Tag Archives: community

Learning from Utopia

5 Sep

I usually like to imagine myself a cynic, but we all delude ourselves in our own little ways, and as a person who’s never had any shortage of aspiration, a utopian impulse surges up every now and then. As I’ve explained before, I have deep reservations about utopian thinking, and am not a candidate to run off and join a commune anytime soon. But there’s always something we can learn from past efforts to build a perfect world, and as I think about articulating a more complete positive vision, the time was ripe to explore a few older utopian dreams.

And so the past couple weeks found me reading a book named Utopia Drive, in which author Erik Reece takes a road trip through some scattered American movements that aspired to utopia. He visits the Thomas Merton’s old abbey, explores Robert Owen’s Equity Stores, and sits beside Walden Pond, among other locales. Most of these date to the nineteenth century, fascinating but quaint tales of cultish communities on the frontier that achieved varying degrees of success before their sexual morals or the power of an industrial economy laid them low. Reece refuses to consider them failures, though: the Shakers, the Indiana town of New Harmony, and the perfectionists of Oneida, New York, all lasted for decades and more or less approximated their founders’ visions for a spell. Their common theme among the relative successes was a religious fervor that went beyond some vague sense of a brotherhood of man, which says some things about attempts to order societies only on intellectual principles, but we’ll save that for another time. Now, religious or not, none of these communities remain.

These noble relics lead one to wonder if this old eighteenth century ideal of a utopia distorts the use the concept may have in the present day. Even Oneida, which was relatively well-integrated into its surrounding community, could close itself off from the outside world in a way that isn’t really possible today. Separation is now nearly impossible. Most of Reece’s present-day examples rely on a key export or somehow take advantage of the broader forces of capitalism, as did the one present-day intentional community I’ve visited in my travels. One resident of the contemporary Twin Oaks community in Virginia, whose hammock-and-tofu manufacturing enterprise it allows it to operate more or less as it aspires to, laments that her friends there, in the end, aren’t any happier than those on the outside, and few stay for long. Outside of a few true believers, Twin Oaks comes across as more of a temporary resting house to where one goes to restore oneself, not a community bound for time eternal. In a similar vein, Rod Dreher’s attempts to explain his religiously conservative Benedict Option communities have (to his intense frustration) usually been construed as attempts to found isolated communes in the woods. While not explicitly utopian—for the orthodox Christian, that can’t come in this life—the debate here is much the same, and hinges on the question of just how far one ought to go in retreating from the world to build one that can coexist with one’s ideals.

For my purposes, though, that isn’t necessarily a problem. Reece’s book succeeds because it’s not just an elegy for a lost past or idolatry of a few scattered communities in the present. Instead, he looks to draw from the utopian impulse that many people feel; to take that quest for an answer on how life should be lived and apply whatever lessons might come out of those who have asked these questions in the past. The end goal of utopia, one senses, should not be happiness, but a community that inspires the somewhat more virtuous lives of which happiness is a byproduct.

Politically, Reece would appear to be an ally of the Bernie Sanders left, as his concluding chapter labels income inequality and dependence on extractive industries the two greatest threats to contemporary American existence. However, his takeaways from his road trip, while not necessarily opposed to such politics, point in a different direction. They carry an implicit understanding that turning the U.S. into Denmark (an ethnically uniform micro-state that makes Donald Trump look kind to immigrants) is not a realistic path. If the structural economic crisis is as great as Reece would have us believe, initiatives like raising the minimum wage will only amount to letting the people locked in steerage sit on the deck chairs of a sinking ship.

Instead, Reece’s answers are intensely local, and rarely involve government action. He points to Oneida’s silverware company and the Mondragón Cooperative in Basque Spain as models of cooperative ownership that successfully shared profits with workers for long periods of time. He gives a nod to land trusts, which can make homeownership reasonable for lower-income people. He talks about local loan programs, which can get entrepreneurs the capital they need to get off the ground, and managing public lands in trusts as well. (We’re already doing those two with some success here in northern Minnesota.) He explore things like local exchange trading systems, which provide structures in which (usually low-income) people trade the services that they’re capable of providing to one another (child care, home health care, picking up the groceries, etc.) in an exchange of labor instead of cash.

These are ideas worth tinkering with, and few require immediate political power to enact. For that matter, a number of them are less threatening to entrenched capitalist interests than direct redistribution. While this may disappoint the Jacobins in the crowd, it also raises the odds for success. The proposals amount to positive visions for a better society that do not always require their proponents to make bogeymen of opposing individuals or ideologies. Their implementation wouldn’t be seamless or without obstacles, but in all of this, one sees hints of an uplifting local approach that doesn’t lock itself in to old categories that drive people off before it’s even been tried.

The thrust of Reece’s proposals is also welcome for those of us who, despite entertaining occasional millenarian impulses, are mostly content living within the society that exists—or, at the very least, fear that blowing it up may blow back up in our faces in unexpected ways. One of the more fascinating images in the book comes when Reece quotes philosopher Paul Shepard on how the human genome “is encoded with a Paleolithic need for small communities and a closeness to the natural world.” While this certainly romanticizes caveman life, it does tap in to a certain communal bond made real. It underscores the need to build thick networks: close ties within an extended family, lasting loyalty to neighborhoods and place, homes with revolving front doors that people in and out and keep it alive with energy and creativity; a republic of front porches, in the words of one former professor of mine. It means a place to raise children who always know they have a town behind them. It may not be utopian, but it’s a place I’d want to live, and I have every intention of working to make it reality.

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Against ‘The West Wing’

16 Jan

Strange kid that I was, I only watched one television show with serious regularity through my teenage years. That show was The West Wing. It was certainly better television than the alternatives, but behind the brilliant acting and clever wordplay was an all too accurate insight into our political world, one covered up by the feel-good veneer of Aaron Sorkin’s scripts. Pete Davis tells the whole story in a fantastic column over on Front Porch Republic. If you’re a Wingnut, click the link and read it.

I won’t rehash too much of the same territory, but my experience was exactly like Davis’s, and at Georgetown, I found myself surrounded by fellow West Wing junkies who would indeed have watch parties and use the show to inspire their political scheming. Its ethos fed Obama-mania, making people think politics was a simple matter of well-heeled liberals using lofty rhetoric and snappy arguments to drive their opponents into submission. Politics becomes something that wise people off in Washington do for us, not something we ourselves actually do. (Unless, of course, we expected to be those people in Washington someday, which many of us did.) Behind the lofty soundtrack we find an administration that has no great vision, yet somehow manages to come across as brilliant in its advancement of wonky, incremental liberal policies. And we wonder why the Obama Administration has had so much trouble being liked.

I don’t think this is a terrible failing of the show that renders it useless; in fact, it is all too illustrative of the siloed nature of the U.S. political elite. It is a pathology especially common among young college grads, in which people like to think they are not elites and care about the people around them, even dedicate their lives to helping them, yet do so from a distance, quickly losing touch. Internet culture aids this phenomenon, as people group together and only read the media they like and interact with like-minded people. Everyone smiles and feels all happy and warm, nodding gravely at the words of one’s fellow travelers. These people then head out into the world and try to do good and show everyone else the right way, and cannot for the life of them understand why their ideas are so harshly rejected. Political opponents are then labeled “dumb” and “crazy,” and the vicious cycle begins anew.

The West Wing is not a window into politics, you see; it is a window into one very narrow, wonkish dreamland conception of politics. The two shows Davis recommends at the end of the piece are far more accurate portraits of politics, despite the relative lack of actual political institutions. They are also the best two shows that have been on television in my lifetime. The raw grittiness of The Wire and the meditative humanity of Friday Night Lights allow TV to do what film cannot, weaving together stories of lives over five seasons, showing how personalities collide and interact and carve out little spaces for themselves, their ‘wins’ and ‘losses’ ever so fleeting. This is politics in the Greek sense, deeply (small-r) republican and lived out in daily life. While not without their flaws, they come much closer to approximating actual political existence within an inner city (The Wire) and exurban/small-town/rural America (FNL) than any explicitly ‘political’ drama ever could.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that the stretch of episodes most West Wing fans would label as its pinnacle is the conclusion of Season Two, when the news of President Bartlet’s long-hidden multiple sclerosis slowly comes out. This stretch is only peripherally about political practice, and is much more about the psychological inner drama of the President’s inner circle and, above all, the President, whose re-election decision hinges on his relationship with a deceased secretary and some daddy issues tied up in his faith. I don’t know if Sorkin and company really intended to create a model for how political culture should work, but on that level, the show fails. The West Wing is at its best when it’s a character study in the vein of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, examining the decisions people make in response to circumstances in their lives, and in revealing the thought processes of people caught up within a particular silo. Its reach is deep, but it is not broad, and if we try to pretend it is so, we’ve taken a good show too far and ruined it.

Like Davis, I still enjoy aspects of The West Wing, and have it to thank for much of my childhood political interest. In a roundabout way, it led me to where I am now. But its political culture is a terrible guide, and leads toward some sort of humility-free, revenge-of-the-nerds world that will never get us anywhere. The few reality checks are maudlin, and the characters are too caught up in their destinies as political operatives to ever show the rest of us the way. Washington will never change if we continue to think of it as a battleground, or a prize to be won. That process must start at home, and in practicing a humane politics in the places we live. If we’re looking for the good life, the Taylors of Dillon, Texas are far better guides than Josh Lyman or Sam Seaborn.

A Cyclical Christmas

24 Dec

I don’t really know what it means to be “home for Christmas.” I never am. Christmas is always part of a journey, one that usually involves a stint as an interloper in someone else’s holiday, or, lately, a sterile hotel. (I suppose it’s a step up from a manger in Roman-occupied Judea, but still.) Trying to make all these disparate threads make sense has become a sort of routine. But routine breeds comfort, familiarity, and no one really seems to mind my intrusions, wherever they may be. I’m always on the road this time of the year, and that is my tradition.

Lately, it hasn’t been just a journey to one place; it’s been a cycle between two different worlds. Just over 100 miles separate these two worlds, and the loose trappings of Christmas, somewhere within the Catholic tradition, are at the roots of both. Beyond that, it is a study in dualisms, twinned within me.

First, Chicago, its crush of humanity making Minneapolis seem quaint and tame. Here, a sprawling family unites en masse every year. It’s not without its skeletons, of course, and the march of time takes its toll. But the cycle goes on, the young carrying forward the best gifted to us by the old. Everyone comes together for a great Christmas festival, cramming the house full by the dozens, the well-earned merriment coming to fruition. We gorge ourselves, we down glass after glass of wine, and then we all settle around the piano and shamelessly belt out all the carols, loving every second. After the party, there’s some time to explore the city, see friends old and new, eat well and live well. A whirlwind caught up in the dream, my mission, if I can be so ambitious as to claim one: entwining the fabric of family with the fabric of a city, vibrant and full of life.

A brief train ride north, though, and the other side of the cycle. Here, things are quiet. No more frenetic energy, no more loud noise; just a couple of us with Grandma in that same old house, chancing the occasional word, little that hasn’t been said before. I read, I write, I dodge all the cats. Before long I’m out on a frigid trek down the country lanes of eastern Wisconsin, up and down the hills of the Kettle Moraine, out to the old stone church in St. Lawrence on Christmas Eve. That nostalgic pastoral scene so dear to my grandmother, if it ever truly existed, is fading away into the fog; the land slowly emptied or turned to exurban sprawl. I won’t have much reason to come back here after she moves on, though I know I will all the same.

It may not be my future, but it is an integral part of my past, and I must understand it, and pass it along, such as I can. On my run through the mists this year, I recalled the words of Fr. Thomas King, the late Georgetown Jesuit who, in his final Christmas Mass, gave the only homily that this unbaptized, intrigued-but-never-fully-inspired cultural Catholic has bothered to retain. In the midst of all the insanity of our lives, he preached, it is these escapes into the wilderness that bring us peace. It is that call inward that allows us to make ourselves whole again, bringing union with something far greater in that paradox we call faith. That thought in the wilderness has proven a great spark, and the most important thing I ever wrote, the foundations of the pieces that taught me who I was, spilled out in one of those dull hotel rooms not far off. Even here, I find myself, and through it, something much bigger than myself.

Roots are tangled, even for us white bread Midwesterners. Mine are a messy trinity with a handful of other currents feeding in: one part Chicago distinction, the American Dream made real; one part Wisconsin farm boy at the end of an era, trying to make sense of the past. One very large dose of Duluth at my core; perhaps small parts Mexico and, yes, part Washington as well. And yet it all holds together easily enough, all with its place. I suppose that’s where I’m at home, making those connections all one. The cycle goes on. A Merry Christmas to all.

Farewell Duluth II: On Culture

3 Aug

Culture is a notoriously murky term, one that can be used to explain just about anything without actually proving causes or relationships or anything of the sort. Trying to define a culture is a frustrating exercise that throws a lot of unlike things into the hopper that then spits out a vague, abstract Thing that we claim has some substance. An awful lot of bad social analysis has used it to glorify or defame a group of people, and “cultural studies,” while potentially valuable, can also become repositories of mediocre thought and self-absorption.  At its most fundamental level, culture is a shared identity, which just goes to show how hard it is to pin down; no one person’s identity can be summed up by a few simple words, and it’s only going to get worse as we add more people. There is also a good chance that, even at a time where people are more and more likely to surround themselves with others who share their views, half the people on one’s block wouldn’t qualify as sharing one’s culture. There are a million different ways to measure it, and it’s tough to argue that one has any more intrinsic value than another.

Just because it is hard to capture something, however, does not mean that it is not real, or that it does not have considerable power. Duluth, Minnesota has a very distinct culture, one that makes it undeniably unique, and just about everyone from the city who ventures out and thinks about this knows it.

We can try to list some stuff that makes up the culture. There’s a hardiness and stoicism in the face of long winters, with a strong Scandinavian ethos to it. There’s a blue-collar legacy of a transportation hub near the Iron Range in there, and there’s also a strong element of Congdon Old Money and its resultant noblesse oblige. There’s an outdoorsy ethic, from biking and boating in summer to skiing and pond hockey in winter. There is relative racial homogeneity, the ruling DFL coalition, and an obsession with talking about the weather. There are neighborhoods and schools and businesses, all generators of their own sub-cultures; some predictable, some less so.

Culture, however, is never static, and Duluth has undergone a considerable shift over the past decade. It didn’t begin with mayor Don Ness—before him, there was Canal Park and the Munger Trail and a number of other efforts (of varying success) to get Duluth past its 1980s post-industrial mire. But Ness’s cool Duluth energy is part and parcel with the surge of renewal in recent years. In his own words, it plays to “authentic strengths” of this city, instead of trying to pretend we’re something we’re not. And so we have booms in biking and beer and indie music, plus the rise of urban farming and the industrial chic architecture used to revive derelict lots and crumbling old buildings. All the artsy quality of life stuff is moving in tandem with legitimate economic expansion, from the aviation sector to engineering to some good, old-fashioned manufacturing. Duluth has character, and a genuine sense of direction, too.

Another of Duluth’s strengths is its civic engagement, which has fueled the recent renewal. People love this city and want it to succeed, and will spend endless hours prepping for public meetings on school and park plans and so on. At the same time, though, some of its greatest outbursts are in opposition to new planning, and that’s definitely not always a bad thing. It is an erratic and often untamed force, as evidenced by the overzealous attempt underway to recall city councilor Sharla Gardner. Still, it’s a force that slows some of the more harebrained schemes and preserves some of the better aspects of local culture. At its best it’s simply a direct application of common sense, a counterbalance to the plans from on high that manages a strong voice without going into excess. It’s exemplar at the moment is Jay Fosle, the west side city councilor whose populist conservatism stands in sharp but (usually) respectful contrast to the left-leaning visionaries. As I wrote in my account of the first Council meeting I attended, he can waver between wise insights and serious head-scratchers with little warning. But Fosle is not there simply to say no; he is willing to work with people, and no one does a better job of effectively organizing citizens and bringing them forward to speak to the Council. The authenticity of the voices on both sides of Duluth’s political debates keeps things from falling into the stale platitudes of national politics, and that complexity is another source of life.

Still, as I’ve said many times—here in culture, here in politics, here in education—there’s an elephant in the room that threatens the whole project. This is, of course, the east-west divide. It’s always been there, of course. But the most obvious thrust of the current renewal, with its cultural enrichment and “creative class” cultivation, does not produce evenly spread results. If things just plug along as they are, it’s not hard to predict a split in which east side (and Hermantown) reap the benefits of a vibrant city, while the west side sinks into stagnation, a place without a future. Families with children are an excellent bellwether, and nothing is more haunting than this map of the city’s last school board levy. It’s also what makes Don Ness’s seeds of a vision for the west side so worth watching: if Duluth is going to transcend the common narratives of renewal by gentrification, this is where it will have to take place. It won’t be easy.

The plight of the debate around Duluth’s public schools is a sign of what can go wrong when the enlightened planners impose their vision while dodging public debate. Many of the critiques of that plan and its opaqueness had merit, even though I have little patience left with many of its foremost critics. Duluth’s echo chamber of education debate is a bizarre and unpleasant place, filled with catfights and resentment and overblown egos. Funnily enough, through it all, Duluth remains a pretty good place to raise some kids. It has enough big city stuff to be interesting and keep them engaged, has just enough variety to show them all walks of life, yet is small enough that they still get that much-hyped small-town feel. Every week, someone in the media laments the fact that kids don’t get to play freely anymore, but that’s not what I see when I look out my window. Children roaming and playing are one of the most obvious signs of communal health, and it was heartening to hear a recent visitor to the economic development agency where I intern gushing about all of the families she saw out and about on Duluth’s streets. A little part of me died when the Congdon hockey rinks got cleared out to make room for a parking lot.

This discussion of education and childrearing brings me back to the thrust of this post: the primacy of culture, from which everything else follows. Set things in motion early on, build a supportive environment, and your odds are as good as any, even if your background isn’t one of great wealth or education. Duluth does that well for most people, but as with anywhere, there are exceptions, and when they’re relatively few in number, the contrast can be glaring. There is still a substantial amount of poverty in Duluth, and while I’ll leave aside most of that debate about subcultures and pathologies and other things that bog people down, poverty and its associated ills often leave people incapable of participating fully in the broader culture and reaping its benefits.

To be sure, part of this problem comes from the culture itself. Aspects of culture can be both good and bad when it comes to business climate, and despite Duluth’s attentiveness to many of its ills, good intentions do not always beget good results; sometimes it can make things worse. Minority populations here (racial and otherwise) are so small that it’s hard for them to generate their own vibrant, self-sustaining cultures; they can either assimilate into the general culture, or be alone. It’s hard to know what can be done about this; if we did know, we’d have solved a lot of problems long ago. (Perhaps the most important point here is that these are not problems to be solved, but the stories of lives of real people to be unspooled into the fabric of a community.) Duluth has no shortage of well-intentioned people who want to overcome these troubles, and with the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie group and a vocal group of activists, there are real dialogues, though it’s not hard to ignore them, either. In time, demography will probably make these questions more relevant. One would hope that Duluth’s general tolerance will make this smoother than in other places, but it’s easy to claim tolerance when it’s rarely put to the test. Culture will always divide us, for good and ill.

In the eyes of some, the divisions coming out of culture are reasons for its dismissal. Better to cast away these things that tie us to imperfect places and people. An afterlife or some ideal form of human life takes precedent. Doing this, however, chokes off many of the greatest sources of earthly happiness. There are things I could do without in Duluth’s culture, but, in looking around the world, there is so much here that is worth preserving and enhancing. It has a strong sense of self, and now it also has a trajectory to match. It’s fighting the standard narratives of decline and measurements of success in cities, and these days, more often than not, it’s winning.

That makes Duluth unique, and explains why some people who aren’t native Duluthians find it hard to ever quite settle in here. But it works for Duluth, and it is, of course, never static. It goes along, guided by both inertia and a lot of hands that have claimed it as their own. It is a city with a soul, a sheer sense of being; a sense of motion through time, cyclical, coming and going, life and death flowing in and among one another. It has a rhythm, a pace, perhaps unique to each who walks its streets, yet felt like a beating heart, grounding one within it, leaving no doubt: a sense of place. It’s home.

Part 3 is here.

Farewell Duluth I: The Answer to Everything

27 Jul

One day in late February 2012, Prof. Patrick Deneen of the Georgetown Government Department (now at Notre Dame) modestly told us students that he was going to give us the “answer to everything.” He proceeded to draw three circles on the chalkboard and explain human nature in the clearest manner I’ve ever seen. It’s an oversimplification, of course, as all such representations must be, but it’s an excellent starting point, and now forms the basis of my worldview, such as it is. What follows is my take on the three circles. I’ve also embellished his drawing with some of my obvious artistic genius.

deneen circles

The three circles represent three rough spheres of human possibility. The center sphere is basic human action; above it we find gods who transcend human appetites and obsessions and lead lives of bliss, and below it we find the beasts, who fixate on instinctive and immediate fulfillment of those appetites.

One very large camp of people, most of them on the political left, draws a line through the center circle and focuses only on the top. They see humanity as fundamentally good, but simply constrained by unfortunate social or historical structures, and believe we can better ourselves by liberating ourselves from them. (This being the left, they often don’t believe in explicit “gods,” but the idea is much the same: humans are the masters of their own fate, subservient to no one, and can be the authors of their own salvation.) The general sense is that everyone has great potential, and it can be unlocked with the right combination of incentives and supports.

Most fundamentally, though, it aims to liberate people so that they’re free from the existing order and can just be their own awesome selves, deciding what’s right and wrong for themselves. If we turn people loose and have a safety net ready when they stumble, things should turn out alright. Humanity can be improved in this way, and the world can become a better place; depending on how far you want to go, we might even be able to perfect it. Marxism took this way of thinking to its furthest possible extreme, but the word progressivism, often used to describe the left-of-center agenda, captures the sense here. Humans are capable of progress and are going somewhere, wherever that might be, slowly making the world a better place. Other relevant philosophers here include Rousseau, the French positivists, John Stuart Mill, and Hegel.

The right also draws a line through the center circle, but focuses on the bottom half, not the top. (Deneen, a self-described conservative whose conservatism bears no resemblance to the contemporary Republican Party, used the term “liberal,” though I think my left/right terminology maps better on to current-day politics.) For the right, humans are fundamentally fallen, and while we may put on shows of benevolence and decency, the self-interest underneath can’t be wished away. Absent strong social mores and an established order, humans will rut around and kill each other and generally live in a miserable state of anarchy. No amount of wishful thinking or fanciful social engineering can get rid of those base instincts that we all have, and the manner in which many on the left react when confronted by conservatism is decent evidence of this. Hence the reliance on tradition, and the insistence on a strong state to keep things in line. (Machiavelli and Hobbes are the go-to philosophers here.)

This way of thinking can take other forms, too. The framers of the U.S. Constitution, for example, saw that those in power were just as likely to be corrupted as anyone else, and sought to limit their ability to exercise power. The Constitution is a fairly conservative document; it makes little effort to guarantee any positive rights that can lead toward the good life. It was written in response to some of the worst of human excesses, and only in some of the amendments do we find a more progressive turn. The emphasis is on recognizing and managing the tragedies in life, which no amount of “progress” can stop.

There is third approach here, less often used but alluring to some: just cut out the middle circle. This is Nietzsche. We have a choice, he argues. We can either be impressive Ubermenschen dedicated to living thrilling and fulfilling lives, taking control of everything and ruling nobly, or we can be feeble, weak people carried along only by resentment and grievance, seeking a pitiful life of bland comfort. It was a good thing for Nietzsche’s already frail health that he didn’t live to see suburban subdevelopments and reality TV. Still, this worldview is attractive for those who slog through Nietzsche: who wouldn’t want to be an Ubermensch? It’s a delightful lifestyle, and it makes for a very crisp, self-serving distinction, as the enlightened ridicule the pitiful masses below. (This is where we’d find the Nazis, who tried to hijack Nietzschean philosophy and turn it into a justification for their atrocities.) That’s a bit of a misreading of Nietzsche, but it also illustrates the weakness of this approach: no matter how hard one tries, it’s impossible to stay on top like that, and very easy to fall back into vindictive backbiting. The divisions aren’t that crisp.

This brings us to the last approach, which encompasses all three of those circles. It recognizes that humans have qualities that overlap with those of gods and of beasts, but that, in the end, we’re somewhere in between, wandering between the two and often in an ambiguous middle realm. We’re not inherently good; we’re not inherently bad. We have moments where we reach toward god-like status, and we have moments where we live among the beasts, and in the end we’re left with a confusing mix that isn’t quite as black-or-white as we’d like. The boilerplate left and the right stances both get part of the picture, but neither one quite grasps it all.

This is a very old notion of human nature, and its modern-day caretakers are, for the most part, Catholics, following in the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas. I’m not Catholic, but Catholicism has always hovered around my life, from deeply faithful grandparents to Catholic universities to travels in Mexico, so it’s probably no surprise I find this worldview most appealing. (Sticking with Nietzsche, we might say I’m living in its shadow, and quite thoroughly.) The very word “catholic” means, roughly, “about the whole” in Greek: it encompasses the totality of life, and tries to cover everything. To use my current favorite word, it’s holistic.

Theology digression: even if this seems obvious, it really isn’t a common worldview in this day in age. One need only look at the reactions of the left and the right to our current pope and his predecessor: one side loves Francis while the other is skeptical of him, and vice versa with Benedict. This is a pretty good sign that people are coming to the popes not as Catholics, but instead as liberals or conservatives who want Catholicism to conform to their preordained political worldviews. This isn’t to say that one can’t disagree with certain aspects of papal teaching, and that popes themselves may not be influenced by different forms of thought, but it reveals the disconnect, and how wholly we’ve adopted the modern political mindset in how we try to analyze things. Faith, for most moderns, has become a crutch in times of need and a source for inspiration that can give people a little nudge down a preordained path. But rarely is it a way of life, and when it is, it seems fundamentally alien. Moral therapeutic deism reigns triumphant.

Still, the three circles begin long before St. Peter. Prof. Deneen is a staunch Catholic, but he wrote one of his first books not on anything Catholic, but on the Odyssey and how it fit this conception, with Odysseus constantly pulled both up toward the gods and down toward the beasts. Philosophically, the man at the root is our old buddy Aristotle, who said that beasts or gods are unique from humans in that they’re capable of living free from community. But since we can’t ever live entirely in one of those realms, we’re neither. This doesn’t mean we have to submit ourselves solely to a communal order, whether it be of the left or the right; it just means we have to live in constant accordance with that fact. Instead of starting our theories by considering humans in vacuums and making presumptions about their nature from there, we need to understand each other socially. You can find a lot of spilled pixels on that topic elsewhere in this blog, so I won’t belabor it here, but in the end it does boil down to living in community and finding our niches within whatever ecosystem we call home, realizing it is neither heaven nor hell. Instead, it is complicated, and complication deserves respect, though once we’re inside it we can certainly leave our own marks. (Equally important is the need to step out of the community from time to time, in order to gain some perspective, before heading back in.)

Six years ago, when I left Duluth for Georgetown, I cared only for the top half of the diagram. My admissions essay for the School of Foreign Service was a paean to the power of liberal education to change the world. I don’t think my evolution was a complete surprise—in retrospect, I’m pleased with the subtlety expressed in the more thoughtful writings of my adolescent self—but evolve I did, from a fairly activist man of the left to something a lot more murky. Fixing the world’s problems proved a lot more difficult than waving some liberal magic wand, and my personal experience also suggested I was missing something.

Eventually, I found it. This was great for my understanding of the world, but something of a disaster for someone whose pre-college career interests had involved saving the world, and using the progressive agenda as my vehicle. I went home to Duluth, part out of philosophical belief in the community closest to me, and part because it was the only place I could go to figure out what the hell came next without undue stress. “Duluth needs people like you,” Prof. Deneen told me in our final meeting, and I took those words to heart.

I don’t know if Duluth needs me, but I sure needed Duluth. I’ve slowly gotten myself tied up in community affairs over the past two years, and I’ve found that this whole philosophy really does work in practice. I’ve also started down a career path that nurtures those goals; one that seems to have a healthy balance between practical work and the up-in-the-clouds thinking I enjoy but can take too far. It all worked out. I’ve found healthier channels for some of my instincts, both the ones that told me I could be a god and also the ones that had me wallowing in muck. (Channels, I hastily add; not stoic suppression.) I’m only human, so there will be continued temptation in both directions. But for now, I spend most of my time grounded in the middle circle and reveling in my community, where I belong.

Part Two is here.

The Super Bowl and the Cultural Power of Football

2 Feb

Today is perhaps the most quintessential American holiday, a lovely blend of consumerism and pop culture and raw spectacle: Super Bowl Sunday. The day that breaks through the monotony of midwinter and gives us endless punditry, provides an excuse to drink lots of beer, singlehandedly sustains the avocado industry, and even involves an athletic event at some point in the midst of it all. People who know nothing about football will go to parties anyway, where they will complain that the commercials aren’t that good this year, and that the halftime show was bad. But they’ll still watch, just as they’ll watch again next year, and the year after that. We all love it, even if we hardly care.

On many levels, football’s success makes no sense. Its rules are arcane and illogical. While it can be adapted to suit, say, a tiny rural high school, high-level football requires a roster in excess of fifty players, more than double that of any other major sport. Yet despite the giant rosters, only a few individuals—the quarterback, the top receivers, perhaps a running back or a flashy defensive player—really get much individual attention; most everyone else toils in obscurity, never to handle the ball without a stroke of luck. The three-to-four-hour affairs amount to roughly eleven minutes of actual action. The stop-and-go nature of the sport allows for a dizzying array of possible plays, the intricacies of which are usually lost on the casual viewer. It is a sport of full-throated machismo, the only one in which women don’t have their own leagues (Lingerie Football League excepted), and while that is a draw for a certain segment of the population, it does nothing to explain football’s success relative to, say, wrestling.

It is a common denominator, something you can chat about easily even with the kindly mentally-challenged person sitting next to you on the bus who insists on talking at you, or with that relative you cannot relate to at all. The Friday Night Lights factor is real, even far from small Texas towns: it brings communities together, and football games are part of the rite of passage in high school. As much as things change, most of the school still turns out for that game and shares in one of the few vaguely universal American experiences, something passed along across generations at every level, from high school to the NFL. In college the party gets even bigger, with whole Saturdays oriented around the game, and alumni—or wannabe alumni—letting it rule their lives in a way no other sport can. Football becomes the center of so many social lives.

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My mild contribution to a Duluth East State Tournament run, fall 2007.

Call it a civic religion of sorts. Baseball, hockey, basketball, and soccer have international reach, but football remains about as purely American as is possible in a globalized world. The schedule lends itself to drama and anticipation: games are rare enough that fanaticism doesn’t require following a team night in and night out. A full week of hype makes it much easier to anticipate the key points of each game, and that is perfect for spawning that offshoot game where there is plenty of money to be made, fantasy football. It has its roots in elite east coast colleges, but it’s become a blue-collar sport, and the various positions require a variety of skill sets. While most good players come from the South—again reinforcing the Pure Americana aspect—there are strong college teams to be found in every corner of the country. Somehow, it gets everyone on board.

Yet for all of football’s triumphs, there are some cracks in the walls. The most obvious concern involves the recent revelations about concussions and brain damage that football can cause, and this has indeed had some effect on youth numbers. Football is increasingly becoming the sort of sport we like to watch other people play, but may have issues seeing our own children play. It may take a while for that to affect the upper levels or overall interest in the sport, if it ever does, but it’s looming there, and will continue to get attention in the media.

The biggest changes, however, may come in the college game, which eclipses the NFL in some parts of the country. At its best, the NCAA tops the NFL, with greater traditions, more rabid fans, lack of forced parity, and even more strategic variety. But it also is also developing in ways that may alter the sport as we know it. The traditional power conferences have re-shaped themselves in a massive money grab, a process that will only make the rich richer. Perhaps even more significantly, there is serious talk of compensating athletes now, and that story took another twist this past week when the Northwestern University team announced its intent to unionize. The football players’ concerns aren’t unfounded; they bring in millions for their universities without any compensation, have to balance intense football demands with student life, and have little ability to fight the ham-handed, authoritarian NCAA.

Compensating college football players may be the just thing to do, but I don’t think it produces a stable long-term solution. It opens up several cans of worms: other student-athletes will ask why they’re not included, and as very few university athletic departments make much money, it’s not clear where the money will come from. All of this adds up to even more pressure on the NCAA model, and I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to expect an alternative to erupt in the not-so-distant future. There’s a reason most other sports rely on an extensive system of low-paying professional minor leagues. Players specialize, abandoning the “scholar-athlete” title—one that at its best gives football players necessary balance in life, but at its worst stretches football players between two worlds—for the dream of football above all else. Once the established pipeline breaks down, when there is no clear place to look for the best talent, when good players get lost in myriad minor leagues with limited national interest, there is pressure on the whole system. It will be a slow process, but slowly, surely, football’s communal power will break down. If football players simply become football players instead of representatives of some bigger institution, the ties will start to fray. Football won’t fade from cultural prominence overnight, and the Super Bowl will likely be the last holdout. But the pinnacle of the sport must rest on strong foundations, and there has never been this much uncertainty about the foundations.

Football isn’t high on my list of favorite sports, so if this all does come to pass, I won’t really lament its fall from the pinnacle of American sports. What I will worry about is the loss of another commonality, the further atomization of American life. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad development—I’m a big defender of diversity over bland universals, after all—but it will mean change, and it is hard to know what might follow.

But for now, pass me the chips. Also, I’m taking the over on Renee Fleming’s National Anthem, the Broncos on the coin toss, and the Seahawks in the game. Defense wins championships.

Duluth Citizens in Action Forum

26 Jan

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of spending the day at the Citizens in Action 2014 forum in Duluth, an event put on by the League of Women Voters and a host of supporting organizations. I went on a whim, having received a flyer earlier this week; these sorts of events can be hit-or-miss, depending on the quality of the organizing effort, invited guests, and degree of political neutrality. In the end, it was a day well-spent: the planning committee did a thorough job and reeled in many local politicians, and while a majority of the attendees were certainly on the left side of the political spectrum (no surprise in Duluth), there was some variety, and a pleasant lack of harping on causes. The food was good, too.

The keynote speaker was Minnesota State Representative Rena Moran, who in her second term serving a St. Paul district in the State House. Rep. Moran’s story was a compelling one: in July of 2000, the single mother of seven decided she needed to leave Chicago and move to a state with good schools and a strong community for her children. So she told them to leave most of their possessions behind, piled them all into a van, and drove to Minneapolis. Her family spent a few months in a shelter, but before long she was on her feet, and eventually found a home in St. Paul’s historically black Rondo neighborhood. It all snowballed from there, as Moran became involved in local affairs. As a representative, she highlighted her legislative successes during her first term, when the Republicans held the majority in the House and she needed to build relationships across the aisle to get anything done, and told of bringing her colleagues with her to show them reality inside inner-city neighborhoods. Rep. Moran stayed for the entire conference, joining panels and sharing her experiences.

After that we broke into groups, and I attended a panel discussion entitled “Young Adults in Action.” The panel included Rep. Moran, two Duluth Denfeld students involved in the Native Youth Alliance of Minnesota; two 20-something members of the board of the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie Memorial, which aims to remember and continue dialogue about the 1920 Duluth lynching of three black men; and two Duluth East students and members of the group Students for the Future, which organized to give students a voice in Duluth schools during Red Plan restructuring talks some five years ago and lives on today. (Full disclosure: I was out of high school when the group was founded, but know a number of its original members, and played a minor consulting role in its formation.) A couple of moderators guided them through a series of questions, and while the forum could have benefitted from a somewhat looser format, it delivered the goods.

Two candidates for the soon-to-be-vacant Minnesota House 7A seat on the east side of Duluth were in the room, and one of them asked the panel perhaps the most pressing question: just how do we get people involved? With young people, getting them through the door often seems to be half the battle. It’s an especially big problem nowadays, when college and high school students are bombarded with daily information on countless groups they can join; it can be easy to miss the best options, and many are reluctant to take a leap and join something unless they have a group of friends with them. A single cause or candidate might inspire some excitement, but it can be hard to inculcate a sense of civic responsibility in those who weren’t raised in that sort of environment to begin with. And, as one of the Denfeld students explained, sometimes they quite simply don’t have enough time to take on anything else.

What is undeniable, however, are the potential benefits for those involved. The two East students, when asked what they’d gained from their experience, succinctly said two things that, while not unknown, took me four years of college to fully internalize. (I paraphrase. Student One: “I wanted to study international relations, but now I’ve realized how easy it is to have an immediate and lasting impact just by working in my community.” Student Two: “I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, but I know I can do other things in life but still be very involved in politics.”)

After lunch, we were sent to rooms in small groups to meet with local politicians, who rotated through to meet us in groups of two or three. There were sixteen on hand, including two state representatives, two county commissioners, the St. Louis County Attorney, and a whole bunch of the city council and school board members whose names often grace this blog. We got brief but productive opportunities to share our stories and most pressing concerns, and the officials took diligent notes and replied as time allowed. There was a pleasant diversity of topics brought forward by the other citizens in attendance. Being a big picture person, I settled for telling my own story and some shameless blog plugging, and was pleasantly surprised by the response. (Thanks, readers!)

I’m afraid I did run off when we got to the singing at the end, but for the most part, it was a quality event. In the grand scheme of things, it probably didn’t change much—the people who came are mostly the sorts who would have made their voices heard in some way anyway—but face-to-face contact never hurts, and getting people together to talk about political engagement can be rejuvenating. And while I make a big deal out of the stories of people who are not usually vocal in politics being overlooked, not everyone can be constantly engaged, and it’s up to those who can to be aware of them and pick up the slack. A healthy community needs its activists and campaigners, but it also needs its caretakers and critics; those who can step out of the hectic world of politics from time to time. Reality tells us there are plenty who simply don’t have the interest, whatever their reason. As long as they aren’t forgotten, it all works out in the end.