Saturday, July 18, 2015

A Summer Honey Harvest

One of the girls on butterfly weed
I took some summer honey off the high hive today.

They'll keep two deep boxes and a medium for their winter lodgings, but that leaves another three boxes on top.  One was full of capped honey, one was mostly full of nectar and uncapped honey, and in one they are drawing comb - though in no rush about it yet.

a frame of capped honey
I took off the heaviest box and removed the frames - gently brushing off the bees.  It was a cloudy, breezy day, but the bees were placid - except for a few gung-ho guards, who resented the disruption.

I placed the frames into an old Coleman ice chest that I pilfered from my father long ago - and lugged them inside.

The last time we harvested, two years ago, was during the dearth and bees besieged the house, drawn by the scent of honey.  Today, with flowers still in bloom, they had other places to be.

We scratched off the caps and placed the frames into the extractor - a hand crank centrifuge that lets you spin the honey out of three frames at a time.  

Into the extractor.

Porter turns the crank.

 Straining out the beeswax,

and 30 pounds of honey sits in the jar. 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Disgorging books

The ceiling of our bedroom slants downward with the pitch of the roof, and creates a triangle of de facto storage space behind the bed's high headboard.  I'm clearing out some of the stuff, including boxes of books.

When you're an academic, you keep a great many books, not because they have something to teach you, but because they offer up analyses that you can argue with or they represent people you can cite in your bibliography - whether or not they were useful to you in the end.  Now that I'm not in academia, those books are easy to let go.

I also have too many anthropology books - the publishers give them to you when you're teaching in hopes that you'll assign them in your classes.  Some I've read or skimmed - many more I haven't.  I've hung onto them, but come to realize that I simply don't read much if any anthropology anymore.  I came to feel that anthropology wasn't trying to teach me anything that I didn't already know - that it had fallen into a rut in which myriad richness of detail was mustered toward the same old arguments:

The argument is some variation on the notion that power acts on people's lives - in that people's lives are circumscribed the actions of the more powerful.  Equally true is that power is creatively evaded in that people are actively managing the system to do some approximation of what they want to do.  And the official stories (ideologies, histories, sciences, journalisms, myths) of the powerful never tell the full tale of what is actually happening in this collision.  Anthropologists for the most part step in to tell this underlying, untold story.

But anthropologists mostly translate their important insights into an academical jargon - a language of the powerful.   That is, after all, the coin of the academy.

I still think anthropology has a more accurate understanding of human beings than other disciplines, but I'm no longer so interested in fitting those insights into academic writing and reading.  First of all, it seems a way to avoid helping the people you are supposedly listening to and speaking for.  (Though in fact, every anthropologist I know does help the people they work with - though it often has little to do with what they publish.)

Second of all, if we were to  come up with another truly useful concept - like Gramsci's hegemony, Goffman's total institution, or Freire's  banking model of education - what use would that be put to?  It's customary to complain that anthropologists are ignored when it comes to policy, but the goals of much policy making these days is to suit the powerful.  In fact, people wonder why Americans haven't taken to the streets.  In my more paranoid moments, I think it is entirely possible that an increasing subtlety and sophistication of "soft power" is in part a result of our academic studies of power - being used toward ends opposite of what ethnographers and others hoped.

In my less paranoid moments, I see a spectacle of bread and circus and fear-mongering that would be familiar to despots throughout the ages - and I know there's no real mystery about our complacency.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Finding empathy - when abuse victims don't leave

I enjoy following the blog Plowing through Life, as the author, Martha, in her charming, easy and life-affirming way relates her various musings and experiences, shares the photos she takes on her bike rides around her Canadian town, and posts the jokes and cartoons that amuse her.  Her blog is a welcome eddy of positivity in my internet feed.

Which makes it all the more significant that she's recently been relating how she found her way to this positive place by way of an abusive marriage and the near total collapse and reconstruction of her sense of herself.

Like a lot of people, I grew up in an extended family where men and women treated each other more or less with casual respect. For a long time it was impossible for me to really understand - or even feel empathy for - people who stayed in abusive relationships. I didn't get why a woman would stay with a man who hit her or treated her with manipulative cruelty.

Obviously there was something despicably wrong with the abuser, but it seemed like the woman (or man) who stayed was to blame as well. This makes it so, so easy to give up on them. It's only from hearing stories like Martha's - stories where the victim is frank about their own participation, the damage it's done and the intricacies of the traps that keep one stuck - that have enabled me to find the empathy that I should have felt all along.

I feel bad that the indifference and blame I once directed at abuse victims - and which I know others still direct at them - serves as one more bar in the cage that keeps people from escaping. 

"Yes, he's right, my friends are right, people are right -- there IS something twisted and damaged about me - something in me that must like this, or deserve this, or be too weak to escape this."

So I want to say that sharing this kind of story is really, really important if it can change the way we think about abuse. If more escapees are willing to challenge the embarrassment and the glare of ignorant judgement, it can help people find their way out of these relationships.  

Anyway, it's a good story - on a lot of levels.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Northern Black Widow

Here's a shiny visitor.

In the yard,  upon a tarp I meant to fold.
No belly hourglass, but a tiny row of dorsal hearts upon her.

Not a good neighbor, really, 
when I have cats who might choose to use her as a plaything 
and die for that mistake.

I placed her in a jar and Porter loosed her in the woods.

Stay in banishment, please, Black Widow.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Durable Mechanics

The other day, I asked my 17 year old son to fix one of our double hung sash windows. Both of the counter-weight ropes had broken. The whole process of taking apart the casing, replacing the rope, knotting things up - and really just appreciating the simple, elegant mechanics of a durable design solution - quietly taught him more than a month of surfing the internet could.  

Our civilization shows no signs of putting itself onto a sustainable footing - and on the contrary seems to be doubling down on the devourous destruction of our underlying generative foundations.  The coming decline is going to mean (eventually) a retrenchment to more sustainable designs and approaches to life. It would save energy to replace these windows and the removable storm windows with whatever high-tech double-paned construct is currently on the market, but I've stuck with the less efficient windows, because I can repair and understand them.

I believe in "fate", but not as an external, inevitable force - rather as the culmination of the hundreds of micro-decisions we make every day, based on our habits and inclinations. I'm not ready yet to make an abrupt leap to "collapse now and avoid the rush", but I'm trying to re-orient my fate toward decline. There is no brighter future ahead.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Garden allies

It's been a dry early summer, and so far - knock on wood - slugs have been scarce.  I've seen more toads in the garden than slugs, which could be a contributing factor, of course.

Garter snakes and other creatures have occupied the high hugel that I built out of deadwood, which is probably another reason I'm not seeing slugs.

I like to think this big old matriarch has eaten her share.

This second attempt at hugelkultur turned out to be too high and awkward to cover up with dirt, so it's served as the place I toss weeds, hoping it would eventually collapse into something useful.  No sign of that yet and so this year I did put some wooden frames up top and filled them with soil.  Why stake tomatoes when I can just let them drape.  And I planted some squash plants there as well.

And resident garter snakes are just a bonus.  The great advantage of organic gardening is enabling predators to get established.  Poisons and other disruptions can wipe out pests, but they also wipe out the predators of pests, a gardener's natural allies.

And it's a fact of nature that prey species reproduce faster, adapt faster and establish themselves quicker than predators can.  Once you've used poisons, then you are committed, because the moment you let up, pests will invade with no predatory check on them at all.

Damsel flies will not only eat aphids but mosquitos as well
It seems smarter to pick the pests off your plants and put up with some depredations, because soon enough their predators will pick up their part of the alliance, and things get manageable.  

Some allies are more reliable than others, however.  The blister beetle larvae may have spent their days helpfully devouring the subterranean egg-stashes of crickets and grasshoppers, but soon enough they'll be adults chewing on the leaves of my potatoes and beets.

At the moment I'm only finding a few tortoise beetles and some three-lined potato beetles.  

The sunchokes plot are plotting expansion and conquest.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Kansas City conversations

Barber Shop in Stockton
I flew out to Kansas City last weekend to do research on how Americans think about money in politics for a coalition of advocacy groups who work on campaign finance reform.  One of the major foundations that funds these groups wants us to create an umbrella strategy for the whole diverse set of approaches.

A few weeks ago I was working on the same project out in California, in San Jose and Stockton, working with a colleague and a videographer.  But this trip was solo.  I was writing the protocol, planning the day, button-holing the subjects, working the camera and mic, conducting the interviews, interpreting and processing the results.

young couple in KC

It's tiring work, but it's anthropology and it's fascinating.  (Unfortunately, it was also raining much of Saturday and Sunday and I'd caught a miserable head cold from Nico.)

It's been a tough project, full of cul de sacs and plenty of ideas that seemed promising, but wouldn't pan out.

Ultimately, it turns out that we're all used to talking about the topic within the frame of corruption and the hijacking of our democracy by the wealthy and powerful.  This  elicits an appropriate anger from people, but it also elicits negativity and hopelessness.  And that was the wall that we had come up against.

Alternately, you can tap into an underlying faith that people have in a government of the people and by the people - and what it would mean if we leveled the playing field so that regular people could once again get elected to public office.

And suddenly campaign finance reform is a common sense solution to a coherent problem.  And you have a completely different conversation.

Memorial Day shook off it's rainy morning and I cleared my head as best I could.  I pestered the shoppers at the plaza and the hip outposts of Westport, and hit I the cookouts in the Mexican and Black neighborhoods eastwards.

And I assembled my video evidence that we have a better way to engage people on how to deal with money in politics.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Pickling Sunchokes

Two years ago I planted sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes.  It is a variety of sunflower that creates edible tubers.

They are perennials that grow with a weed-ish vitality, which is something I very much treasure in a garden plant.  (As a bonus the blooms are a food source for the bees as well.)

People use them like potatoes or as something akin to water chestnuts in salads and stir fries.

Unfortunately, the tubers are best dug up in the winter, after a few hard frosts have turned some of the starches to sugars - or before the shoots come up in the spring.

That's not really the season for salads or stir fries, and if you use Jerusalem artichokes in any quantity (as you would potatoes) you learn why the plant is often derisively named the fartichoke.

Monica and I liked the taste and texture, didn't like the windiness, and didn't find much use for our sunchoke harvest last year.

However, there are rumors that pickling them neutralizes the gas-inducing properties (or maybe just moderates your intake of sunchokes to a more harmless level?).

Pickles that are both flavorful and non-mushy are a rare and hard to find treat.  (And when it comes to gardening, I have completely failed to raise cucumbers each time I've tried.)  Since sunchokes turn out to be an acceptable pickle, I will contentedly give up on trying to raise cucumbers!

Here are the results of my experiment.

Technique #1 places diced sunchokes in a crock, where you soak them in a brine with turmeric, cumin, garlic and ginger for a few days.  Then pack them into jars with garlic and chiles and leave them sit out for a week or so longer.  Once you reach the level of flavor and sourness you like, you store them in the refrigerator.

Verdict:  The texture is excellent and crunchy.  The flavor is OK, with a bit too much turmeric, but a nice closing spiciness from the chiles.  They float and turn gray unless you weight them down into the brine, which is more trouble than I'm usually willing to take.  Refrigerator storage isn't ideal.  Still, I'll experiment with this one again.

Technique #2 brines the sunchokes for 12 hours or so with some turmeric.  You rinse it off, and pack the sunchoke slices (half inch thick) into jars.  You bring a pickling juice to a boil with spices, but let it cool before pouring it into the jars.  Pour it over the chokes and can them in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

Verdict: Wonderfully crunchy texture, and fine vinegar pickles overall.  I'll use a bit less sugar next time and experiment with the pickling spices, but this one is definitely a success.  Better than cucumber pickles in my humble opinion.

Technicque #3 tosses the sliced sunchokes in with spices, packs them into jars and pours a boiling mixture of water, cider vinegar, honey and salt.  As the recipe recommended, I included some shiitake mushrooms in a couple of jars, and hot Thai peppers and garlic in most of them as well as a random distribution of cloves, mustard seeds and pickling spice mixture.  I canned these pint jars in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

Verdict: The mushrooms seem to lend an intriguing earthiness to the flavor.  But I think pouring on the hot pickling juice cooks the sunchokes slightly, so they don't have that raw-carrot-crunch that the other techniques preserve.  

In any case the specific spicing isn't the real test here - since I had only a motley selection of pickling spices.  It's the crunchiness.  Spicing and sweetness can be adjusted, but whatever technique results in good, crunchy pickled sunchokes is he one I'm looking for.  And for that Technique #2 wins, with #1 a close second.

Full recipes below the fold . . .

Monday, May 18, 2015

Star flower, Lysimachia borealis

Where the backyard begins to be part of the forest, the ground this time of year is blanketed with Canada mayflower.  And scattered among them are little white star flowers.

Canada mayflower

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Ending a Hiatus

Mingo County, West Virginia

2 posts in the past two months.  I'm not sure that counts as maintaining a blog.

I've kept journals pretty consistently since I was 14 or so.  Sometimes they lapse, usually either because I find myself too uninteresting to be worthy of record, or because I'm caught up in too many other things and the backlog of potential entries starve each other.

These last two months have been more that second problem.

At work we've been busy beyond our capacities - and as research director it's been my job to keep projects rolling that explore how different people conceptualize and think about: good governance, mental disability, the transition away from coal in Appalachia, the earned income tax credit, family work balance, taxation, and money in politics.

Welch, WV
There've week-long been research trips - to central Appalachia on the coal project and California for money in politics.  I leave for Kansas City on Friday.  There has been phone interviewing, both by me and by people I've been training - on money in politics, the EITC, family work balance, etc.  I've been training assistants to handle our on-line experiments at testing communications strategies - for governance, taxation, and others, but there are a lot of moving parts.  And recruiting an extra ethnographer or two for upcoming research in Philadelphia.

With so much data coming in, analysis and writing has been the bottleneck, and it's been a high priority to get me back into the thick of that.

Carpinteria, California

In California, Porter is finishing up his junior year of high school, which these days means college visits.  So, when he came back from boarding school on his spring break in March we traveled to Maine to see old friends, but also to visit the Colby-Bates-Bowdoin triangle.  Plus MIT, Worcester Polytechnic and Brown.   Only a few weeks later we all went out to visit him on Family Weekend at Cate - meeting his teachers and advisor and seeing him perform in his chorale and camerata, and in the school musical - (he was the policeman in Singing in the Rain).

I've sworn to not neglect the garden.  Sunchokes have been dug up and pickled, the garden tilled and planted with potatoes, beets, and parsnips.  Chard and fennel overwintered and are growing again.  Mustard and cilantro seeded themselves, and I've planted more - as well as little patches of basil, parsley, broccoli, greens, leeks and tatsoi.

Monica came home with a few starts of cabbage and cauliflower, and though I doubt I'm diligent enough to save them from the caterpillars, I've planted them.  I even loaded some dirt onto the high hugel and put in some squash seeds.  Asparagus is up, though sadly I've only spied a single morel. Still to go in are the tomatoes, hot peppers and eggplants.

Asparagus and chard
My sad little peach tree didn't come back this year.  The root stock has put out some suckers, so I cut the top off and let it be.  The cherry is in leaf and I pulled off a few dozen caterpillars (winter moths, I suspect).

The apple trees put out blossoms, but whether they will set any fruit this year is anyone's guess.  The little crabapples seem to have evaded the deer, and only one of the plum trees took damage.  Other than giving them some water and checking to see if the Japanese beetles have arrived yet, there's not much labor there.

And the beehives are abuzz.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

When life gives you treefall - make mushrooms.

They say when life gives you lemons - make lemonade.  But when life drops a spruce tree on your garden, make mushrooms.  Specifically, Chicken of the Woods, which thrives on newly fallen spruce.

I mail ordered some "plug spawn" from an outfit called Fungi Perfecti.  For $12-15 you get a hundred little dowels infused with the mycelium of a variety of edible or medicinal fungi.

If you have cut green wood or a fresh stump you can culture it by drilling a series of 5/16ths inch holes and tapping in the dowels with a rubber mallet.  In 9 months or so, once the mycelium has thoroughly colonized the wood, you should get a bloom of mushrooms to harvest.

I don't have a stump so much as a fallen tree, half uprooted.  I left the bottom dozen feet in place and divided the dowels up between the trunk and several 4-foot sections, cut and trimmed of branches.

I also had a maple with plenty of dead and dying sections, which I'd been meaning to cut.  It was only a matter of time until it dropped a limb onto one of our cars.

Only the center top was healthy, so I let it stand and trimmed out the rest.

The downed logs I'll inoculate with shiitake and pearl oyster mushrooms and roll them under the maple tree to rot and flourish.  The "stumps" I'll culture with blue oyster mushrooms, though if I were following proper protocol I would have cut the whole thing down to prevent it from fighting off the fungi.

In a few months I'll let you know how it went . . .

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The bees re-emerge.

The first three winters of my beekeeping career I failed utterly to coax a hive into over-wintering.  They all absconded, starved or otherwise expired before the spring nectar flow.  (0 for 7, I think.)

Part of that comes from my general approach to these kinds of things - which is to see how little I can get away with doing, before I start following all of the complicated edicts from the experts.

But my two colonies have successfully survived the winter and are currently finding nectar and pollen somewhere.  All I see around me are crocuses, snowdrops and the odd periwinkle blossom, but I suspect they are off to the swamp visiting the skunk cabbage.  They are already putting up nectar.

The smaller of the colonies I've written off as dead at least three times - first, last April when I accidentally uncaged the new queen directly into the hive - second when I checked back a few weeks later and found no brood at all - and third when I peeked in during the winter and found the too-light hive quiet and apparently empty.  (I only looked in the top - but in the other hive bee activity was high in the hive and obvious.)  I've never been able to spot this zombie queen that seems to keep bringing things back to life.

To myself I call that hive Corinth and the bigger, more vigorous hive Athens.

Last summer the nectar flow failed and not only did I harvest no honey, but in the fall I fed the two colonies something like 75 pounds of sugar just to give them some winter stores.  And yet this is the first lot of mine to survive.  Go figure.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Uncovering the Garden

The strengthening sun stripped away the snow.

From under the drifts, a few cheery chard plants are basking in the cold frames.

But the freshening breeze turned violent and toppled a spruce down onto the garden.

A taller tree and the chard would be basking in shards of glass and splinters of wood.

But no, the only victim is a forsythia, which thrives on any kind of abuse.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Cruel Equinox

It's the Equinox.

Crocuses!  Spring is unfolding finally!

No!  Wait!  Noooooo!

OK.  That's just mean.

Only one thing to do. 

Get that gardening started.

Happy Spring People!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Flight of the Timberdoodles

Last night at dusk I join a friend at Coogan Farm for the mating flights of the woodcocks.

It's a howling, still-winter night and there are only patches of open ground amid the snow.  Still, as the orange sky above Mystic turns magenta and then blackly purple, the woodcocks begin to make their rapid flights.  Wing feathers whistle in a high-pitched twitter.  They rocket back to their staging areas, and invisible on the ground, nasal 'peeeeeeent's buzz out above the rushing wind - calling to any females nearby on this cold night - to come and admire, to watch them strut and to take a mate.

Sunday, March 15, 2015


Nearly a month has gone by since I last posted.  I'd like to say it was a seasonally appropriate dormancy, but it wasn't.

In the interim I turned 50.  The second thing I did - after telling Nico to get up for school - was to fall down the stairs - top to bottom in a full-body tobogganing.  I picked myself up and confirmed that I was only bruised, which I chose to look at as a positive omen.  Nevertheless, I threw my old slippery-soled house shoes into the trash.

Monica had gone off to Hawaii - an escape from winter that she and her sisters had been planning for years.  As she explored Oahu and Maui, walking volcanos and listening to whales sing, her phone continued to supply her with a steady diet of winter weather warnings from Rhode Island.

Nico was home busy preparing for his "8th grade assessment", which involves a speech and presentation about service work, which in his case meant assisting with an after-school program in one of New London's public schools.   Mostly I just nagged him to make progress on a painting that he was creating as the "creative component."  He's a very articulate and compelling public speaker, so I had no doubts that he'd handle the committee he'd be speaking to.

At the end of February I left Nico - with the painting finished - staying with friends and traveled to West Virginia and eastern Kentucky on a nine-day trek.  A coalition of non-profits in central Appalachia hired us to conduct ethnography there for insights about how to transition past coal.  So I journeyed through a string of Kentucky's coal mining counties - Knox, Clay, Leslie, Floyd, Pike and into West Virginia - Logan and Mingo counties - talking to people about what would have to happen here for the young people to stay and make lives in these hills and hollers.

In the evenings, when I was all talked out, I plotted out the next day's forays and made sure other projects were on track.  We're in the midst of research about how people conceptualize mental disabilities, and I have interviewers talking with lawyers, judges, wardens, psychologists, case workers - as well as regular people.  Another project is focusing on progressive values.  And groundwork has to be laid for upcoming research on how to talk about the EITC, money in politics, good governance, women's leadership, not to mention the next phase of our work on building a constructive discourse around taxation.

Meanwhile, Monica had returned to the frozen northeast, Nico had handled his assessment, and Porter was flying in for a two-week spring break.  The scattered family was coalescing again.

The videographer who'd accompanied me for the second half of the Appalachia trip made it out on Wednesday morning, but one of the winter's (hopefully last) big storms closed in before I could make my escape.  In Charleston it poured rain and then dropped half a foot of snow - and airports, roads and highways were closed from Tennessee to Maine.  It wasn't until Friday morning that I chipped off my rental car's icy carapace, drove gingerly to the airport, and despite various delays, got launched toward home again.

But not to linger long there.  I had time to do a quick couple loads of laundry and to ready the basement in case warm rains came to suddenly dissolve our two feet of snow.

Porter is finishing up his junior year of high school and so commences the tradition of the college-visit-road-trip (which doesn't seem to have been a tradition back when I was choosing a college).  So on Monday the four of us drove northward, stopping in Cambridge to take a tour of MIT; on to Bath, Maine, where we joined old friends and made new ones over homemade pizza and red wine. Tuesday we toured Bowdoin College and Bates, and stayed with an old friend in Waterville, where I'd long ago spent a couple of years as a professor at Colby College.  Wednesday we toured Colby and in the evening ate fish and roasted potatoes with much wine and conversation.  Thursday we made our way back southward, stopping in Worcester to tour the polytechnic institute there.

Now I'm back home and another day of rain has washed away a few more inches of snow.  The basement is dry.  Tired looking grass is emerging from under tired looking snow.  Porter departed for California to make his way through the rest of the school year.

And I need to order my seeds for the garden!  See if the bees are still alive!  Start assembling materials for a deer fence!

No time for dormancy now.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Old-school snow shoeing


I'd been tromping some paths down in the snow, but they've all been drifted into oblivion. 

And more snow is coming.

Compared to friends farther north, two feet of snow on the ground isn't so much.  But it's more than we're used to - especially week after week.

I have some old beavertail-style snowshoes my Dad got from L.L. Bean many, many years ago.  

I took them off his hands this winter figuring they were decorative enough to keep on hand somewhere in case I ever needed a pair to get around on.  

Today was the day to try them out - if only to walk down to the beehives to make sure they hadn't been drifted over.

They're more cumbersome then the new-style snowshoes, but they work perfectly fine.  Much better to walk on top of snow than plow through it.  

And now if I ever have to make myself a pair of snowshoes - I know I have a model to work from - the same basic design as the Algonquin, Huron and French trappers used in the northern forests.

Tomorrow  is supposed to be sunny with a wind chill to -20° F  (-29° C), but now I can take a walk if I want to. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Chipping at the foundations of democracy: journalism edition

I haven't really been following the story about Brian Williams and whether he did or didn't embellish his experiences in the field as a reporter. Since I prefer information less corporately masticated,  I don't get my info from the TV.  The cult of on-the-spot tele-anchor reporting is more theater than journalism in any case.  But I do find the high-profile discrediting of a prominent figure of journalism to be a depressing spectacle.

It has little to do with Williams - who is probably a perfectly fine man.

It has little to do with the many bad habits of television and television news.

It has to do with discrediting the institution of journalism, so that its ultimate demise is mourned by no one - right, left or center.

The corporate takeover of the news media has overseen the diminishment of reporting across the country.  The decline in quality and independence and diversity - the decline in staff - the decline of journalism as a profession.  It has been a stunning destruction of the media as the Fourth Estate.

At one level this is part of the larger crisis of democracy as a form of political organization.  If anyone is going to look after the common good, we need sources of information and analysis that go beyond the press releases of the powerful.  (The first amendment of the Constitution acknowledges a "free press" as a bedrock institution of the republic.)

Unfortunately, this pattern of mismanaging, dismantling and discrediting isn't confined to news departments.

Look at the institutions or practices that (when functioning) contribute to actual democracy, and you'll see we're in the end game of a long, concerted effort to destroy and (even more insidiously) to discredit them and make them unusable:  public education, government, labor unions, science (as source of publicly available knowledge), the arts, taxation and so on.

Compare the institutions that lead in the other direction - military, police, the prison-industrial complex, courtier-journalism, science (as source of technologies of control), corporate consolidation, the legalization of political corruption, and so on.  All of these are being actively developed into the foundations of our society.

It is convenient for the powers that be that regular Americans be isolated from their own democratic power, and that institutions which could serve to enable collective self-organization and action be not only broken, but seen as unworthy of repair.

The constructive power of journalism has been to give people a better opportunity to see what is actually happening in the world - as distinct from the proclamations and propagandas of the powerful.      From the muckraking of Upton Sinclair, the bloody imagery of Vietnam, the embarrassment of Watergate or Abu Ghraib, such information can galvanize people to challenge the status quo or insist on something more in tune with the common will.

But when journalists are viewed as nothing more than spin doctors, entertainers, mouthpieces, stenographers, or unreliable celebrities - we lose access to an important source for a shared, credible picture of what is happening.  That's why I find the taking down of Brian Williams to be a sorry spectacle.  Because whatever the merits of the case, it is yet one more reason for people to give up on the idea that news media can be and ought to be a reliable source of information about what is really happening.

I don't think things are a lost cause, but I do think Americans are on the losing side of a intra-societal war that they are only dimly aware of.  And it is one they are very clearly NOT being informed about . . .

(editorial cartoons via