The Minnesota Orchestra’s silence is not the Minnesota Way

As Finnish music director Osmo Vänskä leads the Minnesota Orchestra in three extra farewell concerts this weekend in Minneapolis, emotions ran high. The man who in ten years has made the orchestra a top orchestra resigned after a year-long conflict between the Board and the Orchestra with no music, only silence, as the result.

Here in Washington, DC, in these days of government shutdown, there is much talk of public trust, or lack of public trust in the government and in Congress. The public trusts the government to stay open, and, in Minnesota, the public trusts the orchestra to play. But the Minnesota Orchestra has not played for a year in a dispute over budget and salaries.

Many of you who read this blog may have noticed that I have been going to Minnesota quite a bit lately, looking for that state’s Scandinavian legacy, stemming from its hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Northern Europe. And I have found plenty of that legacy in its political leaders’ and its inhabitants’ pragmatism, common sense, civic spirit, willingness to compromise, and sense of responsibility to the public. That political legacy has been firmly established for decades, “part of Minnesota’s earth,” as one scholar put it.

But the Minnesota Orchestra’s silence shatters that picture. Minnesota’s former Republican Swedish-American Governor Arne Carlson – the epitome of Scandinavian pragmatism when he was governor — seems to have realized that. On his blog, he pleads for action — from the political leaders, from the whole community — writing that we cannot stand by “while our own world class symphony orchestra disintegrates.”

I understand that times are tough for the Minnesota Orchestra. But the whole issue seems to have been badly handled — not negotiating for months, locking out the musicians, witnessing one orchestra member after the other resigning and leaving a newly renovated Concert Hall empty and silent.

That year-long silence, just like the government shutdown in Washington, DC, is failing the public trust, and, I dare say, that’s not the Minnesota way – “the state that works!”

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Lutheran latte, butter princesses, and lots of politics at the Great Minnesota Get-Together

Lutheran Latte at the Great Minnesota Get-Together — Swedish egg coffee with vanilla ice cream — how can you not love it!

Lutheran LatteBut if you for some reason don’t, you can have a Meatball Sundae, or one of Ole’s Candied Bacon Cannoli and a cup of Swedish coffee – that’s “The breakfast of State Fair champions” for those who don’t know it, or Norwegian lefse with lingonberry jam at Lynne’s, fried pickles, and anything on a stick: corndog, shrimp, chicken, turkey, long dog…Or you could drink Minnesota wine and any number of Minnesota microbrews.

And all this in almost one hundred degree heat this past weekend, when over one hundred thousand people visited the Minnesota State Fair, every day — all part of the twelve days of the “Great Minnesota Get-Together.”

It’s been like this for decades at the end of the summer in Minnesota. I’ve never seen anything like it, never imagining watching a sculpture of Princess Kay of the Milky Way as the winner of the Minnesota Dairy Princess Program is called, being carved in 90 pounds of the best Minnesota butter in a walk-in, glass-walled refrigerator with people surrounding and watching. Each of the twelve finalists gets her own butter sculpture made and she gets to take it home after the Fair. What a show!

Butter QueensAnd it seems that no one wants to miss it. Everyone is there. Every radio and TV station, the environmentalists in the Eco building, the art lovers in the big art exhibit, the friends of the state’s national parks, and, of course, the politicians, lots of politicians, almost all of them…

Al Franken at State FairIn one corner is the Minnesota Democrats’ tent, the Democratic Farmer Labor Party as it is called here, and it is buzzing with activity. DFL runs Minnesota, from Governor Mark Dayton to both houses of the State Legislature and both US senators, and with five of the eight members of the House of Representatives in Washington. And just across the street is the AFL/CIO plaza with numerous union representatives and a big banner calling for higher minimum wage.

Senator Al Franken, who is up for re-election in November 2014 also has his own booth, and so does the other Minnesota senator, Amy Klobuchar. Both are at the Fair, on separate days, this steamy weekend, working the crowd and talking to their constituents.

Franken says he loves coming here because he gets to meet people from all across Minnesota, and he asks for support from the trade unions as well as the faithful in the DFL tent, where voter registration forms in Somali, Hmong, and Spanish reflect the new immigrant groups in Minnesota. He loves to quote the former liberal Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, whose untimely death in an airplane crash in October 2002 in many ways still haunt Minnesota politics, who said, “we all do better when we all do better,” and Franken launches into a fierce defense of unions, of a higher minimum wage, of investments in infrastructure, of college affordability, of protecting social security and Medicare, and of the importance of the Affordable Care Act – he never used the term “Obamacare” – which brings so many good things to America’s citizens. He ends by asking for help in next year’s re-election, when he hopes to get more than the 312 votes by which he defeated Norm Coleman in 2008 – somewhere, he says, in between that number and what Amy Klobuchar got in 2012 when she was re-elected in a landslide, 58 percent to 38.

Amy KlobucharFor Amy Klobuchar in the brutal heat, it was the first time, she said and laughed, that she wore shorts to the Fair. No speeches. She is not up for re-election until 2018. But there were plenty of one-on-ones with the curious and the well-wishers, and at the end, judging a food contest.

The Republicans are at the State Fair, too, and so are the Minnesota Tea Party, the Libertarians, the Greens, and many others. But in these blue days for Minnesota, they fight a losing battle for attention at the Great Minnesota Get-Together.

In search of Minnesota’s Scandinavian legacy…

Swedish writer and feminist activist Fredrika Bremer once wrote way back in the 1850s, “what a glorious new Scandinavia might not Minnesota become.”  Minnesota did become that new Scandinavia, with hundreds of thousands of Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Danish, and Icelandic immigrants settling here during many decades, up until 1930.

Still today, 32 percent of Minnesota’s 5.4 million inhabitants are of Scandinavian, or Nordic, descent, an important part of Minnesota’s legacy and an important part of modern Minnesota.

It’s still winter in the Upper Midwest, just south of the Canadian border, as I noticed during a recent visit, with piles of  graying snow along the roads and icy sidewalks. The air bites, and as in my boyhood’s Stockholm by this time of the year, everyone longs for spring.

The Twin Cities — Minneapolis and St Paul – do not look much like Stockholm between Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea, although the Mississippi River meanders impressively through the two cities. The prominent New York City restaurant “Aquavit” opened here a decade or so ago, but had to close a few years later. Last year, “The Bachelor Farmer” opened and, according to the New York Times, “has given Scandinavian food a much needed adrenaline shot.”

It’s a nice, modern, friendly place, and difficult to get a table. It seems that Minnesotans like what  they serve, although I couldn’t find much that resembled traditional Swedish cuisine, like gravlax, herring, meatballs, or even the wonderful Västerbotten cheese.

American Swedish InstituteFor that, one has to go to “Fika” — the modern restaurant in the American Swedish Institute’s (ASI) splendid new wing, the Nelson Cultural Center, which opened last year. It sits next to the classic mansion that Swedish newspaper publisher Swan Turnblad donated in 1929 and what eventually became the American Swedish Institute.

What a sight it now is, dominating Park Avenue in the middle of Minneapolis!  None of the other Nordics have anything similar, and ASI director Bruce Karstadt is rightly proud and excited about his institute’s future.

In the search for Minnesota’s Scandinavian legacy, Scandinavian Studies programs are alive and well at several universities like Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, St. Olaf College in Northfield, and the gigantic University of Minnesota in the middle of the Twin Cities. Swedish language classes seem to thrive and the students’ knowledge of Swedish was impressive.

But maybe the most impressive proof of Minnesota’s Scandinavian heritage one finds at the gorgeous State Capitol in St Paul, designed by the prominent architect Cass Gilbert. The front of the Capitol is dominated by three statues of former governors, Knute Nelson, born in Norway, Swedish-American John A. Johnson, and Floyd B. Olson (photo), the legendary Norwegian/Swedish-American, who led Minnesota during the Depression, but who died young, just as he was about to achieve national prominence.Floyd B. Olson

And inside, the halls of the Capitol are filled with the portraits of previous governors —  John Lind and Adolph O. Eberhart, both born in Sweden, and of a long series of Norwegian-, Swedish-, and Danish-Americans by the name of Anderson, Andersen, Benson, Burnquist, Christianson, Rolvaag, Petersen,  and Arne Carlson — between 1991 and 1999.

After Carlson, Minnesota has been led by Jesse Ventura, Tim Pawlenty, and, now, Mark Dayton – none of them Scandinavians.  An end of an era, or?

The Republicans: a party stuck in the last century

Robert Draper’s article in today’s New York Times Magazine about the Republican Party and its future is a must read for anyone interested in American politics.

But it must be most depressing reading for all Republicans, because the party’s future seems very dark.

As a young Republican pollster puts it in the article:

“We’re not in the 21st century.”

And when female and male so-called ”swing voters”  in various focus groups respond to the question of what they think of when the word “Republican” is mentioned, they say:

”Corporate greed; Old; Middle-aged white men; Rich; Religious; Conservative; Hypocritical; Military retirees; Narrow-minded; Rigid; Not progressive; Polarizing; Stuck in their ways; Farmers; Racist; Out of touch; Hateful.”

And here is what the same “swing voters” say when asked about the word “Democrat:”

”Young people; Liberal; Diverse; Bill Clinton; Change; Open-minded; Spending; Handouts; Green; More science-based.”

And Marco Rubio, the new Republican star and the party’s savior in the next election, is dismissed rather mercilessly by president Obama’s campaign strategist David Plouffe, who says:

“The Hispanic voters in Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico don’t give a damn about Marco Rubio, the Tea Party Cuban-American from Florida. You know what? We won the Cuban vote! And it’s because younger Cubans are behaving differently than their parents. It’s probably my favorite stat of the whole campaign. So this notion that Marco Rubio is going to heal their problems — it’s not even sophomoric; it’s juvenile! And by the way: the bigger problem they’ve got with Latinos isn’t immigration. It’s their economic policies and health care. The group that supported the president’s health care bill the most? Latinos.”

As I said, read it!

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/magazine/can-the-republicans-be-saved-from-obsolescence.html?ref=magazine&_r=0

Obama on guns — and his State of the Union finally took off

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union last night was not, I am afraid, a speech to be long remembered.  It was good, but ordinary, although at the same time “extraordinarily ambitious,” as Ezra Klein writes on his Wonkblog:

“Imagine, for a moment, that President Obama managed to pass every policy he proposed tonight. Within a couple of years, every four-year-old would have access to preschool. The federal minimum wage would be at $9 — higher than it’s been, after adjusting for inflation, since 1981. There’d be a cap-and-trade program limiting our carbon emissions and a vast infrastructure investment to upgrade our roads and bridges. Taxes would be higher, guns would be harder to come by, and undocumented immigrants would have a path to citizenship. America would be a noticeably different country.”

That is unlikely to happen, as Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus writes, but if Obama meets his most significant and realistic goals – “immigration reform, even modest steps on gun control, an end to the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan, a free-trade agreement with Europe and, oh yes, implementation of Obamacare — and manages to keep the economy growing, even if slowly, that’s not a bad list. Plenty of two-term presidents have done worse.”

What Obama mentioned in his speech is clearly popular with the American public, according to Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky but “the Republicans just sat there like statues ignoring” them. They are such crybabies every day about what Obama allegedly does to try to make them look bad. They’re doing plenty well at that themselves.”

“Long gone,” writes The New Yorker’s John Cassidy on his blog Rational Irrationality “is the era when he (Obama) treated Republicans as reasonable men and women with whom he could do business. Nowadays, he is in permanent campaign mode. With the ongoing dispute over taxes and spending still far from decided, he is intent on rallying his supporters whilst depicting his opponents as crazed ideologues and craven defenders of the privileges enjoyed by the ultra-rich. “

Well, ok. Still, in my view Obama’s fifth State of the Union never really took off until the end and when the subject was guns and gun control. “They deserve a vote,” Obama repeated time and again:

“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote; the families of Newtown deserve a vote; the families of Aurora deserve a vote; the families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”

“Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country.  Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight.  But we were never sent here to be perfect.”

And the President returned to his them from the Inauguration about inclusiveness, about “us” and “we.”

”The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem.  They don’t expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue.  But they do expect us to put the nation’s interests before party.  They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can.  For they know that America moves forward only when we do so together; and that the responsibility of improving this union remains the task of us all.”

Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker thinks that Obama’s urgent message that “they deserve a vote” may come to serve “as the rallying cry for 2013,”  and so “if last night was any indication, the two years to come will be far more confrontational. “

So, no political peace is to be expected in Washington.  But Obama, a much different and more self-confident President than in his first term,  got to say his peace, and he made his troops happy.

It’s “we” and “together” in Obama’s inclusive America

President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address today was all about ”we,” and ”we, the people,” about ”equality” and ”together.”  It was a clear and straight forward statement by the re-elected president about his view of America, a liberal/progressive view in an inclusive America  — a country for everyone.

The speech was elegant, inspiring, and passionate, given by someone who looked forward to his second term in the White House with renewed strength and great self-confidence, and it was the highlight of a most festive day in Washington, DC, where the crowds were not as large as four years ago, when almost two million people jammed The National Mall in spite of very chilly weather. But they were just as enthusiastic, clearly cherishing the moment that America’s first black president had been re-elected and handed the nation’s trust for another four years.

The president talked about America’s “never-ending journey” and that so much is remains to be done.

”Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people…This is our generation’s ask – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life and Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American.

The speech was an unabashed re-affirmation of Obama’s basic liberal political philosophy, saying that  ”preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

He was full of hope and faith in America, if the nation stuck together:

“America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it—so long as we seize it together.”

He talked about equal pay for women, equal treatment for gays, right to vote for everyone,  about the importance of social security, Medicare and Medicaid, the right of immigrants, and about gun control, without mentioning the word but referring to the ”quite lanes of Newtown” and keeping the nation’s children ”safe from harm.”

“We, the people,  still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit;  but we reject the belief that America must choose between the caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”

Obama’s second inaugural address was free of political attacks and party politics. It contained no direct attacks on the Republicans, but, on the other hand, one could interpret the whole speech as Obama putting down his marker, that this is what he believes in, this is his America, and this is what he is going to fight for during his second term.

The details in his political program will come in his State of the Union address to Congress on February 12. That will also likely mark the continuation of Washington’s political battle. Will that fight be as merciless as before today’s inauguration? Probably, and maybe even more so… But, at least it is now totally clear where Barack Obama stands, and that feels liberating.

Less hope before Obama’s second inaugural

“We had all started early from home that beautiful but chilly January morning in 2009 in Washington, DC. We wanted to be sure to be there on The National Mall in the middle of the U.S. capital that day. The last stretch, all motor traffic was prohibited, and the streets were full of eager and smiling people on their way by foot to the heart of the capital.”

“The walk of my life,” said a young black man from Atlanta, Georgia, to me. We were among the almost two million people who wandered down to the monuments over the American nation’s two hundred year history to be part of something historic, something that we still found difficult to comprehend that it had happened, something we certainly did not want to miss — a black man had been elected President. We thought that maybe that might happen sometime in the future, maybe even in our lifetimes, but not this year, and probably not for many years to come.”

Those words are from my book America – Land of Dreams about the inauguration four years ago, when Barack Obama became America’s first black president, gave his inaugural address, and we said goodbye to the old America.

Obama’s speech that day was not of the same high quality we had been used to during the election campaign, and certainly nothing like his dramatic speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004, which launched him as a possible presidential candidate:

”There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”

But his inaugural address in 2009 contained nothing really memorable and certainly nothing that has been subsequently quoted extensively. It was a speech in the deepest economic crisis for America since the Depression and with two ongoing wars. The speech refleced those somber times.

That’s nothing unusual, wrote Larry Sabato, professor at the University of Virginia, recently on his blog the Crystal Ball. Sabato wrote about numerable inaugural addresses in the modern era that no one remembers, certainly nothing like Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address in 1965, when he said:

 “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…”

Or 1933, in the middle of the Depression, when Franklin Roosevelt said:

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

But, Sabato wrote, “there is arguably only one speech that transcends the concerns of the moment and speaks to every generation anew, from beginning to end, without becoming dated,” and that was John F Kennedys inaugural address in 1961.

Some excerpts:

“Let the word go forth, from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…”

“…[W]e shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

 “Now the trumpet summons us again — not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are — but a call to bear the burden of a long, twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’ — a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”

“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Lincoln’s second inaugural address is regarded as much stronger than his first. Maybe we will say the same thing about Obama after tomorrow?  But times are different now and in 2009. The two million who gathered on The National Mall will likely be far fewer tomorrow, and the hope of big changes in Washington is no longer there. The political paralysis in Washington continues as America’s political and economic problems grow.

Back then in January 2009, we said goodbye to the old America, but we have not really succeeded in doing so during Obama’s first term. We are more seasoned now, less hopeful, more realistic.

Still, we should be heartened by the fact that with John F Kennedy a candidate’s religion is no longer an important election issue, the color of a candidate’s skin is no longer an issue with Obama.  In that sense, we are really able to bid farewell today to the old America.