Anna Peterson is the Mayor of Salem, Oregon's capital. She is really fond of calling this town the "collaboration capital."
I counted up 11 times collaboration was used in Peterson's 2013 State of the City speech. Just about every time I hear her talk, she manages to squeeze in "collaboration capital."
What does this really mean, though? Everybody collaborates. Everybody cooperates. (The two words are basically synonymous.)
We humans are social animals. We flock together. We work together. We aren't lone wolves. Of course, wolves aren't alone either. They too collaborate and cooperate.
So why is Mayor Peterson making such a big deal out of something every Homo sapiens society does?
My view, which is shared by quite a few other people I've talked with, is that Peterson views collaboration as a warmer and fuzzier term than groupthink -- which really is what she is after.
Meaning, the Mayor highly values everybody agreeing with her. Any disagreement is seen as disharmony, disloyalty, dissension, body blows to the "let's all go along with what I want" pseudo-collaboration Peterson pushes for.
I'm reading a fascinating book by historian Yuval Noah Harrari, "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind."
Here's what Harrari has to say about cooperation, which, again, is the same as collaboration. He has just observed how the Roman Empire collected taxes from up to 100 million subjects at its zenith.
Impressive, no doubt, but we mustn't harbour rosy illusions about 'mass cooperation networks' operating in pharaonic Egypt or the Roman Empire. 'Cooperation' sounds very altruistic, but is not always voluntary and seldom egalitarian. Most human cooperation networks have been geared toward oppression and exploitation.
The peasants paid for the burgeoning cooperation networks with their precious food surpluses, despairing when the tax collector wiped out an entire year of hard labour with a single stroke of his imperial pen. The famed Roman amphitheatres were often built by slaves so that wealthy and idle Romans could watch other slaves engage in vicious gladiatorial combat.
Even prisons and concentration camps are cooperation networks, and can function only because thousands of strangers manage to coordinate their actions.
All these cooperation networks -- from the cities of ancient Mesopotamia to the Qin and Roman empires -- were "imagined orders'. The social norms that sustained them were based neither on ingrained instincts nor on personal acquaintances, but rather on belief in shared myths.
Thus collaboration and cooperation isn't a good thing in itself. As Harrari points out, people can be forced to participate in cooperation networks that are harmful to their own well-being, while benefiting the rich and powerful.
Here in Salem, Mayor Peterson uses more subtle tools than slavery and imprisonment. She seeks to get her way by means such as intimidation, shunning, shaming, and brow-beating.
Those who go along with her conservative/right-wing policies that generally favor Salem's version of the 1% are given a favored seat at the Collaboration Capital Table. Those who question the wisdom of her dictates are slammed as boo-birds and bomb-throwers.
Which, of course, isn't the way genuine collaboration operates.
In the passage I quoted Harari implies that cooperation should be voluntary and egalitarian. Everybody has a seat at the table; nobody is forced to agree just for the sake of agreement.
This is a far cry from how Salem's mostly conservative City Council runs this liberal-majority town.
And how top City of Salem officials go about promoting the supposed "public interest." Actually, special interests -- Chamber of Commerce, large corporations, PAC's -- pull the strings behind the scenes to benefit themselves.
So almost always there is a hidden agenda behind Mayor Peterson's "collaboration capital" promotional efforts. She isn't really trying to involve everybody in Salem -- just those who will get behind the groupthink aimed at feathering the nests of the already rich and powerful.
Here's an idea: wouldn't it be great if Salem became a Creative Capital? Or a Caring Capital? Or a Conservation Capital? Or... dare I dream?... a Creative Caring Conservation Capital?
A town that genuinely cares about making life better for 100% of its citizens, not just the 1%; a town that sincerely seeks creative ways of doing this, rather than regurgitating outmoded social, environmental, and urban design policies; a town that preserves its natural and historic resources rather than foolishly sacrificing them for selfish short-term gain.
Sounds good to me. Way better than Mayor Peterson's illusory Collaboration Capital.
Well said, Brian – we need more exposure of this type here in Salem.
I would only add that Peterson's tactics of shunning and shaming those who hold independent views stem from a group imperative that has her in the same bind that she herself uses to try to hamstring independent thinkers among the Salem population. That is, if she dares take issue with the Chamber, for example, then Chamber members will shun and shame her, and if the Chamber is the nexus of her social circle, which seems likely, then she herself will become ostracized. So while civic-minded citizens have the luxury of operating out of hope, her having chosen to serve the local oligarchy instead of the people leaves her having to operate out of fear.
What goes around comes around . . .
Posted by: Jack Holloway | July 09, 2015 at 06:51 AM
Great post Brian. Speaking truth to power once again. Another Peterson quote we hear often: "We've already decided that!" She said that about the decision to locate the new police facility on Mirror Pond, and we heard it just a few weeks ago about the 3rd Bridge. And where were those things decided? Usually behind closed doors.
Posted by: Jim Scheppke | July 09, 2015 at 06:02 PM
Brian, EVERYTHING you have said about Anna in regards to collaboration also applies to you and me as well.
There have been a number of events over the years that you and I, (unbelievably) came down on the same side and fought.
Were we in any mood to "collaborate"?
I have been looking at my portfolio and considering purchasing the property next to you and putting in a low income trailer park.
Can I expect collaboration from you?
I'm thinking, 20 trailers per acre.
Of course, you know I'm kidding.
So to make it even more palatable, how about if we open the lots up ONLY to illegal aliens?
Would you collaborate with that?
I will need collaboration so that I can put the hiking trail through your property and directly behind your house.
You are a collaborator; aren't you?
Huggs & Kisses!!!
Posted by: Harry Vanderpool | July 09, 2015 at 10:51 PM
Harry, I think there is actually a really good chance you can build your dream illegal immigrant trailer park next to Brian's house, -IF- you are good enough friends with the mayor and her circle of friends.
Depending on how tight you all are, I bet you could get all necessary zoning changed, urban renewal funds (a district created if needed), a 10 year tax abatement, a $1 million performance bonus, and any needed land of Brian's seized by eminent domain and handed over to you.
The mayor can then say she collaborated with the neighborhood in approving the development (actually just talking to only you, not any other neighbors, but hey she would technically be correct you ARE part of the neighborhood), and then say that yes the neighbors' voices about this development will be listened to by taking their input on what color to paint the picket fence around the development. Which the city will pay for.
Posted by: Salemander | July 10, 2015 at 01:58 AM