More on Disappearing Birds

January, 2020

Lincoln – Last year I wrote a blog on disappearing birds.  It drew many hits and several readers commented to me personally about it.  The disappearance of birds and insects is alarming.

For those who live in Nebraska, there is still time (until February 15th) to see two artists' take on the same subject at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha.  The show, which purports to speak for birds, has drawn national attention through reviews such as one in Hyperallergic magazine.

It's hard to read the first two paragraphs of the review without wincing.  So this is how others see us?

Unfortunately, it's all too true.  We Nebraskans are destroying our bird populations. It has been going on for decades, abetted by fencerow-to-fencerow agriculture, destruction of New Deal windbreaks, and a get-big-or-get-out farm policy.  The Nebraska I once knew, of small farms and plenty of bird habitat, is gone.

I'm hoping for at least a little pushback in the anticipated Flatwater Group report on protecting the Nine Mile Prairie environs near Lincoln.  These environs, with streams, pastures, riparian woodlands, and several native and restored tallgrass prairies, are a haven for birds.  City and county governments will have the report for consideration as part of their 2050 comprehensive planning process.

As to the national picture, the outlook is not good.  The Migratory Bird Act is being undermined even as I write this.  This will not get the same attention as the impeachment trial (maybe that's the idea), but the disappearance of birds will be affecting us just as profoundly, and perhaps forever. 

Jim Lehrer in the 1970s

January, 2020

Lincoln – News of Jim Lehrer's passing makes me recall a visit he made to Lincoln.  It was the early 1970s; the Nebraska ETV building on North 33rd Street was new.  Jim Lehrer was new to PBS and just starting out a broadcasting partnership with Robert MacNeil.

I was working in the budget division in the statehouse, with responsibilities for ETV's budget.  Jack McBride, ETV director, and Paul Few invited me over after work to meet the new MacNeil/Lehrer team, in town for an orientation.  They met with a group of us about their approach to broadcast journalism, then chatted with us individually.

From what I had seen of them on the screen, I thought MacNeil was tall and Lehrer short.  Just the opposite in person.  Both were friendly, engaging, and hugely impressed with the new ETV building.  I don't remember the conversation exactly, but I remarked on the meaning of the name, Lehrer, in German, which is "teacher."  Jim of course knew it and said he hoped he was living up to the meaning.

The state funded the Nebraska ETV Commission well.  Governor Jim Exon, always tight-fisted with the taxpayers' dollars, nevertheless went to bat for equipping the building properly and making the most of the opportunity to deliver educational television to all Nebraskans.

I still watch, whenever I can, what many of us still call the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour.  Others in recent days have called it News for Grown-Ups.

Compelling New Issues in Student Loans

January, 2020

Washington – Critical new student loan issues have emerged since the new year began.  They must be thoroughly investigated by Congress prior to hearings that bring Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to Capitol Hill to testify.  House Education and Labor Committee chairman Bobby Scott wants DeVos to testify in March or early April.

•  With the revelation that student loan servicers have been illegally collecting payments from approximately 29,000 borrowers, in addition to the 16,000 borrowers previously acknowledged, federal magistrate Judge Sallie Kim may increase the $100,000 contempt penalty she already has imposed on DeVos.  After the October contempt order, DeVos dismissed the penalty as not appropriate and told the House Committee that she would not be paying it personally.  That has raised objections from taxpayers as to why they should be paying for her contempt of court.

• The amount of the illegal collections identified so far is approximately $20 million.  This is money being taken from borrrowers with sometimes devastating consequences for their personal lives.  At the same time, Secretary DeVos may be forgiving loan servicer Navient (formerly Sallie Mae) of $22.3 million in false claims it has made against taxpayers.  An administrative law judge ruled last March that Navient must pay the money back, but acknowledged that the final decision would be left to the Secretary.  No one seems to know what has happened subsequently.  Given the Secretary's history of not holding servicers accountable, it is possible if not likely that she has reduced or eliminated Navient's obligation to repay millions in fraudulently obtained taxpayer funds. 

• A presidential candidate, Senator Elizabeth Warren, has proposed executive action to cancel hundreds of billions of dollars of student loan debt under an existing provision of the Higher Education Act.  Warren's reading of the provision is supported by a legal analysis offered by the Project on Predatory Student Lending at Harvard Law School, an entity that has litigated successfully time and again against Secretary DeVos.

•  About the proposal, an NPR report asked, 

"Perhaps the most interesting question surrounding this provision that's been hidden in plain sight is this: Why are we only now hearing about it?" 

Answer: the provision, 20 USC 1082, has not been hidden at all.  I have discussed it often in these blog pages, most recently in September as part of a solution to the mismanaged Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The question now must be how best to use the existing HEA authority to solve immediate crises in student loans.  I have suggested using it to modify the terms of PSLF cancellation, but the provision could also be applied to servicers' forbearance abuse* and borrower defense issues. 

These four points deserve immediate Congressional attention: there is not a moment to lose.  Congress to date has not acquitted itself well on student loan issues.  There is much evidence that the revolving door between the Department of Education and the student loan industry has resulted in corruption and racketeering at the expense of borrowers and taxpayers.  So far, Congressional committees have not been up to acknowledging or investigating it.** 

 May 2020 be the year that Congress starts to give these matters the attention they deserve.

* The CFPB in 2017 identified $4 billion in forbearance abuse at Navient. At PHEAA, a whistleblower has described how the process works there: "As long as the forms are filled out on time the interest stays accruing. If you fail to submit a form on time or we make a mistake that you can't prove or don't raise concern about then interest caps just like a forbearance. So for people who aren't behind the scenes or who don't know the right keywords to say might be paying thousands more over time depending on how much money you borrowed. I would reasonably guess a low figure that millions more are tacked on to the portfolios serviced by these lenders per year....These types of practices only further serve to hinder the low income families and keep them from getting ahead by not allowing them to be properly informed on all options and relevant consequences."

** In my unfavorable review of the PSLF hearing last September, I wrote the following: "The testimony of the Department of Education's person, a civil servant without authority to comment on policy, was successful if the purpose of his appearance was to save a political appointee from having to testify under oath." The civil servant was Jeff Appel, a friend and colleague of many years. I did not want to use his name, fearing it would draw attention to him for a role he clearly did not want. No matter; he was troubled by the appearance, collapsed days later, and passed away in November. DeVos Department political officials had thought it was clever to require his testimony rather than appear themselves. The Committee must not let such witness manipulation occur again.

Fake News, Misleading News, and Lügenpresse

January, 2020

Washington – On any given day, I try to read editions of these newspapers: the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Omaha World-Herald, the Lincoln JournalStar, and the Berlin-based Der Tagesspiegel.  Collectively, they provide a fairly broad perspective of what is going on in three capitals and in the rest of the world.

None of these papers can accurately be called purveyors of fake news.  To say such is reminiscent of the Nazi term used for Germany's mainstream media before it was shut down:  Lügenpresse.

But if not fake, today's print media is often misleading, at least from my perspective.

Ideological over-classification.  Many newspaper articles and editorials use a left-center-right ideological continuum as a framework to discuss policies and people.  The world is not so neatly compartmentalized, however, and such classifications often do not bear up over different decades, different parts of the world, within political parties, or in people's minds.  Moreover, many studies show that voters don't have a good grasp of the framework newspapers use. Which leads to bafflement among pundits, but before they blame voters for contradictory beliefs and behaviors, they need to check their own assumptions.  Most newspapers would greatly benefit by editing out misleading, inapt, and overused ideological classifications.

Meaningless economic numbers.  Economics is hardly an exact science.  Book after scholarly book recount how economists got it exactly wrong in their theories and prescriptions for the national economy.  If theory is wrong, or at least suspect, why all the precision in, for example, how much the Dow is up or down, let alone pseudo-authoritative explanations of why?  Economic reporting for decades missed the widening gap between the rich and poor in America.  That is the economic story of our age.  It was first broken by European scholars and journalists.

Identity politics.  Like ideologies, racial and gender identities are frameworks for misleading reporting.  Such identities are important at some level, but hardly the all-defining characteristics that command so much newspaper coverage.  Democratic primary polling, so far in 2020, is disproving the idea that identity politics is strongly correlated with voter preferences.

Regional chauvinism.  Distain drips from much newspaper coverage of political, economic, and cultural issues beyond a newspaper's home base.  Fly-over deplorables; effete elites; superior Kultur.  Such biases are often thinly disguised.  I find much deplorable myself about Nebraska politics – state government is a one-party mess – but analysis of rural heartland issues from the NYT that can't distinguish hay from straw, or know a bull from a cow, will not be taken seriously.  It goes the other way, too: can the OWH be considered a serious newspaper if the Farm Bureau's endorsement of Ben Sasse is front-page, above-the-fold news?  That item belongs back with the truss ads.

Word misuse.  Newspaper writers routinely misuse terms such as federalism, exceptionalism, evangelical, socialism, and populist.  It goes beyond sloppiness; the writers too often demonstrate that they don't know the history and meaning of the words they are using.

Distraction.  When not pre-occupied with the above, today's newspapers are wont to be distracted by contrived news, designed to distract.  The President is a master of manipulating the media by distraction at the expense of coverage of profound developments that are all but ignored.  Climate change is the best example.  It gets covered inadequately only after yet more stories about who is more center-left compared to whom, whose identity is what, and shaggy dogs being released at the White House.

Why does this matter?  Newspapers are in competition with social media for the attention of voters.  An informed populace is essential to a functioning democracy.  Newspapers must have credibility to compete successfully.  There is much they could do to enhance their product so they don't become repeat victims of the likes of Josef Goebbels and his lies about the Lügenpresse.

Der Vergleich ist eine Warnung.  Es droht eine neue NS-Zeit.  Believe it.

Veterans Tribute at UNL – Part II

January, 2020

Lincoln – Now, as to the proposed veterans tribute design, especially the panels (see Part I):  I asked an artist knowledgeable in landscape architecture and monument design for an outside opinion.

The planned Memorial Mall Tribute area in its current form functions as a way-station on the sidewalk to Memorial Stadium’s East gate from 14th St through the Hall of Fame Walkway.  Its rectilinear double lane layout is organized by large (heavy) glass billboard panels and flowerbeds that are parallel and secondary to the sidewalk.  While the billboards are meant to encourage learning and thinking about veterans' service and sacrifice, they divide and interrupt the view of the contemplative area.*  To be an effective small memorial, the gestalt of the tribute area must be taken in by the participant at first sight.  

In contrast, the new entrance-step plaza to the M&N building successfully brings new and welcome attention to the education that takes place inside.  The plaza provides a natural forum for conversation.  While the bi-color chevron paving design on the uppermost level of the steps may be seen as accentuating the entrance, the continuation of the bi-color pattern beyond this level confuses and visually flattens the various levels of the plaza linking it to the sidewalk.  Intended to connect the plaza to the garden, the continuing chevron pattern architecturally separates this area from the M&N entrance, creating an effect of feeling squeezed in.

Memorials are at their best when they provide a space for rumination.  A few cues are all that is necessary:  an interesting sculpture, a great specimen tree (perhaps a pairing of a towering oak and a willow that weeps?).  Overbearing didactics on heavy glass panels that hem in the contemplative area with text and visuals are counterproductive, towering over guests standing or seated, engendering insignificance and a desire to escape. The combination of beauty, philosophy and sacrifice in a memorial garden is better projected through a sense of the fragility of it all: organically shaped flower beds with forget-me-nots, field poppies for those who died, healing plants and other flowers of remembrance, such as climbing roses.  Potentially a bronze envelope and letter or a rucksack, helmet, gas mask or red-cross kit tucked in a corner are a sufficient nudge.  The nudge lingers, the bullhorn blare is soon forgotten.

This is not to say that there cannot be effective, well-written (brief) informative texts that pique curiosity enough to send the reader to the library.  Although it must be said that large lettering on the risers of steps in the plaza are intrusive to everyday business/duties.  No one likes being yelled at.  Text and symbol must leave space for the present tasks at hand, allowing and encouraging each person the freedom to choose their best path for contributing.  The cumulative experience determines the effectiveness of the memorial.  Was the experience positive, thought-provoking?  Was the visitor reminded of what can be learned from history? Does the brief encounter encourage one’s own response or force an experience that engenders resistance?

Some thought could be given to the interstices of the panels along the seating at the far edge of the contemplative area where trees are added to shield the transparent panels from the red brick façade.**  Here a low wall with various plaques might be appropriate depending on the information desired.  Or tall stele could be interspersed with slender posts where wisteria could be planted, whose branches could extend a chain in a graceful arc from post to post.  

Flower beds are an excellent way to shape the space.  Instead of repeating the linearity of the walkway, they could be shaped, encouraging some pedestrian meandering, each with its own stele and or sculptural element appropriate to the information therein inscribed.  These elements do not need to be ornate.  Simple steles, not necessarily all the same shape or size, that define space rather than obstruct, perhaps with a shaped top edge, can be both visually interesting and appropriately commemorative with informative text creating a cumulative experience as one walks from one to another.
*Similar glass panels are employed in a Washington, DC, monument to disabled veterans, but they are placed to obstruct the view toward a busy street.
**Requiring continual pruning.  A wire scaffolding with large-leaf ivy would be easier to maintain. 

Veterans Tribute on the UNL Campus – Part I

January, 2020

Lincoln – The University of Nebraska–Lincoln is planning a construction project to recognize military service.  It would be located between the Military and Naval Science building (M&N) and Memorial Stadium, featuring glass panels.  

According to a Lincoln television report, more input is being sought from veterans.  Some veterans interviewed had their own ideas.  One said "I think they can come up with a better design besides the panels."  Another said making it more personalized would better represent veterans.  

I'm of the same mind about the panels (see Part II), but more concerned about the overall approach.  According to a UNL press statement,  "
The campus panels will illustrate the multiple facets of a service member’s life, including the importance of family, faith and camaraderie, while also depicting the personal sacrifice that military service entails."  The $4.5 million project, to be paid for by contributions, is to create a space "showing the university’s values and its commitment to telling the story of our military-connected students, faculty, staff, alumni and public.”

The danger in this project is that it will be a generic, platitudinous paste-up that could be anywhere, in countless places across the country.  And that it could be interpreted as jingoistic, or even confused with disinformation that targets veterans with similar efforts and images, not to be supportive but to be divisive.*  Divisiveness has a history at the site, as the M&N building was once occupied in a war protest, as ably recounted in Robert Knoll's Prairie University, pp. 151-155.  The Board of Regents' reputation suffered; it was a low point in NU history.  

Perhaps it is not too late to make some changes to the project.

I am twice an NU graduate who received my commission in the regular Navy at the M&N building.  I held a Navy ID card of some type – midshipman, active duty, reserve, retired reserve – for 44 years altogether.  My commitment to veterans remains strong, as an original supporter behind the non-profit organization Veterans Education Success, the work of which was featured last week in a New York Times editorial.  

I am also one veteran and NU alum who thinks the tribute as planned misses an opportunity and could likewise be more thought-provoking about the vicissitudes of war.

The opportunity being missed is to connect the site of tribute to the personal histories of great leaders who taught and studied on the NU campus specifically.  General John J. Pershing was a professor of military science, but he also taught math to a wider circle of students and took law courses himself to obtain a law degree.  His military science students included Frederic Clements, who went on to found the discipline of plant ecology, and Frank Eager, who as a lawyer became the clerk of the Nebraska House of Representatives and later won a Silver Star in the Battle of Manila.  

Nearby Love Library housed cadets trained by NU faculty in WWII, as did the field house.  Heading a special military college back then were professors Joseph Alexis, C. Bertrand Schultz, Olin J. Ferguson, and Charles H. Oldfather, whose contributions are in danger of being forgotten.  GIs with educational benefits thronged to the campus in the 1940s and 50s.  Temporary buildings were constructed to handle increased enrollment, as shown at right in this 1950 photo.  

Positive connections between the military and the rest of the academy are manifold.  How appropriate it would be to note several such connections at the site to make this a unique tribute, one that could exist nowhere else.
Pershing's particular experience is also a cautionary tale, worthy of special notice for its illustration of the terrible side of war.  As commander of the American Expeditionary Forces at the bloody Meuse-Argonne offensive in World War I, "General Pershing was nearing a nervous breakdown.  One officer witnessed 'Black Jack' sitting in his staff car, sobbing and calling for his wife, who had died three years earlier in a tragic fire.  Pershing now performed the most courageous and self-effacing act of his distinguished military career.  He realized it was time for a change.  Relinquishing his battlefield command.., Pershing handed over control of the 1st Army...."**

Pershing's self-effacing example is inspirational.  It does not glorify war, but reveals its realities, its truths (surely a university value).  The reality of war must be conveyed in any tribute to those who serve in uniform.   

Pershing went on to write his account of the war; it won a Pulitzer prize.  At the Pulitzer ceremony, Willa Cather, his math student in Lincoln, paid homage to her professor.  Cather herself won a Pulitzer for One Of Ours, her account of World War I from the standpoint of a Nebraska soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice.  A quote from that work would be fitting for the UNL project.
*See the Department of Justice indictments of the "Being Patriotic" disinformation appeals to veterans.

Quotations from My Fellow Nebraskans

January, 2020

Lincoln – After talking with many people over the holidays in Nebraska, I recall some of the more memorable questions and comments.

A twenty-something:  "William Jennings Bryan.  I've heard that name.  Who was he again?"

A forty-something, directed to a woman two decades older: "Listen, girl."

A fifty-something:  "Now what was the name of that man who left the Catholic Church?"  After a five minute pause: "Oh, I remember his name, Martin Luther."

A sixty-something:  "Good luck back there [in Washington, DC].  It must be tough with all that corruption."

A seventy-something:  "We used to hire Sioux Indians to help stack hay.  We'd take them into town on a Friday night, then pick them back up from jail on Monday morning."

Another seventy-something:  "Trump's just like Teddy Roosevelt, don't you think?"

And then there's what I didn't hear or see, but wanted to:  a special television program on Andalusia under Muslim rule, because Direct TV in Lincoln does not carry the PBS World channel among its hundreds of offerings.  Not much demand for such programming, apparently.

I love my Nebraska friends and neighbors, all of them, but....