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Meeting of minds debates good and evil

If the Greatest Idea of All Time occurred to someone out in the rural Midwest, and nobody else was there, would it make any difference?

Organizers of the Great Midwestern Think-Off in New York Mills endeavored to render that question moot over the weekend with the first convention of armchair philosophers in Otter Tail County.

About 110 athletes-of-the-mind from around the Midwest vied to decide, once and for all, the perennial question: What is the true nature of humankind _ inherently good or inherently evil?

Alas, the question remains unresolved. In a vote by the audience Sunday, the two sides tied.

But that hardly mattered to contest co-winner Charles Eldredge, a newspaper publisher in Fessenden, N.D., who argued on behalf of humankind's inherent goodness.

"As I drove here last night through the darkness from the wilds of North Dakota, the thought inevitably came to me, "What's the difference?' " said Eldredge, a former 3M research engineer. "We constantly strive to be better."

Held in a Main Street setting that might appear more apropos to a horse-shoe or cow-chip throwing contest, New York Mills' Think-Off was thought up partly in jest and partly to break down some stereotypes about the cultural emptiness of rural life.

"In New York Mills, the debate is usually about what kind of wood burns best: elm, oak, ash," joked moderator Alan (Prairie Spy) Linda, a Fergus Falls, Minn., newspaper columnist.

"Even now in the Gossip Box Cafe they're debating that .


. "Burns bright, smokes less.'


The brainchild of John Davis, a transplanted Minneapolis artist, the contest was held in the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center he founded a year ago as a storefront artists' retreat.

Couched in sports metaphors to appeal to ordinary people, some of whom arrived waving pennants proclaiming Good or Evil, the contest began with a small-town parade and a singing of the national anthem.

Besides Eldredge, those with the most convincing arguments were a Clitherall, Minn., priest, a former reservation cop from Eagle Butte, S.D., and a 15-year-old cheerleader from Wichita, Kan.

"So often you see philosophy done in a stiff, boring, academic way," said Davis, who came up with the idea on a solo camping trip to the Arizona deserts last summer.

"The reality is that people talk about philosophy all the time, about questions of good and evil, of war and peace. Farmers talk about real issues, meat-and-potato issues: survival."

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