Defining Ourselves

As many Duluthians—or, at least, the ones who are likely to read a blog like this one—know, Duluth has a weekly newspaper called the Reader Weekly. It is a staple in the local media; it is known to inhabit areas just inside the doors of restaurants, and is read by people riding the local bus system. On more than one occasion, I’ve felt a bit of awkward elitism when my seatmate is reading the Reader and I whip out my New Yorker. But, loyal Duluthian that I am, there’s a reason you won’t find me buried in the Reader during my commute.  I find large parts of it predictable, exhausting, and not worth reading.

Okay, that’s harsh. It’s a free paper; you take what you can get. The Reader does some things well. It has a nice calendar of local events, their reviews and nature pieces can be good, and some of the syndicated columnists they bring in are alright. There is some good, campy humor, especially in the April Fools’ Day issue, which is one I do make sure to read. John Gilbert’s sports columns are an institution, and every now and then, someone stumbles into something intelligent. It helps fill in some of the gaps that our venerable daily, the News Tribune, cannot as it continues its noble but desperate fight to stay afloat in an era of collapsing newspaper revenue. (Aside from the obvious shrinking content, am I the only one who’s noticed a serious drop-off in the editing recently?) The Reader, on the other hand, is beefing up its local content with a bunch of new hires, some of whom will be covering the local political meetings. Welcome to the club, boys. (They are all boys.)

The Reader is also self-consciously alternative. It says so, right there on the cover. It’s trying to give perspectives you may not see in the traditional media. It’s more critical, gives editorial freedom to fringe figures, and covers some things that would otherwise slip aside. It lets people who would otherwise be ignored have a platform. Most of this is cool by me; diverse voices are my thing. Problem is, many of these people are painful to read.

I offer some cautionary notes here, too. Personae that come out in writing may be nothing like the ones people display in person—and that can be a good thing or a bad thing. I’ve read of some columnists who get their hackles up in writing on a weekly basis and drive me nuts, but in person are utterly charming and lovely company. I make no judgments on these writers as people, but merely on how they come across in writing.

The thing that comes out in so many of these writers, however, is how they define themselves. They appear in opposition to something. They have gone and learned about something, and they just hammer on those same few hobbyhorses, over and over again. Their worldview is set in stone, and they must expose those who cloud it. There is no intellectual curiosity here, no exploring of new ways of thinking. It is just “I know a lot about X. The people in X are stupid and/or evil.” A policy prescription may or may not follow, but if it does, it is probably either vague or completely divorced from reality, or both.

They aren’t necessarily wrong, mind you. Sometimes they are, but there’s often at least a grain of truth in what they write. Take Loren Martell, for example. (For the unenlightened, he’s a Duluth man who’s spent the past six years railing against a school restructuring plan at every public meeting imaginable, school-related or not, and now writes for the Reader.) I’ve belittled him for his obsession numerous times on here, but he has some fair points to make, and his passion is obvious. I could probably find some common ground with him if the two of us sat down together. The man also really needs an editor, both for his prepared remarks and for his writing; he is so hit-or-miss that I’d sooner go hunting with Dick Cheney than with him. But whether we agree or disagree, whether he speaks cogently or in a muddle, I still find him grating, and I no longer bother to pay much attention to him. His perspective is locked, his revolt unending, and the end result is neither pleasant nor compelling, except in the eyes of a handful of fellow revolutionaries.

This way of thinking afflicts every political stance imaginable. There are some marvelously hypocritical conservatives out there who rant about liberal victimization politics while also claiming to be victimized by the liberal overlords at every turn.  (For example, I once had the pleasure of attending an event for wealthy conservative donors designed to call out the liberal bias in the media. To their credit, it actually was pretty funny and delightfully irreverent, though liberal doses of wine do help.) It’s just as bad on the left, though, where a few theories on legitimate oppression have been hijacked and applied to every human interaction imaginable. At the Reader, most of the animus is directed at the Republican Party and people in local government. This can seem like a funny juxtaposition, since there are very few Republicans in local government, but in the end it amounts to a power play: those distant people in power are controlling things, and we’re powerless to stop them, so let’s yell at them in a free weekly newspaper.

I’m not the first person to gripe about this phenomenon, and plenty have tried to figure out where it comes from. Nietzsche blamed Christianity and the grace peddled by priests; modern-day conservatives blame Marx and his stoking of class divisions, leading to narratives of oppressors and oppressed. I’d just blame a gut human instinct that usually emerges sometime in adolescence, when we see things in life we don’t like and define ourselves against them.

God only knows I’ve done this. There was a time in my life—let’s call it my quarter-life crisis—when I allowed my concept of myself to be defined by the things that have gone wrong in my 24 years on this earth. I wasted a lot of ink (well, pixels, mostly) ranting about things that had wronged me, and humanity in general. I don’t think that was entirely misguided; I’ve had a few life events that demand a thorough reflection, and I had to make peace with some of those demons. I had to bottom out to see the whole picture, and a few of the things I learned in that unpleasant place now manifest themselves in deeply held values. This whole process, whatever you call it, defines life, and is a big reason why coming-of-age stories usually make for my favorite books and movies.

But that’s the thing: it’s a process, not something we ever stop doing. Time passes, things change, thoughts evolve, and our narratives keep on writing themselves. I’ve written before that people can’t throw away their pasts, but clinging to one rigid worldview to explain that past is just as bad. And when people cling to a worldview, when there are no more questions, of course they’re going to end up sounding grumpy: they’ve reduced the absurd complexity of it all to one simple formula, and try as they might to jam things in, they just won’t fit. It is a mindset trapped in adolescence.

The way out, curiously enough, involves holding on to certain things associated with youth: a sense of wonder, and a willingness to have fun with it all. The world becomes a plaything to explore, not a charged partisan environment driven by an agenda; even if that searching doesn’t change our thoughts, it should at least give us some respect for the complexity of it all. And while I won’t be so pretentious as to try to sort legitimate grievances out from the rest of the noise, I will say this: letting some of that resentment go can be wonderfully liberating. Instead of defining ourselves by the things that have made us victims, we define ourselves by the things that truly animate us, the things that are more in keeping with the sides of ourselves we like best. At the very least, it’s a mindset worth exploring.

In the end, I wish the Reader all the best for its continued growth. It has potential. I just wish a few of its writers would aspire to something more.

Side note, for clarity’s sake: this takedown is not directed at John Ramos.


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