A Bad Sign

Normally, my job is to get people to tune in to public policy topics that to the casual observer, might seem boring or dry. The company I co-founded, The Theater of Public Policy, uses improv comedy to deconstruct issues and advance civic dialogue, particularly on a local level. 

So it feels more that a bit unusual for me to suggest that we have gotten too wrapped up in an episode of byzantine public policy and city politics. That some of the players involved have gone so far as to be beyond satire. And that things are pretty bad if the improv comedy guy is the one telling people to grow up. 

For more than a year, a tempest has been brewing in a Minneapolis hotdish pan. A 19th century house in Minneapolis’s Wedge neighborhood, became the focal point in an unending debate over development, historic preservation, property rights, and who gets to decide the true character of any city block. Throw in a reality television star, the crucible of local politics, and a throng of internet trolls and this tater tot hotdish turned radioactive.

Originally designed and constructed by master builder T.P. Healy, the former home in question suffered many fires over the years and was eventually converted to a 16-room boarding house. (Take a moment to appreciate that there was still a boarding house in Minneapolis, a type of business that seems more at home in a time of separate twin beds for married couples than the era of Airbnb).

More than a year ago, the owner submitted an application to demolish the old house. He wanted to sell to developer looking to build a 45-unit apartment building on the site. After months of bureaucratic reviews and multiple legal challenges, both the city council and the courts said there was not adequate justification to halt the demolition. 

At this point, you’d be forgiven if you found this a sad, if altogether un-newsworthy tale. Yet as the bulldozers moved in on this Healy house last week, the temperature was turning up online. Facebook and Twitter pundits, led by HGTV television personality Nicole Curtis, focused their energy and vitriol squarely on Minneapolis Council Member Lisa Bender.

To read Curtis and her ilk, you might think Bender filled the house with orphans, tied the whole thing to a train track, and laughed maniacally, stroking her long curling mustache as the steam engine approached. What else could justify the commenter on Curtis’s various posts to call to bulldoze Bender’s own house? Or cut the brake lines on her car? Or “bend-er over” and sexually assault her with a wrecking ball?

If you’re thinking that nothing justifies calling for someone’s sexual assault, good news! You’ve passed the bare minimum threshold for being a member of civilized society.

Some will argue it’s not the role of a reality television show host to offer civility lessons to internet commenters from as far away as Florida and Pennsylvania. Demonstrating and facilitating adult civic discourse isn’t something we should ask of HGTV show stars.

That’s clearly a job best left to an improv comedy show host.

We have had Council Member Bender on The Theater of Public Policy twice, where live on stage I have asked her about the tensions between historic preservation and new development. She has answered the questions of any audience member who attended. And through entirely unscripted theater, our cast poked at both Bender’s positions and those of her opponents.

Both events were civil affairs (I’ll leave how far short they fell of entertaining to others). No audience member raised their hand to suggest inflicting bodily harm on Ms. Bender. None of the cast’s unscripted scenes were threats of violence or implications of sexual impropriety.

Perhaps that’s because it is harder to debase oneself and one’s opponents when you actually have to look them in the eye, as opposed to taunt them from behind a keyboard. But had any of that kind of rhetoric arisen from the audience or my cast, I would have felt my role as a host (and as a human being) would be to stop it, call it out as beyond the pale, and apologize.

So if a small local comedy show (with a fan base numbering in the dozens) and its untrained, unpolished, and arguably unfit host can set some standard of decency for the kinds of conversations it wants to inspire and facilitate, certainly more well-known, prominent, and powerful people can do the same. If Nicole Curtis and her backers have the resources to bring a camera crew to Minneapolis City Hall for some dramatic television, and she can offer to fund Bender’s next council seat opponent, certainly she can offer some example of how to have an adult, respectful political disagreement.    

Because who wants to live in a world where the local improv comedy team has to be the mature ones in the conversation?

Tane Danger is the co-founder of The Theater of Public Policy, a 2014 Bush Fellow, and a Masters of Public Policy Candidate at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He lives in Minneapolis.