Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Good Life In Minnesota

As I've toured the state over the last year talking about what it would take to make Minnesota the healthiest state possible, I've frequently started my presentations by showing the cover of the August 13, 1973 edition of Time magazine that I picked up as I drove through the state on my way to my National Health Service Corps assignment in Montana. The cover shows a smiling Governor Wendell Anderson holding up a large fish. The caption reads “The Good Life In Minnesota.  
Since today was a cold and wet Memorial Day that precluded the outdoor activities synonymous with the good life in Minnesota, I took the time to reread that old Timemagazine. 
August of 1973 was half-way between the Watergate break-in and Nixon’s resignation so a good portion of the magazine dealt with that historic scandal. It shared space with another tragedy of the time, Leaving the Quagmire of Indochina.”  However, several other topics in that edition seemed eerily current. There was the report on “individual privacy…in this electronic age” that listed 5 principles of privacy that are still relevant today. Of particular interest given the results of the just-completed legislative session, Time reported that “The Mayo Foundation has offered to invest $1,000,000 in face-lifting the downtown district of Rochester.
In an article titled Ghetto Homesteaders there was discussion of “...the grim urban paradox of a shortage of adequate housing accompanied by the abandonment of structurally sound homes” brought on by a poor economy. Another reminder that history often repeats itself was an article titled, Keeping a Little List at the IRS. It mentioned “…that the White House had used the IRS to try to harass radical organizations (and that)…Past Presidents have sporadically called upon the IRS to audit the income tax returns of certain political opponents or anybody else who made an undue amount of trouble for them.”
As fascinating as it was to read the myriad articles and cigarette ads in this issue of Time, it was the article on The Good Life in Minnesota that captured most of my attention. While there was a Chamber of Commerce boosterism feel to the article, it did highlight some of the shortcomings of Minnesota - besides the winters. It mentioned unemployment outside of the Twin Cities, asbestos in Lake Superior water, high income taxes, and a “contentment (that) can sometimes amount to middle-class complacency.”  But mostly, the article focused on what made Minnesota unique.
What stood out for the author was “civility and fairness of the precinct caucuses;” “courtesy and fairness, honesty, a capacity for innovation, hard work, intellectual adventure, and responsibility”.  In support of that he mentions that “…the Scandinavians…together with a large Anglo-Saxon and German strain, account for a deep grain of sobriety and hard work, a near-worship for education and a high civil tradition in Minnesota life. Such qualities helped to produce the intelligent calm - and stolidity - that characterize the efficient Minnesota atmosphere.”  
The author quotes several Minnesotans like Stephen Keating, president of Honeywell, “There is a hell of a lot of mutual trust.”  And Art Naftalin, former Minneapolis Mayor, “With our great variety (of immigrants and opinions) we have always had to form coalitions.”  And author Nell R. Peirce, “By taking politics out of the back room and engaging thousands in political activity, from women to college students, … the governmental process in Minnesota (is) a superior instrument of the people’s will.”
It was this latter point that most impressed the author. “Part of Minnesota’s secret lies in peoples’ extraordinary civic interest. The business community’s social conscience, for example …is reflected in annual reports: most of them carry a section called ‘Social Concerns.’…Minnesotans tend to be participants in their communities, perhaps because for so long they were comparatively isolated and developed traditions of mutual reliance. Citizens’ lobbies are a real force.”
It was that promise of the good life in Minnesota that brought me permanently to Minnesota 7 years after that Time article was published. It is that promise that has kept me here for 33 years and it is that promise that motivates me as I start each week. Unfortunately, that promise is yet to be achieved for too many Minnesotans; but it still remains a real possibility. To create The Good Life In Minnesota in 2013 requires exactly what it required in 1973 - civility and fairness; intellectual adventure and responsibility; a lot of mutual trust; social conscience; and peoples’ extraordinary civic interest. Minnesota is one of the healthiest states in the country because of the civic engagement and the investments in the common good by our predecessors of 40 and 50  and more years ago. It is our job to do the same for those who come after us. We've got a great foundation to build an Even Better Life In Minnesota but it will take a social conscious, a sense of community, and a level of civic engagement that now seems to be quite fragile. Let’s strengthen those characteristics by engaging citizens and our multiple partners throughout the state and joining with them to build a better Minnesota - one that assures a Good Life for every Minnesotan.


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