Debating a Response to Charlottesville

18 Aug

I’ve been puzzling over a blog post in response to our latest bit of national drama, with no easy answers coming. (Well, there are certainly some clear things I could say about Confederates or “Heritage, not Hate” or people who run over other people with cars or people who think one’s political opponents must be shouted down and not engaged, but the point of this blog is to add nuance to the debate, not to reiterate points already made by countless other commentators.) I’ve had several false starts, the most effective of which was a sort of Socratic dialogue between two fictional characters, each taking somewhat different stances as they argue the merits in good faith. (Plato was on to something when he used that method to try to puzzle out some of the universe’s greatest questions.)

I’m not going to dwell on the particulars of this one; as valuable as empathy can be, pouring too much emotion into events that do not affect one’s day-to-day life in any visible way can drive one down into a bog of vicarious emotion. I will, however, devote some thought to a plausible path forward. To that end, I will link to two accounts that I think hone in on the troubles of our time quite well, and address the broader question of how people should respond to them.

First, in the New Yorker, Nathan Heller surveys the literature on protest movements, both in their successes and failures, and picks out some lessons for today’s resistance.

Second, in The American Conservative, an interview with Mark Lilla, a Columbia professor with a gift for pithiness who has just come out with a scathing review of “identity politics” on the left.

Both are written by left-leaning critics of the left’s response to Trump. I don’t endorse everything here, and could spend some time picking at things if I wanted. But I find a lot that makes me stop and think in both Lilla’s tour de force of public intellectual discourse and Heller’s measured examination of how protest movements can grow into more than protests. The Lilla piece in particular makes me want to go through question by question and pick through his responses, agreeing here, quibbling there. He may not have all the right answers, but he is asking many of the right questions, and anyone looking to find honest, good faith answers needs to engage questions such as these.

So, let’s discuss.

Adventures of a Not-Quite-Luddite Millennial

7 Aug

I am a crappy millennial. I have never been on the driving edge of tech savviness, and have no desire to be there. I was a somewhat late adopter to Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat—though I will confess to enjoying all three once on them, especially the latter two—and am only now climbing on the Instagram train. (Here it is, in all its glory. It took me seven years to get over my disgust of those obnoxious filters that overwhelmed early Instagram.) I am one of the few people in my generation who uses an alarm clock, as my phone goes off when I go to bed. I don’t even own an e-reader, preferring to fill my apartment with the old-fashioned kind of book. I have sports on as background noise with some regularity, but outside of that my TV is usually only on for an hour or two a week. When I forayed into the online dating world—a world I found facile and underwhelming—I was disappointed by the number of young women who think that talking about how much they watch Netflix makes them seem interesting. (And yes, I know what “Netflix and chill” means.) I have never owned an Apple product.

While some of my inadequate representation of my generation stems from personal preference, I can spin out a more thought-out backing for all of this, too. Our tech infatuation runs the risk of leading us to forget important things. STEM majors are all well and good, but I vigorously oppose any effort to divorce them from broader study of the humanities. I am easily suckered in by articles warning of Silicon Valley moguls who are plotting to alter human nature or pursue Singularity, and find such instincts about as fundamentally repulsive as any. I find any effort to hold up these modern-day monopolists as heroic model citizens worthy of emulation at best crass worship of consumerism, and at worst a deeply troubling attack on the idea of a virtuous life. If Mark Zuckerberg runs for President, I will order myself a MAGA hat.*

Still, I’m not exactly a candidate to lead the local Luddite Society. As I confessed earlier, I’m a satisfied user of plenty of new platforms. Social media has been a boon for someone with a friend network that has scattered all over the globe, and has helped preserve some deep ties despite great distance. As a millennial in a workplace that trends much older than I am, I am automatically designated the tech expert. Despite being a liberal arts kid to the core, I have come to be pretty comfortable in the world big data, at times even known as the “data person,” a title that leaves me wondering how I’ve been pigeonholed into something I never considered a strength, at least relative to some of my other skills. (Either that or I just have an inflated opinion of my skills as a writer, geographer, hockey pundit, and student of political thought.) I like to think, however, that my natural skepticism of big data and all of this supposedly-newfangled-but-not-really information is what allows me to be a passable interpreter of such information, and to know what it’s actually saying instead of making a simplistic first reading. I will continue to make that push.

My instincts also tend to downplay the extent to which technology changes us. A statement issued by an organization on its Facebook page is no different from a press release from a few decades ago, save for the speed with which it is spread; Presidents have likely said Trumpish things since the dawn of Presidents, but only now can they go public thanks to Twitter. Same with this blog and some of my other forays into online writing: the medium is different and the audience more accessible, but there’s nothing at all groundbreaking about writing one’s thoughts and throwing them into the public square for broader consumption. These are questions of magnitude, not radical new means of communication, and lead me to doubt the claims over how much tech has changed our lives.

Every now and then, though, some alarm bells go off that make me worry this natural conservatism is all wrong. Take this recent Atlantic article, chock full of alarming stats about today’s teenagers and the extent to which phones have come to rule their social lives, leading to drastic drops in traditional kid activities and replacing them with lonely interactions highly correlated with depression and a surge in suicide. I’m not that much older than these kids, and use the same basic platforms that they do, but many are apparently incapable of interacting in other ways. This life, as the article shows, is defined by atomism and anomie, trends that I have long feared pose a greater threat to human flourishing than the whims of any political leader. A truly sorry fate for humanity emerges, our demise not found in nuclear war but in our own beds, where we lie for hours chatting with people we cannot see and drowning in porn instead of genuine pursuit of intimacy. Who knew that soma, the drug from Brave New World, would turn out to be an electronic object?

And yet it’s entirely possible to use smartphones in moderate, healthy ways. The danger comes not from the technology itself. It comes from the erosion of the wall between a public and a private life. Both are important, and need their own separate realms. The public side involves all of the stuff I throw out on here and on my other social media accounts, and any notoriety I achieve through some of my other pursuits, whether in work or in local political circles or even the world of hockey. This public persona is partially curated by myself and partially forced on me by how others perceive it, but all ultimately designed for the consumption of others. And then there’s the private side, which will remain out of the public eye for me and close family. I’m not going to elaborate on that here, because that would defeat the point.

But I will share how I’ll maintain this divide, just in case there are any fellow travelers out there. I will continue to use that alarm clock, and turn the phone off (yes, totally off) when I go to bed. The only sorts of crises that cannot wait until the morning are the ones that will wake me up anyway. I will continue to own two cell phones, which may seem like overkill at first, but allows for a clear separation: one is for work, and one is for life. My future children will be subjected to real books and athletic or outdoor endeavors instead of screens in their early years—just as many of Silicon Valley’s elite do with their kids—and while I’m sure they’ll get smart phones or whatever the hell we’ve replaced them with at some point, the standards will be clear early on. (Thankfully, I live in a city where one still sees children roaming freely with some regularity, and where people tend to live with modern technology, yet never really on the cutting edge. These were far from minor factors in my decision to move back here.) The extent to which I showcase things like my family on social media will be inversely related to the amount of public attention I receive on it. I will continue to take days and even strings of days where I unplug completely. And I will continue to keep up with what the cool kids are doing, both to stay relevant and so I can continue to pass judgment.

Enough with the polemics for one day, though. Time to get myself out of the soft glow of my phone and out into a moonlit Minnesota night.

 

*I’ve used this line before, and have been told that my opinion of Zuckerberg sounds like it was formed by The Social Network, not his actual persona. This is probably true, especially since Aaron Sorkin wrote that film in a way that conformed to my preconceived biases. I will also confess to a visceral reaction to his fashion; why have we let this schlub who pretends he doesn’t care but in fact does care immensely define our design standards? Still, I think Zuck is an awful potential candidate given his political naïveté and his vague techno-optimism that displays a worrying lack of capacity for self-reflection or acknowledgment of negative consequences.

I’m hating on Silicon Valley a lot here, perhaps in part because the ethos of that elite is so different from the East Coast elite with which I rubbed shoulders in DC. The faux cool strikes me as more insidious than good old-fashioned Acela Corridor aristocracy, as it makes ridiculous claims about saving the world and “disruption” (how I hate that word) while aspiring to pretty much the same ends. The old order has its hypocrisies, but at least it’s predictable and rooted in philosophies with a somewhat better grip on reality. Still, I don’t lump them all in the same box: there is a world of difference between Peter Thiel, the crown prince of atomism, and the likes of an Elon Musk, who actually builds tangible things and shows genuine recognition of technology’s dark side. But empowering this lot runs the risk of opening Pandora’s Box, which I believe our current President has already opened far enough. Such is life in an ever churning world.

Think Local, Act Regional

2 Aug

Local election season is starting to heat up, with Election Day now three months away here in Duluth. I won’t tip my cards yet, if I ever do; in many cases I’m not even sure who I’ll vote for at this point. But there are a couple of things that the people I do end up voting for will need to have. One is a sense of regional consciousness, and another is an emphasis on the particulars of local affairs rather than adherence to some outside platform.  At first blush these may seem like contradictory strains of thought, but both are necessary for effective statecraft, whatever one’s political orientation.

I focus on a regional perspective because it is all too rare in politicians. It always has been, and probably always will be. When it comes to questions of scale, many see themselves strictly as representatives of the constituents who elect them, meaning their city or district within a city and the arbitrary boundaries that such divisions normally imply. Sometimes this comes with a genuine effort to give a personal touch to the small group of people one represents, while at other times it can just be territorial. But when local leaders block out their neighbors, either intentionally or through benign neglect, they only hurt the people they claim to represent.

Take Duluth, for example. I see a lot of Duluth-centrism in local political rhetoric today; that is, Duluth politicians who are fixated only on things happening within Duluth boundaries. To an extent, I admire this attempt to hold Duluth to a higher standard. But we also can’t pretend that Duluth is an island, or not deeply interconnected with its neighbors and its state. Nearly 60 percent of the people who work in Duluth do not live in it, while over 30 percent of Duluthians work outside its boundaries.

This applies to both city councilors and school board members. On the council side, it applies to the labor market, which is a complicated thing to define but should pretty clearly include Superior, Hermantown, Proctor, Rice Lake, Esko, and Cloquet—at the very least. Attempts to regulate it, however well-intentioned, should recognize how interconnected all of this is. Leaving aside the merits of something like earned sick and safe leave, has there been any effort at all to recognize this interconnectedness in this debate? If there is, I sure haven’t seen it.

Education “markets,” so to speak, expand beyond single districts, a trend we see all too clearly in families voting with their feet and open enrolling across boundaries or into private or charter schools. My scare quotes there show my leeriness about referring to education as a market—and public schools, by dint of requirements that they educate all comers, including those who come from families with no initiative to seek out alternatives, will always look worse than some of the alternatives and give a very warped view of what actually goes on inside the buildings. But this is the environment in which people make their decisions. East-west equity has become a central concern in this year’s ISD 709 school board races, and there are certainly good reasons to fixate on that. But any sort of solution will not come from pitting one side of the city against the other, or gutting one side to prop up the other. If any candidates want to make this upcoming race about east-west equity alone, they’re missing the forest for the trees.

And while they’re not on the ballot this year, I’d say the same thing about regional legislators. It’s great if the Duluth delegation is aligned in St. Paul, but it includes all of five people, two of whom have much larger constituencies outside the city than in it. Duluth’s unique situation within the state should put its members in a position of influence. On the one hand, Duluth is part of Greater Minnesota, and there are a number of cases where it makes more sense to align with the more rural delegation, including others in northeastern Minnesota who would seem to make obvious allies. There is enough interconnectivity with the North Shore and the Iron Range that support for certain initiatives, from broadband to education to infrastructure, should drive Arrowhead legislators to vote as a bloc. But on the flip side, Duluth’s urbanity at times makes the city look much more like Minneapolis or St. Paul, where equity concerns and redevelopment are central issues—and, indeed, its legislators usually vote along with those in the central cities. (In a year that was fairly good for economic development funding redevelopment dollars were mysteriously absent from the budgets that came from a legislature controlled by rural and exurban GOPers.) In a tightly divided government, there should be scenarios in which Duluth’s legislators have the power to play kingmaker, and if they’re not exploring opportunities to do so, they’re missing the boat.

Without regional action, the Duluth area won’t ever live up to its potential. I’m not necessarily saying greater Duluth should formalize this through government and move in the direction of a Twin Cities-style Metropolitan Council. But there should be venues for greater regional conversations, where appropriate. There are some such conversations, but they are scattered, and not every organization that has the power to make an impact here is using it to its fullest extent. Too often, we see Duluth boldly pursuing some bold and well-meaning push that ultimately has a limited or even perverse impact because it is constrained by its boundaries and lack of broader context, while the outlying areas lapse into a reflexive rejection of those vaguely urban problems beyond their reach. We can do better than this.

Perhaps a more immediately pressing concern of mine is a rise in candidates who define themselves less by the places they serve and more by the principles or political platform with which they identify. These politicians have their lenses and preferred policies, and look to apply those within the region over which they have control (and beyond, whenever possible). It can come in any stripe, from the limited government Republicans loyally following certain tax pledges to platforms promoted by the left. A recent example: while all other candidates balked at a questionnaire asking them to fall in line with a group’s demands, Ray Dehn, the leading vote-getter in the DFL primary in the Minneapolis mayoral race, caused a stir when he said he couldn’t imagine not voting in line with Our Revolution, the leftist organizing movement that has grown out of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Whatever Dehn’s merits may be relative to the two other frontrunners in that race (a troubled incumbent in Betsy Hodges and a hungry climber in Jacob Frey), this is an immediate red flag for anyone with an appreciation for the ins and outs of local governance. While any number of groups from unions to clean water advocates will make demands from leading candidates, and have every right to do so, any adoption of said platforms should be critically vetted for their particular context, not just aped talking points embraced out of convenience.

Implicit throughout this post has been a mild critique of the Duluth DFL, which is often the only real player in local politics. I don’t mean to trash it; it’s a heterodox bunch, and I know, respect, and am friends with various members of it. But one of the things I’ve always appreciated about Duluth politics, especially in comparison to other cities I’ve lived in such as Minneapolis or D.C., is that is has an independent streak to it that can usually recognize some of the excesses of its dominant party and avoid jumping on the train. Instead of the vicious division in some other places, we see general community consensus on such topics as community policing practices (granting that our demographics limit the centrality of certain racial questions to the Duluth experience) and, at least until the Red Plan, in education. We’ve rejected some vogue ideas with questionable actual evidence in their favor like ranked choice voting, and our campuses have not become hopelessly politicized in a manner that shuts out half the country and drives it to question the very value of higher education. The continued presence of labor in the DFL coalition is also notable, and while I have my critiques of labor, the ability to retain that political base has kept the Duluth DFL from becoming an institution totally out of touch with the working class, as the national party has gone. I groan when I hear some of the petty things that divide members of the local political class, but at the very least these conflicts tend to stay under the table.

Willingness to buck trends and not blindly follow a party line is one of the most admirable traits possible in a politician, and until recently, most city councilors, even if elected behind the full weight of the DFL and labor endorsements, get that to some level. And while I recognize that the Democratic base is fired up in the age of Trump, I hope they’re not losing track of the nuts and bolts and a basic ability to manage neighborhood relationships that drive local politics, which are far more relevant than one’s stance on the source of outrage du jour in D.C.

If I have a goal here, it is to give new life to that old claim that all politics is local. I wouldn’t go that far; some things obviously require state or national action. But I would like to return to a phrase that may seem tautological at first, but that few stop to ponder properly: policy should be made on the level most appropriate for such policy. Some things are genuinely local; some are completely outside the purview of a city council. This sense has eroded in an era in which people get their politics from their favorite network of choice or whatever dark recesses of the internet one’s social media acquaintances happen to inhabit. It is easy to try to simplify the world by imposing national narratives, but the realities zoning disputes and school funding decisions and search for pathways to the American Dream rarely conform to those national platforms. The world is a complicated place, and deserves our respect as such.

Dog Days of Summer

24 Jul

This past weekend brought the Braemar Summer Hockey Festival, a series of summer scrimmages in Edina that lack the team from Edina. The tournament’s name was only partially accurate, as issues with Braemar’s South rink forced some games over to the Bloomington Ice Garden. Still, it was more than enough to entertain us hockey-starved fans, and a rink is a welcome escape from a 90-degree day in the Twin Cities. I saw part or all of seven of the Saturday scrimmages, which featured 22-minute halves in pool play. I didn’t stick around for the Sunday playoffs, but that really isn’t the point here: it’s more of a chance to get a quick idea of where teams stand four months out from the start of the season.

There’s no shortage of reasons to put little stock in the results here. Some kids miss the games for a variety of reasons, rosters are far from set, and coaches are free to be experimental with little regard for scores. Elite League tryouts also coincided with the final day, which I suppose is convenient for the Greater Minnesota teams in town for the scrimmages, but drains some talent from the Sunday finals. Still, coaches’ Twitter rants to the contrary, they also can be pretty good predictors: last year’s included a semifinal Grand Rapids and Eden Prairie, arguably the top two teams in the state by the end of the season, and most of the teams that looked not very good there stayed not very good.

Just figuring out who is who in these scrimmages can be a chore. Some teams match their players’ jersey numbers to the ones they wore last season, while others do not; some lost so many players that it’s hard to guess anyway, while Prior Lake likes to go with football numbers. (Was that you in the #70 sweater, Jackson Jutting?) There are no roster sheets, unless one happens to receive one from the Holy Family Hype Department. There’s always a smattering of odd-colored breezers and socks that make it clear who’s new to each team, too: before long, they’ll get the proper garb.

The defending champions were in town, and with Blake McLaughlin back in tow for his senior season, all is not lost in Grand Rapids. They had a low-scoring weekend, looking fairly tame except when McLaughlin flipped a switch, as he did in the dying minutes of a contest with Chanhassen, scoring twice and very nearly setting up a game-winner. For a few minutes there was a hint of the old magic up front, and Rapids could still be a thorn in someone’s side. The 7AA foe they slew in dramatic fashion in last year’s semis, Elk River, also rolled out a very green cast and had a quiet weekend, though there were some flashes from some of the new kids to give hints of relevance.

One of the bigger winners of the weekend was Wayzata, which coupled some opportunistic scoring with the typical Trojan defense. They fought past Holy Family in one of the better games of the weekend, put an impressive beating on Lakeville North, and were the only team to seriously test eventual champ Duluth East. Of course I thought the Trojans looked good in last year’s edition of this competition as well, and they took a few eons to get back to that level during the season, though get back they did. The Fire, meanwhile, have no shortage of talent but have some sorting to do: the forward lines seemed unsettled beyond the clear top talents of Ben Almquist and Garrett Pinoniemi, they have a goalie situation to sort out, and their defense, which should be their rock, got caught out on occasion against Wayzata. Holy Family’s roster is a jumble of new transfers in and holes left by departures, and this evolving cast of characters at the school with the most open borders in the state may take some time to jell.

I didn’t see Eden Prairie, but there were some rave reviews of Chris Konin, a Rhode Island and New England prep school transplant and who logged a hat trick against Elk River. The post-Casey Mittelstadt era doesn’t look too worrying for the only team to play in the past five State Tournaments. Having experienced players makes a difference when others are more unsettled, and this may help explain senior-heavy Eastview’s somewhat surprising run to the final. (I didn’t get a firsthand look at the Lightning.) Veteran Bloomington Jefferson seemed hit or miss; they stuck with East for a half before the Hounds overwhelmed them, and they scuffled back and forth with Benilde for a spell before they put away a very raw Red Knight group. Ken Pauly is never a quiet man on the bench, but I’d never seen him as distraught as he was midway through Benilde’s 10-1 undressing at the hands of East, in which his defense left trucking lanes down the center of the ice. Neither Lakeville really stood out, so it will likely be a down year in 1AA, with South looking somewhat better than North in limited viewing. And while Prior Lake may have missed their most opportune window to break through in 2AA, there’s enough left to give some good teams fits.

The team that did the most for its preseason stock this weekend was Duluth East. The Hounds were far from complete in Edina: second line forward Nick Lanigan and defenseman Will Fisher were out hurt, and top line center Ryder Donovan, fresh off his commitment to North Dakota earlier in the week, went off hurt early in the final group stage game and did not return. They also had a bunch of kids in the Elite League tryouts. But one could be forgiven for not noticing: the Hounds steamrolled through the weekend, and were tested just once, by Wayzata in the semis on Sunday morning. Longtime linemates Donovan, Ian Mageau, and Garrett Worth looked lethal, all three complementing each other and imposing their will, but there was little drop-off to the second and third lines, with a smoother-skating Ricky Lyle turning heads (or was it just the helmet he pulled out of a time capsule?) and Brendan Baker seamlessly sliding into Donovan’s spot when he got hurt. The defense, lacking Fisher, was on the small side but plenty mobile and able to control the puck, while Lukan Hanson, the heir apparent to Kirk Meierhoff in net, was hardly tested in the games I saw.

This is all cause for pleasure in Greyhounds Nation, but they know as well as anyone that nothing is won in July. Experienced, system-driven teams like the Hounds are well-built to succeed early on while others are still sorting through their parts. Continuous improvement is the key, and the new kids in black bantam breezers have some growing to do, too. We have yet to see what some of their biggest competition at the top of the rankings, from Edina to Moorhead to St. Thomas Academy (to say nothing of the 7AA rivals nipping at their heels) have to offer. But at this point, what’s not to like? Let’s start the countdown to November.

Food for Thought

14 Jul

People fall flat on their face or shine not because of their great ideas, but because of certain traits of character which suddenly acquire great importance in the actual practice of politics in these extremely tumultuous times.

-Kanan Makiya, as told to George Packer in The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq

Makiya was an exiled Iraqi intellectual who had grand, noble plans for a democratic Iraq after the American invasion in 2003. Reality, of course, made mincemeat of these intentions. As brilliant as his ideas were, few of them had any grounding in Iraq’s political reality or the U.S.’s botched invasion plan. He spoke these words with regret some time after the invasion, when it became clear that, even if the end result would be passable—which it might yet be—it will have come at a ridiculous human and financial cost.

As someone who spends no shortage of time wrapped up in ideas, this is worth remembering.

Oh No We’re Already Talking About 2018 Congressional Races

11 Jul

It’s never too early to start handicapping congressional races! (Ugh.) Pete Stauber, a Hermantown resident and current St. Louis County Commissioner representing the exurban areas around Duluth, will seek the Republican nomination challenge incumbent Democrat Rick Nolan (presuming he runs again, as he seems all but certain to do) in Minnesota’s eighth congressional district. This district is one of the more politically interesting in the country, and produced the most expensive congressional race in the nation in 2016. I also live in it.

On paper, Stauber is probably the most dangerous possible opponent for Nolan. While a solid Republican, he has some centrist credentials, and is very popular in a county board seat that otherwise tips a little to the left. His announcement speech sounded more like that of a Chamber of Commerce conservative with a common touch than a right-wing firebrand. His resume sounds like it was designed in a lab to be a friendly moderate conservative who can win MN-8: police officer, working class roots, self-made man through his small business stake, veteran wife, past hockey stardom. His most obvious shortcoming is a lack of the deep pockets that Stewart Mills has, and he could face a disadvantage if Mills decides to give MN-8 a third try. There is also real room for someone to give him a primary test from his right, and if that happens, it could alter the character of the whole race.

Stauber also has something going for him that recent Republicans haven’t: he can put the Duluth metro area into play. He has deep roots here, and his family name is littered all over local politics. Chip Cravaack and Mills effectively ceded Duluth to the DFL; Mills didn’t even bother opening a campaign office in the largest city in the district. This struck me as a grave error; even if they have no prayer of winning the area, just trimming off a few votes here or there could have made the difference in some razor-thin elections. I doubt Stauber will make that mistake, and this election could come down to Hermantown and Proctor and Duluth Heights instead of Hibbing and Grand Rapids.

Looming over Stauber’s run, of course, will be the perception of President Donald Trump. I wish all politics were local, but these national indicators matter an awful lot. Stauber did endorse Trump a year ago, and if 2018 turns into a Democratic wave year, you can hear the attack ads already. On the other hand, if El Presidente manages to chart a course free of major scandals and musters an unorthodox, not-just-GOP-boilerplate politics (and/or the Democratic Party’s outrage machine goes overboard), his relatively strong showing in MN-8 two years ago may boost a supporter. The real question is whether Trump’s 16-point win over Clinton in MN-8 was an anomaly or a signal of things to come, and that has a lot to do with the direction the Republican Party decides to take in relation to its President. (The same is true of the Democratic Party’s tack now that it’s out in the wilderness, though less so in a district with a well-known incumbent who runs a pretty tight ship.)

Rick Nolan won’t go down easy. The Republicans’ inability to dislodge him in 2016 was a testament to the congressman’s strength as a political operator. There isn’t much room to attack Nolan on mining, which is the main wedge issue in the Iron Range swing areas of the district, and he walks the tightrope of bringing home some bacon to the district without losing his folksiness. The DFL still has the superior campaign machinery in the region. And if the Democrats do reclaim the House, Nolan now has some seniority, which would wield a lot more influence than a rookie Republican looking to find his position in a much more heterodox caucus. (Say what you will about Nancy Pelosi or winning battles but losing wars, the House Democrats have pretty much voted as a bloc for over a decade, while the GOP delegation has been riven by division since its populist wing arose in 2010.) The Stauber name also probably doesn’t mean much in North Branch or Brainerd; this district is so large that a local dynasty means little in some parts, for good or ill.

I hate to feed the horse race cycle this early, but it’s all become real, and we have a long way to go here. This is also a fascinating district, and one that could break different ways based on its various scattered parts. To set the table for this long campaign slog, I’ll break MN-8 into four distinct regions:

MN 8 Districts

  1. Red MN-8. Seven rural counties and a piece of an eighth that consistently vote Republican, and have done so even since before this district began its rightward drift. With the exception of Crow Wing County they are sparsely populated, but combined they account for nearly 31 percent of the district’s population, which is a plurality of the four groups I’ve identified.
  2. Blue Collar. These are the rural parts of MN-8, including five counties plus northern St. Louis County, that form a collar around the Duluth metro. They have traditionally been bastions of the DFL, but have all shifted rightward in recent election cycles. That shift is in different stages across the region; it’s basically complete in Aitkin County, and still has a ways to go on the heart of the Iron Range, which covers central St. Louis County and eastern Itasca County. But these areas all share a white working class identity, economies heavily dependent on extractive industries, and an unstable political climate that includes both some rising Republicans and some well-entrenched DFLers. These areas, for fairly good reason, have gotten all the attention as the swing zones in recent elections, and forms nearly 29 percent of the electorate.
  3. Blue MN-8. Basically, the Duluth metro (southern St. Louis County and Carlton County), plus Cook County, which is rural but doesn’t vote like it, and is so small and unique that it doesn’t fit well elsewhere. These areas are solidly Democratic, going over 60% for Nolan in 2016, though there are certainly some swing votes to be found in the exurban areas. It makes up 26 percent of the electorate.
  4. Exurbia. Chisago and Isanti Counties, which straddle the north end of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro and enjoy some economic spin-offs. While only 14 percent of the electorate, they’re interesting and distinct for a number of reasons. One, they’re wealthier than the other rural parts of this district (and the urban parts, for that matter, save a few pockets in and around Duluth). Two, both Chip Cravaack and Stewart Mills, the two Republican candidates for MN-8 in the last four election cycles, were from here. Three, Nolan outperformed Hillary Clinton by a very large margin here, which I’m not really sure how to interpret. Point being, I think there are more votes up for grabs here than most may realize. For that matter, these counties are also growing, while population in much of the rest of the district is flat or shrinking. (The other growing areas are spread out pretty evenly, including red Crow Wing County, contested Itasca County, and in the Duluth metro.)

We’ll revisit this whole scheme in November 2018 and see which way each one broke relative to past election cycles. For now, though, I’ll keep my attention on the elections are actually happening this year.

Plying Lonely Waters

6 Jul

Northern Minnesota does the Fourth of July right, with Duluth’s best-in-the-state fireworks display and the magic of Iron Range street dances. This year, though, the only fireworks I saw came in a vivid late-night lightning display, and the only dance was a jig to dodge the swarms of mosquitoes and dislodge an army of ticks. I spent it in the Boundary Waters.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a million-acre wilderness along Minnesota’s border with Canada set aside for seekers of relative solitude on a network of lakes and rivers. Only a handful of lakes allow motorboats; on the rest, it is just canoes, with portage trails set between lakes with primitive campsites featuring a fire pit and a latrine. The efforts of countless conservationists, most notably Sigurd F. Olson, set this region aside in the 1970s as one of those bastions of the earth that display as little human impact as possible, an ethos captured in the BWCA’s three-word catchphrase: Leave No Trace. Those old battles over the status of these lakes long predate my birth but linger in downtown Ely, the BWCA gateway where pro-mining and pro-wilderness signs duel along the main streets. That debate is now part of my daily life, but for five days, I shut all of that out.

I went to the BWCA with some regularity as a child and even during summers in my undergraduate days, though this was my first time in five years. It was, in fact, a Christmas gift for my father, who frequents the BWCA and comparable wilderness areas year round. Those earlier trips are sources of fond memories, or at least memorable ones, as when we paddled across Seagull Lake on a deathly still 95-degree day to get a member of our party with a separated shoulder to the hospital in Grand Marais. But while I enjoy opportunities to camp and exert myself out in the wild, genuine wilderness experiences have been rare lately. I’ve never overcome my struggles to sleep in a tent, an issue compounded this time around by a leak in my air mattress; I’d guess I didn’t get more than 15 hours of sleep across four nights on this trip. But I can still dip my feet in for a while, and the wilderness will forever hold a certain romance for someone who understands their role in human cycles of activity and reflection.

We enter at Moose River South, an entry point that allows just one party per day. It’s a meandering little stream that feeds south from the Echo Trail into a section of the Boundary Waters that sits separate from the rest of its waters, maybe one sixth of its total territory with six access points of varying difficulty, but none exactly designed for rookies. Moose River South is an easy enough paddle around some beaver dams into Big Moose Lake, but a 1.75-mile portage looms between it and Cummings Lake to the south, which seems to stop most traffic at the large, shallow lake named for a creature conspicuous in its absence. Cummings is near the center of this region, reachable from several directions, including a fairly easy jaunt over from Crab Lake, one of the most used entry points in the region. Beyond Crab lies a chain of lakes that we explore on our second and third days, all small and less traveled, maybe featuring a campsite or two and promising a lake to oneself. But even these are still relative wilderness highways: a few other dead-end lakes off this area have campsites so little used that they can melt into the woods, and somewhere south of the Moose River sits one of the BWCA’s Primitive Management Areas (PMAs), a group of lakes with no established portages or campsites that nonetheless allows access for those who seek to get as far off the beaten path as possible. And for a certain class of canoeing purist, the BWCA has nothing on its more remote Canadian counterparts.

This is wilderness enough for me, though, and time moves differently in the BWCA. A trip here means no clocks: nature and instinct decide when we wake and eat meals and go to bed. It means long stretches of moderately strenuous activity, with hard paddling and painstaking portaging, and also long stretches of blissful nothing. My dad isn’t a fisherman, so we just bag up a bunch of dinners for easy preparation and devote our free hours to lounging in hammocks or in canoe chairs on logs or rocks. On most days we make good time—none of that double-portaging nonsense to lighten the load here, or at least not until we’re tired and the portage is really short—we also pause every now and then to just sit and drink in scenes.

Some parties in the BWCA prefer to set up a base camp and make trips from there, but on this trip we move every night, on a constant quest for the perfect campsite. The island site where we spend our first night on Cummings is open and has excellent rocks but shows signs of heavy use. Phantom Lake on night two has a superb view across the small lake and a lovely red pine stand, though no good rocks to sit on. A different site on Cummings on night three is the best of the bunch, with pines and rock and a well-designed kitchen, though the wind dies and forces us into the tent early, only to be rousted when we hear some creature banging around amid our pots and pans. (The culprit: some sort of rabbit or hare, which I guess counts as exotic since I’ve never seen one of those in the BWCA before.) The final night’s site on Big Moose has superb trees and breeze and rocks, but an awful landing and no real good spot to pitch a tent and guarantee comfort for all comers. While some websites provide campsite reviews to help plan routes, no one’s criteria are quite the same, and a search to separate out these seemingly trivial differences can make or break a trip.

As part of the adventure I promised to carry the canoe, which is something I’ve only done sporadically before. There is, of course, a learning curve. BWCA portages are measured in 16.5-foot rods (roughly equal to a canoe length), and most hover somewhere under 200 rods. The 580-rod beast between Big Moose and Cummings has no vicious elevations, and only immediately following heavy rains (as on our first crossing of the portage) do its wetlands pose a real obstacle. It is a slog, though coming down to giant, blue Big Moose on the return journey was one of the most welcome sights of the trip. The portage to Meat Lake, whose name we suspect comes from the amount of flesh consumed by its resident mosquitoes, has become a flowing stream. A portage landing on Hassel Lake requires me to crab walk up and down a steep rock several times just so we can get things into the canoe. Nor is length any guarantee of ease: the 20-rod portage around some rapids on the Korb River is a buggy stretch of slop, whereas the 70-rod cutoff from Cummings Lake is an easy superhighway. My shoulders don’t miss it, nor do my bite-covered legs and arms, but how can a young guy not eat up the opportunity to carry a heavy object a long distance and feel some sense of conquest upon completing it?

By the final day I’m growing a bit stir-crazy, a restlessness not helped by the overnight storm that makes sleep impossible. I’m too social to detach for long periods, and while I certainly welcome my moments of solitude and wilderness, I sometimes seem to suffer from an instrumental relationship with these old friends, not unlike a cell phone with its charger: my time in the woods fills up a drained battery, and then I’m ready to put it away and go do my thing. I unapologetically make relentless pushes to the next destination, so it can be difficult to zone out and enjoy the beauty of a particular moment or sensation. I’ve always been wired for a pace of life faster than most northern Minnesotans, even if I can hide it well, and that won’t be changing anytime soon.

I’m still from here, though, and I know what to do when these moments do come. When I can stare up at the red pine boughs above my hammock set against a few wisps of cloud in the sky, lost in bliss. When we drift down the Korb River and just listen to endless birdsong, its current tugging us gently along. When thoughts flow easily from pen to paper in the hammock on Cummings, thoughts that may or may not ever see the light of day on this blog or elsewhere but mean the world to me. When I’m finally able to find the right train of thought to shut out the endless flashes of lighting to manage a few hours of sleep on the final night. Those are the waters I’ll never cease to seek out, if only for a little while.