Archive | July, 2013

Legality as Morality

29 Jul

A few weeks ago, while writing some less-than-kind words about local businessman Jim Carlson, I used the epithet that he “is the sort of man for whom legality defines morality.” I’ve used that line before in places other than this blog, and I think it deserves a deeper explanation.

At the time, Mr. Carlson was trying to justify his shop’s sales of synthetic marijuana, and claimed that the city of Duluth’s plan to regulate his product amounted to an admission that he hadn’t been doing anything wrong. It isn’t a totally implausible stance, at least to the extent that one considers the law the arbiter of whether something is right or not. Mr. Carlson also has some defenders who don’t necessarily like his product, but fear the city government is being too heavy-handed in its attack on the Last Place on Earth (LPOE); I respect that concern, and the wrongness of Mr. Carlson’s actions does not give his opponents free reign to bring him down by any means they choose.

However, far too often, people such as Mr. Carlson use the law as a shelter from the need to exercise any moral reckoning. If something is legal, the theory goes, then who is anyone to judge them? I suppose it is possible for him to uphold a libertarian form of morality that claims he simply sells what people demand, and that it’s up to them to reap the consequences. And, in a legal sense, this is true: we cannot rob the agency from the people who line up outside of his store to buy his incredibly harmful product. (This isn’t regular marijuana we’re talking about here: it involves countless chemical additives that can be as damaging as cocaine.)

Lost in that worldview, however, is any notion of interconnectivity. Synthetic drug use doesn’t just affect the users. It is a burden for the community on a number of levels, from increasing crime and the need for added police to public health issues to driving away the clientele of neighboring businesses. Drug abuse tears apart families, and it’s not uncommon to see people standing in line at the LPOE with toting children in strollers with them. (Childhood never really jells well with strict libertine arguments.) And with drug manufacturers doing everything in their power to stay ahead of the law by constantly changing the chemical compounds in their product, it is rather obvious that the motive here is the maintenance of legality at all costs. It is a cynical scheme whose only defense appears to be an attack on those who oppose them instead of an attempt to articulate why they do what they do.

Partisans will throw the blame for this loss of moral language in any number of directions. The left will attack the market, and the profit motive that pushes people to forget their morals in the pursuit of cash flow. (Mr. Carlson has made untold millions off his synthetic drugs.) The right will attack individual moral failings and, on a more intellectual plane, the overuse of the language of “rights” in political discourse. We see it around us every day: people religiously defend their right to bear arms, their right to free speech, their right to marry whomever they would like. Many of these rights are hard-won, and emerged out of historical cases of oppression that would seem to justify a legal reaction. Still, the possession of a right does not make it right to exercise it. Amidst our pushes for liberation, it seems that some people have lost track of any sense of prudence. (How often does one even hear words like “prudence” anymore?)

It isn’t surprising, really. Rights have the convenience of being black-or-white: either you have a right or you don’t, and it is spelled out in law. Prudence, on the other hand, requires near-constant discernment, and while other people can influence it, at the end of the day, that burden falls on each individual. Moral agency is a legitimate burden that can—and, really, should—be very difficult to manage. Thankfully, there are some guideposts to fall back on. Maybe this means a religious or communal or familial code; maybe this means a sort of liberal humanism whose precepts you don’t feel the need to question. If you don’t have one of those you feel comfortable with, maybe it means spending your waking hours trying to write through it all in fiction or on a blog when you should be out doing things with your life. (Guilty, your honor.) There’s no guarantee of easy answers, but one can find some measure of peace without too much pain.

This isn’t necessarily an argument against government action—in fact, the LPOE case is a perfect example of one in which a coherent response requires at least some measure of a response from an authority. Clearly, there are cases in which oppression is so overwhelming that it would be naïve to tell people to forget about the laws and get on with living virtuously, and there are many rights worth fighting for. It only becomes a problem when the rights become ends to themselves, instead of means to a broader end; unfortunately, this way of thinking has leached so deeply into contemporary American thought processes that it sometimes seems like people sacrifice their moral agency to the state. This is especially curious given the general wariness of state intervention in so many other spheres of life. Legalism, we might say, emerges from the bizarre civic religion of American freedom: in some circles, the mystique of the Constitution or some other interpretation of the nation’s founding principles seem to have replaced the exercise of moral inquiry.

Assuming legality defines morality isn’t the worst sin on earth. I’d rather live in a society where most people accept legal definitions of morality than one in which there is no morality at all. But forming one’s worldview with respect to what is legal is an impoverished view. On a fundamental level, no one’s moral reason for not doing something should be “because it’s illegal.” (I emphasize the word “moral” here because there are, obviously, practical reasons to do or not do things that have little to do with morality.) In many cases laws are based on perfectly rational precepts that practically no one would dispute, and it’s not worth expending much thought on them. But laws do not bear any moral weight in and of themselves; they simply convey the moral judgment of the governing body that produced them. They can be a starting point for moral thought, but never the end. That task lies with each of us, including Mr. Carlson.

In Which I Wade into the Trayvon Martin Affair

25 Jul

I realize the George Zimmerman trial has been beaten to death in the media over the past few weeks, and that I am rather late to the party. But this blog is, after all, a patient cycle, so I think that gives me some liberty to weigh things over the course of time. So, here are a few bullet points on the whole affair. They are complicated and will probably not satisfy anyone who has a set opinion on the Trayvon Martin saga. I offer them in the spirit of further healthy debate.

-I see no great injustice in the jury’s verdict. They had more evidence at their hands than any of us do, and from what I have seen, we have very little idea of what happened in the few minutes leading up to Martin’s death. I would not be shocked to learn that Zimmerman erred in his conduct, or even to learn that he acted on a racial bias, whether conscious or unconscious. But there seems to be too much ambiguity here to render a guilty verdict, and he is innocent until proven guilty of second-degree murder beyond reasonable doubt. There is plenty of reasonable doubt here. Much as we may want to turn Zimmerman into a cause celébre to highlight the very real ongoing racial tensions in the United States, this case isn’t that black-and-white. (Pun intended. Sorry.)

-I also do not support trying to launch a civil suit against Zimmerman. That strikes me as a vindictive show trial that would give both sides in this debate another opportunity for a lot of shrill self-righteousness while still ignoring the more important underlying debates. Martin’s supporters need to ask themselves this simple question: is their cause best served by an effort to lock up a single man, or is there perhaps some better way to make sure some good comes out of this whole sad affair?

-All of that said, President Obama’s remarks on the whole affair were well-measured and on target, and did constitute a real effort to focus on those more important underlying debates. A few critics tried to attack the President for making such remarks when he had a rather privileged upbringing. This completely misses the point: he has encountered some prejudice—not of a seriously life-limiting sort, clearly, but prejudice nonetheless. Obama lays out an agenda that deserves to be questioned and further explored in future debate, but I also think his words were sincere, and I do not think he did much (in this particular address) to further politicize a tragedy that has already been politicized to the point of excess.

-It is true that a disproportionate amount of crime in this country is committed by African-Americans, and I certainly do not believe their higher incarceration rate is simply the result of white racism. There are very real pathologies of crime and violence and poverty and broken families that afflict many African-American communities in this country, and until they are resolved, the statistics are going to be skewed. However, telling “black people” to go clean up their act isn’t going to do anyone any good. There is no one “black community,” except to the extent that it has been manufactured by people with political agendas (both with the intent to help and hurt the prospects of African-Americans in the United States). Instead, there are many, many communities, some of which happen to include lots of black people. We never hear public cries for wealthy white people to clean up the trailer parks of Appalachia out of racial solidarity, and it is no less absurd to expect middle-class African-Americans to do the same for inner-city ghettoes. Sure, people with certain cultural traits share certain bonds, as our President noted in his remarks, and many people do admirable things for the disadvantaged with whom they share a cultural affinity. But the vast majority of people do not feel the need to act on these identities on a day-to-day basis, and try to get on with their lives, few of which involve heaps of free time to go “save” people one has never met.

Thinking about these things strictly as “black problems” is an impoverished view, and only gets at a tiny bit of the problem. We can argue about whether the solution is economic or moral or some combination of the two, but it is not just racial. Without getting into an argument over causes and effects, the economic destitution of inner cities and the collapse of marriage within those communities are the most powerful forces behind the racial achievement and well-being gaps. And while racism is still a problem, I do wonder if invoking it in all but the most blatant cases really serves a constructive purpose. There is no more charged topic in the U.S. today than race, and nothing is more likely to bring out predictable responses. We all argue for a while, call people racists or counter-racists, and demand more “dialogue,” as if there weren’t already a lot of yelling going on. And then the issue fades from the news, and we go back to the old normal. Perhaps combatting the vestiges of racism requires a little more subtlety; a different mode of dialogue.

-There may not be a single black community, but there is a shared black legacy dating back to slavery. This remains America’s original sin, and I have my doubts about any salvation from it on this earth. By in the large, white Americans (and most non-black minorities as well) do not have a history, so to speak; their identities as Americans are founded upon some version of the American Dream, an embrace of the U.S. for its supposed opportunity while discarding the past. For African-Americans, being an American means something much more complicated, and has given rise to a culture that cannot forget the past. That culture need not be determinative, and I do not doubt that some people invoke this culture for cynical purposes. But it exists, and can’t be wished away. Nor should it: history is a valuable thing, and while it can chain people to the past, it brings with it a wealthy cultural inheritance. Hence, in part, the outsize contributions of African-Americans in a number of artistic realms, from high art to pop culture.

-I haven’t agreed with everything Rod Dreher has written about the case, but this piece on how we all profile raises some worthwhile questions. I am guilty of this. For all my belief that I am a fair-minded person, I’ve reacted to the way some people look, especially when I lived in Washington DC. While I did not cross the street to avoid anyone, I would certainly cast a wary eye on people who dressed in certain ways, and perhaps reach for my keys in my pocket. I don’t think this is necessarily racial, mind you; I do the same thing when I walk past the horde of almost entirely white people lined up outside of the synthetic marijuana-dealing Last Place on Earth here in Duluth. Presentation matters, and it is rather naïve to claim people can dress however they would like while at the same time expecting that dress should not provoke reactions. Obviously, this is no defense for Zimmerman if he did indeed take the initiative and hunt down Martin. But while I think we should fight it when we can, a certain degree of prejudice is probably inevitable.

-Somewhere at the root of American liberalism there is a fascinating contradiction between the desire to respect all cultures and the wish that everyone be treated equally. One strand demands that we take notice of the things that separate us and remain in constant dialogue about these differences, while another tries to flatten all differences between people and claim they are only superficial accessories to a shared humanity. I don’t say this in a nasty way to point out some horrible hypocrisy; I think it simply reflects those wonderfully contradictory realities of human nature that make it impossible to boil us down to a static essence. They aren’t always in tension, and it certainly makes more sense to build a legal system in a modern state around the second strain of thought. But culture will always divide us, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. 

Hounds Hockey History VIII: The Silver Age (2009-2013)

23 Jul

This is the eighth and final post in a series on the history of Duluth East hockey. For the complete series (in reverse order), click here.

In 2009, the Duluth East hockey team inaugurated a new home arena—the Heritage Center on the west side of Duluth—and hoped to erase the bad memories of three consecutive section semifinal losses. Sometimes, when a team emerges from a darker period and starts a dynasty, it involves an overtime thriller or a dramatic upset. Other times, however, the team in question is just so talented that it steamrolls anyone who might be in their way. The 2009 Duluth East Greyhounds fell into the latter category.

With four D-I defensemen, a Mr. Hockey finalist at forward, and three balanced lines, the Hounds were an obvious title contender. To be sure, they had their weaknesses; there were no clear second- or third-best forwards to support Max Tardy on the top line, and the goaltending was on the streaky side. They never reached #1 in the rankings; the Edina Class of 2009 was among the best in recent memory, Eden Prairie and Bloomington Jefferson put forth their strongest teams in years, and a loaded Blaine team slipped by East in an early January game. But the potential was certainly there, and East looked like a force in early-season shutouts over Minnetonka and Wayzata, and also in a cathartic, fight-filled thrashing of Cloquet that helped erase some bad memories.

The 2009 East team’s Achilles Heel was a tendency to control games on the shot counter without putting in many goals, an issue that highlighted their muddled collection of forwards and empowered opposing teams that managed to hang around. A January loss to Rochester Century highlighted this weakness, and the trend would revisit the Hounds in the section semifinals, when Forest Lake goaltender Paul Moberg did all he could take down the Hounds. Despite a 57-20 edge in shots, East needed an overtime goal from Jayce Paulseth to move on. The section final, however, seemingly put these worries to rest, as East sailed past Elk River 4-1, their relentless pressure and solid defense hearkening back to the great 1997 and 1998 East teams.

East claimed the 4th seed at State and drew a less-than-intimidating foe in Cretin-Derham Hall. But the Hounds’ weakness struck again; they completely dominated gameplay in the first period, but were unable to get the puck past goalie Ben Walsh. Two quick breakaways the other direction put the Raiders up 2-0, and they extended their lead shortly into the second. Finally, East struck back, and Walsh let in two fairly soft goals. At 3-2 midway through the second, it only seemed like a matter of time before East finally asserted itself. But they gave up another break the other way, and Cretin’s fourth goal took the air out of the building. Coach Mike Randolph benched goaltender Matt Cooper after giving up four goals on ten shots, plugged in sophomore JoJo Jeanetta, and tinkered with his lines, but to no avail. Cretin won, 5-2, handing East one of its most frustrating playoff defeats of the Randolph era.

Friday offered the long-anticipated Edina-Duluth East match-up, but it took place not in the semifinals, but in the consolation round at Mariucci Arena. The fate of the top-ranked Hornets, who’d also been dumped 5-2 the previous evening, reminded fans just how fickle the State Tournament can be. Randolph started Jeanetta in goal, and while Tardy logged a hat trick in his final game as a Hound, it wasn’t enough; Edina won a penalty-strewn game, 6-4. The Hounds’ season ended in disappointment, though they had at least broken through back to the State Tournament and set the stage for later runs.

With heavy graduations on defense and the departure of vaunted junior Derek Forbort to the NTDP, East had some rebuilding to do on the blue line in 2010. Randolph shifted forward Jayce Paulseth back to join the sole returner, Andy Welinski, on the top pair, and entrusted the scoring load to a deep lineup that included a highly touted sophomore class of Nate Repensky, Dom Toninato, Trevor Olson, and Randolph’s son, Jake. He tinkered with his lines as the season went along in search of offense; Jake Randolph settled into a niche on the second line and led the team in scoring. East’s offensive woes lingered through much of the year, and the young defense also had its growing pains. A loss to Elk River involving many shots and few goals left East as the second seed in 7AA.

Still, by the time the playoffs rolled around, there were signs that East would peak at the right time. The team picked up second half ties against Blaine and defending state champ Eden Prairie, and a power play unit that included Toninato, Randolph, and Olson helped get the offense going. The young team flashed its potential in the section final against Elk River, in which they erupted for four goals in the second period and cruised to a 5-1 win.

East opened the State Tournament against fourth-seeded Hill-Murray, a very deep squad that was much more experienced than the Hounds. But early on, it was East that looked the more dangerous team, as they ran to a 2-0 lead behind two goals from the celebrated sophomores. Hill tied the game on two quick strikes in the final minute of the first period, but East got one seconds later from Toninato, and went into the locker room up 3-2. They couldn’t sustain the momentum beyond the break; Hill had two more quick strikes early in the second, and though East had some excruciatingly close chances, they couldn’t knot the score again. Hill put the win on ice when they blew past the East top defensive pair in the third and won, 5-3.

East bounced back the next two days with two-goal wins over Lakeville North and Roseau to lock up the consolation trophy. It was a satisfactory result for a team that had lost so much from the previous year, though the close loss to Hill left a somewhat sour taste, and there was some grumbling about the reliance on young players in key situations. Welinski left for the USHL after the season, and a junior forward transferred to Cloquet, but there was still good reason to expect a bright future for the young Hounds.

The 2011 Hounds added another bumper crop of sophomores to support the solid junior class, and East’s depth had them back in the conversation for a spot in the top five early in the year. Randolph, Toninato, and Olson, now permanently united on the East top line, put up the most impressive numbers by East forwards since the days of Spehar and Locker. Repensky and flashy sophomore Meirs Moore led the defense, while Jeanetta returned for another season in goal. The regular season wasn’t flawless, but the Hounds did enough to lock up the top seed in 7AA and proved they could give just about anyone a close game. A third straight playoff win over Elk River in the semifinals set up perhaps the most exhilarating playoff run in East hockey history.

It began against Grand Rapids in the section final. The 2011 Thunderhawks were a very dangerous team, and offered a rare 7AA opponent that could match East’s depth. Rapids took a 1-0 lead in the second period, and several spectacular saves from goaltender Dom DiGiuseppi kept East off the board, even as the Hounds ratcheted up the pressure in the third. Randolph took a calculated risk and put the game in the hands of his top line, asking them to log loads of ice time as the clock ticked down. With 90 seconds to go, it paid off. Meirs Moore buried the game-tying goal on a rocket from the point, and after a brilliant passing sequence against the stunned Thunderhawks, Olson scored the game-winner twenty-six seconds into overtime.

The Hounds went to State as the third seed, but drew a tough first round opponent in White Bear Lake, which was fresh off an upset of top-ranked Hill-Murray. For a time, it seemed as if the Hounds would simply impose their style and march on to the semis. But White Bear twice rallied to tie the game in the third period, and the Hounds embarked on a second straight overtime adventure. The Bears smelled blood and pressed the initiative, but East weathered the storm and forced the game to a second overtime. There, senior Zac Schendel won the puck along the boards and slipped a sneaky shot five-hole for the victory.

East took on defending state champion Edina in the semifinals. They started slowly but then began to ramp up their forecheck, and Edina star Steven Fogarty and Jake Randolph traded goals in the second period. The teams battled back and forth, playing superbly in all areas; the difference-maker was East sophomore Alex Toscano, who rifled home the overtime game-winner. The Hounds were headed back to the title game for the first time since 2000.

East faced top-seeded Eden Prairie in the final, a team that featured one of the deepest senior classes in Tournament history. Trevor Olson twice gave East the lead, but Eden Prairie answered each time, and once again, the Hounds were off on an overtime odyssey. An injury to senior defenseman Hunter Bergerson sent the Hounds scrambling, but Kyle Campion came off the bench to play the game of his life, and Bergerson’s partner, Andrew Kerr, made up for his absence with a complete highlight reel of hard checks on Eden Prairie star Kyle Rau. The game was so even that it could only end on some sort of fluky play, and that is exactly what happened. In the third overtime, a shot squirted through Jeanetta’s pads, and Kerr fanned on a clearing attempt. Rau dove for the puck and swatted it with his stick, and the puck proceeded to bounce off the post and Kerr’s skate before sliding into the back of the net. The miraculous overtime run was at an end.

Determined to atone for their near-miss, the Hounds returned just about all of their key parts for the 2012 season. The team earned a preseason number one ranking, along with plenty of hype. Randolph and Toninato would both be Mr. Hockey finalists, and Randolph would also nab AP Player of the Year honors; the team was deep and experienced at every position. While the Hounds would miss Jeanetta in goal, junior Dylan Parker looked to be a perfectly suitable replacement.

Injuries sidelined Olson and Repensky for the first month of the year, and it was some time before they were full strength, if they ever truly were. Still, it hardly seemed to matter; the Hounds marched past all opponents and put together gaudy wins over two teams that climbed to the #2 ranking, 6-2 over Minnetonka and 4-1 over Maple Grove. There were a few signs of weakness; East barely survived a road trip to Grand Rapids, and on a day when a bunch of players were out with injury or suspension, Minnetonka shellacked the Hounds 9-3 for their only regular season loss. But East bounced back to sail through the rest of the regular season, and remained the odds-on favorite heading into the playoffs.

After putting Olson on the second line for much of the year to create two great scoring lines, Randolph reunited the famed top group late in the season. The team doubled down defensively late in the year, and while they didn’t blow out the opposition in sections, there was never really any doubt East would come out of 7AA. Perhaps the low-scoring games should have been a warning sign that the Hounds had peaked a little too soon.

The top-seeded Hounds faced Lakeville South in the first round of the State Tournament; while South boasted Mr. Hockey winner Justin Kloos, they had the inaccurate reputation of being a one-trick pony. The Cougars showed early on they could skate with East, and never quite let the Hounds set up in the offensive zone as they had so many times that year. Still, the Hounds took a 1-0 lead in the first, and weren’t under any serious pressure. The turning point seemed to be an East power play goal that was waved off for a high stick; slowly, the Cougars began to believe, and before long, South looked like the Tournament-tested veteran team, while Mike Randolph was left looking around at his own team wondering, “who are these guys?” He pulled out every trick in his book, floating players high, switching up lines, trying both deep rotations and, in the end, putting the game firmly in the hands of his stars. Nothing worked. South took a 2-1 lead in the third, and Kloos’s empty-netter sent shock waves around the Xcel Center; though East got a goal from Olson in the game’s dying seconds, it wasn’t enough. The Dream Team was left in tears, vanquished by a team Lou Nanne gave “no chance.”

The top four seeds at the Tournament all went down in the quarterfinals, setting up a consolation bracket loaded with talent. After sleepwalking through the first two periods of their game against Edina, Toninato keyed a rally, and East escaped with a 3-2 win. They finished off Eagan the next day to take home the consolation title, though the question of what could have been will long linger.

East began the 2013 season amid talk of turmoil and decline. After lengthy speculation that Jake’s senior year would be Mike Randolph’s last at East, the coach announced he would be back for a 24th season. Still, not everyone was thrilled by this prospect; despite a fine run to four straight State Tournaments, the way those years had ended—two upsets, and two games they could have won but did not—left a bitter taste. A new Duluth East building had opened the previous year, but controversy over its funding left the Duluth school district similarly unsettled. Conner Valesano bolted for the USHL, but a healthy core did return from the 2012 team, including the superb defensive pairing of Meirs Moore and Phil Beaulieu. East carried 13 seniors, though a number of them had little varsity experience, and the scoring load was heavily concentrated on the all-senior top line of Ryan Lundgren, Alex Toscano, and Jack Forbort.

After looking decidedly mediocre for the first month of the year, East erupted for back-to-back 4-1 wins over state powers Edina and Minnetonka just after Christmas. The wins suggested East could still take down giants, but they had yet to prove they could muster that effort consistently, and the team’s first loss to Duluth Denfeld since 1995 underscored those concerns. The loss seemed to be a wake-up call, as East did not lose again in the regular season. They didn’t always win with style, and were often content to grind out scoreless draws 5-on-5 and rely on their lethal power play. But it could be a winning forumla, as was shown by a late-season 3-2 win over Minnetonka on the strength of three Moore power play goals. After following the same script in a 3-0 win over Cloquet in the section semifinals, East again tangled with Grand Rapids for the section title. Though East led throughout the game, the Thunderhawks always hung within striking distance, and a dominant third period out of their star defenseman Jake Bischoff very nearly tipped the balance of power in 7AA. But East held on to win, 4-3, cinching a fifth straight section title in front of the largest crowd to ever attend a high school hockey game in Duluth.

East, seeded second in the Tournament, didn’t exactly set the world on fire in their first round game against Moorhead. But once again, defense carried the day, and a Jack Kolar second period goal gave East all the offense it would need in a 1-0 win. This set up a fourth Tourney meeting with Edina in five years, and the highly skilled Hornets were hungry to avenge their recent struggles against the Hounds. East came out flying in the first and took a 1-0 lead, but the tide slowly began to turn; while they withstood the Edina onslaught for two full periods, the Hornets broke loose in the third for three quick goals. Moore cut the deficit to one with a few minutes to go, but in a game in which the Hounds didn’t get a single power play, there wasn’t enough in the tank to move on. East bounced back in style the next day, cruising past Wayzata in a 7-3 win in the third place game. Though it wasn’t quite the prize they wanted, the trophy topped off a strong season that cleared the air around a program frustrated by the agony of recent playoff defeats. Randolph in particular appeared more relaxed, and the Hounds’ coach will be back for a 25th season next year.

That is, more or less, where East hockey stands right now. The most recent dynasty over 7AA will end someday, and there will be new challenges within and beyond the Hounds’ control, but with a rich tradition and a strong base of youth hockey on the east side of Duluth, they should be a factor for years to come. Thanks to the people who came forward and offered their help as the series went along—it was gratifying to see such an active interest. Just because the blog posts are done doesn’t mean the project is over, though; I’d love to continue to expand on what I have. If you more information that covers some of the gaps or adds color to something I covered only briefly, by all means, send it along, and I can do a follow-up post. And if you’re really ambitious, there’s a lot of archive-digging that can still be done to fill in the gaps in the earlier years. In the coming weeks, I’ll try to get some of my data up online in a presentable format. Also, as promised, there will be a post in the not-so-distant future that will grapple with the notion that East hockey (and high school sports programs in general) can grow to be “too big,” or lose sight of what high school is really about.

Thanks for following, and I gladly welcome any feedback, criticism, or different interpretations—as much as I may try to be objective, there are always more sides to any story.

Quotes come from my own post-game press conference notes.

Art in the Schools: Duluth School Board Notes, 7/16/13

17 Jul

The Duluth School Board packed into the board room on Tuesday evening, joined by a modest but quiet crowd. With a heat wave sweeping Duluth (to the extent that any heat wave ever sweeps through Duluth), only Member Miernicki wore a suit and tie; Member Kasper apologized for the Board’s casual attire during a photo-op with a Duluth East student who had done well at the National History Day competition. One of the Student Members was absent, as was Superintendent Bill Gronseth, whose place on the dais was taken by Assistant Superintendent Ed Crawford. But Member Art Johnston was on hand, guaranteeing the audience a few fireworks as the night went on.

Once again, the fun began during the approval of the minutes from the previous meeting. Member Johnston complained his motion to offer a completely different budget was not in the minutes, which was a violation of district bylaws. This time around, the other members fired back. Member Seliga-Punyko said that, as had been explained to Member Johnston “several dozen times” over the past few years, a motion that does not receive a second simply dies, and does not need to be recorded. She cited Robert’s Rules of Order and the opinion of district legal counsel, and finished her salvo by noting that a Board member was wearing illegal campaign material.

Member Johnston, who had an “Art Johnston for School Board” shirt peeking out from beneath his Hawaiian shirt, invited Member Seliga-Punyko to call in the police to arrest him, as she had threatened to do several years earlier; it “would be exciting,” he told the crowd. He reiterated his point about the bylaws, to which Member Kasper attempted to reply by citing the opinion of Superintendent Gronseth, Business Services Director Bill Hansen, and legal counsel. Member Johnston huffed that these people were “not parliamentarians,” but voted to approve the minutes anyway.

During the time for public comments, Member Miernicki stepped down off the dais and addressed the Board as a community member in order to thank the late County Commissioner Steve O’Neil for his service to Duluth schools. O’Neil, who passed away on Monday after a battle with cancer, was a passionate community activist who had done tireless work to help Duluth students who lacked basic needs. Ms. Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, a candidate in the upcoming election, thanked the school board for its community input meetings on school planning issues, and Mr. Dick Haney, a former teacher and physical wellness advocate, urged the Board to approve a trail easement across the campus of the shuttered Duluth Central High School.

The first topic to invite much debate was the district’s Continuous Improvement Plan, a long-range vision to improve district-wide academic achievement, school safety, and efficiency. Member Seliga-Punyko emphasized the importance of elementary school specialists and the arts in the Plan, which led Member Kasper to crack that he was glad she supported “Art” in the schools, giving Member Johnston a good laugh. For his part, Member Johnston said he supported the plan, though he had three concerns: he wanted to know why the Plan was on the District website and in the media before it had been passed; he wanted to add goals to reverse enrollment declines; and he wanted a plan to restore the balance of the district’s depleted general fund. Member Miernicki answered the first point to Member Johnston’s satisfaction, arguing that media coverage and web presence was necessary to bring in the community input the District desired. Member Wasson echoed this theme and also pushed back on the enrollment goal, noting that most every school district in Minnesota is shedding students. In a cautionary note semi-subtly directed at Member Johnston, she also said that “negativity” around the Board would be a problem in implementing a plan they all agreed was necessary. Member Johnston earnestly explained that he was not being negative by voicing a few concerns, and the Plan passed unanimously.

During the Human Resources Committee’s resolutions, a motion came up to rescind the layoff of a single teacher. Member Johnston, rather understandably confused by the wording of the resolution, thought it was an effort to cut the position, and Member Kasper hurriedly tried to correct him. HR Director Tim Sworsky clarified the wording, and Member Johnston grumbled about its confusing nature before voting to support the re-hiring.

Next up was the Business Committee report, which included the easement to create a trail across the old Central property. While all were supportive of the idea (aside from some mild worry about wetlands from Member Johnston that he figured could be worked out), Member Wasson motioned to table the vote until they could have more feedback from Mr. Kerry Leider of Facilities Management. The Board Members then spent a while agreeing with each other in their wishes for clarifications on the unsold site’s zoning, and Mr. Leider said he believed their concerns would be met. Member Johnston had some concern that delays would hinder any construction on the project this year, though he also admitted he wasn’t sure any real progress this year was realistic anyway. The Board tabled the measure 6-0, with Member Johnston abstaining.

When it came time to approve the entire Business Committee Report, Member Johnston singled out a series of measures for separate votes, all of which he supported, leading them to pass unanimously. This left him free to vote against the remainder of the report, which included several change orders (which he had criticized at the June meeting), though he did not belabor his point this time around. His maneuvering allowed him to hold his line on facilities spending while also voting to support various fundraisers, investments, insurance policies, and a community collaborative project. The Members then wrapped up a meeting that, aside from the spat over the minutes at the start, appeared more constructive than the previous month’s, albeit with a less controversial agenda on their plate.

Tuesday was also the filing deadline for this fall’s School Board elections, which will feature a lot of familiar faces. While Members Cameron, Kasper, and Wasson are headed for retirement, former Members Nancy Nilsen and Harry Welty are throwing their names back into the fray for the two open at-large seats. Member Johnston will pursue re-election, though he faces two challengers in his western Duluth district. Two of Member Johnston’s most loyal lieutenants, Ms. Marcia Stromgren and Mr. Loren Martell (both surprisingly absent from Tuesday’s meeting), are back on the ballot after failed past runs. (Mr. Welty is also a member of the old anti-Red Plan crowd, though I consider him a more complex figure than single-issue candidates like Ms. Stromgren and Mr. Martell.) With the District’s operating levy also on the ballot, the election should prove an interesting referendum on the work of the past few Boards.

Raising the Staff: Duluth City Council Notes, 7/15/13

16 Jul

The Duluth City Council was in a chipper mood on Monday night, and not without good reason. Mayor Don Ness informed the Council that the city had won a Local Government of the Year award within the state of Minnesota, and Councilor Krug was “just as happy as can be” to announce that the city’s anti-synthetic drug ordinance is now officially on the books. It went into effect last Thursday, a restraining order against the city sought by synthetic drug seller Jim Carlson was rejected by a judge earlier in the day, and police report that service calls are already down by one third in the area surrounding Mr. Carlson’s business. (No one bothered to mention that one of these calls was related to an assault upon Mr. Carlson himself, at the hands of a deranged customer.)

The city council chamber was quite full for the meeting; though it only lasted an hour and did not involve a single vote that was not unanimous, many speakers made their way to the podium. Councilors Krause and Larson were missing in action, and most of the Council was in a summery mood and wore white, though Councilor Fosle, as always, wore black.

The first group of speakers to come forward took a stand on the issue of a Native American eagle staff that was planted in front of City Hall in 2011. The city recently claimed it was an unauthorized memorial that did not belong on city property, and ordered its removal. The city’s Native American community was none too fond of this decision. Ricky DeFoe, the Chair of the Duluth Indigenous Commission, railed against the “white hegemony” that was “fatal to itself, morally and spiritually,” and to the “world as a whole.” He explained that the eagle staff is a “spatial-iconic metaphor” that connected the people to land, space, and place, and juxtaposed it against other city monuments that celebrate European figures, such as the Angel of Hope and a statue of Leif Erickson, a Viking explorer who never came within a thousand miles of Duluth whom Duluth likes to celebrate anyway. The removal of the staff, he continued, amounted to “systemic racism,” and he claimed that his attempts to get a hearing in front of the council have been ignored.

Three speakers followed Mr. DeFoe and expressed similar sentiments. Mr. Gabriel Peltier greeted the council in Anishinaabe, framed the staff as a civil rights issue, and requested a conversation in good faith. Both he and the next speaker, Ms. Rebecca Domagala of the Human Rights Commission, likened the staff to a flag in its symbolic power. Mr. Allen Richardson, the final speaker, claimed the city “failed to use basic listening skills” and pointed out that Duluth was founded on land that, according to U.S. law at the time, should have been preserved as a reservation. Mr. Richardson closed by blasting the “silence of indifference” to Native American affairs common in the city.

As there was no official business involving the eagle staff before the Council, the Councilors could not respond until the end of the meeting, when most of the Native Americans and their supporters had already left the hall. Councilor Gardner, though at pains to make it clear she wanted to find a constructive resolution to the issue, did voice a pair of concerns. First, she disputed the notion that the city had ignored the Indigenous Commission, and said neither she nor Councilor Hartman had been approached for a meeting while serving as Council President. Second, while she admitted the staff was more subtle than a simple religious sign, she also reminded her colleagues of an explosive controversy surrounding the presence of a Ten Commandments monument on city property some years back. The Council, she suggested, would be wise to hold its previous line on issues of church-state separation. Councilors Julsrud and Boyle expressed hope for eventually “finding peace” on the issue, and Councilor Fosle, while not entirely clear in his comments, seemed to be disappointed the Native American groups had not been content with the offer to place the staff on Spirit Mountain, a site of religious significance to the Ojibwe in Duluth.

Several other speakers came forward before the meeting continued. There was a second plea in as many meetings to enforce the city’s fireworks ordinance; one man complained about zoning and planning issues around an office tower planned for downtown Duluth; a man expressed worry about a derelict property alongside his house; and a representative of the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory clarified his group’s stance on possible development beneath the bird-watching area on the city’s east side.

After that, the Council cruised through most of its official agenda, the most significant action taken being the return of the long-tabled Pastoret Terrace project to the administration by a unanimous vote. Councilor Gardner explained that, after a meeting with the developer, the backers of the project decided not to pursue city-approved grant funding, but will instead move forward seeking other sources of funding for mixed-income and low-income housing at the site of the old Kozy Bar.

One last issue brought forth significant public input, as four citizens spoke on a pair of opposing resolutions; one which would make lower Piedmont Avenue an official truck route to receive state funding, and one to ban trucks from the same roadway. The speakers, all of whom live along Piedmont Avenue, begged the council to get rid of the trucks, which have drastically lowered the quality of life along that street as they go through countless shift points on their way up toward the mall. The trucks have “decimated” the neighborhood, with as many as sixty an hour climbing up what was supposed to be a residential street, causing excessive noise and vibrating one man’s deck away from his house. The Councilors rallied to their cause, with Councilor Fosle congratulating whoever had written the resolution for making exceptions for oversized windmill trucks that cannot use an alternate route. The truck ban passed, 7-0, rendering the second resolution academic.

In the closing comments unrelated to the eagle staff and synthetic drugs, the Councilors focused primarily on a street repair timeline. Council President Boyle introduced the timeline and suggested another open session for input was in order, while Councilor Fosle made it clear he opposed the process. Councilor Stauber had other issues with the timeline, which he and Council President Boyle appeared to resolve after a brief back-and-forth. Councilor Fosle expressed some incredulity over taxes levied on the sale of old bricks torn out of the recently repaved Superior Street, and Mayor Ness promised to look into the matter. Councilor Hartman wrapped things up by reminding the public that the filing deadline for the 2013 city elections is tomorrow, and the Council then adjourned to its three-week summer recess. 

Hounds Hockey History VII: The Burdens of Hockey Glory (2004-2008)

15 Jul

This is the seventh in a series of posts on the history of Duluth East High School hockey. For the complete series (in reverse order), click here.

With an on-ice record of 308-82-10, eight state tournament berths, and two championships in 15 seasons, Duluth East’s Mike Randolph almost certainly had the strongest record of any active Minnesota high school coach. But after the 2003 season, the East administration chose not to renew his contract, effectively firing Randolph. The unexpected announcement shook up not only East hockey, but high school sports across the state. The incident was front-page news in Duluth for the next month, as players, parents, and alumni rallied behind the ousted coach. Hockey fans endlessly debated the possible reasons, which were not made public due to the Data Practices Act, and even school board members struggled to make sense of it all; former Member Harry Welty’s account of the whole saga is preserved here. Randolph critics were, at first, few and far between.

Still, in time, the charges against Randolph started to trickle out, and while there was no obvious smoking gun, there was an array of complaints. One of the biggest issues involved financial irregularities surrounding the program’s annual wreath fundraiser, in which both the district and the coaching staff accused each other of poor communication.1 Many complaints revolved around players being cut and playing time; while some of these arguments appeared naïve about how a hockey team with a large feeder program naturally must operate or were simply sour grapes, others went a bit further and questioned his methods for cutting players.2 Claims of recruiting, long rumored but never substantiated, also reappeared.3 Arguably the most damning critiques claimed that Randolph’s coaching style and commitment to his team’s success had made the program “too big” for its own good, and that he put too much pressure on a group of teenage boys who might not be emotionally mature enough to handle high expectations and “mind games.”4 (I plan to explore the charge about the program size in a post after I finish this series on East hockey history.)

Randolph waived his right to privacy so as to assess the charges against him, and his supporters staged a vigorous defense of their coach.5 They cast doubt upon the anonymous letters in the coach’s file, and several ex-players gave impassioned defenses of the lessons Randolph had taught them at a circus-like school board meeting. They questioned the motives of several Randolph critics, including a principal whose son had once been cut and a school board member whose name was on the side of a rival team’s arena.6 It was all to no avail: when the issue was put to a vote, the school board chose to respect the administration’s decision. East hockey had to move on without Mike Randolph.

The man who stepped into the void was Todd Wentworth, a longtime coach within the East program. Wentworth inherited a veteran team with 14 seniors, and while they were not the most explosive team on earth, they were deep at every position. East’s 15-8-1 record was the sort of solid mark expected of the program, though they were blown out by some of the state’s better teams, and also lost to Superior for the first time since 1991. The Hounds benefitted from a very thin 7AA, and though Goligoski’s Grand Rapids squad once again put up a decent fight in the section final, the deeper Hounds dispatched of them with three third period goals.

East was fortunate to draw a weak Lakeville team in the first round of the 2004 Tournament, and though Lakeville goalie B.J. O’Brien did everything in his power to give his team a chance, the Hounds prevailed, 2-0. The campaign against all odds came to a close the next night, however, as Moorhead blitzed the Hounds with a four-goal second period and jumped out to a 5-0 lead en route to a 6-3 win. East took down Wayzata the next afternoon to bring home the third place trophy, which was a real achievement given the turmoil surrounding Wentworth’s first season on the job.

It would also be Wentworth’s only season. Randolph, claiming his application for the East job had not been fairly considered, filed a grievance against the district, which went to an independent arbitrator for consideration.7 The school board, however, pre-empted the arbitrator’s ruling and chose to reinstate Randolph. The board, purged of several anti-Randolph votes in the previous fall’s election, cited numerous procedural errors in Randolph’s dismissal, explaining that Randolph had not been properly alerted to concerns about his management of the program.8 Randolph’s supporters rejoiced, claiming the board had corrected an injustice; the administration complained it had been undermined; Wentworth was left in limbo; and the players struggled to make sense of the whole situation.9 10

Given the turmoil surrounding the program, it was little surprise that Randolph’s first year back was anything but smooth sailing. First, two billet players from out of state, Josh “Podge” Turnbull and Colin Trachsel (nephew of assistant coach Larry Trachsel), showed up in Duluth. The activities department erroneously assumed they were eligible to play immediately, which they were not. East was forced to forfeit its first seven games of the year (in which the team had gone 4-3), and Turnbull and Trachsel had to sit out the next thirteen games.11 In a December game at Grand Rapids, a player claimed to have been kicked by Randolph, leading to an investigation from the Grand Rapids Police Department. Though the investigation determined that nothing worse than a foot-tap had taken place, the investigator cryptically concluded that “I certainly do not agree with the way in which Mr. Randolph conducted himself and believe there are issues to be addressed by his employer.”12 Randolph was suspended for one game for violation of the Data Practices Act after he discussed the investigation with reporters, but that was the end of it.13 On top of it all, three seniors left the team during the course of the regular season.

In the midst of the off-ice controversies, the team put together another solid season. The Hounds knocked off title contenders such as White Bear Lake, Apple Valley, and Roseville, though they (rather understandably) struggled with consistency at times, and two regular season losses to Cloquet left the Hounds as the second seed in 7AA. Rob W. Johnson carried the load for an otherwise inexperienced offense, and sophomore wunderkind Cade Fairchild dazzled with his puck-moving skills on defense. But the player who carried East back to the promised land was Chris Sall, a little-hyped senior goaltender who simply caught fire in the playoffs.

The section final was a thrilling affair with top-seeded archrival Cloquet, as Sall held back a talented Jacks squad led by Mr. Hockey Finalist Mitch Ryan. Johnson scored in the third period to tie the game at two, and as the game moved into overtime, the deeper Hounds finally started to generate some offensive momentum. The winning goal, however, came from the least likely source: senior defenseman Kyle Michela, whose double-overtime game winner was the only goal of his high school career.

The State Tournament quarterfinal against White Bear Lake followed a similar script. The Hounds were outgunned and outshot 29-13, but Sall held firm and kept him team close. Two quick third period strikes were enough to stun the Bears and earn a return trip to the semifinals. Against a Moorhead team that featured six D-I seniors, not even a record-setting performance could save East; despite a 22-save 2nd period from Sall that stood as a State Tournament record for eight years, the Hounds fell, 4-1. They rebounded the next day to secure a second straight third place trophy with a 5-3 win over Tartan. After all of the tumult, Randolph’s first year back produced a very positive on-ice result.

The next three seasons bore some surprising symmetries. The Hounds had similar records (20-6-1, 18-7-2, and 18-8-1, respectively). Each year, they lost a player to other hockey opportunities (Cade Fairchild, Josh Turnbull, and Keegan Flaherty, respectively). And each year, they suffered an agonizing loss in the section semifinals to a lower-seeded team.

To be sure, the 2006 and 2007 losses were hardly upsets. 7AA was at its deepest, and all of the teams were tightly packed in the rankings. Cloquet had its most talented teams since the days of Jamie Langenbrunner, Grand Rapids won the section and finished second at State both years, and Elk River, re-added to the section, was a top ten team in 2006. The 06 East team was quite young and rather thin in back, but after a mediocre December they went on a run, winning 14 straight to close out the regular season, including an overtime win over Cloquet to secure the top seed. They clashed with the Jacks again in the section semifinals, but this time, Cloquet goaltender Reid Ellingson stole the show in a 1-0 shutout. Cloquet outshot the Hounds, slipped one fluky goal past East’s Ben Leis, and put an end to the run of three straight section titles.

2007 followed a similar script, as East muddled through December before racking up the wins in the second half. A February game against Cloquet featured another thrilling duel between Ellingson and Leis, with the goaltenders combining for 92 saves in a 1-1 tie. Another East-Cloquet playoff clash seemed like destiny, but a powerful Grand Rapids team had other ideas. After coasting to a 2-1 lead in the opening period of the section semifinal, East went on to have one of the worst periods in program history. Rapids outshot East 18-2 in the second period (though one of those two was, miraculously, a goal), and eventually the teams went to overtime, where Rapids star Patrick White beat Leis to secure a 5-4 victory.

Rapids and Cloquet suffered serious losses to graduation after 2007, and though the MSHSL cycled a decent Anoka squad into 7AA for 2008, the section seemed ripe for East’s taking. The offense was not deep, but they had a strong top line in Max Tardy, Rob A. Johnson, and Jake Boese, and the defensive corps was perhaps their best since the late 90s. The Hounds again started slowly but streaked down the stretch, with their only loss in the last 13 games coming to an elite Edina team; they beat Cloquet to earn the top seed in the section and renewed their rivalry with the Lumberjacks in the semifinals. The game was an exhilarating back-and-forth affair that saw East take a 5-4 lead after an early 4-2 deficit, but the hero of the hour was Cloquet defenseman David Brown, who scored four goals, including the game-winner with 12 seconds to go.

The 6-5 loss seemed a fitting capstone to a frustrating run for a program saddled with such high expectations. The 2006-2008 teams were all reasonably good, but were never great, and there was no peak of talent that might have carried East deep into the State Tournament. Not far away, Duluth Marshall was enjoying its finest run of MSHSL hockey success, while other hockey opportunities drained away top East players. Meanwhile, the East program was under an intense scrutiny brought on by past success, its unique powerhouse status in northeastern Minnesota, and the drama surrounding an intense, embattled coach.

It is not hard to see how the pressure weighed down the Hounds once they had become a high-profile program. The years in which the team was supposed to peak and be a frontrunner for the title—1996, 1997, 2009, 2012, perhaps 2002—all ended in frustration. The years immediately pre- or post-peak, however, almost always turned out well: the 1995 team won the title a year ahead of schedule, and the 1998 squad won it when East was supposed to be dropping off some. Excellent runs in 2011 and 2013 bookend the 2012 failure. Very young squads such as the 1994, 2000, and 2010 teams were quite potent by the playoffs, though there was more grumbling around the program in those years due to the reliance on underclassmen. East hockey was under a microscope, and the burden of expectation was a heavy one to saddle upon a group of high school kids. After three straight section semifinal losses, it would have been easy to claim the program was on the decline, overwhelmed by the changing high school hockey scene. But through it all, the Hounds’ pride remained intact, and even Mike Randolph’s staunchest critics would admit he is never one to back down. In 2009, a new talent bubble was ready to take East back to St. Paul.

Next week: East’s run of five straight tournament berths from 2009-2013.

1 Nowacki, Jon. “Fundraiser at Issue: Duluth East Administrators Asked Coach Mike Randolph for an Explanation of Wreath Sales Profits in December.” Duluth News-Tribune. 29 April 2003. Web. 15 July 2013.

2 Augustoviz, Roman. “Coach Questions Process: Mike Randolph Still Wants to Know Why His Contract Was Not Renewed After 15 Seasons and Much Success as Duluth East Head Boys’ Hockey Coach.” Star Tribune. 6 May 2003. Web. 15 July 2013.

3 Kersten, Craig. “Sound Off: Principal Did Well.” Duluth News-Tribune. 2 May 2003. Web. 15 July 2013.

4 Meryhew, Richard. “The Ice Man Goeth: Duluth Coach’s Exit Spotlights Polarized Views of Program .” Star Tribune. 6 July 2003. Web. 15 July 2013.

5 Nowacki, Jon. “Randolph Asks District to Open His Personnel File.” Duluth News-Tribune. 2 May 2013. Web. 15 July 2013.

6 Meryhew, op. cit.

7 Nowacki, Jon. “Randolph Files Grievance: Former Duluth East Coach Says District Is Unfairly Disregarding His Application.” Duluth News-Tribune. 8 July 2013. Web. 15 July 2013.

8 Michals, Lisa. “Board Reinstates Randolph: The Former East High School Hockey Coach Will Get His Job Back.” Duluth News-Tribune. 21 April 2004. Web. 15 July 2013.

9 Michals, Lisa. “School Board: Hockey Coach’s Reinstatement Prompted Accusations, Left Administrators Feeling Undermined.” Duluth News-Tribune. 22 April 2004. Web. 15 July 2013.

10 Nowacki, Jon. “Hockey Players: Many Students Happy to See Randolph Return, but Sad that it’s at the Expense of their Coach this Season.” Duluth News-Tribune. 22 April 2004. Web. 15 July 2013.

11 Nowacki, Jon. “Duluth East Gets Penalized: A Transfer Rules Violation Means East will have to Forfeit Wins in Boys and Girls Hockey.” Duluth News-Tribune. 19 December 2004. Web. 15 July 2013.

12 Stodghill, Mark. “Randolph won’t Be Charged.” Duluth News-Tribune. 29 December 2004. Web. 15 July 2013.

13 Weegman, Rick. “Randolph Gets One-Week Coaching Suspension.” Duluth News-Tribune. 21 January 2005. Web. 15 July 2013.

Finding the Cyclical Life in Arendt and Vargas Llosa

15 Jul

This blog is, admittedly, rather eclectic, and I am proud of that. There are posts about high school hockey and posts about city council meetings and posts about obscure intellectual debates, and I am well-aware that a number of readers come just for one of those topics while ignoring the rest. The posts on hockey and local politics have a certain order to them, while the more theoretical ones, while united by some vague themes, are fairly disjointed.

With that in mind, I’m going impose some order and tease out some parallels between my post on Hannah Arendt’s theory on evil and another recent one highlighting Mario Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize speech on the importance of literature. They might not seem to have much in common in subject matter or underlying theory, but they share a robust vision of human life that is not strictly individualist or collective, but one that cycles between the two and emphasizes the importance of each.

At a cursory glance, both of these outlooks can appear rather individualistic. Arendt is famous for her attacks on totalitarian governments and the mindsets they instilled in their citizens, argues for a distinct private sphere of life (albeit not a realm she celebrates much), and had no problem with Adolph Eichmann hanging for failing to exercise his own moral agency. Vargas Llosa, who once ran for president of Peru as the candidate of a right-leaning party, is a staunch defender of individual liberty.

But neither one is that simple. As I explained in the last post, Arendt was no rampant individualist. Instead, she subscribed to a different definition of freedom rooted in Aristotle that saw living in community as the very essence of being human. In fact, she rejected the label “philosopher” because she believed it referred to people who studied man (in the singular) instead of people and how they interacted, and preferred to be called a “political theorist.” She had no great love for collectivism, but she was well-aware that human flourishing does not involve autonomous humans operating in vacuums, but is forever tied up in daily interaction with other people—that is, politics. Her thinking, while not always easy to penetrate, has a clear logic.

Vargas Llosa, on the other hand, is very much a modern man, and posits the individual at the center of his philosophical outlook. In a 1992 interview in Sergio Marras’s América Latina (Marca Registrada), he celebrated the death of collectivism that he believed came along with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and hoped “the death of all social utopias [will] lead us to search for utopias in activities where it’s not harmful, but actually very positive: for example, in art, in literature, and in individual life.” (Emphasis and translation mine.) Vargas Llosa’s profession also lends itself to an appreciation of individualism: as an author, his great creations emerge ostensibly from his own mind, and nowhere else. “A novelist is someone whose inner existence is as compelling as the details of his or her life,” writes Jane Smiley in her book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.

Still, even Vargas Llosa is well-aware that every person’s individuality emerges in part as a response to the collective. Storytelling is not just a means of entertainment or self-improvement, but a necessary foundation for the move from the “tautological” tribal life of prehistoric homo sapiens and is the power that “makes the human being really human: the capacity to move out of oneself and into another, into others, modeled with the clay of our dreams.” Like Arendt, Vargas Llosa sees that human flourishing emerges from the political realm, and the ability to dialogue with others and imagine a different life.

From my own experience, I can endorse Vargas Llosa’s words wholeheartedly.  I don’t know that I’d completely accept a label of “communitarian” or “localist” or “republican” (small-R republican, not the political party) but I do often emphasize themes that are associated with these words, and that comes directly from my first attempt at novel-writing. While I was an undergraduate in college, I started writing a novel late at night while my roommate was trying to sleep, and slowly put together a novel. It was about as individualistic an act as can be; it was a creative attempt to create a sort of narrative around my life, and I never shared any of it with anyone. (In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t.) While it was an alright story and offered varying degrees of subtlety, the book was essentially a justification for my political views and my lifelong project of relentless academic success and achievement. But as I wrote, the book collapsed in on itself: I came to see the humanity in the ideas and people and places I’d meant to attack, and I came to love the setting that my protagonist sought to escape. Literature is, ultimately, to blame for my decision to head home after college; without it, I never would have come to embrace my own roots. I’d always been socially conscious, but at the same time, there was a manner in which my well-intentioned desire to climb the ladder and go on to save starving children in Africa came at the expense of more immediate relationships and realms in which my political activity could have an immediate, tangible impact. I don’t mean to denigrate people who commit their lives to social climbing or saving people elsewhere, but I did realize that I, at least, wasn’t going to find happiness there.

Instead, I find that it comes in cycles, with my time split between introspective writing (a la Vargas Llosa) and outward engagement in the community around me, as Arendt prescribes. While I certainly haven’t abandoned my old sense of ambition, I have recalibrated it to an entirely different sphere of life; one that situates it within a community, forever in search of dialogue. I have a lot of work to do.