Musings from George

July 31, 2006, 5:41 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

I am part of a group that gets together once a month to talk about something meaningful, along the lines of a book club without all that painful reading (that’s tongue-in-cheek, as I only wish I could read more). We talked about being a contrarian this past week — not following the crowd, not being a sheep, not submitting to “common wisdom”. But I could not find a good definition of contrarian online (M-W and wikipedia both couch it in economic terms, e.g. buying when others are selling). In the endless pursuit of gaining knowledge, I came across this quote in a book on leadership that I found particularly helpful in defining “contrarian”:

Don’t take the wrong side of an argument just because your opponent has taken the right side.

Baltasar Gracian

I suggest that ‘contrarian’ can be defined by parts:

* it is not argumentative or quarrelsome (esp. politics or religion)

* it is not pointless (esp. ideology or feelings)

* it is about questioning commonly accepted beliefs and

* it is about informed and enlightened discussion (open minded, open ended).

I am by nature contrarian, and have learned that what I consider a plus (questioning not only authority, but popular agreements and opinions) can be perceived as: i) pessimism; ii) negativism; or iii) my favorite, being a “wet blanket”. Yet I believe that we would achieve very little if we accepted the lowest common denominator of intelligence (the world is flat?) and Galileo and daVinci may have been the world’s greatest contrarians.

Extending this to today, we in the US are terribly polarized around our politics and about our involvement in the world. The election in 2000 was decided by the Supreme Court (about as divisive as things can get), and we now have a schism so deep over Iraq that anyone who crosses the chasm will get scorched (alas poor Lieberman, we knew him well!)

In the sixties (before my time), a popular bumper sticker held “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention” and that’s basically how I feel about our government and what we are doing in the world today. Through history, we have created excuses to go to war a few times (Gulf of Tonkin resolution, Spanish-American War) but we have never so boldly ignored major allies and powers as we did when we invaded Iraq. As our military losses approach the total number of deaths in the World Trade towers, and Iraq’s civilian losses dwarf the number killed by Saddam Hussein, it isn’t hard to feel outrage. But why is it that outrage now correlates to politics, more strongly even than in the Vietnam War?

So, are you a contrarian? Do you intervene when you disagree, or simply turn away (or turn inward)? What would it take to provoke you to speak out when you disagree, or to force you to take and defend an unpopular position? Rosa Parks couldn’t take it any more, Martin Luther King vowed to take it sitting down as long as he had to … who in the US has this moral strength any more, when even many popular news shows have devolved into political diatribes by the committed?


Who’s responsibility?
July 19, 2006, 8:23 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

So I’m walking from my car into the building at work, and there are plastic utensils spilled on the ground on the walkway. I step over them, rather than picking them up.

Last week I was at a public park, and there was trash strewn around. I picked it up.

Why the different reactions, I asked myself this morning? Somehow here at work it feels like others are paid to keep the grounds, and the trash on the ground reflects poorly on them (yes, outsourced to some third party with whom I will never interact). The public park seems oddly like a shared resource, and I know that the poor park ranger is too busy to try to keep up with all the ill-behaved visitors who toss trash on the ground … so I’m happy to help out.

Is this not irrational? Do you do the same? What is our obligation to pick up trash, and why are Americans so bad about it? In Europe you rarely see people throwing trash on the ground, and there’s an army of people who care enough about their neighborhoods to pick it up. Somehow here in the US we appear to feel that someone else is paid to clean the highways (or the streets, or the public bus) and that removes the burden from our own shoulders.

Why is that? and should it be so?