“White Pastoralism” and the Fake Outrage That Never Ends

On July 11, 2018, a local man with a passion for pigeons would cross paths with a Minneapolis planning official at a Wedge neighborhood VFW hall. It was a packed and raucous public meeting hosted by City Council President Lisa Bender. The purpose: to gather feedback from her constituents on the city’s 2040 long range plan.

During a question and answer session about an hour into the meeting, one of Bender’s constituents named Zack Mohlis used a phrase that would live in infamy: “white pastoralism.” Those two words would forever and inexplicably link him with Minneapolis director of Long Range Planning, Heather Worthington.

As Zack would explain in a tweet later that night:

I used the phrase “white pastoralism” to describe the way 19th century white Victorian nostalgia is often used as justification for historic preservation, which needs to change in a changing Minneapolis which needs to represent the cultural heritage of all residents.

In a room full of people already aggrieved by a months-long public discussion of exclusionary zoning, this was a deeply hurtful thing for Zack to have said. The 2040 plan’s blunt description of a lingering history of systemic racism in government housing policies made a certain kind of white person feel personally attacked. As Ward 13 Council Member Linea Palmisano told City Pages in September, it was a conversation-ender for her constituents: “They are basically told it’s just due to their inherent-born racism.”

Eight days after the Ward 10 meeting, on July 19, a Star Tribune letter to the editor would misattribute Zack’s comments about “white pastoralism” to Minneapolis director of Long Range Planning, Heather Worthington. Tamara Kaiser wrote, “Really? Is she actually suggesting that people of color have no need for trees, grass, plants and unpolluted lakes?”

I was at this meeting, and I can say that the most memorable episode involving Heather Worthington was her being shouted down and interrupted. She gave up trying to answer questions, ultimately handing the microphone over to a resident in exasperation.

Worthington never said “white pastoralism.” But the lie would show up on the local politics discussion forum e-democracy.

Then it showed up a few separate times on nextdoor.com.

Then one of those nextdoor.com posts, authored by Kaiser’s husband Erik Storlie — which criticized Worthington for saying a thing she never said — was re-printed in the latest issue of the lakes-area neighborhood newspaper, Hill and Lake Press.

And less than two months after I originally published this post, University of Minnesota professor Larry Jacobs made the same false claim in the Star Tribune. On July 26, Jacobs wrote, “A Minneapolis official accused residents who support retaining green spaces of engaging in ‘white pastoralism.'” When challenged about the source of his bogus story, Jacobs cited Tamara Kaiser’s letter to the editor from July 18, 2018. Now that it’s appeared twice in Minnesota’s biggest newspaper (with the second appearance citing the first), we can look forward to this zombie lie reappearing for years to come.

While it’s nearly impossible to believe that anyone who was actually at the meeting would have come away honestly believing Heather Worthington spoke those words, it’s plausible this lie isn’t being spread on purpose. It’s just an irresistible story some feel the need to keep telling. (Although Larry Jacobs has been shown enough evidence that he was duped by a letter to the editor, so it’s fair to say he is comfortable spreading lies on purpose.)

“White pastoralism” was the perfect phrase to reinforce a feeling of victimization among people who put up yard signs predicting the imminent bulldozing of entire neighborhoods in the whitest and wealthiest part of the city. As if undoing one piece of a long and tangled history of racist policies would unleash the same sort of destruction inflicted on thriving communities of color — just in reverse.

It’s possible that Heather Worthington wishes she had coined the phrase “white pastoralism.” But she didn’t. Let local boy Zack Mohlis have his glory.

Outrage Upon Outrage

It’s worth noting that the 2018 meeting that kicked off almost a year of pretend outrage over “white pastoralism” is also cited as the inspiration for the ongoing effort to change the Minneapolis city charter and drastically alter the way we elect council members.

As last July’s meeting began, Bender asked that Ward 10 residents be allowed to speak first, so she could gather feedback from her own constituents. This was upsetting to many non-Ward 10 attendees like Ward 13 resident Tom Basting, who recalls that part of the meeting differently than it actually happened:

Though Basting doesn’t live in Bender’s ward, he decided to attend the meeting. And it was there, he said, where the council president said something that didn’t feel right, at least to him: Bender told the crowd that she only wanted to hear concerns from people who live inside her Ward 10 — and no one else — as Basting recalled.

As I live-tweeted from the meeting, what Bender actually said was that she wanted to give her own constituents priority — by hearing from them first.

Earlier this year, Basting (who is a lawyer involved in the legal effort to overturn the city council’s decision and defeat the 2040 plan in the courts) introduced a proposal to correct what he sees as a serious flaw in the democratic process: politicians who neglect the needs of people like Tom Basting in order to focus on their own constituents. But critics, including the city’s chief elections officer, point out that his plan would shift power away from areas of the city with significant populations of color in order to empower whiter, wealthier parts of the city.

Whatever Happened to Zack Mohlis?

By now you’re probably wondering whatever happened to the man who coined the phrase “white pastoralism”? Well, Zack Mohlis still lives in the Wedge neighborhood. He recently started hosting a series of tours where he shares his passion for pigeons with the public.

I didn’t contact Zack for this story, but I like to imagine that if I did, I would have asked him what he thought of the endless controversy surrounding his comments at a public meeting. Then, in his Gump-like drawl, he would tell me something like, “Well heck, I don’t pay that no nevermind. I’m just a simple man. All I really need in this life is my pigeons.” And then someone would misattribute that quote to Heather Worthington.