What Did I Get Out of It? – Joshua P. Preston

Joshua Preston:

Four years ago I was invited to attend the National Rural Youth Assembly in Santa Fe, NM. There I joined 50 other young activists to discuss rural issues and policy, but being nineteen, I spent most the time quiet, nervous. Looking back, though, it was an experience that later framed my work in the DFL Party and elsewhere. In this brief article, I discuss how so.

[Excerpt]:
Following the election, I spent the next two years attending as many DFL meetings as I could, spending all of my money on gas. Quickly, I developed the reputation of being “That Guy from Morris,” and, at the 2012 State Convention, was elected to serve on the DFL State Executive Committee. As both the only rural youth and its youngest member overall, I served one two-year term doing what I could to make the party more welcoming to young people.

While serving, I also immersed myself in the state’s rural political and literary history. Everyone wants to see their home, their experiences, represented in the culture, so I read everything I could. I read about the Nonpartisan League and the Farmer-Labor Party. Through Sinclair Lewis, Robert Bly, Paul Gruchow, and others, I saw through their eyes the prairies I walked, the same roads I drove, the people I knew. Together these gave me a broad sense of what rural organizing could amount to and formed the basis of my own rural identity. The development of this identity is the difference between being from just another small town and a hometown. Without it, there is no sense of place. …

Originally posted on National Rural Youth Assembly:

NRYA_Logo_Shirt

What Did I Get Out of It?

When I attended the National Rural Youth Assembly, I was a freshman at the University of Minnesota Morris. Being nineteen, I had no experience in politics and no grasp of public policy. So, traveling to Santa Fe, I worried whether I’d have anything to contribute – and, as I discovered, I didn’t. Nervously, shuffling from one workshop to another, I filled my notebook with everything I heard. Two days later, when I was on the plane back to Minnesota, I wondered what the experience meant. What did I get out of it? At the time, I wasn’t sure, but in one’s formative years, mere exposure is its own takeaway.

Looking back four years later, I take it for granted that I have an immense pride being from southwestern Minnesota. Far from being an epithet, I embrace the label “rural,” and am proud knowing…

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Midwestern Gothic: Summer 2014 issue

Recently, I subscribed to Midwestern Gothic, a quarterly print literary journal out of Ann Arbor, MI. Before subscribing, I’d stumble occasionally over their work and and was always impressed by what I saw. In a region of the country that many dismiss as “flyover territory,” MG is evidence that even if there are planes in the sky, there are feet on the ground and stories in our heads. This is where the next generation of Midwestern writers are publishing.

Summer 2014

I was excited then when, last month, the Summer 2014 issue arrived in the mail. Of the 37 stories and poems, several stood out that I recommend. These are worth the price of admission alone, and I suggest you check them out.

My hands-down favorite was “Last Request,” by Ashley Swanson. The story’s about two sisters, Grace and Eve, sorting out the property of their recently-deceased father. Their mother died in childbirth (with Eve), which forced Grace to take on the role of caretaker. When she wasn’t caring for her sister, she was caring for her father. With Grace’s life on hold, Eve — now a twenty-something — went to New York City, and even for her own sacrifices, it’s not Grace who’s “Daddy’s Little Angel.” These feelings of rejection culminate in the story’s climax when, opening a box of their mother’s items for the first time — they find a letter.

Swanson’s prose is phenomenal, the characters believable, and I was moved by Grace’s anger, disdain, disgust. Any story that can evoke such feelings is the sign of an author who’s on to something. Check it out.  

Other stories worth reading:

  • “A Day of New Things,” by Jessie Ann Foley: A teenage girl has to move on with her life following the arrest of her father for police corruption. As a minor celebrity in the city, all eyes are on her while hers are on the boy who broke her heart. Overall, an excellent example of telling a story in the Age of Twitter.
  • “Radar Gun,” by Chuck Rybak: A college student named J.J. returns to the County Fair he hasn’t visited for years. Playing a game that tracks the speed of a baseball pitch, he discovers that he’s not moving. He and the carny investigate whether the radar gun is broken, but through flashbacks we find it’s not — and why.
  • “Title Fight,” by Samuel Sayler: An aging professional wrestler is scheduled to lose his title against a young-up-and-comer “who sells more T-shirts than me.” This is the end of him — he’s being written off — and as he struggles with this, he muses on how the sport’s changed since his early days. (I have a soft spot for professional wrestling).
  • “Watch Out for Lions,” by Rebecca McKanna: A seventh grade girl gets her first period and is mocked by a former boyfriend. She proceeds to beat the shit out of the boy. It’s better than the summary I’m providing here.

You can buy the Summer 2014 issue here.

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How not to report the news: Food stamp fraud edition

After my father died, growing up, my family depended on entitlement programs like WIC, free school lunch, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Hardly the mystical “Welfare Queens” conservatives imagine, we were just a low-income, single-parent household. You know, like a lot of families who rely upon these programs. By not worrying about where my next meal would come from, programs like SNAP allowed us to live our lives with dignity, and without them, my childhood would’ve been lesser because of it. End of story.

So, every time I hear conservatives compare food stamps to feeding wild animals, I find it personally insulting. Besides being literally dehumanizing — Which Animal Would Jesus Compare Poor People To (WAWJCPPT)? — it’s stupid. The only time that label will ever apply to me is when you say it to my face.

My face moments later.

My face moments later.

I say this because SNAP is back in the news again, and I’m appalled (though not surprised) by how it’s being framed. Recently, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report on SNAP titled, “Enhanced Detection Tools and Reporting Could Improve Efforts to Combat Recipient Fraud” (8/21/14). In it, the GAO reports that since the Great Recession, state agencies responsible for detecting fraud have seen zero to modest growth in their budgets. When enrollments increase from 31.8 million in 2008 to 47 million in 2014 with no money to track fraud, the problem is obvious. Of course, every program is going to have some percentage that abuses it, but that’s not the problem here — that’s the assumption. The real issue is that states have shirked their responsibility to verify the information they’re given from households. It’s an administrative problem.

Yet, here’s how several online news outlets reported on it. These sites got it right:

Now here’s another framing — see if you can spot the difference:

Never mind what the report actually says. Food stamp fraud is rampant. This isn’t journalism, it’s leading with what your audience wants to hear:

Americans receiving food stamps were caught selling and bartering their benefits online for art, housing and cash, according to a new federal report that investigates fraud in the nation’s largest nutrition support program (Fox News).

If you go through and read them, the framing is obvious: those Welfare Queens are at it again. Instead of using their benefits to feed their family, they’re using it to buy drugs, alcohol, and art — typical! Dag nabit!

But far from being “rampant,” here’s what the GAO report actually said, if anyone bothered to actually read it:

[Food and Nutrition Services] estimated an improper payment or error rate of the program at 3.4 percent, which represented an estimated $2.6 billion in wrongful payments, in fiscal year 2013. The percentage represents benefits distributed in error due to administrative as well as recipient errors, not all of which can be attributed to fraud. However, due to the large dollar amount involved in improper payments, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has placed SNAP on its list of high-error programs. Furthermore, after studying the cause of these errors, USDA officials stated that over 90 percent were due to verification errors. These types of errors occur when an agency fails to or is unable to verify recipient information … even though verifying information exists in third-party databases … (p.5; emphasis mine).

3.4 percent? That hardly sounds rampant. Now, in fairness, though, the above text applies only to fraudTrafficking is something else entirely, and on this subject the report offers only three heavily-qualified sentences.

GAO’s analysis found potential trafficking in 73 percent of households reviewed by focusing on SNAP households requesting cards in at least four monthly benefit periods. Benefits are allotted monthly, and a recipient selling their benefits and then requesting a new card would generally have one opportunity per month to do so. As a result, additional card requests in the same benefit period may not indicate increased risk of trafficking (p.0; emphasis mine).

It’s hard to draw any conclusions from this because it’s guaranteed that some percentage of these are false flags — cards get lost, stolen, thrown away, etc. Unfortunately, we’ll never know, though, because these agencies don’t have the funds to investigate. Everything else is just a side note. Here’s the report’s conclusion:

Although investigations can ultimately deter fraud and save agency resources, states we reviewed have faced the challenge of limited staff to manage a growing program and raised questions about whether federal incentive structures could be designed to better support their work.

That’s hardly the denunciation of the SNAP program conservatives wish it was.

 

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The Time’s Don’t Change: “The 98 Per Cent Have Some Rights Entitled to Respect.”

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From The National Leader, January 1919.

It’s time for some Minnesota trivia: Who said this?

We have had to oppose the swaggering insolence and the millions of the war profiteers and the low moral endeavor politicians made by the froth of the war.

… We needed success to call a halt to the wild orgie of Wall street legislation which the politicians thought they were safe in putting across. We needed success to convince the 2 per cent who owns 70 per cent of the nation’s wealth that the 98 per cent have some rights entitled to respect.

War Profiteering? Corruption from Wall Street? The “98 Per Cent”?

Is this some tract from the Occupy Movement?

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From The National Leader, March 1923.

No, it’s from the December 1922 edition of The National Leader, the official newspaper of The Nonpartisan League (NPL). This quote comes from editor A. B. Gilbert, and this isn’t the first time I’ve suggested we learn from these popular movements. That November saw one of the greatest victories in the League’s seven year history as it “replaced five United States senators, a whole flock of congressman and several governors with farmer-minded representatives.” Having suffered in the jingoistic atmosphere of the Great War, it was finally able to replicate nationally the success it had in its native North Dakota.

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From The National Leader, March 1923.

Although it ran candidates endorsed by both farmers and laborers in Minnesota, 1922 was the year their work culminated in the elections of Senators Henrik Shipstead and Magnus Johnson. After receding during the prosperity of the decade, from the League emerged the Farmer-Labor Party. Although often overlooked, the role of the NPL in that movement can’t be overstated. In fact, as one contributor to The Leader wrote in “The Future of The Nonpartisan League” (July 1923):

Had there been no League, there would be no farmer-labor co-operation. The League has been a tremendous factor in bringing the farmer and the industrial worker together. Farmer-labor co-operation is growing despite the efforts of big business and the big business press to keep the two wings of the industrial army apart.

If you’re interested in reading The National Leader yourself, Google Books has several volumes available:

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Bioethical Expertise and Government

Joshua Preston:

Here’s my second article for Columbia’s “Voices in Bioethics.” In it I review a paper by Dr. Annabelle Littoz-Monnet and discuss the problems inherent at the intersection of bioethical “expertise” and government. In short, there’s no such thing as the neutral state.

Originally posted on :

by Joshua Preston 

In a new paper published by Dr. Annabelle Littoz-Monnet, an associate professor of political science at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, she asks whether government bioethics experts bolster or inhibit democratic control of policy. To answer this, she cites the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies’ (EGE) role in the European Union’s early-2000s debate on whether to fund human embryotic stem cell research. Drawing upon news articles, reports, and personal interviews, Dr. Littoz-Monnet observes that when the debate reached a stalemate, the European Commission (the EU’s executive body) sought out the EGE’s recommendations. What followed was the use of the EGE as a means for “control[ling] the policy process despite the presence of a salient and publicly debated conflict (17, italics in original).

Although the case study is itself interesting, the value of Dr. Littoz-Monnet’s paper lies…

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The Colonel Surrenders in Minnesota

I’m posting here an article I originally wrote for the March 2014 Kandiyohi County Historical Society newsletter. In it I tell the story of something that, growing up in Montevideo, I was vaguely aware of but knew nothing about. So, turning to the archives, I looked up the only time (as far as I’m aware) a U.S. President visited western Minnesota. The fact that it happened to be Teddy Roosevelt just as he was planning his political comeback should be no surprise. Two years later, in 1912, the state rewarded Roosevelt’s efforts with its 12 electoral votes.

Radical politics were nothing new to the western part of the state — in fact, the seventh district’s first congressman was a member of the Populist Party and, later, represented by the prohibitionist Andrew J. Volstead. (It’s forgotten now, but prohibition was a progressive movement that advocated for women’s suffrage and workers’ rights among other things). Because of this and the fact that the major rails to the Twin Cities ran through the region, it was not uncommon for satellite cities like Willmar to receive their fair share of speakers. Just in Willmar everyone from William Jennings Bryan (source) to Eugene V. Debs (source) and “Big Bill” Haywood (source) addressed packed auditoriums. Later, as I’ve written elsewhere, this same region was a hotbed for the Farmer-Labor Association, and it was Appleton that Farmer-Labor Party Governor Elmer Benson called home.

We’ve come a long way!


The Colonel Surrenders in Minnesota

Teddy Roosevelt in Willmar Minnesota 2

President Roosevelt speaking in Willmar, MN. (KCHS Archives)

When Teddy Roosevelt arrived in New York after a tour of Europe he returned to find the Republican Party in disarray. In the summer of 1910, by now in his second year out of office, disappointment was growing in his successor, William Howard Taft, and so as the midterm elections approached it was conventional wisdom that the party would suffer. If it was not the Democrats who would win seats, it would be the progressive wing of the Republican Party, which was growing increasingly antagonistic toward the Taft conservatives. It was a fissure Roosevelt himself created while in office, but it was Taft’s own policies – such as the 1909 Aldrich Tariff – that exacerbated the split.

Since the first days of the republic the debate over the tariff was one divided by ideological as well as economic and geographic lines. If the tax on imports was high, it protected domestic manufacturers but at the expense of the consumer. A low tariff, on the other hand, favored consumers but threatened industry. As the tariff increased under Taft those most vulnerable to its effects – including the agricultural classes of the Midwest – searched for an alternative. With progressive Republicans scattered across the country it was an open question who could lead this new faction and so all eyes were on Roosevelt when it was announced that he would soon embark on a “western tour.”

While upset that his party was trying to evict insurgent (read progressive) forces from its ranks Roosevelt was persuaded to stump for his fellow Republicans on a tour into “the heartland of the insurgency,” the Midwest.[1] Under the auspices of traveling as a private citizen he announced that after seeing the palaces of Europe and the grasslands of Africa he would not feel “home” until he saw again the plains of his ranching youth.[2] Receiving hundreds of invitations begging an appearance, many of these he declined wishing “to make it understood clearly that he could consider no further invitation” as he was “compelled to refuse that he would rather have accepted.”[3] Still, this did not stop his admirers from trying or the newspapers from speculating that the Colonel had “undertaken a campaign for the presidential nomination in 1912.”[4]

Nearly 6,000 people waited at the Willmar depot to catch a glimpse of President Roosevelt. (KCHS Archives)

Nearly 6,000 people waited at the Willmar depot to catch a glimpse of President Roosevelt. (KCHS Archives)

Setting out on August 25 he went as far west as Denver before circling up through Osawatomie, KS, where he gave his most important speech of the tour. On August 31, standing on a table and speaking over the sounds of the crowd gathered around him, for the first time he publicly distanced himself from the conservative Republican cause. In what came to be known as the “Osawatomie Speech” he outlined a “New Nationalism” where service to one’s community trumped property rights, fortunes were taxed for the common welfare, and campaign spending was transparent. In closing he called for a new citizen spirit, stating, “The prime problem of our nation is to get the right type of good citizenship, and, to get it, we must have progress, and our public men must be genuinely progressive.”[5] This was anathema to the Taft conservatives and so as news of his speech spread the media accused him of being a “neo-Populist” or worse – a communist.[6]

By the time Roosevelt reached Omaha he lost count of how many speeches he had given over the last week and so, exhausted by his morning-to-midnight schedule, on Sunday, September 4, he looked forward to rest. To guarantee this he “instructed his secretary to send telegrams to towns through which he was to pass today, saying that as it was Sunday, he would make no speeches whatever from the train.”[7] Yet, as before, this did not stop his admirers from asking – including the Commercial Club of Willmar – or prevent rural newspapers from advertising his “visit.” In the Willmar Tribune, for example, top and center on its front page, it observed that even without the promise of seeing him “it is a safe prediction that an enormous crowd of citizens will be on hand … when Col. Roosevelt’s special pulls in.”[8] When he left Sioux Falls for Fargo on a rail that passed through the western prairie of Minnesota these crowds, banners in hand, proved his telegrams were ignored.

Approaching the station in Marshall, the crowd that gathered chanted the president’s name, “Teddy! Teddy!” and demanded “Let’s see you!” Sitting in his railcar, the Colonel acquiesced by waving through the window, hoping to return to his reading. Met by loud cheers, the audience continued its pressure until at last he surrendered and stepped out to say a few words. This foreshadowed what was to come at each of the stations ahead including Hanley Falls, Morris, Campbell, and Breckenridge.[9] This led one reporter to observe that “The colonel made more speeches today than on almost any other day since he began his trip.”[10] It was in Willmar, though, where before a crowd of three to six thousand people he decided to give a Sunday afternoon “sermon.”

President Roosevelt in Willmar, MN. (KCHS Archives)

“You people listen to the sermon and I get the flowers.” (KCHS Archives)

As Roosevelt rode into the station on the train’s rear platform, the Willmar crowd erupted into cheers. Quickly the crowd silenced, though, when the Colonel began speaking, saying it would be improper to give a formal speech on Sunday but that, instead, he would offer a brief sermon. Discussing the duties of citizenship, channeling the spirit of Osawatomie, he remarked that “he had no use for the citizen who talked much but did little to improve conditions.”[11] In order for the nation to thrive citizens ought to live with honesty and courage, but also “the saving grace of common sense. If a man is a natural-born fool, you can’t do much with him.”[12] And then,

Seeing an old soldier in the crowd [Roosevelt] gave a very complimentary reference to the defenders of the country, but then turning to a mother holding a child he said: “But I think you will agree with me when I place above all, even above the old soldier, the good mother.”[13]

As he spoke a little girl was lifted upon her father’s shoulders so she could hand the Colonel a bouquet of asters, which pleased him. “That’s fine, fine!” he said of the gift. “You people listen to the sermon and I get the flowers.” While only ten minutes, it was his longest stop of the day, and so when the train started up again he waved his goodbye and “glided away over the glistening rails.”[14]


[1] Edmund Morris, Colonel Roosevelt (New York: Random House, 2010), 103.
[2] “Speaks Sept. 5,” The Searchlight, July 15, 1910, 4.
[3] “Plan Roosevelt Tours,” The New York Tribune, July 15, 1910, 2.
[4] Quoted in Morris, Colonel, 106.
[5] Quoted in Morris, Colonel, 108-109.
[6] Morris, Colonel, 109-110.
[7] “Throngs Allow Teddy No Rest,” The Salt Lake Tribune, September 5, 1910, 1.
[8] “Col. T. Roosevelt at Willmar,” Willmar Tribune, August 31, 1910, 1.
[9] One local historian records a funny anecdote. As the train pulled through Donnelly two girls jumped on their horses using gunny sacks for saddles and chased the President’s train while it pulled away. One “cut a switch from a tree” so as “to touch Teddy Roosevelt on the nose with it.” His reaction? Smiling, he “said over and over again, ‘God bless you my children! God bless you my children!’” as they struggled to keep up. Edna Mae Busch, The History of Stevens County (1976), 158.
[10] “Throngs Allow Teddy No Rest.”
[11] “Col. Roosevelt at Willmar,” Willmar Tribune, September 7, 1910, 1.
[12] “Throngs Allow Teddy No Rest”
[13] “Col. Roosevelt at Willmar.”
[14] “Col. Roosevelt at Willmar.”
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“Upon the high and burnished heavens these words: The place to buy hardware stoves and tinsware is at Pierce’s.”

As part of my continuing series digging through the archives of the Internet, I came across the following in the January 30, 1897, edition of The Labor World, a weekly newspaper published in Duluth, MN. The Labor World (which is still around) sought not only to organize the working class within the “Twin Harbors” area of Duluth and Superior, WI, but also reported on local issues. Although I intend to write about its coverage of Eugene V. Debs’ frequent visits to the major port city, I found the following pretty funny.

“Roasts the Editor” is an ad in the style of those one occasionally stumbles across that purports to be a Special Report by the magazine’s Dentists Hate Him! expert. Maybe more hardware stone companies should follow Mr. “James Wouldbe Riley’s” stead.

Duluth Labor World - Roasts the Editor

“Roasts the Editor” in Duluth’s “The Labor World,” Jan. 30, 1897.

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