The Mighty Middle

I just got back from a three-hour breakfast with a friend from graduate school. She’s lived out of state for most of her working life but we’ve stayed in touch, mostly through Christmas cards. A few years ago, though, the friendship deepened and we’ve been writing frequently (it’s so fun to get real mail) and seeing each other on the occasions she comes back to Minnesota to visit family.

She’s one of the smartest people I know, and I never tire of talking with her. We have much in common (as well as many differences) and range all over the conversational landscape (in three hours we didn’t even get around to books!). Towards the end of this marathon breakfast we discovered a shared passion that surprised both of us: We want to bridge the partisan political divide.

It sounds so dry, doesn’t it? Hardly a passion.

It seems the parties work so hard to convince us how different they are, and thus how different we elephants and donkeys are. Government has become frightfully partisan, to the point where it has shut down more than once and shut-down threats have become the currency of the day. These are the people we have hired to run our government. Compromise is considered treason.  A lot of people on the left and the right are increasingly frustrated with this dysfunction.

On the other hand, according to numerous polls, Democrats and Republicans as people (as opposed to elected officials) agree on quite a large number of things, though you would hardly know it from reading the newspaper or talking to your friends. I have friends who demonize Republicans as evil incarnate. I’m serious. I used to stay silent, but the last time one friend pinned all the economic woes of this country on Ronald Reagan, I reminded her that it was Bill Clinton who signed the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which contributed greatly to the 2007 meltdown.

A scad of polls has found large majorities of the population favor labeling of genetically modified foods. An Associated Press poll reported in January 2015 that 64% of Republicans and 71% of Democrats support GMO labeling. That’s a lot of agreement.

Gun control is usually considered a very partisan issue, and in ways it is, in that Republicans are more likely to oppose stricter gun laws (79%) and Democrats are more likely to support them (77%). On the surface that seems pretty cut and dried, but if you go just a tiny bit below the surface you find that 87% of Republicans and 95% of Democrats would support a law requiring background checks on people buying guns at gun shows or online. Maybe not so polar after all. (Quinnipiac University, December 2015)

Even abortion is not as polarized as it is positioned in the political arena. Yes, Democrats generally defend and Republicans generally oppose it, but let’s face it: Nobody really likes abortion. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that fewer abortions is better and perhaps they would agree that none is ideal but not realisitc. I do know that even my most radical liberal friend who demonizes Republicans (“Can you tell them by the way they walk?”) is opposed to abortion as birth control. And nearly every Republican I know is in favor of the option for abortion in cases of rape or incest. Again, we enter shades of gray.

Economic reform is another issue on which huge numbers of Democratic and Republican people (if not politicians) agree. Big money controlling politics is a huge concern for the vast majority of the people, in stark contrast to elected officials who—of course—embrace big money because that’s how they get elected. More than three-quarters (80%) of Republicans and 90% of Democrats believe money has too much influence in political campaigns. (NYTimes/CBS News poll)

There is also huge bipartisan support for overturning the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United. A Bloomberg poll in September 2015 found 80% of Republicans and 83% of Democrats opposing the Citizens United Ruling.

You still think we have nothing in common?

I’m just scratching the surface here.

In Winter’s Kitchen

I picked up In Winter’s Kitchen: Growing Roots and Breaking Bread in the Northern Heartland by Beth Dooley when I saw it at Subtext bookstore in November, because I love books about food and I figured it would be a good December read. And also because it’s set in Minnesota. I expected a good memoir, engaging, mentioning places I count familiar. But I was not really expecting to learn anything new. Oh hubris, thy name is Peterson.

In the very first chapter, about apples, I learned a good bit about my own very local University of Minnesota, home to the oldest and largest apple breeding program in the United States. I knew it was a good program (they did, after all, bring us the Haralson and the Honeycrisp) but I didn’t realize they were such a big player in the game. And maybe not such a fair one.

In 2008, when the apple-breeding budget was cut by two-thirds, they moved to a patented-licensing arrangement wherein interested growers are required to apply for permission to grow the new U of M varieties and, if accepted, follow strict guidelines for growing and selling. Seems a bit Big Brother to me (especially the selling), but let’s ride with it for a moment.

The U of M also patented SweeTango (they had a contest here to name the new apple; I submitted but they didn’t pick SnowSweet) and Zestar! (which I didn’t even realize was a Minnesota apple before this book). This new program resulted in limiting apples available for wholesale (i.e., at grocery stores) to 45 growers, mostly in Washington, Michigan, and Nova Scotia. Only one Minnesota grower was allowed (that would be Pepin Heights). One!

A lot of Minnesota apple growers were less than happy with this situation. And I can testify that a number of alumni (ahem) and Minnesota citizens in general are not so pleased about this. These apples were created with my taxes. I am actually quite proud of that (particulary the Haralson, which is my north star of apples). I am one of those people who believe in paying taxes, and I love what I get for all my taxes (though of course one always has one’s quibbles—one of mine these days is that more of my tax dollars seem to be going for athletics than for infrastructure and we have some really old bridges here). And I love the University of Minnesota’s apple breeding program. But giving the licenses so far abroad—why?

According to Dooley, local apple growers were finding the University of Minnesota their largest competitor for sales, as the large licensed growers sent their fruit back to Minnesota—labeled local even if they were from Michigan—and undersold the local growers.

I would rather have my tax dollars help local growers. The University of Minnesota could have poured the glory of the SweeTango into the state of Minnesota. It could have been the Colorado peach of apples. Instead, more are grown outside Minnesota than in. Lesson: go to an orchard or look for local local apples.

Hoping to be back more regularly as the technology problems dissipate.