A Legend is Born
As a native Kansan living in Fargo, North Dakota, with family and friends in far-flung places, I’ve been acutely aware of how recent developments in the Red River Valley of the North have appeared to people elsewhere. I suspect that people in Greensburg, Kansas, or the many other parts of the plains visited by natural disaster in this era of instant media may have some similar impressions.
To begin with, the national media really don’t get it, do they? Everything is always a little bit off, a little bit haphazard, sometimes seriously misleading. Symbolic of all this is that when Fargo police caught CNN personnel climbing on the flood dikes, they arrested them, and people cheered.
External commentators, too, do not distinguish themselves when they try to impose their own agendas on the narrative of events. Late-night talk show jockeys, comparing the hardy and orderly response of prairie folk in crisis to that of people in New Orleans, lapsed into lamentable racism. At the other end of the spectrum, I can tell you that when President Obama took the opportunity to lecture us that on account of global warming, we should expect more such disasters as this, the response around here was rather profane.
On the other hand, crisis offers opportunity for local media to shine. A local commercial radio station that I frequently criticize on account of the mean-spirited manner of parts of its talk-radio schedule transformed itself into the most valuable player among media. It became a 24-hour billboard, commons, and unofficial coordinating agency for flood response and relief. The better angels of talk radio carried the day.
Via that means, and by popular acclamation, a legend was born. The current mayor of Fargo, Dennis Walaker, had established a profile of competence and straight talk as director of public works during the flood of 1997. Now, as mayor, his personality and performance, along with the coming together of circumstances, have produced a virtual canonization of the man. He and other city officials dismissed the counsel of Homeland Security representatives who said to evacuate the city. At one point he vowed the city, if it should go under, would “go down swinging.”
Then, as at a crucial point National Weather Service and Corps of Engineers experts delivered a warning that flood waters might crest as high as 43 feet, Walaker had his people do their own assessment and concluded that cold temperatures and the freezing of overland water would produce a somewhat lower crest. He and the city commission directed that dikes should be strengthened and people should carry on the fight-a dicey decision that proved correct. In this part of the country, of course, people love hear about a leader who stands up on his hind feet (6’5″ tall, in Walaker’s case) and tells the feds to mind their own business. Let me say as a folklorist, this is truly the stuff of legend.
And finally, let me say this to my own students, who were the heroic infantry of this whole campaign-you wonder why I make you read that stuffy old book, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, right? You sure complain about it. But think, now, about what you have accomplished, and about what Tocqueville said: “Among democratic nations . . . all the citizens are independent and feeble; they can do hardly anything by themselves, and none of them can oblige his fellow men to lend him their assistance. They all, therefore, become powerless if they do not learn voluntarily to help one another.”