Archive | August, 2017

Debating a Response to Charlottesville

18 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

So, let’s discuss.

Adventures of a Not-Quite-Luddite Millennial

7 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Think Local, Act Regional

2 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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