MN NICE: The Law of the Northwoods

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[Repost of a piece written by my writing collective, Of9Minds (O9M), in January 2014.]  It feels more relevant now than ever.

(p.s. Garrison Keillor, we saw who you were then, and we really see who you are now.)


There once was a small boy at home in the northwoods of Minnesota.  Every day his father would meet him at the door in the morning as he departed for school. Touching him lightly on the top of his head, his father would say, “Remember. Be nice to yourself and to others.” Nodding solemnly, the boy would go out the door into the world, intending niceness.

They partook in this daily ritual for years. As the child grew into a teenager, and both father and child adjusted, they abandoned the ritual, its gravity long occluded by the convenience of phrases like “Have a good day.” Yet, the ethical anchor of that instruction never wavered. The boy grew into manhood and left his father’s house, but the quiet directive of his childhood mornings continued to accompany his thoughts and guide his actions each day.


Minnesota Nice is a slippery term, with different meanings for different people. For some, it is a purely positive term for the behavior characteristics of Minnesotans. According to this view, Minnesotans are generally polite, friendly, and humble. It may be claptrap, but we would be remiss to discount it altogether. In the last decade both journalistic and scholarly inquiries have looked into the matter, confirming or qualifying the Minnesota Nice thesis to varying degrees. None have been able to pinpoint exactly how widespread these behaviors are within the state, or shown how particular they are to Minnesota or the Midwest region. Most of these inquiries focus on the exterior charms of the region, and neglect the political and social mechanisms of Minnesota Nice.

A number of cultural features deserve mention in the same breath as Minnesota Nice: its predominantly white population (well above 95% as late as the 1980s, and still over 85%), the influences of the Lutheran church and its longstanding history of mission and service work, and the decades of northern European immigration into hundreds of small towns and settlements throughout the countryside. If anything, though, Minnesota Nice has become more visible as these three foundations have inexorably broken down. Southern Blacks and Southeast Asian migrants began pouring into the state 50 years ago, and the recomposition of who is Minnesotan has only accelerated since. A 2012 Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) article notes that the state’s foreign-born population has grown by 235 percent over the past two decades, the 12th-fastest growth rate in the nation. How does a changing state composition mingle with an ingrained investment in white settler colonialism and frontier independence?

Minnesota Nice is one answer. Since statehood, there have been creative projects aiming, at least in part, to consolidate this state identity around a singular people. The Little House on the Prairie media franchise promoted a frontier version of the Midwest and Minnesota Nice that highlighted the valor of enduring hardship with voluntary self-sacrifice, stoicism, a positive outlook, and scant complaining. Laura Ingalls Wilder helped to cement a kind of can-do, all-in-this-together spirit of facing common adversities, often defined as the harsh climate or the presence of Native Americans. However, this formation of Minnesota Nice may be less a product of experience and imagination and more a calculated creation based on political affinities; much of the writing was done in collaboration with Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, who is notably an avid Libertarian. The books, and the frontier life put forth in them, were wildly popular, and enabled Wilder and her family to recoup losses from the stock market crash and live without financial worry since. Even now the series continues to be a multi-million dollar franchise, having become a staple in the industry of Midwestern identity.

Garrison Keillor is another notable Minnesotan mythology builder. His A Prairie Home Companion is a foundation of Minnesotan identity and pastiche, beloved both within the state and across the country. For forty years, he has done a remarkable job constructing a Minnesotan idyll—and ideal—using its fictional environment and characters to comment on charged social issues as though they were never charged to begin with. One case in point is Minnesota’s renown for flying droves of Korean infants into the state for adoption since the late 1950s. To this, Keillor responded with a monologue about the “The Tollerud’s Korean Baby.” In 1985, as Keillor drew his audiences in with a philosophizing sentimental didacticism, he weaved a heartfelt story about a Lake Wobegon couple adopting a child named Corinne, one who didn’t look like them and came from a far-away country. One who plopped into this couple’s arms as though cascading down a chute, just like all kids do in this world, he said, destined for the joys and quirks of a family. Adoption agencies and adoptive parents ate it up and passed it on approving its confirmation of the goodness of Minnesotans through this apparent affirmation of diversity, in controlled circumstances, however, and on their own terms.

If we were to more closely examine the narrative of Lake Wobegon’s Korean adoptee, Corrine Tollerud, we would make visible the erasure of Corrine herself, replaced instead with the nice, “normal” story of a northwoods childhood.  In 1999, on Post to Host, where listeners can write responses to the show, a family law attorney wrote in. She said that she recommended to many “waiting families” that they take a look at this particular monologue of a Prairie Home Companion. She also asked how Corrine Tollerud was doing. Keillor wrote in response,

Dear Ms. Svendsen, Corinne Tollerud is thriving at Lake Wobegon high school, so far as I can gather, and is getting to that age when girls give their mothers gray hair. Thank goodness girls never give their fathers any problems. The boys who are attracted to Corinne’s exotic good looks, though, are giving her father fits.”  

This might appear benign at first glance, maybe even evoking a knowing chuckle of common experience. However, if we pause a moment to deconstruct the implications of the response, we read that Corinne Tollerud, Korean adoptee, is thriving at Lake Wobegon high school, a school where she is likely the only person there who is brown during her entire childhood. Also, she’s giving her poor, sweet mother a hard time; she’s normal, just like all the other kids, and she’s lucky she’s got that caring, good-hearted maternal blessing to call “mom.” It’s all perfect, except for, gosh darn it, those good ole, red-blooded American boys who apparently are giving her poor father a hard time due to Corrine’s overwhelming exotic good looks. What’s clear, according to Garrison’s narrative, is that other than the nuisance of how her intoxicating otherness is affecting the teenage boys, all is well with Corrine in Lake Wobegon. What’s also clear is that Corrine isn’t writing this narrative. After all, she isn’t from around here. Now ain’t that just some good clean Minnesota Nice?

You would never know from this account from Lake Wobegon that adoption fiascos like Operation Babylift at the end of the Vietnam War were ever controversial, or that the U.S. made invisible an estimated 4 million American babies during the mid-70s baby scoop era. Instead we have here yet another celebration of the white savior complex, and the forcing of those who blemish the ideals of our perfect society to disappear, to essentially not exist.  

* * *

Minnesota Nice is insidious precisely because of its dogged consistency and obstinacy in the midst of sweeping changes. Even as the state has become less white, we have leaned harder on a social norm that centers whiteness and a mythologized colonial past. Minnesota Nice has been seen as a personal behavioral style, while we might better view it as a social code. It’s a set of rules about how to act and think, how to be a “proper” Minnesotan, a good and deserving citizen. Our personalities and values don’t add up to Minnesota Nice; what matters is that you’ll often be rewarded for performing the right behaviors in Minnesota, and often ostracized, punished, dismissed, and policed when you don’t. Minnesota Nice operates best when it knows exactly who and what is excluded from its parameters.

Our code doesn’t always require being nice to those who at first appear “not nice,” or who appear to be breaking from the conformity of the code. Do you let that person merge in front of you in traffic? Maybe you will, maybe you won’t; it depends on if they were polite about it or not. If the person stopping you on the street isn’t nicely dressed, has an unfriendly gait (relative as that might be), and doesn’t hail you with the proper salutation, do you feel justified ignoring them and walking by? Perhaps you might even be frightened if they appear to be an “outsider”and put your head down or hold your purse closer to you.  Your neighbor may dislike how you maintain your part of the boulevard, but won’t say anything because they’re nice; they might even wave and make small talk with you because they’re nice. They may “suggest” that you trim your trees, and how ‘bout those weeds, eh?  But how nice will those actions feel when you get a citation in the mail because a certain someone reported you to the city for not maintaining your boulevard?

Performing Minnesota Nice also occurs at an individual, interpersonal level in conversations we have with ourselves. It guides what we are allowed to think about ourselves, how we value ourselves, and what we try to make ourselves do to conform to self-inflicted constraints of goodness. If we have been conditioned to a certain code of goodness, we have expectations for ourselves in calculating the sum of our own self-worth. Following this code of the proper Minnesotan can make us feel included in a state identity. We can be validated as good neighbors, as valued citizens. We can feel deserving. We work hard and don’t complain. At the interpersonal level, the same dynamics are enacted. We calculate the self-worth of others as measured by the code of Minnesota Nice. We keep ourselves in place with politeness. Extend this, then, to institutional practices at the city, state, and national scales. How does conforming to the expectations of the social code reward some and exclude others? The intangible forces at play in decision-making at all levels make it impossible to precisely pinpoint how the parameters are kept in place during each individual transaction and interaction of the day. However, when we compile extrapolated data related to our city and state institutions, the effects of the code become visible, and disturbingly so. It is most clearly revealed in how the Twin Cities has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation related to education achievement and graduation rates, housing segregation, employment, and police interactions. Venture a few miles away from the pretty homes by the lakes, and in the streets, schools, and jails you’ll find a very different type of Minnesota.

Not surprisingly, the code of Minnesota Nice is hellish for political organizers. More than a few recent campaigns in Minnesota have been dismayed by how profoundly their tactics and strategies are hamstrung by the propriety of all things; direct confrontation, so common and expected everywhere else, is a non-starter here. Calling out officials in public — unacceptable; why not just raise your concerns privately? Blocking a street — unacceptable; there’s no need for disruption, we already have listening sessions and community meetings planned. We’re all in this together, remember? Minnesota Nice makes it nearly impossible to say something’s wrong, unjust, or inequitable. Instead, it’s all disagreements. Oh, that’s different. We could use your perspective on our Board. We have acknowledged your concerns. We have invited you to the conversation.

If there is anything unique about Minnesota Nice, it might be its sordid history of disqualifying antagonism. A polemical article written by Douglas Elliott at the height of the Minnesota welfare rights movement in the late 1960s, and found in the Minnesota Historical Society archives, excoriated this tradition. He argued that Minnesota’s liberal and progressive reputation was of the worst sort: not a history of reform and change, but rather a history of recuperating the most radical activities and ideas back into a conservative arrangement. So it’s the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party that we celebrate today, not the farmers and laborers themselves; it’s the names of black middle class leaders that adorn our buildings, not the Rondo neighborhood’s destruction that we mourn. It’s the state that leads in child welfare, cooperatives, and healthcare, not the home of the American Indian Movement and the Minnehaha Free State, not the site of black street uprisings on Labor Day weekend in 1968 or Miss Saigon protests over the last two decades.

The recent marriage equality victory continues this legacy. To strike a deal, we are willing to be diverse, as long as we can control its parameters and its trajectory. White middle-class gays and lesbians led the Vote No campaign, and they will be the main beneficiaries – not just of a new “civil right,” but of tax deductions, court advantages, new assets and access to resources, and higher social standing. Minnesota Nice will welcome them in and shove even more out: the disenfranchised poor, the welfare mothers, the queer and trans renegades, the police brutality victims, the CeCe McDonalds and Fong Lees and Terrence Franklins among us. Minnesota Nice was always sinister, but you only see it when the shit goes down.  

* * *

There’s the code of Nice we use to mark our rhythms, but there’s the image as well. We know full well that the picture of Minnesota Nice – cheery neighbors visiting each other, bearing food and supplies to help endure the winters, exchanging pleasantries and greetings to the passersby, going to church and watching the local softball game – is nostalgic for something that never quite was. In so many ways it’s a fraudulent offering, but damned if it don’t make for a great sell.

And, it’s been updated for neoliberal times. Minneapolis-St. Paul in particular is very much on the map for “innovators.” All the elements that attract the so-called creative class are there: the depth of the arts scene, the inspiring blue waters of the landscape, the picturesque remnants of old-town charm, the “diverse” neighborhoods, the overall “smartness” bound up in the infrastructure (green living, local food, the “Nice Ride” bike share program). Many residents profess to hate Minnesota Nice as a code, but love the state precisely for these qualities. We may find ourselves selling the place to people we meet on planes or relatives living on the coasts. We might even mention that Minnesota was named “Best Place to Live” or “Best Place to Raise a Family” in such-and-such publication, and we might beam a little inside. Despite being more appealing to hipsters and liberals, Minnesota Nice is a sort of variation on Sarah Palin’s “Real America.” It’s a distinction from those other places (like fake America?), where the people are a little less salt-of-the-earth. Here, progressive politics is about making conservative values their optimal best; we love the possibility of it, and people like Representative Michele Bachmann and former Senator Paul Wellstone have courted us equally. We have the best of intentions, as long as we can go home at night to our own fenced yard, our own well-kept streets, our own high-ranking schools for our children, and relax after a day of good intentions with a cup of fair trade French roast or a hoppy microbrew. We’re the upstanding residents, the concerned taxpayers, the responsible voters; we’re devoted to our state. We can only say good things. To complain would be negative, and negativity is the worst violation of nice, because gosh darn it, we mean well.

When Garrison Keillor spins the influx of Asian babies as a light-hearted affair, he’s playing by the rules. When Laura Ingalls Wilder stalwartly goes it on her own, she’s writing the code of Minnesota lore. When it is said that Paul Bunyan dragged his axe and created the Mighty Mississippi, he replaces the Native American histories of Minnesota with the white settler creation mythology. Thus, in presenting a white utopia, free of social problems, we are conditioned to mask the underlying systemic issues at play under the happy veneer of Minnesota Nice. Glossing over histories of injustice and violence, we disremember that settlement here has meant violent displacement; we forget that the land of 10,000 lakes is also the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Out of loyalty, we love our state. Being good people, we don’t complain.  But, whom does the code of conduct known as Minnesota Nice really serve?  

* * *

Having derived that Minnesota Nice is a composite of ideals driven by history, politics, and organized religion, we derive also that the concept is tied into the branding of the state. Further, the public and private entities in control of the state image must then, ultimately, be the ones served by the code of Minnesota Nice as they enact and promote it so intentionally. This benefit is enacted when social inequities are brought to light, and protesters and activists are characterized as troublemakers, disturbers of the peace, a nuisance. They are criminals at worst, outsiders at best. Groups vocal about problems in the state are breaking the code, and in essence then, breaking from the community. This benefit is also enacted within the corporate agenda in order to create an attractive corporate culture and to court young professionals into our state. The entities in power that control the state narrative and the state image do so in ways that maintain the status quo and the present systems of power.  

In a neoliberal world where cities and states compete for investment, tourism, and mobile labor, Minnesota has much to gain by constructing a quirky, yet unthreatening and, above all, pleasant image of the state. The state is imagined as rural and suburban, filled with active, happy white people with charming accents. This often requires whitewashing social problems. This strategy may be effective in supporting the state economy, but that money isn’t lifting all boats. Minnesota has other distinctions which will never work their way into the brand — like, say, incarcerating people of color at vastly disproportionate rates, or leading the nation in upper-income bracket tax reductions during years of surplus, even as welfare recipients were increasing. Then again, those people have never fit the Minnesota Nice code anyway — let alone the brand.

The popular image of Minnesota as a lovely rural/suburban home to happy white folk does the ideological ground clearing for policies that work to make that vision true. Erasing social injustices, people of color, and indigenous people from view enables concrete policies of development and gentrification to not only be enacted, but proudly justified. It’s a state narrative that displaces those people from the collective and community space who veer from the code. It effectively works to make invisible those who don’t fit in the state image put forth by those who brand it pristinely as the most wholesome of homes for your family. And we all want a place to call home. Why not Minnesota?

* * *

One day, conversing on the porch in the warmth of autumn with friends, he mentioned the ritual to them. Though feigning bemused fondness, he found the refrain unexpectedly powerful, so embedded within the warm distance of his childhood that he hardly given it notice, tucked away beneath memories of birthdays, school books, baseball. As he finished relating the story, he laughed slightly, smiling at its strangeness.

Be nice.”

For the first time, he paused to wonder: what had it really meant? And, had he actually fulfilled it? In the ensuing pause, a more unsettling question, one which nice people are never supposed to ask: what was the point?

Niceness can seem intuitive, but we must understand how it is engineered and produced. It’s less a measure of morals or goodness and more the sum of all rules everyone agrees to play by. Politeness and kindness of this sort can’t bear the offensiveness of truth; “nice” is the positive vehicle of duplicity, abjection, even violence. Examining the danger lurking in the “nice” might make us throw our arms up in indignation, and doing our best Ivan Illich, cry out to hell with being nice! But that would never fly, of course; not here, not in this state. As with all terms bound to identity and historical mythos, Minnesota Nice has an authority as steady as steel: appreciate it or mock it in turns, we can’t deny there’s a there there. Like the hard pressure of a constant firm hand on our shoulder, we know what is expected of us and we do it. The question, however, is why.

* * *

Of Nine Minds is a writing collective based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Some of their favorite books include The Bone People by Keri Hulme, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, and Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich.

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