31.1.17

There Might Be Something in the Duluth Reader

Whenever I find myself in Duluth, it's like going back in time in at least one sense: the "alt weekly" game up there is intense. In the Twin Cities, the formerly thriving free, vaguely left, weekly ecosystem has been thinned out, literally and figuratively, leaving only the twice-bought City Pages to fill a wide void. Meanwhile, there are at least two regular weekly papers that still  sit around every week on the streets of Duluth. The Duluth Reader is my favorite, an impossibly thick weekly full of eclectic opinions, ads, and fluff. (The Zenith City Weekly is good too, by the way, slim and inexact as a dull razor.) I always grab myself a copy of Reader, and savor its many bizarre pages.

One thing I love about it is is unabashed left wing slant. The paper offers a raw labor / left politics, a dozen or more articles (many nationally syndicated, and a handful local) about topics that range from multiple strange horoscopes to environmental diatribes to defenses of indigenous rights to quack medical advice to odes to living in the woods to Garrison Keillor to meandering radical histories of the human condition. All in all, there is probably more working-class left-wing thought in one copy of the Reader than in a week's worth of the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, and City Pages put together.

After I picked one up last weekend, the Reader grabbed my attention anew. In our current Trump era, I've been hunting the weedy margins of the media landscape in search of left wing politics with actual traction. The vacuum of purchase in the mainstream liberal media toward anything smacking of economic populism really sucks.

[The revolution will not be Public Radio podcasted.]
Take, for example, the featured podcast topics from NPR: Code Switch covers race and identity, Fresh Air has interviews about the arts, the TED Radio Hour offers techno-liberation, Ask Me Another is for laughs, Hidden Brain is popular science,  Latino USA and NPR Politics are self-explanatory, and Planet Money offers financial advice that only reinforces the uncritical stance of mainstream liberal media toward the stock market. Nowhere in this array of media choices do you find anything that might speak to white working-class interests.

So too with Kerri Miller's new "indivisible" show, explicitly designed as a reaction to the Trump White House. Here's the description from the press release:
Thursday nights, MPR News host Kerri Miller takes the microphone, focusing on American identity at this moment of change: Who is a part of the national narrative, who feels left out, and how might our long-term sense of ourselves change?
It's distressing that identity politics has become a negative buzzword, but it's not an exaggeration to say that the mainstream left has become much more comfortable in the domain of identity and rights than in discussing the root causes of economic inequality.

A focus on identity and rights isn't wrong -- especially in a moment when many of these rights are being sorely tested, divisive fissures mined by a team of venal powerful people --  but without a Sanders-esque focus on class at the foreground, I fear that the movements on the left will remain politically ineffectual and constrained to beseiged cities. Here's part of Robert Reich's recent list of political reforms for the Democrats:
5. It’s not enough for Democrats to be “against Trump,” and defend the status quo. Democrats have to fight like hell against regressive policies Trump wants to put in place, but Democrats also need to fight for a bold vision of what the nation must achieve – like expanding Social Security, and financing the expansion by raising the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes; Medicare for all; and world-class free public education for all. 

And Democrats must diligently seek to establish countervailing power – stronger trade unions, community banks, more incentives for employee ownership and small businesses, and electoral reforms that get big money out of politics and expand the right to vote. 
(The rest of the list is also worth reading.)

In addition to an open, diverse, and opportunistic resistance movement, the left -- and the Democrats if they are to survive -- sorely need economic issues that can cut across the widening racial and cultural fissures in our country. A perfect example is the $15 minimum wage debate (though even that has its limits). Another good example is Governor Dayton's proposal to open MinnesotaCare to everyone in the state, including the (mostly white) middle class.

[More of this please.]
That's why the Duluth Reader is refreshing! Inside you find legitimate class politics, wide ranging, even wacky critiques of the excesses of capitalism. And what's more, the stories are interspersed neatly alongside a dynamic localism, chock full of small businesses. At the bottom of half the pages are inset public service spots that state "Why Shop Locally?" (Reason #9: Preserve entrepreneurship; Reason #1: Keep dollars in Duluth's economy.) I love the combination.

Sure Duluth has problems. Overall, the city fits more clearly into the "rust belt" category than alongside the relatively thriving "knowledge economy" of the Twin Ciites. The old industrial town has been slowly shrinking for generations. West Duluth is struggling problems, as is much of downtown. The city budget is stretched even thinner than in Saint Paul.

But there are wonderful old buildings and wonderful small businesses in this town. Most of the big box crap has been relegated to Hermanntown up over the hill, and there are dozens of great bars, restaurants, shops, and other institutions along the old main streets.

It's weird to say about a newspaper that carries a full-page astrology report completely devoted to Aquarians -- best bit: "You signal your contrariness by dressing in eccentric clothes to ensure that we all recognize your fascinating 'otherness.' These types of Aquarians usually 'HIVE' together in places like Portland or Seattle, thus creating a gigantic flux in the space-time continuum" -- but I love the way that the Reader, this somehow-still-thriving alt weekly in an old industrial city, combines two strands of politics that I feel we need now more than ever: left-wing class politics and economic localism.

[Duluth in the spring.]
Next time you're in Duluth, grab a copy and see how it strikes you. It might be a great political concoction to sip: think and shop locally, practice a critical stance toward economic power, and build class bridges across racial and cultural lines.

The Twin Cities, with its historical devotion to big box retail and corporate HQs, is not likely to be the place where the necessary coalition of political thought sets its roots. Instead, these models might still be lingering in places outside the mainstream liberal plexus, places where main streets have not yet been fully gutted by Targets and mega malls, places that still retain some weary labor roots.  Places like Duluth.

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