Saturday, March 4, 2017


I was walking along the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis in the summer of 2010, and the group that made this film was grabbing random people off the street to answer questions about why we live here. And I talked a little about how friends from the coasts (the ones who I didn't go to college here) sometimes think of this place in flyover country.

We don't live in a cowtown. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul are the urbane, artsy, funky, cosmopolitan hub for a big swath of the Upper Midwest. It's a city that people from smaller cities come to when their fish pond isn't big enough. But as a professional in a small and shrinking market, I am also well aware that I would be "in the mix" for bigger things if I moved. Many of my genuinely ambitious colleagues work in DC or NY or SF. They are Hotter Places To Be on a global level.

I've been reading about the staggering Brexit vote, and about Trump supporters here in the US. I was particularly struck by this piece by John Harris in today's Guardian. Essentially, it argues that the Leave vote (at least around Manchester) was a vote by forgotten backwaters. And this message, and the splintering of the major parties in both the US and Britain (and elsewhere in the industrialized world, presumably) should be paid attention. Backwaters vote.

People like to blame globalization, and the exporting of jobs is certainly a big factor in the rebel alliances that are making themselves felt this year. But more than that, people in backwaters are tired of simply being ignored. This is the era of flattening social media, but also one of globally concentrating culture and economies. We have ever more efficient markets that consolidate around more profitable production lines, and discard less profitable ones (like business has done since forever). And those efficiencies make it ever harder to live satisfyingly where the money isn't. There is less and less room for those quiet backwater eddies that Tolkien's Shire embodied: happily forgotten and largely satisfied with a closed economy.

Backwaters nest in other backwaters. My friend Derek moved about a decade and a half ago from St Paul to the small town of Springfield, Minnesota, which is maybe two notches back on the backwater totem pole. He runs a business from a room upstairs in a big house (one he couldn't have afforded here in the Cities) that uses practitioners from around the world to make maps. It's a field where he was able to make it work. But if you're a business that depends on local customers, in a field that is seeing internet competition (bookstores, for example, or shoe stores), backwaters are particularly problematic places to be.

Here's the thing I don't see people trying to sort out in the political arena: Lives are always local.

People like to say "all politics are local," but really not all politics are. Politics are built at the scale they cover, and international diplomacy is the least local, even if negotiations are always carried out in places where people are. National politics has always had one leg in a world of finding the best balance for the whole, while letting other places slide. I'm reminded of the kind of predatory attitude London had towards the distant North in centuries past: the press gangs described so heartbreakingly in the Yorkshire song "Here's the Tender Coming" were the tendrils of a careless cruelty. The song was a protest about men being taken away from real, deeply rooted lives like they were weeds, and from the standpoint of strategists at the Admiralty in London, they were like weeds.

Weeds are plants that don't fit your pattern, and human patterning ability focuses on a particular range of scale. And that's really the big problem with trying to organize big human systems and control them. Once we're past a certain point, the people who are that much of a mass, that far away, simply stop being people.

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