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Friday Mailbag: Some concern for my safety, accountability for politicians, the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt, and the four-day work week

If you'd like to send in feedback for this column, email it to rport@forumcomm.com.

Roosevelt Statue.jpg
The statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback alongside an American Indian and African American has drawn controversy as a symbol of colonialism and will be removed from display in front of New York's American Museum of Natural History. Photo courtesy of Equestrian Statues
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MINOT, N.D. — The great thing about my job is you never know where a work week will take you.

This week was an interesting one, as we'll get into with the feedback below. As usual, I had far more emails than I could shoehorn into this column. I'm thankful to everybody who takes the time to read my work and respond. I do my level best to respond to everyone, even if it's not here in the column.

If you'd like to send me feedback, email it to rport@forumcomm.com. If it's used in this column, it may be edited for brevity and clarity.

Collin writes, in response to my column about a right-wing activist shouting in the face of a legislative leader: "I have been following the retirement of ND State Senators Oban and Poolman, as well as the confrontations of Senator Wardner and rants against yourself. I have to say that my initial reaction is to consider these events as unfortunate and perhaps mostly just noise. On further reflection, I think this is the precursor to violence. I certainly hope that these people, yourself included, are being appropriately careful and cautious in protecting your personal safety. January 6th, if nothing else should show us that rhetoric can turn into violent actions. Be safe - you speak for a majority (I hope) of us and that is important."

It's always interesting to me how people imagine my work days must be like.

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I began this week with what I thought would be a one-off column about state Rep. Rick Becker, a Bismarck Republican and Ayn Rand enthusiast, being uncharacteristically quiet about some big-money loans he took from the federal government. He wouldn't answer my questions about the loans - were they forgiven? did he pay them back? - but did have an online meltdown about me even asking the questions the centerpiece of which was a juvenile insinuation that I might be gay .

I didn't even mention the $314,356 Becker's businesses received from the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund (search "Humpback Sally" in this database of Small Business Administration data ), bringing the total take from the taxpayers to the bottom line of this supposed paragon of the limited ethos to nearly $569,000.

That Becker took this money is less interesting than his reaction to the public being made aware he took that money. His intemperate response ended up dominating my week as his supporters attacked me for being the sort of ridiculous person who expects public servants to be forthcoming when they take money from the taxpayers.

Shame on me, I guess.

Yet, even as that Sturm und Drang took my workday hours, my personal time was normal. My daughter had a choir recital. My son and I played video games. My wife and I read our books together (Neal Stephenson's new one, "Termination Shock," is very good by the way).

Being successful in this sort of job requires you to let things roll off your back. Collin, observing how hopping-mad my critics are at the moment, is concerned about my safety. I monitor these things. I've been concerned in the past, notably during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests when my criticism of the often violent and unlawful demonstrations provoked an ugly response from some.

I don't have those concerns right now. I'm am laser-focused on what I see as a populist, authoritarian cancer at the heart of the conservative movement right now, and that's making a lot of people angry. Some of them are even saying some ugly things. I'm keeping an eye on it. I'm not worried.

What's more concerning to me is what this means for North Dakota's very open political world. Our elected officials are very accessible. When the Legislature is in session, the public can go to the capitol and walk right into the House and Senate chambers. Many of our lawmakers have their cell phone numbers and home addresses listed in their official biographies. Call one of those numbers, and the lawmaker will probably pick up.

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That's a wonderful thing, but it's a thing we could lose if our lawmakers feel consistently abused.

Apropos of the Becker kerfuffle, Alan writes: "I am not a North Dakota resident but I appreciate how you keep politicians and other leaders accountable for what they say compared to what they do. You're more than welcome to do the same for Minnesota politicians and leaders where I live. I know that you are conservative and I'm probably somewhat more liberal than you but most of your views make a lot of sense to me and keeping people accountable across the board is very important. It seems that politicians and leaders today feel as though they can do anything they please. It's sickening to watch people profess one thing and do another. This country deserves better."

I think this country deserves to get what it votes for. "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard," H.L. Mencken wrote, and I'm a believer in that sentiment. Not because I'm not a believer in democracy, though I think we have to be honest about its many shortcomings, but because I think democracy can only function when voters have to face the consequences of making stupid choices at the ballot box.

We tend to think of politicians as people who act on us, but the truth is that no political leader has power without some degree of popular support. Even dictators in places like Cuba or North Korea need a political base that will support them. Fund them. Commit acts of violence for them, as the case may be.

A common complaint in politics is that the politicians aren't listening to the people. That's usually not the case. The politician may not be listening to you, but they're definitely listening to someone because, again, every political figure has to have a base of popular support.

The key to understanding politics is seeing past the performative bluster of the politicians to identify the group, or groups, they're serving. We are conditioned, as Americans, to view the "will of the people" as an inherently good thing, but it's often not. Often groups of "the people" want bad things, and there will always be politicians willing to give those groups what they want in exchange for power and notoriety.

A reader writes in response my column headlined, "Teddy Roosevelt was a racist, but that's far from all he was" : "I'm a great follower of Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, I'm almost a fanatic. I have visited all his home sites, and my dream is to go to the new library being built. I have his autograph letters, battle flag, campaign pins, and other memorabilia of our former president. I was at first taken back by the title of your article but upon reading it I must say you gave a very fair balance account of who the man was and his ideals. Yes, he had faults, some large ones as his belief in eugenics and his belief in manifest destiny in the name of the United States. But he was at the apex of the beginning of the Conservation movement, Health Standards, and beliefs in basic minority rights as shown by his White House invitation as you mentioned, and his promotion of Jewish policemen when he was commissioner of the New York City police and other noble endeavors. In short; it was a BULLY Article.

I am a proponent of changing the way we teach history, particularly American history, in so far as it has traditionally tended toward hagiography that leaves out important perspectives. Like those of Native Americans or Black Americans. It's been myopic.

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What I don't want to do, however, is replace one myopia with another. Some want to replace our focus on the positive aspects of American history with a focus on the negative aspects. Neither is right.

Teddy Roosevelt is an excellent case-in-point for this discussion. He held the sort of racist views that were endemic in those times. He believed in eugenics and the superiority of the white race. We can acknowledge those things, and study them, even while recognizing that Roosevelt was, on the balance, a very good leader who did some remarkable things.

Study any historical figure, or the history of any group of people, and you're going to find some ugliness. We have to be honest about that, but we needn't dwell on it.

Mary writes, in response to my column about four-day work weeks : "I think it’s really about the type of job you are working. When I was doing my professional social worker job, it was about what needed to get done and I was happy to only work 5 days. But now that I’m in a retirement job in retail, I have worked for 2 companies that have two different views on how to schedule the 40 hours. On one I worked 4 10 hour days but I had 3 days off. Now I work 5 days a week but I really miss the extra day to be a veggie. That may be because I’m old but I think if I was in my 20’s or 30’s I’d still like the 3 days off."

Personally, I couldn't imagine what I'd do with myself if I only worked three or four days a week, but what I want, or what Mary wants, is beside the point.

A big challenge in policy debates is that we make broad public policy for everybody, but we all experience that policy as individuals. Our legislative bodies don't just make a law for Mary, or for Rob. That would actually be illegal. Bills of attainder, which is legislation that targets a specific individual, are prohibited by Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution. Our legislatures make laws for everybody.

That reality is a big reason why I'm a conservative. I believe we should be reticent to make laws that restrict our ability to be flexible as individuals.

It's clear that younger Americans have a very different philosophy about work-life balance than older generations. There's nothing wrong with that. Yet, for our economy to produce the goods and services and general prosperity we've come to expect, a certain amount of labor input is needed.

What we need are policies that is premised on the expectation that Americans work to provide for themselves and their families, but are empowered to find the sort of work that fits their lifestyles best. There is no one "right" answer for what work should be for everybody, and that's as it should be.

If a four-day work week is what you want - and many Americans already have just that - then you should have the opportunity to pursue it. But that shouldn't be a mandate for every business, and every individual.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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