the real world today

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat (II): the three-eyed raven

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, stanza II

In Game of Thrones the three-eyed raven is the seer who is withdrawn from the world, and yet travels, embodied as a raven, to witness the world’s events, even though he already knows everything, from the beginning to the end. His third eye multiplies his perspectives exponentially. It gives him a greater vision of both the past and the future, but no more ability to influence events. Indeed, his knowledge humbles him. He does not seek to change the world, but only to be a compassionate witness, a servant to the fates, and to find his successor in the seer’s tree, Brandon Stark.

Game of Thrones is a melodrama of power, about a world in which power is dictated by warrior codes of honour, family, and renown. It is not a world of power peopled by many bureaucrats. There are the maisters, like the loyal servant of the Starks at Winterfell, who is pledged to serve Theon Greyjoy despite his bloodlust and his folly. There are the spymasters and social climbers, like Little Finger and Varys. But is it possible to see the three-eyed raven as a symbol of a certain kind of bureaucrat?

Another fable of sorts may sharpen the image. Winston Churchill once said that if you put five economists in a room, you get five opinions. Unless, that is, one of the economists is Mr Keynes (John Maynard Keynes), in which case you get six.

I doubt these days if you put five bureaucrats in a room you would get five opinions. You would be lucky to get two. Some would say we can do whatever you wish Mr Churchill. Most would take their lead from the first to express a view, lock in behind it and reassure the Prime Minister that this was a big idea that would secure long-term reform. One or two might quibble about certain risks, but be careful to ensure they were not being seen as sticks in the mud, sceptical of the benefits of change. “I am sure our communications people can hammer out some lines – just a few dot points – that will manage this, Minister,” they might say.

There is, however, at least so I hope and dream, within the scarred and decaying world-tree of government some trios of blackbirds, ready to sing some different songs. They are hard to find these trios since so many have been driven out over the last twenty years as the intellectual culture of the bureaucracy has succumbed to waves of bad ideas and thugs disguised as clerks. But in a few places, not least in my mind, they endure. What do you see when you look at such a bureaucrat?

You see a person of a genuinely open mind, who is capable of generating multiple perspectives on an issue. Such a bureaucrat might, for example, be tasked with devising ways to reduce alcohol problems in the community. They will look around and see quickly that the stakeholders are grouped into armed camps, each convinced in their convictions. On one side is public health, convinced that if you control availability – tax and ban – the problems will go away. On the other side, is industry who will say you need to do something about the problem drinkers, and with a sometimes mixed conscience assure you that regulations always fail. Such bureaucrat will ask is there not a third way, or a fourth, and even a fifth. They will investigate each of the many alternative paths, even if none accompanies them along that way. And they will come back and ask – what do the drinkers have to say about this? What about the principle of nothing about us, without us? Since such bureaucrats can speak many tongues, they will hear the subtleties in every case of special pleading. They will reach across the barricades of entrenched groups, and ask attentively about conditions there. They will present each piece of advice not as a “case for change,” but as a scene from a never-ending drama. The characters will be vividly drawn. They will speak in their true voice. The conflicts will be fundamental – like Weber’s warring gods of ultimate values – and the audience will receive no trite fable. They will be asked to search their own depths for their own most authentic answer, and will know they have responded to a deep question. “What shall we do, and how shall we arrange our lives?”

I cannot be sure how many share my sense of such a vocation of bureaucracy. I know we appear today to be scarce, and even under siege. But I live in the faith that this fragment of culture – and governing is culture, a form of human conduct – is worth preserving. It is a tradition that may be imperilled, but cannot be allowed to die. These figures must persist: the three blackbirds in the tree who give choices to how we arrange our lives together, the three-eyed raven who sees the manifold possibilities of past, present and future, the bureaucrat whose inquiry makes possible choices, compromises and peaceful cohabitation in our society, fragmented into pluralistic totalitarianism, who neither listen, nor speak nor open their minds to strangers.

Inlaid on the marble floor of the Queen’s Hall of Parliament House in Melbourne are these words from Proverbs 11:14: “Where no Counsel is the People Fall; but in the Multitude of Counsellors there is Safety”.


Image: Queen’s Hall Vestibule, Parliament House of Victoria

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