Saturday, August 04, 2007


As some of you know, I frequently refer to Minnesota as my “adopted home state,” having for decades been a fan of its politics (it’s the state with the nation’s longest consecutive streak in voting for the Democratic Presidential nominee) and its sports teams (Vikings, Twins and, before they were exiled to Dallas, the North Stars). For that reason, I have followed especially closely the tragedy in Minneapolis this week.

A lot has been said since the collapse of the Minneapolis bridge that I would find difficult to dispute. First, we live at a time when our nation’s infrastructure is getting older and less secure, and yet there has been little effort made to repair it. Katrina should have given us a warning about this, but that warning seems to have gone unheeded. As our cities and roadways get older and older, more of these tragedies will occur unless we spend a trillion or more on the problem. Are we willing to spend that kind of money? Merely to ask the question is to answer it.

Second, the tragedy at I35W was not as shocking as it might initially have appeared, for over the years, that bridge had earned one lousy report card after another. This is surely what is baffling the families who are mourning their loved ones. People knew that the bridge had problems, significant problems, and yet it never underwent comprehensive repair. How could that have happened? Again, the answer is clear. We don’t like to pay taxes to fund government projects, we don’t like giving up our creature comforts (and there’s nothing less comfortable than an excessive commute), and we have trouble believing that anything in our blessed land isn’t safe. It will probably take a few more tragedies, but as our Empire slowly continues to go the ways of Ancient Rome and Her Majesty’s England, we might start waking up a bit to the dangers that truly threaten us, and not merely those that are fabricated by demagogues from the worlds of politics or religion.

Third, there was a heck of a lot fewer casualties on I35W than anyone would have possibly imagined given the number of cars on the bridge at the time of collapse. Engineers could explain why the structural nature of the bridge and the slow speed of the cars traveling on it minimized both the possibility that cars would be crushed by steel and the opportunity for cars to leave the bridge and head into the water. But I’m no engineer, so I won’t even try to explain the basis for the “Minneapolis Miracle.”

All of that said, what has moved me the most this week is the reaction of the passers by who witnessed the tragedy. Time and time again, non-professionals jumped into the water in an attempt to rescue victims before it was too late. Keep in mind, this is the Mississippi River we’re talking about, not Lake Minnetonka. Ol’ Man River is more than a tad dangerous, especially if you’re not trained in rescue projects. But that didn’t stop the humanitarian instincts of one Minnesotan after another from risking their own lives in an attempt to save the lives of total strangers. How do we explain that?

The locals call it “Minnesota Nice.” You remember the stereotype – it was lampooned so brilliantly by the Coen Brothers in the movie Fargo. Two Minneapolis natives, Joel and Ethan Coen surely knew many a Marge Gunderson when they grew up in the Land of Lakes. But to many of us, Marge Gunderson might as well have been an alien from another galaxy – one minute she’s Columbo, the next minute she’s Pollyanna. But she’s always so damned nice.

Frankly, what happened in the water near the source of the Mississippi is not so much about being “nice,” nor even about being courageous. It’s about caring, quite viscerally, for the welfare of other people, not by virtue of their relationship with you but simply by virtue of their humanity. It takes a real schmuck not to care about his own kids or his grandchildren, but it takes a real hero to care deeply about somebody else’s kids or grandchildren. Fortunately, it seems, there are a lot of heroes who hang out near I35W.

So what do we learn from all this? I say, we realize an opportunity when it presents itself. Remember that controversial “Fairness Doctrine” – the now defunct FCC regulation that forced broadcast licensees to take a balanced approach whenever airing issues of public significance? I say, we need a Fairness Doctrine of a different kind. Imagine a year in which all cable news networks decided that for every 15 minutes they devoted to discussing some sleazebag allegedly doing immoral things (be it OJ, Monica, Brittany, Lindsay, Michael Vick, Michael Jackson … the list could surely go on for pages), they would have to devote another 15 minutes to individuals who:

(a) stop for cars who are stuck off the side of the road,

(b) join volunteer fire departments,

(c) pass up lucrative careers to become teachers or nurses,

(d) work at soup kitchens for ten hours or more a week …

You get the idea. I want to know more about them – what kind of family they’re from, why they do what they do, who serves as their role models, and what philosophy guides them through life. And I want them treated realistically, not introduced by some plastic bimbo who patronizes them with phony smiles and inane platitudes.

In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, we need a third Fairness Doctrine. For every 15 minutes where we have to watch a woman on cable news who clearly got her job because of her looks, we should be able to watch a woman on cable news who clearly got her job in spite of her looks.

And before I forget, the next time this nation goes into war, for every 15 minutes where we have to watch some in-bedded reporter talk about how we’re kicking ass and taking numbers or some retired ex-general marvel at our transcendent weapons technology, we need to watch interviews of peace marchers and others, like me, who tend to support wars only once in a really, really blue moon.

Hmmm. I’m beginning to think that we could benefit from all sorts of Fairness Doctrines. I’m not big on the Government imposing them on our “free press.” But perhaps when all our media outlets become controlled by the same multi-billionaire, I’ll take the trip to his penthouse office and lobby him personally. Hey, maybe he’ll be a benign despot, and we’ll finally have the media that our democracy deserves.


Bert Bananas said...

You have accurately summarized my feelings about the Mississippi Incident. The cynic in me can't help but ask when the movie is coming out.

Your comments on new versions of the Fairness Doctrine are very thought provoking. (To be fair, sometime watching an ant hill can be thought provoking.)

Kurt Vonnegut sort of tilts at the unfairness of life in a couple of books and short story collections. I'm very loosely paraphrasing here: Vonnegut postulates that fairness demands that the government set up a Fairness Department. Standards of Fairness are set, with the goal of making everyone equal. The classic example I remember is the ballet company tryouts. To be 'fair' to the least attractive, least athletic wannabe ballerina, all the other have to wear masks and weighted lumpy overalls so that the judges can't tell any difference between those trying out.

Enforced Fairness is a wonderful concept for those whose skills and attributes are below the 50 percentile mark. The argument that Enforced Fairness would inhibit people from 'striving' is valid.

Sure, I'd like to know more about the nobility of my fellow citizens, but after a while, I think I'd end up changing channels when that segment of the news came on.

Hey, I'm not against making things better, it's just that the cynic in me says that if it were all that easy, we would have done it long ago.

The fact that you and I can have this dialog is a pretty impressive step for mankind and if I were in charge of making life 'nasty, brutish and short' I'd want the internet done away with.

Daniel Spiro said...

I can't believe I spoke about the "Fairness Doctrine" during the same weekend that I missed the GOP debates. Given that I've watched all the other debates and they were snoozers, and given that this one was apparently uproarious, it's totally UNfair that I missed it.

From what I've read, virtually all the candidates took turns at Obama bashing, instead of Osama bashing. Mitt "Put Pooch and the Roof" Romney even compared Barack to Dr. Strangelove. That's right, the Zelig of this year's election cycle is now questioning the sanity of Barack because he would dare suggest that we go into Pakistan and take out Bin Laden if we knew his whereabouts. I guess Mitt really is as pro-life as he would like us to believe.

If I had known what comedic gems this debate had to offer, I would have had a beer and enjoyed the festivities. Instead, all I can do is sit back, sober, and think about how life is unfair.

Finding Fair Hope said...

How about a Dept. of Fair Hope? There's little actual hope down hear in Fairhope, but there's a fair amount of hoping against it.