The Mississippi River is the main artery of the heartland, pumping out the riches of the Midwest into the world. The name “Mississippi” comes from the Ojibwe for “gathering of the waters,” and that’s exactly what this great river does—it gathers together all the waters of the upper Midwest into one.
As the river collects water on its journey, it draws from many rural communities, each with its own history and character. Among these is Waseca, Minnesota, a farm town of about ten thousand people, with a classic brick-lined main street, a stately county courthouse, and a high-school marching band among the very best. A raindrop in Waseca, Minnesota, will wend its way through cornfields and soybeans until it reaches the calm stream of the Le Sueur River. The Le Sueur moves past old dairy barns and new hog confinements, and through hushed woods that are dappled with wild sunflowers and goldenrod and girded with big old oaks and ashes. In time, it finds its way to the Minnesota River, which in turn pours out into the Mississippi under the watch of the magnificent cathedral dome of St. Paul.
Flowing southward toward the sea, that raindrop from Waseca will join with a host of raindrops gathered from across Iowa into the Des Moines River. Crowning that tributary is Des Moines itself, with its dazzling gold capitol, its old brick warehouses, and its abundance of honey locusts and coneflowers. The Des Moines River weaves past old family farmsteads, through quiet forests, by prairies humming with the life of birds and bugs, and meets those Waseca raindrops near Keosauqua.
These rivers symbolize the lifeblood of our family histories and of the people who lived here before our families arrived. They have their own unique names, characters, and stories, but they unite together in the mighty waters of the one Big River. It is a love for those histories, for those names and the land they come from, that brought us back to our respective waterways, and that led me (Nathan) to drive up from the Des Moines River in the summer of 2020 to meet Benya for the first time just off the Le Sueur.
We were exiles of cultural consensus.
I had entered DC with the spirit of a sojourner. I promised myself that I would come back home to serve the place I loved best: Iowa. While I met many good people in DC with noble aspirations, I also felt increasingly adrift in the political world. It was a time of circling the wagons and digging in heels on all sides. Many on the left and right made grand generalizations about each other and enforced an ever-stricter ideological purity within the ranks.
I encountered an ideological world that cast general prescriptions for what were often particular problems.
When the pandemic hit, I took the opportunity to come back west, not far from where I was born in Sioux City. I had been writing for years on the importance of being grounded in place and community, and it was time to live more deeply in accord with that notion.
My (Benya’s) history was that of a sojourner too. Born in Bangkok, I went to school in both New Jersey and Thailand before attending college in Boston. I had a certain pride in not being limited to one place—but my father’s home in Waseca, Minnesota, had a special place in my heart from childhood summers and Christmases spent among relatives. When difficult family circumstances brought me home to Waseca one summer in college, I learned the depths of this home: the six generations of farmers who stewarded this place, and who—despite the years away—continued to care for me too. I began to wonder what I owed a place that had given me life and refuge, time and again.
Yet, like many recent graduates, I was pulled to a path of career growth in a major city. The law firm in Boston promised a front-row seat to the world’s toughest challenges. Instead, I encountered an ideological world that cast general prescriptions for what were often particular problems. As the generalities made in those circles grew larger, the community grew narrower, constricted by litmus tests for inclusion that left no space for the particularities of places. Dissatisfied with this world of abstraction and looking to root myself in a world focused more on service than ideology, I charted a path back to rural Minnesota.
So it was that in the summer of 2020 Nathan and I found ourselves more than a thousand miles west of our old East Coast worlds sitting across from each other at a lakeside cafe in Waseca. My affection for that place resonated with Nathan’s love for his own midwestern home. It was only natural, perhaps, that this affection would bring us together with a mutual affection all our own.
Yet more fundamentally, what has brought us home—and brought us together—is a shared dedication to things stronger and older than ideology, like community, home, and faith. Integral to these things is a deep belief in the sacredness of each human being and the places to which they belong.
Ideology as a False Identity
For many people today, a sense of belonging is found in interactions on social media. But there are risks to seeking community in such an artificial landscape. Social media allows us to self-select our communities in a way that reinforces our opinions, whatever their flaws and imbalances. Its algorithms are designed to show us things we already like and agree with, even spurring us on toward error.
Trouble arises especially when we root the core of our identity in an ideology—whether it is based on political affiliation, national identity, economic class, or sexuality—as so many on social media do. If our ideological adherence becomes the defining feature of our identity, we often feel the need to join up with others who identify the same way and take a combative stance against all comers. This clouds our vision. A disagreement on the level of ideology becomes an attack on our very selves, perceived no longer as mere disagreement but as personal offence. Conversation becomes impossible; we cannot evaluate arguments clearly or recognize that there might be some truth in the perspectives of others. We no longer reason with our neighbour, but seek to cast her out as an enemy. We cannot see those who disagree with us for who they really are: fellow human beings with an inviolable dignity, and fitting objects of our love with a story all their own—even if they might be wrong.
If giving up my view on immigration feels like giving up a part of my identity, I’ll never be able to think about the issue soundly.
Online life and mass media exacerbate these problems, because they make it particularly easy to live in these worlds of abstraction and generality. Digital spaces reward radicalization, siloing us off from those who think differently. In such an environment, it is far easier to reduce other people to ideas rather than seeing them as actual, particular human beings.
Recognizing others—and our own selves—as human beings with identities deeper than political views enables us to be detached enough from our own opinions to listen to evidence and sound judgment. If giving up my view on immigration feels like giving up a part of my identity, I’ll never be able to think about the issue soundly. The degree to which I recognize this to be true is the degree to which I am open to reasoning together, less susceptible to anxiety, and more inclined to amiability. For this to be possible, my identity needs to be found not in my opinions but in my relationships.
Rooting Ourselves in Local Stories
To be human is to have a story. Building community and solidarity means understanding that our neighbours all have stories of their own. They are the same kind of creature as we are, with the same dignity, the same essential hopes and anxieties. When we understand this, it is harder to reduce someone to the abstraction of an “enemy.” Instead, it becomes possible to understand that person simply as “a neighbour with a different perspective.”
Places have stories too, and the stories of our neighbours are intertwined with these local histories. To form healthy relationships—with people, with places—we need to be willing to listen to their stories, and to see how their stories are bound up in our own. When our very existence is tied to the places and people that came before us, what kind of responsibility do we owe them in return?
For me (Benya), understanding this responsibility means getting to know my great-great-great aunt Clophia, the matriarch who moved from Switzerland and purchased the family farm my cousins still cultivate today. It means seeing the evidence of my Grandpa Jim’s love for that land—how he made sure to set aside certain beloved marshes and hills to preserve rather than profit from, just because they were beautiful and they were there. It also means knowing the story of how my mother grew up in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and came to marry a Minnesota boy in Waseca’s Sacred Heart church.
And for me (Nathan), it begins with Joseph and Malvina Choquette, who built a little pioneer cabin in Salix, Iowa, and began to farm there some six generations ago. It continues with my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, who were riverboat men on the Missouri, and with my grandma Elizabeth, whose family found their way to Iowa at the end of a journey that began in rural Slovakia and ran through east Chicago.
Not everyone has or knows these types of family histories, but the broader history of our places belongs to all of us. Knowing history increases our love for our place; it allows voices that were formerly silent to speak. What was once a street like any other can be filled with meaning when we know who else walked these roads. One of the founders of Des Moines, James Cunningham Jordan, used to host John Brown and shelter escaped slaves from the South in the old Victorian farmhouse down the road. Stories like these call us to a heroic spirit. Rather than look for greatness elsewhere, we can recognize its presence right where we are and seek to cultivate it further together with our neighbours.
Knowing the tragedies and sins in our histories can call us to reconciliation too. In Mankato, a short drive from Waseca, the largest single-day execution in American history occurred. Thirty-eight Dakota men accused of participating in the killing of hundreds of Scandinavian and German immigrants during the Dakota War of 1862, were hung in the city with the approval of Abraham Lincoln. In recent years, the city commissioned a massive mural of a Dakota child dancing at the annual Mahkato powwow, painted on grain silos in the heart of town. That powwow is facilitated each year by an organization led by Dakota and non-Dakota community members, dedicated to reconciliation and cultural education.
In Des Moines, it took the boldness of Edna Griffin to sit in at the Katz drug store chain and compel the authorities to enforce the state’s civil rights law, which did not allow discrimination in public accommodations. It took the ingenuity and gumption of George H. Woodson to found the National Bar Association in Des Moines, so that black lawyers could band together when the American Bar wouldn’t admit them.
Knowing history increases our love for our place; it allows voices that were formerly silent to speak.
These histories help us recognize the diversity of people whose stories are woven together to form the fabric of the local place and the solidarity that can come through understanding our shared history together. The history of Waseca is the story of the Ojibwe and Sioux people who once ranged over its fields, and of the French traders who worked alongside them in the fur trade. It is the story of the German and Scandinavian migrants who came looking to build a new life, and of the Hispanic migrants doing the same today.
The history of Des Moines begins with the Indigenous woodland and prairie cultures—the Meskwaki, the Winnebagoes, the Otoes, and others. It is also the story of those same French explorers coming down river seeking new opportunities for trade. It is the story of Italian and Irish migrants moving to escape poverty, and later, of the people of Vietnam, Laos, Sudan, and Serbia seeking a safe haven from conflict. Each person is an integral and inseparable part of the fabric of the city.
When we learn history for the sake of bolstering our preconceived political notions, it becomes false; when we sit before it humbly, as students, it chastens our political views, attaches us to the place from which we come. Understanding history reminds us of what we are capable of, and it also reminds us that we require redemption as well. How might we see ourselves and our neighbours like we do that worn-down main street building with the beautiful ceilings—worthy of care, and capable of being made new?
Attending to Local Realities
Knowing a place and its people with this kind of intimate affection helps us attend to local realities. Local problems are not as easy to classify ideologically; their details and consequences stare us right in the face, and they require more attention than a hashtag or a Twitter thread. Think, for example, of the redevelopment of an empty store on State Street, or of the effort to save the ash trees that line Kingman Boulevard. There aren’t clearly Republican or Democrat answers to these kinds of problems. When we are getting flat tires and our trees are dying, we had better get in a room and just figure it out.
That doesn’t mean solving these problems will be easy. There will inevitably be misunderstandings and conflicts of personalities here too, but local governance generally doesn’t suffer from the same polarization as national politics. We have a clear, common goal and the opportunity to work out our differences with our neighbours face to face.
More importantly, city councils, county boards, and state legislatures give us a chance to make real change in the concrete communities of which we are a part. Radicalism is driven, in part, by abstract fear of what our perceived enemies might do should they gain power, combined with a sense of our own powerlessness to stop such a thing from coming to pass. In local politics, neither of these dynamics are at play: the problems at hand are concrete and particular, and the sphere of our influence is genuinely meaningful. Addressing ourselves to the real conditions of our neighbourhoods, of beautifying or developing our towns, is both humbling and empowering. Humbling, because it makes us aware of the complexity of even local problems, yet empowering, because it also makes us aware of our own ability to influence things for the good of our neighbours. It is a more fitting place for our attention than national politics, because it is more likely to be in the actual sphere of our affection, our knowledge, and our power to make change.
Today, our local governments and civic institutions face the great challenge of apathy. We have both seen the stark difference between small towns with active, vigorous leadership and civic buy-in, and those places where people just let things happen, caring only for their private affairs. The former towns flourish; the latter towns decay. The political thinker Yuval Levin has suggested that a great problem in our political and cultural life is the individualistic notion that institutions exist to provide a platform for us to build our personal brands and boost our ambitions. It is more conducive to the common good, and even to personal satisfaction, he suggests, to think of ourselves as responsible to the institutions to which we might belong. Healthy institutions have a way of taking us out of ourselves and channelling us toward common purpose. This provides both the satisfaction of a sense of membership and a field for pursuing achievement larger than anything we could have realized on our own. Local government is one sort of institution; the Rotary Club might be another. Perhaps the local conservationist group, perhaps the birdwatchers, perhaps your church.
We need to take care that none of these become merely new avenues for political entrenchment, though. Institutions do not operate according to the force of inertia so much as the law of entropy. Without invested members and leaders with vision, they can fall into idleness, stagnation, and homogeneity. They require frequency of interaction and sharing of life, so that members have an opportunity to build each other up in virtue, to admonish mistakes, and affirm triumphs together. Then you may have something more than entropy or even inertia, something generative and sparking all kinds of new life.
Growing Beyond Ideology to Solidarity
The people and places we love are not free of ideology either. Both in Minnesota and in Iowa we’ve witnessed the same isolation and lack of trust that ideology yielded in Washington, DC. At one time, my (Benya’s) grandparents had opened up their farm to anyone looking for housing during the Great Depression; now, next-door neighbours are too afraid to say hello when they take out the trash, but not too afraid to rip into each other on Facebook. Political fights a thousand miles away have provoked nastiness in the online comment sections of small-town communities.
Ideology is a temptation we all face. It is often a defensive posture, motivated by a deep desire for safety, certainty, and belonging.
The truth is that our country, our states, our places, face a host of wickedly complex and difficult problems, and that it is simpler and more satisfying to identify enemies than to dig into the practical work of problem-solving, the deep work of ethical discernment, or the sustained effort of relationship-building (which enables the first two). Ideology is a temptation we all face. It is often a defensive posture, motivated by a deep desire for safety, certainty, and belonging.
Growing beyond it takes some courage, then: the courage to let go of old assumptions, to be open to persuasion, and to develop the habits to see the world for what it is. By turning our attention to the history, relationships, and work of our particular places, we can work to find an identity rooted in things deeper than ideology.
Identity, then, must be based not on our private differences but on what we most widely share: We are bonded together first by being human, and second by being human here, in this particular place. To understand ourselves as bound to our places, we must live within them and remember them together. In a concrete way, this means knowing their fields and hills, their woods and streams. Part of the problem of radicalization and dehumanization comes from spending time online fretting about imagined enemies. When our heads fly off into the fields of ideological warfare, it is time to put our feet in the actual fields near our homes. These are ways to turn from the abstractions of ideology and return to the reality in front of us.
Developing love and solidarity in our own places can be a path to expanding love and solidarity to the wider human family. Knowing that you have your own story, bound up in the history of your local place and its web of relationships, will help you see the human commonalities that bind us together. In our own case, the resonance of our shared love for these local realities led us to find love in one another too. But this isn’t only a romantic thing. In doing this, all of us can find an identity that is larger than ourselves. Like rivers at their confluence, we can find a home in one another.