Archive | August, 2017

An Alternative History

30 Aug

I have survived one year back in Duluth. My first year back, I think, has charted on to what a sober assessment of it would have looked at the start. When I look back on the “why I should and shouldn’t move back to Duluth” chart I drew up last summer, it’s all accurate, the good and the bad. Obviously I’m here, so the good outweighs the bad, but I won’t pretend this has been a flawless return, either. I didn’t expect it to be.

As I pondered one complete year of adult life during a weekend of fiction-writing and raindrop-dodging in northern Itasca County last weekend, I revisited the two essays I had ready to go at this time a year ago, as I awaited a decision on my current job: the one that appeared here, overflowing with pride that a quixotic path was cycling back home, and the concession speech that was left unpublished. Much as I love the success story that became reality, the more depressing version hit home in new ways. It was one of the most unsparing pieces of self-examination in a life rarely lacking in such examination. I share it here:

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Like any good PR person, I had two blog posts written for today, a victory speech and a concession address. Alas, what you are about to read is the latter. Losing out on a dream job, for all its disappointment, gives me a chance to look back on these three months, and let out a little more than I normally do.

If nothing else, this period of post-grad school marginal employment has given me some understanding of life on the edge. I humor myself, of course: I have safety nets ready for me. Outwardly, I’ve probably seemed my usual self, and I’ve traveled some and stayed highly social and spent many a relaxing afternoon reading in a park or running around lakes. I’ve developed strong coping mechanisms to keep me from lapsing into depression, or the hyper-anxiety that was a feature of my uncertain prospects after my undergraduate days (this blog being one of them). Much of my frustration is blatantly of my own making, as the earnest desire to have a rewarding first post-grad school job unites with the entitlement of a Georgetown graduate to make me exceptionally picky, perhaps too disdainful of the entry-level work that would earn me my dues.

But the peaks and valleys are so much more extreme amid this waiting game, ranging from exhilaration over possible life courses to despair over a lack of breaks from one second to the next. One grad school professor, commenting on a survey he did of public housing residents, said the biggest takeaway from the survey was the uselessness of surveys: his subjects of study ran the gamut of emotions about their experience based on how their ever-so-tenuous financial, health, and emotional situations were playing out on a given day. Over the past three months, I’ve come to understand how violently a person can lurch from one extreme to the other.

My valleys usually take the form of detachment and removal, in long hours staring at a screen. Much of this procrastination is enlightened, as I survey reams of articles on the Trump campaign or the fate of Western Civilization or some distant conflict, but it loses touch with some of the more fundamental things I believe. It substitutes ivory tower analysis for opening up my eyes and seeing the world around me. I’m not getting out enough, and while finances are a fine excuse here, they are just that: an excuse.

I’m headed back to Duluth shortly, though it’s hardly the triumphant return of my dreams. My return may also prove very brief, depending on job prospects in different places. I love the place, but I also know not to make an idol of earthly things, and as time goes on, different options start to seem more attractive. I wonder vaguely if I’m invested too much in a fleeting dream for a childhood that never was. It may be time to soldier outward; perhaps to take full advantage of that Georgetown degree in certain circles, perhaps time for something a bit more unexpected. I’m open to ideas.

Near the end of my time in graduate school, on a day when I felt particularly drained by the onslaught of school and work and life-related stresses, I sent out an email to everyone in my program. Its premise was simple: I’d find time to meet with anyone who needed a beer, a coffee, or even just a walk around a lake. We could talk about these important decisions we needed to make in the coming months, or about nothing related to them at all; whatever the other person wanted. There were a handful of takers before it petered out, and while the sentiment was and is genuine, too often, it seems to fade as new issues emerge. The more I venture into the adult world, the more I marvel at how many things hinge on communication, and how often that communication winds up being so sadly incomplete, if not downright bad.

I’m writing about this not to show off my altruism, but to remind myself that this commitment didn’t die with commencement, and that it extends to my many connections beyond graduate school. These are the sorts of connections to reality that too many of us don’t exemplify often enough. On the verge of a new round of good-byes, however fleeting they might be, I often lament how little we know about each other, even if we’ve spent significant time together. It is these human stories, these genuine connections, that are still the foundation of everything I believe in and hope to work for someday, and if I can’t live that out, why am I here?

And so I head north to continue this absurd quest to live out a life of virtue in a world that barely knows what the word means anymore. My appeal to virtue may be the fallback of an uncertain kid; God knows I’d rather be making a solid salary than go the way of Diogenes. But the choice isn’t always mine to make, and I’ve approached most interviews under the assumption that my questioners would rather hear more about skills than a meticulously argued philosophy on life. That may be a mistake: there is no substitute for sincerity.

This could have been a triumph, but things are never so easy, even for us careful planners: the virtuous road is a murky one. My summer wanderings, whether in a car across the country or around my Chain of Lakes here in Minneapolis, have provided little clarity beyond short-term spurts. I must continue to make peace with uncertainty, to depose of false idols, and to reach always toward that excellence that I always aspire to but, too often lately, have fallen short of. I can only hope to recover the wonder, still there beneath all these layers of frustration and cynicism, but just not visible often enough. What other choice do I have?

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Heavy, but true. If there is a lesson from my first year in the working world, it’s that being a member of that world does not answer any of those more existential questions I asked in this history that wasn’t. I’m very good at critiquing, but my record at putting a positive vision into place is a bit more mixed. So, if you’re in Duluth, let me know if you’re in the mood for a beer or a coffee or a walk, and if you’re not, you’re always welcome here. I still have a lot of work to do, and need a lot more people to be part of it.

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A Wave of Purity

27 Aug

Thanksgiving morning finds Evan driving alone up the shore of Lake Superior; alone, save for the urn of ashes riding shotgun. He’s had his license for three weeks now, and every acceleration in his mom’s old car still feels like a new burst of freedom, one mile closer to some reunion with an unseen destiny. Not that he can drive without some anxiety. His nerves rise when he crosses the patches where the road glistens in the car’s headlights, the road coated by spray from this November gale. This all still has the feeling of a forbidden pleasure, one of which his dad at his best would have no doubt approved. Those moments were rare toward the end, and as depression consumed and defeated Evan’s once vibrant guide. For now, though, he can choose what he remember of the man whose ashes ride along at his side. His old man will inspire him. The rush only grows as he swings on to a puddle-strewn gravel road out toward a point some ways north of town.

He didn’t want to spend this holiday with his mother’s family, not after what they’d said about his dad at Thanksgiving a year ago. He is too loyal to his father to blame him for leaving him behind, and the inundation of pity from the extended family was too much to endure. The visit over the summer had been even worse: didn’t his mother think Evan was letting himself go, they’d asked. He needed a haircut, he was far too young for that dating app, and he could probably use some friends who got him back in touch with that artistic side he’d used to show. This is what she got for letting her late husband turn him into a jock instead of making sure he followed in his cousins’ footsteps to choir and cello scholarships.

His mother, to her credit, stood up for his freedom to live as he pleased. She understood the adolescent impulses at play when he said he’d rather stay home for Thanksgiving, enjoy some personal time and feast with an accommodating friend’s family later in the day. He feels vaguely treacherous as he surveys the shoreline here, in full betrayal of her faith in his good decision-making. But somehow, he knows he’ll have no trouble drowning the guilt.

The stormwaters hammer away at a rocky beach. A few gawkers are on hand to admire the swells, but Evan makes sure to park as far from anyone as he can. He stops to admire himself in the mirror: yes, all this effort he’s put in to make himself look good over the past year has paid off. He smiles at himself, then reaches beneath the surfboard jutting through the middle of the car and fishes out the wetsuit at the feet of the passenger’s seat. It will be tight on him; he’s grown a few inches since he got it for Christmas two years ago. But he forces his way into it, an unwieldy dance between himself and Neoprene and the steering wheel at his knees. He’s in no rush, takes measured pride in his efforts. Every move is steady, deliberate, dripping with certainty. As it should be.

He pops the trunk throws open his door only to have the wind nearly blow it shut in his face. He struggles out into the elements, makes his way to the back of the car, and scans the road: no, no one can see him. He pulls out the board, fights the wind as he closes the trunk, and picks out a path down to the rocks. A heat wave the previous week melted all the snow, but thin layers of ice carried in by the lake force him to fixate on each small step down to the shore. He’s seen big waves before, knows the danger they bring. But the steely grey sky and the bone-chilling cold reveal a malice he’d never known in the Great Lake before. If he picks the wrong waves, he’s most certainly dead.

Evan is not a veteran surfer. His résumé is limited to a series of vacations on the California coast, all of which started with noble intentions of conquering waves that swiftly dried out when his mediocre swimming skills ran up against the endless need to paddle outward. His mother dissuaded him at every chance she got, but his dad was always the trusting soul who knew his otherwise religiously risk-averse son ought to catch a wave when it rose up before him. As far as his mother knows, the surfboard is still gathering dust in the basement, a forgotten relic of happier days when they’d escape to San Onofre for spring break. But he’s put in his time to plan for this day. He’s researched this shoal meticulously, made three drives out this fall when he only had his permit, the closest thing his mother’s little saint has ever come to rule-breaking (whatever his worrying aunt may say). He chose each of those visits to survey the waves in prime conditions, to watch a couple of locals in action. But on none of those occasions had the winds approached this vicious pummeling power. His knees are quaking as he stares out at the roiling waters, his tremors in no way related to the cold.

His face clenches up into a grimace. If he can’t deliver now, when will he ever? Evan fixes the tether to his leg and marches out into the surf, lets the first wave break around him, gains some confidence that those that follow won’t bowl him over. He shuffles his way past the dashing rocks and then launches himself in, struggling to paddle out through the vicious breakers and toward a takeoff point that looms on the horizon. He labors intently, thankful for those long hours in the gym of late, his arms now just powerful enough to pull him out into the open lake.

The rest of the world ceases to exist. Evan, alone amid his unrelenting swells, all life reduced to himself and these crashing monsters that have swamped vessels sixty times the length of his little board. His mother, his father, his friends, his family: they all are gone now. His mind has no choice but to lock in on his singular purpose. He exhales, shuffles his body forward on the board, waits for a set that will suit him. He lets two passable swells roll by before he musters up the courage to clamber to his feet.

He lasts all of three seconds. He topples, battles back his panic to a level he can more or less manage. The waves come so much faster here than on the ocean, a relentless barrage of punches that land blow after blow. His mouthful of water may not be salty, but it chills him to the bone. He struggles back on to his board and forces himself back out, determined to ride one in with some measure of competence. His arms groan amid this unrelenting slog, though they’re afterthoughts compared to the protests in that ever-so-rational corner of his mind. A sudden howl of wind has the waves rising up as high as eighteen feet: true monsters of the lake, enough to challenge even the experts. He shouldn’t be here, yet here he is. He climbs to his feet for a second time, but the wave fells him immediately. Eternal seconds pass as he flounders in hapless misery. His ice bath plunges him into the depths of his fears, a cold, dark terror that instills a new wish for life within. He wrestles his way back on to the board and pushes back outward, ever outward.

Evan struggles out four more times, each effort deadening his queasy stomach. Fear becomes routine. He never lasts upright more than four seconds. This is far beyond his pay grade, far beyond a couple of halfhearted lessons from some stoned-out beach bums at Laguna Beach. Did they ever tempt death in the way he now does? If they did, they never said as much. Not that he’d blame them. This urge isn’t something he could explain, either.

The next wave has a different feel to him. It catches his eyes with a mysterious greenish tinge, something that marks it as different from the rest. This one, he knows, is the one. Eyes wide with delight, Evan surges with strength, picks out his line, and shoots down the tunnel in full control. He pulls back and rides the crest, and for the first time in his life nails a turn. He cruises the length of the wave for another five seconds before he crumples down to the surface of his board. He flounders, then resurfaces, pitching violently as the waves carry him in. His eyes are swimming, though not just from the spray: triumph and loss overwhelm him at once, sudden oneness with a sheer awesome force capable of destroying him. He’s done what he set out to do.

His moment of victory makes him complacent. The waves carry him in to toward a vicious reef, and he’s reduced to another sloppy and fearful paddle back to safer waters. For a fleeting second he imagines he can repeat that triumphant ride. No, no, he immediately tells himself: to even try would be to tempt a fate he does not dare imagine. This is enough.

By the time he coasts back into shore he has a small audience bending in the breeze to watch him. An older couple watches with worry and awe, and a mother with three preteen boys shepherds her flock away when she realizes this phantom emerging from the waves can’t be out of high school: she doesn’t want them getting any ideas. The old man politely applauds his performance, and Evan’s taught nerves burst into a wicked grin.

“You seem awful young,” offers his wife.

A cocky voice that Evan does not know responds for him. “Age doesn’t matter if you can ride like that.”

“No fear here!” the old man wheezes.

Evan shuts down his defensive impulse and chooses the right words. “Nah. It’s all fear, all the time. But that’s what makes it worth it.”

He smiles and picks his way back along the beach to the car, where he stashes away the surfboard and turns to face the wind. He lingers a few minutes, puts on a show of paying his respects to the beast he’s conquered. Once the couple has turned its backs on him, he collapses into the driver’s seat, hyperventilating as he cranks the car’s heat as high as it will go. He peels off the wetsuit, pulls back his hair, and closes his eyes so he can kill the terror and sear the triumph into his memory. That’s the only record of his ride: no pictures, no videos, hurried accounts dashed off to friends. No one will ever need to know save himself.

He pats the urn next to him, feels a swell of something within, some god or primeval force surging through every thundering beat of his heart. In this moment Evan believes as much as he ever has, knows he must continue to find this force that pulses through him in these rare pinnacles of raw reality. What this belief entails or asks of him he’s not entirely sure, but that does nothing to diminish his certainty.

He knows he’s not alone in seeking it. The potheads try to tell him he can achieve this state with a few quick hits, but that seems like a cheap and safe shortcut; an escape, not a deliberate rush to the brink of fate. A friend who’s smoother with girls says sex is much the same; this, Evan can probably buy, the wonder of losing oneself in another in a rush of sensual ecstasy. He really should find himself a girlfriend so he can compare notes. But this? This is just him alone, or him made one with everything, most importantly that thing in the seat next to him that he can’t have back.

He pulls out his phone to call the friend who’s hosting him for dinner, his hands still trembling as he finds the number.

“Hey Evs,” the friend says, surprised by the call.

“Yeah. Listen, I’ll be a little late, just gotta…” he trails off, omits the details on how must head home to dry himself and replace the urn where it belongs.

“You okay?”

“I’m…” Evan pauses and returns his gaze to the waves. “I’m where I need to be.”

On Public Intellectuals

23 Aug

Once upon a time, or so the tales go, a group of people stood astride the world, casting about learned opinions to large audiences. These people were known as public intellectuals, and while they were often academics or writers or somehow involved in political affairs, they often defied categories and showed impressive range. People who like to see grand debates instead of people yelling past each other on the television networks will lament these lost days of yore, back when these learned men and women (mostly men, but sometimes women) offered reliable voices of authority, or at least a formidable argument. From Sartre to Milton Friedman, from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Vaclav Havel, from Gore Vidal to Bill Buckley, to some of my old favorites like Octavio Paz and Hannah Arendt, these people shaped the thoughts of nations in the 20th century.

Such debates never capture the national imagination anymore, and while we could point to a few people on the New York Times editorial page and other such venues that have some claim to the title, no one has the reach of those in earlier eras. This isn’t because intellectuals have stopped intellectualizing; I could do a quick search and find a few billion videos of people blathering about topics of their choice, but very few rise above the din. The sheer power and authority of those old figures doesn’t hold up well in an age where everyone has an opinion on everything.

A couple of things happened. The walls of old media came crashing down, and a couple of TV networks and newspapers no longer set the terms for polite debate. Anyone with a keyboard or a camera can now take a stand. Academia deserves some of the blame, too: universities have grown more and more specialized, and a publish-or-perish culture forces academics to churn out an endless heap of articles on obscure topics in even more obscure journals that will never gain any broader purchase. This siloed thinking has inevitably led to more clouded language and at times reinforced a sense that the academy is a cloister where people can go earn salaries to pump out inane thoughts rather than engage with the world beyond ivy-covered walls. Relatively few scholars manage the range necessary to sound intelligent in a wide variety of fields, and to weave together literature and politics and moral philosophy in a satisfying way.

Or so some would have you believe: I always try to stay skeptical of tales of decline and woe. We remember the handful of brilliant mid-century thinkers whose reputations deserve to endure, for good or ill; all the middling thinkers of that era have drifted away, and in twenty years, maybe we’ll be able to look back on the early 2000s and identify a few people whose ideas on what was going on were sharper than most. And some of those past intellectuals were so colossally wrong that their bloody legacy lives on today. David Brooks (who has to rank among the top handful of people with a contemporary claim to the title) diagnosed the shift away from public intellectualism in a sympathetic but hardly uncritical column earlier this year: we live in an era of thought leaders who offer quick TED talk pitches, not intellectuals laboring to understand the world through a distinct moral lens.

Every now and then, though, some people try to follow the exact road prescribed by Brooks. Take the boys at American Affairs, a journal that is the second generation effort of some men (here, basically all men) who are trying to put some intellectual meat on the bones of Donald Trump’s presidency. Obviously, a lot of people (including a fairly large class of conservative intellectuals that includes David Brooks) are not fans of what they’re trying to do for conservatism or American politics more broadly, but when the journal appeared, a little part of me was kind of pleased to see that a handful of people with big ideas can still jump into the fray and broadcast their opinions like that. Even wholehearted critics of their project can acknowledge that they probably had a much better handle a broad swath of America than their more established fellows in the intelligentsia.*

But to what end? To their considerable credit, the American Affairs founders recently invited Anne-Marie Slaughter, an Obama-era State Department official and no one’s definition of a Trumpista, to comment on the content of their first two issues. She did so, and with devastating effect. She approaches the journal authors’ efforts in good faith while at the same time skewering them for their narrow thinking as they claim to reinvent American politics. She challenges them to either reflect the country they purport to speak for or make peace with being a mouthpiece for Trump’s 2016 electoral coalition, and no more. They risk either becoming just another grumpy group of self-righteous thinkers in that cottage industry of well-written and narrowly-read journals of political thought consigned to be a footnote in a David Brooks column.

This is the point at which I make a self-serving confession: as someone who has long had vague pretensions in this realm, the direction of Slaughter’s attack is reassuring. I turned my back on Washington think tanks and instead went to work back home, but (as if this blog wasn’t obvious enough proof) I won’t pretend to have abandoned my desire to hold court on issues great and small. Getting there, however, won’t come from burying myself in intellectual circles or typing out thoughts late into the night that I then blast out into cyberspace. It won’t come from hammering on certain principles over and over again, hoping that this time someone will listen. It will come from practicing politics in the old sense of the word: trying new things in concert with other people, honestly assessing one’s efforts, and being willing to say that my experience to date does not make me some sort of authority. Sure, I have ideas on how to do things based on a very wide range of reading and an increasing amount of practice, but I recognize that I need more than that to move any sort of needle.

This requires patience. This requires tact. While there are certain circles in which I’m happy to launch into a debate on Aristotle or John Locke, I’m not going to force them on any unsuspecting victims. It requires translating messages for a bunch of different audiences, not because the plebes can’t handle intelligent thought but because no two people see the world in the same way. Knowing one’s classics or cutting-edge scholars or being able to construct abstract theories are signs of intelligence, not wisdom, and divorced of some understanding of human politics in all its gritty flaws, the best-laid theories and plans are all for naught.

The best of the public intellectuals I mentioned at the top of this post were highly self-critical, always revisiting old thoughts and willing to admit mistakes. This is a lifelong project, and one that may never really end. I can’t say that my plan for my own little pulpit is fully formulated yet, but I’m okay with that, and I have some idea of how to get to where I want to go, and why it is I’m going there. For now, that’s enough.

 

*One of the founders of American Affairs, Julius Krein, disavowed Trump in a widely circulated New York Times column last week. Of course, a wide swath of Trump critics were hardly impressed: it really took him this long to see that this man’s character would lead him to operate in this way? I can probably include myself in that category of critic. Even before the election, I wondered if Trump’s ascendance might not do more damage than good to the platform he (sort of, sometimes) espoused, as it chained various principles to a baggage-laden man unlikely to ever implement them. The impulse to support him, or some comparable figure elsewhere on the political spectrum, in spite o those concerns only reveals the pervasive extent of the god-worship of the presidency, and a national obsession with Important People and Big Ideas that plagues so much of our political culture. Perhaps the real problem is much closer to home than many of the figures who trade in these tales would like to believe.

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 it 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.