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Sunday, February 13, 2005

Is Minnesota Still Nice?

This is the headline over a group of articles about immigration in today's StarTribune OpEx section. My gut response is the rhetorical question, "Was it ever?" I then saw that one of the pieces, by editorial writer Steve Berg, makes reference to Minnesota's mythical past. Hmmm. Not legend, not story, not remembrance, but myth. Interesting word choice. Am I not the only one?

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of friendly people here. I simply no longer am of the opinion that neither the style, nor quantity, of friendliness, neighborliness, tolerance, welcoming, etc. are particularly noteworthy. When I mentioned this to my mother, the Troglomatrix, a few years back, she looked at me as if I committed blasphemy. I did not arrive at this point rashly. In fact, I'm not even that hung up on it. I usually roll my eyes and smile bemusedly when I hear about Minnesota Nice, that's all.

I grew up in Minnesota and was fully indoctrinated by the time I left for college. College in small-town Wisconsin. The wall was breached. Sure Detroit isn't flooded by Lake Michigan because Wisconsin sucks, but there were good people here. Even Packers and Bears fans. Well, they are pretty close to Minnesota, it probably just rubbed off on them.

This idea was reinforced when I went to engineering school in upstate NY. There the people were decidedly cooler towards each other, until you got to know them. For example, you never got a hello from someone on the street unless they recognized that you had passed each other within about 8 feet on at least two previous occasions--it was a strange sort of ritual. I don't know that there was anything malicious in this, but rather that nobody knew you existed, or cared to be bothered with the idea. After all, there were only five cities in the US: New York, Boston, DC, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Minneapolis? Isn't that in the Rocky Mountains?

So I returned to Minnesota to begin my career with my preconceived notions essentially intact. One thing that I had observed on the East Coast, and chastised my roommates about incessantly, was that their persistent doubts of my existence were a form of simple arrogance.

In 1991-92 the Twin Cities was in the spotlight as it hosted a bunch of big time sporting events: The US Open golf tournament, the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup Finals, the NCAA Final Four--there might have even been a figure skating championship of some sort in there, too--all successful. There were, of course, the obligatory background pieces from the MSM singing the praises of the local folk. That was fine, until it started happening. Minnesotans started believing their press. You could hear about how Nice we were on the radio, standing in line (Go ahead--No, you go ahead--No, no, you go ahead--Gee, aren't we nice people? Tee hee hee!), during the homily at Mass (Pride alert! Pride alert!) See it on the local news. Read it in the local paper--in the sports section (Patrick Reusse, I love your work, but I mean you). Enter the Paradox: the people of the Twin Cities were becoming arrogant about being Nice. And this spilled over into other areas: We're progressive/cultured/smarter/healthier/better in this or that.

This reaction is understandable for an area that had a complex about itself until the Twins won the World series in 1987. Never mind the Mayo Clinic, Charles Lindbergh, Scotch Tape, U of M Gopher hockey, or the Minneapolis Lakers, there was a certain twisted pride in our not finishing first in 1.) Sports: The Twins in '65, the Vikings four times, the North Stars, the NASL Minnesota Kicks, and 2.) Presidential runs: Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Harold Stassen. The thing is that it didn't go away after a year, or two years, or five years. For those in my family who still don't understand why we moved to Oklahoma for seven years, a big part of it was the Paradox. The wall was crumbling.

In Oklahoma, besides an introduction to the use of real spices for cooking, we were blessed to know a friendliness and neighborliness at a level and consistency I had never known as an adult. My point isn't that Minnesotans are somehow inferior to Oklahomans. It would be easy to do because my personal experience happens to correlate with the fact that, on average, the charitable giving in Minnesota is decidedly middle of the pack, while Oklahoma's is near the top of the list. But I know that there are people who moved from Minnesota to Oklahoma and didn't have the same experience we did. Also, many of the people we encountered and befriended there originally hailed from somewhere else. What was striking was the general humility we found in Oklahoma, something long on the decline in the Twin Cities. Here's an example. We were out and about one day with several groups of people and there was a current Minnesotan attached to one of the groups. Going into a public place (a mall, maybe), the Minnesotan held a door open for some of the group. When thanked, the reply given, rather than the standard "You're welcome," was "That's Minnesota Nice." The looks of bewilderment that followed would have been simply good for a chuckle if they didn't also carry the message that I would have to explain this later because I was a Minnesota native (it wouldn't have been polite to bring it up there and then). What did happen right there and right then was that the wall came crashing down. The green glasses were off. Sucat, his eyes uncovered (a little Star Trek:TNG lingo).

A couple of summers ago, after it was announced that we would be moving back to Minnesota, I was discussing all this at a family gathering with one of my uncles. One of the things that I mentioned was that I noticed during my many, many business trips to the Twin Cities that the Paradox was steadily becoming more prevalent. His comment to me was that he thought it was just a city thing. As the number of people increased in the area, as the traffic got worse, as people got busier, the less Nice they became. Minnesota Nice was alive and well in out-state Minnesota... and the rest of the less urban Midwest... and the Deep South... and the South... and so on. Thus was born the Metropolitan Paradox (I'm sure somebody else has thought of this, but I am giving it a name anyway), the phenomenon where population growth is driven (at least in part) by a characteristic that then declines when the population increases, or in other words, it's the manifestation of Yogi Berra's comment that a restaurant is so crowded that nobody goes there anymore.

So back to the myth. If it is a myth, then at some point in time there was some truth to Minnesota Nice, which I think also indicates there could be always be a rebirth of it in the Twin Cities, should the culture choose to do so. Mr. Berg would have us believe that, at least regarding immigration, Minnesotans are less welcoming today and it's because of the rightward turn in politics and the rising prominence of evangelical Christians. He and I may be correct about the health of Minnesota Nice, but I disagree with his reasons. Rather than the Metropolitan Paradox (it sounds cool, so I'll keep using it), part of his evidence is based on the work of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, the reasons for ignoring which are captured by Sarah Janecek in one of the companion pieces.

I am sure there are those who will disagree and say that Minnesota Nice is alive and well in the Twin Cities. It has occurred to me that they might be correct. In preparation for criticism along these lines I cracked a dictionary and looked up the word "nice." There it hit me, an alternate definition. I must now admit there is another possibility that would allow us to believe we are still living in Wobegone days. It embraces both our heritage of bland food and our eclectic brands of politics. My alternate hypothesis is that the legend of Minnesota Nice does not refer to hospitality, rather it could have been less ambiguously named "Minnesota Finicky. "

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