Eager to Be Angry

I enjoy reading history, and I’m often surprised to find stories from the past that seem so comparable to current events.  I’m reading a huge novel at the moment entitled A Moment in the Sun, which attempts to portray life in the United States just before, during, and after the Spanish-American War.  People familiar with the era will remember that the conflict was promoted by U.S. newspapers following the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898.  No one really knows what caused the explosion that sunk the Maine, but ill-informed and highly partisan voices claimed Spanish agents planted a bomb or mine in an act of war.

The Maine was the convenient spark that led to a war many Americans wanted to “free” Cuba and other Spanish colonies in various parts of the world.  Regardless of the merits of the war, it illustrates how people who are eager to be angry will find reasons to justify their feelings and, more importantly, popular support for dangerous or destructive policies whether the justification is true or not.

We have many reasons to question, criticize, or even change government from time to time; and occasionally we may have reason to be angry.  I know many Americans and Iraqis who were angry over the U.S. intervention in Iraq based on the false premise of “weapons of mass destruction.”  Others are angry at the current administration over the state of the economy and the national debt.  Everyone seems to be mad at Congress, and public employees have become popular targets in recent years.  I would guess the anger will continue to grow as economic conditions stay at current levels or decline.

We can’t, however, place most of the blame for public dissatisfaction or anger on a bad economy.  Public trust in the institutions that serve us has been declining for years, and railing against government has been popular for a long time.  I think there are parallels between the American public’s anger at Spain in the 1890s and the current rage against our own government.

The term “yellow journalism” grew out of the events leading up to the Spanish-American conflict and generally describes how public opinion can be shaped by media with an agenda that goes beyond providing factual information.  Today’s media is usually not as overt in its biases, but most sources have inherent limitations on both the quality and quantity of information they provide.  The old admonition to not believe everything you read in the newspapers should be updated to include television and the Internet.   I sometimes have to remind myself that a story I’ve read or seen is one perspective and should not be used as the sole basis for any judgments I might make or opinions I may have.  I think people today face a greater challenge in forming and keeping a healthy perspective on life than previous generations because we are subjected to so many competing points of view.

I am resolved to not let the anger of others dictate my own response to the world around me.  We can choose to be patient, thoughtful, and considerate of others without sacrificing our obligation to be responsible citizens.  We have no need to be angry to make intelligent choices and are more likely to make better decisions if we are not.

Licked by a Tiger

During my recent interview process for the Metro Chief Operating Officer position, the zoo director took me for a brief tour of her offices and the tiger exhibition.  The animal keeper who showed us the tiger area asked if I would like her to call the tigers so that I could get a closer look and she could show me how she worked with the animals.  Her plan sounded good to me, and I was interested to learn how to call tigers.  The keeper stepped up to the caged area and said rather quietly, “Here Tigers,” and, of course, they both came running.

I was then privileged to see up close the female tiger go through a series of exercises that most of us don’t see when we visit the zoo.  The keeper concluded by asking if I would like to feed the tiger some goat’s milk, and I quickly volunteered.  Feeding the tiger involved putting a spray bottle close to the cage and squirting the milk into the tiger’s mouth.  This was obviously a familiar routine to the animal, but I was a little shocked when the tiger’s tongue slipped through the bars and started licking my hand as I squirted in the milk.

As most of you probably know by now, I was not offered the job at Metro.  I have instead the unforgettable memory of being licked by a tiger plus the relief of getting to stay in a community my wife and I greatly appreciate and in an organization I believe to be outstanding.  The lure of working in a much larger organization for higher pay was enticing, and I enjoyed participating in Metro’s process.  I brought back some information that I think we can usefully apply here, and I now know more about the nation’s only elected regional government than all I had learned after many years as an Oregon public manager.

 When I applied to be Albany’s city manager, one of the qualities I remember the Council requested in their advertising was that their new manager must be a “risk taker.”  I think I do enjoy taking calculated risks, and my experiences in the developing world or climbing mountains seem to confirm my view.  I’m also willing to take personal risks when I believe they will benefit my community and/or my family.  I have taken a number of positions that were unpopular with some residents during my time in Albany, and I am sure I will need to do it again.  I do not anticipate looking for any other jobs in the foreseeable future, and I’m reasonably sure none will offer me the opportunity to be licked by a tiger.