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Enlightened Self-Interest


A national map highlights something both interesting and curious about the state I have called home for since August 1971: North Dakota is currently the only state without  a suit contesting the matter of same-gender marriage. That is likely to change very soon. Most people outside the state will merely find it interesting; those of us within its borders and with a minimum knowledge of state history will also be aware of the irony.

At statehood in 1889, North Dakota was admitted as a dry—alcohol free—state, whereupon its breweries either closed or relocated to border communities across state lines. Along the Red River of the North, the wiggly eastern edge of an otherwise rectangular state, North Dakota cities like Wahpeton, Fargo, and Grand Forks sacrificed their breweries and saloons. In return, however, they became havens for the libertine and licentious: houses of prostitution abounded, and in Fargo, at least, the city government regulated both their location and operation.

Irony #1: A two-block section of the central city near the river was designated for houses of ill repute. And once a month the police visited each, took a few of the inmates into custody for an appearance before a municipal judge, and fined the girls before sending them back to work. Urban legend has it that the fines imposed each month were applied to the school system. So with liquor relegated to Moorhead, Minnesota across the river and prostitution in Fargo, the twin cities became the symbiosis of liquor and lust. At one level, the irony was realized in 1977 when charitable gaming became legal: non-profit agencies and organization could operate bingo and blackjack parlors to support their social service programs— scouts, art museums, etc. That a tax had effectively been placed on a vice, and that its proceeds would be applied to something virtuous was eerily similar to Fargo’s “tax” on prostitution for the support of public education.

Irony #2: After 1900, a rising wave Scandinavian immigration transplanted European Socialism to the upper Midwest, especially in Minnesota and North Dakota. In 1915 many of those immigrants formed the Non-Partisan League to resist the control of their agricultural economy by a handful of power brokers such as milling interests in Minneapolis and railways in St. Paul. These socialists essentially took control of North Dakota government and formed a state-owned grain mill and elevator and a state-owned bank, the only such institution in the United States and still a thriving financial entity. When asked today to define socialism and told that the North Dakota Mill & Elevator in Grand Forks and the Bank of North Dakota in Bismarck are, indeed, thriving examples of socialism, they will deny it. In fact, any attempts made to close either and convert it to a private capitalist business enterprise would quickly be stopped

North Dakota likes its socialism. It just doesn’t to be told that’s what it is.

Irony #3: The sea change in North Dakota politics takes visible form every legislative season. While tax exemptions are granted to private energy producers, the state routinely denies simple inexpensive programs like milk for school children, because our legislature and the majority of elective offices are safely in Republican control. I have long maintained that North Dakota is divided in half by Interstate 29, with relative liberalism in the east and conservative values dominant in the west. Look at a map some time to fully appreciate this irony as well.

North Dakota Constitutional Measure #1 of 2004, passed with 73% approval, amended the Century Code to eliminate any possibility of same-sex marriage or civil union. And as similar legislation or constitutional amendments have fallen state by state in the intervening ten years, I am confident that my fellow North Dakotans will hold ever more resolutely to the intention of that 2004 election; that political ideology will triumph over enlightened self-interest.

As libertarian and socialist as the state may have been, we have become something quite different in the last one hundred years. I have no illusions that Iowa politics have experienced a similar shift in these hundred years, but I do wonder if there may have been a different strain of Republican sentiment or even Progressive idealism at the beginning of the 20th century.

Comments will be gratefully received and reviewed.


The Fennimore county courthouse is surrounded with civic and cultural institutions: city hall, the county jail, two churches (Methodist and Baptist), and the U.S. Post Office. Today at the southwest corner of Agincourt Avenue and First Street SW you’ll find The Auditorium, a focus of cultural life since its construction in 1894/5; it’s the pink/orange square in the lower right of this plan. Three aspects of the Auditorium fascinate me: #1) it’s a building type I haven’t often engaged; #2) the chronology is right—after all, I’m in control of that—for an 1890-ish context (i.e., Richardsonian Romanesque); and #3) the pre-income tax era of the Robber Barons allows an exploration of “The 1%” of that time. How would a community of Agincourt’s size and relative wealth have afforded a three or four-hundred seat auditorium suitable for touring theatrical and opera companies? For lectures and recitals? For political rallies and electioneering? For funerals and graduations and award ceremonies?

This is a story that has to be written.

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