Shutting Down “Free” Speech: Why Are These Blowhards Scheduled To Speak Anyways?

Image from Conservative Media

Free speech is under attack in America… again. At least that’s what one might think given the media coverage of cancelled speeches on campuses like Berkley as of late. Protests against speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos have triggered accusations of liberal oppression and hypocrisy but is anyone really being oppressed or silenced? Are demands to cancel these appearances really violations of liberal principles?

The cancelled speakers all have certain characteristics in common, they’re all little more than blowhards. They have few if any academic credentials relevant to their topic of speech and they have documented histories of shoddy and even dishonest scholarship. Here are a couple examples.

Milo Yiannopoulos 

Milo’s “speech” at Berkley was cancelled because the University was worried about violence, and in fact there were violent protests prior to his scheduled appearance. While he “speaks” about feminism, Islam, and “culture”, he has absolutely no expertise or genuine insight regarding these topics. His observations about Islam, feminism, and culture, are riddled with ill-informed stereotypes and false claims. The only subject he might actually be qualified to discuss would be his bizarre claim that pubescent teens can consent to sex with adults and that those sexual relationships can be healthy and beneficial. However Yiannopoulos was not scheduled to discuss that topic at Berkley.

Charles Murray  

Murray’s scheduled appearance at Middlebury College was disrupted to the point that he had to be escorted out and taken to a new location where a “live feed” was set up. Unfortunately a Middlebury Political Science professor was injured in a confrontation after the broadcast. Murray almost qualifies as an academic, he did get a Ph.D. in political science from M.I.T. in 1974 but he has rarely if ever published any peer reviewed articles or material beyond his Ph.D. thesis. Murray has produced three major works that were all organized around the same basic elementary methodological error; that of conflating correlation with causation.  Murray you may recall for instance wrote: “The Bell Curve” which is filled correlations between things like being white and of European descent, and being wealthy and well educated. Murray’s problem is that correlations do not infer causation. For instance we would find a strong correlation between people who are receiving oxygen and those who die in hospitals, that doesn’t tell us that oxygen is killing people in hospitals.
Correlation errors aren’t Murray’s only weakness but they do seem to be his error of choice. Every time he publishes one of his big thick books qualified scientists and statisticians tear them apart due to his poor and even deceptive scholarship and methodological errors.

For a comparison we could look at someone like Noam Chomsky. Chomsky’s primary academic credentials are in the field of linguistics and he’s been a professor at MIT for decades. However Chomsky has written nearly 100 books (by my count) and several hundred (if not a thousand or more) articles about: politics, culture, philosophy, and current events, over the course of nearly six decades. Chomsky has been a frequent and popular speaker at college campuses all over the country for at least fifty years. Many people find Chomsky’s speech to be offensive and anti-American or even on occasion anti-Semitic. The difference between someone like Chomsky and Murray is that unlike Murray, Chomsky has always approached everything he writes and speaks about with the same intellectual rigor and integrity that’s required by academia. Chomsky’s applies the same annotation, reference, and footnote style in his political writings as would be required for peer reviewed submissions. And unlike Murray, no one has ever been able to tear a Chomsky book or article apart on the basis of shoddy scholarship despite several hundred opportunities to do so.

Speech may or may not be offensive in a many ways, but that’s not really the issue when it comes to free speech on a college campus. The primary issue on a college campus isn’t the offensive nature of speech, its’ the intellectual integrity of the speaker. Speakers like Murray aren’t disqualified because they are offensive; they are disqualified because their scholarship is unreliable and tends to contain demonstrably false claims. Speakers like Chomsky on the other hand have an established record of integrity and reliable expertise, even when they work outside their credentialed fields.

The fact that American conservatives rely so heavily on intellectual frauds and shoddy scholarship is a problem beyond the scope of this discussion, but it should be noted. Despite documented histories of shoddy and dishonest scholarship these speakers were scheduled to appear on campuses, and maybe that’s the real problem.

We should remember that “free speech” is a liberal principle, and THAT principle is about creating and defending a space where truth can be spoken to power and different views can be shared without fear of oppression. Free speech isn’t about providing platforms on our college campuses for false claims made by speakers with documented records of shoddy scholarship.

There is absolutely nothing hypocritical about a college or university that establishes minimal standards of scholarship and intellectual integrity. Colleges and universities routinely fire, expel, and otherwise discipline faculty and students who fail to meet such standards. Any college or university that fails to establish such standards is abandoning its mission as an institution of “higher” learning as well as its responsibilities to its students and society at large. The vetting of potential speakers for scholarly and intellectual integrity is well within abilities of any college or university.  Controversial, unpopular, and even offensive speech has historically been tolerated on many of our liberal college campuses (as well it should be), as long as that speech is based on reliable, or at least disputed observations and scholarship. The problem with Yiannopulos et al is that their “truths” are more often than not toxic false claims. Sure, these speakers are controversial, but it’s their lack of integrity not their controversial nature that should disqualify them as invited speakers on a college campus.

I’m not suggesting some kind of national standard or anything, every college and university should set its own standards. Nor am I suggesting anyone create a black list of any kind, just an appropriate review process that ensures integrity. It’s possible to imagine inviting speakers like Ann Coulter and Charles Murray to participate in panel discussions where they are given an opportunity to defend their scholarship and integrity for instance, but the appearance has to be structured to make the challenge credible, ten minutes for “questions” after 50 minutes of unfettered speech doesn’t provide that.  I know the whole idea of any kind of censorship is abhorrent to many intellectuals. However simply providing a charte blanch venue on a college campuses for unqualified and/or dishonest scholars or speakers is also abhorrent to the notion of intellectual integrity.

Minimal expectations of reliable scholarship and intellectual integrity on college campuses won’t “silence” speakers like Murray and Yiannopoulos who are frequently featured in multiple venues with access to large audiences. What minimal expectations on college campuses can do is help ensure that discourse there is well informed and honest. Well informed and honest exchanges of ideas are what colleges and universities are supposed to be all about.  

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Mr. Tough Guy: Trump Breaks Up With Putin… Or Maybe Not.

A few blogs ago I complained that I was having trouble keeping up with the barrage of crap that flies out of the Trump White house and/or the Republican Controlled Congress on a daily or even hourly basis. I sit down to write something and within hours another toxic absurdity of some kind hits the air, it’s actually a little overwhelming. Part of the strategy I’m developing to cope with this crap-storm is something I’ve decided to call: “Pop-Shot” blogs. These will be short sharp cracks if the whip; kind of like a Facebook comment. So here I’m am launching my first “Pop-Shot” blog out into the internet!

It’s only happened twice so far since President Trump (I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to writing or saying phrase) took office but clearly the media and some others are soooooo desperate for a sign of competence that they’ll take any little scrap they can get. When Trump delivered his first decidedly mediocre (and slightly less embarrassing than usual) public address to Congress some declared that he’d suddenly become… presidential! That lasted what? Two days?

Now Trump has regained presidential momentum again (We’re told) by launching an airstrike on a Syrian Airbase. We’re going to teach Assad a lesson about gassing his own people! Thank God! Well, maybe not so much.

To begin with, on Monday of this week Trump didn’t have any particular problem with Assad. That’s interesting because Assad is the same guy he’s been for decades, and he’s the same guy that launched a gas attack on his own people in 2013. The thing about National Security and international policy is that competent leadership is not about reacting to events after the fact. We can debate whether or not removing Assad is a reasonable US policy objective, but Assad’s nature as the Syrian president and as criminal against humanity was long ago revealed and established. Assad’s most recent war crime against his own people and other civilians is just the latest in a long list. The fact that Trump needed a horrific gas attack to change his mind about Assad is NOT a sign of presidential maturity. On the contrary, a competent president would have entered the White House fully aware of the threat Assad poses in the region to begin with. Trump received several intelligence briefs regarding Syria shortly after taking the oath of office, I’m sure President Obama discussed Syria and Assad when he met with Trump. Yet, until last Tuesday Trump didn’t recognize the crises in Syria?  

When Trump begins the week thinking everything is hunky dory in Syria only to find to his surprise that there’s a brutal war going on there two days later; that does NOT bode well for US security. What other threats have yet to make it onto Trumps radar screen? Why applaud Trumps ability to change his mind when his mind shouldn’t have needed changing in the first place?  

Furthermore, this “attack” has all the hallmarks of a smoke and mirror campaign. The Russians were warned in advance, which means Assad was warned in advance, and the Pentagon admits that pains were taken to avoid inflicting serious casualties. Minimal damage was inflicted and the airfield was up and running again in a matter of hours. Not to be “Mr. Conspiracy” or anything but I note that not only is faux outrage a standard wrench in every nations tool box, it’s also the cheapest tool the box. The dominant analysis right now is that the Russians are embarrassed by Assad’s use of chemical weapons and the military strike they were powerless to prevent. Conventional wisdom seems to be that the attack has driven a wedge between Trump and Putin.  

Unfortunately one doesn’t need a very active imagination to notice that the constant stream of leaks regarding Trump’s probable ties to Russian intelligence. Every attempt Trump and his “team” have made thus far to nudge the Russian connection out of the headlines has failed. A relatively harmless military strike followed by a cacophony of faux outrage all around might just create the appearance of a split with Russia at an opportune time. The dominant analysis in our media is that Russia and Putin are embarrassed by Assad’s use of chemical weapons and their inability to block a US military strike. That analysis assumes that the guys who shoot down airliners over the Crimea and send Troops into Kosovo without name tags so they can deny sending troop into Kosovo… worry about western public opinion.  If you assume that Putin doesn’t care about Syrian civilian casualties, or whether or not Assad attacks his own people, this little air raid starts to look a lot less humiliating for the Russians. The raid may actually increase Russia’s leverage over its allies by justifying an increased Russian military presence. If the raid succeeds in nudging Trumps campaign ties with the Russians out of the headlines and convinces the media that Trump is finally acting like a real president… it ends up being a “win-win” for Putin and Trump without actually doing anything to safeguard Syrian Civilians. Remember…. Those were same civilians Trumps was calling potential terrorist the day before the gas attack… you know, blocking them from entering the United States. In the end it looks like we still have a president with no coherent concept of national security.    


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Yes, We Can Be Nice: But Trump Voters Are NOT The Future Of An American Progressive Movement

Women March 2016 (7 of 14)_resize

50,000 people turn out for the Women’s March in St. Paul MN. Any Trump voters? Photo by Paul Udstrand


Last week I wrote a blog criticizing Nicholas Kristof for his wrong-headed notion that Democrats should or could try to “win-over” trump voters as a campaign strategy of the future. It’s simply a mathematical and political fact that Democrats don’t need Trump voters to win elections. Trump voters constitute around 25% of registered voters, that leaves the remaining 75% up for grabs and those are the voters who will elect Democrats in future elections. Strategically Democrats need to be connecting with people who will vote them, not wasting time worrying about intransigent Trump voters who refuse to vote for democrats. Democrats need to build a liberal base of support organized around popular candidates and agendas. Democrats need to defeat the Trump vote, they’ll never co-opt it. This was the lesson of Bernie Sanders and whether or not Democrats have learned that lesson is yet to seen. Democratic neo-liberalism (i.e. “middle ground” moderate republicanism) has nearly killed the Democratic Party and made Republicans the most powerful political party in the land despite their pure incompetence, ignorance, and tendency towards magical thinking. Democrats like Kristof need to STOP thinking like moderate republicans if they want Democrats to win future elections.

Rather than appealing to the liberal majority, in his latest commentary Kristof doubles down on the idea that Democrats need appeal to Trump voters in order to win future elections. The problem with American liberalism is that for around 50 years the Democratic Party has been the voice of American liberalism, and Democrats have been lousy advocates for liberalism. In fact back in the late 80 Democrats let Republican turn the very word: “Liberal” in a derogatory phrase and actually responded to the accusation they were liberal by saying: “no we’re not!” You can’t claim to speak for liberals when you’ve spent the last 40 years distancing yourself from liberalism. This is now the crises at the heart of Democratic Party and Kristof provides a wonderful example of a Neo-Liberal democrat trying to come to terms with a demand for liberal-liberalism.

Neo-Liberal Democrats (like the Clintons) nearly ignored their liberal base while pursuing republican votes. This what Kristof is doing now. Instead of going after the liberal votes that put Obama in the White House, and didn’t show up to elect Clinton, Kristof is worried about Trump voters. Kristof is willing to alienate progressives in a futile attempt to “win” Trump votes. Some Democrats are even willing to throw women under the buss and consider being more “flexible” regarding abortion rights. This is NOT how you save a progressive movement, it’s how you abandon a progressive before it even gets established.

Kristof makes some interesting and valid observations, for instance he points out that liberals are thinking stereotypically when they label ALL Trump voters as racist or misogynist. But Kristof misses the larger picture when he refuses to recognize that the defining characteristic of Trump voters, the one quality that they all share- is stupid. Now you may say that “stupid” is just another stereotype but it isn’t. That Trump voters voted stupidly is a demonstrable, publicly observable and verifiable fact. All you have to do is ask them why they voted for Trump and from: “I couldn’t vote for Hillary” to: “He’s not afraid to speak his mind” all you get is stupid and ignorant reasons. If you voted for Trump because you thought his wall or his attack on “illegals” was a good idea… that was stupid. If you voted for Trump because you thought it was time to put a business man in the White House… that was stupid. I’m not going to go into detail here, I can explain why these rationale’s were stupid, but frankly it’s time to move on. I’m just saying that we ignore the fact that stupid voters are a legitimate demographic class at our own peril.

Kristof worries that antipathy and even hatred towards Trump voters is damaging the “progressive” agenda. The problem is that Kristof himself is obviously in foreign territory when tries to discuss or defend the “progressive” agenda. Kristof is surprised to find that Bernie Sanders harbors no ill will or resentment towards Trump voters for instance. Sanders’s is actually progressive, he believes in popular agendas and he understands the fact that policies and initiatives that appeal to 75% of the population are more popular than those that appeal to 25% of the population. Progressives aren’t hostile towards Trump voters, but no progressive is going to put Trump voters at the center of their agenda and try to build a progressive movement around them, that would be… stupid.

Kristof wants us to be nice to Trump voters, well duh, progressives believe in being nice to everyone, even if they’re not nice to you. I know referring to Trump voters as stupid isn’t a complimentary thing to do, and I don’t expect them to appreciate it, but it’s not about being “mean” to Trump voters, it’s just about recognizing a political reality. I get to talk about the stupid vote for Trump because it affects my life, and the lives of people and things I care about. If someone’s stupidity harms me, it’s not “mean” for me talk about their stupidity. If you want to buy a car, or get lost in the woods stupidly, that’s your business. But you’re in my house with you elect a president. I don’t think anyone is talking about launching a search for Trump voters and then being mean to them. Trump voters may think it’s a great idea to track people down and do stuff to them (like deport them for instance) but that’s never been progressive quality and I certainly don’t support that.

So yeah, we should always be nice to each other on an interpersonal level, but telling someone how they’ve hurt you isn’t being “mean”.  As far as progressive agendas are concerned, no such agenda has ever been organized around reactionary conservative voters who display outright hostility toward their fellow citizens. Sanders’s knows that, Kristof may not. Sure, the majority of Trump voters would be (and have been) the primary beneficiaries of progressive and liberal policies, they just don’t know it, but that’s ignorance. Ignorance isn’t necessarily stupid but Trump voters have demonstrated a breathtaking ability to be impervious to facts and logic… which drags them into the realm of stupidity. Again, I’m not trying to insult people I’m just saying if you refuse to be educated, don’t expect me or anyone else to waste a lot of time trying to educate you. If you want to know the difference between fake news and not-fake news for instance, I’ll be happy to explain it, but if you want to argue about it you’re on your own.

A progressive agenda develops and promotes popular agendas that maximize societies benefits for as many people as possible, the “founders” called it: “A more perfect union”. For progressives that means Medicare for All, state of the art transit and transportation systems, secular government, well regulated business and financial sectors, state of the art educational systems that are accessible and affordable to everyone, safe air, water, and food, sustainable and stable economies and employment, equality and justice under the law, etc. etc. etc. Trump voters may or may not realize that all of this stuff is in their best interest, but we can’t lower the bar to get them on board. We have to develop and pursue progressive liberal agendas whether Trump voters like them or not, who Trump voters vote for in the next election is their business. Democrats can certainly win elections without Trump voters, we KNOW that.  I remind Kristof and others that Clinton actually got 3 million more votes than Trump, she just didn’t get the votes where she needed them in the swing states. A popular Democratic candidate would have defeated Trump, the Democratic elite simply refused to nominate a popular candidate. Democrats don’t put a progressive agenda at risk when they refuse to organize a campaign around winning Trump votes. On the contrary, no progressive campaign could be organized around winning Trump votes. I think Kristof’s (and other neo-liberal Democrats) problem is he just doesn’t know what a progressive campaign looks like, if he did he wouldn’t be so worried about Trump voters. Look, we know that many Trump voters say they would have voted Sanders, and they did vote for Sanders in open primaries all over the country. Sanders didn’t get those votes by pandering to Trump voters, he got them by being a progressive candidate.  I hope Sanders, Ellison, and others can teach Democrats what a liberal or better yet a progressive campaign looks like before it’s too late.

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Trump Voters Stay The Course: Democrats Will Have To Look Elsewhere For Votes…Surprise?

Photo by CNN 2017

Photo by CNN 2017

As of late I’ve been working on a blog or series of blogs about the Democratic Party, its failure in the last election, and its struggle to win back lost ground and regain popular support. With that in mind I’ve been sensitized to (maybe a little over-sensitized) to observations large or small that Democrats should be paying attention to, or things that someone says democrats should be paying attention to.

In a recent commentary for the New York Times Nicholas Kristof has gone in search of Trump voters with “buyer’s remorse” and he’s having trouble finding them. There have actually quite a few of these kinds of articles in the last couple of months. Kristof, like others, finds that despite Trump’s somewhat vicious attack on the very people he promised to represent, his voters are sticking with him. Trump (And congressional Republicans) have proposed a basket full of harmful budget cuts and policies threatening erstwhile Trump voters; some of them may lose jobs, some are seeing re-training schools the rely on being closed, and yet others are seeing domestic violence programs they’ve relied upon shut down. One senior citizen who voted to get rid of the “illegals” is shocked to find that her Senior Center, which is apparently her lifeline, is on the chopping block. In essence, when you go looking for Trump voters you always find the same thing, by and large a group of people who thought it was a perfectly fine idea to screw other people now finding they screwed themselves as well.

The interesting thing about Kristof is that he seems to be surprised by the continued loyalty of these Trump voters despite the harm Trump and Republicans are proposing to do to them. Surveys since the election have generally found that most Trump voters are still Trump voters. Kristof points to a poll wherein only 3% of trump voters regret their vote for Trump.

I guess the intransigence of Trump voters would surprise me if I hadn’t long since arrived at the conclusion that voting for trump was a stupid thing to do. I’m not trying to hurl an insult into the world I’m just making an observation. I see stupid people and people who vote stupidly as a demographic set, and I don’t expect them to be different after an election than they were before it. Women, Blacks, Hispanics, etc. are Women, Blacks, and Hispanics before elections and remain that way afterwards, we don’t expect them to be something else after elections. I don’t expect people who tend to behave stupidly before an election will start behaving smart after the election. From this perspective the intransigence of Trump voters is predictable because it’s stupid and I’m not sure why that surprises Kristof.

The difference between a stupid person and someone not so stupid is that smarter people can process complex information and observations more competently thereby learning from mistakes and experience more quickly and reliably. You just don’t see Trump voters displaying this kind of intellect thus far. For example one of Kristof’s Trump voters is distressed that Trump plans to cut funding for a domestic violence program she’s relied on. She now hopes that Congress will save it. Problem is she also voted for a Republican Congress and Republicans have been dreaming about cutting programs like that for over a decade. Domestic violence programs like this are always on the chopping block in Republican budgets and an intelligent voter would have factored that fact into their vote, instead she voted for Republicans and now wants them to act like Democrats? How is that not stupid? Yet another one of Kristof’s Trump voters thinks there’s all kinds off wasteful government spending but doesn’t understand why his education program is on the chopping block. Don’t you think you should find out what Trump’s idea of wasteful spending is before you make him the most powerful human being on the planet?  When you vote people who promise cut cut cuts maybe you find out what they want to cut cut cut before you vote them? Whatever.

Getting back to Democrats, unfortunately I don’t think Trump voters had a monopoly on stupid in the last election. The decision to put Hillary Clinton at the top of the Democratic ticket was one of the dumbest choices anyone made in the last election cycle. Democrats basically put their most despised, distrusted, and divisive candidate on the ticket and then dared American’s to NOT vote for her. We know how that worked out. That was definitely NOT a smart play.

Spotting Republican stupid is like shooting fish in a barrel but Democratic stupid tends to be obscured by a confluence of noise and presumption. Here’s the line that really caught my attention in Kristof’s article:

“Yet Democrats gleeful at the prospect of winning penitent voters back should take a deep breath. These (Trump) voters may be irritated, but I was struck by how loyal they remain to Trump.”

Listen, I’ll be blunt:  If you’re a Democrat who thinks you’re going to prevail in the next election by “winning” over Trump voters, you don’t need to take a deep breath, you need to retire and let someone who’s NOT an idiot run the Democratic Party.  Why in the world would Democrats waste energy and resources trying to wring votes out of the most intransigent block of anti-Democratic voters in America? Yet this exactly the Democratic strategy since the 1980s. This has been a colossal mistake that completely unwound the liberal momentum that should have emerged from the 1970s post Nixon era. Instead of refining a liberal message and identity Democrats decided to be a moderate Republican Party and they’ve been losing seats more or less constantly for three decades.

Democrats aren’t going to win seats in the next election by dropping the bar on the floor and celebrating their ability to step over it. Nor can democrats expect that Republicans will defeat themselves, that didn’t happen with Trump and it’s simply not a reliable campaign strategy.

Trump won with 25% of the eligible vote, you beat him by winning 30+% of the eligible vote in the next election. Those votes won’t come from the people who voted for Trump, they’ll come from the big giant majority that didn’t vote for Trump (that other 75%). If Democrats don’t figure that out, and figure out a way to win elections rather than scrap for an ever decreasing share of republican votes in every election, they will be the undoing of our republic.   OK, I understand that referring to people as stupid can be rude, and I don’t expect anyone to appreciate it. But I think it’s essential that we as a nation recognize the fact that this demographic exists because we’re letting these people decide who our president is and who gets to run our government and that’s literally a suicidal gesture. We have to up our game here as a nation pure and simple.


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Marjorie Cohn: Deconstruction of the State: Z Communications Daily Commentary

Z Magazine, a trusted old progressive magazine sends out weekly commentaries to subscribers. I thought I’d share this one on my blog today. The title is a little misleading in that the whole first half of the commentary actually discusses Neil Gorsuch’s lack of intellectual and integrity. Like Scalia Gorsuch has no problem with intellectual gymnastics that help him “find” whatever it is he want to find when issuing a “judgment.

Donald Trump and Neil Gorsuch. Photo by Alex Wong for Getty Images 2017

Donald Trump and Neil Gorsuch.     Photo by Alex Wong for Getty Images 2017

When Donald Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus addressed the Conservative Political Action Committee in February, he identified two priorities of the administration: the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and deregulation.

It turns out that elevating Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and achieving deregulation are inextricably linked.

During Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing, Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee challenged him on his pro-business positions.

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken pressed him on a case—that of the now-infamous “frozen trucker”—in which the judge reached what Franken characterized as an “absurd” result.

Alphonse Maddin was driving a truck for TransAm Trucking Inc. in 2009 when the brakes froze on the trailer he was hauling. The heater inside the truck wasn’t working, and the temperature outside was minus 27 below zero.

Maddin contacted his employer, who arranged for a repair unit to come to Maddin’s location. While waiting for help to arrive, Maddin nodded off. “I awoke three hours later to discover that I could not feel my feet, my skin was burning and cracking, my speech was slurred, and I was having trouble breathing,” he said at a recent event in Washington, D.C. When Maddin stepped out of the truck, he said he “was on the verge of passing out. I feared that if I fell, I would not have the strength to stand up and would die.” Maddin was exhibiting symptoms of hypothermia.

He called his employer again to report that he was leaving to seek shelter. His supervisor ordered him “to either drag the trailer [with no brakes] or stay put.”

“In my opinion, clearly, their cargo was more important than my life,” Maddin said.

Faced with defying his employer’s order to remain with his disabled trailer or freezing to death, Maddin chose to unhitch the trailer and drive his truck to safety.

TransAm fired Maddin for disobeying orders, and he filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an agency of the Department of Labor.

The operative statute in this case forbids employers from firing an employee who “refuses to operate a vehicle because the employee has a reasonable apprehension of serious injury to the employee or the public.”

The Labor Department found that TransAm had violated the law, concluding that the word “operate” includes not only driving, but also “other uses of a vehicle when it is within the control of the employee.” Maddin had refused to operate his vehicle in the manner his employer had ordered—with the trailer hitched to the truck.

Of the seven judges who ultimately ruled on the case, Gorsuch was the only one who voted to uphold Maddin’s firing. He decided that Maddin did “operate” his vehicle, which took him outside the statutory language that protects an employee who refuses to operate his vehicle.

What source did Gorsuch consult to construe the word “operate?” He turned to the Oxford English Dictionary, refusing to defer to the Department of Labor’s broader interpretation of the statute. Gorsuch characterized “health and safety” concerns as “ephemeral and generic,” writing, “After all, what under the sun, at least at some level of generality, doesn’t relate to ‘health and safety’?”

In his dissent, Gorsuch, who displayed a smooth, compassionate persona while testifying at his hearing, described the conditions Maddin faced as merely “cold weather.” He wrote that for Maddin to sit and wait for help to arrive was an “unpleasant option.”

Maddin’s lawyer, Robert Fedder, told Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman that during oral argument before the appellate panel, “Judge Gorsuch was incredibly hostile.” Fedder noted, “I’ve litigated many cases in appellate courts … [Gorsuch] may have been the most hostile judge I’ve ever appeared before.”

Maddin, who is African-American, later said, “The first thing I noticed was that in his opening reference [in his dissent, Gorsuch] simply called me a trucker and didn’t use my name.” Maddin told The Guardian, “In my heart of hearts, I felt like he willfully tried to negate the human element of my case.”

At Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin discussed Maddin’s case with Gorsuch, saying that the temperature was minus 14 that night, “but not as cold as your dissent.”

In Gorsuch’s dissenting opinion, he refused to defer to the Department of Labor’s interpretation of the statutory language regarding refusal to operate. Gorsuch was, in effect, refusing to apply the well-established “Chevron deference.”

This doctrine requires that when a law is ambiguous, courts must defer to an agency’s reasonable construction of the statute. Even the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, to whom Gorsuch is often compared, thought that agencies were in the best position to construe regulations that inform their work.

If Gorsuch had his druthers, he would do away with Chevron deference. In fact, he stated as much in his lengthy concurrence in Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch, in which he wrote, “Maybe the time has come to face the behemoth.”

Gorsuch would substitute his own interpretation for that of an agency. But agencies are in the best position to make these determinations about matters within their purview.

In opposing Gorsuch’s nomination to the high court, the nonprofit organization Alliance for Justice wrote of the dangers of second-guessing agency experts: “It is difficult to overstate the damage [Gorsuch’s] position would cause. Judge Gorsuch would tie the hands of precisely those entities that Congress has recognized have the depth and experience to enforce critical laws, safeguard essential protections, and ensure the safety of the American people.”

Courts that have given deference to agency interpretations ensured essential protections, including:

  • deferring to the National Labor Relations Board’s reasonable determination that live-haul workers are employees entitled to protections of the National Labor Relations Act;
  • deferring to the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule requiring states to reduce emissions from power plants that travel across state lines and harm downwind states;
  • deferring to the Department of Labor’s interpretation of portions of the Black Lung Benefits Act that make it easier for coal miners afflicted with black lung disease to receive compensation; and
  • deferring to the EPA’s revision of regulations under the Toxic Substances Control Act that provide more protection from exposure to lead paint.

But Gorsuch’s desire to neuter agency determinations dovetails nicely with Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon’s goal of “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

The Trump administration has issued several orders that mandate deregulation:

On Jan. 20, Priebus directed agency heads to refrain from sending new regulations to the Office of the Federal Register until there are administration officials in place to approve them.

On Jan. 24, Trump signed a memo directing his secretary of commerce to review the ways in which federal regulations affect U.S. manufacturers in order to reduce as many of them as possible.

On Jan. 30, Trump issued an executive order requiring the mechanistic elimination of two regulations for every new one, and capping spending on new regulations during 2017 at zero.

On Feb. 3, Trump signed an executive order rolling back Dodd-Frank regulations on Wall Street. This will increase the risk of another dangerous recession.

During the confirmation hearing, Franken confronted Gorsuch with the confluence of his confirmation to the Supreme Court and the deconstruction of the administrative state (deregulation), saying,

[F]or those who subscribe to President Trump’s extreme view, [the Chevron doctrine] is the only thing standing between them and what the President’s chief strategist Steve Bannon called the ‘deconstruction of the administrative state,’ which is shorthand for gutting any environmental or consumer protection measure that gets in the way of corporate profit margins.

Speaking before a gathering of conservative activists last month, Mr. Bannon explained that the President’s appointees were selected to bring about that deconstruction, and I suspect that your nomination, given your views, is part of that strategy.

Deregulation serves the interests of big business, a key conservative goal. When questioned at his hearing about what ideology he would bring to the court, Gorsuch made the disingenuous claim, “There’s no such thing as a Republican judge or a Democratic judge. We just have judges in this country.”

If that were true, why are the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society so keen on Gorsuch? He was on a list prepared by the two right-wing groups from which Trump dutifully selected his Supreme Court nominee.

“The president outsourced your selection to far right, big money interest groups, and they have an agenda. They’re confident you share their agenda. That’s why they called you ‘a nominee who understands things like we do,’ ” Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy told Gorsuch at his hearing.

Why has $10 million in “dark money” been spent by anonymous conservative donors to buy Gorsuch a seat on the high court, as Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse charged at the hearing?

And why, as Whitehouse added, was $7 million expended on the unprecedented, but successful, campaign to deny Barack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland a hearing?

Gorsuch is a staunch, longtime conservative judge who, in spite of his refusal to tip his hand about his ideology, has taken positions that confirm his right-wing bona fides.

When New York Sen. Chuck Schumer announced he would vote against Gorsuch’s nomination, he stated that Gorsuch had ruled repeatedly for employers and against workers. Gorsuch “almost instinctively favors the powerful over the weak,” Schumer said, adding, “We do not want judges with ice water in their veins,” an apt analogy in light of Gorsuch’s dissent in the TransAm case.

All Democratic senators should filibuster the nomination of Gorsuch for associate justice of the Supreme Court. His right-wing ideology and Bannon’s frightening agenda would dismantle important protections and endanger us all.

Marjorie Cohn is professor emerita at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, former president of the National Lawyers Guild and deputy secretary general of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers. Her books include The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and AbuseCowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law and Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues. Visit her website: Follow her on Twitter: @MarjorieCohn

ZCommunications, 215 Atlantic Ave, Hull, MA, USA, 02045

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Trump Is No Deal-Maker: Our Blowhard And Chief Reveals Yet Another Layer Of Incompetence

House Speaker Paul Ryan with President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on March 16. Win McNamee / Getty Images

House Speaker Paul Ryan with President Donald Trump  Win McNamee / Getty Images



Between March 23, 2010, the day Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act i.e. “Obamacare” into law, and November 8th of 2016, the day Donald Trump won the US presidential election; House republicans voted (Unanimously) to repeal Obamacare at least 62 times. No other legislative initiative made to the house floor and passed as many times as those bills to repeal Obamacare. Of course all of those votes were literally a waste of time because none of them ever crossed over to the Senate and even if they had Obama would have vetoed the effort.

Nevertheless it’s been clear for years that few issues unite House Republicans more than their effort to repeal Obamacare. Now that republicans currently run the table with control of the House, Senate, and White House, you’d think getting a vote to repeal and replace Obamacare would be child’s play… if you’re Donald Trump.

If you’re a sentient human being of average intelligence who’s been paying attention to republican antics for at least the last ten years (apparently NOT Donald Trump), you’d know better. The reality that many of us long ago observed is that contemporary republican politicians have neither the capacity nor the interest in actually governing, at least not in the sense that modern democracies are governed. Few republicans have the interest, knowledge, or intellectual capacity to solve problems, manage complex organizations, or engage in the kind of bipartisan negotiation that democracy requires.

So Donald Trump takes office and republicans finally get a president in the White House that will sign pretty much anything they pass; and what happens? They can’t even get a health care bill out of the house.

This was actually predictable, in fact I predicted it back in November of last year. In a blog I wrote with the hope of easing some post-election anxiety and depression among fellow American liberals, I basically encouraged people to give it a good wait and see, since republicans have no competent leadership or governing skills, organizing a one man parade is well beyond their skill set let alone writing and passing complex legislation like comprehensive health care.

So the repeal of Obamacare blew up. While there’s no shortage of observations and comments about the collapse of the republican initiative, what puzzles me is the continued insistence that Trump is some kind of master “closer” deal-maker. Trump the “closer” is obviously another one of Trump’s “exaggerations” and that’s not a small deficiency.

When it comes to Trump deficiencies we’re going to see a cumulative effect, each level of incompetence will eventually collapse upon the next level and the only firewall of competency Trump EVER claimed to have up his sleeve was his ability to negotiate deals so this failure is nothing short catastrophic for Trump and the republicans.

It’s worth taking some time to unpack Trumps inability to negotiate deals because the details predict future failures and real potential dangers for our nation.

To begin with, while some American’s could be forgiven for their ignorance regarding the dysfunctional nature of the republican party, and their inability to govern, someone who runs for president as a republican nominee should know better. Trump’s supporters are now trying to blame Speaker Ryan for this epic failure but Trump and his advisors put Obamacare repeal at the center of his campaign and presidential agenda. While many observers noted that Trumps sudden affiliation with the republican party was always suspect, we now know for a fact that Trump has never taken the time to investigate or understand the serious fractures and instabilities within his own adopted party. I don’t think the republicans can pass any health care bill but the smart play would have been put more manageable agenda on the list and worked up a health care bill.  Trump did receive advice to do just that, but he ignored it. Again, I don’t think any strategy gets a health care bill out of this republican congress because it’s not a strategic problem, but Trump clearly had no idea whatsoever how difficult such a task would be for republicans. This tells us that Trump doesn’t understand one of most basic precepts of elementary negotiation: Know who your negotiating with and what they’re priorities are.

Another basic precept of negotiation and good “deal-making” is that you need to understand the deal itself. By all accounts Trump’s ignorance regarding this deal and even the subject matter of the deal (i.e. “healthcare”) was and remains breathtakingly comprehensive. Trump actually said out loud to a group of reporters in public the words: “Nobody knew how complex the health care problem is”. According to White House staff in the days preceding the vote Trump walked around asking: “Is this really a good bill?” Clearly Trump is completely out of his depth when it comes to complex national issues and policies. If Trump really believed that he could “close” a deal he didn’t understand, regarding an issue he knows nothing about, with people he didn’t know and didn’t understand, AND apparently in his spare time, he was simply being grandiose.

Trump’s failure to “close” the deal gets more bizarre after the bill collapses when he blames the democrats. Trump complained that not a single democrat would vote for the bill. Did Trump really expect democrats would vote to repeal Obamacare? He never met with them, or tried to include them in the plan, and he’s spent months insulting them and making false accusations against President Obama. Why in the world would Trump expect any democratic votes? His claim that “now” democrats own Obamacare is just as if not more bizarre. Does he not know that democrats ALWAYS owned Obamacare? Obamacare has been the law of the land for seven years, democrats wrote it and passed it, Obama, a democrat… signed it into law. Now they own it?  What can Trump possibly be thinking when he makes a statement like this?

Trumps mind may well remain and impenetrable mystery but his complaint about democrats tells us one last thing about his ignorance regarding negotiations and deal-making. When you step into negotiations and try to make deals you need to be aware of the environment you’re negotiating in, in this case we’re talking about the US Congress where you need at least 218 votes to pass a bill in the House, and if you’re not going to get any votes from democrats that means you need republicans, and there are 247 of them in the House right now.

Trump’s failure stems from the fact that one campaign promise he’s definitely keeping is that he’s trying to run the government the way he runs his business. His problem is that the government is vastly more complex than any business and he’s in way way over his head. Trump, like many American executives running businesses is amazingly ignorant with a very narrow range of knowledge and even less curiosity. Like many extremely well paid executives he does not see himself as particularly responsible for anything and clearly approaches his “deals” as if the details are someone else’s responsibility, he just comes in for the “close”. This approach will be an abject failure in Washington DC because political deals are far more complex than whatever real estate and other sundry of deals Trump is accustomed to.

Of course Trumps other problem is that he’s a blowhard who doesn’t really know how to deal or negotiate in good faith. I know he wrote a book about making deals but in the end Trump is a con and a bully. His biggest deals have always been made by hiding the truth from his investors or bullying them into submission. This won’t work with congress for a variety of reason. Nor will Trump be able to bully and con or bluff his way through international trade deals or other negotiations. Putin would eat Trump alive and maybe already has.

Our problem as a nation is that Trump, despite his grandiose opinion of himself… is our president. This demonstration of his much vaunted closing prowess simply reveals yet another level of incompetency. We can only hope the man doesn’t do any irreparable damage to our republic so long as he remains in office.


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Get Local, Pay Attention, Resist.

Demonstrators march for justice and $15 living wages in Minneapolis MN. Photo by Fadumo Ali

Demonstrators march for justice and $15 living wages in Minneapolis MN. Photo by Fadumo Ali

The Thoughtful Bastard Blog has been somewhat silent for a while. The truth is I’ve been overwhelmed by the blizzard of crap flying around the Trump Presidency. I start writing about one outrage only to get distracted by a new outrage later in the day. I can’t write fast enough to keep up. I’m devising a strategy to deal with this and several blogs will soon be making their way out of the hopper and into print here in the near future.  In the meantime you can stay somewhat more up to do date by following the blog on FB.

Today I’m going to fall back on the laziest of all possible writer’s strategies… I’ll publish something someone else wrote!  As we make our way through the Trump era it’s important to remember that there are many forms of resistance, several types of resisters, and no end of policies and issues to be resisted. We need to be aware of each other and supportive of each other. To that end I want to bring a recent demonstration Minneapolis Minnesota to your attention, the march was organized by:

Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, 15 Now Minnesota, Socialist Alternative, CAIR, Native Lives Matter, Young Muslim Collective, Waite House (Pillsbury Communities United), Navigate Minnesota, CTUL (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha).

This email from Becky Dernbach, communications director for MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (MNNOC), landed in my e-mail yesterday:

February 27, 2017

Hundreds march on City Hall demanding protection for immigrants, $15 minimum wage

Several hundred people marched on Minneapolis City Hall this evening, demanding the Minneapolis City Council step up and take a bold stand to protecting communities from Trump by expanding sanctuary protections for immigrants and passing a $15 minimum wage for all workers.

“In this Trump era that is full of hateful rhetoric and actions, we need to hold local and state governments accountable to ensure the safety, recognition, and dignity of our immigrant, refugee, and underrepresented communities,” said Francisco Segovia from Mesa Latina.

The march began at Peavey Plaza and proceeded to the offices of the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Council. These business lobby groups, which have a strong voice at City Hall and at the state legislature, have been fighting a $15 minimum wage in Minneapolis, and are pushing for a statewide bill that would stop cities like Minneapolis from enacting their own higher labor standards or wages.

“The City Council needs to pass a $15 minimum wage before the legislature takes away our ability to do so,” said Katie Drahos, a Minneapolis retail worker. “With our communities under attack at the federal and state level, we need Minneapolis to stand up for our right to provide for our families by passing a $15 minimum wage.”

The march next stopped at Panera Bread. “There are people on the City Council and in the Restaurant Association who don’t want people who earn tips to get an increase to the minimum wage,” said Rod Adams, an organizer with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. “They think tipped workers are rolling in cash. But when I worked at Panera, there were whole weeks when I didn’t get any tips at all. The City Council needs to stand up for tipped workers and include us in a $15 minimum wage.”

The crowd marched down Hennepin Avenue and down 7th Street to Wells Fargo, where the crowd demanded the city of Minneapolis divest from Wells Fargo. The city of Minneapolis’ financial affiliation with Wells Fargo has come under renewed scrutiny because Wells Fargo is financing the Dakota Access Pipeline on Native land.

“We bring our heartbeat to the people and stand in solidarity with our relatives everywhere. We are here in solidarity to protect our water for our children. Water is life,” said Aaron Rock with South Side Ramblers Drum and Native Lives Matter.

The march then proceeded to the Hennepin County Jail, where people spoke up about the need for safety beyond policing and an end to the criminalization of their communities.

“Change must happen and it cannot wait,” said Nina Robertson, a Minneapolis resident whose brother, Chad Robertson, was killed by an Amtrak police officer in Chicago earlier this month. “My brother’s life cannot be lost in vain. Can you please see us as human? We need to figure out what safety beyond policing could look like. The police are not stopping crime, they’re creating more crime. We must divest from the police system if they are not protecting us.”

“We need protection of our Muslim communities, not surveillance,” said Mohamud Mohamed with the Young Muslim Collective. “The Department for Homeland Security seems to think stopping terrorism means criminalizing Muslims. The City of Minneapolis must refuse to cooperate with DHS’ Muslim surveillance programs.”

The march concluded at City Hall, where the crowd delivered their demands, the Bill of Resistance, to Council Member Cam Gordon.

“These issues don’t live in silos,” said Andrea Jenkins, a transgender rights activist and candidate for Minneapolis City Council. “Attacks on reproductive rights, on trans women of color, on immigrants, on health care are all connected. We have to be clear on the intersectionality, and fight to protect the most vulnerable in our communities.”


Becky Dernbach
Communications Director, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change
1101 W Broadway Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55411

Cell: 717-329-5092
Office: 612-246-3132 x3
Follow us: @mnnoc
Follow me: @bzosiad
Find us on Facebook.


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Just A Quick Post Election Note From A Bernie Supporter

Photo by Paul Udstrand

Photo by Paul Udstrand

Clinton Lost. Trump is the next president. Those of us who wanted to keep Trump out of the White House are in various degrees of shock, but we’re not all totally surprised; some of us recognized the danger of nominating Hillary Clinton months ago. Some of us knew that if anyone could lose an election to a train wreck like Donald Trump, it was Hillary Clinton. We knew Trump was going to get the nomination and if we wanted to keep him out of the White House democrats would need to show up with their “A” game and we were right on both counts. Let me say that again: We got it right.

We tried to warn democrats and our fellow liberals and in return we were greeted with insults, derision, condescension, and marginalization.

“I told you so” doesn’t even begin to convey the frustration and anger some of feel at this point. But I’m not writing a recrimination here, I’m actually asking for some understanding.

It’s incredibly frustrating to be insulted and degraded in the first place. It’s even more frustrating when those insulting us pretend be morally, intellectually, and politically superior in some way. Add to this the fact that those deriding us were so completely and utterly wrong and the frustration is driven off the charts.

From our perspective Clinton liberals put Trump in the White House. Clinton didn’t get the nomination because she was the best candidate; she got the nomination because those democrats decided it was her “turn”. That decision put Trump in the White House. We tried to warn them but they just wouldn’t listen and now we’re all stuck with Trump.

You may agree or disagree with that perspective but you can’t deny that if you thought Clinton was going to win, and if you thought she was the candidate to win… you were wrong. You can’t dismiss those of us who got it right as naïve, sexist, Bernie Bro’s who didn’t or don’t have a clue and don’t know anything about “electability”.

And don’t even try to tell us that NO ONE could have beaten Trump because he was just THAT good.

None of us can really know how things would have been different if Sanders had got the nomination, but folks who got it flat out wrong are certainly in no position to declare that no other outcome was possible. Clinton supporters need to realize that their credibility is strained to say the least. They are simply in no position to issue declarations regarding “electability” or political and social reality. They got it wrong, that’s not a recrimination, it’s simply an historical fact. It’s actually important to recognize that fact because we need to get it right next time so they had better listen next time.

What’s done is done, and we’re going have to come together and fight for decency in America. Emotions are raw right now, and frustrations are beyond “high”. Still, we need to try to treat each other with respect. For Bernie supporters I think that means resisting the urge to recriminate. I know it’s hard, especially when people we think are clueless continue to pretend they’ve got the monopoly on reality and political wisdom. But let’s hold onto that and save that capital for the next nomination fight. For Clinton supporters I think it means cutting us some slack, and recognizing that like it or not, you were wrong and we have a right to be frustrated. We’re all kind of hurting right now. We will move beyond this but a little humility on both sides could go a long way towards healing these wounds.

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President Trump? A Message Of Hope On A Truly Bad Day

Photograph by Paul Udstrand Copyright Paul Udstrand 2013

Photograph by Paul Udstrand Copyright Paul Udstrand 2013

A couple months ago I managed to resign myself to the notion of Donald Trump being the President of the United States. This morning I’m trying to remember how I did that.

I remember at that time a BBC report hit me like a bolt of lightning, it was just a typical campaign update but like so many others it was dominated by story after story about Trump while Clinton was… well I don’t know where Clinton was. Trump dominated the headlines every day, so that wasn’t so unusual but it was a clip from his speech that hit me like a ton of bricks. All he said was something like: “If I’m elected I’ll always be for America and Americans”. That was it, simple, clear, positive, and who could be against being for America? When you remember the fact that the typical American voter doesn’t do or even know how to do any kind of detailed fact based analysis it becomes frightening clear that a guy like Trump could win with that message; if he stuck to it. The danger became all too real when you considered the fact that Clinton never did produce a clear agenda or campaign theme beyond simply being Hillary instead of Trump. In the end I think the Clinton camp simply gave up and choose a campaign strategy that assumed Trump would defeat himself and they could just show up and collect the votes.

So here we are. Clinton lost. I wish I could say I’m surprised. The last few weeks I’ve allowed myself to hope for a Clinton victory, I mean what else can you do? I bought into the Nate Silver band wagon even though I’ve always had my doubts about his statistical magic. The problem with complex predictive statistical analysis is you can’t know if you’ve got the right data set or how reliable the data is. When you’re predictions are right it looks like you’re a genius… until you’re wrong. Well, the predictions were wrong, the data turned out to be junk.

So here I am looking back to a time when I was actually less hopeful in an effort to scrounge together some optimism… what was I thinking back then and how does it reflect on Trump’s victory today?

Take heart dear liberals. Clinton’s loss is not an indictment of progressive liberalism or ideas. Clinton didn’t lose because she was too liberal, she lost because she failed to give progressive liberals and independents something to vote for, something to support enthusiastically. Clinton is basically a moderate republican so her loss cannot be an indictment of liberalism. Liberals still have the only workable and truly popular solutions. Liberals just need to find a party that will champion their agenda.

Take heart dear feminists. Of all the reasons I ever thought Clinton might lose, I never thought (nor do I now think) she’d lose simply because she’s a woman. To be sure sexism is alive and well in America but Clinton lost because she was a weak candidate with too many liabilities and too many people simply didn’t want to vote for her. Even if she’d been a man I think she would have lost. Listen: Do you think a black man would have won back in 2008 if he’d been disliked and distrusted by more than 50% of the population? Obama campaigned on change. Bill Clinton said: “Change? Give me a break”. If Obama had been a hugely distrusted and disliked candidate who wasn’t offering something compelling to vote FOR, could we have said he lost because he was black? I think Americans are ready and willing to elect a woman as president, but she’s going to have to be a great candidate that sparks hope, energy, and enthusiasm, not a candidate that tells people their hope, energy, and enthusiasm are naïve and unrealistic. Clinton’s loss might give feminism the jolt it needs to re-examine its discourse and progress. I think it’s possible that Clinton’s loss might provoke a renaissance of feminist activism that goes beyond the celebration women in positions of power.

Take heart dear democrats. While this is a stunning and catastrophic loss, it’s also an opportunity to jettison the tepid Neo Liberalism that captured the party in the late 80s and has led to sooooo many other stunning defeats. Republicans don’t win because they’ve got great ideas and candidates that everyone loves. Trump will be the most unpopular president to ever step into the White House, and the majority of people who voted for him actually said they didn’t really want to vote for him.  Democrats lose because the conservative democratic elite that have been running the party since the late 80s refuses to nominate populist progressive liberals that people want to vote for. Obama barely got nominated and the elite clearly decided they weren’t going let something like THAT happen again. This is a chance to rebuild as an honest to god liberal party.  The myth that the democratic elite know who’s “electable” and who isn’t has surely been exposed as utter delusion. That’s actually not a bad thing; it means democrats have a chance to change their mentality and nomination process so that truly electable candidates can get the nomination in the future. Surely democrats can’t conclude that Hillary was too liberal, so it’s time for a little revolution within the party. If democrats champion, pursue, and enact liberal policies rather than function as a firewall against them, they’ll have popular candidates that people want to vote for, and they’ll win elections, and that’s a good thing.

Take heart America. Don’t forget that Trump is going to become the most unpopular and distrusted president to ever take the oath of office. Although Trump’s election represents all kinds of stupid, he actually lost the popular vote and he has no mandate. He also has no plan and doesn’t seem to even know anyone who does have a plan so his ability to actually govern, much like his “amazing” casinos, will probably never materialize. We know that his fellow republicans have no idea how to govern either, they seem to think refusing to govern is a new form of governance. Furthermore remember that Trump isn’t actually ideological, in many ways he’s not actually a republican. While the democrats managed to suppress their populist anti-establishment candidate the republicans failed. That means that Trump takes office in front of a party that’s so deeply dysfunctional, distracted, and toxic that they’ll likely continue to implode despite their electoral victories.

In many ways the nomination of Trump was a predetermined disaster for republicans whether he won or lost. His loss to Clinton would have been a humiliating defeat, but his victory is a repudiation of their core strategy and values. It’s unlikely they’ll be able to unite behind Trump, and even if they do, republicans have shown us over and over again that even when they unite and get into power, they can’t get anything done.

Take heart. If we lose Obamacare we’ll come back with single payer. If they try to privatize social security they’ll be out in two years. If they try to stomp on women, GLBT’s, or emigrants, they’ll simply accelerate their own demise. Trump will be a bad president, but we’ve had bad presidents before, and we have another chance to vote in two years.

Maybe I’m being naïve but I don’t believe Trumps election is about making America a bigoted and hateful safe harbor for sexism, racism, and antisemitism. This is just another installment of American stupid.  If anything, Trumps America will reawaken the slumbering forces of peace, justice, diversity, tolerance, and reason. Americans can only try stupid so many times before they realize it’s always a bad idea. Perhaps now tepid liberalism will be jolted out of its complacency. In a strange way, maybe THAT’S how Trump actually will make America great.

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The More Things Change… Standing Rock Is Just The Latest Fight To Save Our Water In “Indian” Country

Some of the 600 police officers involved in the eviction of demonstrators at the Hiawatha Free State 1998

Some of the 600 police officers involved in the eviction of demonstrators at the Hiawatha Free State 1998  Photo by Paul Udstrand


As I’ve watched a militarized police force confront peaceful protesters at Standing Rock I can’t help be but reminded of a past but similar confrontation that in many ways presaged the confrontations we’ve witnessed in recent years. The militarization of our police force and it’s tactics, institutional racism, and environmental assaults under the guise of “progress” and “necessity” were all on spectacular display here in Minnesota during a small but determined effort to save Coldwater Spring and adjacent sacred land in Minneapolis at the turn of the century. In fact, the Minneapolis police action in 1998 was larger in terms of personnel than the current action in Standing Rock. In 1998 authorities reported using over 600 officers to subdue and evict a much smaller protest while around 200 officers are currently confronting demonstrators at Standing Rock.

Hiawatha reroute battle yielded mixed results in Minneapolis; while sacred trees were felled by the bulldozers Coldwater Spring was saved and has since been restored and preserved as part of a National Park system. Another victory of sorts that emerged in Minneapolis was a coalition of Indian of tribes, and non-Indian groups (although on a smaller scale than Standing Rock) that were able to block construction that would have destroyed unique and sacred waters. Perhaps a similar coalition on a larger scale will prevail now in Standing Rock.

With the possible lessons and perspective of history in mind I am publishing my 2003 article about the Hiawatha/Coldwater Spring battle here on my blog. It’s a long article but I hope you find it worth your time.


The Attack of the Invisible People:
Confronting Irrational Transportation Policies in Minneapolis
By Paul Udstrand

The Minnehaha Free StateIn August of 1998, the invisible people struck in Minneapolis. Members of the Mdewakanton Mendota band of Sioux Indians and Earth First!, moved in and occupied several abandoned houses that lay directly in the path of a proposed highway route. They were supported by several local groups who had been opposing the highway for nearly 10 years, as well as thousands of local residents. The activists christened the occupied area the: “Minnehaha Free State” and declared that no drugs, alcohol, violence, or highways would be permitted there.

Three months later, at 4:30am, seven twenty foot Ryder trucks rolled into the Minnehaha Free State with their lights shut off. Inside the trucks S.W.A.T. teams waited for the signal to commence “Operation Cold Snap”, the largest and second most expensive law enforcement operation in Minnesota history. Within minutes of the S.W.A.T. team’s assault, over six hundred police officers accompanied by fire fighters and utility workers, pored into the area. By the time it was over, thirty nine people had been arrested, and the previously occupied houses had been completely demolished. The Occupation and subsequent “eviction” were the most dramatic events in a ten year conflict over one of the last vestiges of highway planning left over from the late 50s and early 60s. This is the story of a fight between residents, environmentalists, and Native Americans, and a state machine bent on pursuing irrational transportation policies. Transportation activists everywhere should take heed of the lessons learned here.

Workers tear down previously occupied houses after arresting and evicting "occupiers"

Workers tear down previously occupied houses after arresting and evicting “occupiers”

So what is the nature of this highway project that the state was willing to go to such lengths to complete, and demonstrators were willing to block with their bodies? Hiawatha Avenue, like dozens of streets, lakes, streams and cities in Minnesota owes it name to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 19th century poem: “The Song of Hiawatha”, a retelling of mostly Ojibwe stories. The road crosses over Minnehaha Creek (Another reference to Longfellow) and connects downtown Minneapolis and the Twin Cities International Airport south of the city. For almost thirty years the road had been allowed to deteriorate badly. Aside from its poor condition, it was quite possibly the ugliest stretch of road in the country as it runs along two miles of industrial property, most of which are old railroad yards and giant grain elevators. At its southern end, Hiawatha had deep ruts and quirky curves which made it dangerous especially in cold and icy conditions.

Hiawatha is one of those roads that is technically two roads. On a map it appears both as Hiawatha Avenue, and Highway 55. Highway 55 was supposed to come in from the west, run through downtown, and cross the Mississippi River on the south side of Minneapolis. In the 60’s and 70’s as far as the Minnesota Highway Department was concerned, Hiawatha was just an unfinished section of Hwy 55. The Highway Department eventually became the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), but the plan for Hwy 55 never changed. The plan for Hwy 55 called for the destruction of 160 houses (done in late 1970’s) followed by a straightening and widening of the road to accommodate more traffic at faster speeds. In order to straighten the southern end of the project the plan called for the road to be moved up to three blocks east. This plan to move the road became known as the Hiawatha Reroute. The reroute would roll right over acres of urban green space, seven houses, and the historical site of the first white settlement in the state, and one of the last stands of native Burr Oaks in the country. It would also destroy a small but valuable patch of sacred Native American land, and has threatened to cut off the flow to a sacred spring that is also the last natural source of clean water in the city of Minneapolis. All in order to complete a highway that was designed decades ago and no longer really made sense.

America’s love affair with the automobile has never been a terribly rational affair. The process of turning the country into an automobile Mecca, with billions of dollars worth of new highways began back the early 1900s. Other industrialized nations preserved and enhanced their mass transportation systems, while simultaneously introducing automobiles. The US however dismantled and defunded its extensive mass transportation system almost as fast as it could. Public transportation funding was diverted from mass transit systems into massive road projects.

By 1940, lack of public funding, and incompetent management had driven all but around 40 urban trolley lines out of business. General Motors through subsidiaries and dummy corporations like National City Lines, bought out most of the remaining street car lines and systematically drove them out of business in favor of bus systems and automobiles. This of course meant gigantic profits for GM, since it created a huge market for GM manufactured cars, trucks, and buses. Of course GM’s conduct was clearly illegal, but the anti trust violations were largely ignored by a government that believed that what was good for GM was good for America.

By the time the cold war reached its height, the pentagon had become primary sources of funding for highway projects. Defense spending was channeled into the: “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways”. The rationale was that the extensive highway networks would be needed to evacuate cities and move personnel and material in the event of a nuclear attack. With the Pentagon on board, funding for interstate highways was almost unlimited, in fact during the 60’s the interstate highway system was the single largest and most expensive government project on the books. The combination of defense rhetoric, unlimited funding, dismantling of mass transit, and an American love affair with the idea of free cross-country travel in beautiful personally owned cars, created a juggernaut. For 20 years massive freeways were rammed through almost every city in the US, with almost no public discourse or input. Entire neighborhoods were obliterated, and countless buildings were destroyed. Commuter rail lines and passenger trains almost disappeared completely. It was against this backdrop that the highway 55 corridor was originally conceived.

The transportation scene in Minneapolis Minnesota was no different than the rest of the country in 1960. Nearly 500 miles of street car lines had been abandoned or ripped up in order to provide more space for automobiles. Highway officials in Minnesota laid out giant concrete routes in order to accommodate ever increasing numbers of cars. Unfortunately the emphasis on moving cars instead of people, led to a transportation system that doesn’t move either very well. The idea that you would quickly evacuate major cities via the highways was simply insane. Even in the 50’s common sense would predict monumental traffic jams in the event. Nevertheless, engineers and planners continue to cast all their new road plans as rational, and even scientific responses to congestion and urban sprawl. Accordingly, the “Hiawatha Corridor” has been sold to the public on the pretense that it is a rational response to community transportation needs. As we will see, any serious examination of the project’s claims to rationality quickly reveals severe shortcomings.

The state officials responsible for planning and building the road promoted the project by claiming that it would shorten drive times and relieve congestion without having any adverse effect on the environment. State officials repeatedly defended the reroute by asserting four main claims. First, they claim that all environmental impacts have been assessed, and all alternatives have been examined. Second, they claimed that the community supported the project and had been heavily involved in the planning. Third they maintain that the area is not historically significant. Finally, they claimed that Native American claims regarding the sacredness of the Four Oaks area are illegitimate. Unfortunately, all of these claims turned out to be largely unfounded products of a public relations campaign.

The primary basis for the claim that environmental impacts had been studied was an Environmental Impact Statement or EIS that had been completed in 1985. This document was written in the style and vocabulary of objective science, and it is loaded with data, tables, and charts. Nevertheless the study is riddled with questionable data, and bizarre predictions. The 1985 EIS was charged with the mission of comparing the impacts that different transportation options might have along the proposed route, followed by predictions and recommendations based on the studies findings. Unfortunately the outcomes of such studies can be easily manipulated and effectively predetermined.

One way to manipulate outcome is to control the working definitions that are used for terms like “environment”. In this case the concept of “environment” referred to what the different roads would look like if they were built, and what type and volume of traffic each design would accommodate. If you picked up this EIS to learn what might happen to the air, water, plant and animal life, or to find out what effect the road might have on businesses and neighborhoods, you would be quite disappointed because these things are barely mentioned, if at all. Another way to control outcome is to limit the scope of the study. This study was restricted to the examination of 4 different types of highway designs. Designs that included light rail were quickly ruled out for no apparent reason, and there was no serious examination of the possibility of simply improving the existing road. Finally the outcome can be controlled by simply limiting the actual geographical boundary of the EIS. The boundaries for this EIS were drawn up in such a way that the most ecologically and historically sensitive area in road’s path were excluded from examination. Although the possible effects on Minnehaha Creek were examined, the area containing the stands of Burr Oaks, and Coldwater Spring, were completely excluded.

Consequently the fact that the construction would destroy many of the states last remaining Burr Oak trees was not mentioned in the EIS. Less than one percent of these trees is left standing in the state, and there are precious few examples left in country. Such deliberate indifference to botanical resources is startling at a time when scientists all over the world are urging us to preserve the biosphere’s plant and animal diversity. Likewise, adverse effects that construction might have on Coldwater Spring are not discussed. Coldwater Spring is unique in that it is underground, remains at a constant temperature that keeps it from freezing, and is the last source of untreated clean drinking water in the city of Minneapolis. The spring emerges into a pool at Camp Coldwater, the historical site of the first white settlement in Minnesota. For the Mdewakanton Sioux, it is the dwelling place of the gods, and the path by which the gods travel to and from the world. Obviously, any interruption of the spring’s natural flow, would be a severe insult to Native American spirituality, and a considerable blow to local ecology.

Coldwater Spring emerges from the ground in Minneapolis and has been considered sacred by Indian people for centuries if not longer. Photo by Paul Udstrand

Coldwater Spring emerges from the ground in Minneapolis and has been considered sacred by Indian people for centuries if not longer. Photo by Paul Udstrand

While many detrimental effects on the environment were ignored, the EIS is filled bizarre predictions regarding a variety of other impacts. The EIS predicts that the highway will increase property values, population, and neighborhood cohesion. Anyone taking the EIS seriously would conclude that highway construction is synonomous with neighborhood revitalization. Unfortunately such predictions run completely contrary to nearly 100 years of experience and data on highway construction and urban sprawl. Highways do not revitalize urban neighborhoods and regions. Highways erase neighborhoods, depopulate cities, disperse populations, and fragment communities. Highways do not turn neighborhoods into place’s people want to live, they turn them into places people drive through on their way to work. As for property values, one could argue that highway frontage might be an advantage for some commercial property. But living next to a noisy road or a sound wall certainly does not increase the value of ones home. The only predictions in the EIS that are credible or even relevant are the ones regarding traffic volume and air quality. The amount of traffic with its attending noise would increase almost threefold as a result of the new highway, and the air quality will deteriorate. An obvious boon to real-estate values and quality of life for those living nearby.

Strangely missing from the report however are any predictions regarding traffic congestion. That’s probably because the authors knew congestion would get worse. Reroute proponents claimed that driving time between downtown Minneapolis and the Airport would be reduced by two to ten minutes. This reduction was supposed to result from the increased speed limit and reduced number of stop lights. The prediction however fails to account for the increased traffic congestion that occurs when you funnel more vehicles into a small area at faster speeds. It’s sobering to read accounts of this phenomena from the turn of the century. As early as 1913 observers were noting that the more buildings, hills, and forests they leveled in order to widen existing streets and build new ones to accommodate automobiles, the worse traffic congestion got. Anyone who drives in a city of any size today is familiar with this truism. If you drive the route today your lucky if you get from downtown to the Airport in the same time as you would have before the “improvements”.

In the end, it’s clear that the primary function of the 1985 environmental impact study was to provide a rationale for building the highway, not evaluate the rationality of building it. The scope and focus of the study was restricted in such a way as to produce a desired outcome.

Another point of contention in Four Oaks area has been the possibility of the presence of archeological artifacts. MnDOT officials continually asserted that they already knew that there was nothing of archaeological significance in the area. All three state archaeologists I spoke to unequivocally stated that there were no artifacts of any significance at the site. They claimed that this had been established in previous studies that were allegedly on record at the Historical Society. The problem is there are no such records at the Historical Society, because no archeological studies had ever been done at this site. Ultimately, MnDOT had no actual data of any kind to verify their repeated public statements regarding the archaeological insignificance of the area.

Some of the documentation associated with the EIS actually contradicts the State position and raises serious questions about the company (BRW) that was eventually hired to search for artifacts. In the final draft of the EIS, BRW states that a 1983 memo from the Minnesota Historical Society, establishes that previous surveys have found no Native American artifacts in the area of the four oaks. This statement is completely inaccurate. If you go back and look at that December 2 memo you find that is says absolutely nothing about archaeological surveys, or artifacts. What it does say, is that there are no known sites of historic or archaeological importance in the proposed corridor. The author of the memo now admits that even this statement was incorrect. In fact the area contains the site of Camp Coldwater, the first European settlement in Minnesota. Nevertheless the Historical Society specifically required that MnDOT do archaeological site monitoring during construction, specifically because they didn’t know for sure whether or not the area contained artifacts.

Whether intentional or not, BRW’s characterization of the Historical Societies position on this matter was not only incorrect, but completely misleading. BRW stated that a search for artifacts had already been conducted, and nothing had been found, this was simply not true. At best, this was just sloppy paraphrasing of the Historical Societies memo, at worst it was a deliberate attempt to minimize any possible archaeological significance in the area as early as 1983. This information would be trivial were it not for the fact that this company has been heavily involved in the highway planning since the beginning and has received millions of dollars worth of construction contracts. BRW wrote the EIS and performed 23 of the 32 studies commissioned in order to complete the EIS. They also served as the over-all project manager in charge of agency, public information, and project progress. When the controversy over the possible presence of artifacts erupted, it was BRW that got the contract to conduct an archeological study in order to settle the issue. This was an obvious conflict of interest because the company planned to apply for millions of dollars in future contracts that depended on the project going forward. A discovery of significant artifacts, whether they be from white settlers or Native Americans, had the potential to stop the project and force a dramatic redesign.

The hiring of BRW to conduct the search put the company in the position of having to contradict its own earlier (however spurious) declaration that there are no artifacts there, as well as jeopardizing its own financial interests. This raises obvious questions regarding conflict of interests, but none of the Sate officials I spoke with would acknowledge any such concerns. When I asked MnDOT archeologist how it came to be that BRW got hired to do the study they described an elaborate rotation system that supposedly farmed out state contracts based on bidding process. When I asked to see this process I eventually discovered that for all practical purposes it didn’t exist. There had been no competitive bids, and there had been no rotation, MnDOT just gave the contract to BRW. When MnDOT archeologists finally admitted that this was the case, they assured me that there was nothing illegal about BRW’s selection, and suggested that if I didn’t like it I should get the law changed. As it turned out, legal or not, I’m not the only one who had concerns about BRW’s conflict of interests. The Federal Government eventually threatened to withhold funding because of conflict of interests regarding BRW’s conduct on the light rail portion of the project.

In any event, BRW got it wrong. They failed to find artifacts that were in fact present on the site. One of the reasons they failed was that they simply didn’t dig deep enough. BRW was given instruction to dig small holes called “shovel tests” at fifty foot intervals along a specified path. They were supposed to dig down to some form of bedrock ( that would mean holes from three to thirteen feet deep). However, BRW’s records clearly show that all but four of BRW’s shovel tests were only about one and a half feet deep. When I asked about this at the historical society, they admitted that they had missed it when they reviewed BRW’s report. The historical society explained that BRW had apparently hit rubble that was buried in the area, and mistaken it for bedrock. It’s interesting to note that BRW’s failure to perform the shovel tests as directed didn’t stop them getting paid. The blame however cannot be placed on BRW’s shoulders alone, the Historical Societies design was clearly inadequate. According to Bruce White, an anthropologist who reviewed the shovel test data, they would have been lucky to hit anything with so few holes spaced so far apart anyways. Apparently the Society didn’t put much effort into the design because they didn’t believe anything significant could be found, they were wrong.

As road construction progressed, a number of artifacts were found, and work had to be stopped in order to do more thorough research. The Historical Society eventually declared that the artifacts discovered in the area were not significant because the area was not “intact”. This means that the artifacts were not found “as they fell” or were deposited at the time (1800s). The historical society has a point. The area had been the site of a huge building that been demolished. The artifacts themselves were strewn about and jumbled up. Relatively new items such as bicycle seats were found underneath older artifacts that dated back to Coldwater Camp. Nevertheless the discovery of the artifacts proved that BRW and MnDOT had been wrong all along. The area is the site of Camp Coldwater and the first white settlement in Minnesota, and therefore arguably is historically significant. Although the artifacts had been disturbed, we’ll never know what might have been found there. The requirement of “intact” sites is a subject of debate within the archaeological community, not everyone agrees that sites need to be “intact”. Not subject to debate is the fact that a large part of Camp Coldwater is now buried underneath Highway 55. This despite the fact that the MnDOT and the Historical Society had claimed for years that road would not even come within 400 feet of the settlement’s location.

One could argue that while the site of the first white settlement in Minnesota is historically significant, the spiritual significance of the area to local Native Americans is more important. Four Burr Oaks within the area of Camp Coldwater formed a diamond with trees in, north, south, east, and west positions. Such arrangements would be considered spiritually significant by some Native American tribes, whether they were planted or naturally occurring. Accordingly, the Mdewakanton Band declared that the area around the trees is sacred, and that the trees themselves were also sacred. The band suggested that the trees may have been used as burial platforms and for spiritual ceremonies..

State officials initially discounted Mdewanketon claims on the basis that they were made to recently, as if new discoveries of religious significance are somehow unheard of in civilized cultures. It is true that the Mdewakanton only recently rediscovered the significance of this small area. However, that in no way diminishes the validity of the claim anymore than a recent discovery of another Dead Sea scroll would diminish its religious significance. Native Americans were the target of a deliberate and systematic attempt to erase their culture and heritage. It’s not surprising that some aspects of their heritage have been lost, and subsequently re-discovered.

Most North American Indians preserved their historical consciousness through oral tradition. The tendency to disregard the legitimacy of oral history merely reflects a European bias regarding conditions of validity. In fact there is no rational or scientific basis to conclude that written history is necessarily any more accurate than oral history. Cultures that rely on oral history develop specific social mechanisms and structures to preserve their histories. The stories are very carefully told, repeated, and retold by successive generations. There are numerous examples of the accuracy of such oral accounts of history. Nevertheless when Native Americans produced affidavits from elders who described the four oak’s area as being sacred, the media, the public, and MnDOT tended to reject such accounts out of hand because the band had no documentation or physical evidence to support the claims. Of course the inability and unwillingness of a Judeo-Christian society to understand how something like a tree could be sacred, provides a institutional bias against such claims as well.

When the trees finally came down, the rings were counted and it was found that the trees were 137 years old. This probably means that these trees were not actually used as burial platforms as the tribe had suggested. This fact does not refute the Band’s claims however. By 1830 the entire area had been clear-cut by the soldiers stationed at Fort Snelling. It’s possible that burial trees were cut down in that process, and later replanted by the Mdewanketon for future use. It’s important not to make too much of the actual age of the trees. The age of those trees does not establish the sacredness of the site. Be they twenty-five or five hundred and twenty five years old, the age of the trees has no bearing on whether or not the site was considered sacred for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans on the site. The age of the trees also has little relevance when determining whether or not the site could be considered sacred today. This is the place where the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers converge, the entire area is the center of the Mdewanketon universe. Finally, the age of the trees has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not the area was used for burials. This last point is significant because MnDOT and Historical Society officials have repeatedly pointed to the age of the trees and the failure to find human remains on site as a refutation of Mdewanketon claims that the area was used as a burial site.

My father worked as a carpenter building houses in the area ( Not this exact site, but a mile or so north of Camp Coldwater) back in the 50’s and 60’s. Once while digging a foundation for a house, they came across some human remains. The foreman on the job told everyone to just keep working and no one ever notified any authorities because that would have caused a delay in construction. No one knows whose remains my father unearthed forty years ago, or how old they were, the point is that the failure to find Native American remains now, would not prove that they were never there in the first place. A lot of construction and subsequent demolition has taken place in this area over the past 100 years. Undocumented desecration and destruction of remains could very well have occurred on these sights.

Ultimately, state officials simply cannot refute Native American claims of sacredness because they have to no factual basis or religious authority to do so. Instead the state finds excuses to ignore the claims under the pretense of refutation. They put the burden of proof on the Mdewakanton, and focus on the narrow issue of the tree’s age, or presence of human remains. The oral testimony the band produces is rejected not because it’s unreliable, but because it doesn’t conform to European notions of evidence. The fact that the trees are young, and no remains are found is then used to discount claims of sacredness despite the fact that it proves nothing. This is the essence of institutionalized racism.

I must take a moment here to mention a particularly striking example of hypocrisy. In the beginning of the debate over the possible archaeological and spiritual significance of the area, MnDOT repeatedly referred to a memo from the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council stating they were not aware of any cultural significance of the area. The Indian Affairs Council eventually changed its position on that matter, and came to support archaeological study of the area as well as its cultural significance to the Mdewakanton. MnDOT’s reference to the Indian Affairs Council memo is revealing because it demonstrates their willingness to accept the validity of Native American oral history when it serves their purposes; but reject it out of hand when it conflicts with their plans.

Throughout the struggle to stop the reroute, the state waged a constant battle to discredit and alienate the opposition. Early on they established strategy of portraying the opposition as irrational, ill informed, and lacking of support from the community at large. The strategy was to render the opposition invisible.

MnDOT officials portrayed those who were opposed to the reroute as a small group of radicals that lacked any support from the community at large. Public statements from politicians and state officials constantly made reference to the tremendous amount of community involvement in the planning of the route, and the decision to build it. Opponents they said, had had their chance, and either missed it or simply didn’t like the results. Now it was time to move on and get the thing built.

As evidence of community involvement, MnDOT pointed to the existence of a Hiawatha Avenue Task Force, and the fact that a number of public meetings had taken place. The task force was set up by the city of Minneapolis between 1972 and 1978. Its mission was to examine the road options, make recommendations, and facilitate community awareness of the project. Public meeting were held at a variety of locations during the fifteen years of construction.

There are several problems with any assertion of community involvement centered on the task force. To begin with, the task force appears to have played a rather limited role in the highway plan. As I’ve already pointed out, their choices were limited to four road designs that had already been selected by a previous group of engineers and planners. This task force did not have the option of exploring other transportation options, or making suggestions of their own. Another problem with the task force, was the small number of neighborhood residents involved. Little record of the task force’s activities remain, but the one set of meeting minutes I could find listed 35 people in attendance, only six of those in attendance were resident task force members. Given the limited range of options and the minority status of resident members on the task force, it appears that the real purpose was to limit rather than encourage community input. The task force gave the project the appearance of having a large base of support, while simultaneously providing officials a mechanism with which to deflect charges of power brokering.

As further evidence of community involvement, MnDOT points out that a number of public meetings were held throughout the process. This is true enough, but the nature of such meetings tended to be “informational” rather than genuine invitations for community involvement. Furthermore, city and state officials employed less than honest methods of recording public comment at the events. When road planners couldn’t actually control the debate, they simply manipulated the recording of it to suit their purposes. For example, at one point along the route, there was considerable neighborhood opposition to a bridge that was to span a major thoroughfare. In 1993 a public meeting was held in local High School auditorium, 200 people attended and a vote was taken on whether or not to build the bridge. The bridge was quite a controversial issue, tensions were high, and tempers flared both for and against the construction. Frank Miller, a local resident who attended those meetings has found that MnDOT has no record of the vote, and no record of the of the considerable public protest against building the bridge. As reported in a local paper, the: “Southside Pride”, Miller found that MnDOT only records 21 people in attendance, and only has two people on record as having made comments. Apparently the court reporter that was in attendance was placed in a different room, thus rendering all the statements made in the auditorium officially “off the record”. In one fell swoop, MnDOT rendered 200 people invisible. Not bad for evenings work.

Of course State officials didn’t shy away from pointing out that anyone who opposed the construction could contact their elected officials. After all, don’t elected officials represent their constituents? Anyone who is suffering from this delusion should talk to Carol Kratz. Carol Kratz and her husband were the last home owners to leave the Minnehaha Free State. Years before, when they found out that their house was slated for demolition, they went to their local councilman who suggested they start a petition. After collecting 2000 signatures in opposition to the new route, their councilman responded: “Listen, you could get a million signatures and it wouldn’t make any difference at this point”. By the year 2000 that petition had over 10,000 signatures and state and local officials were still claiming that they hadn’t heard of any real objections to building the road. Frank Miller had a similar experience with his elected representative regarding the bridge debate. He filled out a ballet card that his local representative had mailed out only to find later that his vote was irrelevant because the decision to build the bridge had already been made. At least Frank got an apology for having been given the impression that his vote might actually count for something.

Local media hasn’t exactly delivered a stellar example of coverage regarding this controversy. They have either wittingly or unwittingly supported MnDOT’s efforts to marginalize the opposition by portraying it either as a conflict between the state and Native Americans, or between the State and radical environmentalists. One local paper’s coverage has been particularly representative of MnDOT’sagenda. MnDOT’s press packet for operation Cold Snap consisted primarily of several of Minneapolis Star-Tribune articles, copied and unedited. The Star-Tribune had done such a good job of presenting MnDOT’s position MnDOT spokespeople didn’t even have to write any material themselves. The result was a surreal media exercise; on the day of “Operation Cold Snap” the press’s own reporting was handed back to them, in the form of a press packet. In other instances, articles with titles such as “Science vs. Spirituality” challenged the validity of Native American claims on the basis that they don’t resemble rational European historical claims. The message to the predominantly white community reading the newspapers, and watching the television reports was clear: this isn’t your problem, you have nothing in common with these people, move along. Unfortunately the campaign to alienate the Mdewakanton by portraying them as irrational Indians has been quite successful because sadly, racism works. The effort to portray other activists as unemployed “tree huggers” was likewise largely successful.

The drive to build the highway 55 re-route was not based on rational assessments of transportation needs, or community interest. The project was not rational, necessary, or supported by the community. The logic was flawed, and many of the “facts” that were been used to discredit opposition were inaccurate or fabricated. People can disagree whether a road should be built, but who would argue that a road should be built the way this one was?

In the end, the Hiawatha re-route conflict is about power, and the illegitimate exercise of state power. This road was built simply because MnDOT said it would be. The danger for power is always that its illegitimacy will be exposed. Although most of the media didn’t cover it, the State’s deceptions and misinformation were exposed here in Minneapolis. When that happens it can create an opening for different conceptions of legitimacy.

If you accept the legitimacy of Native American claims, you validate their oral history. Essentially then, the four oaks area becomes sacred because Native Americans say it’s sacred. Imagine for moment if the power to declare legitimacy were transferred to the people who actually live in a community. Imagine a neighborhood saying: “this road will not be built- because we say it won’t”.

In the last 30 years the power of highway officials to force expensive and unpopular highways through people’s neighborhoods has eroded significantly. The highway 55 opposition is a reflection of that declining power. Like so many other policy decisions made in this nation’s history, transportation planning has been driven by irrational motives and financial interests. The profit motives of powerful corporations and individuals have taken precedent over the transportation needs of communities. The American people, driven by consumer mentalities that value personal choice over the need for sustainable public policy, have enabled the power brokers who design and create these monstrosities.

Resistance is not futile. After the houses and the Burr Oaks came down, and after acres of parkland and part of Camp Coldwater were paved over, the fight focused Coldwater Spring itself. The fight for the spring followed a predictable path. MnDOT had claimed for years that it knew the project wouldn’t effect the spring, and portrayed the opposition as irrational promoters of political correctness standing in the way of progress. Like the archeological and environmental claims before them, MnDOT’s hydrological studies and data turned out to be non-existent or unreliable. Meanwhile the state tried and failed to get the area transferred to a water district that it knew would not interfere while it pressed on with construction. Of course the local media largely ignored the whole issue after the trees came down and the large police actions ended.

The fight to save the trees, green space, and Camp Coldwater delayed construction and bought time for activists. That time was used to get legislators to pass a law prohibiting any local, state, or federal agency, or anyone acting on behalf these agencies, from doing anything that would interfere with the flow of Coldwater Spring. Eventually a lawsuit forced MnDOT to stop construction and conduct a reliable hydrological study. Contrary to MnDOT’s claims (and much to everyone’s surprise I’m sure), the test showed not only that the flow to Coldwater Spring would probably be cut off by the construction, but that it had already been diminished. That was it. After years of demonstrations, petitions, arrests, and political maneuvering, construction stopped. With 99% of the reroute completed, Minneapolis is left with a hundred million dollar dead end.

The fight continues, MnDOT’s current strategy is to get the law repealed but failing that, they will either have to spend millions of additional dollars or completely redesign the last leg of the project. In the meantime, a half finished highway bridge provides silent testament to a community that would not surrender, and a state that would not listen.


Since this article was written the bridge over Hwy 62 has been completed without any further effect on Coldwater Spring, thus bringing the long saga of the Hiawatha Reroute to end. The promised decreases in travel times and congestion within the reroute and elsewhere never materialized. Things got worse when an adjacent light rail line went into operation. Although troublesome stop light timing has been adjusted it still takes longer now to get from downtown Minneapolis to the airport via Hiawatha Avenue. Ironically the big success story of the Hwy 55 reroute has been the public transportation that runs along side it. The light rail line attracted three times as many passengers as were predicted, and all along Hiawatha and transit officials have had to increase the number of trains and their frequency in order to accommodate the additional passengers.

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