Tag Archives: decline and fall

Good Journalism, 4/19/18

19 Apr

Here is week two in my attempt to collect a smattering of semi-related pieces of good journalism on topics that I think deserve more attention than anything in the regular news cycle.

From Franklin Foer, one of the Atlantic’s most fascinating writers, comes a discussion on the end of reality. It should leave you quite concerned about our virtual future, and the past couple of years show just how much it can threaten a traditional understanding of truth and, yes, reality itself. As a defender of reality, it’s a timely call to arms.

From something called The Educators’ Room, which is dedicated to teachers’ empowerment, here is a list of ten things that teachers today have to deal with that they didn’t ten years ago. The timing here is apt, as I close in on my own 10-year reunion. Sure enough, few to none of these things existed when I walked out of Duluth East ten years ago, and just about all of them leave me saddened or frustrated with the state of education. Some of them key off the concern over virtual lives that comes out of the Foer piece, but others deal with safety, a decline in authority conferred to teachers, and broader social forces that affect home lives. My own profession is often complicit in #10, and while I do think there is very good work being done in better aligning curriculum with realities of a changing economy, whenever I get caught up in these discussions I just want to yell at people to stop and make sure we’re not thinking about education or childhood in a strictly utilitarian way. The journey should be just as important as the destination, both here and in the testing culture the author rightfully decries.

Spinning out of our theme of losing touch with the world around us, here is David Brooks on loneliness. From my own travels and observations, I would wholeheartedly concur that this epidemic is as dangerous as any afflicting contemporary American life. One line sums it up well: “the clans have polarized, the villages have been decimated and the tribes have become weaponized.” We will either find some way to heal these wounds or we will continue to crumble away from reality.

Next, some notes on the political journey of a man who, while facing long odds, had as good a chance as anyone to heal the wounds of a fractured nation: RFK goes to Pine Ridge. There have been some timely RFK reflections of late, including a number on the 50th anniversary of his Indianapolis speech following the assassination of Martin Luther King, and I expect they will continue as we close in on the anniversary of his death. I’m not sure there’s a more haunting figure in American history.

Following up on last week’s theme, but closer to home: Jana Hollingsworth and Brooks Johnson at the Duluth News Tribune delve into a sexual abuse case in Itasca County. One can certainly throw some stones at local papers like the News Tribune, but something I’ve noticed in recent travels to smaller communities is the hole left by the decline of newspapers as a communal source of knowledge. Once upon a time, these places had a common source of information; nowadays, ask a resident where to catch up on local happenings and many of them will shrug, or admit they’re relying on Facebook gossip (which many hate but can’t escape) or just the good old rumor mill at the coffee shop or bar. Institutions like newspapers play a vital role. And I’m pleased to say that the DNT reporters who I’ve interacted with in recent years, which include Jana and Brooks, along with Peter Passi on local government and Louie St. George on hockey, are all in it for the right reasons, and do great work. May they continue to have the resources to do more of this.

And, staying local for my final piece, here’s an obituary that caught my eye this week. Mary C. Van Evera is a name I’ve heard around Duluth from time to time, usually as a donor somewhere in the background. I often wonder who these people are, and how they amassed their wealth, and what spurred them to grace certain causes with their patronage. With Mrs. Van Evera, it’s obvious enough: her maiden name was Congdon, and she was a granddaughter of Chester and Clara Congdon, the builders of Glensheen and the exemplars of Duluth’s golden age a century ago. Obviously few to zero people reading this blog will have Congdon-level wealth, and I can’t claim to have known her or how she operated. But when it came to civic involvement, and to commitment to a place while maintaining a global perspective, Mrs. Van Evera was exemplary.

I’m building some steam here. Let’s do this again next week.

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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.

Two Hearted Travel

4 Oct

Few cities summon someone who studies cities quite like Detroit. It is emblematic of both the triumph of American industry and the horror story of its demise. Its northern border, Eight Mile Road, is the starkest divide one can find between modern suburban reality and a collapsed America that came before. This is where unions and Henry Ford’s wages created paths to the middle class and people of all races could find jobs; this is where the collapse of manufacturing left large swaths of a city in literal ruins, and where a series of events created one of the most segregated metros in America. Detroit gave us Motown and the most memorable Super Bowl commercial of all time, and it gave us tales of race riots and emergence from the ashes. Most anyone can use it to justify a particular version of American history, the good and the ill.

I’m in Detroit for a cousin’s wedding, and stay at a hotel downtown and near the venue, just next to the respective homes of the Tigers and Lions, Comerica Park and Ford Field. Downtown Detroit is alive, with GM’s Renaissance Center and some stunning gothic architecture looming over the city. As I watch from the window after checking in, a light rail and a pedal pub both roll by; immediately, any rumors of Detroit’s demise seem exaggerated. The partying outside our hotel late into the night does little to dispel this notion, as do my own ventures out to bars and a brewery and a distillery with my extended family. Even in this supposed wreck of a city, one can have a festive weekend and have no idea of the forces that have buffeted it over the past half century.

Those forces began with redlining and riots in the middle of the century, but culminated around the financial crisis a decade ago: two-thirds of the population gone, two humiliating automaker bailouts, a remarkably felonious mayor, and a municipal bankruptcy that had the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) seriously considering selling off some of its works to survive. Saner heads prevailed in that crisis and the priceless collection is intact, so a visit is in order. Its crown jewel is the Diego Rivera industry murals, which line four sides of a court in the center of the museum. I’ve seen my share of Rivera murals in my Mexican travels, but this one rivals them all in its cohesion across all four walls. As usual, Rivera captures a slice of everything here, with the complete cast of characters in 1930s Detroit united in fresco form. We see the drudgery and misery of factory work, the wealth it generates, the awesome power of human creation and industry, and hints of a dream that all this scientific progress could lead to a just and prosperous society. History has not proven kind to these dreams, at least not without significant collateral damage. The evidence is just outside the DIA’s doors.

Detroiters, understandably, aren’t too fond of tourists going in search of “ruin porn,” but as someone who’s become numbed to the pleasures of mere decline porn, my appetite for such smut is too large to resist. I’ve picked out a few of Detroit’s more iconic ruins to visit, including Michigan Central Station and an old Packard manufacturing plant. These are a few scattered relics, though; even thriving cities have a few such eyesores or white elephants. What makes Detroit shocking are its vast tracts beyond downtown that are now in ruin, an American Rome in its monuments to greatness lost, or perhaps a Palenque bursting out of the jungle. In some places the urban forest has swallowed up the decay; in others, just vacant grassy fields remain. Here and there some homes straggle on, their roofs in tatters and their windows in boards but still home to someone. Block by block, one never knows what one will find: total wreckage, declining but inhabitable structures, the occasional incongruous and immaculate home or business. Broad avenues, built to accommodate Detroit’s great export, sit in desolation, only the occasional car crawling up and down. Even around an active GM facility in Hamtramck, things seem more dead than alive.

Love springs eternal amid all this porn, however: as we visit Michigan Central, a couple is in the midst of its wedding photos out front, finding beauty plus a venue where they can get away with downing a couple of Pacificos around noon. Carefully tended roses sit behind the barbed wire, an American flag makes an attempt at a resolute stand, and the current owner has rehabbed all the windows. Someday, someone will find a use for this thing. The parking lot outside the Packard plant is full, and we can see a group of people in white construction helmets congregating in one part of the wreck; signage informs us that artists have grand plans for its rehabilitation. Occasional gardens and greenhouses dot the vacant lots, turning emptiness to good use. New roots in literal and figurative forms.

My traveling party and I decided to make a road trip out of our trek to Detroit, and took the slightly longer but infinitely prettier route from Duluth across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and then across the Mackinac Bridge and straight south to the Motor City. The Great Lakes in autumn make for a lovely drive, but the UP, too, has seen its share of ups and downs. Some of its towns, such as Marquette and Munising and St. Ignace, have quaint lakeside downtowns bustling with tourists. Some, like Ishpeming and Negaunee, hang on to their old extractive industries. Others, old mining or logging towns whose anchors have long since moved on, look like they could be blocks somewhere in Detroit. When this happens in a metropolitan area, it’s a powerful story of civilizational decline; out here, it’s a much quieter decay, a tale of towns forgotten by time.

On the return leg, we make camp at the mouth of the Two Hearted River, a fast-moving trout stream that pours into Lake Superior just west of Whitefish Bay. It’s the namesake for the Bell’s India Pale Ale, so of course I have some of that along, and it also gave its name to a short story in Ernest Hemingway’s first published collection. I consume that tale in short order as well, following Nick Adams as he seeks solitude with his fishing line after the First World War. Hemingway’s prose has always been hit-or-miss for me, but when it comes to fishing, he is a master at his craft, and the simple elegance captures Nick’s singular mind out in the wilderness, cleared of any concern beyond his little camp along the Big Two Hearted.

Away from the lakes, the leaves approach fall peak and usher in perhaps my favorite season. Autumn is a fitting time for a journey through contradictory places. It carries an inherent dualism; something two-hearted, perhaps, as it clings to summer beauty and reminds us that none of it will last. Fitting, I suppose, for someone who at once craves the center of an endless party in a cultured city and escapes to solitude amid natural beauty. The end result was something akin to sensory overload, as I ruminated on old wounds that don’t always heal and a churning world that forces a new sense of urgency. But if I withdrew to make sense of all of that, it is now time to head back out, a cycle renewed yet again.

On Public Intellectuals

23 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Decline Porn, Duluth, and Love Amid the Ruins

24 May

J.D. Vance, in a review of Janesville: An American Story in Commentary magazine:

Having grown up in a blue-collar family that has largely abandoned the Democratic Party in droves, I have an unusually high tolerance for the many profiles of Trump voters in struggling industrial towns. Lately, however, even I have grown weary of what Noah Rothman calls “decline porn.” There are only so many words in the English language, and nearly all of them seem to have been used at least three times to help the denizens of Williamsburg and Dupont understand red-state voters and dying factory towns. Enough already.

Vance penned the most orgiastic piece of decline porn in recent memory, Hillbilly Elegy–apologies for my juvenile enjoyment of this metaphor–but there has been no shortage of titles in this genre, and a survey of this blog will find me devouring much of it, from Robert Putnam’s Our Kids to Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic, from George Packer’s The Unwinding to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart to Brian Alexander’s Glass House. It need not even be American; I could carry on with examples for a while. Decline porn is a fertile ground in contemporary non-fiction, and its best works tell haunting tales of realities that anyone vaguely involved in the shaping of political or economic trends must wrestle with. They also tap into a into a lament for things lost speaks to a certain part of the human psyche and permeates my own writing at times. Someone who knows me well can probably psychoanalyze this wistfulness easily enough, but I come back to it for reasons that are philosophical as well as personal, and I could devote a lot of words to defending it in those terms. Meditations on loss go back to Eden and the early creation myths, as Paz so masterfully explains in the last chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude. It’s a near universal human trait.

Despite this, I don’t consider myself a declinist. That golden past usually had its own ugly features, and nostalgia and selective memory whitewash the worst of it. Coping with change is also one of the greatest engines of human ingenuity and heroism, and if noting else, it’s remarkably educational for those of us looking not to repeat past errors. If we fixate only on decline, we become depressing, tiresome people who are locked into a single lens and not much fun to talk to at parties.

Still, Vance likes Janesville. Despite the oversaturation of the genre–porn is everywhere these days, after all–its author, Amy Goldstein, gets to the heart of the flawed human stories, and instead of merely lamenting loss, looks to assess the responses to it. This one would likely strike home for me, too: my earliest memories are of the short stint my family spent living in a small town just north of Janesville, Wisconsin, and my mother worked there for a time. Unfortunately, Goldstein comes to fairly depressing conclusions. The basic tools of the trade in economic development, Janesville argues, have done little good to stem the tide of decline. Neither have worker retraining efforts, a rare point of bipartisan consensus on putting communities back to work. It adds up to a depressing summation of post-industrial America, with no obvious way forward for anyone.

Unless, of course, there might be any exceptions to the trend out there. I happen to be living in one.

Duluth, Minnesota is not heaven on earth. Its economy is not booming, its poverty rate is high, and there has been a rash of opioid overdoses, as in so much of the America exposed so ubiquitously in decline porn. But I will submit that it’s important to think about what it could have been, and that Duluth’s story is as much a triumph as any medium-sized Rust Belt town. In the early 1980s, its unemployment rate was second only to Youngstown, Ohio, which is not exactly great company to have. Population plummeted, manufacturing packed up and left, and a billboard asked the last person to leave to turn out the lights.

Most Rust Belt cities remain mired in the post-industrial swamp; the few that have broken free, like Pittsburgh, are the large ones that operate on a very different scale. And yet Duluth has charted a respectable course since it hit rock bottom in the 80s. Unlike every other Rust Belt city, its population has been stable since 1990, instead of continued shrinkage. (See the table on this page for comparison cities.) The city is basically at full employment. Income growth around the greater Duluth area, while not on par with the booming coastal metros, does outpace the stagnant national average since 1990. The median income within the city itself, while not stellar ($40-some thousand), is a clear step above the Eries, Akrons, South Bends, and Scrantons of the world. The city’s image rehabilitation has been thorough, as it now comes off as an outdoorsy playground for Twin Cities residents on vacation. The Trump tide made little headway in the city proper (though precinct-level data challenges some aspects of the dominant media narrative, and suggests Trump was largely a rural and exurban phenomenon in Rust Belt states, not something that happened inside its former industrial engines). Sure, “we’re better than Flint!” isn’t exactly a winning slogan, but it’s important to understand what the odds were, and what could have been.

There are two ways to explain this.

The first is one of leadership and vision and a certain Duluthian exceptionalism, which us Duluthians would certainly like to believe. A lot of credit in this line of thinking goes to Don Ness, the young mayor who served from 2008-2016 and brought the city’s debt under control and led a massive rebranding effort. But he had some strong forerunners. At the height of the crisis in the 80s, Duluth elected 29-year-old John Fedo. Unlike the consensus-driven and generally beloved Ness, Fedo was a warrior who wasn’t afraid to make enemies to push through his vision, but he also operated in a very different environment, and push through his vision he did. Fedo’s strategy was Keynesianism par excellence, with a junkyard reinvented as a tourist district and work crews set to work rebuilding streets for the sake of work and little else. Those efforts endure in obvious ways. His more market-oriented successor, Gary Doty, tried a lot of things to revive the economy, and while not all of them stuck, the general thrust was positive, as the city landed companies that are the cornerstones of the aviation and healthcare clusters that remain among its most promising foundations for sustained success. Beyond those three mayors, there’s the political influence of some clever longtime political operators who knew how to bring in the benefits like Jim Oberstar and Willard Munger, who were ahead of their time with ideas for building trail networks and capping freeways.

We can’t just credit the politicians, though. Duluth’s rehabilitation always had strong support from a loyal private sector, which continues to support changes through development and philanthropy. Pizza roll magnate Jeno Paulucci was a complicated figure with a complicated relationship with Fedo, but he did bankroll a lot of the changes in Canal Park. Several other big names in business left their mark, as did some of the legacy families whose early 20th century wealth continues to support local foundations and scholarships. That old money remains a boon to Duluth, as does a strong civic culture with its roots in Scandinavian immigration and a thriving arts scene that allows the city to punch far above its weight.

This, however, feeds into the other explanation, which has much more to do with structural factors than any brilliant maneuvering by the people in charge.

First off, geography has had its say. We call Duluth a Rust Belt city because it used to be a manufacturing center on the Great Lakes, and suffered the loss of that economic base and a drop in population comparable to other Rust Belt cities. But it’s isolated from the rest of them, and that may contain some spillover effects or a general sense that everything is going downhill. Instead, it sits in Minnesota, home to one of the wealthiest and most white collar metropolitan areas in the country in Minneapolis-St. Paul. As a regional center with a university and some hospitals, Duluth has some staying power that an Akron, just down the road from Cleveland, may not.

Local geography makes a difference, too. While Duluth isn’t overflowing with buildable land, it has had some pockets for new subdivisions that allowed for continued new home construction. Duluth has also proven somewhat resistant to the mass suburbanization of other Rust Belt cities; while there has certainly been growth beyond the city limits, it hasn’t come at major expense to the city’s tax base. A tour of the other Rust Belt cities will show that none of them has a Congdon: while some of the larger metro areas do have wealthy suburban neighbors, basically none of them have concentrations wealth of any size within the city limits. (The only real exception, surprisingly, is Charleston, West Virginia, which benefits from the machinery of a state government that most Rust Belt cities lack.) For that matter, precious few Rust Belt cities have many Lakesides, Woodlands, or Piedmonts, those stable, comfortably middle class neighborhoods that allow for upward mobility and keep perceptions of public schools afloat. Many of these neighborhoods (and even little nice blocks that don’t show up in census tract data) are fairly isolated, strung out along Duluth’s 27 miles of ridgeline and separated by streams and parks. Even though they are older, they feel fairly suburban, and the park-like nature of the whole city just makes it more resistant to changes that might march smoothly down more cohesive urban grids. It has so many different little pockets, and that diversity begets resilience.

Speaking of diversity, Duluth has always been a very white city–yes, a 1920 lynching probably played a role in that–and the relative lack of racial dynamics make it distinct from a lot of Rust Belt cities that convulsed with conflict in the mid-20th century.  White flight didn’t happen in Duluth on any meaningful scale, and while I wish I could claim this was due to some enlightened thinking on behalf of Duluthians, in reality there probably just weren’t enough people of color to set off that chain reaction. (Typically, this happens when the non-white population hits about 20%; Duluth remains over 90% white.) While the center of Duluth has hollowed out like basically every American city, Rust Belt or not, that probably had more to do with a declining old housing stock and poverty among white people. Other than perhaps some very recent school-driven outmigration, the growth in Duluth’s more suburban areas had much more to do with an abundance of buildable land and desire for space and newer homes than anything related to the people in Duluth itself. The city has been crawling toward greater diversity over recent decades, and if that trend continues or accelerates, Duluth’s response could well determine its future.

All of these factors are most likely intertwined in feedback loops, the causes impossible to separate from one another. There are few obvious lessons here, and some of Duluth’s strengths are accidents of geography in a city at the end of the line in the far north. But the relative successes are real, the leadership examples are real, and some of the things Duluth needs to do to remain an exemplar of Rust Belt success are clear, and cut across all such small cities. It needs to maintain its strong neighborhoods, keep its schools afloat, and prepare for an increasingly diverse future. Continued growth in diverse economic clusters will build a stronger safety net against future crashes. Concentration of poverty will only exacerbate divides and cut off pathways to eventual mobility. Duluth also needs to think on the level of a regional system, so that its future doesn’t devolve into squabbles between the city proper and the outlying areas. They’re all interconnected, part of one economy and one labor market, and their fates are intertwined.

As addicting as the decline porn may be, I’d much rather have an amorous adventure with something real, and with something that can learn from the past and grow into a future with me. It’s all right there before us.

Illusion and Reality in Uncertain Times

31 Dec

Farewell, 2015. For the most part, the world won’t be sad to see you go, though the future doesn’t necessarily look much clearer. It was a dark year in Europe, whose future hasn’t been this murky since the fall of the Berlin Wall, if not earlier. The West’s adventures in Middle Eastern Whack-a-Mole go on, with ISIS taking center stage. The American political slog, deathly long and devoid of substance, lurched along from one lurid development to the next. Extremist self-righteousness found a home on both sides of the spectrum, and those who hold the middle seem increasingly feeble and unfit for the challenges of these times. Grandstanding and rhetoric take precedence over hard work. The radicals often have good reasons to complain as they do, given how the chips seem to be falling. But no one is really in control, and giving power to fringe figures will only make make the narrative even more incoherent. As Ross Douthat said in his end-of-year column, never in my lifetime has it been more necessary to hedge one’s bets on the stability of liberal democracy and our current world order.

This isn’t news to anyone who reads this blog. Still, even though I’ve been hedging my bets for a good five years now, it’s an ongoing struggle to understand how that looks in practice. Whether this all comes to a head in a crisis or (more likely) just carries on in a banal, decadent muddle, it’s hard to feel terribly excited on a societal level, no matter one’s political orientation or personal beliefs. There are no easy answers, and we’re all in the same boat. Hell, even my favorite hockey team isn’t coming by wins as easily as it used to, though maybe Duluth East’s magical run through the 2015 playoffs is a lesson in how to respond to declinist hysteria: with knowledge of the past, supreme confidence in one’s own efforts, some flashes of artistry, and an overarching grand strategy that pushes the limits of conventional wisdom.

A lot of people will respond poorly to the seeming failures of our times. So, let’s apply our formula, using the wisdom gleaned from the end the Edina dynasty and the 2-3 forecheck.

First, we must learn from the past. There are plenty of examples of how to manage such times (or not manage them), from Athens to Rome to Chinese dynasties to Britain in the twentieth century. These help show us which battles are worth fighting, and when we might be delusional in our dreams. There is no shortage of exasperating aspects of the early twentieth century, and one must fight through all the clutter in search of the more fundamental things that truly matter. Considerations of history let us sort through it all and find the narratives that are most relevant to our current problems.

And make no mistake, the problems are myriad. Anyone who wants to do something about them must ensure that resistance avoids a bunker mentality, or a retreat motivated by fear. It’s not that I oppose the creation of private spaces where people can escape the worst predations of a world beyond a managed liberal consensus; on the contrary, they’re essential. But the manner in which we frame this push, and the language we use to describe it, make all the difference. This can’t come across as a retreat, or settling for what we have, or making do with risk reduction. To do so denies half of human nature, and will never catch on. Even in our cynicism and recognition of the frailty of so many human things, that hunger must still shine through.

Thankfully, there are outlets, and survival in a different sort of world requires creativity. It requires the arts, which can sometimes be far ahead of traditional thinking in how the future might unfold. Whether it’s Brave New World or Michel Houellebecq’s provocative 2015 novel Submission, stories old and new prove instructive. They aren’t gospel, but they give us glimpses of possibilities, and force us to reckon with deeper questions and update old tropes for new eras. Out of this artistry will come the grand strategy, which remains a work in progress.

The way in which we confront this uncertain future will be what decides whether we succeed. This means taking ownership of efforts, appreciating what is good and beautiful, and being willing to take moral stands. This means seeing life as more than the pursuit of mere happiness, but giving it a greater trajectory. The goal isn’t one of contentment, but of leaving behind something that we can take pride in when the curtain comes down. This doesn’t mean neglecting the mundane goals in life; they, too, are essential for making it all hold together.

I don’t have all the answers, but I have some idea of the method. For a quote that gets at the gist of it, I’ll turn to The Grand Budapest Hotel, which should have won a best picture Oscar this year: “Maybe his world had vanished before he entered it. But he sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.” With one caveat, that is: the line between illusion and reality can blur, and if one sustains something long enough. I tried to do that this year, pushing myself to new limits in taking on several billion tasks, and as the year comes to a close, I’m pleased with my work on nearly every front. There’s still plenty to do; some progress is tenuous, and there are still parts of life where I’m far from satisfied with my own efforts. But the anxiety bred by those failings is entirely healthy, and keeps me going. As it must.

As 2016 starts, let’s not have any illusions. I’m a year older, a year more jaded, and another year out from the glory days. And yet I’m more active than ever, better-connected than before, and as inspired to get things done as I’ve been in years. (My ego seems to be nice and healthy, too.) For inspiration, we’ll turn to Tennyson, who captures the sentiment of the oldest tale of navigating human nature between the worlds of beasts and gods, The Odyssey:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

December 16, 2015

17 Dec

The day Duluth East hockey died.

I jest, of course. Mostly. It’s a single game in mid-December. As horrible as the Hounds’ recent tailspin has been, they still have a long season in front of them, still have plenty of chances to remind the state who they are, and what talent they have. One game alone will not flip the balance of power in a city where the private school has finally, after a decade of dallying, assumed its mantel as a northern hockey power.

But the stakes grow higher, and the pressure only grows. After so many years of preeminence, it now seems like every week brings a new statistic showing decline. Even last year, for everything that went right at the end, now looks like an aberration.

Was it? That, I suppose, is up to the players. It’s up to them to ignore all the noise and hype, to forget the rankings and section seeds and focus on the task before them. Once again, they have the target on their backs. It’s East against the world, and all they can do is embrace it. This is what it means to follow in this tradition, and to do what one can to carry it forward. To escape the panic, return to that old self-assurance, and most importantly, to have fun with it all again. For all the bag skates and relentless drills, for all the burdens in the shadow of the past, it all still comes back to a bunch of boys playing a game. One these boys have with great success, with runs toward titles as Bantams and PeeWees. It’s all still there within them.

They won’t get it on reputation. They’ll get it by blood and sweat alone. Back to work. It’s time to prove it.