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Superior, Wisconsin, Duluth’s sister city across the bay, recently enjoyed about fifteen seconds of national exposure as a raucous sideshow in the Culture Wars. It started with a stupid comment on Facebook (of course) and rapidly escalated until all of the most ridiculous traits of modern America were on full display. Looking sadly down on Superior from the lofty heights of Duluth, I have developed a few thoughts on the subject.
The stupid comment was made by Superior mayor Bruce Hagen. In response to a picture on Facebook of Michelle Obama looking gorgeous and confident in a gold dress and heels, Hagen wrote, “Unbelievable! She and her Muslim partner have destroyed the fabric of democracy that was so very hard fought for!” It would have been helpful to know the context in which these words were written, but that thread has long since disappeared. Everything that ensued came solely from these 19 words.
In and of itself, Hagen’s statement was hardly remarkable. Much worse has been written and said about President Obama, just as much worse was written and said about President George W. Bush, and President Bill Clinton, and so on back to George Washington. The problem came because Hagen holds a position of official leadership, as a mayor representing a city. For local journalists, it was a golden opportunity: A sensational story that sounded important, but required no actual research. They ran with it like dogs with a bone. A few national news aggregators picked it up.
Of course, people instantly divided into two hard ideological camps based on whether or not they approved of the mayor’s comments. Citizens of Duluth, Superior and the nation took to the Internet to attack the mayor or cheer him on. Several Superior city councilors called for the mayor to apologize or resign. The mayor refused to do either, citing his First Amendment right to free speech. Then he went on vacation to Florida. A protest was held on Dec. 28 at Superior City Hall. (A rumored counter-protest never materialized, its energy probably dampened by cold easterly winds.)
I never find these kinds of controversies to be especially productive. Nobody who gets involved in them ever changes their mind, and rarely is anything resolved. Nevertheless, these kinds of controversies are probably inevitable in our particular form of democracy. To avoid them, we would have to live in a different country.
The tone and substance of Mayor Hagen’s comment indicated that he believed three things: (1) President Obama is Muslim; (2) Being Muslim is bad; and (3) President and Michelle Obama have destroyed democracy. Speaking for myself, I don’t believe that any of these statements are true. I was very surprised that Mayor Hagen made them. I had always viewed the five-term mayor as a low-key, mainstream conservative, someone who was more concerned with budgets than ideology. (The streets of Superior always seem better maintained than Duluth’s, and Superior doesn’t have tens of millions of dollars of debt.) Prior to this incident, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who’d say an angry word against Hagen. But apparently the mayor thought it would be a fine idea to jeopardize his solid reputation with an ill-considered remark on Facebook.
So, at last, a conclusion I think everyone can agree on: Mayor Hagen lacks a certain measure of common sense.
Hagen’s defenders, like the mayor himself, have been quick to hold up the First Amendment as justification for his remarks, because the First Amendment protects those remarks with the full force of law. It also protects the remarks of Hagen’s detractors and everyone else; the First Amendment is the air we all breathe. What bothers me is how often the First Amendment is used to excuse a complete lack of common courtesy. If I go somewhere and meet Mormons, I don’t start cracking jokes about polygamy. I don’t ask Christians why they subscribe to a belief system that was once used to justify slavery. To make such remarks, though it is my absolute right to do so, would be rude and pointless. Controlling one’s behavior around others has nothing to do with the law; it’s called courtesy.
If you’re a mayor, you represent your whole town. I have to believe there are some Muslims in Superior. Mayor Hagen’s comment suggests that he doesn’t like Muslims. To judge by the Facebook reaction, many of his supporters don’t either. I was amazed at the many comments from people insisting that President Obama was secretly a Muslim, pursuing a secret Muslim plot to destroy America. I learned that the president had pledged allegiance to ISIS, and that he had replaced the red-white-and-blue décor in the White House with Muslim prayer curtains. The hysteria and xenophobia blew my mind. I pass these people on the street.
The conversation was far from one-sided. Hagen’s attackers used just as many exclamation marks as his defenders, and the fact that Hagen is a blindingly white male senior citizen didn’t seem to help his cause much, as many people attacked him for those qualities alone.
Which leads me to another conclusion: The First Amendment is great at bringing people out into the open. It’s fantastic for that.
However offensive Hagen’s 19 words on Facebook may have been (and however brainwashed by the liberal media my tolerant comments may show me to be), I do think that the people calling for Hagen’s resignation are wasting everyone’s time. If everyone who made a stupid Facebook comment resigned from their job, the country wouldn’t have a workforce left. Hagen has said that he does not intend to run for mayor again. His ideological beliefs about the president probably won’t affect his ability to conduct the business of Superior for the remainder of his term. Harping on the issue is not going to make the situation any better; the only real goal of such harping, it seems to me, is punishment. Just as people should observe common courtesy and hold their tongues from time to time, people should also be able to listen to the occasional ridiculous comment without instantly flipping into High Outrage Mode.
That is my compromise recommendation: That everyone, on all sides, show a little more courtesy and patience. In today’s world, that may be the most radical idea of all.
Prestigious brownfield award granted to board member
On November 12, 2015, Duluth city planner Heidi Timm-Bijold received the prestigious Mac Hyde award from Minnesota Brownfields, a nonprofit organization whose goal is “to promote…the efficient cleanup and reuse of contaminated land as a means of generating economic growth, strengthening communities and enabling sustainable land use and development.” The award depicts a phoenix rising from the ashes.
In her role at the city, Timm-Bijold has been involved in many brownfield cleanup projects over the years, helping to secure grants to for such projects as the Clyde Iron Works redevelopment, the Pier B hotel project, and the old Atlas Cement industrial site near Morgan Park. “I’m thrilled to my toes to accept the award and hope I live up to the honor,” she told the Budgeteer News.
Timm-Bijold was nominated for the honor by six colleagues, including two coworkers and two employees of Barr Engineering, a company that the city has hired to help with many brownfield cleanup projects over the years, such as the Clyde Iron Works redevelopment, the Pier B hotel project, and the old Atlas Cement industrial site near Morgan Park.
Interestingly, Ms. Timm-Bijold also serves on the board of directors of Minnesota Brownfields.