About Us

Contact Us


MAY 21, 2004


A new bestiary

Total liberty for wolves is death to the lambs
By Betsey Culp

Y’all may have been cheated of the season’s comic tour de force.

I planned to begin this column, “Budding fiction writers should pay a visit to San Francisco’s City Hall, which offers material for half a dozen Dickenses or Eggarses.” As a rollicking example, I planned to include a description of today’s Board of Supervisors inquiry into the operations of the Planning Department. You can imagine the scene: Supervisor Aaron Peskin, an embodiment of the old riddle in black (suit) & white (shirt) & red (tie) all over, his index finger massaging the boundaries of his beard as he questions the witnesses before him; Supervisor Chris Daly, his short-sleeved taupe shirt hanging loosely outside his slacks, looking young and engaged as he skirmishes over questions of BOS and mayoral power; Lawrence Badiner, mustache and temples turning gray after years of service in the Planning Department, projecting an image of cooperation and flexibility in sharp contrast to the demeanor of the director he stands in for; and of course, a herd of public commenters.

It would have been funny. Not because these caretakers of our future are ridiculous or foolish — far from it. But because the intersection of rich characters such as these can lead to unexpected turns of events. The I Ching provides the template: “Shock comes — oh, oh! Laughing words — ha, ha!”

But the week got in the way.

You remember this week, don’t you?

Turning and turning…

CNN greeted early risers on Monday with the story that a suicide bomber had killed Ezzedine Salim, president of the Iraqi Governing Council, as he waited for his car to clear the checkpoint leading into U.S. headquarters in Baghdad. The broadcast completed its one-two punch by announcing that U.S. officials had recently turned up an artillery shell containing sarin, the nerve gas that terrorized Tokyo subways in 1997.

Within the widening gyre…

That afternoon, San Francisco recorded its 35th homicide of the year, when Chris Johnson was shot in his car in the Safeway lot at Fillmore and Eddy. Soon afterward, across the bay, on the Berkeley campus, an errant delivery truck cut short the life of an old friend, history professor and activist Reginald Zelnik.

The falcon cannot hear the falconer…

On Wednesday, videos from the village of Makr al-Deeb showed sobbing men prostrate beside a row of graves, little more than holes in the barren dirt, about to receive several small bodies. Iraqis said the children died when U.S. forces attacked a wedding party; the U.S. government said the target was a way-station for foreign infiltrators. The U.S. government provided no pictures.

Things fall apart…

On Thursday, newscasts transmitted chaotic reports that U.S. troops and Iraqi police in Baghdad had invaded the home and office of former knight-in-shining-armor Ahmed Chalabi. His supporters captured the airways, delivering coherent charges of injustice done to their leader; the U.S. government kept quiet, only later stammering out a series of incoherent explanations for the raid.

The center cannot hold…

Early Thursday morning in San Francisco, would-be thieves shot and killed an Ocean View man who was trying to protect his car. A little later, two men shot and killed 23-year-old Annie Powell on a street in the Bayview. And in the evening, gunfire erupted at 19th Avenue and Junipero Serra, sending three men to the hospital.

And a blood dimmed tide…

Friday morning, the Washington Post and other newspapers across the country released photographs and videos documenting more abuses in Abu Ghraib prison.

Is loosed upon the world…

A week like this makes one wonder if old Willie Yeats was right. Does it stand as evidence that a rough beast, its “gaze as blank / And pitiless as the sun,” is slouching across the desert toward Bethlehem, heralding the Second Coming.

Perhaps it does, if you’re apocryphally inclined. “Shaped like a lion / It has the head of a man,” says Yeats. But many other beasts inhabit our brave new world. One is the wolf of total liberty.

Lupus libertatis. The beast that brings death to the lambs of the earth, in a gruesome survival of the fittest.

Lupus libertatis. The wolf of total liberty. The beast championed by University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss. “It would be absurd,” Strauss wrote, “to hamper the free flow of wisdom by any regulations; hence the rule of the wise must be absolute rule. It would be equally absurd to hamper the free flow of wisdom by consideration of the unwise wishes of the unwise; hence the wise rulers ought not to be responsible to the unwise subjects.” Strauss became the patron saint of many Washington neocoms.

“It would be absurd,” Strauss wrote. But we live in absurd times. In times like these, the lambs sometimes marshal their unwise wishes into coordinated resistance against the ruling wolves. In absurd times like these, the fittest sometimes falter, unable to adapt the free flow of their wisdom to new conditions.

When Leo Strauss rode out onto the field of intellectual jousting, accompanied by his faithful wolf, he often ran headlong into another philosopher knight. Isaiah Berlin parried Strauss’s every thrust and offered his own ripostes. Berlin sided with the lambs.

In contrast to Strauss’s lupine elitism, Berlin relished “the conception that there are many different ends that men may seek and still be fully rational, fully men, capable of understanding each other and sympathizing and deriving light from each other, as we derive it from reading Plato or the novels of medieval Japan.” It was pluralism, he argued, that could restrain the wolf of total liberty.

Pluralism. An American crop that grows as naturally as the grasses on the prairies. It will be interesting to see what a little cultivation can do.

And to close the circle — bet you thought I’d never get there — it is pluralism that can breathe new life into the moribund institution known as the San Francisco Planning Department. Tongue hanging out and legs quivering, the poor creature has dragged itself off to a quiet place, perhaps to die, perhaps to regain its strength. If what I saw today is any indication, help is on the way. And with that help come renewed possibilities for storytelling, to fill the notebooks of countless budding fiction writers.

But more of that next week…