Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Minnesota and Wisconsin: To Dress or To Drink?

I've just returned from another of my many trips to La Crosse, Wisconsin--which, though across "The River" in a different state, has the shopping mall closest to my hometown of Winona, Minnesota.

While standing in line to exchange a shirt at Macy's, I overheard two different conversations--the first between two Wisconsinites (extolling the virtues of a local beer), the second between two Minnesotans (complaining about Wisconsin's sales tax on clothes).

I then had my little epiphany about the TRUE difference between these sister states.

Forget about the Vikings vs. the Packers. Never mind the (undoubtedly temporary and largely coincidental) dichotomy of "blue" Minnesota vs. "red" Wisconsin.

The essential distinction lies in attitudes inherited from our ancestors: the Scandinavians who founded Minnesota vs. the Germans who settled Wisconsin.

Now this is not entirely a distinction without a difference--though considering the Scandinavian/German overlap in the two states, the difference should probably not be over-estimated. Everyone who has ever spent any appreciable time in these northern marches of the Midwest knows that Wisconsin and Minnesota are decidedly look-alike siblings:  the snow, the lakes, the butter, the cheese, the river, the fishing--all bind us rather closely together.

Still, Wisconsin is the elder, the more populous, the more influential, the bossier, the more extreme sister.  Minnesota may be a bit taller and have bigger "big" cities, but we Minnesotans have never managed to produce either a progressive with the gravitas of Robert LaFollette or a fascist as despicable as Joseph McCarthy. Hubert Humphrey and Michele Bachmann pale in comparison.

Why is that?  Again, I return to the Scandinavian vs. German mindsets--as illustrated, perhaps, in the conversations I overheard. Here's what I mean:

In Minnesota, the Scandinavian be-nice-be-safe mindset decrees that we regard clothing (e.g., fuzzy sweatshirts, even if they bear slogans in cryptic, cutesy-dippy language) as necessary for human survival in frigid climes. Accordingly, there is no sales tax on clothing in Minnesota.  Booze, on the other hand, while it may afford considerable comfort during long winters, may also lead to embarrassingly conspicuous drunkenness and even--worse--unseemly confrontations.  Therefore, alcoholic beverages are heavily taxed in Scandinavian Minnesota.

In more Teutonically self-assured Wisconsin, by contrast, it is booze (e.g., beer) that is thumpingly endorsed as a necessity of human life--how else can cabin fever be vanquished?--and so the sustaining fruit of the vine and kiss of the hops receive only the most piddling of taxes. Clothing, though, IS taxed, since however comforting it might be, there is the ever-present danger that it might also tempt weak-willed clothing-wearers into sinful ostentation or--worse--irresponsible and most un-Germanic profligacy.

Yet another illustration comes to mind: churchgoing.  Now everyone knows that all Minnesotans and Wisconsinites are "more or less" Lutheran (even if they're Catholic or atheist).  That means that it has never occurred to them NOT to be more or less Lutheran.

But the variety of Lutheran is what matters.  Generally speaking, there are three types of Lutherans: ELCA Lutherans, Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, Missouri Synod Lutherans.  The ELCA folks are pretty "mainstream" and consequently nice but unremarkable. The Wisconsin Synod and Missouri Synod types are, however, more dogmatically "prickly" (the Wisconsin Synod actually makes its members "register" in order to receive Communion: if your name isn't on the list, you don't get any holy food.)

So, I always think of Minnesotans as, metaphorically at least, ELCA people: they go to church every once in a while, when the fishing is bad and/or when they're feeling guilty for not having been nice enough during the week. They sit in the far back of the church, keep completely silent, try not to piss off the "good" people in the other pews, and sneak out the side door after the service. Wisconsinites, however, are much more likely to belong to the Wisconsin or Missouri Synods (again, metaphorically speaking).  They loftily occupy "their" church every Sunday, they sit right up front, they sing real loud, and they deliberately try to piss off all the "bad" people attempting to hide out in the back. Those guys need role models, you know (and advice on the best beer to buy.)

Wisconsin drinks and preaches. Minnesota bundles up and sneaks out the side door.

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