Tag Archives: localism

Think Local, Act Regional

2 Aug

Local election season is starting to heat up, with Election Day now three months away here in Duluth. I won’t tip my cards yet, if I ever do; in many cases I’m not even sure who I’ll vote for at this point. But there are a couple of things that the people I do end up voting for will need to have. One is a sense of regional consciousness, and another is an emphasis on the particulars of local affairs rather than adherence to some outside platform.  At first blush these may seem like contradictory strains of thought, but both are necessary for effective statecraft, whatever one’s political orientation.

I focus on a regional perspective because it is all too rare in politicians. It always has been, and probably always will be. When it comes to questions of scale, many see themselves strictly as representatives of the constituents who elect them, meaning their city or district within a city and the arbitrary boundaries that such divisions normally imply. Sometimes this comes with a genuine effort to give a personal touch to the small group of people one represents, while at other times it can just be territorial. But when local leaders block out their neighbors, either intentionally or through benign neglect, they only hurt the people they claim to represent.

Take Duluth, for example. I see a lot of Duluth-centrism in local political rhetoric today; that is, Duluth politicians who are fixated only on things happening within Duluth boundaries. To an extent, I admire this attempt to hold Duluth to a higher standard. But we also can’t pretend that Duluth is an island, or not deeply interconnected with its neighbors and its state. Nearly 60 percent of the people who work in Duluth do not live in it, while over 30 percent of Duluthians work outside its boundaries.

This applies to both city councilors and school board members. On the council side, it applies to the labor market, which is a complicated thing to define but should pretty clearly include Superior, Hermantown, Proctor, Rice Lake, Esko, and Cloquet—at the very least. Attempts to regulate it, however well-intentioned, should recognize how interconnected all of this is. Leaving aside the merits of something like earned sick and safe leave, has there been any effort at all to recognize this interconnectedness in this debate? If there is, I sure haven’t seen it.

Education “markets,” so to speak, expand beyond single districts, a trend we see all too clearly in families voting with their feet and open enrolling across boundaries or into private or charter schools. My scare quotes there show my leeriness about referring to education as a market—and public schools, by dint of requirements that they educate all comers, including those who come from families with no initiative to seek out alternatives, will always look worse than some of the alternatives and give a very warped view of what actually goes on inside the buildings. But this is the environment in which people make their decisions. East-west equity has become a central concern in this year’s ISD 709 school board races, and there are certainly good reasons to fixate on that. But any sort of solution will not come from pitting one side of the city against the other, or gutting one side to prop up the other. If any candidates want to make this upcoming race about east-west equity alone, they’re missing the forest for the trees.

And while they’re not on the ballot this year, I’d say the same thing about regional legislators. It’s great if the Duluth delegation is aligned in St. Paul, but it includes all of five people, two of whom have much larger constituencies outside the city than in it. Duluth’s unique situation within the state should put its members in a position of influence. On the one hand, Duluth is part of Greater Minnesota, and there are a number of cases where it makes more sense to align with the more rural delegation, including others in northeastern Minnesota who would seem to make obvious allies. There is enough interconnectivity with the North Shore and the Iron Range that support for certain initiatives, from broadband to education to infrastructure, should drive Arrowhead legislators to vote as a bloc. But on the flip side, Duluth’s urbanity at times makes the city look much more like Minneapolis or St. Paul, where equity concerns and redevelopment are central issues—and, indeed, its legislators usually vote along with those in the central cities. (In a year that was fairly good for economic development funding, redevelopment dollars were mysteriously absent from the budgets that came from a legislature controlled by rural and exurban GOPers.) In a tightly divided government, there should be scenarios in which Duluth’s legislators have the power to play kingmaker, and if they’re not exploring opportunities to do so, they’re missing the boat.

Without regional action, the Duluth area won’t ever live up to its potential. I’m not necessarily saying greater Duluth should formalize this through government and move in the direction of a Twin Cities-style Metropolitan Council. But there should be venues for greater regional conversations, where appropriate. There are some such conversations, but they are scattered, and not every organization that has the power to make an impact here is using it to its fullest extent. Too often, we see Duluth boldly pursuing some bold and well-meaning push that ultimately has a limited or even perverse impact because it is constrained by its boundaries and lack of broader context, while the outlying areas lapse into a reflexive rejection of those vaguely urban problems beyond their reach. We can do better than this.

Perhaps a more immediately pressing concern of mine is a rise in candidates who define themselves less by the places they serve and more by the principles or political platform with which they identify. These politicians have their lenses and preferred policies, and look to apply those within the region over which they have control (and beyond, whenever possible). It can come in any stripe, from the limited government Republicans loyally following certain tax pledges to platforms promoted by the left. A recent example: while all other candidates balked at a questionnaire asking them to fall in line with a group’s demands, Ray Dehn, the leading vote-getter in the DFL primary in the Minneapolis mayoral race, caused a stir when he said he couldn’t imagine not voting in line with Our Revolution, the leftist organizing movement that has grown out of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Whatever Dehn’s merits may be relative to the two other frontrunners in that race (a troubled incumbent in Betsy Hodges and a hungry climber in Jacob Frey), this is an immediate red flag for anyone with an appreciation for the ins and outs of local governance. While any number of groups from unions to clean water advocates will make demands from leading candidates, and have every right to do so, any adoption of said platforms should be critically vetted for their particular context, not just aped talking points embraced out of convenience.

Implicit throughout this post has been a mild critique of the Duluth DFL, which is often the only real player in local politics. I don’t mean to trash it; it’s a heterodox bunch, and I know, respect, and am friends with various members of it. But one of the things I’ve always appreciated about Duluth politics, especially in comparison to other cities I’ve lived in such as Minneapolis or D.C., is that it has an independent streak to it that can usually recognize some of the excesses of its dominant party and avoid jumping on the train. Instead of the vicious division in some other places, we see general community consensus on such topics as community policing practices (granting that our demographics limit the centrality of certain racial questions to the Duluth experience) and, at least until the Red Plan, in education. We’ve rejected some vogue ideas with questionable actual evidence in their favor like ranked choice voting, and our campuses have not become hopelessly politicized in a manner that shuts out half the country and drives it to question the very value of higher education. The continued presence of labor in the DFL coalition is also notable, and while I have my critiques of labor, the ability to retain that political base has kept the Duluth DFL from becoming an institution totally out of touch with the working class, as the national party has gone. I groan when I hear some of the petty things that divide members of the local political class, but at the very least these conflicts tend to stay under the table.

Willingness to buck trends and not blindly follow a party line is one of the most admirable traits possible in a politician, and until recently, most city councilors, even if elected behind the full weight of the DFL and labor endorsements, get that to some level. And while I recognize that the Democratic base is fired up in the age of Trump, I hope they’re not losing track of the nuts and bolts and a basic ability to manage neighborhood relationships that drive local politics, which are far more relevant than one’s stance on the source of outrage du jour in D.C.

If I have a goal here, it is to give new life to that old claim that all politics is local. I wouldn’t go that far; some things obviously require state or national action. But I would like to return to a phrase that may seem tautological at first, but that few stop to ponder properly: policy should be made on the level most appropriate for such policy. Some things are genuinely local; some are completely outside the purview of a city council. This sense has eroded in an era in which people get their politics from their favorite network of choice or whatever dark recesses of the internet one’s social media acquaintances happen to inhabit. It is easy to try to simplify the world by imposing national narratives, but the realities zoning disputes and school funding decisions and search for pathways to the American Dream rarely conform to those national platforms. The world is a complicated place, and deserves our respect as such.

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Little Things

15 Feb

I’ve had a good and busy week so far, one filled with reminders of why it is I do what I do, and how exactly we have to go about doing it. This goes beyond the day-to-day tasks of work and hockey and other activities, as the world around me finds ways to take small steps forward in a very long game.

This article by George Monbiot, a British activist and radical, circulated through my planning network earlier this week. Monbiot makes a  case that caters to left-leaning readers (this is The Guardian, after all), but it goes deeper, reaching toward a sphere of life both sides of the political spectrum have come to neglect. He’s talking about building “thick” networks of people to share things and ideas and generally just support each other, allowing them to escape the anomie of lonely modern lives and bring up the standard of living. He also makes the necessary point that a large welfare state can indeed “leave people dependent, isolated, and highly vulnerable to cuts.” This isn’t government-driven at all. Regulation alone won’t save us. Monbiot follows up his diagnosis with a refreshing array of real-world examples of British communities pulling together to build participatory little democracies that make life happier for a lot of people. To underscore the nonpartisan nature of the pitch, this actually sounds a lot like the “Big Society” that Tory ex-Prime Minister David Cameron gave some attention, even if it was never central to his agenda. Influential Britons left and right seem to understand what their politics has been missing.

If only we could say the same of the American system these days. But, instead of looking to party brass or public intellectuals, maybe we can look a little closer to home.

Take Monday’s Duluth News Tribune story on the new OMC Smokehouse in Duluth’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Alone, the lede here doesn’t seem too unique: some successful local restaurateurs have decided to open up a second  restaurant. But this is more than that. The Hanson family’s first restaurant, Duluth Grill, is both a social and culinary institution. Sure, Duluth Grill checks all those eco-friendly and locally-sourced boxes, which any localist will like. But it’s so remarkably popular because it makes damn good food, and anyone who goes there can just taste the difference between it and the competition. I’m not sure anywhere better encapsulates Duluth than Duluth Grill, with its lack of pretention (a former Denny’s!), broader ethos, and ability to deliver a remarkably good product.

Duluth Grill and OMC Smokehouse don’t aspire to just make good food, though; their success in the kitchen allows them to take the lead in the building of one of those dense networks. They’re part of a broader project to remake a neighborhood, and to give life to an area that still feels decidedly Rust Belt. The decision to locate OMC right on Superior Street in Lincoln Park underscores a commitment: this neighborhood can once again be a thriving hub of business, and the leadership from places like Duluth Grill, Frost River Trading Company, and Bent Paddle. The city, with its loan programs targeting local business growth, gets it. This is a chance to revitalize a neighborhood in the best sense of that phrase, and to fill it with new life.

Sticking with Lincoln Park, another DNT article over the weekend highlighted the efforts to bring teachers into students’ homes and build community schools in ISD 709. This is a welcome change of pace from talking about the existence of the gap between the east and west side schools, and a foray into actually doing something to address it. Schools can only do so much with the cards they’re dealt; as I’ve noted before, the west side schools actually don’t do terribly considering the poverty, barriers, and broken homes that plague too many of their students. That reality, however, is no excuse for not trying to do everything within their power to improve outcomes, and this effort to get teachers into homes is an excellent step toward creating a community that can prove demography is not destiny. It’s a simple but crucial step, one that acknowledges the value of humanity and building ties over cramming people into a something formulaic and hoping it spits out good little workers in the end.

These are examples from just one neighborhood, but they go to show why I love this city, and why, for all its travails, it seems to be the perfect place to build the dense sort of community that can withstand any manner of swings beyond. The challenges, which range from that divided school system to a sudden spate of gun violence to a political consensus that seems to be breaking down as a center-left and an activist left left stake out territory, are all real. But these are little ways to build networks that can help to alleviate all of these troubles, and they can bring anyone on board because the basic tenets that support them–cleaned-up neighborhoods, good food, better student-teacher relationships, free chances to learn things, easier access to capital–are things that anyone can support.

I know a lot of people seem to be coming to this sort of worldview in reaction to our new President and his agenda, to the extent that we can distinguish one. I’m fine with that; I welcome fellow travelers however they come. That said, I do want to make something clear: personally, I’m not advocating for positions like this in reaction to broader national trends. I’m doing this because I fundamentally believe it is the right way to do things, no matter who is in power and what is going on in Washington. The intimacy of local politics (in the broad meaning of the word, covering any manner of relationships among people) will always have greater effect over the lives of people than the diktats of an increasingly powerful executive and unelected court system and a occasional input from a rump Congress. Taking part in these seemingly small activities will do much more to make things happen in actual human lives than posting another freaking article on Facebook about why the politicians you dislike are unlikable. (Over the past few weeks, I’ve stopped checking the news more than once a day, and find that I’m just as informed and now have far better uses for my time than I did before.)

Keep it simple. Start local. Start with what you can control. Make some sort of commitment in the next week. It doesn’t take much.

Dead Greek People V: Living in the Shadow of Empire

8 Nov

I kicked off this detour into Dead Greek People after attending a Peace and Justice Series talk at the College of St. Scholastica, so it’s only fitting that I wrap it up (for now, anyway) after another talk. Last night, Duluth was treated to Andrew Bacevich, a scholar noted for his attacks on “American exceptionalism” and U.S. military policy in recent decades. He trashed U.S. military strategy from Vietnam to Iraq, and quoted Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech with approval—the one in which Carter committed political suicide by telling Americans to stop using so much energy and be less materialistic and instead turn down their heat.

So Bacevich must be a flaming lefty, right? Well, no: he self-identifies as a conservative. (To understand why, I highly recommend this article.) Obviously, he isn’t the sort of conservative who would’ve been very popular among other self-identified conservatives in the Bush Administration, and one could argue that, if “conservatism” is something both Bacevich and Ayn Rand lovers would claim, the word has been stripped of all meaning. To get away from this confusing word, we might say that Bacevich’s platform has a whiff of Aristotle about it. (Indeed, he’s a Catholic, and a lot of intellectual Catholics are closet Aristotelians, thanks to the work of Thomas Aquinas.)

The problem is that it’s well-near impossible to apply Aristotle to a modern country, because his ideas—on the definition of freedom, on citizenship, on economics, on the importance of virtue—just don’t compute for most of us moderns. Just look at the comments from the readers on the Bacevich article, some of which are quite intelligent: some people try to cram contemporary politicians into his worldview; some are inclined to agree with some or even most of his ideas, but have one or two disputes that make them skeptical; and some are all on board but have no hope for actually seeing these ideas come to fruition in modern American politics. It is something foreign; something weird. To understand this, and to find the way out of the problem, let’s go back to Athens.

When we last left our Dead Greek People, things weren’t looking terribly good for Athens. The Spartans had won the Peloponnesian War around 400 B.C., leaving Athens seriously weakened. Sparta was the leading power for the next few decades, though Thebes eventually knocked them off, and after that no one really ran the place. Even so, Athens thrived despite its lack of military power. Plato and Aristotle founded their schools, the democracy largely remained intact, and Athens was still the cultural capital of the world.

By the 330s B.C., all this intrigue among Greek city-states wouldn’t matter all that much, either. Alexander the Great came down from Macedon, gathered all his Greek brethren, and set off on a campaign across Asia. The age of city-states was over, and the age of empires had begun. But even when Alexander’s empire fragmented after his death, the Greek influence endured. Athenian thought caught on from far western Europe to India, most importantly in Alexandria, Egypt, where they built a pretty big library to preserve all those ideas. When Europe fell into the Dark Ages after the Romans collapsed, Africa and the Middle East picked up the burden, and Greek philosophy was eventually re-introduced into Europe by conquering Muslims. If it weren’t for Alexander’s imperial ambitions, we probably wouldn’t know the first thing about Plato or Aristotle today.

Even if Alexander was good for the preservation of Greek thought in the long run, he was rather a problem at the time. Up until that point, political philosophy hadn’t thought much about empires, quite rationally pointing out that they were far too big to control. Some of the Tragedies, and historians like Thucydides, made this all too clear. Plato’s Republic imagines the perfect city, not the perfect empire; similarly, Aristotle’s political philosophy takes the community as its base unit, and his entire understanding of human nature comes out of human interaction within those communities. Neither are of much use in explaining life under the new imperial order; what’s worse, Aristotle actively helped bring about the demise of the old world by teaching and encouraging Alexander, and realized his mistake a bit too late. (There are claims that he became involved in a plot to kill Alexander so as to end the madness, though they are unsubstantiated.)

Aristotle

Aristotle teaches Alexander

Massive land empires, you see, are far too large to function as happy little communities in which everyone plays a role. They’re run by powerful people in some distant capital, and while it might be possible to work one’s way into power, the odds aren’t very good. A few groups within the empire will likely take up arms or use other means to protect their more particular identities, but this can be exhausting, and might incur the wrath of the imperial armed forces. Instead, most people become resigned to the fact that they lived in a system beyond their control, and try to carve out the happiest existence they can manage. This brings us to our last Dead Greek Person, Epicurus, who came of age just as Alexander died.

Epicurus, jaded by the political strife all about him, had a very different approach to political philosophy than his Greek predecessors. He had no vision of the ideal state like Plato, nor did he put much stock in an active citizenry living in community, as Aristotle might. He simply counseled that his followers retreat from those grandiose and often toxic affairs, and said the only things that mattered were individuals’ abilities to avoid pain and anxiety. He didn’t have much use for the gods, though if they made people feel better about themselves, good for them. He is technically a hedonist, but he took a very long view of what involves “pleasure,” and therefore wouldn’t counsel people to follow any old desire just because it made them feel good; they had to find pleasure in things they wouldn’t come to regret later on. Epicurus cautioned against falling too far in love: after all, that can cause a lot of pain. He didn’t let gender or class restrict who he welcomed into his school, which he named The Garden.

Epicurus’s ideas have been incredibly durable. His suggestion that people seek happy lives outside the political sphere would prove highly useful for many subjects of the Alexandrine and Roman Empires, and also in many of the feudal and imperial states that came afterward. John Locke, who was probably the most important philosopher for the founders of the United States, thought quite highly of him. His notions of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain were taken up by utilitarians centuries later, and might be seen as the foundation of modern economic theory. One could easily argue that most people are, and perhaps always have been, far more Epicurean than anything else: they care far more about the things that make them feel good or bad than any grandiose political affairs, and they only get whipped up into a political frenzy when someone or something threatens their comfort.

The obvious problem here is that it can be very hard to know how much pleasure or pain certain actions will cause in the long run. Even more problematic, in my opinion, is Epicureanism’s rather dismissive take on human ambition. There is a danger of it wandering over into Stoicism, which again can be a practical approach in some situations, but tries to suppress those ambitious and aspirational urges and make them go away. It can lend itself to defeatism even more than Aristotle’s acceptance of the world as it is, and when people encounter obstacles, it often tells them to simply desire less. It’s practical advice in many ways, but if it’s too puritan, it won’t work for long. Repressed urges tend to erupt in time, often in ugly ways, and shunting those impulses aside and making them taboo doesn’t quite work. They need healthy outlets. This was Aristotle’s approach: acknowledging those animal drives, and channeling them into something good. He was right to see human interaction as some form of politics, even if many people don’t like that fact.

Epicurus’s value, then, isn’t as a guide toward some utopia where we all forget about politics and live happy little lives. Instead, he grounds us, and reminds us that any ambitions we might have beyond tending our own little gardens have to remember where we all come from. Epicurus was no rebel; he simply had a much better grasp of reality than many of his politically-obsessed contemporaries. This is why Bacevich’s ideas don’t jive with our idea of modern politics: despite claiming to be prudent, they’re not something that we can bring about by electing one or two good leaders.

To his credit, Bacevich acknowledged this in his talk. He had a rather pessimistic view of modern politics, and quite rightly suggested that we tone down our expectations for it, and be glad that one or two individuals can’t change it too easily. Instead of building the ideal city or state from the top down, via a national party or some effort to change Washington, it has to start from the bottom up. (Just ask Jimmy Carter.) If we want a world that believes in a human scale instead of being forced to make do with the empires (literal or figurative) we’re stuck with, we need to start at home, and live it in our daily lives. Instead of focusing on the vagaries of politics beyond our reach, we need to change the things we have the ability to change, and closely guard things we think ought to be preserved. For all their differences, that is the enduring lesson of all the Dead Greek People: that human life is grounded in community, and everything else must follow from there. With that as our starting point, we need not be so pessimistic. In that realm, we really can make a difference.

Here’s a related post on Aristotle’s demons to round out this series.

Picture of Alexander and Aristotle from http://www.heritage-history.com/www/heritage.php?Dir=characters&FileName=aristotle.php. Picture of Epicurus from http://newepicurean.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Epicurus-sculpture-crop.jpg

Two Articles Worth Reading

19 Apr

Distractions have slowed my blogging pace, but here are a couple of articles I enjoyed. One came out today, while the other is an old one that I found myself revisiting after writing my last post on here. They are not all that related, though they do both express opinions that I would have frowned upon just a few years ago, but have come to appreciate since.

First, from the British newspaper The Guardian, an article telling us to stop reading news. (Ironic, no?) http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2013/apr/12/news-is-bad-rolf-dobelli?INTCMP=SRCH

I’m not sure I could ever cut myself off as the author of that piece did, but there’s a lot to think about there, and I can certainly relate to some of his sentiments. It’s easy to convince oneself that reading lots news is one’s duty if one wants to be an informed and intelligent person, when it is often merely a somewhat more enlightened form of procrastination. I’m all for a healthy dose of vicarious living and sounding intelligent at cocktail parties, but following the news can easily get out of hand. This isn’t without its problems, especially when things do directly affect us, and it’s also difficult to know what the author considers “news”–does that include, say, op-eds? A longer analysis piece in a news magazine? Personal essays? This blog? Still, I agree there is a certain freedom in not being chained to the news cycle.

The idea of slavish devotion to the news was already in my mind this week; when I first heard of the Boston Marathon bombings, my first instinct was to glue myself to a news feed and follow along. But then, as I often do in such moments, I flash back to 9/11. I was at school that day, and while they told us what had happened, they never turned on the TVs. When I got home, my dad–a college professor and generally very well-informed man–wasn’t glued to the news and worrying; he was gardening. Even as an 11-year-old, I was in awe of such composure during a crisis. My understanding of that day was not hurt by not seeing video footage of the falling towers until weeks afterward; in fact, it may have let me think through it better–as well as I could at that age. In a certain way, that was our own little victory over the terrorists: there was no terror in our house. Instead, there was some sadness, some reflection, and then we all got on with life.

Fr. James Schall, a Jesuit priest and recently retired Georgetown professor, always told his students to “never major in current events.”  Such narrow focus, he reasoned, led us to ignore the bigger things. Sometimes I wonder where I’d be if I’d heard his advice as a freshman or sophomore, instead of as a senior–but that’s all water under the bridge now, and there were different rewards to following the route I did take.

Fr. Schall also serves as a good transition into the next piece, which was written by another former Georgetown professor. I had the pleasure of taking a class from Prof. Patrick Deneen in what was the final semester in Washington for both of us; I’d suspect he generally shares Fr. Schall’s disinterest in current events, though I’m afraid he’s the main reason that several of those news links are on the right side of this page. In this essay, he explains his decision to abandon a tenured position at Georgetown to seek out a different opportunity:

http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2012/10/leaving-washington/

Prof. Deneen and I come from fairly different places in life, but when it comes to leaving Washington, we have a lot in common. The essay captures much of my own jadedness with D.C., and though coming home since has not been without its frustrations, it was also rewarding on many levels. I may not be able to stay in Duluth long-term, but even if I don’t, localism is (funnily enough) something that can be useful anywhere. As with the news, I’m not sure completely cutting oneself off is the way to go, but there is certainly some wisdom there.