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A Fieldguide to Avian-Americans

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The dove is a symbol of peace but symbolism is a tricky business. Perhaps due to its reputed monogamy and habit of living among humans without  much friction the dove has been such since biblical times at least. Likewise the corruption of symbols, the dove included, has always been a staple of human interaction whether in a friendly confusion as happened with our Martian friends or with malign and murderous cunning. The dove, like the olive branch, is a somewhat arbitrary vehicle for sentiment and as all good people are learning, sentiment has immovable limitations.

The clear opposite of the Dove, in politics as in fact, is the Hawk. While the Doves are an ancient political race the Hawk, or War Hawk was only conceived around 1812. “War Hawk” was what the peaceniks of that day called those who sought to resist Britain on the high seas. The Brits, you understand, did not admit to the existence of such a thing as an American Citizen, only British Subjects. One of the things Britons were subject to was the press-gang, meaning a young man would be abducted off the streets of some port or taken with his entire crew and ship which were “pressed” into service in the Royal Navy. Conscientious objectors, if not hanged, were dropped into prison hulks; old rotten ships anchored in harbor with only the meagerest rations and care.  The Star-Spangled Banner was written by an American on the deck of a British ship during this ill-remembered encore to our Revolution that saw the President run off like a chicken.

In that time as in all others those who opposed war, the Doves, denounced those who supported war as unthinking predators craving nothing but a vapid glory or the profits they might finagle from the deaths of other men. Then as now any fact or principle that might suggest war as the proper course was simple rubbish. The warmongers argue for war just as the fishmonger argues for fish. War Hawk was definitely a term of insult but a curious one in a nation whose icon is an even more fearsome eagle.

Hawks and Doves continue in their apposition as all witness ad nauseum. While the Doves accuse the Hawks of heartlessness the Hawks indict the Doves for fecklessness. And war is far from the only subject on which this occurs. There are Budget Hawks and Deficit Doves; those who do not council war but only less pliability in our foreign relations are still Hawks, according to the tractable Doves. Hawks on Social Security want to cut it. Doves desire to expand it. A simpler and less inflammatory nomenclature suggests itself. It seems that Hawk and Dove are almost synonymous with Right and Left. With a bit of jiggering this can well be said on issue to issue but as always Reality does not play nice. Who is the Hawk on Iraq? Basically W and the so-called neo-cons. On Afghanistan? That’s a chewier bit of suet. Those baffled by Obama’s loose embrace of Afghanistan, mostly Doves of the Left, should understand it as a tactical maneuver to prevent the label of Dove, peacenik or pacifist from adhering too conspicuously to the aspiring Candidate. On the Left the proud Progressive still understands that pacifism tends to get its wings clipped electorally whenever it is too obvious. It is to this fact that we owe the Iraq war votes of Senators Kerry, Clinton and many another. As much as America at large admires the Dove they do not wish to carry one as a battle standard. Indeed, it would convert that standard into a flag of surrender or at least truce. So the question always becomes, are we at war or are we not? If not, the Dove. If so, the Hawk. Pearl Harbor turned a stubbornly cooing nation into a flock of screaming raptors over a Sunday afternoon. But the struggle for the definitions and declarations is still one between Hawks and Doves. Was 911 an act of war or a particularly spectacular crime? Hawk and Dove each have their predictable answer. So what bird is which on Libya?  Here things get up-ended and scattered to the skies. You do not hear such a discussion on Libya, do you? Hawk and Dove, to the extent they are serious appellations, serve as shorthand for enthusiasts or laggards. With the tables not turned but smashed on the ground the terms fail so the temptation becomes irresistible to mark out a third way, either between the arrayed camps or, even better, high above them. Enter a new species; the Owl.

It was Alan Greenspan in his former life as a Congressman who first coined this crapulent evasion. The subject was the war in Viet Nam. What is needed, he intoned, was a repudiation of both the Hawks like Johnson and Nixon and the Doves of McGovernite circles. The owl is wise, right? With his diurnal apathy and panda-bear eyes the Owl is unruffled, majestic and inquisitive. He asks perpetually Who? Who? Given his resemblance to an Owl in his coke-bottle glasses, it is not too much to presume that Greenspan would answer, Me! Me! The political Owl was allegedly beyond the parochialism and ideological restraints that kept the Hawks and Doves from seeing common ground and simple sense. The Owl, unlike his competitors, considers What is Right for the Country as opposed to Politics as Usual. Ross Perot made claims to Owl-hood though time proved him to be more of a loon. In every setting and on every issue our current President lays a presumptuous claim to the Owl’s favorite branch. Really all of them do. John McCain would seem to be the Hawk’s Hawk by pedigree though he was far more the Dove than his constituents on most issues, but he also considers himself an Owl. By definition the Owlish position, whether it is for immediate surrender or carpet-bombing, can be neither cruel, like the Hawk nor cowardly like the Dove. It is as if when you go into the voting booth your choices are Common Sense versus Partisan Games. The Owl is for Common Sense; everyone else, otherwise.

Common Sense is what we certainly want in our banker, isn’t it? In our Central Bankers, even more. So that desire is being rhetorically fulfilled by a Sarah Bloom Raskin, a soaring official at the Federal Reserve. She eschews the daft dichotomy between Hawk and Dove on all matters under her purview and implies that this is the attitude at the Fed generally. We don’t have particular, principled views on controversies like Inflation or Unemployment or the Debt or the Deficit or even the Currency. So what does direct the Fed? “We are trying to be as wise as possible in deploying all the tools we have to fulfill our legal mandate.” unlike every other silly goose you know who is trying to be as UNWISE as possible! See how simple these things really are? But since this is her bird of choice and, coming from Greenspan, has such a venerable plumage, let’s examine what an Owl metaphor might imply. First off, the Owl is no vegetarian. He is no less bloodthirsty nor skilled as a hunter than the Hawk. Rather the Owl does his predation at night in the privacy of darkness impenetrable to us day-dwellers. He seeks the unwary; the mouse caught out. This is nature’s version of the Fed’s operational secrecy and aversion to audit. Would the Owl have such a reputation as a wise, honest broker if he were seen devouring bunnies at noontime? With eyes so large, surely the Owl sees more clearly than the Hawk or the Dove, but not in daytime, folks. Peering into our reality the Owl will see only a painful glare so he closes his eyes and sleeps. Folklore tells us we want him to remain asleep. What is the hoot of an Owl in the sunlight but a harbinger of death? When in his own element the Owl lingers and listens; his head swivels silently but what interests him is no different from what interests the Hawk, which is an available meal, the more easily procured the better. And as always, the Dove is a viable option given its poor flying, diet of garbage and habit of traveling in unmissable flocks.

So however regal, no, the Owls do not hold the answers. Nor do the numberless Turkeys in our Legislature and government, though revered by Benjamin Franklin as the truly unique American bird. The Swan (a goose with better PR) is likewise a poor candidate, being vain and belligerent though reputedly monogamous. The Penguin holds no greater wisdom except maybe on Antarctic survival. The Pelican? No, he will swallow anything, an indictment that attaches even more thoroughly to the Buzzard. The industrious Sandpiper and the languorous Gull, the Peacock, the Ostrich, Duck and Plover have all been seen on the public stage and all have left a dreadful mess of pinfeathers and droppings. Perhaps we should have a politics of men, not of birds, as we have a nation of laws, not of men. Because on whatever wings soar those in the back of our limousines and in our high offices who peck always at our seed they see us all as only one species.


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