The Superego State: A Lover's Reply.
--Frederick Jackson Turner, 1920
In her sprawling send-up, North Dakota: Land of Changing Seasons, Francie Berg repeats a series of platitudes familiar to her prairie readers. "North Dakota's most valuable resource is not wheat or livestock--nor coal--but people," Berg begins boldly, adding that North Dakotans display "high moral character" and are "as a whole, honest, hardworking, neighborly, generous, optimistic, and courageous." Dedicated to her "land and people," Berg's pictorial history goes on to include "pride" and "productivity" in a long list of traits associated with her forebears. Such pedigree allows North Dakotans the freedom--the providential hauteur--to do, truly, anything to which we set our minds: "We can subdue the surging water of the mighty Missouri to sluggishness," boasts Berg; we can "make of this grassland wilderness a bounteous garden." North Dakotans might even, were we so recklessly inclined, devastate the state's natural beauty and replace it with "plastic Disneyland fantasies." Thankfully, we are not of such a mind. Far and away from the increasingly synthetic culture that surrounds them, North Dakotans are not so "caught up in the plastic, the concrete, the TV, the chrome and frantic pace of a consumer-oriented society which has become willing slave to the zeal of industrialization," concludes Berg. Outshining the rest of the nation, we are diligent but given to repose, self-sufficient and unflappable. Real.
As with all myths, such declarations, which permeate the land of my birth, bear a slippery truth, evidence for which is usually found by looking backward. In so doing North Dakotans cite not monographs but men--founders, farmers, fathers--as proof positive of our genuine, industrious, and superlative heritage. And while Teddy Roosevelt, whom we fawningly adopted following his sabbatical here, comes close, for most North Dakotans no farmer-father outshines Art Link. Born on his family's west North Dakota farm in 1914, the only son of German immigrants, Link is perhaps the archetypal Dakotan, the kind of man Berg had in mind as she blinked away dignified tears, clacking away on her typewriter. A former state representative, U.S. congressman, and North Dakota's twenty-seventh governor, Link rose above his eighth-grade education to become not merely one of our state's most celebrated sons but a living legend whose 2010 death deeply rattled the region. If one is to believe the folklore, Link not only learned of his nomination to the state legislature when a fellow agrarian shouted the news to him across a flooding Antelope Creek--during a thunderstorm--but is rumored to have changed the oil in his Chevy Impala personally on a high-profile Washington PC avenue, importing Farmer's Union oil to do so. He also allegedly rescued multiple stranded motorists along countless North Dakota highways over the years, invited average citizens (as opposed to well-connected dignitaries) to the governor's residence in Bismarck for coffee, and reserved his right to enjoy pie at any time of day--or night. He was, finally, the last American governor to watch election returns from his family farm.
"He so represents what we thought we were," Nodak native and Grand Forks Herald publisher Mike Jacobs explains in Clay Jenkinson and David Swenson's Link biopic When the Landscape Is Quiet Again (2009), "and so we just grasped on to it." The film's title is a reference to Link's "Gettysburg Address," a brief 2973 speech in which the governor set the stage for Berg's panegyric by refusing to cede North Dakota's abundant natural resources to out-of-state corporations, which he feared would oblige his beloved "to become a sacrifice area in order to run television sets and air conditioners on the east and west coasts." Rather, the pragmatic and egalitarian Link thumbed his nose at industry not for ideological reasons, he insisted, but merely "to ensure the most efficient and environmentally sound method of utilizing our precious coal and water resources for the benefit of the broadest number of people possible."
It was a rousing little sermon, theological in timbre and channeling not just Lincoln and Roosevelt, but three American Jonathans of old--Winthrop, Edwards, and Muir. Likewise, the film, which uses the speech as its hub, is as good a film about North Dakota as has been produced, retaining bits of the address's--and our countryside's--understated-epic character and seeming especially poignant in the wake of our discovery of several billion barrels worth of petroleum beneath our northwestern quarter. But in seeing the tale of a genuine "Mr. Smith-goes-to-Washington type deal," as one film interviewee puts it, one cannot help but be struck by the almost cliche caricatured portrayal of my state's representative par excellence. Link, the film gently if persistently reminds us, was North Dakota: resourceful, regal, tough, independent, loyal, and exceedingly sensible.
These are the stories North Dakotans tell our children about their heritage, the tales we repeat about ourselves today, believing them uncritically. But there is an underside to this character. As Elwyn B. Robinson noted nearly five decades ago in his celebrated History of North Dakota (1966), "Many North Dakotans felt either that their state was in a weak and inferior position in the nation or that it was so held by the majority of Americans" (emphasis added). Demonstrating that Robinson was premature in using the imperfect tense, however, is not only Charles Bowden, whose 2008 National Geographic essay "The Emptied Prairie" depicted North Dakota as something of a moribund penal colony with a "feral edge to it," but also Minnesota native Walter Kirn who, early in his college memoir Lost in the Meritocracy (2009), writes how the "tight-lipped and self-contained" North Dakotan who studied alongside Kirn at Princeton in the 1980s was already an anachronism, sporting "the same greaser haircut he brought from Bismarck." Our interstate highways, research universities, and ample nuclear arsenal notwithstanding, stereotypes like these--that we are instead xenophobic, uncultured, insular, aloof, and short on affect--continue, for reasons we cannot understand to our continuing distress.
"North Dakota was largely what it claims to be. What it isn't, for much of the country today, is desirable, heterogeneous, or satisfying," admits Jack Russell Weinstein, philosophy professor at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks and director of UND'S Institute for Philosophy in Public Life. "North Dakota is a backwards-looking state in a forward-looking nation," Weinstein adds, referencing the state's chronic "brain drain" dilemma. "There are reasons why all of our kids are leaving." Echoing Berg in suggesting that North Dakota may very well lead the nation in terraphilia, Weinstein, a New York native who also hosts the philosophy-oriented call-in program "Why?" for North Dakota Public Radio, notes that in his experience North Dakota does retain an "authentic populism" rarely found in twenty-first century America. However, he is quick to add, embedded within these narratives is a curious underside, which may account for the outmigration: not only a nagging suspicion of the Other, but, correspondingly, an almost compulsive anxiety over how we are seen by outsiders.
Gushing over the dedication and sophistication of his listeners, though, Weinstein senses that his local audience "feels they have a stake in the success of the show, and have been tremendously appreciative of what we're trying to do. North Dakotans want North Dakota things to do well." For this reason Weinstein rejects the stereotype that North Dakotans are anti-intellectual, arguing instead that we often adopt such a posture for show--perhaps unconsciously--in self-defense. "You're not anti-intellectual at all. But you're unbelievably insecure," he told me over coffee at a Grand Forks bakery that uses, almost exclusively, products harvested in the state. "In my experience North Dakotans don't want to call attention to themselves and are deeply afraid of looking foolish. There's a paradox: you're frustrated at constantly being ignored but afraid of what would happen if you stop being ignored."
This inconsistency is the heart of the North Dakota psyche. As such, the true contradiction of this state lies not in reports that its economy is growing as its small towns wither away but in the fact that both Bowden and Berg are accurate in their conflicting assessments. Robinson was as correct in his charge of North Dakotans' insecurity as was Link when he suggested that his state and its people were one and the same--and neither was for sale. Fargo is the Coen brothers' Fargo as much as it is Lewis Collins's 1952 spaghetti western of the same title. What these disparate interpretations from discrete sets of speakers tend to miss, then, is not only their simultaneity but the fact that both readings reinforce and undermine each other, shaping the often perplexing Dakota temperament for both insiders and outsiders. Emerging from this division, particularly for those of us who experience, confirm, and challenge both personae each day, is a confounding schizophrenia, a rending of our identity which makes us industrious, autonomous, and "nice," but also blinkered, forlorn, tense, and only passive-aggressively charitable. North Dakotans are practical, outgoing, and kind, but we also harbor a resigned, even violent, fatalism that colors much of our discourse and thought public and private.
My state--the "Sunflake state"--is one great "discordant personality," in the words of that great psychologist of religion William James. Such heterogeneity of soul cannot help but "make havoc of the subject's life," James tells us, cannot help but result in an existence that is "little more than a series of zigzags ... wayward impulses ... misdemeanors and mistakes." Out of this confused dualism sprouts not merely some maudlin exasperationism or teary self-consciousness, as Bowden suggests, but a subtle, chronic, self-imposed dictatorship of sorts--a paranoid, often unvoiced, demand that each of us (continue to) be what Berg insists we were despite a changing world. It's what Art Link would have wanted, after all, and he was such a nice man. As a result, North Dakota is not only a smiling grandmother but an officious one, reminding each of us through her teeth that if we haven't something nice to say ...
This land has made me diligent, earnest, measured, and independent; it has also made me distant and apprehensive, judgmental yet reluctant to speak my mind. And although my heritage has trained me to repress such admissions, I can no longer ignore the fact that these conflicting readings, here blending, there clashing, have done a number on my mental health in the fourth decade of my life. Knowing I'm not alone in feeling this way, then, I offer on behalf of many this brokenhearted lover's reply.
Little has changed in the three decades since Berg published her self-addressed elegy. Writing less but talking more, today Berg can be heard across northern plains telling tales of her state's grandeur while stumping for her son Rick, a first-term congressman who is abandoning his House position in order to run for U.S. Senate. A small-town kid who would go on to become an executive with Goldmark Property Management in Fargo, Rick Berg (R-ND) is today one of the top twenty-five wealthiest members of Congress. And to hear Francie tell it, her son need not regret finding himself among the "one percent" these days; he worked hard for it, after all. But the North Dakota in her demands that she worry about the impression such a fact leaves on voters: "Rick spent his summers hauling bales, working cattle, earning money to pay his way to college," Francie tells viewers in a television advertisement in which mother and son appear side by side, yellowed photographs strewn before them on a kitchen table. "No free lunch at our house," she adds, not quite defensively, with a good-natured elbow to her smiling son's ribs. "Because that's the North Dakota way." At the end of his advertisement, Berg the younger can barely get out the first half of his approval of the advert--"I'm Rick Berg"--before Francie interjects with "And Rick's mom!" With narrow eyes turning from his mother to the camera, Rick follows the interruption with a halting admission: "and we approve this message."
This scene is valuable so far as it illustrates, in thirty seconds, the core of North Dakota's sociopolitical history--prototypically clannish and familial, struggling desparately to be both traditional and modern, professional and working-class, educated and folksy, all at once. Claiming a "fierce independence and an absolute honesty" in all it does, according to outgoing Democratic senator Kent Conrad, North Dakota appears to have taken Harry Truman seriously, for decades sending Republicans to Bismarck but Democrats to Washington. This tension between poles--urban and rural, young and old, left and right--continues, revealing something about the state's status as what James called a "sick soul." Appropriately, North Dakota claims as its own both radical libertarian Gordon Kahl, organizer of the Posse Comitatus militia and suspect in the 1983 murder of two U.S. marshals, and socialist organizer A. C. Townley, founder of the Non-Partisan League, which in the first half of the last century advocated public control of state grain elevators, mills, and banks. We also produced liberal statesman Warren Christopher and "Contract with America" author and Tea Partier Dick Armey, who once referred to former Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank as "Barney Fag."
To this day, North Dakota, which does not require any form of voter registration, maintains both a pig-headed conservative streak and a number of socialist conceits, including the state-run Bank of North Dakota in Bismarck and the profit-sharing North Dakota Mill in Grand Forks, where I live and teach. Recent observers have credited such enterprises, coupled with the state's proclivity for expediency and wagon circling (for instance, state law prohibits corporations or banks from holding the title to farmland), with helping North Dakota deflect the worst effects of the recent economic crises, detailing stories of Americans traveling to the state in search of relief from the Great Recession. And with good reason; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, my state, as of this writing, boasts the lowest percentage of unemployed workers in America, and has for years.
Political economy only takes us so far, however. Perhaps more critical to penetrating North Dakota's Manichaeism today is Peter Rentfrow. A Cambridge University psychologist, Rentfrow published in 2008 a study exploring the effect people's geography has on their personality. Isolating for extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness, Rentfrow found that discrepancies in persons' psychological traits do "emerge and persist" according to geographic region, and that such traits correlate to a region's indicators for crime, social capital, religiosity, and health. The study, which even takes into account selective migration and environmental influences, confirms previous studies exploring similar themes: personality and behavior have a geographic component.
To Rentfrow's surprise, if not Berg's or Conrad's, North Dakota led the nation in two of the five measures. "North Dakotans are more sociable and affable ... than are people in other states," Rentfrow wrote, explaining that North Dakotans ranked first in extraversion and agreeableness, and very low in neuroticism. "What is particularly impressive is that the results show the effects of personality on people's social habits, values and lifestyles are so pronounced that they have an impact on much bigger social forces," Rentfrow told the Grand Forks Herald in 2008, adding that strong personality traits in a given demographic become "self-reinforcing by influencing the region's life and culture." Such a study appears to confirm a stereotype that North Dakotans are exceedingly "nice"--"You can't spell friendly without N.D." say our bumper decals--and that we impress such behavior on our children and colleagues.
Nevertheless, as a predominantly homogenous, Scandinavian people forced to spend nearly six months indoors every year, often at home, we should not be surprised (but nevertheless are) that Rentfrow also concluded North Dakota ranks fifty-first in "openness" (below Washington DC!) and near the bottom in "creativity." Even if we are sociable, that is, it is only reservedly so, among ourselves. We bristle at fresh faces, dismiss novelty and kitsch, loathe to be seen as needing others, and tend to "make do" with our bleak surroundings, considering complaining and blasphemy synonymous. We'll talk to you for hours but not say a thing. Add to this lack of openness and creativity often paralyzing feelings of inferiority and one can understand why the state seems determined to control its representation.
Take our state's most fashionable export: critic-novelist Chuck Klosterman. His foul mouth and navel-gazing aside, Klosterman has attracted disapproval from many locals not simply for his depiction of Nodak, which seems to vacillate between disdain and indifference, but for solidifying for outsiders the stereotype that we reject intellectual discourse, conviction, and compassion. Confessing that his essays represent "philosophy for shallow people," in his best-selling Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs (2004) Klosterman recalls taking a course at UND titled "Communication and Society," whose professor was "obsessed" with the critical reading of fairy tales. "She said they were part of a latent social code that hoped to suppress women and minorities. At the time, I was mildly outraged that my tuition money was supporting this kind of crap; years later, I have come to recall those pseudo-savvy lectures as what I loved about college. But I still think they were probably wasteful, and here's why: Even if those theories are true, they're barely significant."
Crammed into this statement is the entirety of what many North Dakotans fear is Klosterman's prairie-bred sensibility: feminism is histrionic nonsense, ethnocentrism does not exist, discursive treatments of literary texts are pretentious and impractical, philosophy is a distraction, and a university education is "probably" irrelevant. Reading the quotation again, it also becomes clear that these assumptions, which ground each of Klosterman's texts, are presented in a noncommittal, indirect style that many critics have called underwhelming. As the Boston Globe's Renee Graham once wrote, Klosterman's prose is middling at best: "Too many of its essays are more like fly balls that are hit deep enough to let the runner advance, yet that ultimately leave him stranded, far from home." He is talented but lazy, rather; popular despite his lack of any aesthetic.
As a result, rather than celebrating his success, North Dakotans' shared response to one of our own often abandons a constructive and friendly criticism in favor of an embarrassed, often clandestine censorship, fearing not only reviews by the likes of Graham, but that Klosterman is an accurate representation of us. In March 2009, for example, Klosterman returned to his alma mater to attend the nationally recognized UND Writers Conference and give a free public reading of his novel Downtown Owl (2009), set in North Dakota during the 1980s. Reaction to the reading, if the audience's collective frown and lowered eyes were any indication, was unenthusiastic. And although locals were too courteous to upbraid Klosterman publicly, applauding politely at the reading's end, many had no difficulty berating him in the small author-focused discussion groups I facilitated during the conference. "He curses too much and doesn't seem to be saying anything intelligent," one woman told me; an older man added that "I'm from the part of the state he writes about, and he wrote some things about that area I don't feel are legitimate." Or, as the UND student newspaper yawned in its review of Klosterman's novel, Downtown Owl is as "plain ... normal ... simple" as its cast of characters.
Such a self-consuming attitude--from Klosterman, the college reviewer, and even this essay's author--signals not only North Dakota's insecurity but the scrutiny with which we appraise Nodak natives above all. The aforementioned Clay Jenkinson, a Rhodes scholar and cofounder of the Chautauqua movement's second wave, also felt the sting of this attitude upon his return to North Dakota after a twenty-five-year absence. As one reader put it in a letter to the Bismarck Tribune in 2005, responding to Jenkinson's inaugural column for the paper, "It appears to this reader that [Jenkinson] is returning to save us, the vast unwashed and ignorant herds of sheep here in North Dakota. His attitude could hardly be more condescending and pompous." Jenkinson's apparent offense: not simply leaving home but returning after a quarter century to admit, correctly, that "North Dakota is less isolated culturally, less provincial in character, less distinctive in personality" than when he left.
Far from being a quirky, benign feature of Nodak life, however, this fraught paranoia, this self-imposed totalitarianism, is a throbbing symptom of the anxiety with which modern North Dakotans squirm to define our fragmented selves--honest, proud, industrious, and kind, or disingenuous, jaded, and still inadequate?--day in and day out, never recognizing that one set of traits assumes and shapes the other, for different audiences. For evidence that this charge holds we look no farther than local signster Harold Newman, who has not only riveted contemporary North Dakota to its storied past but amplified in us the self-critical, jumpy ennui and resentment that escorts our honest humility to church on Sunday--and exposed Francie Berg's mythology as but one side of a cold, train-pressed coin.
Hoping to earn money to fund his college education on his terms, Mayville native Harold Newman began painting oversized signs and billboards for local businesses in his mother-in-law's garage in the 1950s. After graduating from Minnesota State University in Moorhead, Newman moved what had become a full-time business to the birthplace of North Dakota author Louis L'Amour, Jamestown, in 1956. Expanding his business into a multistate enterprise--erecting over eight thousand billboards, countless states-anctioned road signs, and thousands of commercial and residential fences across the country--he has kept Jamestown his home base for half a century. At eighty-one, Newman has relinquished most of his businesses' management to his children. He has nevertheless broadened his financial interests in recent years, opening ethanol factories in the region and acquiring a pecan farm in New Mexico. As he told one area newspaper in 2009, "We had a good crop this year. We sell a lot to Wal-Mart."
A determined, nonpartisan (or bipolar) defender of his state, Newman's municipal footprint can be seen at every level of public life. Federal Election Commission records show that since 1980 Newman has donated tens of thousands of dollars--money that goes a long way in the upper Midwest--to politicians from both major parties. More locally, Newman has served on the Jamestown City Council and worked as a volunteer firefighter. It was following his administration of the North Dakota Travel Association, though, that Newman truly found his civic voice--and left the largest stamp on his birthright. Starting around the late 1970s, Newman produced and donated to the state several droll, tourism-oriented billboards aimed at travelers driving across North Dakota's often less-than-flamboyant plain. Messages presented to drivers since 1980, many of which are still standing, include "Stay in North Dakota--Custer was healthy when he left," "North Dakota farmers can't live on peanuts" (an oblique reference Jimmy Carter's prohibition on selling grain behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War), and the pouty "Fargo's Roger Maris: Legitimate Home Run King." Each colorful sign, endorsed with vigor by state officials, drew plenty of laughs--at least from locals--and quickly became the talk of towns large and small throughout the region.
Quaint as this campaign was, its novelty soon wore off, particularly as Newman aged, global capitalism changed the agriculture and energy economies, and the predictions of Frank and Deborah Popper materialized. Echoing Robinson's suggestion that North Dakota suffered from the "too much mistake,'" in a prescient 1987 essay the Poppers argued that the settling of the Great Plains, including all of North Dakota, was a colossal blunder that would best be unmade. "Now that both the market imperatives and federal subsidies seem inadequate to keep the private interests on the Plains," the pair argued, "the small towns in the surrounding countryside will empty, wither, and die." The result of this emptying, wrote the Poppers, would be the return of a "buffalo commons," or native steppe, wherein bison and other American species might be reintroduced and allowed to roam free.
Although the Nodak economy has rebounded, it was in the throes of North Dakota's growing sense of the likelihood of such a scenario that, around the turn of the century, Newman Signs launched a less flippant campaign. Driving south today on Interstate 29 along a flat Dakota-Minnesota border, drivers are subjected not to brightly colored, comic directives but to a series of two-tone injunctions pressing them to "Be Grateful," "Have a Great Day," "Be Kind," and the newest message "DNT TXT & DRV." And nothing else.
In contrast with Newman's facetious tourism series, this "injunction series" strikes a more direct chord, replacing levity with its opposite--all to rave reviews. "When someone tells you to smile, it's kind of hard not to," Williston City Commissioner Ward Koeser told Williston Herald reporter Jaimee Green in 2004. Or as syndicated columnist and retired political science professor Lloyd Omdahl put it, "While this new flurry of creative billboards may not change the level of civility" in society, "it will still warm the hearts of some motorists as they meditate on the kindly thoughts provided by Harold Newman." A former North Dakota lieutenant governor, Omdahl gushed over the billboards in a 2004 column, calling them a "ray of sunshine" in an increasingly discourteous and arrogant society. Managers at Newman Signs describe such feedback as standard. "General comments have been very positive," says staffer Leo Ness over the phone. "Some [callers] even request photos of the signs to share." According to Ness, whose sincerity is palpable through the handset, nearly thirty such billboards have been pasted in North Dakota, western Minnesota, and eastern Montana.
The chipper attitude shared by Koeser, Omdahl, and Ness belies the campaign's more furtive qualities, however, for when asked about the signs' genesis, Ness grew coy: "[This campaign is] more of a touchy-feel-good thing where no recognition is wanted or warranted. The signs are placed by someone who feels that a lot of people could easily be reached through a simple message along the highways." The secrecy with which Newman Signs manages what is undoubtedly a provocative series of advertisements is noteworthy, and perhaps even generates the apprehensive responses of passersby young and old.
"I don't like [the signs] at all--I am already doing what they tell me to do," grumbles Brenda, a middle-aged Dickinson native who would make Francie Berg proud and in true Nodak style asked not to be identified more specifically. Or as my former student Joe Leiss, a twenty-two-year-old Manvel native, told me over coffee one afternoon, "When I drive past those signs I feel like I'm back in my hometown church with all these fingers wagging at me." The campaign is hardly heartwarming, Leiss noted of what he calls its anxiety-inducing vibe; rather, "the signs are pretty unsettling."
If Newman's imperatives are instructive in any way, Brenda and Leiss seem to suggest, it is that North Dakota today operates as the ghastly inverse of John Carpenter's They Live. In the 1988 cult film, erstwhile professional wrestler (Rowdy) Roddy Piper, playing a jeans-and-boots drifter referred to as "Nada" only in the film's credits, stumbles into a construction job in Los Angeles during a national recession. Lacking a place to spend the night, Nada is taken in by outstanding character actor Keith David, who, at day's end, brings the laborer to a shantytown populated by all manner of indigents, downsized workers, and, the viewer is led to believe, religious zealots ranting on about an unnamed "they" who "have blinded us to the truth." That night the shantytown, including the nearby church that had been aiding the refugees, is raided by police; the terrorized community scatters.
Returning to the razed camp the following morning, Nada explores the ransacked church, discovering by mistake a cache of custom sunglasses that, he soon learns, confirm the zealots' suspicions, allowing the wearer to see through the ideology erected by an invasive species of skeletal businessmen, toady-politicians, and vindictive policemen to see the "true" message of the invaders' advertisements and public statements. Looking to magazines and billboards within his purview along a major thoroughfare, a glasses-clad Nada sees not full-color advertisements promoting a financial firm's asset management services or a travel agency's Caribbean package tour, but two-tone imperatives directing citizens to "Consume," "Marry and Reproduce," and "Stay Asleep." On television one alien-faced politician's backdrop compels citizens to "Obey" as the currency in one newsstand worker's (human) hand reads "This is your God."
For many North Dakotans, then, such a plot is not so much hokey B-movie fare as it is a reminder of the punitive, disquieting nature of modern North Dakota living, a pedestrian prediction of Newman's campaign, our continuing awareness of our broad-spectrum inadequacy, and American Marxist James Rorty's old chestnut that such signifiers represent "our master's voice." Inverting the film, though, Newman dispenses with the need for souped-up specs, making plain his community's insecurities. In so doing, Newman, rather than reminding North Dakotans of their nonpartisan, practical, industrious heritage, which in many ways remains, heightens its suspicion. Reminding us we are not as kind, thankful, of authentic as we claim to be, or thought we already were, Newman instead reinforces the long, taxing shadow of Art Link and our habitual failure to be as grand.
To repeat Jacobs and Weinstein, North Dakota was what in many ways it insists it still is. But like Koeser and Omdahl, Conrad and Berg, too many of us either cannot or choose not to recognize the fact that rather than warming our hearts Newman's injunctions reveal and even inflate North Dakota's more distrustful, apprehensive self. Instead of cultivating our legendary kindness, independence, and diligence, Newman mutes these traits, which have been replaced by their representation only, courting instead derision and confusion from this state's critics and fans. The irony of such "superegotistical" signs, so read, is that they not only signal but feed the bitter pretention, anxiety, and resentment--captured so well by the Coens--that increasingly chaperone our easygoing courtesy. They also serve to infantilize us. Thus is the function of power in North Dakota made explicit by Newman Signs: like Jenkinson, we are expected not simply to "Stay in North Dakota," but to do so with gratitude and a feigned smile, and to suppress any condemnation of such an order or even the thought that other places may have much to offer. Or, as Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek puts it in an essay titled "You May!" from 1998, "The parental figure who is simply 'repressive' ... tells a child: 'You must go to grandma's birthday party and behave nicely.... I don't care whether you want to, just do it!' The superego figure, in contrast, says to the child: 'Although you know how much grandma would like to see you, you should go to her party only if you really want to--if you don't, you should stay at home.' The trick performed by the superego is to seem to offer the child a free choice, when, as every child knows, he is not being given any choice at all. Worse than that, he is being given an order and told to smile at the same time."
All to disastrous results. As the Poppers noted a quarter century ago, "Farm bankruptcy and foreclosure rates are higher in the Plains than in other rural areas, as are many of the indices of resulting psychological stress: family violence, suicide, mental illness." Each of these outcomes continue in North Dakota. Recent data from state, federal, and nongovernmental agencies speak directly to the desperation and anguish caused by both this state's generalized anxiety regime: North Dakota charts high for domestic violence incidence per capita, continues to impress in the realms of suicide and suicide ideation (or, as Bowden puts it, county records "show a remarkable number of people killed by trains"), and consistently tops the nation in alcohol abuse, both in terms of underage binge drinking and drunk driving, says the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. We also boast one of the lowest birth rates in the nation.
And this is just the white people. If one doubts the physical and emotional consequences of this region's restless dualism and chronic sense of inadequacy, simply visit one of the four American Indian reservations, whose residents suffer a sort of double divide. Already torn between ancestral beliefs and colonizers' order to abandon tradition, North Dakota's first people--Lakota (Sioux), Ojibwa, Arikara--today often end up floating in a psycho-spiritual no man's land, particularly those who leave the "rez." In leaving home, rather, such souls can find themselves shunned quickly by former friends and confronted by a white majority that in spite of its own insecurity and mischaracterization by outsiders has no interest in revising its own stereotypes of its state's largest minority group. In spite of their own bifurcation, rather, most North Dakotans fail to recognize this exaggerated anxiety in their neighbors so far as whites simply cannot see contemporary Indians, period. Modern Indians instead represent an affront to the fantasies North Dakotans still hold about our heritage, and so tend, as in Frederick Turner's frontier thesis, to be ignored.
Consider the vicious debate over UND'S "Fighting Sioux" athletic nickname and logo. Disregarding the Indians living among them, North Dakotans adore their fictionalized appropriation of Native culture--a stern-faced Indian profile garnished with feathers and paint matching the university's color scheme--as do the bulk of UND athletes, who often opt to play for UND because they "want to be a Fighting Sioux." Our logo love notwithstanding, in 2005 the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)--an outside agency--included North Dakota's first university on a list of schools whose sports emblems were judged to be "hostile and abusive" to indigenous peoples, in spite of fans' insistence that such symbols "honor" American Indians. Failing to win official support from both of the state's Sioux tribes--Spirit Lake and Standing Rock--for the eighty-year-old name's use, the State Board of Higher Education moved to retire the name and logo in May 2009, reaffirming that position in April 2010.
Beaming with a defiant pride in tradition, but fretting nervously over how such a response would be interpreted by the rest of the nation, students, alumni, fans, and even some Natives expressed shock and outrage at the move, flooding area newspapers and legislators' offices with indignant communiques, calling the state board, anti-nickname activists (Native and non), and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem "duplicitous," "Political Correctness Nazis," and "an idiot," respectively. As one diffident blogger put it on Siouxsports.com (a website not affiliated with the university), "I think [UND President Robert] Kelley should just move back to Wyoming and quit pretending that somehow he's smarter than every one in ND." More disgusting, state board member Grant Shaft found horse manure moldering on the sidewalk before his Grand Forks home one morning following his group's recommendation.
At few times in our history have North Dakotans expressed so much rage so publicly. That is to say, never before has our state been under such scrutiny from without for just being ourselves. So determined are we to deny an external challenge to our traditions that a collection of politicians introduced three bills to the state legislature in February 2011 designed to amend the North Dakota Constitution not only to revoke our university president's and state board's authority in the operation of their own institutions, but compel Standing Rock, a sovereign nation, to hold a referendum to gauge tribal "support" for the symbols. Two of the bills failed in committee; the third was passed by both the state House of Representatives and Senate by a two-to-one margin. Republican governor Jack Dalrymple immediately signed the bill. Adding insult to injury for nickname opponents was the fact that while the logo bill passed, legislation setting aside funding to preserve indigenous languages, improve Indian education, and facilitate better communication between tribal and state governments all failed that year.
Such actions signal the horrifying fact (white) North Dakotans refuse to face: we are far less noble, gracious, and respectable than the people the nickname and logo are supposed to honor, to the degree that we are willing to sacrifice our largest minority group for a myth. Acknowledging the complicated nature of disease, American Indian physical and mental health has clearly been affected by the division, marginalization, and insult many continue to experience here. As public health researchers have known for years, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and many other preventable illnesses are skyrocketing on reservations as programs designed to combat such developments are routinely cut by federal and state budgets. More seriously, the North Dakota Department of Health notes that while self-harm remains a problem for all of North Dakota, the suicide rate tends to be highest in regions of the state housing reservations. The morbidity and mortality statistics concerning alcohol abuse on the reservation likewise outpace off-reservation statistics.
In an effort to persuade the NCAA to revise its position, several North Dakota officials met with NCAA president Mark Emmert, and others, in October. Failing miserably, the North Dakota legislature grudgingly repealed the bill in November 2011. Halting the repeal that very month, however, was a statewide campaign organized by the "Committee for Understanding and Respect," a nickname advocacy group, which delivered more than thirteen thousand signatures to the North Dakota secretary of state's office demanding that the issue be settled by North Dakota voters. As of this writing, the State Board of Higher Education has sued the legislature, which has responded in kind, for what it feels is an attempt to circumvent the board's constitutional authority to manage its own academic institutions, putting such a referendum on hold.
Given the emotion surrounding the issue, one is not surprised to hear nickname defenders go so far as to refer to the religious nature of their cause. In a court brief written on behalf of the Committee for Understanding and Respect, for example, Minot attorney Reed Soderstrom, who led the petition, argues that the Spirit Lake Tribe bequeathed the "Sioux" name to UND in a sacred "naming ceremony" in 1969. Such a religious gift, Soderstrom argues in a creative and cynical interpretation of the First Amendment, cannot be returned, as it would prohibit the tribe's "free exercise and enjoyment of religion." The spiritual nature of the endowment, Soderstrom continues, "constitutes a religious function preventing civil interference."
As such an argument suggests, North Dakotans are inclined toward religious lines of reasoning. Validating the countless Christian-oriented billboards that dot the landscape ("When you die you will meet God," "Jesus ... the Only Path to God," or "Pray and Fast to End Abortion in North Dakota"), a 2007 Pew Forum study reported that well over 90 percent of North Dakotans believe in God--the highest percentage outside America's Bible Belt. We also claim the largest number of Christian houses of worship per capita of any American state. This boast is neither irony nor overkill, though, given Montana native Sarah Vowell's notion that "steam rises from the gates of hell in downtown Fargo"; God is apparently much in demand here. But like everything else in our lives, church is no place for extremism. To our credit, ranting, shaking, speaking in tongues, and all manner of holy rolling are here considered tawdry--what would the neighbors think? Instead, nearly two-thirds of this incomprehensible set of believers identify as mostly mainline Lutherans--more than Garrison Keillor's Minnesota--a fact which cannot help but influence both our generous practicality and disciplined self-censorship.
So pervasive is our proper, unassuming Lutheranism, in fact, that "All churches up here end up acting 'Lutheran,' even the Catholics," explains Reverend Keith Mills, an Ohio native who has ministered several United Church of Christ congregations in North Dakota. "It's not a conscious thing; it just turns out that way." Given this pan-Protestantism, Mills has been both surprised and frustrated at how difficult it has been for him to coordinate serious social justice initiatives with area churches; his CATCH program (Congregations Acting Together for Change and Hope) has attracted only two other religious organizations, one of which is Jewish, in five years. Emerging from North Dakota's mundane religious isolationism is not simply a nice, honest devotion, Mills has found, but a taciturn, judgmental "churchiness" that teaches its adherents to be wary of outsiders, blame the victim, and question change, even when justice is at stake.
Take, for instance, the silence with which the Christian communities of Grand Forks and Fargo have responded to multiple appearances of anti-Semitic graffiti in their cities in recent years. "I arrived here a few weeks after the local synagogue was vandalized and thought right away that we should do something to reach out to these folks," continues Mills. "When I asked, they said they hadn't been contacted by anybody from the Christian community about this. That's why [the synagogue] ultimately joined CATCH; the leadership there told me 'We owe you one. When no one would stand with us, you guys did.'" Episodes like these, says Mills, authenticate Keillor's fictional account of an angry Lake Woebegonian who delivered, anonymously, an updated "95 Theses" to a Lutheran pastor in Keillor's Lake Woebegon Days (1990), arguing that the passive-aggressive "niceness" and "fear of strangers and their illicit designs" embedded within Scandinavian Lutheranism teaches its followers little more than fear and worry, "making me a very suspicious friend." No less is R--more in fact--in North Dakota where belief in God is a subtle-yet-compulsory matter: demanded by a guarded community but also proscribed, tepid, and never really experienced, even on the Sabbath.
Bringing all of this together is eighty-five-year-old Marilyn Hagerty, who in 2012 went viral. A longtime Grand Forks Herald columnist and widow of former Herald editor Jack Hagerty, Marilyn wrote an unassuming review in March of her city's new Olive Garden restaurant for her weekly "Eatbeat" column--one of five beats Hagerty has maintained for decades. "All in all it is the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks," wrote Hagerty, who said very little about the Alfredo pasta she ordered, commenting instead on the restaurant's management, history, and furnishings: "As I ate, I noticed the vases and planters with permanent flower displays on the ledges. There are several dining areas with arched doorways. And there is a fireplace that adds warmth to the decor."
Within hours of the review's appearance on the newspaper's website, the story was seized by the blogosphere, which sent its readers to the review, asking them to weigh in on whether or not the piece was ironic, parodic (like something one would see in The Onion), or genuine. Many readers outside North Dakota were unimpressed, scoffing at a writer (and paper) that would review, earnestly, chain restaurants, even fast-food establishments. Memes appeared almost overnight on Facebook and elsewhere, featuring Hagerty's image captioned with lines from her previous columns, including "Somehow, I never have considered tucking a fried egg into a hamburger. But anything is possible" and "The aisle is okay. You can get up and go to the lavatory."
"Residents of Grand Forks, N.D., are lining up for blocks to enjoy a one-of-a-kind European dining experience that finally puts the city on the culinary map with its unique brand of Tuscany refinery," sneered the website Fark, whose readers laughed at Hagerty's description of her server's attire and the restaurant's "long, warm breadsticks." Or, as the Village Voice's Camille Dodero asked Hagerty portentously, "Was the opening of the Olive Garden really such a big deal?"
Still, other writers defended Hagerty's refreshing honesty and lack of affect; "Very much enjoying watching Internet sensation Marilyn Hagerty triumph over the snarkologists (myself included)," tweeted Travel Channel personality Anthony Bourdain. Fueling the proceedings was the fact that the entertainment industry generally--including the news media--found Hagerty a more formidable interview than expected. When asked by "CBS This Morning" anchor Erica Hill about her reaction to having gone "viral," Hagerty responded, in a gentle, grandmotherly tone, "I've been a lot of other things, but never viral. So now I am." Filling in for CNN's Piers Morgan, actor Jane Lynch was likewise beside herself trying to stretch her Hagerty interview to the commercial break; "It wasn't much fun" without Piers, Hagerty--who looked more comfortable than Lynch--would later admit. Sensing the glib condescension of her interlocutors, rather, Hagerty seemed to be giving a vapid twenty-four-hour news cycle as much respect as it deserved for its hyperventilated, often patronizing, response to her work, going so far as to decline an invitation to appear on "The Tonight Show." Finally, when City Pages (Minneapolis) blogger Kevin Hoffman asked Hagerty if she ever expected her writing to garner so much attention outside North Dakota, she responded with a matter-of-fact "I didn't really care," and countered his claim to have "really enjoyed your Olive Garden review" with a curt "Oh, I'm sure you did." Who was playing whom here?
As anticipated, North Dakota's response to the attention Hagerty's column generated was mixed: some locals expressed embarrassment at how the episode reflected upon the state; others praised Hagerty for doing things "the North Dakota way," as Francie Berg might put it. As this essay has tried to show, both responses are fair and appropriate: the episode did give critics an opportunity to further snipe at a vulnerable, still isolated demographic. At the same time, Hagerty showed the world, in her brutally minimalist, almost Faulknerian my-mother-is-a-fish rhythm, that Nodak is far more cunning and sober than our stereotype suggests. "This, too, shall pass," Hagerty wrote of her own fame a week later. "I soon will take my hammer named Margo and go down to the riven There I will meditate on the 15 years that have passed since the flood of 1997." As with Link's "Landscape" sermon, it is hard not to see Hemingway of Flannery O'Connor in those cryptic lines, the simplicity of which is but a foil for the complex, too often stifled, pathos that produced them.
"I think it's complicated.... We're both happy for her and, at the same time, pleased that our incredulity at her columns is shared by so many. But the commentaries largely get it wrong," muses Weinstein. "We aren't shocked by the fact that she reviews the Olive Garden or Taco Bell. It's the nature of her passive-aggressive writing" that attracts local readers, who see in Hagerty's prose their own bluntness and guile. Hagerty, who admits to attending Calvary Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Grand Forks regularly, quietly betrays North Dakotans' "nice" veneer, says Weinstein, revealing instead a certain gothic austerity. "Restaurant reviews translated through the thickness of napkins. You just have to know how to read it."
Picking up on Hagerty's gravity and passive-aggression was one local They Live enthusiast, who around the time of the incident began plastering full-color posters across Grand Forks featuring Hagerty's headshot captioned simply by an injunction to "Obey." There is no better example of the nervous schizophrenia that permeates modern Dakota living. We were as hardworking, practical, and kind as we claim to be. Many of us remain this way, doubling down on this persona, bound increasingly to a past that died with Art Link. But embedded in such a position is not only a humiliating insecurity but a perplexing, grim sobriety. In this way North Dakota imagines itself to be for the Great Forty-Eight what America believes it is to the world: we were and are measured, practical, genuine, and industrious. The benevolent City on a Hill. Knowing this also makes us suspicious, occasionally vain, tribal, austere, and quick to draw baseless, inflated conclusions about ourselves and others absent any sense of time and space. Freud might as well have been pondering my people when he wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents that "the more virtuous a man is, the more severe and distrustful is its [sic] behavior."
In keeping with tradition, I include myself in this assessment. Furthermore, I admit there are clear benefits to looking backward, to valorizing and cultivating trustworthiness, diligence, kindness, and tradition. This is true. But to claim that North Dakota begins and ends with this value system, that the goodness and honesty of our people overshadow the rest of America, is not. There is worth in straightforwardness, practicality, and rigorous self-restraint. But the community-wide censure, squint-eyed surveillance, and prejudice that enforce these behaviors often inhibit our goodwill and ethics, creating instead the very depression, substance abuse, and desire for flight that mask our better selves and help actualize more critical external analyses.
So do I end this missive with an inappropriately open admission: it's all true. The myths and legends, stories and stereotypes, are all indisputable. Good and bad. North Dakota is simultaneously independent, industrious, tight-knit, and kind; irrational, consumed by feelings of inadequacy, and surprisingly spiteful. And navigating these incongruous personalities has made me melancholic, fatalistic, and too often impatient and hard-hearted. If Klosterman and Jenkinson are any indication, in making such claims public I put myself at some risk. But I can no longer pretend that being so far from the ocean means I am never at sea. Acknowledging all of this is the first step toward genuine sincerity, humility, independence, and compassion, the first step toward helping my children, who I want to have grow up knowing North Dakota as their home and emerge from this place better adjusted than I. After all, I would like nothing more than to live and work here for several more years. Only North Dakota makes it very difficult for me to do so sometimes. And although I doubt many of my compatriots, when I try to explain all of this, will take such a proposal easily, at least I can count on them to listen politely.
----------Please note: Some tables or figures were omitted from this article.
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|Author:||Schill, Brian James|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
|Next Article:||Under the Rug.|