Almost a year ago, I received a letter from a faithful reader. It was hand-written, unsigned. "Lots of folks - West River - think you are an ill advised, sanctimonious ass, Sam. How did we come to inherit you in our papers?!" I tacked the letter to the wall above my desk and use it to inspire me.

This letter, and thousands like it, flood into newsrooms every day. Most good reporters collect them as badges of honor, a kind of nervous affirmation that we are getting through to our readers. In journalism, a response of indifference is a mark of failure. Why?

I have a friend of uncommon decency, born of a life in the Heartland. He is a successful businessman with a wicked sense of humor, and a strong commitment to the community. I sneak into his office occasionally and use his Xerox machine.

Without failure, he tells me, "Sam, you're too negative. You should write about positive things." I grin sheepishly. "Yeah, if I could only find a positive story." It would no doubt take the edge off my inflated "sanctimony" rating.

Sometimes, when the frown on my face has carved deep wrinkles into my forehead, I grudgingly agree with him. Of all the changes that I have made since moving here a decade ago, the hardest, by far, has been learning how to embrace the positive, booster club personality of the Midwest. I mean, you can drive into the most God-forsaken, dusty, abandoned farm town in South Dakota and the man at the gas station will greet you with: "Welcome to Paradise."

So, I thought that this week I'd give it a try. It's spring, after all. Surely I can find something positive to write about.

Post 22 started practice last week. Dave Ploof gave his speech about how failure is a natural part of life and how victory comes to those who learn from it and keep trying. That speech always inspires me. And besides, there's this 15-year-old I've followed for five years through Little League. I can't wait to watch him play.

Then there was Principal Pat Jones, wide awake at the airport at 5:30 a.m. Sunday morning offering coffee and donuts to the parents of Central High School students who were flying off to Washington, D.C., for the annual Close Up trip. Five-thirty in the morning! Somebody give the guy credit.

Reed Abrahamson was accepted to Yale University, which is great, except that, once again, the brilliant leave. Sydney Bonar saved up her allowance for weeks (sacrifice for something you really want … a lesson lost on much of the consuming public) and she bought a pet fish.

Oh, yeah, my buffalo herd has started to calve, a sure sign of spring. They still aren't worth much, and the ranch is bone dry, but … that's negative.

It's gonna rain an inch this weekend.

This doesn't seem like much. Maybe I'm negative because I'm just cynically looking at things upside down. Forty-nine percent of the Central High School freshman class is passing! No, that's not positive. That's just mean. What's wrong with me?

I believe in criticism. I think it's positive. I think it's the engine of democracy. I believe it is the counter-balance to absolute truth (and absolute power).

The critical spirit is the legacy of the Enlightenment, when the Bible finally had to defend itself against reason and observation … when someone finally stood up and said, "You know what, we ought to investigate whether the earth is flat. The Bible isn't much help in understanding the universe."

Doctors began to gather in dark basements to dissect the human body. Charles Darwin began to ask how life changes. Science was born. The idea of progress was born. America was born … all because we valued criticism. How's that for sanctimonious.

Not everyone believes in criticism. It has a confrontational, uneasy edge to it. There is comfort in absolute truth, whether it comes from an ayatollah or a Christian televangelist, or a small-town chamber of commerce that promises the community that low wages and low taxes and the rally are part of the natural order.

I'm running out of steam. I'm trying to stay positive, Ray, but I can't do it.

I'm sitting on the couch watching a Larry Diedrich commercial. He bemoans the fact that young people are leaving the state by the thousands. He's very concerned. His solution … lower taxes. What? Lower taxes?

He's got nothing to say about putting money into education, or using the power of the state to help young ranchers get a start on the land, or why a twentysomething gay person might decide there's no future in South Dakota. Nope, lower taxes, the solution to everything. It's the truth.

Twenty-five years of unchallenged Republican state government, and that's all he can offer young families … lower taxes. If we cut our taxes any more, we can be just like Mississippi! Now there's a campaign promise. It's the kind of orthodox dribble that we get when we live in a one-party state without criticism.

My favorite childhood story is "The Emperor's New Clothes." The whole community, cowed by the power of the emperor, sees that he is naked but refuses to say anything for fear of being ostracized. Only an innocent young boy, who knows no better, dares to say, "He's butt naked."

Being positive is OK, but let me be the boy.

Sam Hurst is a documentary filmmaker and buffalo rancher. Contact him at

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