Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Conscience of a Moderate

Post by Jeff Skrenes, photo is stock photo from my Facebook profile.

Minneapolis politics have taken a sharp turn to the left and I'm not sure I recognize my own city anymore.

I don't make that statement lightly, and I don't base that sentiment solely on the political positions that seem to have the wind in their sails for the time being.  There is an undercurrent to this shift that feels different than other political differences and disagreements I've seen in the past.  And to be honest, it's the shift in tone that concerns me more than a potential shift in policy.  Politics do make leftward and rightward shifts over time, and in the long arc of history I like to think the push and pull of those tides helps us to get it right.

I still consider myself a liberal and a progressive, certainly a Democrat.  On a national scale I probably favor government regulations and spending more than most, but locally I would be to the right of many of my compatriots in that regard.  Still, this sentiment of a political sea change for the worse does come from an understanding of left-wing activism and tactics.

My first job out of college was working for Minnesota ACORN, the predecessor to Neighborhoods Organizing for Change.  I've been on my share of marches, most recently to protest the Philando Castile verdict.  I've organized a direct action that once got my organization sued - a badge of honor of sorts in that world.  Which is to say I've been in the far-left activist sphere before and I understand its philosophy and methods perhaps more than others who would self-identify as moderates.

I'm not sure exactly when the left-wing meanness started to manifest itself, but I first noticed it during...

...the Orth House debacle.  A sitting city council member took part in a mock vigil at the Bryant-Lake Bowl to make fun of her own constituents.  A local neighborhood blog egged on such behavior through open mocking of preservationists.  And to this day the Wedge Live blog has only grown in prominence while continuing its lowbrow tactics.

To draw a comparison, most liberals are rightly outraged at the antics of our current Commander in Chief when he degrades and devalues women based on their looks instead of engaging on the merits of an issue.  The Wedge Live blog did the same thing during the debate over the Brenda Ueland house, comparing the author's appearance and dress to Beetlejuice as if that made one lick of difference in any way.

So while the political background radiation brought to us by Trump hasn't helped, the seeds were here in Minneapolis well before his rise to prominence.  Perhaps Minneapolis and left-leaning activists are not so different than red states in that regard.  But 45's victory has done two things in Minneapolis.  First, his actions set the tone for what can be considered acceptable discourse.  Second, he can be attributed as a convenient bogeyman to rile everyone up.

Lest readers think this post will devolve into pointlessly wistful hand-wringing, I plan on articulating as best I can three main points.  What it means to me to be a Minneapolis moderate, two recent events where I believe such moderation was disregarded (to our detriment as a city), and how I hope we can return to better days in terms of our communal discourse.

The easiest line I can draw from a basic tenet of political philosophy to a real-world application is around vacant houses and housing preservation.  That issue has been a focal point of mine and of this blog for many years.  And what drove my action and my organizing of neighbors, politicians, and other stakeholders was a recognition that we had a set of policies that were inefficient, nonexistent, or downright harmful.  And further, those policies were put in place and acted upon by local government without adequate input from community members and professionals who worked directly in the industry.

To put it bluntly, Minneapolis and Hennepin County had a philosophy and a set of policies around vacant housing and demolition vs. rehab that was shaped by the opinions and actions of city bureaucrats.  People who buy, sell, rehab, build, and finance such housing did not have enough of a voice in these policies.  Neighbors who lived next door to a vacant home, or those who could have owner-occupied one if it were available were not given a way to impact the decisions of local government.

The constituency directly affected by that set of positions and actions should have input that carries the greatest weight about whether those policies are beneficial or not, and how to correct the policies, or even (gasp!) whether there should be any policies at all around a given issue.  This is a cornerstone of my political beliefs.  I believe many on the left share this principle, at least in the abstract.  I do not believe we are living up to that goal.

The $15 minimum wage tip credit and the confrontation over uniformed officers at Pride are two such instances where I believe the left fell short in a dialogue with those directly affected.  To be clear, I am not gay, not a person of color, not a police officer, haven't experienced police mistreatment, and I was not involved in ensuring the parade was conducted efficiently and safely--I didn't even go to the Minneapolis Pride parade this year.  And I am fortunate enough to be making well over $15 an hour and do not rely on tipped income, nor am I a small business owner who would have to figure out how to pay my employees under a new wage ordinance.  So my opinions on those two issues matter far less than anyone's who is directly impacted.

And yet I saw a fair amount of interaction on Facebook where long-standing LGBT leaders expressed their support for a uniformed officers' presence at Pride.  These leaders were told to "check [their] privilege" or "know [their] history."  And by way of Facebook profiles at least, the people dishing out those phrases often appeared to be white, young, and straight.  The recipients of such admonishments were less privileged and had actually lived through the history they were told to learn.  Granted, the arguments arose without a whole lot of time between the Castile verdict and Pride parade, and therefore couldn't be resolved neatly before the event itself.  But from my observation there were a lot of non-LGBT, non-POC people on the left telling the direct stakeholders in the controversy how they should respond.  That is not okay.

Likewise, there hasn't been much room for nuanced debate around the minimum wage issue.  In one of the earlier hearings this year, CM Goodman called into question the validity of some of the studies presented - why they were all generally positive, whether they had complete enough data sets or solid methodology, if they were adequately peer-reviewed, or if the authors had pre-determined conclusions based on their own ideology.  The vitriol directed at her was off the scale.  Yet when other studies have been presented that question whether similarly localized minimum wage increases have been beneficial, the left dismisses those as incomplete, not peer-reviewed, or inherently biased.  It seems like anyone with concerns over the Minneapolis ordinance is not allowed to question the supportive data nor can we bring in our own information that may contradict a prevailing narrative.

Further, when waiters and servers and other restaurant employees almost universally lobbied for a tip credit, that concern was summarily dismissed.  Again, without direct experience in the industry I won't argue whether the tip credit should be part of the ordinance or not - or even whether tipping should exist at all.  But the Minneapolis bureaucracy got it wrong on housing preservation quite literally for generations because they did not listen to the communities directly impacted or the professionals with expertise.  I worry that the same dynamic is at play here, and if we get it wrong the results will be devastating.

So where do we go from here?

I have been stewing on self-identifying as a moderate for a long time now, and I keep coming back to the one thing I do not want to be, as described by Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate.  I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says:  "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season."
I would rather step aside than contribute to a dream deferred, or to disengage rather than issue a bad check based on the riches of freedom and security of justice.  Those who stand in the way of what is just should be called out for that, but not every disagreement over policy is tantamount to intentional systematic oppression.

I think of two good friends of mine who are to the left of me on housing and livability issues in Minneapolis.  When they have an article published, or put out a body of research, or when a policy I've worked on behind the scenes for years becomes a reality, we literally cannot wait to discuss these things with each other.  We know we won't agree on everything, and sometimes we disagree on much.  But the exchange of ideas that we share helps each of us learn.  We learn information that we did not know, perspectives that we had not considered, and perhaps most importantly, we affirm that the values we hold for justice and equity are the same regardless of the pathways we think are best to bring us there.

I firmly believe that a dialogue in that spirit makes each of us a better person and when we have the chance to impact policies it makes for a better community and city.  And it is precisely that kind of dialogue that this city needs more of.


  1. thoughtful piece, thanks for sharing!

  2. "A sitting city council member took part in a mock vigil at the Bryant-Lake Bowl to make fun of her own constituents."

    I think you made this up. Do you have any sources?

    1. http://www.startribune.com/city-council-draws-laughs-at-improv-show-with-lisa-bender/256255261/

  3. Oh, and I got a "go **** yourself" comment that won't be published anonymously. Say it to my face or with a provable identity or come up with an actual rebuttal.


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