Friday, September 22, 2006

Come to Minnesota, because we're special...

Here in the great white North, we like to brag. We brag about the glories of our scenery, we brag about our world-class museums, we brag about our unflappable politeness, we even brag about how we don’t like to brag. Yep, we’re pretty pleased with ourselves up here, but we’re insecure too. We worry that people from other places—dirty, crowded, rude and boastful places—might think we’re just a bunch of boring, crypto-Scandinavian hicks with ridiculous accents. So while we’re convinced that our lives are far more pleasant and civilized than what goes on in, say, New Orleans, we also bounce around like a stateful of dim Shih Tzus whenever the New York Times compliments us on one of our theaters or restaurants. We’re not content just to consider ourselves superior, we want everyone else to acknowledge it too. And that’s sort of weird, when you get right down to it.

So, on behalf of all the non-Minnesotans out there, I would like to present you with a handy guide to what we’re really good at. This will help you understand when our pride is justified and when we’re just blowing sunshine up your asses.

ONE: Passive-aggression

Without a doubt, this is the trait that most characterizes life in this part of the country. It is something that afflicts ninety percent of us, although were you to ask a random person from Brainerd or Cloquet or Anoka whether it’s a real phenomenon, they’d most likely change the subject to the weather or hockey or the new deck they’re putting on their “cabin”. And then they’d silently loathe you for the rest of your life for even bringing up the question.

So, if you find yourself in Minnesota, do your best not to mention it. If you have a burning desire to see our quiet kind of hostility in action, just get behind the wheel of a car and drive to any well-traveled crossroads. When your light turns green, signal your intention to make a left turn, but do not pull out into the intersection. Stay safely behind the crosswalk as the opposing traffic goes past. As your maintain this position, use your rearview mirror to take a look at the drivers behind you. Chances are that they’ll be in the kind of rage you just don’t see back in New Jersey. They’ll be banging on their dashboards, screaming the most vulgar things imaginable, spraying spittle all over their windshield, and squirting smoke out of their ears. Yet at no point will they so much as tap on their horn, no matter how long you dawdle there. Why is this? Because that would make their fury known to the person who provoked it and, in Minnesota, such a thing simply isn’t done.

Basically, the main rule we live by is this: it is terrible to give offense, but it’s even worse to voice your displeasure at that offense. The crime must be punished, of course, but not in a way that makes any sense to the criminal. So you treat the guy who always walks away after jamming the copy machine to icy glares for three years, you tip the barista who doesn’t smile at you two cents, you make a less-delicious cake for the birthdays of people who have spoken badly about you behind your back. It’s just the way we roll around here.

TWO: Faking outrage

Minnesotans, despite their sober reputation, really enjoy being pissed off. Or, more accurately, they really enjoy pretending to be pissed off. It’s another aspect of our whole passive-aggression problem, and you can see it most clearly in a lot of our political discourse. Take, for instance, this Republican apparatchik. By the time you read this, he will probably have written his eight thousandth paragraph-long article on the current Democratic depravity du jour, the quasi-scandal of some guy somewhere looking at unreleased campaign commercials on some other guy’s website. In the course of this, we get posts with catchy titles like “The Tactics of Liberal Bloggers Have No Boundaries” and, my favorite, “I’m Disappointed In The Liberal Blogosphere In Minnesota”. This sort of contrived thunder is as Minnesotan as a fat man on a snowmobile, and even if no one really buys the head-shaking and the disappointment in our lack of boundaries, a lot of people still go in for the whole routine.

This is by no means an exclusively right-wing hobby, either. Because we’ve polarized ourselves into our left-right camps, we’ve come to reduce every policy disagreement into yet another example of the worst people in the entire world advocating dishonestly for unspeakable evil. Everything is an atrocity, everyone on the other side is an asshole, everyone on the planet will be fucked if we don’t get our way. This is our perverted way of making our boring discussions about school funding, campaign finance reform and public transportation bonding into a super-sexy battle between Good and Evil. So what if we too often look like screeching ninnies? The winters are long around here and it’s not like we can work on our tans or play beach volleyball or something productive like that.

THREE: Booking deluxe, all-expense paid guilt-trips

To me, this trait is mainly found among Minnesotan progressives and leftists. And, if I may criticize my own kind, it is unquestionably our worst habit. Here’s how it works. Someone, perhaps not even a soulless right-winger, expresses skepticism about a library funding initiative. Minnesota liberal then immediately steps in, clucks his/her tongue, and proceeds to wax expansive about how sad it is that the skeptic doesn’t care about reading, doesn’t care if children get educated, doesn’t care about a healthy community, doesn’t care about anyone but their own library-loathing self. Or maybe someone offers the opinion that some juvenile felon is a vicious sociopathic bastard who ought to be locked up for a very long time. This, to a great many Minnesotans, isn’t so much a statement of position to be taken on its merits as it is an opportunity for a long, half-assed lecture about how terrible it is that people don’t have compassion anymore and how people from privileged backgrounds shouldn’t be so quick to judge those who haven’t had the same advantages and wouldn’t it be better if we had restorative justice to offer these children rather than just the institutionalized opprobrium of the state?

I hate that sort of shit. Our positions gain their value from their basis in evidence, their wisdom, and the benefits of their application. They’re not just ways to prove that the person who holds them is the most virtuous, nicest, bestest person on Earth. That’s the sort of smug garbage I can’t stand from real conservative Christians, who often believe that holding a philosophy is the same thing as being holy. If our beliefs are challenged, we have to defend those beliefs. We shouldn’t just try and make a case based on what gentle, decent, caring souls we are. Liberalism is a way of understanding the world, it is not a shortcut to righteousness.

FOUR: Hating the local sports teams until they start to win

I’ll admit to doing this. Whenever any sort of season starts up—be it football, baseball, basketball, curling or whatever—I could give a shit. They’re undefeated? Big deal. They’re just a bunch of overpaid spoiled crybaby jocks anyway. Shit, for the money they’re making, they better be undefeated. Why don’t we just wipe their asses for them and give them a new stadium for every single day? The steroid-addled bastards. Why don’t people care about the arts anymore? You’ll never see an entire section of the paper devoted to a poet or a novelist or a ballerina and you wanna know why? Because our society has sick, sick priorities. Forilla.

And then the Vikings or the Twins or the Timberwolves or the Skating Russian Dudes make it to the playoffs and I get all excited. I follow the scores. I learn the players’ names. I bandy around statistics. I sometimes even watch the games. I get into it, in other words. At least until they’re inevitably knocked out. Twenty minutes after that I revert back to my normal, sports-hating self.

FIVE: Behaving awkwardly around minorities

Understand: Minnesota is one of the whitest states in America. If you aren’t in Minneapolis, St. Paul, or one of a few inner-ring suburbs, it is possible to go a looooooong time without seeing a single non-caucasian. Most of us aren’t used to different cultures and their different ways. When a typical Minnesotan is faced with one of these people, so many things are going through their mind that their conversational skills suffer. Sure, there are a few xenophobes who might worry that anyone slightly darker than them intends to do them harm, but many others are just scared that they’ll say the wrong thing. They want to be welcoming, but they don’t want to be so welcoming that the minority in question will mistake friendliness for wanting to be their friend. Because then the hapless Minnesotan might get invited to dinner and be forced to eat strange foods spiced with something stronger than pepper.

Minnesotans are also the only people on Earth who feel it’s rude to ask a foreign person where they’re from. Everywhere else I’ve been it’s a pretty standard ice-breaker, but here we apparently live under the delusion that not being a native Minnesotan some sort of unspeakable shame that should never, never, ever be brought up.

SIX: Squandering vacation time

The mark of a true Minnesotan is that they never leave Minnesota. Why would you? I mean, what other place in the world has so many trees and fields and lakes and rivers and antique shops and all that shit? So take your bizarre trip to go see the Pyramids, you weirdo you. Sven Johnson and Helga Norquist are going “up north” to “the cabin” this summer, just like every summer, and you better be prepared to look at some charming family photographs whenever you get back from whatever oddball other country you insist on visiting. Because there is no greater breech of middle-class Minnesota etiquette than not listening rapturously to someone’s three-hour long description of their “lake cabin” and all the magical wholesome crap they do up there. You can walk up Mount Everest without a sherpa, and in Minnesota you’ll still be less interesting than the guy in Accounting who went “up north” and caught a really big walleye. This is a place where people fantasize about going somewhere bucolic, sitting on a deck, and just staring until it gets too dark to see anything. I’m not kidding you. It sounds boring as hell to normal people, but here in Minnesota a vast percentage of us feel that the suburbs of Minneapolis (population 385,000) are just too hectic and cut-throat, so they need to “get away” and “recharge their batteries” somewhere even less stimulating. The joke, however, is on them two times. First, since everyone around here feels the same way, their woodsy hideaways become as crowded as their cubicle ranches every weekend. Second, nobody has a real cabin anymore. They all have “cabins”, which have running water, air conditioning, big-screen televisions, internet hookups, whirlpool bathtubs and so on and so forth. So they basically just recreate their suburban existence in a marginally more rural setting. Sound like a fun way to spend your summer? It does? Well then this is the state for you...