See What You See

Closing remarks at the general meeting of the organization known as We Are People Here!

September 27, 2011

It is autumn, 2011, and one is reminded of a distant November in which William Butler Yeats wrote:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
… everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Little there is in the world this autumn to give us hope.   A savage streak is revealed in the American psyche as we willingly and mercilessly execute men in the prisons in Georgia and Texas and Alabama. 

A primitive ideological streak is revealed in our politics as candidates for the presidency quarrel over who will treat migrants more harshly, who is more Christian, or, on the other hand, who is more apt to invoke the vengeance of an angry God.  

A conceptual bankruptcy is revealed in our economics as the followers of Ayn Rand seek to divorce the free-market hero from the common good and insist that the formula for human progress is to disavow society.  Rand’s followers in the House of Representatives last week would only vote to alleviate the suffering of flood and tornado victims if they were allowed to increase the suffering of the sick or the elderly.  It is as if the House of Representatives had been taken over by bookkeepers of suffering who will only treat pain as if it were asset management.

The Federal Reserve this month declares more money available to banks, but the businesses to which these banks will now loan are those whose income stream is guaranteed by increasing productivity.  This is, unfortunately, a productivity that is produced by reducing the work force and exporting jobs overseas.  The banks do not therefore create jobs, as they are touted to do by the Congressional bookkeepers, but lend to firms that cut jobs and neither the Federal Reserve nor the Treasury has the courage and skill to loan directly to construction, manufacturing, conservation, education, or technology.

None of this has prevented the continued concentration of income and wealth at the highest levels of our society and none of this can give hope to people on the American left who have seen the citadels of power and are so discouraged that they are now prepared to concede that democracy and plutocracy cannot exist together. And since we have plutocracy, they say, we do not have democracy.  It does not exist here any more.

Someone in the labor movement said to me recently: “We cannot win this fight. Democracy is already done.”

It is my habit to do my work beside a window where I can see the birds that come to the feeder or to the water trough.  I keep track of who among them has come to call and can tell the changing seasons by their arrivals and departures.  When the Juncos come it is time to prepare for snow, and when they leave it is time to prepare to plant.  A person can estimate the turnings of a life just by who flies in and who stays for the night.

The African Collared Dove is a special one. This bird is larger and more elegant than a mourning dove and is neither white nor golden but buff, half way between. The experts say that it does not exist here.  My books say that it was imported to Los Angeles and may only be found in that area, mostly still in cages.

So it does not exist here.

And then I saw one.

All alone, out of nowhere at the water, a large, buff-colored bird larger and whiter than any comparable species, waiting patiently to be observed, leaving no question that, contrary to all the experts, contrary to all the recorded knowing that she is only caged in Los Angeles, was here stopping by the water, beauty incarnate, out of her cage and free.

Look here, right now, she says.  Look at me.  See what you see. Pay attention to your eyes, not your books.  Use your own senses.  See me, but not just me.  See dry grasses gleaming in the morning light.  See their seeds dropping down to nest for the winter.  Hear, this autumn, not only the mourning dove’s wail; hear also the chortle of the thrasher and the delight of the chickadee, the soaring wings of the raven.  See and hear them all.

With that, the white bird left her branch in the pinons and was gone.

She did not come by this way, I think, to be registered in my bird book.

She came to encourage me to see what I see, no matter what experts say I see.  She came to tell me that if I see the gleam of morning sun on the grasses I can also see democracy here in this room. If I see an African Collared Dove, I can see intelligence and compassion here in this city.  If I see elegance outside of its cage, then there is most certainly wisdom and good will here in this state and here in this land.  And if I see these things, let no one, not even any one who is expert in American politics, not in the unions, not on Wall Street, say to me that democracy will not exist here.

The exquisite buff white bird that does not exist here was here.  She had somehow escaped the cage, and so might we.

Thank you, and good night.