Friday, July 1, 2016

A new city motto, modestly proposed

Emblem from a bill of Continental currency.
Design by Benjamin Franklin.

On another is drawn an eagle on the wing, pouncing upon a crane, who turns upon his back, and receives the eagle on the point of his long bill, which pierces the eagle’s breast; with this motto, EXITUS IN DUBIO EST; — The event is uncertain. The eagle, I suppose, represents Great-Britain, the crane America. This device offers an admonition to each of the contending parties. To the crane, not to depend too much on the success of its endeavours to avoid the contest (by petition, negotiation, &c.) but prepare for using the means of defence God and nature hath given it; and to the eagle, not to presume on its superior strength, since a weaker bird may wound it mortally. - Letter from Benjamin Franklin to the Pennsylvania Gazette, September 20 1775 published under the pseudonym, Clericus.

"Exitus in dubio est" can also translate as "the outcome is uncertain" which may to the modern ear better capture the spirit of the motto in its day. In any case, it would make a decent submission in any contest to re-motto the city of Rochester.

It is certainly better than the current city motto which is...anyone?...anyone?.... Nobody? OK. The current city motto is: "First Class City. First Class Service." Why, when, and how that came to be the motto, I'll leave to others to uncover. It's more than enough for me to know what the motto is because the answers to those other questions could not possibly make me feel any better about it. Perhaps it would look more impressive in Latin - "Primus genus civitatem. Primum genus servitium." - but even so, as they say, patitur in translationem.*

The authors of this motto, and one can imagined the earnest wordsmithing that it required, strike me as having confused an ennobling epigram of unassailable Latinized conviction with one of those motivational posters that frequently haunt staff lounges. That or a sputtering neon sign outside a diner. Admittedly, other than a certain formal resonance, there's little else to suggest the latter, but there is some reason to give credence to the former.

On the basis of a simple headcount, Rochester is by state statute a "city of the first class". In Minnesota, when your population exceeds 100K that's what you get to be. So, "First Class City" is what Rochester is. Given the polysemous nature of language, saying so allows one to suggest other characteristics as well. Fair enough. We have 100+K people and are a nice place to live to boot - please like us. Sounds a little needy, but there it is.

For me it's the next bit that really puts it up on the wall next to the coffee condiments in the break room and at the top of the Monday morning agenda to inspire the week's work and "remind us of why we are all here." You know the drill.

It's the "First Class Service" part that makes me think the motto was written not for the city but for city employees. It's that part that makes me think that whoever wrote this motto not only forgot "why we are all here" but got it terribly wrong. That they are not alone among governments in getting terribly wrong makes its no less terribly wrong.

Now here is where it gets insidious.

If you go to the city's website you'll find the "City of Rochester Core Values." There you are offered a list of bullet points called "City of Rochester Core Value Statements and Standards."  First among these bullet points:

  • Customer Focus 
    • Identify, plan for, and support customer needs.
    • Seek and consider input from our customers to continually improve services. 
    • Treat every customer well.

Followed by four more headings labeled Respect, Integrity, Safety, and Excellence all referencing in their sub-points at some point the "customer." These core value statements and standards conclude with:
The City of Rochester will RISE to the top in Customer Focus through Respect, Integrity, Safety, and Excellence.
Now, you can imagine here as well the long hours of wordsmithing, the department head meetings, the e-mails and PowerPoint slides that went into crafting these "core values". And yes we see what they did there with that "RISE" thing. So, yeah, a lot of time was expended. Probably a consultant or two enlisted. At the very least a trained facilitator with experience in doing "this sort of thing". Oh, and Post-It Self-Stick Table Top Easel Pads adorned with ideas captured from the break-out groups and covered with colored dots all to be tabulated and reported out in the afternoon session - so everyone grab a sandwich.

Getting to consensus on "core values" is not easy. But, do you see the insidiousness yet? Sure the insipidity is apparent, but that's to be expected. Even with the best of intentions, misplaced as they might be, core value statements generally end up being pretty insipid. But these are insidious as well.

The core values of the city of Rochester are not about living in Rochester.
The core values are not about the quality of life to which the city might aspire.
The core values of the city of Rochester are about working the front counter at city hall.

So, what's wrong with some primum genus servitium at city hall? Well, if we are just "customers", then I suppose there's nothing wrong with expecting "first class service." And if at its core, city hall values us only as customers - consumers of services - then what better than "first class service" could they possibly be expected to offer us? Setting aside for the moment whether we get that level of service at city hall, note that also absent from these standards is not just any notion of the kind of life we value in this city, but any mention of "citizens".

(Pause for a moment and consider that oversight. Not an uncommon one these days as it turns out. Consider as well the Fourth of July holiday that is nearly upon us. And when you are ready, things pick up again below.)

Peter Block writes in Community: The Structure of Belonging, that the "antithesis of being a citizen is the choice to be a consumer or a client....."
Consumers give power away. They believe that their own needs can be best satisfied by the actions of others - whether those others are elected officials, top management, social service providers, or shopping malls. Consumers also allow others to define their needs. If leaders and service providers are guilty of labeling or projecting onto others the 'needs' to justify their own style of leadership or service that they provide, consumers collude with them in accepting others' definitions of their needs.
Bringing us at last to this new motto for the city which I modestly propose: Exitus in dubio est. "The outcome is uncertain."

The current motto is at least open to dissent - if you haven't noticed that's what this is. But the one I modestly propose is so grounded in the nature of human existence and action that it would require the most virulent nihilist to challenge it's veracity especially in this city.

Stercus Accidit would work as well, but it lacks the imprimatur of a Founder and his admonition that faced with uncertain outcomes we should make best use of the means "God and nature hath given [us]". Our divine endowment as it were, or so we have claimed them to be: "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

Perhaps with the uncertainty we face ensconced in the motto of our city, we will not only be reminded of why we came to be here the first place - literally; but we might also appreciate that in doing so:
We, together, become producers of a satisfying future. We see that if we are to be citizens, together we must be the creators and producers of our future. And if we want to be the creators and producers of our future, we must become citizens, not consumers. (McKnight and Block, The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods)
So, in the spirit of the Fourth of July, this: No matter how first class the service, we will not find our future at any front counter in city hall. If we are looking for the future there, we have arrived much too late and will have played no part in its creation.

Oh yes, for you augury fans: Sandhill cranes have been spotted in Rochester.


 * "It suffers in translation."

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