Tag Archives: farewell duluth

Farewell Duluth IV: The Walk

17 Aug

Eighteen years ago Saturday, a moving van bearing my father and I rolled into Duluth to join my mother, who’d already made the trek. I now have less than a week left here—this time around, anyway. My departures are never very permanent. Even so, a proper good-bye was in order. So I headed out the front door and started walking.

I begin in Lakeside, an idyllic middle-class neighborhood on the far east end, and my home for most of my life. It isn’t uniform; there are some gaudy houses along the lakeshore and scattered about, and many of the homes are older, bringing with them some character and occasionally some shabbiness as well. It just seems healthy, my own childhood repeated before my eyes from block to block. At times perhaps too sheltering, as evidenced ongoing temperance 80 years after the 21st Amendment, but it’s also easy to escape out into the woods or up the shore and find some freedom. The business district has hollowed out some over the years; the second grocery store and the pharmacy is gone now, though many of them plug along, and a new coffee shop is set to come in. For the most part, it seems timeless.

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At the end of Lakeside is the new Duluth East, in the building where I went to middle school; the setting is second to none, with the expansive views of the lake. The building itself, though, can’t quite match the old one, which I come to in a short while: that old gothic brick academy with giant windows perched right in the heart of Congdon Park. To the west, Duluth’s mansions and old money core, tucked beneath the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary and the Longview tennis courts. Say what you will about Duluth’s elite, but their commitment to this community down the years has been unquestioned, and that Congdon sensibility rubbed off on me during my time at East. Class, unapologetic appreciation for high culture, and sympathy for that noble approach to the world: political wars and resentment are so below us, and instead it is all our plaything, here to be enjoyed in all its finery. A defense of time-honored traditions and inheritances worth passing down, stewarding, and bringing to fruition. It has its shortcomings, of course, and I’ve got enough Wisconsin farm boy in me that it’ll never quite be me. It is a fine place to call home, though, and I have its largesse to thank for so much.

I leave the mansions behind, and a protest is afoot on 4th Street: the towering maples lining the route are on the chopping block due to planned street repairs, so the neighbors have wrapped them in clothes arranged to look like tree-hugging people and added some speech bubbles from the trees themselves. I grab their flier, turn north off 4th, and slide into the Hillside. This is often Duluth’s cutting edge, with many possible futures on display: incoming college students, the growing gardens of those who want to raise their families in the heart of a walkable city, lower-income rentals, and the sudden appearance of minorities, all in relatively close proximity. Variety begets vivacity, though it comes at the expense of some stability. The strength of neighborhoods such as this will be the bellwether for the future, not only in Duluth but across the nation: how do we adapt to the thinning of the middle class? How do we make do with our roles in life, knowing most of us aren’t destined for those Congdon mansions, and how do we adjust to neighbors who may not share our culture? The Hillside likely holds the answers to these questions.

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I swing down around a reservoir, past a slope where I once went to count butterflies, now overgrown, and reach the Lower Chester hockey rinks. The place where the Williams brothers and Mike Randolph learned to skate has been given a new lease on life, thanks to the closure of the rinks in Congdon; it looks sharp, though today its only occupants are a couple of skateboarders. I pause to admire the towering building across the street; ex-mansion or some great hall I do not know, but it’s hard to tell if it’s occupied today. I plunge down the hill, through the tangle of the Hillside, and there is the lake: this walk wouldn’t be complete without a brief venture into the realm of the tourists. There’s the Armory and the walls of the old Duluth Arena beneath the Super One, and there is the brick next to the Rose Garden fountain where I must kneel and brush off the dirt. Onward, past two statues: one of a man who had nothing to do with Duluth but is honored here anyway (Leif Erickson), and the other of a robber baron who had everything to do with Duluth (Jay Cooke). How curious our historical memories can be.

I head down Superior Street, past bustling Fitgers and into the east end of Downtown. It’s come a long way since I last made this walk: Duluth has outlasted the Last Place on Earth, and the Kozy Bar offers no respite. Now, a Sheraton, classy restaurants, and a shiny independent theater. (As if I needed another trigger for childhood nostalgia and rumination on the passage of time, “Boyhood” has just opened here.) This is looking more and more like a cultured downtown, the commercial hub of northern Minnesota, many of the buildings lining its brick streets still graced with turn-of-the-century detail. It’s not a steady march into the future, though: the Fond Du Luth Casino’s lurid lights still flash all over the place, and a walk one block up to First Street is a step back into a different Duluth. The memorial to the 1920 lynchings sits vacant opposite the burned-out shell of the Kozy, and a woman stumbling up the street in an apparent drugged daze offers a halfhearted hello.

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A light mist has kept the crowds at bay, and now as I get into the very heart of the city, it begins to rain properly. I seek brief shelter amid the ever-intriguing crowds in the Holiday Center, people who have caught my attention since my youth, left me to puzzle out lives that are not mine. I do a few stretches, then take to the skywalk for a brief spell. I can’t get far on a Saturday, but by the time I step out next to the Missabe Building, it’s all stopped, and I can admire the façade there and on the Board of Trade before plodding on to City Hall. I’ve spent my share of time in the halls of power over the past two years, but Duluth is too small for anyone to live in a bubble here. A block away, the ore ship of a library sits in port with its cargo of knowledge and collection of unsavory characters who needed a new home after the Last Place on Earth closed its doors, and beyond it, the real harbor, ever the root source of this city’s identity.

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It’s time to head up. Fifth Avenue West is Duluth’s steepest street, but I conquer it with the help of the sidewalk railing, and stop to admire the view down toward the harbor and the DECC, another place where I’ve seemed to practically live at times, from hockey to concerts to other formal functions from high school on up. I hike the crest of Observation Hill, observing that house where my mother stayed when she first moved here ahead of the family seventeen years ago, and come to the Twin Ponds and Enger Tower. The park is busy, but I don’t linger for the view. Instead, I retreat to the woods, and head down the Superior Hiking Trail. Here, too, there is great variety: a stand of pines, an alpine meadow with views of the harbor, a babbling stream to hop across, and a forgotten old basketball court and baseball diamond, slowly being swallowed up by the woods. I cross Piedmont Avenue, then descend through Lincoln Park. As a ribbon of greenery it’s similar to the more familiar Lester Park, but it seems a bit less tamed, a bit more wild, and I have the upper reaches to myself.

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Down below, in the heart of the park, there are a handful of picnickers and two fishermen; a pair of young lovers guide each other across the bridge. Then, back out to civilization, and a host of worn-out rental properties, some legitimately blighted. A little festival at a mid-block church apparently requires the presence of three police cars, and “Beware of the Dog” signs proliferate. More than anything now, I want lunch, and the Duluth Grill, that quintessential local restaurant, calls out. Even in the midst of Lincoln Park, a beloved restaurant of locally sourced food thrives, one of a few signs of change here. It’s packed as always, but it’s not hard to find a spot for one at the counter, and I recharge with a salmon burger.

My next steps take me along West Michigan Street, up to the Heritage Arena, my usual winter haunt and another of those signs of life out here. For once, the parking lot is empty, and I only briefly peek into the lobby. I’ll be back here in December and January, no doubt. Then it’s back along the backside of Lincoln Park, all industrial storage space and the like; lifeless on a Saturday. Up above, the gaudy new west side middle school lords over it all. I go underneath the railroad bridges and come to Wade Stadium, the ballpark in desperate need of the forthcoming state aid. The Huskies’ season has just come to an end, though I never did make it out there this year; what this park really inspires are fond memories of the Dukes, that old independent professional team that had a couple of entertaining title runs in my childhood. It’s one good remodeling away from being a real gem.

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I step out on to Grand Avenue, the main artery of the west side and a simple summation of the plight of working-class America. It’s not blighted, but there’s nothing to make anything stand out here, either. It’s just uniform, everything of the same age and showing that age. The neighborhood around Denfeld offers a bit more, with the high school serving as the anchor. The houses here could all be in Lakeside, though the streets are in worse shape, and there’s action in the businesses. The girls’ soccer team is practicing on the field, the high school season just around the corner, and there’s a party in Memorial Park, too. Plenty of people come and go in the West Duluth downtown, but no one really lingers anywhere, so I don’t, either. On past the businesses, through the library parking lot, and down into Irving. Here again the housing stock takes a dip downward, though the street is pleasantly leafy, and there’s a herd of screaming children running along. The street suddenly fades into a dirt track through a copse, and I have to skirt a little stream that makes its slow way down to the St. Louis River.

Here is the west side charter elementary school, undergoing some summertime renovation, and I weave a bit more, dodging a kid on a bike and drawing closer to the river, where the houses are newer. The last time I was here, the far end of the Western Waterfront Trail was closed for pollution clean-up; now it’s open again, though I skip the first loop of the trail before joining it on Indian Point. I wind around the campground, breaking into a jog just to show myself I can do it as I close in on 17 miles. A family spends a sleepy afternoon on a pier jutting into the river, while I am accosted by a sudden swarm of mystery insects.

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I’m nearing the end. It would be nice to plow on out to Gary, ruminate on the old steel mill and Morgan Park, and end it all by running up Ely’s Peak one last time, but it’s growing late, and I have a goodbye party to throw for myself. The destination for now is the former home of a high school teacher and Denfeld grad who, despite marrying a wealthy lawyer, remained true to the West Side, and had a point to prove about this city’s east-west divide. She doesn’t live here anymore, but it still seems like a fitting endpoint: a grand, modern house on the river, a sign of what might be to come in the redevelopment for the river corridor imagined by Mayor Don Ness. As I look around, I see the vision is already a fait accompli on the lower side of Norton Park: there’s a whole subdivision of nice, newer houses across the bay. Perhaps it won’t be as hard as it had seemed, though this budding urban planner has no illusions about the road ahead. There is much work to be done.

That is a debate for another time, though. My rescue wagon awaits me. I need to head home and freshen up, and after that, it’ll be time for one last Canal Park dinner and one last bit of mild debauchery on the Park Point beach. I’ll miss it, of course. But I’ve seen so much of it that I can’t help but leave satisfied. It’s all there, right before our eyes, and even after eighteen years, there’s always something new to find.

Farewell Duluth III: Solitude

10 Aug

You’re a believer in community, you buy all that sentimental stuff you peddle every day, that life is found in intertwining your history with those of the people closest to you. And yet. And yet there are days where it wears you down, where you get too caught up in whatever bubble you inhabit, grow annoyed by the little tics of those around you. Community is one of the greatest sources of life you know, but it is not the only one. You have to get out. Just you, and you alone.

This is another of your town’s triumphs: nowhere is it easier. There are parks at every turn; some packed, some more wild; some well-worn, some neglected. A short drive can take you to places where you won’t meet a soul, if you so desire. You head out to recharge, to find distance; perhaps to cast judgment from afar, perhaps to head for a realm where judgment has no meaning.

You are swift to retreat into these moments; at times you were perhaps too swift, but even now as things come together, you cannot neglect this. This is your cycle inward, necessary before you pull back out. You must go. Back out to some little corner you’ve claimed as your own simply because it cannot be owned. Time is short, so you hurry upward, the jagged rocks in the path turning your feet as you climb. You could stop here or there to admire the view, but not here, this isn’t the place. Across a road, past the spot where you once saw a bear, ever winding upward. A few signs of youthful dalliance, carelessly hidden in the woods; was that you not so very long ago? How the time goes, how much more precious youth now seems.

Out you go, hurrying to time this journey just right. Before long you’re hopping from rock to rock, down a staircase carved in stone. Through the birches, across a boardwalk, the deer far back in the woods flushed, bounding back through the underbrush for only a moment before they’re silent, and then all is silent for you, too. Up a hill, though the view disappoints, back through another stand of wood, a mysterious half-hidden trail, whether from deer or teenagers or something much older you do not know, up to that oak tree near the top of the ridge where you once stood there trying to make sense of what exactly it was you’d done, brandishing a manifesto from an earlier self and proclaiming its wrongness, though now you’ve come full circle and have forgiven yourself. Your younger self deserves more credit than you ever gave him. Who could you have been if you’d gotten over those crippling anxieties, acted on that self you always wanted to be? God only knows now, though that impulse is still inside of you, can still be channeled into something good. Onward, you press, on to the outcropping, site of many a picnic and also your first goodbye to this place, a sunrise at dawn beneath a different oak, this one now as dead as the finality of that goodbye. Take the right fork, you haven’t been that way before. You make your way down the path, looping in and out behind spruces, careening downward so easily you can’t help but run. You bend to pick at a malformed raspberry, sample the latest thimbleberry, scarf the smattered juneberries, a regular forest feast.

Down a field of talus, across the bit that gets muddy when it rains, and you’re nearly there: or maybe you’ve come from the other direction, up from the wider path, past the ruin of an old mill and the side creek that you once waded up for a mile or two, picking crayfish out of the shallows with a couple of people you chose to share this garden with, down the path where one great story reached its peak and another arose; where it led was never entirely clear, but still it has its roots here, high on the bank above the little stream. The destination is always the same. This little patch of woods birthed so many of the convoluted thoughts of the past seven summers, your blessing and your curse, a burden you could not live without. Here is where the last story came to an end, and here too you hope to end the last and worst of the stories you’d rather pretend were not yours.

You reach the gates, push aside those tumbled branches and finally, there it is before you: the cathedral, the dying pines towering up above an open glade, the sun dancing between the trunks, the blinding light of the sinking sun pouring through, setting it all ablaze, and you set out gingerly through the waist-high grass, your hand trailing through it as you go. Perhaps you should drop to your knees, make a show of it all? No, you cannot linger, the mosquitoes nip and the sun sinks. Now, it seems, that time is over, gone without any obvious moment of revelation. It all makes sense now. You complete your duty without any fanfare, and life goes on as if it had never been more than a fleeting thought. Victory.

You head off the path and into the heart of the little stand. Not quite a sacred ground: you’re still in a city, after all, and the reminders of life beyond never quite die. Wilderness is a myth, or perhaps a state of mind. Yes, death comes only to the pines, nearly half of them now just towering empty trunks, lonely pillars supporting a ceiling of fading blue. Et in Arcadia ego. Spruces rise up in their place, and even here before you, a solitary oak tree, fighting above the tangles of thimbleberries and announcing its arrival on the scene. Bring your children here someday, and it might all be gone: just another clump of wood in a forest that buries its past. You could move on to the next hill, where the pines stand a bit more resolutely, but no: yours are these ones, right here, the ones that remind you that you don’t have long. Everything seems more immediate, both the triumphs and the tragedies of life given a vivid edge, and you relish them that much more because you know how much it means to feel all of these things, to live with that joie de vivre that overwhelms all weakness and fear. The more you lay claim to these trees, the more you sense that they are not yours alone, that another set of eyes watches. You’re not quite sure yet where one story begins and another ends; perhaps they all just blend together here; here, in this garden of all your dreams.

You’re free here, though you don’t quite feel it. Gone are the days when every little victory was cause for rejoicing; now you just take it all in stride, natural, the next step along this little chasm through the grass. All is right, all goes on, and as long as you may linger, this is not you: you must share this, come down from your messianic ideal not into a nihilistic doom but into reality where you belong, where you can still be the author of a story that aspires to everything you might desire, even as you know you might not ever quite get there. The pursuit is enough, and with moments like these, you’ll have the wits to make sure the chase never eats you alive.

It’s time to move on. The sun sinks away, and you have far to go before you can rest your feet again. You’ll miss this spot, but you are forever changed by what it’s gifted you, and that is enough: it belongs to you, you belong to it, and whatever shall come will be in the shadows of those towering pines. The light will filter through, blinding but bearing that gift of life all at once, all of those apparent contradictions borne together into something that is, quite simply, you.

Part 4 is here.

Farewell Duluth II: On Culture

3 Aug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 3 is here.

Farewell Duluth I: The Answer to Everything

27 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two is here.