Archive | June, 2014

American Adolescence and the Illusion of Control

27 Jun

“‘God save us always,’ I said, ‘from the innocent and the good.’”

—Graham Greene, The Quiet American

Iraq is a mess. The advance of radical Sunni militants has the country going to pieces, and the blind lack of reason in the tangle web of alliances now has the United States and Iran effectively on the same page. The comparisons to Vietnam have never easier for those who enjoy the policy wonk obsession with historical analogies. Not surprisingly, the American public is rather jaded with all of this; no one has much energy for a new war or nation-building mission, and would prefer to sit back and watch all of this play out.

A lot of people in our political classes and punditocracy don’t like this. (Here’s David Brooks’s lament from Friday’s New York Times as a clear example.) It’s not really a partisan thing, either; both the neoconservatives and the liberal internationalists see it as a problem. The U.S. is reneging on its role as a world leader, and as a beacon of democracy and capitalism; this weakness will empower its rivals around the globe, from Russia to Iran to the Sunni radicals now on the rise. We could have had this, they say; if we hadn’t screwed up here or there in the past ten years, things would be better now. We could have been in control, and if we’d just flash our muscles and prove our “credibility,” we’d be able to turn the tide.

If only geopolitics were that easy. No: reality is far more troubling, far beyond anyone’s control. No one is calling the shots because no one can call the shots. Sure, there’s some collusion here and there, and the good old boys networks naturally emerge among people with common interests and aspirations to power.  But through it all, there is this blind faith that the buck really does stop at the top; that, by virtue of holding certain offices, people really can decides outcomes near and far. The vast majority of the time, they can’t. Some people can fake it well for a while, and appearance can be half the battle, but things are often more tenuous than they seem. Reality is so much more fragmented, so tied up in the agendas and whims of various middlemen and self-interested actors who see the world in an entirely different way. It’s a complex web of incentives, pushing people here and there, amounting to a “thing” only on a level of abstraction.

The realm of ideas does matter, and it’s hard to be rosy when looking at things on that level. People scream “do something” left and right, whether it’s in Libya or Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan. Despite the noble efforts of many soldiers and dedicated public servants, we never seem to make things better, no matter how hard we try. If we never get it right, what on earth fuels the delusion that this time will somehow be different? We hear cries that the U.S. needs to arm the “right” people, as if there were black and white distinctions in this realm; as if all our interests somehow aligned. They don’t. Recall how “our people” in Iraq wound up being corrupt wannabe aristocrats; “our man” in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has gone down the same road. They operate by a different logic, a different set of incentives, and in turn make their way down a different path.

The trouble is that, no matter how viciously we may take apart the illusion of control, the alternatives also tend to operate in a realm of idealism no less divorced from reality. When a nation is as powerful as the United States, inaction is also an active policy. The U.S., one might recall, was minimally involved in direct intervention in the Middle East prior to 9/11. Instead, the U.S. propped up the status quo and let its global culture leech into every little village. This benign reach was, in a way, far more threatening than the complete arsenal of the American military. There was no easy target for anger, no obvious threat: just that steady loss of control, the destruction of a worldview with things as simple as pop music and suggestive clothing. The U.S. could pull every last soldier out of the Middle East, withdraw every dollar it pays into its despotic regimes, and it would still be implicated, somehow, in whatever happens next. Such is the power of Western culture and U.S. hegemony on the world stage.

This is, of course, the U.S.’s great conundrum: it is founded on the belief in ever-greater freedom, in an ongoing quest for the realization of the self. Old cultural artifices have no place here. Over two centuries after its founding, the U.S. has proved wildly successful in exporting that dream of liberty. It’s successful because it taps into a fundamental aspect of the human psyche, one that comes out most clearly in adolescence: the urge for a bold assertion of self, an individual independent of old constraints, capable of authoring one’s own fate. It’s a necessary spark, and the resultant blaze of passion fuels many of humanity’s greatest achievements. Can any of us imagine our lives without it?

Like any human urge, though, it has its dark side. It risks naïveté, consumed by the belief that this quest for freedom is the only thing. The old roots don’t die so easily, and often are an essential part of the rebellion itself. (When compared to Latin America, the U.S. owes much of its relative economic success and political stability to the Enlightenment-influenced, more bourgeois British colonists; our southern neighbors, born of the Counter-Reformation and hierarchical Spain, faced rather different troubles from independence onward.) It can’t be dropped into other places and made to take root with a few quick brushstrokes that empower the “right” people. It has to be organic, not only in the foundation of the movement but in its creation of new institutions. The two buzzwords that dominate all sensible international affairs theory nowadays are “incentives” and “institutions.” If they’re not in place, nothing can follow.

The death of great dreams is never easy, and the threat of declinist hysteria may be the most serious danger to U.S. politics in the coming years. Now more than ever, Octavio Paz’s words ring true. History did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but instead died somewhere in the sands of Iraq or among the peaks of Afghanistan, ever that graveyard of empires. At long last the worldwide ideologies have exhausted themselves, and while several linger in attenuated forms, they might yet be defeated by the forces of reality. Perhaps now we can arrive at more realistic nations in the Middle East, instead of things drawn on the back of a napkin by Europeans in 1916. The coming sort will no doubt be bloody, but precious few nations can claim a peaceful birth, and for all its flaws, the international community is better equipped to enforce some standards of decorum and decency now than it ever has been in the past. Frustrating as they can be, the idealists still have a key role to play on that front.

“Now we’re finally the same age,” wrote Roger Angell immediately after 9/11. “None of us is young this week, and, with death and calamity just down the street, few of us vicarious any longer.” He was playing the world-wise old man, one who’d seen wars and death in his then eighty years, teaching us kids a thing or two about how to handle one of those terrible reminders that we have no control. On an individual level that may have been true, but for the U.S. as a whole, it never quite worked. From Watergate to Vietnam to 9/11, people claimed that hubris would be the ruin of the innocent belief in the American world project, but it never really did. People forgot, moved on, and continued with that noble mission to mold the world in the American image.

Maybe, just maybe, Angell’s words finally ring true. Maybe that adolescent stage is now over. It was a glorious stage, one of national greatness and awesome wealth and considerable influence. Only those who serve a higher God would want to trade away that power of living in the moment. That illusion of control might have come as close to reality as it ever has. But the U.S. isn’t young anymore. We have a history now, and after touring the world and running down its streets, brashly proclaiming we’re the kings of it all, perhaps it’s time to head home for a bit. Perhaps it’s time to settle down and find a job; maybe not a glamorous one, but one that keeps us afloat and lets us do some good in the neighborhood, when and where it makes sense. We’ll never be free to be left alone; such is the life of a global citizen. But we can make sure our own house is in order before trying to save those of people we don’t really know, and we can use our soft power to make sure our little contribution—that youthful spark—remains a worthy aspiration. Maybe, then, a sane international order might emerge. Or maybe I’m just as much of a dreamer as the idealists I scorn. I’ll take my chances.

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On Street Repair Fees: Duluth City Council Notes, 6/23/14

24 Jun

The Duluth City Council began its somewhat noble work Monday in a rare respite from the permanent bank of fog that has settled over downtown Duluth. The Councilors were in a cheery mood despite a rather torturous meeting last time around, and the agenda promised a resolution to a long but rather unenthusiastic debate on funding street repair in Duluth. It was the sort of thing everyone wanted done but no one wanted to pay for, and no one seemed to find the solution all that palatable, but the desire to do something prevailed.

But first, the rest of the meeting. There were two general citizen speakers. Mr. Loren Martell gave one of the more intelligent takes on his usual spiel, chiding local officials for their “false sense of urgency” in rushing through proposals that probably need more vetting. Mr. Michael Chelseth, a rising junior at Duluth East, updated the Council on the tennis court project he is spearheading for Washington Square, saying grant-matching or partial funding will likely prove necessary.

Councilor Fosle recused himself from a pair of resolutions concerning liquor licenses at events his band will play at, and Councilor Larson pulled a few more to wait for an ordinance on the Downtown Waterfront Special Service District next meeting, but the rest of the consent agenda went through. Ms. Eve Graves, who has applied to turn an East Hillside home into a “vacation dwelling unit,” gave a brief explanation of her plan for “a tree-hugger clientele” that would be carefully vetted. After Councilor Gardner said that Ms. Graves had assuaged some of the worries she’d heard from neighbors about the impact on the neighborhood, that resolution passed unanimously.

A large contingent of city planners and developers were on hand to back the proposed hotel and marina development on Pier B, the currently blighted lot across a slip from Bayfront Park. A few of the Councilors who had some reservations about such projects spoke in its favor, led by Councilor Sipress, who praised the lack of direct cash subsidies, the much-needed repairs to the slip and site cleanup, the public access, and use of union labor and wage guarantees. Councilor Russ deemed Pier B a judicious use of tax-increment financing (TIF), of which she is not normally a fan, and President Krug added that the project has “come a long way since it was just a strip mall.” It passed unanimously.

This set the stage for the main act of the evening, which was the debate over a proposed fee to finance street repair. There were seven citizen speakers, all opposed to the measure, and five of them repeat performers. Mr. Jim Booth ordered the Council to eliminate vague “amenities,” while Ms. Sue Connor tried to hash out the details on the possible-double tax and wondered why this was different from the street light fee they’d all railed against at the previous meeting. Another speaker suggested a hard line against the Fon du Luth Casino to recover lost revenue, while Mr. Bob Woods made the accurate observation that the “councilors’ facial expressions are half the fun” of  coming to the meetings, and another man made an analogy involving geese. Chamber of Commerce President David Ross joined the critics to denounce the disproportionate impact of the fee on businesses, with even small businesses charged several times the amount of a home, and large businesses charged at an exponential level.

Councilor Fosle asked a few procedural questions that outlined what was at stake: the fee would raise $2.8 million in a full year ($1.2 million in a pro-rated 2014), and would need to be re-approved in the annual fee ordinance that normally comes before the Council every November or December (including this year), or else it would reset to zero. Councilor Fosle also spoke in opposition to the measure, calling it a “cover-up” by the administration that would allow them to hide behind the Council. “Don’t blame the casino,” he added, noting former Councilor Jim Stauber’s insights on street repair funding, and threw out a few vague ideas for raising funds. He said the issue hadn’t received much press (debatable, though there wasn’t exactly a huge media rush before tonight’s vote), and that the Council would be able to ram this through despite citizen objections since they’d dismiss so many of the speakers as the same old people raising the same old complaints. He was joined in dissent by Councilor Filipovich, who repeated his claim from the previous meeting: fees ought to be discussed during the regular budget process.

Several Councilors then set out to defend the fee, though they showed about as much enthusiasm for it as they might for a lobotomy. Everyone was careful to thank the citizens for their input and acknowledge various concerns. Councilor Russ said she’d prefer a tax increase to a fee and complained that it only covered half of what needed to be done, but concluded by saying “it’s hard to find a different way.” Councilors Larson and Gardner mounted a defense of “amenities” or “quality of life” expenditures, saying the investments are necessary, and that the outcry had been far worse several years earlier when the Council did move to slash Parks and Rec and library services. Councilors Sipress and Julsrud emphasized that this was only a stopgap until the city found a better overall solution, and that they would not renew it continually. “There’s a sunset for my vote” in favor of the fee, said Councilor Sipress, while Councilor Juslrud complained of U.S. infrastructure construction in Iraq and Afghanistan while federal spending (preferably funded by a gas tax) languished in the States.

Councilor Filipovich spoke for a second time to ask for “big ideas” to solve the problem, and expressed optimism that some could be found; CAO Montgomery rained on his parade and said it would be “risky to assume this,” and that another solution was “just not there” for the time being, given the “totality of the issue.” Councilor Filipovich peppily urged the CAO to have some faith, while Councilor Fosle expressed his complete lack of faith in a possible future renegotiation of the fee. Councilor Hanson thanked Councilor Filipovich for his “courage,” and applauded the city for doing its best in the budget crunch; he said there was “no hidden money anywhere,” and took shots at the two previous administrations for their handling of employee health benefits and street repair funding. He then announced that he was launching a plan to convert the DECC into a for-profit, city-run casino. Duluth: the Vegas of the Midwest!

In the end, the new fee passed 6-3, with Councilors Filipovich, Fosle, and Hanson in opposition. The related resolution and ordinance that set the fee and allowed for its collection passed by the same margin. The Council then wrapped up its evening, and for once a Duluth governmental body wrapped up its meeting when there was still daylight. There was some sense that they’d done something just for the sake of doing something, but lots of people are unhappy with street repair; the lack of diversity among the opposition speakers suggests most people are reluctantly on board with the fee. Still, the invocation throughout can’t be emphasized enough: this is not a long-term fix, and while the city can certainly pursue state or federal solutions, it cannot rely on them. Street repair is an unending problem in this city, and will likely remain in the fog for the foreseeable future. The debate will go on, and that’s not a bad thing.

6/20

20 Jun

“A person does not belong to a place until there is someone dead under the ground.” 
― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

*   *   *

          “Brotherhood”

I am a man: little do I last
and the night is enormous.
But I look up:
The stars write.
Unknowing I understand:
I too am written,
and at this very moment
someone spells me out.

           — Octavio Paz

*   *   *

Happy 16th, bro. My debt to you is eternal.

Art Johnston Under Siege: Duluth School Board Notes, 6/17/14

18 Jun

With a meeting that fell five minutes short of four hours, the ISD 709 School Board endured a grueling, painful marathon on Tuesday night. I’m only going to comment briefly on the meeting at the end of this post. Part of me is very frustrated that I have to do this, and that the circus surrounding one man overpowers the interest in the far more pressing affairs looming over the District. But it’s impossible to understand everything else that happened on Tuesday night without the overall context.

That looming bit of context, of course, was last week’s headline news: Member Art Johnston is under review for alleged improper conduct. I was unable to attend the special meeting due to the frustratingly short notice given to the public, and I have some reservations about saying too much, given that my only sources of information are hearsay and a paper of which I have a rather ambivalent opinion. Still, my initial reaction was much in line with the Duluth News Tribune’s editorial over the weekend: is this really necessary?

There were eight public speakers in Member Johnston’s defense, and in addition to a lot of other noise, they put forward one key criticism, best articulated by Ms. Denette Lynch: it seemed like a very poor use of the District’s resources to investigate something that seemed like a personal dispute between Member Johnston, Chair Miernicki, and Supt. Gronseth. The majority of the group came from the familiar crowd of Johnston supporters, that curious coalition of the sincere anti-Red Plan crowd and people who are affronted by any spending on education whatsoever. Member Welty had to talk one out of displaying his large “Fire Gronseth” sign, and the crowd of Johnston supporters, numbering perhaps twenty, whooped and laughed and cheered throughout the speeches. (Chair Miernicki made no effort to stop them, which would normally bother me no matter the topic, but given the delicacy of the power dynamic at play here, it was probably the right decision. Indeed, after five months of being rather unimpressed with Chair Miernicki’s leadership, I thought he started to come into his own on Tuesday night.)

Two speakers did stand out from the crowd. One, DFL activist Brad Clifford, put forth a broader defense of minority rights and the benefits of debate and dissention, quoting several prominent liberal politicians and saying the votes of the citizens of District Four (in favor of Johnston) ought to be respected. The other was Ms. Jane Bushey, Member Johnston’s partner, whose emotional speech jived with the general outline of the Reader account. She said “lies, accusations, and assumptions” from a Duluth East administrator had led to a request that she be moved elsewhere in the district, which HR had unquestioningly accepted. “I just want to do my job,” she said, condemning the “bullies” who were out to get her. Member Johnston’s conflict of interest in the affair and “abuse related to a staff member” constituted two of the charges against him, and are apparently the reason he sought out Chair Miernicki and Supt. Gronseth for a scolding at the Duluth East graduation.

Another charge that got plenty of mention was the alleged assault, as people indignantly wondered where the police report was. The problem here, I gather, is the awful legalese used in the accusations. In my reading of the charges, no one is technically accusing Member Johnston assault. He’s being accused of something that falls under the umbrella of “alleged assault or otherwise improper conduct.” Ditto for the “racist” accusation: the complete claim is “alleged racist or otherwise improper comments.” These are horrifically worded categories that—I presume—make the accusations sound far worse than they actually are. Knowing what I do of the incident, Member Johnston is accused of the “otherwise improper” actions. Any other claim couldn’t stand on two legs, and I doubt Supt. Gronseth and Chair Miernicki are dumb enough to push that far. Instead, they thought highly charged comments and apparent conflict of interest were enough to cross the line and launch the inquest.

The “otherwise improper” categories are obviously a legal grey area. Without knowing more, I still stand by my initial assessment: this seems like a needless distraction, and one that only empowers Member Johnston’s narrative of victimhood at the hands of the rest of the Board. What’s laughable about all of this, really, is Member Johnston’s powerlessness; sure, he can cause a stink and badger people with his questions, but when it comes to actual policy influence, his achievements are minimal. The investigation gives him a soapbox to gain more attention, drags out old fights in the negative PR, and works against the general trend of the past few months, in which Member Johnston had been more agreeable than in the past.

Still, two things struck me over the course of this meeting: the number of times that I agreed with the thrust of Member Johnston’s questions and comments (which was fairly often) and the fact that, in spite of that, he still had me cringing in exasperation every time he turned on his light. Before the meeting, I had some pre-written language ready that would have mounted a much more vigorous defense of his rights. But, after Tuesday’s display, I had to throw it out. I cannot use it in good conscience.

Part of this is a style problem. Brevity is not one of Member Johnston’s strong suits. He trails on and on, repeats himself unnecessarily, and when he doesn’t get answers he wants, he will continue to ask questions, knowing full well he won’t get the desired response. He seemed to relish every such opportunity on Tuesday, thus leading to the meeting’s absurd length. It’s his way of proving a point. It isn’t uncivil, per se, but it comes across as domineering and tiresome. It lacks all perspective, and it wears people down and makes them feel like they’re being scolded. Sure, he makes occasional overtures to finding common ground, but his comments are suffused with such a lack of trust of anyone else that it’s hard to find them wholly sincere. Again, this is not all his fault, but one wonders at what point the well becomes too poisoned to be of any use.

Moreover, he has an ally on the Board in Member Welty who, despite similar voting patterns, comes off entirely differently. He’s eloquent, and manages to maintain a sharp focus on the issues that most concern him (namely, the threat of standard operating debt) without belaboring the point. A well-honed opposition message has considerable potential, and based on Member Welty’s success, might even stand to do well in elections in places other than the most anti-establishment district in the city. It just isn’t correct for Member Johnston to act as if he is not part of his own problem.

Member Johnston’s failures don’t absolve the rest of the Board of its shortcomings. On Tuesday night, it came to light that he and Member Welty were having trouble getting things on the agenda, while majority Board members were not. While the Administration deserves some leeway in agenda creation if the items in question have already been beaten to death, the “minority rights” argument does pull significant weight. I voted for Harry Welty; I like good debate and serious questions. I do find it frustrating that the Administration can’t answer all of his questions, particularly the ones pertaining to the District’s long-term finances. He needs some people to work with him.

Sadly, the only one he has right now is someone whose personality has grown so large that it overwhelms everything else that happens. Despite the loss of an agreeable vote, I suspect Member Welty might actually be able to make more headway without the specter of Member Johnston’s outbursts looming over the Board. Member Johnston may think he’s shedding light in dark places, but in the end, his relentless questioning only serves to obscure the most pressing issues. He has got to learn how to choose his battles. His reaction is a microcosm of the whole anti-Red Plan movement that got him elected in the first place: it’s an eclectic group unified only by its opposition to something, and when it finds itself stonewalled by an imperious majority, we’re left with a lot of cathartic primal screaming that drowns out substance, leading to inevitable fracturing as everyone beats their own drums. The movement stays in the headlines, yet it achieves not a single one of its objectives. They’d rather go down kicking and screaming than be so audacious as to imagine a different paradigm. The few who hazard steps in that direction, like Member Welty, find themselves rather lonely.

In a rather fitting paradox, a discussion over The Civility Project’s nine tools of civility introduced for re-affirmation by the Board illustrated this problem best. Member Welty made a few reasonable critiques of the “subjectivity” of the whole thing, but concluded by saying he hoped it would help the District “find its better angels.” Member Johnston, after hitting a few similar notes, piled on from there, condemning left and right before attempting to haul Ms. Anita Stech, an advocate for the Civility Project, up to the podium for questioning, asking this poor woman to play judge and jury on past incidents in which he thought members of the Board had been uncivil to him. I agree that the project could be fairly empty in content if people are too locked into their views to take its points in good faith. But to expect a couple of community volunteers to wade into this mess is self-serving, and misses the point completely. (The parties in question would also be accused of partisanship the second they weighed in. Do we seriously want some self-appointed Civility Police roaming the city? Do people honestly think that would end well?) The whole special resolution was a reminder of a guideline, not a binding legal contract. (On the other end of the spectrum, Members Westholm and Seliga-Punyko raised some silly objections to Member Johnston’s ultimate attempt to include “honesty and care for other Board members” on the list, worrying about hijacking the civility people’s message. Thankfully, the majority of the Board saw that this was not worth fighting over, and passed the amendment 5-2 before the whole thing was approved unanimously.)

Perhaps this critique singles out Member Johnston when someone such as Member Seliga-Punyko is just as partisan, if not more so. She, however, has the luxury of being in the majority; she can bask in her victories without undue stress. To be an effective legislator, Member Johnston can’t just throw bombs; he needs to be able to work with his fellow Board members. To his credit, he’s tried at times. But he can’t revert to old form—not even when he gets accused of things on potentially trumped-up charges. That’s the burden of being the principled member of the minority: no matter how tempting it is to lash back, one must rise above the fray. If he can, excellent; let’s put this tiff behind us and build a better District. If not, I can’t say I’ll shed any tears if he gets the boot from the Board. He may not be the man who pulls the trigger, but he most definitely will have supplied the ammunition.

One last point: Member Johnston also seems to labor under the pretension that the incivility directed toward him is among the causes for the District’s enrollment struggles. Sure, the negative headlines don’t help, but on the list of reasons why people don’t enroll their kids in ISD 709, the plight of one cantankerous Board member is very, very far down the list. Another useful point to minority members who want to advance their cause: never over-inflate your own role in the drama. Your critics may want to make you (and not your platform) the story. Don’t let them. In doing so, you hand them the win. It’s not about you.

***

So, what did the Board do on Tuesday besides play out a drama over the representative of the Fourth District? It passed a budget, for one thing. Member Welty voted against it because of his lack of information on the long-term picture, and there was some aimless talk over whether it is better to use increased assets to rebuild the reserve fund (as Member Welty suggested) or simply injected straight back into the schools (Member Johnston). There was the aforementioned flap over how to get things on the agenda, with the majority voting down Johnston and Welty 5-2 in their effort to change things.

There was a constructive discussion in the Education Committee report on the evolving policies for students who have been bullied or sexually harassed, and Member Westholm was pleased to announce that staffing levels were the most stable he’d seen in all his years. (That’s a long time.) Member Johnston, upset with how an Administration re-shuffle had opened up the curriculum director position, voted against that particular item, which otherwise passed 6-1, and he got in his usual shtick about enrollment numbers. There was a repeat of the debate over the number of people needed to call a special meeting, with the same result as at the May meeting. Member Johnston also asked why a large number of Piedmont teachers had apparently applied to transfer schools, and Supt. Gronseth replied with a long list of reasons, from changes in leadership to opportunities in administration that had opened up. That wrapped up the meeting, a few minutes shy of 10:30. Why I do this to myself, I’m not entirely sure.

From One Cup to Another

14 Jun

The hockey season came to an end on Friday night, with the Los Angeles Kings collecting a second Stanley Cup in three years. They dispatched of the New York Rangers in five tidy games; sure, three went to overtime, but the Rangers never could quite shake off the sense that the real battle for the title came in the Western Conference Final between Los Angeles and the Chicago Blackhawks. That series was the highlight of the postseason, a reminder of everything the NHL can be as the winners of four of the past five Cups seesawed back and forth over the course of seven games.

The Kings are deserving champs, a thoroughly complete team that made dramatic comebacks and overtime thrillers a matter of daily routine. Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar are at the top of their games, Marian Gaborik proved the ideal rental of a championship caliber finisher, and Justin Williams and Alec Martinez provided the clutch heroics. Los Angeles may never be a proper hockey town, but the Kings are starting to develop a reputation, an image cultivated by the stone-faced Darryl Sutter, whose fixation on the moment made it easy to settle into the rhythm of the playoffs and take everything in stride.

The overmatched Rangers, meanwhile, were left to lean on the brilliance of Henrik Ludnqvist in goal. Smothered under wave after wave of King forecheckers, the Rangers iced and coughed up the puck far too often, leaving King Henrik as their sole line of defense. He singlehandedly gave them a shot in Game Five, but the Ranger skaters, already outclassed by their counterparts, looked to be out of gas.

The playoffs were also a coming out party for Ryan McDonagh, the Ranger defenseman and Cretin-Derham Hall alumnus. While not flawless, McDonagh was a wrecking ball throughout, and his lasered shots from the point were among the most effective weapons in the New York arsenal. If his shot had gone a half-inch to the left in the first overtime on Friday night, and we’re probably getting ready for Game Six. The 2007 Mr. Hockey can now claim the mantel of best Minnesotan in the NHL, and from there, it’s not too much of a stretch to place him near the top of the best Americans in the league. Of course it can be hard to compare positions, and Patrick Kane is probably better when he’s at the top of his game (which is not exactly every game he plays), but McDonagh is right up there with anyone. I am annoyed by attempts to use individual players to build up or tear down certain development paths—using such logic makes one a better cherry-picker than Dave Spehar—but McDonagh’s prowess at the very least shows that Minnesota high school kids can become franchise players without running halfway across the continent to get to that point.

And now, after spending so many hours watching artistry on ice sheets, we turn southward to look for it in a jungle. Three days into the World Cup, the race for the title has only tightened. Host Brazil is the obvious favorite, but they didn’t exactly look like a championship caliber squad in the opener. Sure, they won 3-1, but they were the beneficiaries of some generous refereeing and shoddy goalkeeping, and showed serious weaknesses down their flanks. Croatia, meanwhile, can be reasonably proud of its effort, and has some chance to go through to the second round.

The big shocker came on Day Two, when the Dutch dismantled Spain 5-1 in a rematch of the last Cup final. The men in orange, after entering the Cup with little fanfare, are suddenly back among the contenders, while Spain now looks like the old team past its prime. The loss naturally brought about some talk of the demise of tiki-taka; I’m not sure it’s a condemnation of the tactic so much as it is a sign of decline among this squad’s longtime core. As Barcelona’s parallel (relative) struggles have shown over the past two years, tiki-taka requires a relentless work rate, something that older players just may not have, especially in the Brazilian heat. Their next match, coming against a decent Chile side that won its opener, will be instructive. It’s worth remembering that they lost their 2010 opener to a weak Switzerland side before kicking it into gear.

Speaking of looking old, Uruguay sure did in a 3-1 stunner of a loss against Costa Rica on Saturday. With Luis Suarez on the bench and injured, the rest of the squad melted about the pitch in Fortaleza, allowing Los Ticos to impose their will with surprising ease. Colobmia’s impressive win over Greece, on the other hand, marked them as a potential player, especially given their weak group; they now join Belgium among the chic picks to make a rare venture into the later rounds. And age showed no signs of slowing Italy, whose 2-1 victory over England may have been the most championship-worthy performance to date. Andrea Pirlo remains peerless at age 35, and Mario Balotelli’s presence insures the Italians won’t be exemplars of bus-parking boredom, as they occasionally can be.

Mexico opened with a 1-0 victory over Cameroon that could easily have been more lopsided. El Tri hobbled into the Cup, but the core of this team did win a gold medal two years ago in London, and new manager Miguel Herrera hasn’t been afraid to shake things up in pursuit of a winning formula. So far, so good for the boys south of the border; Brazil awaits next. The U.S., meanwhile, has to be excited to get out on the pitch on Monday so that Jurgen Klinsmann is no longer the focus of the headlines. It has been anything but a smooth run-up to the Cup for the American skipper, and while I largely support his vision, I wonder how long it will take for him to wear out his welcome if things keep up like this. It doesn’t matter how good a coach’s ideas are if he cannot command the respect of his players. With the U.S. stuck in the group of death, any realistic judgment of Klinsmann’s efforts will have to take much more than the results into account.

My pick to win it all remains the Argentines, though I admit part of that may be my well-hidden diabolical side coming out as I try to imagine an Albiceleste victory parade in Rio. Argentina has a few questions on defense and their unmatched strikeforce will need to find some chemistry if the whole is to exceed the sum of the parts. It may also be a while before they’re seriously tested, as they’ve drawn a cakewalk of a group. Messi and Friends sailed through the early rounds four years ago, but Germany took them apart in the knockout stage. The question here is one of discipline: can this team come together in the homeland of its most bitter rival?

When it comes to discipline, Germany and Italy always lead the pack; while Europeans traditionally don’t do well in South America, those two are clearly among the safest picks for a title at the moment. Portugal is also somewhere in the picture, depending on the state of Cristiano Ronaldo’s knee; even with him, they don’t exactly play a thrilling brand of futebol. The French and English camps are surprisingly quiet; for once, the expectations around those two squads might be realistic, and it will be interesting to see if they, like the Dutch, can serve up a reminder of their proud histories. The early returns on England are not exactly glowing, while the French get underway Sunday against bottom-feeder Honduras. (Spanish pun alert.)

Heat and referee controversies aside, the games so far have been defined by a lot of offense. That’s great for the tournament as a whole, though it’s worth noting that some of the best performances—like those of the Dutch and Costa Ricans—weren’t the result of throwing attackers forward with reckless abandon; instead, they focused on good discipline first, and let a select few forwards roam freely to create their chances. One is reminded of that positivist slogan across the heart of the globe on the Brazilian flag: ordem e progresso. Order and progress. It had mixed results as a turn of the century political platform, but as a maxim for modern futebol, it gets things about right. The Spaniards might rebound and the Argentines have yet to unveil their approach, but I wouldn’t bet on a variant of Total Football winning this Cup. There is too much parity, too many teams well-built to rely on the counter, and too much humidity. The eventual winner will be above all a disciplined squad, and will couple that with enough offensive initiative to eclipse those who park the bus. We’ll check back in a month to see who that might be.

A Meeting of Epic Length: Duluth City Council Notes, 6/9/14

10 Jun

The Duluth City Council had a marathon for the ages on Monday night, enduring 4:20 of debate. (There’s a joke in there somewhere, but I won’t touch it.) There range of issues on the table ran the gamut, and in turn, there was a large, diverse crowd on hand to speak on many of the agenda items. For sanity’s sake I’m going to chop this post up by issue, rather than turn it into a dissertation; clarity will take priority over my aesthetic sensibilities so as to make sense of it all.

Introduction and Issues Inspiring Minimal Discussion

General community speakers included a Duluth East student announcing her presence and interest in more room for young people to participate in politics, a woman who worried about sinkholes, and a man with no apparent interest in being taken seriously. Councilor Fosle pulled a series of resolutions awarding parks grants and creating (or with the possibility of creating) new staffing positions so he could vote against them; they all passed, 8-1. There were no reports or updates on general issues of any significance, and nothing came off the consent agenda that hadn’t already been pulled.

Street Light Fees

First up was a plan to sunset the city’s unpopular street light fee, which had been tabled at the previous meeting. The resolution and related ordinance on the agenda aimed to phase out the fee by the end of 2018, but Councilor Fosle, the fee’s most vocal opponent, moved an amendment to slide that date up to 2015, repeating his stance that the fee constituted a double-tax. The amendment generated zero momentum; while Councilors Russ, Spiress, and Krug were sympathetic, they said the city couldn’t cut out that revenue so quickly without finding a replacement for lost revenue. The amendment failed, 1-8.

Supporters of the fee’s elimination then made their case. Councilor Gardner said the 2018 deadline was a long enough time frame to find an alternative, and Councilor Sipress explained his philosophical opposition to fees, which he called the “most unfair” type of tax. He later expressed support for a property tax increase to cover lost fee money, and several other Councilors signed on to that plan. Councilor Fosle did not, but he also joined the war against fees, reminding the audience of the time when Duluth made late night TV jokes for an aborted plan to impose a fee to fund fire departments and law enforcement.

Councilor Filipovich dissented, saying the discussion should be part of the annual budget process, and Councilor Larson worried about passing the burden off on future Councils and possible cuts to “quality of life services” such as libraries. The most vocal opposition, however, came from CAO Montgomery, who was as pointed as he has ever been. He was fine with the discussion, but said it should be part of the budget process, and that the lack of a funding plan ran counter to the “path to financial predictability and stability” that the administration has so desperately sought. A levy increase to cover the resultant shortfall “would not be modest,” and the city only had so much wiggle room in the amount it can levy while still covering everything else. President Krug agreed that it was “not responsible,” and thought the issue was being used to “teach a lesson on fees.”

Councilor Julsrud “completely disagree[d].” Fees, she insisted, are a “short-term fix,” not a long-term piece of the budget, and she said basic services should come through the levy. In the end, her logic prevailed by the narrowest of margins: the repeal of the fee passed 5-4, with Councilors Fosle, Gardner, Julsrud, Russ, and Sipress making up the piecemeal coalition.

Street Repair Fees

The Council then moved from one fee to another and took up a proposed fee to pay for street repairs. There were nine citizen speakers on the topic, all opposed, though they came at it from different angles. Some, like Councilor Sipress in the previous exchange, claimed a fee was an unfair and regressive; others, such as Mr. Joe Kleiman, preferred a fee since it spread the burden, but opposed the heavier toll this particular fee would impose upon businesses. One speaker had issues with the process, and another suggested the city strong-arm the Fon Du Luth Casino into submission so as to regain its lost revenue.

Councilor Gardner then moved to introduce an amendment, which aimed to lessen the amount of double-taxing by limiting the assessment in the first year of the fee. There was much confusion over the language of the amendment, which led to an agonizingly long bureaucratic exchange, as amendments were made to the amendment and amendments made to the amendment to the amendment before all of the amendments were pulled and one clean one was put forward. Councilor Julsrud was its most vocal opponent, wondering about costs and saying it was only “a drop in the bucket” of the larger street picture. CAO Montgomery likewise grumbled about lost revenue, but while it would involve work, he said the amendment was “doable” when pressed by Councilor Filipovich. The amendment passed 5-4, with Councilors Filipovich, Fosle, Gardner, Hanson, and Krug in support. This change was substantial enough that the ordinance must be read before the Council again at the next meeting, so the attached resolution was thus tabled as well.

Spirit Mountain

In a brief but blunt discussion, Councilor Julsrud used a resolution aiming to increase Spirit Mountain’s line of credit to “crack the whip” on its management. She complained about all of the red ink in its financials and said that “weather can’t be a repeated excuse” for an institution that must necessarily deal with winter weather. Councilor Hanson read a letter from a constituent that took Spirit Mountain to task for its failure to make payments in recent years, and noted the drastic increase in its credit limit. CAO Montgomery tried to explain the situation some, citing the particularly harsh winter as a problem, and talked up the fiscal chops of Spirit’s incoming director. Everyone echoed each other a lot, Councilor Fosle suggested they give the new director some time before grilling her, and Councilor Hanson made several abuses of figurative language. The resolution passed unanimously.

Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)

One might think that electoral systems would not be an issue that inspires heated manifestos and bitter divisions. One would be wrong.

First, Councilor Sipress introduced an amendment that altered the language of the resolution, toning down its explicit recommendation for adopting IRV and simply asking the charter commission to study it. It also removed a timeline that sought to fast-track the charter change for a November ballot initiative. The Councilors noted that the 60 day allowance for charter commission review would likely allow enough time to get the measure on the ballot this fall if approved, so Councilor Sipress’s amendment passed fairly easily. Only Councilor Fosle spoke against it, calling it a “safeguard for a flawed system.”

Eleven citizen speakers came forward on IRV. Seven, including five locals and two people from FairVote Minnesota, an IRV advocacy group, spoke in favor of its implementation. They claimed a wide array of benefits, including greater representation of underrepresented groups, the elimination of high-cost and low-turnout primaries, and relative simplicity once voters are educated. Several also pointed to the success of the 2013 Minneapolis mayoral elections, which they said had been “more civil” due to the need for candidates to court second choice votes.

Three UMD math and statistics professors also spoke on the issue, and gave a somewhat less rosy picture of IRV. They said that, despite the shiny packaging, IRV does not perform as well under scrutiny. They cited flaws in the algorithm that lead to “voter regret,” IRV’s tendency to lock in two-party systems, and data from several cities with more extensive experience than Minneapolis that had moved away from IRV. They recommended further discussion of possible alternatives and offered to further educate the public. (One has offered to meet with me, so there will be some follow-up on this in the not-so-distant future.) A final speaker in opposition (unaffiliated with the professors) worried about the fast pace of implementation and thought the elderly and disabled would struggle to make sense of IRV.

Despite the easy passage of Councilor Sipress’s amendment, several Councilors still had strong reservations about implementing IRV. (It took a while before Councilor Hanson brought it up, but it was clear that the Council’s flailing attempt to use IRV back in February was hanging over the debate.) Councilor Julsrud mounted a defense of the primary system, saying it used highly engaged citizens to weed candidates who are not serious, and that IRV’s large election fields tend to favor “big personalities.” She suggested any move to IRV should be made in conjunction with the school board and the county so as to avoid confusion. Councilor Filipovich said he became “more skeptical” the more he learned about IRV, and that there was a fundamental question of how people’s votes are counted at play. Several Councilors also disliked the process, saying it should come from citizen demand rather than from above, and that there was no demand for change or explanation of “why now.” (This strikes me as by far the weakest counterargument; there were clearly citizens in the room who supported IRV and were trying to get things moving, and this doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that needs a specific catalyst to get off the ground. If it’s properly vetted [an important ‘if’] and people approve, then go for it.)

Councilor Gardner took exception to these objections. If people really wanted to learn more, she said, they should send the recommendation on to the charter commission and let it do the work. This was their opportunity to learn more, she claimed, and it would be “closed-minded” to cut off the debate with a ‘no’ vote. Councilor Larson concurred, and insisted the conversation on IRV needed to continue.

As the debate went on, the Council’s professionalism went out the window. Councilor Fosle went into loose cannon mode, intimating that someone must be making money off the scheme to implement IRV; he also shot off about the number of speakers from Minneapolis, claiming he does not represent them. (Councilor Hanson repeated this; President Krug, an IRV champion, indignantly offered to provide addresses for all of the speakers.) Councilor Filipovich spoke far more pointedly that usual in opposition to IRV; while within the bounds of regular Council debate, President Krug tried to hurry him along, ostensibly because it was a long night and his comments weren’t all specific to the narrow intent of the resolution. Councilor Hanson continued to push her buttons with an attempt to ask questions, and while I agree that his debating style is often scattered, aimless and even grating at times (regardless of the issue), one got the clear sense that President Krug’s frustration with him had as much to do with his stance as with his method.

Councilor Hanson and President Krug traded barbs, with Hanson saying he felt like he was “being scolded by a schoolteacher,” Krug cutting him off, and Hanson saying this proved his point. The push for IRV failed 4-5, with support from Councilors Gardner, Krug, Larson, and Sipress. After the vote, President Krug topped everything off with a silly, grandstanding speech, saying “shame on you, Councilors,” for voting the proposal down, and that “you’ll have to sleep with that tonight.” Whatever the merits of a case, telling one’s colleagues that they should be ashamed of themselves has got to be among the most counterproductive options available after one has lost a close vote. President Krug leads the Council with authority, and there is much to be said for that, but she has shown an occasional tendency to allow her opinions to color her leadership and use her presidency as a bully pulpit. Her outburst at the end only confirmed this sneaking suspicion. I think (and hope) this is just an unintentional display of passion, but no matter what, it is both obvious and painful to watch. There is enough blame to go around, though: the Council lost its sense of perspective on this one.

Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial Landmark Status

It was past 10:30 by the time the Council started in on an ordinance that would preserve the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial as a heritage preservation landmark, but seven speakers stuck around to support granting it that status. They cited its role as a gathering site, its importance in soothing past wounds, and its stimulation of reflection. Mr. David Woodward of the Heritage Preservation Commission explained in detail how the memorial qualified due to its place in a historic district and symbolic value, despite its relative newness. Councilor Gardner was most struck by the comments of Mr. Roger Grégoire, who said he knew of no other memorial of this type in the world, and applauded Duluth’s “extraordinary” efforts to seek “redemption.” In a vintage display of Duluthianism, if there is such a thing, Councilor Gardner said the process to establish the memorial “just seemed very natural.” The ordinance passed unanimously.  (A special Patient Cycle Award goes to speaker Portia Johnson’s teenage son, who stayed by her side through the entire night without any signs of restlessness.)

Rockridge Zoning and Conclusion

The one last thing on the agenda of some note was the re-zoning of the former Rockridge Elementary site. Mr. Mark Irving, a neighbor, stuck out the entire night to thank all parties for their work in finding a solution for everyone. It passed unanimously and without debate, prompting a sigh and a laugh from Mr. Kerry Leider of the School District, who had waited it out in the chance that something did come up. After that, I was the only person left in the audience chamber, doodling deliriously as the Council plowed through a heap of unanimously approved ordinances. In the closing comments, there was one final back-and-forth on the handling of the IRV debate between Councilor Fosle and President Krug, with Fosle saying Robert’s Rules of Order had not been followed, Krug saying the Council has a precedent of not following them religiously, and Fosle concluding by saying, “but we don’t cut people off, either.” That did cut off the debate, though, and everyone headed for the exits in exhaustion.

Y Tu Mamá También: Into the Mouth of Heaven

8 Jun

I spent most of my weekend engrossed in Alfonso Cuarón’s 2001 film Y tu Mamá También, either in watching it (twice) or in quiet reflection, even as I went on with a bunch of other tasks.I’d somehow missed it until now, which makes little sense, since it’s a film that brings together so many of my favorite things: masterful cinematography, rapid-fire dialogue, the vividness of Mexico, coming-of-age stories, detached political commentary, road trips, reflections on mortality, and gratuitous sex.

The story is about two wealthy Mexican teenage boys, Tenoch and Julio, afflicted with a serious case of affluenza and the resultant ennui. They do drugs and drink and generally live for sex, whether it’s with their girlfriends or their friends’ girlfriends or tu mamá también or just relentless masturbation. They make a pass at a married Spanish woman named Luisa at a foppish birthday party, and she, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, takes them up on an offer of a road trip to a nonexistent beach named the Mouth of Heaven. And so the threesome sets out across southern Mexico, in pursuit of both literal and figurative mouths of heaven.

It sounds like the old life-changing road trip trope, but Y Tu Mamá También never quite settles for the comfort of the genre. Frequent voiceovers render the characters small pieces at the mercy of the whirlwind of Mexican life, at times the narrator gives a voice to the touching stares, as when Tenoch shows some fleeting recognition of his housekeeper’s hometown, jarred into awareness of life beyond his pampered world. Mexico’s troubled past and uncertain future are woven in the adventure through poignant vignettes, though if the film has a weakness, it might be its attempt to carve out a place in Mexico’s political narrative. (It’s set in 1999, on the brink of the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party’s electoral defeat in 2000.) Its critiques of Mexico are more timeless than anything particular to that moment, and when it comes to conveying that reality, Emmanuel Lubezki’s beautiful cinematography should be allowed to speak for itself.

And speak it does: Y Tu Mamá También is a gorgeous film, teeming with that dust-covered tinge of the Mexican countryside; that sense that, despite the presence of that omniscient voiceover, nothing here is quite understandable through the languages we speak. While the boys blather on about sex, they’re sharing spaces with stoic Mexican peasants, worlds apart, which the cameras will occasionally follow down back halls in their slow pans. The film wisely keeps any growing awareness well-hidden, which magnifies the moments when it does come through, as when an aged woman gifts Luisa a little stuffed mouse with her name on it, and when the boys play in the surf with a fisherman. There are no eureka moments boys, but the baleful looks and moments of silence coupled with spurts of serendipity say what words cannot. Nor is their growing awareness entirely a force for unity, as they begin to examine the basis of their own friendship.

It’s easy to dismiss Julio and Tenoch as total dirtbags, which they pretty much are. And yet the film is still tender with them, even as it slowly tears down their world of teenage revelry. Their manifesto, while predictably juvenile in places, aspires to a code of brotherhood: a pledge of unity in the face of a dead Mexican elite, and a desire to live as freely as they can. “Truth is cool, but unattainable,” says Julio; “honesty is the best policy, but fuck, it’s hard to reach it.” And so the boys make their own truth; an unsustainable one, perhaps, but its aspirations are enough to delight the lost Luisa. One is reminded of the claim that Nietzsche is the adolescent’s philosopher, the little Ubermenschen relying on their bravado to build something for themselves in the midst of a wasteland.

Despite the trappings of wealth, it really is a wasteland. Not coincidentally, neither one has a father figure worthy of respect; Tenoch’s is a corrupt government official, while Julio’s is absent. Tenoch’s mother is a naïve dabbler, while Julio’s is a career woman who never appears; their friends appear even more drug-addled and less stable than they are. The boys, raised in an environment masquerading as paradise, must manufacture the drama in their lives, seeking new highs and any gratification to give it all meaning. The pathologies at play are the same as those afflicting countless boys in any country: products of broken homes and superficial cultures and lives without limits. Luisa and her husband may be literal orphans, but they are all adrift. Julio and Tenoch think they know who they are and what they want, but the road trip starts to eat at those certainties; Luisa has no idea who she is and where she is going, and starts to find exactly what she needs simply by living.

The film is often reminiscent of Kerouac in its tricky balance. It grabs attention by reveling in the awesomeness of being a sexed-up boy in the prime of life, and yet through it all there is an elegiac tone of longing for something more. The boys don’t see it at the start; depending on how one interprets the ending, they may not necessarily see it there, either. What they do have, though, is that willingness to seize life on their terms, which leads them to make a pass at Luisa, and that sets a chain of events in motion that will both break them and give them a chance to start anew. A well-executed bildungsroman is never clean in its progression, and there is a superb tension between the boys’ bravado and their brokenness, both of which have a necessary place.

The character who gives the film its elegiac edge is Luisa, who is the antithesis of a Kerouac female; she’s not there simply for the boys’ sexual pleasure, but instead is a thoroughly complex character, alluring even when haunted. She is a woman with nothing left to live for, on the run in search of any sort of release, and ready to take delight in most anything. There is a quiet urgency to her search, as she latches on to the boys, tries to teach them a thing or two, grows alienated by their failures, makes amends, and then, finally, discards them so as to “become one with the sea.”

There is no death or violence on the screen in Y Tu Mamá También, but the fragility of life and the resultant immediacy push its characters to throw aside all caution and tempt fate in their exploits. This is a very Mexican theme, and Octavio Paz would most certainly have appreciated the cathartic rush of tequila shots that builds toward the climax. Luisa tells the boys that their country “exudes life,” but that life may only be possible because death is also so present. This is life on the edge, its vividness riveting and its loss a genuine tragedy.

It is also masterful cinema. It’s pretty and political and laden with symbolism and edgy and so many of the other things a great film should be. But its real strength is in its three brilliant leads, who take their viewers along with them on three journeys that seem so very real, and all deeply personal. There is a struggle to harness masculinity, a brush with those questions on what we’re doing here, and a literal journey through Mexico, exactly as I remember my adopted second country. Days later I’m still processing, not always finding comfortable answers. What more can we ask for?