Archive | October, 2013

My Life Over the Past Year in Two Articles

30 Oct

Two articles for a rainy Wednesday in Duluth:

First, a reflection on the experience of being a writer from Rod Dreher at The American Conservative. (Liberal readers, don’t be turned off by the name of that publication: TAC is the anti-Fox News, founded in opposition to the Iraq War, and has an eclectic bunch of writers who are willing to challenge just about any presupposition, conservative or liberal.) It sums up a lot of the things I have learned in my faltering efforts to write novels over the past few years, though I believe I’ve always been detached enough to avoid falling into the worst traps that can ensnare wannabe writers. (I’m careful not to make excessive drinking a crutch for my writing, and I’m readily aware, and more or less at peace knowing, that my odds of making a living off of writing are incredibly low.) But if you want to know why people write, and why those writers often act the way they do, this is an excellent piece.

http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/you-dont-want-to-be-a-writer/

Second, also via Dreher, is an article that sums up a lot of the things I’ve been trying to say in recent posts about the “art of community.” The author emphasizes the need to ground oneself, narrow in, and choose something instead of an eternal life in the fascinating but rootless realm of diversity and “keeping options open.” We need both for a balanced life, but too often, people my age (especially college-educated and ambitious ones) seem to fear making commitments, lest doing so cut them off from some unseen future opportunity. I’m well-aware of the importance of living in community, yet I still have an awful lot of work to do on this front. At times, I’ve been an “in-betweener” par excellence, and in a certain way I’m proud of that. That is a fairly lonely existence, however, and my desire for this sort of community is the reason I want to make Duluth work for me, and even if I end up somewhere else, I’ll try to do many of the same things. Recognizing that is certainly one reason why writing hasn’t consumed me.

http://www.thismillenniallife.com/2013/10/rediscovering-art-of-community.html

If you would have told me five years ago that I’d be finding quality articles that spoke to me on something named “The American Conservative,” I would have wondered what you were smoking, or what my future self would be smoking. The world is a strange place.

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From Office Towers to the Horrors of Heroin: Duluth City Council Notes, 10/28/13

28 Oct

The Council Chamber teemed with life for its final session before the 2013 elections, with a large, chattering crowd on hand. Councilor Hartman was absent and “sick in bed,” according to President Boyle, leaving the Council with only seven members. Even so, they managed to pack a broad range of issues into a relatively short meeting.

The highlight of the night actually took place before the formal meeting, as Councilor Fosle made good on his promise to hold a Committee of the Whole meeting on heroin use in the Duluth area. Police Chief Gordon Ramsay was on hand to testify, and fielded questions on the spread of heroin, explaining the PD’s efforts to cut off supply lines from Chicago and Detroit and the troubles the city has with for-profit methadone clinics. Once the formal meeting started, six citizen speakers addressed the Council on heroin. They led off with a woman who gave a thorough overview of the drug in Duluth, telling of how addiction begins with people taking pain-killing drugs such as Oxycontin that are over-prescribed and often serve as a gateway. She attributed over 20 Duluth-area deaths over the past two years to heroin overdoses, and labeled it an “epidemic” that requires more education.

She was followed by two mothers of heroin addicts who shared jarring stories of their sons’ struggles. One said of her son that “she didn’t know who he is anymore,” detailing his addiction to painkillers starting at age 16 that led him to heroin and jail stints, theft, and no sober friends. She likened the experience to “watching my child drown, and there’s nothing we can do to change it.” The second explained the agony of being the mother of an addict, a life filled with nights of “tears and silent screams” given the lack of support networks, and the pain of having one’s child labeled as “scum.” The fourth speaker was a recovering addict who has been clean for three and a half years after roughly 15 years on heroin; she talked of how difficult it was to overcome the drug, and did her best to offer hope to the mothers who had come before her. A 22-year-old took the stand as the witness for her generation, which has been the worst-hit by heroin; she told of several family members and friends who have died in recent years. The final speaker emphasized the importance of prevention and treatment; while it is good to cut off drug suppliers such as Jim Carlson, he pointed out that removing the supplier does little to stem the demand.

After the meeting, Councilor Fosle thanked the speakers for their time, and invited the other Councilors to reflect on the stories and come back to him with their thoughts on what, if anything, the Council could do to fight the heroin epidemic. For a second straight meeting, he came across not as the rambling ideologue he occasionally seemed to be in the past, but as a powerful advocate for issues that might otherwise be missed. Councilor Krug suggested the Council hear more testimony from people working with addicts in schools, emergency rooms, and rehab centers to better grasp the issue. Councilor Gardner agreed, and said the root of the problem—prescription opiates—appeared clear. She hoped for further engagement with the medical community in the future.

The most involved piece of official Council business was an update on the construction of an office tower on the 400 block of West Superior Street by Mr. Chris Eng of the city’s Business Development office. He explained that the building, which stood 15 stories high in the initial plans, was now down to 10-12 stories. He detailed the funding sources for the project; $50 million of the $70 million project will be contributed by clothing designer Maurices, which will occupy much of the building, while the city will match an $8.5 million grant to cover most of the remainder. Councilor Fosle asked whether Maurices had a tenant lined up for its current location; a Maurices representative told him they had one for their main building, and were confident they could sell their other two locations over the next two years. Councilor Stauber grilled the project’s representatives on the finer details of the changes to their funding plans and received an assurance that the tower had letters of intent from several likely tenants for its retails spaces, though the tenants could not be disclosed at this point. Councilor Julsrud asked about the parking ramp, which has also shrunk in size now that the tower will not be as tall as first planned, and will not require bond money due to Maurices’ decision to front the payment.

The Council’s consent agenda passed unanimously. A measure that would have asked the state legislature to make it possible to remove withdrawn candidates from ballots was tabled, and the administration withdrew a plan to remodel a fire hall for further work. Councilor Stauber was the lone vote against the planned distribution of tourism tax revenue, though he didn’t explain why. Councilor Gardner introduced a City Code amendment to rename the American Indian Commission the “Indigenous Commission,” saying the new name was more inclusive. Councilor Fosle clarified that the term “indigenous” included numerous Asian and Pacific island groups, and the name change passed unanimously.

Next up was an ordinance funding a parking ramp at the Duluth International Airport. Councilors Julsrud and Fosle took care to emphasize the importance of the project, noting its minimal risk and its role in completing an important expansion for the airport, while President Boyle shared his personal horror stories of flying back into Duluth after a vacation to find his car plowed in and buried under half a foot of snow. The measure passed unanimously, as did two minor changes to permitted building types and sites. That wrapped up official Council business for the meeting.

In addition to her comments on heroin, Councilor Gardner used the final comment session to discuss recent controversy over efforts to remove homeless people sleeping in the “Graffiti Graveyard” beneath I-35 in downtown Duluth. She said she and President Boyle had recently attended a forum on poverty and learned that many people experiencing homelessness feel “less than legal” and fear doing things like coming before the Council to speak about their plight. She said she was looking at models used in Seattle and Providence, Rhode Island that might help empower these people to seek more help. Her comments wrapped up a brief but heavy meeting in which the Council did a thorough job of shining light on people who might otherwise slip through the cracks, yet still found time to push a pair of key economic development projects. Yet again, the Council proved an effective governing body, confronting issues that face a wide swath of Duluthians. We’ll see how well it can turn its talk into action, and how it evolves after next week’s election.

Duluth General Election Preview 2013

27 Oct

The Duluth general election is just over a week away. I’ve done a bit of driving around the city doing some completely unscientific counting of yard signs to see who appears to have an edge, but with local elections, it’s hard to get a really good feel on the situation without doing a lot of legwork. Turnout in the primary elections was low enough that things could still swing drastically on Tuesday the 5th.

Here is a Sample Ballot.

Polling Places and District Designations | Map

Here is a rundown on every race in the city; in this post, I try only to give neutral assessments on what each candidate’s election would mean for their respective bodies. Candidates are listed in the order of finish in the primary. Click their names to view their web pages, and if I missed a web page or if there’s a more detailed version than the Facebook pages I’ve linked to, let me know—I searched for everyone’s, but some didn’t generate results.

City Council At-Large

2 open seats

Barb Russ | Zack Filipovich | Ryan Stauber | Ray Sandman

Russ led the primary vote by a comfortable margin and has shown no signs of losing her momentum; she offers a crisply articulated version of Duluthian liberalism, and has a long history of community involvement. This likely sets up a showdown between Filipovich and Stauber for the second open seat; Filipovich had a stronger showing in the primary, but Stauber seems to have built some support since, and got himself a News-Tribune endorsement. Both are in their 20s, and their campaigns are a bit rough around the edges; Filipovich has a crisp image but is rather vague, while Stauber has more defined ideas but is rather scattershot in his presentation. While Filipovich appears more business-minded than your average liberal, this competition can easily be seen as a left-right competition; if Stauber loses, there will only be one Councilor who clearly qualifies as “fiscally conservative.” Sandman seems to have a decent base of support on the west side, but he also has a large gap to close, and his platform doesn’t really go beyond a vague call for living wage jobs.

City Council 2nd District

Patrick Boyle (Unopposed incumbent)

No excitement here, but Boyle is running for the Second District County Commissioner seat as well (see below).

City Council 4th District

Howie Hanson | The Ghost of Garry Krause

This race also appears to be a foregone conclusion, barring a massive protest vote from the residents of District Four in favor of the former Councilor Krause, whose name remains on the ballot despite his resignation in September. A Councilor Hanson would ostensibly tip the Council further left, though it’s hard to say much about him since he hasn’t had to run much of a campaign. If elected, Hanson would be seated immediately so as to fill the Council vacancy. All other people elected on Nov. 5 will be seated in January.

Edit from earlier version: I’ve updated the link above, which now leads to his Facebook page, instead of his blog.

School Board At-Large

2 open seats

Annie Harala | Harry Welty | Nancy Nilsen | Henry Banks

Harala was the top vote-getter in the primary by a decent margin, and has run a safe, positive, community-centered campaign since, earning plenty of endorsements. The wild card here is Welty; he leads the field in signage, has done a lot of legwork, and he’s also the only candidate who is attentive to the people still frustrated by the Red Plan, even though he supports the levies. I was going to say he’d run a textbook campaign until I saw his bizarre, paranoid ad in this past week’s Reader. (Judge it for yourself here–yes, this was a print advertisement.) This is what you get with Welty: doses of nuance and political acumen coupled with rambling attempts at honesty that, while well-intentioned, can be rather head-scratching, to say the least. His foil here is Nilsen, an unabashed Red Plan supporter who wants to finish the work from her first term on the Board. (I couldn’t find any web presence for her.) As with Sandman in the City Council race, Banks had a chance to give the Board some real diversity; his candidacy was slow to generate much momentum and remains on the vague side, but he does seem to have increased his presence in the past few weeks.

School Board 1st District

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp | Joe Matthes

Loeffler-Kemp cleared fifty percent in the primary, but Matthes has run a strong campaign since, with thorough answers at forums, a lot of door-knocking, and a News Tribune endorsement. Loeffler-Kemp has over twenty years of experience in school affairs, though, and that is quite the mountain to climb. Either way, this district has two of the stronger candidates out there, and the winner will have earned the position.

School Board 4th District

David Bolgrien | Art Johnston (incumbent)

Polarizing Board Member Johnston faces a serious challenge in this race; the third candidate in the very tight three-way primary has endorsed Bolgrien, a longtime education activist on the west side. Johnston has spent the last four years as a protest vote against anything Red Plan related, but now is attempting to walk the fine line of claiming he can be a voice of reason despite his burned bridges on the Board. Diverse voices are all well and good, but Johnston’s challenge is to prove he can offer something of substance and actually build a coalition on the Board to support his views. He is the only candidate in any School Board race who opposes the levies.

School Board Levies

“Yes” Vote Page

There are two ballot questions. The first renews an existing operating levy; its failure would lead to a budget shortfall, likely necessitating deep cuts and class sizes ranging up toward 50 students in a room. The second raises property taxes by approximately $4 per month on a $150,000 home. ISD 709’s stated purpose is to use this money to lower class sizes; if passed, Superintendent Bill Gronseth claims they will be lowered by 4-6 students across the board. Yard sign counts aren’t of much use here since there isn’t much of an organized “no” campaign; if forced to speculate I’d say the first question has decent odds of passing, while the second faces a bit more resistance.

The “yes” vote has built some momentum in recent weeks, with endorsements from the News Tribune, the Chamber of Commerce, and Mayor Don Ness; and also thanks to yeoman’s work by some of the School Board candidates in their door-knocking for their own campaigns. Several people related to the Tea Party and longtime School Board critics have mounted some public resistance, however. They claim taxes in Duluth are high enough as it is, and that the Board’s behavior during the Red Plan means it is untrustworthy, and may not direct money where it is most needed (into classrooms to fight the large class sizes). The “Vote Yes” crowd counters this claim by pointing out the small size of the tax increase and across-the-board support for smaller class sizes from all of the pro-levy Board candidates.

St. Louis County Commissioner 2nd District Primary

Patrick Boyle | Scott Keenan | Jim Stauber | Cary Thompson-Gilbert

Following the passing of Commissioner Steve O’Neil in July, residents of the east side of the Duluth will go to the polls to select the two candidates who will advance to the January 14 special election. The field for this seat is loaded, as all four bring plenty of experience to the table. Based on a lawn sign count and general knowledge of the east side’s proclivities, the two frontrunners appear to be Boyle and Keenan. Councilor Boyle is the O’Neil family’s desired successor and a liberal champion, while Keenan doesn’t really fit an ideological label, having shown streaks of fiscal conservatism and environmentalism during his two terms on the Council and during his tenure on many local boards. Outgoing City Councilor Jim Stauber is the most conservative voice in the field, though he isn’t exactly a confrontational one; if elected, four of the five members of the County Board would lean toward the right. He doesn’t have any noticeable lawn sign presence, though he does have plenty of name recognition, and with his son on the City Council ticket, the Staubers have the potential to have a big night. Thompson-Gilbert is the only candidate who hasn’t served on the City Council, though her husband (Greg Gilbert) has, and she has a solid résumé of community activism. Adam Jaros and Nik Patronas are both on the ballot, but have withdrawn their names; Jaros endorsed Boyle, while Patronas exited for health reasons.

That about sums it up. Get out and vote no matter who you support, and stay tuned for results and analysis after the election.

Dead Greek People IV: A Democratic Empire

25 Oct

The ancient Athenian democracy was a bundle of contradictions. It was a realm of endless political disputes, yet it endured for several hundred years with only minor interruptions. It was premised on citizen participation, but people who weren’t citizens were perhaps more excluded in Athens than the masses in any other city. It gave a lot of power to people of simple pleasures, yet it produced more brilliant (and fairly elitist) philosophers and artists than any other ancient city.

The man who best shows the confusion of ancient Athens was probably Pericles. The son of wealthy nobles, Pericles came along in the 400s B.C., and while Athens didn’t have an executive leader, he was repeatedly re-elected to one of the ten spots for generals at the command of the armed forces, and there was no doubt he was calling the shots. He was a great patron of the arts, a brilliant orator, and a skilled commander of his troops. He was the architect of a grand military strategy that put Athens at the head of a union of Greek city-states. Under his watch, Athens built those monuments on the Acropolis that still stand today. He was also a democrat par excellence, defeating many of the more conservative voices in Athens with his brilliant rhetoric. This led to some members of the Athenian intellectual class to charge him with being a populist, as they worried that vesting so much power in the whims of the people would open up a Pandora’s Box.

To be fair to his critics, they had a good point. With Pericles at the helm, Athens was in good shape; he could manage all the popular sentiment, and he had the talent to keep every camp more or less happy. The problem was that people like Pericles don’t come along every day, and after he died, Athens lurched through a pair of coups and a bunch of mediocre leaders. This was especially troublesome considering that Pericles got Athens tied up in a major war against Sparta, a conflict that would decide which city-state was in command of ancient Greece. To understand what’s going on there, we’re going to need some help from someone named Thucydides.

Thucydides was the world’s second great historian. The first one was Herodotus, another Athenian who did a lot of traveling around the known world and recording everything he heard and saw. Thucydides, on the other hand, painted himself as a much more detached observer. He prefaces his History of the Peloponnesian War with an announcement that he’s trying to be as objective as humanly possible. No spin, he claims; just the facts.

The war juxtaposed democratic Athens with the famously warlike Spartans. This isn’t to say the Spartans were barbaric; in fact, they had plenty of erstwhile admirers among the Athenian intellectuals, including the likes of Aristotle. The Spartans were efficient, hardworking, and didn’t let angry mobs mess around and slow up the entire political system. They’d been an Athenian ally in the wars against the Persians, and aside from some occasional detours, the two Greek powers had managed to coexist. But with Pericles’ Athens slowly expanding its influence across the region and developing a legitimate empire, many of the smaller city-states began begging Sparta to stand up to them. In time, the Spartans agreed.

Thucydides wasn’t afraid to lay the blame at the feet of Athens. In fact, after his failures as a military commander (about which he was very honest in the History), he was exiled from the city, which leads one to wonder how genuine his supposed neutrality could have been. But in the end he had enough loyalty to Athens that he never showed any bitterness, and he never openly questioned his city’s imperial project. Nothing underscores this more than his account of Pericles’ famed funeral oration delivered over the bodies of a bunch of dead Athenians. This is the Athenian equivalent of the Gettysburg Address, a speech designed to say the dead have not died in vain, as they are fighting for a project far greater than any of them, in the preservation and advancement of a nation dedicated to the highest good. (In fact, the parallels are dead-obvious, and Edward Everett, the man who rambled for two hours before Lincoln showed him up with ten simple sentences, explicitly mentioned Pericles.) It was a reminder of the uniqueness of the Athenian project, even as the city mired itself in imperial wars.

One of the most famous moments in the History occurs some time after Pericles’ death from the plague. A couple of Athenian generals go to visit the neutral island of Melos, whose people are ethnically related to the Spartans. The rather grumpy Athenians tell the Melians that they had better submit to Athens, or else they will destroy them. The Melians complain that this is most unjust, and the Athenians sneer at their appeal to justice. The generals then utter the most famous line in international relations, and the founding line for political realism: “The strong do as they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

Between this line and his refusal to explicitly condemn any moral failings of the Athenians or Spartans, Thucydides is often cast as a hardcore realist, earning praise from the likes of Hobbes and Nietzsche. Still, I’m going to cut Thucydides some slack here, and say he’s been misinterpreted. To get this, you need a much more subtle reading of the History. Before the Melian incident, things are going swimmingly for the Athenians. They’re holding true to Pericles’ grand strategy, which involved a more-or-less defensive war of attrition that would slowly beat the Spartans into submission. After they lose their moral compass and start beating people up haphazardly, things go to pieces. Immediately after slaughtering all the Melians, the Athenians launch an incredibly stupid campaign in Sicily, a total disaster that completely turns the tide of the war. Like so many other empires, they’d overplayed their hand, fallen too deeply in love with power, and were ruined. In the long run, the Melians were right: morality mattered, and the Spartans came to the defense of their Melian brethren and made Athens pay for their overreach. The strong cannot simply do as they can, and at the very least need to take a longer, more careful consideration of the consequences.

Thucydides’ dispassionate devotion to fact made him a model historian. At the same time, however, no matter how much people try to be neutral, they never quite manage it. The details they choose to include, and the structure they adopt, can reveal an awful lot about their actual opinions. Thucydides’ History reads much like one of the great Greek tragedies, with the hubris of the Athenians leading to the demise of a once-great empire. His account shows both the promise of the Athenian democratic project, and just how tenuous it became after Pericles dropped dead. But even after the Spartans ended Athenian dominance over Greece, the city endured, and we’ll save that story for next time.

Part 5: Alexander the Great’s Conquests and Epicurus

Image of the pontificating Pericles from Wikimedia commons. Bust of Thucydides from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2008/02/more-thucydides-please/

A Sense of Place in the Modern World

23 Oct

So many trends in this day in age cut against loyalty to a place. Being committed to one spot on the map seems to be either a luxury or a harsh necessity.

Just think about it. Finding a well-paying job (or simply a job) often requires travel and frequent movement as one climbs the ladder in search of the best opportunity. Well-educated people often uproot themselves and cluster together in a handful of economic centers that have a lot of interesting high culture. People who come from less-than-ideal backgrounds can escape them, and for many, that is no small victory. Economists speak glowingly about “creative destruction”—that is, the need to tear down old stuff and replace it with new stuff to keep the engines of economic growth firing at full steam. The two political parties’ platforms only rarely give nods to local interests; Democrats emphasize universal rights above local loyalties and often use a distant federal government as their instrument of choice to promote it, while Republicans tend to venerate the frictionless free market above all else. Throw in the technological advances of the past few decades, and people have never been so free to move about without setting down deep roots where they are.

The march of modernity is all bad for a sense of place. Mobility has actually declined somewhat in recent years, though I’d guess that has more to do with economic forces than some newfound commitment to certain locations. The internet makes it easier to connect to interesting people without ever leaving places that might otherwise not be the most stimulating places. It is also becoming increasingly easier to do some jobs from home, and some communities that are just flat-out nice places to live will prove resilient because of that. The mayor of my hometown of Duluth, Don Ness, made that argument in this recent Atlantic piece—he’s admitted that he is the anonymous mayor there. It’s a sensible point, but while this is nice for a city like Duluth, it’s not of much use to many other places. Building communities and growing cultures takes time and commitment, and it’s hard to find the people and capital to build them.

All of this movement is often viewed as a positive thing (the American Way, even), and as the media and other big institutions that drive culture tend to be full of people who have made plenty of career leaps, voices that question it don’t get much coverage. When they do, it’s often negative—and not always without reason, as the excesses and eccentricities of opposition groups merit a fair amount of the mockery they incur. This isn’t to say that all the national media hates or ignores small towns or Middle America—they continue to be a fantastic source for stories of virtue and laments for middle-class Paradise Lost—but most of them seem to view it as a different land to be mused about from afar, its decay inevitable. The people who really argue for something different are on the margins: environmentalists and lefty localists, certain conservatives who are actually interested in conserving things (usually communities, churches, and stable social orders), and a handful of literary figures who transcend those categories, like Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry.

People from very diverse backgrounds agree with bits of their argument, even if they might not ever cohere into a political movement. These people generally respect things like political rights and an open economy, but they don’t think that loyalty to such ideals should come at the expense of personal ties. They are skeptical of abstraction and a life consumed by endless thinking. Instead, they focus on the relationships with people immediately around them, and because interpersonal relationships are at the center of everything, constant movement doesn’t much appeal to them. Family and friends are important, so they keep everyone close and recognize their debts to both their ancestors and their children. As a result, they’re comparatively thrifty and careful about their economic choices. They aren’t necessarily Luddites, but technology isn’t their favorite thing on earth, and if possible, they’d often rather repair things with their own hands than haul in an expensive expert to do the work. A number ground their localism in shopping locally and caring for their neighborhoods, and a number rely on houses of worship to provide community. There’s nothing glorious about this way of life, but it is one of steadiness and deep contentment, and it provides the strongest cushions possible when tragedy strikes.

Of course, it can all go wrong, as it has many times over the years. The most egregious examples are racial, religious, or other such barriers imposed by small communities with strong tribal instincts. Communities can be stultifying, or just stale. It is very difficult for one individual to stand up to an entire community, and when everyone knows one another, grudges can be even more toxic than when the enemy is a bit more abstract. These troubles can always be overcome, but they also require careful attention, and mean people have to think beyond the most convenient aspects of community as well.

A more benign trend among localists is a tendency to tip toward escapism. This is what religious conservatives will call the “Benedict Option,” though it’s not hard to find secular or left-leaning equivalents: people with a shared sense of morality retreating into their communities to hide from or wait out the collapse of the fallen modern world around them. If you want to be one of those people, be my guest; as long as you’re not shooting at those who don’t join you, you have that freedom, and the global economy isn’t going to take a hit because fifty people retreat into a self-sustaining commune or a homeschooling cooperative. I respect that, and I think the rest of society stands to learn from methods used in alternative schools or from Zapatista “good government” practices or the Amish freedom from being eternally plugged in.

I’m just not going to join them.

Why not? With a few obvious exceptions, those idealized communities never really last; the best we can do is pick and choose a few things from them that are worth adopting. Humans will always dream, and unless one has been within the culture for generations, people will grow restless and head out to explore the world on their own terms. It’s no secret that I’m a loyalist to community, but I didn’t come to appreciate that without spending an awful lot of my childhood dreaming about being somewhere else. I still do. I still love to travel, and I keep up with international news and pop culture and major sports. That makes it an awful lot easier to find common ground with people who aren’t from one’s little tribe, and so long as one has faith in one’s lifestyle, it isn’t going to corrupt anyone in some terrible way. I have less fear of moral decay than many religious conservatives, or even a healthy number of bourgeois liberals; somehow, it seems like you can always find people saying we’re all going to hell, and yet somehow, human nature seems to survive intact. The cloisters are a lovely place for a weekend of reflection, but there’s a bit too much Athens in my Jerusalem for me to stay there, and the same is probably true for most people out there. I can’t run away from the world. Yes, there’s an awful lot wrong with it, but it’s the only one I have.

Staying in touch with the world beyond my little fishbowl also keeps me from falling too far into blind obsession. I’ve shared some very pointed words about school board levies and local politicians on this blog, and I’m glad I have; Duluth is small enough that I’ve actually been able to dialogue with some people about these things and now have a modest readership. I’m proud of that, and I want to keep building on it. But I also don’t want to sit here preaching to a choir that nods and smiles, and I need constant reminders that there are other things out there that make all of this seem trivial. This blog’s wanderings into hockey or Greek philosophy or global affairs may seem like random whims, but there’s a design here: I’m trying to keep myself from ever being too caught up in these delightfully petty political circles I’m floating around in. And if need be, if Duluth doesn’t work out in the long run, I’m ready to pull up and move somewhere else. Roots aren’t easy to grow, but as long as the soil is halfway decent, they have a chance in most places.

There is wisdom in seeing life as an ongoing pilgrimage or journey from one place to the next, but too often that strikes me as a defense mechanism; a regrettably necessary means of making peace with roots that have rotted away. Sure, there are some people who just have a lot of wanderlust, or their own roots are among perpetual wanderers. Like the old line says, not all who wander are lost. But plenty of them are, or may be fully aware that their wanderings stem from old burdens or an inability to properly go home. The Jews did an admirable job of surviving, even thriving, when they were wandering the desert or scattered across Europe, but they always yearned for Israel. And while that home may seem a fleeting one when held up against the sweep of history, for our equally fleeting time on earth, it can make all the difference in the world. If life is a journey, it’s a much happier one when we have a warm bed to come home to at the end of the day’s adventures.

Dead Greek People III: Enough Philosophy Already

20 Oct

Perhaps the Greek philosophers detailed in the first two posts in this series bore or annoy you. If so, you wouldn’t be alone. The list of people who didn’t think much of Socrates’ philosophy went beyond an upset Athenian jury. In fact, his most enduring critic wasn’t some angry plebe, but instead a playwright. Here he is.

His name is Aristophanes, and he was an early master of the satiric play. He wrote them for festivals around Greece, where he piled up a bunch of prizes. He made quite the art of making fun of other people, most famously a politician named Cleon, whom he harassed throughout his entire career. In his play The Clouds, he decided to take a shot at Socrates.

The play involves a decadent Athenian family in which the father, Strepsiades, has been driven into debt by his useless son, Pheidippides. Rather than pay the debts, however, Strepsiades wants to find an easy way out, and suggests his son enroll in Socrates’ school, where people are taught how to make bad arguments sound reasonable. Pheidippides tells him the school is only for losers and nerds, so Strepsiades enrolls himself instead. He learns that Socrates and his obsessive pupils spend their time doing things like devising new measurements for the distance jumped by fleas and floating about in baskets so as to better observe the sun. Bored, Strepsiades winds up masturbating rather than joining the absurd intellectual pursuits, and Socrates catches him and throws him out.

Angered, Strepsiades forces Pheidipides to go learn from Socrates. Unlike his father, he learns precisely how to make a bad argument sound reasonable, and comes out capable of making an argument for beating his father, which he promptly does. Disgusted, Strepsiades tells his slaves to grab the torches and pitchforks, and the play ends as they head off to teach the disreputable Socrates a lesson.

It’s hard to know how serious this critique is, and how much of it was just in good fun. One of Plato’s dialogues, the Symposium, has Aristophanes and Socrates chatting merrily during a dinner party, with no signs of disagreement. He may not even have been that relevant; Cleon’s political career was unaffected by the constant abuse, and Cleon, despite being a rather disagreeable fellow, apparently saw no need to suppress Aristophanes. But his criticism of Socrates endured, and it certainly isn’t a totally baseless one. Intellectuals always face the danger of getting caught too far up in the clouds and losing track of what really matters, even as they argue about what really matters.

One other memorable person who lived in Athens around that time also didn’t think much of the famed philosophers’ lives of detached thought. That guy is Diogenes.

If you think he looks like a bit of a slob, you’d be right. For starters, he lived in a barrel. His only real companions were a bunch of dogs. He went out of his way to drive a lot of people nuts. His targets not only included philosophers; he even took a shot at the most powerful man in the world. When Alexander the Great came before him one day, most likely hoping for the fawning and worship he inspired in everyone else, the sunbathing Diogenes had one simple request: that he move over and stop blocking his sunlight.

Alexander thought this was pretty awesome. (He was more than the military meathead so many of his fellow world conquerors were; remember, Aristotle was his teacher.) “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes,” he said as he walked away.

The emperor of the known world was on to something. A lot of Diogenes’ actions can seem random and weird, especially since the only records we have of him are anecdotes collected by other people. He didn’t eat with utensils. He jerked off in public. He showed up at Plato’s lectures just to mess with him. He wandered around a marketplace in broad daylight with a lantern in search of an honest man. (He didn’t find one.) But Diogenes was more than an annoyance.

Instead, he had a fairly coherent idea of what it meant to lead a good life, and his philosophy was one of radical simplicity. At times, his actions are reminiscent of religious mystics. He sought to live in accord with nature, which for him meant simplicity and purity, and as an outsider, he was detached enough that he could study the culture around him and reject the customs that were damaging, or simply silly and unnecessary. He was the first person to call himself a “cosmopolitan”—that is, a citizen of the world, not some tribal loyalist to his city-state. He was in many ways far, far ahead of his times. Alexander may have been literally blocking the sunlight, but he might also, perhaps, have been blocking the light of the truth, with his obsession over wealth and power and other worldly goods.

Aside from weirdness, there is another charge that can be thrown at Diogenes. He may have claimed to be a citizen of the world, but as with Socrates, it really is impossible to imagine someone like him being tolerated in any ancient city other than Athens. He’d grown up in Sinope, but was so obnoxious there that he got thrown out, and lived in exile for the rest of his life. His cosmopolitanism was only possible because he was free to go about living his radical way of life in a safe, stable, and well-run city. This doesn’t mean he was wrong to go about pointing out the hypocrisies and stupidities of ancient Athenian custom, which certainly offered its share of ripe targets. Every community needs its cynics to keep everyone else from being too comfortable. But without the community to live in and play off of, Diogenes would quickly have been forgotten.

Aristophanes and Diogenes might not have as great a reach as the most famed Athenian philosophers, but they do offer a welcome counter-balance to the earnestness of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Sometimes basic, practical sense is far more useful than endless theorizing, and this is something that philosophically inclined people should never forget.

Next: Pericles and Thucydides

Image of Aristophanes from http://www.crystalinks.com/aristophanes.html. Image of Diogenes (from Raphael’s The School of Athens) from Wikimedia Commons. Image of Nicolas-Andre Monsiau’s Diogenes and Alexander from http://classicalwisdom.com/diogenes-of-sinope/.

A Follow-Up on a Charter High School in Duluth

18 Oct

My piece on the possibility of a Duluth Edison charter high school was unusually punchy for this blog, and in turn, it provoked some good reactions. I spend a lot of time in detached analysis; part of this is just who I am, and part of this is because I do try to transcend normal political categories so that I’m not pigeonholed as some tradition-loving conservative or government-loving commie. But when the guard does come down (and when it does, it always seems to involve Duluth East High School), taking a hard stand on something often does generate a good response. So here are some of the responses, and please, if you have any thoughts, send them along in a comment or through other means. I love the dialogue.

First, I want to clear something up that I didn’t mean to suggest, especially with my overly vague title: I certainly wasn’t trying to throw all charter schools in one big pot. In large urban areas, I can certainly see how charter schools can be and have already been helpful, though I also don’t pretend to understand the education debate in those cities well enough to come to a good conclusion. For my friends out there in Teach for America who are employed in charter schools, keep doing what you’re doing. I just hope you can see the nuance in this debate, which I think reveals the dangers of abstraction in education. Whenever someone says a certain type of school—public, private, charter, whatever—is the problem or the solution, you should be suspicious. This is a complicated debate, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer, and little reason to believe that what works in New York is the same thing that works in Memphis or Muncie or a small town in Kansas.

My intent was to address Duluth, Minnesota in 2013, and nothing else. Perspective is in order, and an understanding of the diversity of experiences is in order. That’s what set me off about the original “Dish with Trish” piece (since removed from the Reader website, I now see) more than anything: her own perspective was the only one that mattered, and she declared that ISD 709 “sucked” for her, and therefore must suck for everyone else, even though this is (a) patently untrue and (b) is of absolutely no constructive use for figuring out the future of education in Duluth.

With that in mind, I got three good responses from people with unique insights into the situation here.

My first correspondent was a fellow Duluth East alumnus who went to Edison schools through 8th grade. He had a very fair beef with my insinuation that Edison would hurt diversity (broadly defined) in Duluth schools. I did know that Edison has a fairly high percentage of students on free/reduced lunch, but at such a small school, I wasn’t sure that this was necessarily a good proxy for diverse family backgrounds: after all, there are plenty of engaged and well-educated parents who just don’t make a lot of money. (Maybe they’re single-income families, maybe they’ve chosen fulfilling jobs that don’t pay much, maybe they were English majors, etc. I’m a living example here: I got a Pell Grant, but my parents both have advanced degrees, and it would be laughable to call my childhood “working class” or something along those lines.) My correspondent, however, assured me that the kids at Edison during his days there ran the gamut of possible backgrounds; most went on to Duluth Central, he said, and he could name plenty of former classmates who went on to become teenage parents or even went to prison.

My friend had plenty good things to say about Edison, and thought the school did pretty well for what it had to work with. He didn’t particularly want to be at Edison and was happy to head to East for high school, though as a hockey player, he already had friends at East who helped make his transition easy. He said he wouldn’t send his own kids there unless there was a substantial gulf between it and the public schools, and didn’t appear to think the schools are at that point right now. He also agreed that an Edison High was not in the best interests of Duluth as a whole.

He also raised a good point that seems to have been forgotten in all of this: Duluth already has a charter high school! Harbor City has been up and running for a while now. I guess my question to the Edison people is, what would an Edison High offer that Harbor City doesn’t? Is there simply not enough room at Harbor City, or is there something deeper at work here?

It’s also worth noting the time he was at Edison: the early 00s, long before the Red Plan debates began. When I mentioned that, he said he did think there has, perhaps, been a change in Edison’s mission in recent years, whether the people who are running the school realize it or not. On a similar note, Harry Welty noted that the situation currently confronting Duluth schools was “unimaginable” when Edison was first set up. My friend’s comments invite a lot of questions over the Edison mission, and I’m genuinely curious to know the answers. The school may have been diverse in 2003, but how have things changed since the Red Plan flights began, and how will it look in 2023? Perhaps Edison may not want to think of itself as being in direct competition with ISD 709, but in a city of this size, it’s inevitable. How does Edison choose which applicants get in, and does it just shrug its shoulders at the kids who don’t end up there? If more families try to “flee” the “issues” in ISD 709, who gets let in? Considering that one of these two districts gets public funding without needing to endure levies or contentious school board meetings or Keith Dixon or Art Johnston, how does the endgame possibly look good for ISD 709? I can imagine a few answers to that question, but I want to hear them from other people, too.

While it obviously isn’t Edison’s fault that ISD 709 has some issues, it does share a community with that District, and it has some responsibility to work with the District, not against it. I think school choice is great when it meets needs that public schools do not, and I’m glad people are happy at the K-8 Edison schools. (See an older post of mine on publics versus privates here.) Edison can be great for this city if it is a complement; the troubles will begin if it comes to be seen as a substitute. As I said at the end of the last post, we’re all in this together.

Harry Welty followed up on the Dish with Trish on his blog, and adds some kind words about me on the end. His perspective on white flight into charter schools is an interesting addition to the conversation, and it will be interesting to see if Edison—which is fairly racially diverse (by Duluth standards) right now—remains that way. And while the racial element is important, I also think Duluth’s racial homogeneity can hide other divisions within the community.

Finally, I heard from someone who has more knowledge of the financial details of a possible sale of the old Duluth Central to Edison than I do. Here are my informant’s thoughts, with this person’s permission:

[T]he idea that Edison will get a high school may be an inevitability, but who is to say that they will get off the ground in the near future?  As far as I can tell, there is no building around here suitable for a high school outside of the property that our district owns. It would take Edison at least 4 years, maybe up to 6, to build a building from the ground up. They need to find land, purchase it, develop plans, get bids, get permits, etc, etc, etc. We currently send 1.4 million of public school funding to Edison every year. In the event they purchase Central, it’s conceivable that they could be off and running by September 2015. If they have to do it on their own, it’s likely they won’t have a school till at least 2018, maybe 2019. Assuming they have around the same number of students, that’s an additional 1.4 million for 4 years that would be sent to Edison that otherwise would have stayed in our schools. That 12 million we get from them for Central won’t look nearly as good if you have to subtract 5.6 million of lost revenue over that span of time when they otherwise wouldn’t have had a high school. 

Of course, that isn’t going to satisfy the people who are upset that they’re being taxed to maintain Central and just want that off the books as soon as possible, but if these people take the long view, selling for minimal profit now will only exacerbate financial problems later on, and we’ll be having a war just like this one a few years down the line. From the District’s financial standpoint, it makes a lot of sense to wait for another buyer; the question is, how quickly do they think that buyer can come along, and how much longer will this process drag on?

It’s hard for the District to win here, but this city has to come up with a coherent vision for the future of its public schools. Sorry, Marcia Stromgren: public education isn’t going away anytime soon, and even with an Edison High, the public schools will be inextricably bound up in the city’s fate. We can fund them with the levies, vote for dedicated candidates who will dialogue with us citizens, and watch the Board to make sure the money ends up in the right places. Or we can vote them down and somehow pretend that 50 kids in a classroom is “justice,” or that this will teach a school board full of people who were not around when the Red Plan was implemented a lesson about having implemented the Red Plan. It’s your choice, Duluth.