Tag Archives: culture

Taking Root in Rural America

28 Oct

Take one on rural America, from Brian Alexander in a recent Atlantic article:

The social good of such places, [Arthur] Morgan insisted, was being “dissolved, diluted, and submerged by modern technology, commercialism, mass production, propaganda, and centralized government.” While many big-city residents might not worry about the fate of small towns, Morgan believed they should because the “controlling factors of civilization are not art, business, science, government. These are its fruits. The roots of civilization are elemental traits—good will, neighborliness, fair play, courage, tolerance, open-minded inquiry, patience.” These traits are best transmitted from one generation to the next in small communities, he argued, from where they are then spread throughout entire societies. To erode small-town culture was to erode the culture of the nation.

Take two, from Kevin Williamson of the National Review in the run-up to last year’s election:

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

I spend my days working in regional community and economic development, which means devoting a fair amount of time and thought to towns across my corner of the world in northeastern Minnesota. I attend a number of small-town meetings, almost all of which are heartening: from Virginia to Sandstone, from Two Harbors to Aitkin, people deeply committed to their towns come out in force to these meetings and share their love for them. They acknowledge problems but are devoted to fixing them, and in many of them civic engagement seems far more robust than in Duluth, where politics appears to have devolved into vicious tarring of one’s opponents on social media. (Okay, I’m being an election season cynic, but the pettiness is a wonder to behold.)

Even so, it’s not hard to sink into doubt about the future of small towns, either when one looks at macro level trend data or takes a walk down Main Street. Not much is happening, the population is greying, things are boarded up, and yes, in some places, one can find people on the streets high on something at midday. Occasional new development on the outskirts gives some dated facilities a needed refresh, but leaves behind empty space in places where that’s not easy to fill. Many towns can seem trapped in a slow, downward spiral with no clear escape.

On Friday, work took me to Bruno, Minnesota (population 102). There’s not much to Bruno: a bar, a church, a small gas station, a thrift store, a handful of houses, many of which have seen better days. It’s 40-odd miles from Duluth on a beautiful but fairly lonely road, so it’s not one of those small towns that enjoys the spillover from a convenient metropolitan area. But, tucked up a side street sits a former schoolhouse, sits the Nemadji Research Corporation, a world-class medical billing and data mining company with 47 employees on site.

Bruno’s champions are the founders of Nemadji, Gene and Becky Lourey. The late Gene was the brains behind the operation, whose tech skills were decades ahead of his time; Becky, to use her own words, provided the heart. That exuberant human touch was so evident that Becky, whose picture probably appears next to the phrase “bleeding heart liberal” in mid-2000s encyclopedias, got herself elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives and then the Senate in this rural district, and also mounted a failed campaign for the DFL gubernatorial nomination in 2006. (Her son, Tony, now holds the Senate seat.) She infuses Nemadji with a deep conviction born of a long and tumultuous life that has never seen her waver in her enthusiasm and grit, even as she endured business failures and lost three children. Its facility includes a daycare, a lunchroom, and an experiment in hydroponics; employees get excellent benefits, which in good times have even included college tuition. Becky Lourey has built a legacy in northern Pine County that will last long after her, though at 74, she’s not exactly showing any signs of slowing down.

Not every town can have a Nemadji, but the Loureys offer lessons for local communities everywhere. Their power is remarkable, and it’s worth nothing that their roots aren’t miles deep in the Bruno area: they grew up in different Minnesota towns, and if Becky had had her way, they would have stayed in Minneapolis’ Lowry Hill East neighborhood, where they lived for a spell and helped found the local neighborhood organization. But once they settled down in Kerrick (just up the road from Bruno), they left a mark. One need not share the Loureys’ politics, but one does need to recognize where Kevin Williamson’s assessment of small town struggles goes wrong.

First off, rural America is not a monolith. And while small towns may not exhibit much demographic diversity, there is a lot of economic diversity both within and between them. Williamson commits the now-frequent fallacy when he implies the people dying from painkillers are the ones voting for Trump when instead it’s usually the relatively well-off rural voters who are reacting to all of the decline around their relative success. For every dying small town, there’s another that’s holding its own and producing its share of decent jobs. Even places like Virginia, the Iron Range town where the population is down while poverty and perceptions of crime have multiplied, still serve as vital links in one of the nation’s most important industries, even if we can now get iron ore out of the ground far more efficiently than we used to. And while I’ll shelve a full examination of this for a later date, the interplay between low birth rates, immigration, and politics has particular consequences for the American rural-urban divide.

The deeper issue with Williamson’s thesis, however, is his conception of economics as a strict matter of “satisfying human wants, not defining them.” This is true insofar as that we should not expect economic theory to behave in moral ways on its own. But even Adam Smith understood the necessity of a moral support structure behind capitalism to build a stable society. Badly aligned incentives can unravel whole cultures, and when culture unravels or collapses, whether into the inner city crime waves of past decades or the silent scourge of drugs and disability in small towns today, the ugliness never ends. It has a direct political spillover, drives migration patterns, and leaves behind wreckage that may stick around for decades. The physical signs of decline may fade away over time, but the pain in the present and in future generations can be a mountain to overcome. Every effort should be made to overcome it, but the odds are hardly stacked in a favorable way.

This brings me back to Brian Alexander’s insistence that small towns do matter, a perspective he renders with proper respect toward metropolitan areas. There is a fair amount of mushy ground here, as the piece paints the suburbs in a lazy trope, and it’s impossible to prove whether or not small towns are a sort of moral compass and proving ground for a nation. (I am, however, generally sympathetic to the notion that forcing people into proximity with other people from a wide range of backgrounds is a healthy thing for personal formation. This doesn’t just come through sharing a town; after my grandfather’s funeral, a cousin and I discussed how having so many aunts and uncles in our sprawling family gave us an immediate window into a broad swath of life.) But there are some essential insights in his piece.

Just as Williamson tell us failing small towns deserve little sympathy, it’s become fashionable in certain urbanist circles to shrug and say that the economy is what it is, and that small towns are doomed to die. No doubt the dwindling, especially in a relative sense, will continue in many places. But decline does have profound political consequences, and the alterations to a national culture that stem from economic and cultural upheaval are not to be taken lightly. Change will continue, and we’ll need as many Loureys as we can get to weather the storm. Relying on that exceptional level of dedication and service is a bit of a Hail Mary; efforts need not go that far to be a success. But they do require a moral commitment to place that goes beyond graphs of economic performance and understands what it means to take root in a community. Cut off the roots, and the tree will die.

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On Being Cultured

21 Mar

Most anyone with any interest in a public life these days dedicates themselves to the pursuit of justice or freedom or equity. These things, while valuable, are fraught with questions over how to achieve them or how they look in practice, and it’s not uncommon to find them in contradiction. The less publicly minded may aspire to something like happiness, if not something even more crass like fame or riches, and while happiness is lovely, it runs the risk of being a short-term, vapid interest that neglects a longer view of life, and what yields a sense of fulfillment. For that more measured perspective, I often find myself turning to some fairly highbrow traditionalist, if not straight-up conservative, publications: this is where one finds much more originality of thought—or, rather, a revival of thought that doesn’t get nearly enough mainstream airing today. Perhaps it’s because this tradition, at its best, aspires to knowledge for its own sake, not merely in convenient pursuit of some agenda.

Enter Joseph Epstein, an American man of letters, who, in last week’s Weekly Standard, helps explain why this is an intellectual tradition where I feel like I’m at home. The man is an absolute quote machine, so I’m going to pull from it at length, but I recommend the whole thing.

Epsetin’s piece is an unabashed defense of elitism. This doesn’t mean aristocratic snobbery, necessarily; instead, it means the pursuit of excellence, tracking down the best of everything that the world has produced to date, and placing some faith in the other insightful people down the ages as fellow travelers. The goal, he says, is to become “cultured.” This doesn’t quite mean reading all of a certain group of writers or collecting a certain litany of facts, but instead means coming to embrace a certain pursuit of knowledge within a historical context, seeing how it all fits together and thereby creates meaning. At the same time, this pursuit requires the humility to acknowledge that there is always more to learn, always more to explore, and that learning more only opens up more unknowns beyond. Socrates was the wisest man on earth because he knew how much he didn’t know.

When properly undertaken, the pursuit of excellence doesn’t inflame the ego, but instead knocks down certainties or claims of ownership. Epstein quotes Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop, in which one man comments on the soup another has made: “I am not deprecating your talent, Joseph, but, when one thinks of it, a soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of history in this soup.” Culture acknowledges the debts we incur over history, and how it all feeds into a long-lasting tradition.

Culture means complexity. It means answers don’t always present themselves readily, and a willingness to admit that one may not have all the answers. Epstein again:

I have never quite been able to shake the capping remark made by V. S. Naipaul on a character in his novel Guerrillas: “She had a great many opinions, but taken together they did not add up to a point of view.” Culture, true culture, helps form complex points of view.

Some years ago, the English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott was asked what he thought of England’s entering the European Union. “I don’t see,” he answered, “why I should be required to have an opinion about that.” An extraordinary thing for a contemporary political philosopher to say, or so I thought at the time. But later, reading Oakeshott’s Notebooks, I came across two interesting passages that made clear the grounds on which he said it: First, “To be educated is to know how much one wishes to know & to have the courage not to be tempted beyond this limit.” And second, that culture “teaches that there is much one does not want to know.” I wonder if, in the current age, our so-called Information Age, recognizing “what one doesn’t want to know” isn’t among the greatest gifts that the acquisition of culture can bestow.

This is a real struggle: it’s so easy to consume information to no apparent end, and I’m also someone who feels shortchanged, perhaps even somewhat betrayed, if I don’t have the full story behind some things. Drawing limits like this is no easy task. I’m also not one of the cultural vegans that Epstein describes; I have my fondness for certain types of culture that no one would really define as highbrow, and would defend that staunchly. But even then, I can usually fit it in to a vision for a rounded sense of self, even for developing that sense of complexity that comes with culture.

Through it all, though, we can’t forget to step back and look toward the higher goal that drives day-to-day tasks, large and small. Epstein quotes Matthew Arnold:

[T]here are born a certain number of natures with a curiosity about their best self, with a bent for seeing things as they are, for disentangling themselves from machinery…for the pursuit, in a word, of perfection…And this bent always tends…to take them out of their class, and to make their distinguishing characteristic not their [social origins, wealth, or status], but their humanity.

We won’t necessarily make it, but it’s still worth trying. In this world, at least, I can’t think of anything greater to aim for.

Road Trip Journal V: Seattle to Minneapolis

5 Jul

(Part IV)

Day Ten: Reasonable and Prudent

We wake early in Seattle the next morning. My friend goes out to grab a better breakfast, while I make do with mediocre hostel fare. We’re on the road shortly thereafter, headed east on I-90 over Lake Washington and through Bellvue before our final date with the Cascades. The mountains are shrouded in clouds today, with the sky a steely Seattle grey; the lowest of the peaks are lost in white, and some peek out above their airy halos from time to time. The passes here aren’t nearly as extreme as they are along I-80, and it’s a straightforward descent into central Washington, where the sun comes out and the temperatures rise.

Washington east of the Cascades just isn’t a place I’ve ever given much thought, and I’m surprised by how empty it is, its vacant highlands and amber waves of grain none too distant from Nevada or Wyoming. There are a few more towns, and the Columbia River gorge and crossing are a welcome and impressive break from the plains, but a mountain range leaves this area a world away from Seattle. This is the only place on the trip where we see a serious number of Trump signs along the highway, which says something considering the amount of deep red territory we’ve covered. Spokane passes quickly, and we leave Washington behind.

We make our lunch stop in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a lake resort town that we’re drawn to by pretty pictures we’ve seen before. Coeur d’Alene, it turns out, is no secret. Just thirty miles from Spokane, it’s packed on the Friday before Fourth of July weekend, with traffic backups and multitudes milling around its high-rise hotels. We eat a quick lunch along some cement steps leading down into the lake as boats buzz by beyond us and a seaplane comes in for a landing. But even if it’s not wilderness, it’s a welcome break. My friend takes a dip at the beach, while I wade in a little and admire the Idaho beach bums and the cartoon moose statuary.

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This is another day of extensive driving, and another one that leaves me impressed by the extent of the interstate highway system. It was a colossal infrastructure project, and while its story has its dark sides—ask anyone displaced by freeways punched through poorer parts of cities—it’s also a triumph of engineering and a marvel for interstate commerce. Even when clogged up by construction or congestion, it moves people with remarkable speed. Its construction radically remade small towns everywhere, as businesses shifted out of the core to little stops at exits. In Wallace, Idaho, we pass one of the towns that refused to bend to these changing tides. The residents of Wallace held out for years to resist the destruction of their historic downtown, and had it registered as a landmark in 1976. It took until 1991 for the government to complete a viaduct around it.

After some crawling traffic due to construction, we enter Montana, where speed limits are an afterthought. So much of one, in fact, that for a spell in the 1990s, speed limit signs along highways simply instructed drivers to go “reasonable and prudent” speeds. When the courts found this too vague for enforcement, the state settled on a poorly monitored 80 MPH limit. We rocket around bends and over mountain passes, though we’re far from the fastest car on the road. We pause in Missoula, where we continue our visits of college campuses and make a loop through the University of Montana.

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Through much of Montana, the road follows the Clark Fork, a river among the many features in this part of country named for Lewis or Clark. If there had been vacancies, we would have camped at the Missouri Headwaters State Park east of Butte, but with our tent long gone, it’s just as well that we’re now forced to plow on. We catch up with a storm near sunset, one that opens up in little spurts here and there in the hazy sky over the mountains, creating little sheets of rain with rainbows here and there along the route. Behind us, the sky is brilliant hue of pink mixed with sinking clouds. Another burst of energy to carry us through the final few miles.

2016-07-01 20.27.41

It’s dark by the time we arrive in Bozeman, where we’re the guinea pigs for a new Airbnb host. He delivers for us, and we grab a quick bite at a bar that caters to the Montana State crowd, one of the few places that still has an open kitchen. It’s too late to see much, and my friend is tired, so our list of Bozeman sights to see goes, regrettably, untouched. This may have been our most relentless day of driving, with few stops and no real thrilling destination at the end. The trip is definitely winding down, but we’re not close enough to the finish that we’ll miss any of it yet.

Day Eleven: Born to Run

We wake refreshed after a comfortable sleep in Bozeman, and Bruce Springsteen serenades us on the way east across Montana. The ranges of the western half of the state give way to craggy badlands and little ridges flecked with ranches. We catch our last glimpses of snow-capped peaks along the way, and pass just a bit too far north for a stop at Little Bighorn. I take over the driving somewhere east of Billings, after we’ve split north onto I-94. Today, I’m in a driving zone, just cruising along without distraction and drinking it all in. As is so often the case in the west, the freeway is in a valley along with a river (this time, the Yellowstone) and a train track, the rivers, roads, and rails all united in the easiest passage through the rough land all around.

We cross the North Dakota border and stop for lunch at a rest area, where we’re greeted by the most North Dakotan of scenes: an endless green plain of farmland, stretching out as far as the eye can see. Things change up a little further along, though, as we come to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It wasn’t in the cards for this trip, but it’s toward the top of the list of sites I want to see in the West. We make do by pulling over at the Painted Canyon overlook, where we’re treated to endless marches of painted badlands bubbling up over creeks and gulches. The spotty cloud cover adds to the contrasting colors, harsh and beautiful. Just a long day’s drive from Minneapolis, this park beckons me back in a way others haven’t. I feel that same pull that must have sucked in T.R. over a century ago.

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The badlands peter out shortly thereafter, and then it’s just North Dakota in all its glory. The state is particularly proud of its large manmade objects. We catch a glimpse of the bird-and-eye sculpture at the Enchanted Highway, pause for gas by the world’s largest sandhill crane, and see signs for the world’s largest buffalo. Our only real stop, however, is for the world’s largest Holstein cow, a beauty named Salem Sue, who stands proudly atop a hill outside tiny New Salem. Sue gazes out from what has to be one of the higher points in the state relative to its surroundings, and longs to graze on those endless green fields.

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The original plan had been to spend our final night on the road at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, which is just south of Bismarck. Now that my tent is the property of some homeless San Franciscan, however, we’re forced to make contingency plans with my friend’s aunt outside of Fargo. Still, we have ourselves a pre-paid pass to Fort Lincoln, so we stop in for a brief visit. The visitor’s center tells us the tale of the Mandans, who once had a large village on the banks of the Missouri here. A few of their round earthen homes, deceptively large, have been rebuilt for us tourists. We wander down to the river, where a sandbar just out from the bank is overloaded with locals on boats enjoying the water. Opposite the wide Missouri is Bismarck, and the bizarre tower that passes for a state capital in North Dakota lords over it all. On our way out, we drive by the fort’s buildings, their unassuming architecture belying their historical significance. George Custer set out from here on his ill-fated final trek, off to the fields of Little Bighorn in southeast Montana. This outpost was the end of white civilization in the 1880s; now, it’s the end of the West for two travelers.

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The road east from Bismarck is a blur, and my friend’s aunt is ready to spoil us with dinner and drinks and political conversation late into the night. Her town, Casselton, is as sleepy as they come, and a single mother of two Harvard students is happy to pass the night a couple of Georgetown grads with steak and ice cream. It’s late, but I’m up writing anyway. I have a lot left to recount, and the final thoughts for tomorrow are already writing themselves.

Day Twelve: Return to Lake Wobegon

Throughout my childhood, Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion was required listening on Saturday nights. We weren’t a churchgoing family, so the News from Lake Wobegon was the closest I got to a weekly sermon. We’d begin dinner sometime around the start of the show’s second hour, and I always sat and listened, even if dinner had ended. I haven’t listened regularly since I left home, and I won’t pretend to enjoy his singing or his seeming exhaustion by the end. But this weekend marks Keillor’s final show, so it’s only fitting that we listen to his final episode as we drive back into Minnesota.

The last morning of our road trip only adds to the above average idyll. Our host for the night, my friend’s aunt, is a Lutheran pastor, so we sit in on her Sunday service before going out to brunch in Fargo. Her homily on her son, who just had his wallet pickpocketed while backpacking through Peru and the kindness he encountered from strangers, resonated with a couple of travelers fresh off their own encounter with theft. We leave Elim Lutheran not to cross the Red Sea, but merely the Red River of the North, back into Minnesota.

At first, the landscape in the western half of the state resembles North Dakota. But slowly there are more towns that seem positively dense after the Great Plains, and more deciduous forests for the first time since we left this state twelve days ago. All is thick and green, and the smattering of the 10,000 lakes that line I-94 are all packed with holiday weekend boaters. As if we need any more reminders of that small-town Minnesotan literary legacy, we pass signs for Sinclair Lewis Avenue in Sauk Centre and the Lake Wobegon Trail just beyond.

The Minnesota myth has its demons, and Garrison Keillor is probably complicit in its creation. I’ve poked at it on this blog before, and I’ll never embrace it fully. But it’s become part of that vague haze of childhood rightness that I’ll never shake, and has a place somewhere in my loyalty to this state, even as I grumble about it. I’m sure I owe Garrison more than a few assists for the novel draft I cranked out between undergraduate life in Washington and graduate life in Minnesota, one focused on a town in Lake Wobegon country, filtered through the eyes of a jaded teenager from Minneapolis. The draft needs some work, but the story it told grounded a drifting kid in this state that a visiting Georgetown friend once labeled “the last bastion of the American Dream.” It allowed me to understand home.

Minneapolis suburbia comes gradually, the woods and freeway walls all but hiding the fact that we’re in a city until we can see the Minneapolis skyline. One last round of construction delays a few blocks from home allows us to get through the final News from Lake Wobegon, in which Garrison reflects on some townfolk who have passed on, and on the anonymity that follows death. My roots here aren’t that deep in years, really, but they’re deep enough to have seen some tragedy. My late brother, on my mind frequently over the past two weeks following what would have been his eighteenth birthday, had the middle name Garrison. A somber note as I end this trip, perhaps, but it’s all part of a broader narrative, complicated and rewarding all the same.

I’ve spent these twelve days as a tourist, a shopper among cities, a consumer of superb experiences. It was delightful, and I’m ready for another trip soon. But no package of fine living and cultural intrigue and and weather can ever define home. The land can evoke a sense of home, but for all its permanence, it isn’t what makes a place. That will always be deeper.

In true Keillor tradition, I’ll close with a poem, with my usual Greek twist on things:

Ithaka

C.P. Cavafy

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery,
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pear and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you have reached the island,
wealthy with all you have gained along the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

***

It’s good to be back. On to the next chapter.

Mario Vargas Llosa in Winter

22 Jan

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue:

“It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and among the most misleading of such parallels are those which have been drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman Empire declined into the Dark Ages. None the less certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead—often not recognising fully what they were doing—was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We  are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”

These words came to mind as I wrapped up Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest essays, Notes on the Death of Culture, in which he exercises his prerogative as a grumpy old man and complains about what has gone wrong in the world. His lament here is on the decline of high culture and its replacement by a sorry substitute of an anti-culture of the masses. He is unashamed to defend the old elites and use terms like ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism’ to draw distinctions between the good and the bad. His diagnosis has nuance, but it boils down to this: the democratization of culture has left us with incoherence, and no means of elevating truly great work above the rest of the noise. We live in a society of spectacle, in which the biggest, flashiest sights eclipse all work of any quality. In spite of our great advances in technology and political progress in many parts of the globe, the cacophony may drown out the narratives we need to sustain our societies and thereby jeopardize the entire project.

Vargas Llosa is a classical liberal figure, one that was never in vogue in his native Peru—alas, he lost the 1990 presidential election to eventual autocrat Alberto Fujimori—and his type has become increasingly endangered elsewhere, too. He’s unique among Latin American literary giants of the late twentieth century in his firm embrace of open markets and rejection of leftist revolution. He is also one of those intellectuals with tremendous respect for the religious and the societal role of faith who nonetheless does not identify with any place, perhaps revealing the weakness of his stance in the process: if faith is just some guarantor of social order and does not place any demands upon its adherents, why should anyone else buy in? He knows he takes a lonely stance, but also knows that people like him have long served as the curators of culture, and worries about what may come next.

This worldview leads the Peruvian Nobel Laureate to embrace some fairly standard positions that prioritize a secular political order and existing institutions, including critiques of Muslim headscarves and WikiLeaks. Regardless of his positions, this is hardly the most gripping part of the book; authors philosophizing are a dime a dozen, and Vargas Llosa is witty but never revolutionary. His work is stronger when he delves deeper into the trappings of faith and in a mediation on the death of eroticism (cue Rollo May), which are somewhat more transgressive themes. Here, he mounts a defense of ritual and the private sphere in an attempt to keep some sense of mystery and wonder alive in the world.

Vargas Llosa is at his best when he talks about the arts, and the value of the canon in which some of his finest works (Conversation in the Cathedral, The War of the End of the World, The Feast of the Goat) surely belong. The excerpted section that concludes Notes on the Death of Culutre made bolder leaps than his 2010 Nobel Prize acceptance address that pondered some similar themes, but it does better drive home the thrust of his argument: that literature is particularly suited to inspire reflection, rebellion, and the pursuit of ideals, and does so in a way that newer technology cannot. Here we see the depth of his mind, and how he has taken many great works and used them in ways that again prove their greatness: by serving as windows into the soul, an inspiration toward human action in the service of a greater cause. This, he tells us, is how a curmudgeonly “dinosaur in difficult times” can still impart some wisdom.

Our intrepid author is otherwise short on advice for how to sustain culture; he even admits that the future does not concern him much. (This must be much easier when one is 79 than it is when one is 26.) This, perhaps, is what brought me back to MacIntyre today: the need to build communities (and I use that term loosely) that can preserve the best of this great cultural inheritance, even as we make our way in a modern world that often has no regard for it. We do this not to repeat the past or stay stuck in it, but to make sure we don’t lose touch with the more insightful things people have said in the past, and to ensure we stop and reflect on the broader narratives in which we situate our lives. I suppose I ought to get to work.

A Guide to Minnesota Nice

21 Aug

Minnesotans have plenty of reason to be nice. We’re not in a rush to scrap for spots on ladders for power, as happens out East; we have more space than they do, and lack their extremes and intensity, despite the political affinity. We’re not haunted by history as in the South, or left with much of a Rust Belt legacy like most of our Midwestern brethren. We’ll always be more interesting than the Plains, and do not suffer from whatever it is that afflicts Texans and turns them into Texans. Nor are we restless strivers still on the frontier, like those out West; we’ve tamed the whole state, and like it as it is under our stewardship. Just look at our rather racist flag, with its settler beating off some native to claim his fields. That mostly forgotten episode in the Dakota Wars aside, our history has never been at the center of the American narrative, which spares us a judging past, but we’ve been around long enough to have a cultural legacy that can stand on its own. Things are, simply, nice.

Unless, of course, you dare to find fault in our niceness. A Washington Post article poking fun at some of the nation’s more geographically “boring” counties got zero flak from the other states with a bunch near the bottom of the list, but Minnesotans trashed it en masse, leading to a mea culpa from the author. Perhaps the lack of attention leaves us with an inferiority complex; more likely, we’re just quirky outsiders unaccustomed to much national interest, and ready to defend our turf when someone suddenly tries to drag us in with the rest of the country. For all the champions of progressive politics this state produces, there’s still a deep conservatism at the core here: Minnesotans are proud of what they’ve built, and would rather not mess with it too much.

And we have good reason. We’ve got a white-collar metropolis that has weathered some of the worst trends in cities fairly well. We combine a pretty friendly business climate with a functional state government that, until recently, operated quite independently from the national parties. We have an educational system on par with the nations of Scandinavia. Sure, the winters are cold, but we know how to have fun with them, and they build character. Our summers are gorgeous, our autumns sublime. (Any Minnesotan knows that the one indefensibly crappy season here is spring, that grey void between the end of the State Hockey Tournament and Memorial Day.) We have work-life balance: you’re certainly allowed to enjoy your job, but it does not define who you are, as people who are consumed by their jobs are often not nice. We’re very conscious about the work we do, but at the end of the day, we’d rather be on the lake than anywhere else.

“The lake” defines Minnesota life, and is the place where Minnesotans always go, that one platonic ideal standing in for all 11,842 of them within the state’s boundaries. We have an incredible diversity in lakes, but whether one prefers Calhoun or Kekakabic, Minnetonka or Vermillion, every lake inspires a certain ideal. But the most Minnesotan of lands is the northern realm of the state, where lake life reigns supreme, and even the biggest lovers of the big city will make their way North at least once a summer. Even as its population stagnates and economic role dwindles, the Twin Cities are happy to appropriate the North as theirs. Its appeal reaches both suburbanites in search of space and solitude and crunchy urbanites who have adopted its fashion wholesale. (There were bearded men in flannel drinking PBRs in Bemidji decades before they came to Brooklyn.) The North forever draws Minnesotans back with its more gradual pace of life, inviting one to think both deeply or of nothing. Either way, it cleanses the palette from incessant work and family life. Sit back on the pier, crack open a beer, gaze out across those sunny dancing waters, and lose yourself.

For Minnesotans raised on the sonorous voice of the high priest of Minnesota Nice, Garrison Keillor, that sentiment is never far away. There’s a fair amount of self-hate among Minnesotans of the Lake Wobegon idyll, and not without reason. But even Keillor’s critics often unwittingly embrace the foundations of his weekly news from the edge of the prairie: the need to stop amid the noise of life and succumb to nostalgia, the allure of a carefree childhood of exploration; the freedom to look back from old age and say that one has stayed true to something passed down from generation to generation. Call it the Minnesotan Dream: we may not be able to offer you power or riches, but we can offer you a safe, reasonably priced, spacious house and weekends on a lake. Do you really need much more than that?

For a majority of Minnesotans, this holds true. Not many people leave, and most who come tend to stay. People marry young and settle down, and the people we shared those lake weekends with as children stay friends for life. The result is a dense network of people; even in the Twin Cities, it’s hard to escape into anonymity, and we all know someone who knows someone. (I’ve heard the Twin Cities job market described as “pervasive low-grade nepotism.”) We share enough that we all know how to work together and live together, even if we may not like each other all that much. Hence the famed dark side of Minnesota Nice, the tendency to put on a good face and pretend to like people when, in fact, we hate their guts. It can be tiringly catty and erupt in spurts of passive-aggressiveness, but it also lets everyone get their jobs done with typical Minnesotan efficiency.

Minnesotans expect anyone who comes here to adopt Minnesotan standards: you can share in our nice state so long as you play by our nice rules. It’s a very Scandinavian ethos, which is no surprise in America’s most Scandinavian corner, forever putting the common good ahead individual quirks. This is probably why Minnesota attracts few immigrants save a few strong ethnic enclaves for Somalis and Hmong, and those (especially the Somalis) tend to live in their own separate worlds. It’s also probably why our efforts to educate Minnesotan children who do not look like us tend to suck. Our history with our Native Americans is dark and ugly. It’s easy to claim the high ground when everyone shares a common language, but as in Scandinavia, changing demographics may complicate the tale of Minnesotan exceptionalism.

There’s also the matter of Jante Law, a Scandinavian sentiment akin to that in Appalachia or inner cities in which people heap shame upon those who seem to rise above their perceived stations. (This ambitious, non-Scandinavian kid from the North remembers the two reactions that his college of choice, Georgetown, inspired from a number of local adults: “oh, where’s that?” and “that’s so far away.” Minnesota Nice translation: “you are making a stupid and selfish choice, leaving behind everything you know to go off to some mysterious, no doubt un-Minnesotan ivory tower on the East Coast.”) Foraging one’s own path in Minnesota, unless it is through a literal forest, is not always the easiest thing.

But it can be done. Minnesota transplants must learn to love the lake, and those who leave must show that they still remember it. It need not be the center of life, but it must be a part of it, and so long as we tend the roots of the Minnesota mystique, one will always be welcome. One can even retain some of those quirks learned in the great void beyond, and perhaps even chase some form of excellence. The lake may seem small at times, but its depths can be profound, and sometimes, that respite is something we all need.

What’s a Minnesotan, Anyway?

19 Nov

Earlier this week, the Star Tribune reported on a forum planned for Wednesday night at the Walker Arts Center, at which a series of panelists would grapple with the question of whether Minnesotans are “Midwestern” or not. This might seem like tiresome semantics, and an exercise in one of the more stupid definitions of “culture.” But as one read the article and dug down into the motives at play, there was a lot more going on here than the headline lets on. Another commitment prevented me from attending, but that won’t stop me from having an opinion.

Growing up in Minnesota, it was always easy to call it part of the Midwest, sometimes with the qualifier “Upper” before the Midwest to indicate our higher latitude and relative lack of corn fields. Still, my idea of the Midwest didn’t line up with everyone else’s; for example, I’d never have called Ohio “Midwest,” but that seems to be exactly what East Coast people associate with the word. There’s an awful lot of stuff wrapped up into Midwest, and Minnesota, as one of its most distant extensions, sits more awkwardly in that region than many other states. The phrase has some less-than-stellar baggage (flyover country, empty cornfields), so I can buy the need for a new region.

So when it comes to the proposed alternatives, “North” does have a nice ring. I appreciate the way it’s pitched as a shameless embrace of our cold. So what if it’s cold? We have fun with it. Still, I will quibble: Eric Dayton claims the U.S. doesn’t have a “North,” but, well, we did. It was a combatant in the Civil War. We no longer think of that North as a region because it doesn’t have the historical memory of its antagonist, the still-extant South, but claiming the Northern mantel might have some unexpected connotations. (Minnesota was an infant state at the time of the Civil War and certainly contributed to the Union cause, though it can hardly claim a central role.)

There’s also the question of whether anyone else actually belongs to Minnesota’s region, and could unabashedly embrace the North. The parts of North Dakota along the Red River Valley make some sense, but anything to the west is decidedly Great Plains, and would be an odd mix culturally. Iowa isn’t quite North in the way that Minnesota is. That leaves us with Wisconsin, which I do think is a reasonably good fit once we get over the Packers’ ownership of the Vikings, and perhaps the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which is very North. It’s not much, though. Are we really celebrating our region, or just our state? For that matter, are we even still bothering with the half of the state that does look a fair bit like Iowa?

Here I will confess a fair amount of unease around the real motive here: this attempt to stake out a regional identity seems to slide into a marketing campaign for Minneapolis and St. Paul. I live in and like Minneapolis, but there are still worlds of difference between it and northern Minnesota, which is essentially what the people quoted in the Strib are after. It sounds as if these scions of the creative class want to appropriate all of the Lake Wobegon homeliness and the wilderness allure of Greater Minnesota for the MSP brand while at the same time dismissing small-town Minnesota as “slightly hick.” Those towns are just relics of history, insufficiently vibrant for any properly urbane “creative” person, but we’ll gladly claim their boots and backpacks as ours, because aren’t we so rugged here in Northeast? Spare me.

I’m at some risk of turning this into a Wendell Berry rant about how the cities strip-mine rural America, a relentless brain drain that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. (We’ll save that discussion for another day.) I’m not sure how much we can fight the tide. Regional power would be a valuable thing for MSP, and if it snaps up some of the cultural cachet of its surroundings for its own, at least that’s being valued and passed along in some form. My own city, Duluth, is aiming to follow the same path on a more modest scale, and I have no burning desire to open up a kangaroo court and judge people by some measure of alleged authenticity. On the whole, the hipster ethic at the heart of the New North blends vestiges of local culture with cosmopolitan city life, making for a richer experience for the rest of us. If done right, it really could shore up the foundations of a regional economy.

Still, I feel the need to sound a few alarm bells. The creative class theory currently in vogue has serious shortcomings. It is a mindset fully in the thralls of current economic winds, and it can further the split between this new elite and those on the outside. It’s enjoyable if you’re an upper middle class liberal (that is, the people who run Minneapolis and St. Paul, or any of the people who appeared on the panel), but for other groups, it’s a trickle-down effect at best.

So by all means, MSP, claim the mantel as the capital of the North. I may gripe, but better here than anywhere else. Just remember that your relationship with your region ought to have some give-and-take, rather than you simply being the metropole sucking all else to the center. Remember that people who are not on the cultural vanguard deserve a spot at the table. And don’t think for a moment that branding yourself as more “varied” and “diverse” will be some engine of balanced growth. It can certainly help, but there’s a lot more to it than that. And if you can acknowledge that fact, us kinda hick people from the hinterland might be a bit more willing to come along for the ride in your great new North.

Utraque Unum

28 Aug

To date, I’ve avoided discussing my alma mater, Georgetown University, in much detail on this blog. My thoughts are convoluted, and I wanted to gain a little more distance from those four years before doing so. I think I’m finally there, and a new book provides a great vehicle for writing about my time as a Hoya. This summer, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz penned a book entitled Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. It’s a variation on an old theme, one confronted by Allan Bloom’s closing American mind, David Brooks’s Organization Kid, and any number of cultural critics over the past few decades. The premise is simple: so-called ‘elite’ universities are failing students, turning intellectually sharp kids into corporate drones who ask no great questions who are just obsessed with climbing the ladder of wealth and power.

The vast majority of these essays are incredibly personal in nature; the main piece will describe the author’s time at University X and the troubles he or she has seen, and everyone else associated with any school that is vaguely comparable to University X is then obligated to opine. (Opining is, after all, what academics are good at.) I now present my offering in that noble tradition, though I hope this meta-awareness keeps me from falling into some of the more familiar traps.

I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, of course, but my alma mater isn’t far off. Particularly for the politically inclined, Georgetown is that shining city on a hill above the Potomac, its allure sometimes surpassing that of the Ivies. It has the admissions rate to match, even if the endowment lags; relying on the Catholic Church to fund one’s first few centuries kept the school from seeking donations as aggressively as its Ivy friends, leading Georgetown to expend a lot of effort in recent capital campaigns. It qualifies as an “elite school,” whatever that exactly means.

There was a time when I was rather critical of my alma mater, and I agree with a number of Deresiewicz’s critiques. In my senior year, I actually discouraged a high school friend from applying, and I stand by that call. The most surprising thing to me was what I perceived as a general lack of intellectual curiosity on display. I went in thinking Georgetown students were in some higher class of brilliance than my high school peers; some certainly were, but many were not. They’d just been raised in families with higher expectations, and come out of private high schools and SAT tutoring programs that specialize in funneling kids into elite colleges. They knew the landscape better, but their minds didn’t appear any sharper for it.

Careerism pervaded many aspects of university life. Dating, while possible, was rare: few felt it worthwhile to put in the effort, especially with grad school and travel and a decade of way-finding to follow. It was much easier to just find a good weekend hook-up and then get back to our frantic studies once the hangover had worn off. And while there was a small cadre of radicals, political debate was pretty rare, too. Elite American universities are nothing like the politically charged incubators of protest they might have been in past generations, with a vague social liberalism and fiscal moderation just accepted as the general culture. The primary aim of a Georgetown student is to “be productive;” it doesn’t really matter what they think of the things they produce, so long as they are producers.

At one point, I also became aware that a certain professor generally regarded as the don of campus intellectual life had opined that the decline in student interest in certain fellowships and related pursuits was related the increase in middle-class students from the center of the country. These students, lacking the comfort of the old money elites that had traditionally populated schools like Georgetown, were a bit more careerist and didn’t have as much time for intellectual pursuits. At the time this sentiment pissed me off, and I still think our dear professor ought to have descended from his ivory tower and made a better pitch to those of us who didn’t know what sort of path we’d have to take to pursue such things, but I don’t think he was wrong. It is very difficult to be a detached intellectual without a certain degree of material comfort. Still, I think there was an untapped market there for him, and for a somewhat hotheaded college student, those sorts of words are alienating. It’s a shame, because I usually respond well to hard-asses, and could have used him in my life.

This unexpected careerism caused some culture shock, which was heightened by questions of money and hometown. In high school, I’d never found class to be a serious barrier for communing with other people; in college, I was hyper-aware of my status as the kid on heavy financial aid from a small city somewhere in flyover country. (A conversation repeated numerous times: ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Duluth, Minnesota.’ ‘Is that near the Twin Cities?’ ‘No.’ This elicited shock, as the person tried to fathom life beyond the suburban ring.) I’ve playfully mocked the University of Minnesota for having a course in “Understanding Minnesota Nice,” but I could have used a crash course in DC culture before I got there.

In retrospect, I was a bit uncharitable to many of my classmates and the old guard professors, and my Duluth pride may have understandably come off as rather obstinate, or just quirky. I was just someone from somewhere else; an occasional object of curiosity, but most people were too busy to sit about and ponder these things. I don’t blame them; outside of a fairly close circle of friends, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time pondering them, either. I had all the same concerns, and might have looked just as intellectually disinterested as the rest. Most of us were in the same boat.

The reasons for that often had little to do with Georgetown. This is life in America’s quasi-meritocracy, and the school is swept up in that; sure, it can and should do some work around the margins to tone that down, but only so much. (What’s it supposed to do, reject applicants with awesome resumes? Paternalistically crack down on students’ love lives? Good luck with that.) In the grand scheme of things, my struggles were pretty minor, and by graduation I’d more or less found my niche. That’s adolescent life, really. In this, I agree with the Robert Nisbet critique, detailed in Nathan Heller’s New Yorker review of Excellent Sheep: expecting a university to be a place where people focus on shaping their souls inflates its role, and also takes a rather solipsistic view of education. It’s not all about us.

Likewise, some of my frustrations with Georgetown had a lot more to do with me than with Georgetown. My rural Ohio roommate, for example, had a much smoother transition. I went in naïve about certain aspects of college life; throw in some family upheaval, and it wasn’t hard for an already introspective person to tip over into hyper-awareness. Add in a temperament generally skeptical of cliques, one that is equally at ease discussing Aristotle over wine one night and watching football over cheap beer the next, and it’s no surprise that I was adrift by sophomore year. Building community is tough when you don’t always share some of those lowest-common-denominator cultural norms, yet aren’t happy drifting off into a narrower counterculture, either.

Reading all this, you’d probably get the sense that I wasn’t very happy at Georgetown. There were definitely some frustrating moments. But if I could go back and do it again, I’d do it in a heartbeat, and I’d push any kids of mine who share my temperament to do the same. Why? It’s a matter of ambition; for some of us, nothing short of this will ever do. Ambition and anxiety are joined at the hip, and I had to get beyond college to learn how to negotiate that interplay. That drive is too much of who I am to imagine a different life, and I expect it’s the same with many of my peers. It might not make sense to someone from the outside, but some of us are just wired this way, and there is no alternative.

On that front, Georgetown really did get a lot right. It prepped me well and got me to think deeply. The vast majority of the time I had real professors (not grad students), most of them brilliant. Sure, the students were career-focused, but the best of the professors knew how to pull them out of that and tap into some well-hidden intellectual energy. Anyone claiming they weren’t getting that out of their students probably wasn’t trying hard enough, or was failing to communicate or command respect. I also saw that my focus on the superficial was often just as bad as that of others, and that I had to dig deeper to find more.

Georgetown’s emphasis on faith, diversity, and social justice did seem like window dressing at times, but in a world hyper-saturated with opportunity, the school probably had to be a bit repetitive to get its point across. The Office of Mission and Ministry might not have quite satisfied the hardline Catholics, but it did leave a door open for exploration and allow for the creation of healthy minority communities. (In this day in age, any religious group on campus is a minority.) The same could be said for racial or sexual minorities, who had their spaces on campus. The Center for Social Justice likewise was pretty robust, and did a decent job of getting Hoyas out of the Georgetown Bubble to realize there was a wider world out there. Maybe there was no ideal spot for me there since I didn’t quite fit in any of the above, but I refuse to be a whiny victim about that. If Georgetown was indeed supposed to help me find my soul, it really did that. I’m probably in the minority there, but the path was open for anyone willing to take it; I wouldn’t even say it was particularly hard to do so. Even though I’m a Minnesotan at heart, I needed to get out and see Rome, and there were things I learned about myself there (and in that sublime semester in Mexico) that I wouldn’t have gained anywhere else.

I’ll throw in one last cynical twist, though: frankly, I went overboard in finding myself, often to the detriment of my relationships with the people around me. Add in some excessive pride over doing things my own way, and it’s no wonder I came out of there without any sort of career path. The debate between career readiness and soul formation is a false dichotomy. A university can’t do either one alone, but there’s no reason it can’t contribute to some of both. Hence the Georgetown motto, ‘Utraque unum’—‘both one.’ The eagle on the Georgetown seal holds the world in one talon and a cross in the other, uniting faith and reason.

The people who best embodied this were the professors. They imparted wisdom both personal and practical, and also taught us in things that were not relevant to our immediate careers. For some Hoyas that meant courses with people with real-world experience, like Madeleine Albright or Chuck Hagel; for me, it meant finding the university’s best minds. My path involved the Classicist icon Fr. James Schall, rising stars like Fr. Matthew Carnes and Desha Girod, the incredible detachment of Eusebio Mujal-Leٚón, the badass Barbara Mujica, and Patrick Deneen, that old guard conservative who was the great defender of liberal education. They’re the enduring images of my undergraduate academic career. The best of their number were all authorities who commanded respect, even as they invited us to fumble about with our own two cents.

It’s also not coincidental that a couple of them were Jesuits; in fact, I think they were all Catholic. As tiresome as some of the university’s canards on faith became, that unending presence made Georgetown unique. I’m not Catholic, but I’ve directed all of my (puny) donations to date to Georgetown mission and ministry. That unique identity is worth cultivating, and is essential in keeping the university from becoming a factory of careerist automatons. When it comes to reining that in, schools rely on what they know best, and keep with a mission that survives the march of time. If you can’t stand being in the presence of Catholics, don’t go to a Catholic school. There should be diverse options among colleges, and that diversity should mean something, instead of it just being a cheap selling point.

Georgetown and its ilk are not for everyone, nor should they be. We don’t want a world where everyone is a hyper-driven Hoya; we need people with different temperaments. I’m at a big state school now, and while it’s too early for me to say much about it, they certainly have their strengths: size begets diversity and sub-cliques that aren’t possible at smaller schools. Liberal arts colleges have their place as well, for those who really want to go all-in on the soul formation and have the resources to make it work. Vocational training is also essential, and deserves higher repute; perhaps more than anything, higher ed in this country needs to revive traditions such as the apprenticeship, and give kids easier roads from school to career so that they don’t come out panicking about what comes next. Paradoxically, a more direct career focus could free people up to spend more time on those questions of the soul that usually get forgotten when we have to figure out how to put food on the table.

But for those of us who can’t live without that constant pursuit of greatness, whatever that might be, the Ivy League and its ilk are necessary. Somewhere underneath it all, there’s usually a desire for a completed soul, and that too can be the object of our pursuit of excellence—and just like careerism, it can go overboard. There is nowhere better than these schools to find that holistic place where the both become one. Maybe I’m a sellout in my acceptance of all this blind ambition, but if I am, I make no apologies. The trouble is not in the chase; it is in refusing to look back to see where we’ve come from.