Martin Melaver  @  ChelseaGreen

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Love & Schadenfreude

Posted on Saturday, February 7th, 2009 at 2:53 pm by Martin Melaver

For a long time, my home town of Savannah, GA suffered from a type of petty jealousy, a malicious enjoyment in the misfortune of others. We called it the “blue-crab phenomenon.” Maybe you know it by another name.

We used to go crabbing as kids along the coastal tidewater, pulling in crabs with a clothesline attached to chicken-neck bait, netting them, and tossing ‘em into a big wooden-slatted peach bushel basket on the dock. Most of the crabs just stayed put. But there were always an entrepreneurial few that tried to crawl up the sides of the peach basked toward freedom, before being pulled down by the others below. Somehow, that metaphor aptly captured life in my hometown, as the few who tried to innovate and create something new for the community were stymied by others more settled in their ways.

Over the last decade or so, I think our community has managed to transcend some of the inherent petty jealousies that have inhibited progressive thinking. That’s not to say that we don’t have our problems. We do, with something like 27% of the population without basic health insurance and living below the poverty line, with much of the white population educating its kids in private, parochial schools. But our community is beginning to find this golden mean between newcomers and old-time residents, between an older economy based on manufacturing and tourism and a nascent economy focused on knowledge-based businesses. Just recently, in fact, I fielded a call by a journalist from Georgia Trend magazine, researching a story about Savannah becoming a leading light and model for sustainability.

I don’t know about that (as Forest Gump once notably said, in a movie filmed in my home town). But I do feel that there is a growing sense of shared purpose in my community, one being echoed around the country. As a nation, with our backs against the wall both environmentally and economically, there’s a strong push to accentuate the positives of all sectors of society to chart a different, viable, sustainable path forward.

And so, as I read the Buffalo Beast’s recent post of “The 50 Most Loathsome People in America,” while some part of me rails inside at the folks on this list, I wonder, to what end?. And as I look at a recent survey of business, showing both an unprecedented lack of confidence of Americans in our CEOs and a lack of confidence of CEOs in business itself, I try to balance the absolute deservedness of this assessment with a sense that somehow we need to learn and get beyond this. Same goes for all the focus of attention on the revolving doors between government and corporate lobbying, recently captured in Michael Winship article in Truthout (http://www.truthout.org/020709Y). It sucks, it’s wrong, it needs to be fixed, we’ve got bigger issues we need to get right.

Call me naïve, but it seems to me that the sustainable path forward calls for a paradigm shift toward a magical synthesis of parts, built for the long term. With that in mind, it’s worth invoking two of my favorite big-systems thinkers: Donella Meadows and Bill Russell. Meadows of course is well known for her prescription for paradigm change: “You don't waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.” I’d like to think that there is indeed just such a vast middle ground out there open to shaping a whole new order. And Bill Russell, legendary center of the Boston Celtics? Here’s what he has to say::

“Every so often, a Celtics game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or even mental game and would be magical. The feeling is difficult to describe, and I certainly never talked about it when I was playing. When it happened I could feel my play rise to a new level . . . It would surround not only me and the other Celtics but also the players on the other team and even the referees.” (see Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline, p. 217).

The magical flow comes when all parts cohere. The question, then, is how to reach that next level of play by involving not only other players, the competition, and the referee, but also other teams in the league, the sponsors, and the viewing audience ostensibly sitting idly on the sidelines.

Love and Schadenfreude: “Something that can make you do wrong, make you do right.”

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