Courage, Northwest style

How would you define courage? Credit: jakobsdiary/Flickr

Editor's Note: This essay is the first in a series on courage that will run in advance of Crosscut's first annual "Courage Awards" ceremony on October 31st.

“The fact is that running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage,” Justice Antonin Scalia chided James Bopp, the appropriately named attorney who was arguing for keeping secret the names of those who signed a Washington state anti-gay initiative. “The First Amendment does not protect you from criticism or even nasty phone calls when you exercise your political rights to legislate, or to take part in the legislative process.”

Scalia was invoking one of the deepest traditions in Western democracy, classically phrased by Pericles in his famous funeral oration: “The secret of happiness is freedom, and the secret of freedom is courage.” Courage, that is, tempered by the other three cardinal virtues of wisdom and prudence and justice, lest the courage become recklessness or pride. But above all, courage “because,” as Winston Churchill said, “it is the quality that guarantees all others.”

Seattle is a good city on the courage scale. We owe this to our openness, our ever-renewing population of stubborn individualists, and our DNA of risk-taking — what was called from the start “the Seattle Spirit.”

It may be that we are currently tilted too far in the direction of entrepreneurial risk-taking, at the expense of civic courage, and that our big local companies think more of global scale than local betterment. But the bright river of courage finds many channels, braiding through our region.

Primer on courage

In writing about civic courage in our town and our history, and dipping my own toe in that bright river a few times, I’ve learned a few lessons I’d like to propose.

One lesson is that we journalists have a hard time discerning civic courage at the time, for it is often shy or invisible until later. Former Gov. John Spellman, for instance, whom I regularly and mistakenly lampooned as a weak leader in the 1980s, was actually extremely courageous. He stood up to industrial interests, pushed for open housing way before other politicians, and paid the price of losing office by going along with needed tax increases. Spellman knew that letting others take credit and muting your own ego were often keys to effective civic courage.

Another courageous leader I failed to spot at the time was former Mayor Norm Rice, who understood that Seattle’s school desegregation plan wasn’t working and that only a black mayor could undo it. He used the artful device of a citywide summit to author a better plan. Rice also dared to make the first comprehensive case for more density in Seattle, calling it “urban villages.”

A second lesson is that, to quote Napoleon, “courage is like love; it must have hope to nourish it.” It takes two to do this civic dance. Hope arises most when ambition and courage are likely to pay off by winning office or toppling a tired status-quo. Courageous politicians like John Miller, who jumped into city politics in the early 1970s, knew that boldness was coming in vogue, a way to stand out against “a musty, crusty city council.” Miller advocated tearing down the Alaska Way Viaduct, and might have even found federal money for a replacement if U.S. Congressman Norm Dicks hadn’t grabbed the dollars ahead of him and used them for the downtown Tacoma spur.

Miller and others were encouraged by the inspiring, noisy advocacy of U.W. architecture professor Victor Steinbrueck, who spotted earlier than others the trend toward historic preservation and had the galvanizing example of saving the Pike Place Market. Jim Ellis, an early warrior against sprawl and weak governments, also set an example of vanguard leadership. Both were stubborn and amazingly persistent, which it takes to overcome Seattle’s smothering penchant for endless process and passive-aggressive resistance.

Goad to happiness

As for my own modest efforts as a civic entrepreneur, here are a few things I learned.

First, it takes a goad. The motto of the entrepreneur is very often, “I’ll show ‘em” — the ‘em being a boss who kept saying no or friends who say “that’ll never work.” Gordon Bowker, a friend who was among the three Seattleites who started Starbucks, never tires of kidding me for having told him it was a stupid idea. In the case of Seattle Weekly, which I co-founded in 1976, the goad was getting aced out and feeling stiffed when I tried to buy another publication. Town Hall, which I helped launch in 1998, grew out of alarm at another potential savior of the old building whom (I felt) had to be outmaneuvered.

Second lesson: once goaded, you must soon find a wise mentor and supporters. For Seattle Weekly, it was the arts patron and financier Bagley Wright, reminding me of how little I understood about business and saying at crucial times, "Don't get daunted!" For Town Hall, my mentor was Patsy Bullitt Collins, patron of the lovely old buildings on First Hill. She taught me the wisdom of her grandmother, who had started the Seattle Symphony: "You can do fine things in this town, but not alone and only if you do it together, preferably with mostly women."

That supportive environment springs from two notable Seattle traits. One is the forgiving spirit of the town, which encourages those who start things to do so again, even after an earlier failure. They say the hardest thing for an entrepreneur is to start the second venture, whose failure might show the first success was a fluke. “Go for it!” is the usual advice in this town — particularly if the new idea has civic merit.

The other supportive trait is the way Seattle enjoys enormously powerful surges of creative courage simultaneously along many fronts – political, cultural and business. The first great surge was 1900-1920, the era of Progressivism and great population growth in Seattle. The second spurt was 1965-80, a period of economic boom, political renewal, urban urgency in the face of suburbanization, and cultural ambition. The third surge is right now, fueled by technology, globalization, wealth and all those talented newcomers in town.

Step right up, examplars of the noble virtue of civic courage! And don't forget to tip your hat to the Seattle Spirit that prompts (and rewards) such boldness time and again.

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