Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Weed's View of the "Positivity Garden"

Greg Smith's recent commentary on “Tending a garden of positives: weeding out all the negatives” reminded me of three things.

One was a sign I bought a friend when we were working on a trial: “It doesn't matter how fast you drive if you don't know where you're going.”

Another was the historical incident at the start of the book Longitude.

Before we had a reliable way to determine longitude, navigation at sea was a challenge. Because a difference of opinion could lead to mutiny, the Brits made it illegal for anyone but the Captain and the Navigator even to attempt to keep track of the ship's position.

On one occasion, when the Navigator said to turn north, a sailor spoke up. He said they were well east of where the Navigator thought they were, and that if they turned North immediately they would soon run aground.

He must have believed what he said, since he knew that the penalty for keeping his own calculations was hanging, which sentence was carried out before sunset. The ship had already turned north. Early that morning it ran smack into the islands the sailor had mentioned. Almost all hands were lost, but the Captain survived long enough to crawl up onto the beach and lie there until a woman scavenging in the wreckage spotted his expensive watch and killed him.

Regrettably, Greg takes folks to task for disagreeing with him about Spaceport America and a plaza in Downtown Las Cruces. He defines the opposition as “negativity.” He implies that it's negativity for the sake of negativity, referring to “the negativity campaign” and “their overbearing negativity.” He more than implies we should simply ignore the naysayers, writing, “To ignore them is to deny them the inroads they desperately seek to establish” and that ignoring them can “contribute to the quality of life enjoyed here.”

For the record, I don't yet know enough to take a firm position on either. Regarding Spaceport America, I'm a bit of a skeptic. I thought Bob Hearn – whom I don't think of as particularly negative – raised some serious issues. When we discussed them on radio, I thought the gentleman rebutting him exuded complete confidence and provided some good answers. I'd have been interested in further discussion to hear Bob's rebuttals to those answers.

On the plaza, I'd very much like to see one, though since I'm not a city councilor I haven't weighed the costs against other municipal expenses. I think that if done right (a significant “if”) it would provide value to the community more than the financial calculations alone might suggest. It's something I think we should do, unless the costs are absurd; but I worry we'd make it too glitzy, too plastic, too perfect, too something. It can't be a plaza full of history; but neither should it feel false.

My real concern with Greg's commentary goes to the abstract concept: that negativity (defined as disagreeing with the mayor pro tem?) is inherently valueless or counter-productive. (I like and respect Greg, and doubt he meant to sound as if he wanted to squelch dissent.)

Marine navigation aside, naysayers can raise important questions we sometimes lose sight of in our haste to reach whatever we think the goal is.

Granted, some people will find the negative in anything. Granted, there will always be some citizens who define a successful city counsel meeting as one in which they got to take some real good shots at someone in power. Granted, some people will take even the most absurd position if their particular political party espouses it. (But it probably lacks grace for the mayor pro tem to say these things.)

But Bob Hearn is not that sort of citizen, and his questions about Spaceport America (which he said were designed to get people thinking about the matter, not to state a conclusion they should reach) were non-frivolous. Recent resignations by the some of the key players in Virgin Galactic may also be meaningful – or may not.

We have spent plenty of taxpayers' money on a bold gamble. I hope it pays off. But it remains a gamble so far. For citizens to question it seems pretty reasonable to me.

The argument that “Well, we're doing it, so all these questions just gum up the works” could be a good one in certain circumstances. More often it actually betrays the uncertainty of the persons speaking so confidently. If public questions or criticisms can harm the Spaceport America effort, then that effort is probably doomed anyway.

Maybe I hear Greg's words with the jaundiced ears of a columnist. Too often people make me aware of serious problems, though their jobs could be at risk if anyone knew we'd talked. Authorities tell me that everything's fine and criticisms just make people nervous. Then I dig deeper and find the problems are real.

Finally, the third thing Greg's “garden” analogy reminded me of was the well-known saying among gardeners that there are no weeds, just plants that happen to be growing where we don't want them.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, under the perhaps unfortunate title "Is City Driving Fast toward an Unknown Destination."  Although the headline is a snappy and clever reference to an anecdote in the column, which is good, it may give the impression that I was criticizing a bunch of recent decisions by the City Council.  I wasn't.  I was gently poking fun at a column by the Mayor Pro Tem that I felt was a little heavy-handed.   For the most part, I think the current city councilors, including Greg Smith, are fine people doing a fine job.
My point was and is that dissenting views and criticism have a legitimate, even an important place in democratic government.  Yeah, it's unfortunate that some folks criticize merely to criticize, or merely to hear themselves talk.  Sure, that can be frustrating to folks trying to run a city or a county.  But doesn't it kind of come with the territory?  Isn't that particularly so when the subjects are well-intentioned expenditures of large amounts of our money toward interesting goals one could reasonably doubt we'll ever reach?]

No comments:

Post a Comment