular vote but rather were chosen by the various elected state senators.  The enactment of the 17th Amendment, which allows the voters in each state to elect their two U.S. senators, had been one of the key demands of the People's Party.  A series of articles written by muckraker David Graham Phillips and published in "Cosmopolitan" magazine in February of 1906 is given significant credit toward the passage of the amendment allowing the people to directly choose their senators rather than having their elected state senators make the choices for them.

The importance that the press has played in digging through the muck of American Society is shown in these few examples, as is the criticism journalists must confront when presidents and other powerful people don't like the muck they uncover.

Next week the series continues.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, A Series #2

Nelly Bly
Wealth had great power and influence in America in the 1800s, not terribly unlike today.  While farmers struggled to survive, in the cities there was a growing middle class, and they began to focus on issues beyond their personal needs.  Middle class urban women tended to focus on prohibition and suffrage, but other issues caught the attention of the middle class.  With more leisure time for reading, their newspapers and magazines began including articles about things outside the lives of their readers.  There was curiosity about the extravagant lives of the wealthy--their mansions, their social events, their clothing, and their power.  Wherever there is excessive wealth and power, there is likely to be abuse, and reform-minded journalists began to write about those abuses.

Newspapers began to report their scandals, sometimes exposing wrongdoing as much for increasing readership as for seeking a correction of the abuses.  Gradually, however, certain writers began investigating social abuses with the intention of reform. Most of these reporters were male, but the beautiful young Nelly Bly was among them.  Her work was even covered in the St. John County Capital where Isaac would have seen it.  In 1887 she focused on the scandal of placing 'troublesome' women in mental hospitals.

She set out to determine whether women were sometimes admitted to these hospitals because they were unconventional or inconvenient rather than being mentally ill.  Further, even if there was mental illness, Nelly wanted to see how these women were treated.  With the approval of her editor, she faked mental illness and was admitted to Bellevue Mental Hospital, where she personally observed and endured the cruelties suffered by women who had been admitted to get them out of the way.  It was a daring way to investigate actual conditions, but she gained release and published a series of articles in The World newspaper that brought public attention to the abuses.  Later, her information was published as a book, and her reporting made a difference in correcting the mistreatment of women.

Also in Isaac's time, Henry Demarest Lloyd published Wealth Against Commonwealth, an expose revealing the corruption of the Standard Oil Company.  A few years later, but prior to Isaac's death, McClure's Magazine was formed, and in addition to articles about general topics, they became a leading publication for exposing social abuses.  Later, Willa Cather joined McClure's to cover the arts.

The early 1900s were the highpoint of what came to be known as muckraking journalism.  Next week's blog will include some of the familiar names known for their exposure of abuses in American business and society.   

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, A Series, #1

One of Isaac's favorite authors
Among the first things that appealed to me about Isaac was his love for books.  I have written about that in this blog before, but this series goes beyond prior posts.  A good place to start is to understand Isaac's (and the populist movement's) belief that education was essential.  

As a young druggist Isaac had read Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, but when he read the book as a homesteader trying to make a living breaking sod for farming, he realized that what he had learned from reading Smith as a merchant had been interpreted differently from his reading as a struggling farmer. 

I have discovered from observing quotes posted online that words I interpreted to mean one thing are sometimes construed to mean just the opposite by someone else.  We all respond to information based on our own experience and the bias we have.  As  Carlow Ruiz Zafon wrote in The Shadows of the Wind, "Books are mirrors:  You only see in them what you already have inside you."

Isaac was a serious scholar and own this title
Another book that Isaac read was Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, the story of a wealthy young man struggling with insomnia, who is hypnotized to help him sleep, but like Rip VanWinkle, the young man awakens years later to a completely different world.  I had read the book years ago because it remains on many reading lists as a classic.  At that time, I read superficially, seeing it simply as an interesting tale about awakening in a changed society.  However, when it was originally published, people struggling to survive economically read it as a sort of guide to what could be a more equitable society if social changes were made.  The book was so popular during Isaac's time that Bellamy Clubs were formed around the world to encourage the sort of changes represented in the novel.

Edward Bellamy, author
Isaac also read Henry George, most famous for writing Progress and Poverty, which advocated Land Rents rather than taxes on land.  It would have eliminated owning land for speculation or investment, prohibiting the wealthy from acquiring and holding land to manipulate prices.  Collecting the land rents would, according to George, have been simpler than collecting taxes on production from the land, and would not have penalize successful farmers.

Farmers believed in the importance of learning, and they pooled their money to buy books.  Isaac gifted many of his books to their common library and built a cupboard at the school house where their books were stored.  I agree with Zafon that we see in books what we have inside us, but I also believe reading lets new light into our minds.  If we only read books and other material that reinforce what we already believe, we shut out the illumination of new perspectives.

Next week's blog will look at other books of that period with a different focus more aligned with urban issues.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

State Fair Ahs! and Wows!

Photo Credit:  Cindy Moore
I cannot begin to tell you how many "Ohs!" and "Wows!" I heard over my shoulder at the 2019 Kansas State Fair.  As I drew, people crowded around me.  But, I was not the one who drew the crowds nor were the "Ohs!" and "Wows!" for me.  They were for the oversized pumpkins and watermelons!

Last year for the Plein Aire at the Kansas State Fair, I had chosen what I thought would be a quiet corner near the giant melons where I could be out of the way when the doors opened for people to enter the Pride of Kansas building.  It is a popular building, especially because everyone wants to watch the butter sculpting.  But, I had no idea how popular the giant produce would be.

Photo credit:  Larry Fenwick
Last year taught me better.  People love to see the huge pumpkins and melons, and although I wanted to draw the scarecrows, I knew to expect crowds of people eager to see the pumpkins and melons.  This year's display was especially attractive, with the entries resting on straw rather than the stark concrete and wooden pallets of prior years.  The scare crows in the background completed the setting, although there were only three entries in 2019.

Last year I had done a quick portrait of one of the scarecrows, but I had not chosen that drawing to enter in the competition.  I had enjoyed drawing him and had decided to draw a more complex interpretation of the scarecrows at the 2019 fair.  I was a little disappointed to find only three entries but stuck to my plan.
Drawing from 2018

I chose a corner between the honey display and the melons, and I did not set up my table and easel, instead using only my lap and a drawing board to reduce my presence to as small a space as possible, and it worked fairly well.

I chose to imagine a composition with the scarecrow on the hay bail and the scarecrow behind her as a couple.  One young girl studying my drawing was confused that it didn't look like the actual exhibition.  When I told her that the scarecrows snuggled at night, after all the people were gone and the building was locked, she was only more confused, and I admitted that I was only teasing.  She was not satisfied and told me that nice girls don't tell lies.  Her grandmother leaned over to assure her that I only meant a joke, but the girl was very displeased with me.  Oops!

Scarecrows and Watermelons
The pumpkins and melons weigh hundreds of pounds and definitely fascinate people.  Aside from the "Ahs" and "Wows" the most frequent comments were questions about whether the fruit inside would be good to eat, imagining what a feast they could have, and wondering how they were grown.  One man told his son, "We could just eat the heart of that melon and not have to fool with the seeds!"

I must confess that one lady standing behind me said a soft "Wow."  I ignored her, assuming she was referring to the melons.  Again, I heard "Wow," this time a little louder, and I glanced back at her and was told, "You are doing a wonderful job."  I replied, "Thank you.  I though you meant the melons."  She assured me that she was impressed with my scarecrows.  I decided that single "wow" was quite enough for a days work, competing against the giants around me!

You can Google 'Giant Pumpkins' and 'Giant Watermelons' to learn more about the size, seeds, and cultivation of these giants.  One of my favorite children's book illustrators, Wendell Minor, has written a children's book titled "How Big Could Your Pumpkin Grow?" for younger children.  Although it was published in 2013, you may still be able to find a copy if your youngster was excited by the giants at the fair.  An adult book you might enjoy is Susan Warren's Backyard Giants, The Passionate, Heartbreaking Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever, published in 2007, in which she writes about a passion she calls "...a charming corner of American life, as quirky and delightful as the big pumpkins themselves."

If you would like to see my drawing of the 2019 Kansas State Fair Scarecrows, you can continue scrolling down to last week's blog.  Remember, you can click on the images to enlarge them.