Archive | May, 2019

A Flagging Effort

18 May

I have just wasted the better part of a Saturday afternoon being thoroughly entertained by the submissions to Duluth’s flag redesign project. (The city has chosen 41 semifinalists and will announce finalists this Tuesday, though for maximum amusement I recommend perusing all 195 submitted designs plus some choice comments here.) The flag design debate is hardly Duluth’s most pressing issue, though symbolism has power, as anyone trying to figure out what to call the Minneapolis body of water south of Lake of the Isles and north of Lake Harriet can attest. Many of these seemingly benign symbolic debates have become hyper-politicized, largely to the exhaustion of someone who cares much more about outcomes than names, but symbols do have power, and as Duluth’s existing flag is unspeakably lame, the development of a new one is a worthwhile exercise.

The comments in the full document certainly show how this could become politicized if the flag committee isn’t careful. Does the flag honor Native Americans or Scandinavians or a French explorer, or none of the above? Do we choose a monument or two to highlight, or perhaps some historical moment or another? The options are endless, and the contest wisely began by sharing some good flag design principles and opening up the process to comment. (The best comment comes from the individual who wrote “This town is dying. Thanks.” Let it never be said that Duluthians aren’t unfailingly polite, even when in peak troll mode.) But, unlike the Minneapolis lake debate, this one has the potential to remain fun and creative, and with any luck, that is what it will remain. Any design critiques that follow are meant in that spirit.

An initial review of the nearly 200 submitted designs mostly left me exasperated that there were so many damn lift bridges. Too easy, and better left to seals or fun ornaments. (The flag numbered 56a in the document of all submissions is the only bridge design that remotely tempts me.) The contest also reinforced the notion that no one has any idea how many neighborhoods Duluth has, as attempts to include stars or stripes to acknowledge the city’s neighborhoods included wildly different numbers of neighborhoods. The submissions from students add some fantastic color to the offerings, including the Looming Loon of Doom (flag 10) and the meta flag-within-a-flag (20).

As someone with a reasonably strong knowledge of world geography and flags (I think my dad still has the placemat with all of the world flags on it that I ate off of us a child), some flags were also awkwardly close to real-world ones. If you told me that 1 or 15c were flags of sub-Saharan African nations, I’d believe you. I would naturally assume that 74 belongs to some Muslim-majority country, while I actually checked to see if 5 and 84a had been pilfered from some Pacific island micro-state. 55 made me think Duluth had suddenly acquired the Sydney Opera House.

Some logos can’t help but bring to mind certain associations in individuals’ own heads, too. For example, 94d looks like the logo for my favorite DC college bar, which has a nautical theme, and 59’s northern lights vibe also made me think of the antenna farm atop the hill, which may or may not be intentional but is not exactly the most thrilling symbol of the city. 55d can’t make me forget the leaked draft of a logo for Amy Klobuchar that came out before she announced her presidential run, even though I do kind of like that rusty red to acknowledge that side of Duluth’s history. The blue and green color scheme makes plenty of sense, both because of the city’s water and trees and because of those are the colors of the current city flag, but some versions get very close to the state of Minnesota’s branding, which I think is passable but tries too hard with the funky font. Likewise, 23 reminds me of a marvelous old logo for Lake County that had Split Rock Lighthouse illuminating the county on a map of Minnesota, all with some text in comic sans around it. Alas, I can’t find this beauty to share it with you all. I’m sure others will be similarly triggered by certain flags.

Some designs I don’t particularly like as flags, but they might make decent logos for someone or something. 93c’s rails and lakewalk design should go on the cover of some city small area plan, while I’m a fan of the agate Lake Superior in 50. The seagull-lighthouse combo variations in number 78 would make a slick logo for something, but seems a bit much here, and I have an aversion to honoring flying rats on our city flag.

Some flags just try too hard. If you read the description of the un-numbered flag that was presumably supposed to be 95, it does start to make sense, though my initial reaction to a chain on a flag was…not positive. The various 43s and 48, the varying shades of blue in the otherwise interesting 60, and any flags that start throwing in several symbols or pictures just don’t do it for me. 34 is a semifinalist that checks a lot of boxes I like, but still maybe just does too much, and I’m not sure that shade of orange will age well.

I’m still not sure if I love or hate the anchor de lis that appears in a few designs (and made the semifinals), and waffled on 6 as well (which didn’t). Of the several I jotted down as early choices, only the rather radical 2d made the semifinalist cut. After the deluge of blue and green, I liked some of the red and orange ones that threw in some real contrast. I also seemed drawn to ones with diagonal lines that seem to signal shoreline and Duluth’s ridges. For me, the clash of ridge against lake has always been the most striking feature of this city. To that end, I’d endorse 15a and maybe 21. A fun variant on this might be to go with a non-rectangular flag.

But my winner, I think, is 98e: striking, deep colors that capture that clash of ridge and lake with a big north star hanging over it all. I can look at that flag and feel like I’m wandering along the lakeshore or atop the ridge on a clear summer night. Its symmetry will hold up as it gets buffeted by a November gale, it doesn’t feel like it’s wasting any space to fill out that rectangle. Focusing on natural features gives us something all Duluthians share and spares us any descent into a debate over whose ancestors or which parts of the economy we are or aren’t honoring. It also doesn’t look like any other flag or symbol I’m aware of. I’d gladly run that one up a flagpole someday.

Or we can just go all in on 80 and embrace our inner Lowell Lion.

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Interesting Reading, 5/11/19

11 May

A return of the sporadic feature in which I highlight interesting articles I’ve read this weekend:

First, I was floored by a piece by an anonymous DC-area mother in the Washingtonian that detailed her 13-year-old’s descent into the world of the alt-right. The author is a witness fragility of a childhood in an online environment, a victim of so many of the worst aspects of contemporary life. First, call-out culture and a bunch of sorry bureaucrats wreck her son, and his depression finds an outlet in chats with people he’s never met and tumbles down into an algorithm-reinforced echo chamber. The son drags his mother through a horror story that culminates with an alt-right rally on the National Mall, a sequence that reminded me of George Packer’s biting summation of the absurdity of the Covington Catholic incident, and by extension the entire national mood, earlier this year. But the author’s ability to recognize that absurdity, and draw out her son’s nascent recognition of it as well, starts to show us the way out. How many adolescent lives, and in turn entire lives, go off the rails because no one takes a kid seriously, whether out of clueless condescension or well-meaning protectiveness?

I’m also a sucker for articles that validate my wariness of a childhood spent glued to electronic devices and communities that do not meet in person. I’m young enough that an early online world was available for me to fall into as a teenager, though I took the much more benign path of living countless hours in online forums discussing a baseball team. It was harmless and was even the source of my college admissions essay, though if I had the chance to do it all over again, I would get out a lot more. (I would not label my online hockey commentary the same way: that has produced many genuine real-world connections and brought me into a genuine real-world community; one, probably not coincidentally, where the high school kids involved seem to do a better job than many of not living out their lives online.) This is only the latest that makes me believe that the online world, while with many benefits, has left us with a new form of malaise that we are only beginning to understand.

Speaking of George Packer, he’s out with a new book, one that will shoot to the top of my summer reading list. Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century is a sprawling portrait of Holbrooke, one of the most iconic diplomats of his era before his untimely death in 2010. “[I]f you could read only one book to comprehend America’s foreign policy and its quixotic forays into quicksands over the past 50 years, this would be it,” writes Walter Isaacson in a New York Times review. From Vietnam to the Balkans to Iraq and Afghanistan, Holbrooke was a larger-than-life figure who tried to re-write world history, and Packer’s take on his ambition and hubris make this a book that combines sweeping history and an incisive character study. When my favorite social commentator writes an authoritative work on my own road not taken, how can I not be absorbed?

As for the road I did take, here’s Addison Del Mastro in The American Conservative riffing on a new book on Midwestern industrial decline, Tim Carney’s Alienated America. Carney laments the demise of civil society in Middle America; while sympathetic to their value in creating strong communities, Del Mastro doesn’t think a few new churches will fix anything. He instead points to the social contract that built these place: one or several dominant companies endowed pretty much everything in the company towns, and when the companies contracted or died, the towns did with them. They arose in an era of corporate benevolence and hard-won labor peace, but that consensus is now long dead, crushed by the rise of global competition and corporate thinking. At the end of the day, places need “to transcend the economic conditions that gave rise to them,” lest they become places left behind by history.

The world is more complex than it may look from Del Mastro’s perch in Washington. My own city is part company town, but also part pretty lakeside retreat and part later suburban outgrowth, and has diversified reasonably well, both through the “eds and meds” new gloss that Del Mastro mentions rather dismissively and as a regional center that still enjoys the benefits of a working port. That isn’t enough to keep a substantial chunk of a city out of poverty, but it has been enough to generate some sense of collective hope about the future, which, as he notes, can make a real difference. So what, then, constitutes death for a city? If the old industry dies but it bounces back thoroughly, as with Pittsburgh, is that still a death? Maybe we should stop trying to anthropomorphize something that by its very nature includes tens if not hundreds of thousands people all in various stages of living, dying, thriving, and struggling.

What is true, however, is that the road back for most of these old industrial cities and towns, if there is one, will look very different from the corporate dominance and benevolence of the 1950s and 1960s. Those days had their glories and also their downsides, but we are now several generations removed from them, and while there’s value in preserving some history, that part of the past is not prelude to the future. Nor, perhaps, should it be. But, more on that later.

The Darkest Roots of Civilization

6 May

I concluded my last post with two lines from G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. I’ve never read the thing, but it was one of those passages I once saw someone else quote somewhere that I felt compelled to copy down for my own later use. Here is the passage in full. Pimlico, for the curious, is a district of London that, when Chesterton wrote around the turn of the 20th century, was a downtrodden corner of the city. Neighboring Chelsea was (and still is) a high-income district.

Let us suppose we are confronted with a desperate thing – say Pimlico. If we think what is really best for Pimlico we shall find the thread of thought leads to the throne of the mystic and the arbitrary. It is not enough for a man to disapprove of Pimlico; in that case he will merely cut his throat or move to Chelsea. Nor, certainly, is it enough for a man to approve of Pimlico; for then it will remain Pimlico, which would be awful. The only way out of it seems to be for somebody to love Pimlico; to love it with a transcendental tie and without any earthly reason. If there arose a man who loved Pimlico, then Pimlico would rise into ivory towers and golden pinnacles… If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great. Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well. People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.

For what it’s worth, it seems some people came to love Pimlico. It was the home base for the Labour Party as it rose to prominence in the early 20th century, the home base of the Free French during the Second World War, and became home to many MPs, including Winston Churchill. Like much of London, it is now home to some fabulously expensive real estate, though it also retains a substantial public housing development, Churchill Gardens.

Granted, Pimlico has the perk of sitting a stone’s throw from Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Not every town or neighborhood that qualifies as a “desperate thing” has such convenient neighbors. But there are more roads to greatness than through proximity to power, and communities are more than their median incomes. For that matter, people may have very different ideas of what exactly constitutes desperation.

Whatever one may think of Chesterton’s Catholic apologetics in other contexts, this is one spot where his use of religious language adds a necessary dimension to his point. Rootedness really is in many ways a sacred act: while I’m always one to caution against the worship of temporal things, commitment to place goes deeper than commitment to so many of the other obligations that can come along in a life. Jobs come and go, institutions and beliefs evolve and undergo some drastic shifts, people are vital but mortal and equipped with agency that can lead them in any number of ways. But while their characters can change, cities and towns and neighborhoods almost always stay.

Relative permanence allows a place to develop a history: a language about itself, or a smattering of languages all feeding in to one sprawling, complex narrative. They may all be radically different, but they all share a place, and that is enough to give it a sense of direction through time. And people in these places can write themselves into these histories, whether as Chesterton’s worshipers pursuing greatness or simply as people who are content in a place where they can contribute in small ways. It starts with a commitment and grows from there, from a little community up to a civilization, with all the splendor and horror and contradictions that these human constructs entail.

Not everyone falls for places the way some of us do. We all have our objects of worship, and I don’t begrudge many others for theirs, especially if they are clear-eyed as to the limitations of these objects of affection. For me, though, the foundations of human possibility, of Hannah Arendt’s new beginnings, seem best grounded in a place. So let us all give a little more love to our Pimlicos: they need not rise up to be Florence, but they can be better versions of themselves, and that, for now, is enough.