A young man responded to a recent column by emailing me the story of a moral dilemma he faced when he saw a bee on the ground, unable to fly, its wings flapping desperately, disoriented.
“I stood there watching the bee a long time, just to see if it would fly away… I felt many things, to name a few, sadness anger…Thinking of all the chemicals and pesticides we use on plants, flowers, and how bees and animals, in general, are treated…Anyway I just stood there thinking and feeling bad for the bee so I decided to step on it and end its misery. It sounds mean, but I did it with the best intentions at heart.”
It seems a small thing, I suppose, but something about it intrigued me so I engaged in a conversation with him. He told he never finished high school, working odd jobs more than attending class, and said his name was Abel Montes Jr., and that he was 21 and looking for work.
I thought about his story and our conversation for days trying to understand why crushing a dying bee seemed to hold a greater meaning. It crystallized the other night watching the new movie “Hannah Arendt” about the great writer and political thinker who created a global uproar in 1960 with her account of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Israel.
Her judgment on Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust was captured in her book’s subtitle and its final words — “the banality of evil.”
Watching the trial, she concluded that Eichmann was the epitome of the “good German” — an unthinking (and poorly educated) bureaucrat who did his duty and obeyed the law without taking even the slightest responsibility for his actions.
Arendt accepted his claim that he was not anti-Semitic and argued that the greatest evils in history were not perpetuated by the fanatics like Hitler but by ordinary people who accepted the orders from authority without resistance or challenge, without thinking for themselves.
In other words, we all have the moral imperative to make conscious and deliberate choices, to stand up for our beliefs, even when it comes to whether we walk on by or decide to terminate the life of a dying bee.
I have tried and largely failed for the last 50 years as a journalist, as a citizen, to put into words the world as I see it, as I experience it, to attempt to define the moral calculus of our collective lives. As circumstances would have it, the death of a bee will stand as the last metaphor of my relationship with you on Sundays in the Glendale News-Press, though I still intend to write occasionally on topics of local interest.
It hasn’t been easy writing this column nearly every Sunday for the last three years. I don’t live in the Glendale-Burbank-Pasadena area. I don’t know the communities that well so every week required reinventing the wheel, discovering a story with relevance to the region, and trying to peel away the nonsense to reveal some meaningful core.
I couldn’t have done it without the help of a lot of people including public servants like Glendale City Manager Scott Ochoa and Sgt. Tom Lorenz, the city’s public information officer, whose openness in discussing city issues and willingness to provide access to public documents is in sharp contrast to the way writers are treated in the town I’ve called home for so long, Los Angeles.
For the last 33 years of my 50-year career in journalism, Los Angeles has been my news beat — a city I love and hate, a post-cultural society where traditional institutions of family, tribe, religion are weak, where the myths of absolute freedom have been twisted into a narcissistic belief that you can be anything you want, have anything you want — if you want it bad enough.
It is a culture of greed and selfishness on a scale the world has never seen before.
Many of us come here to reinvent ourselves, to work out our karma as a I did in the San Fernando Valley, where I found a calling at the Daily News as an apostle of the middle class, something I’d run away from in my youth.
The story of the Valley, once the largest geographical enclave of middle-class life in the world, and City Hall’s assault on it has been my story through exposure of the officially-sanctioned use of police violence against the poor and minorities, the documentation of how the Valley is denied a fair share of city services and the trumpeting of the possibilities of what the Valley could be like as its own city — the richest, safest and most integrated big city in America.
After retiring in 2008, I wrote columns nearly every day on my blog about the destructive actions and policies of City Hall, organized community groups to fight for a more responsive and democratic city government and founded a citizen journalism project — all futile efforts in the face of a political system that is as closed and narrow as any in America.
It’s not like that in your communities, which is why I jumped at the offer in early 2011 from News-Press Editor Dan Evans to write a weekly column.
It has been refreshing, cleansing really, to learn more about your communities and see how they work, to break out of the strangling conformity of corporate journalism’s formats, to express myself in writing better than I had ever done before.
You made good choices living in cities where people still count, where the concerns of the residents and businesses are important to officials, where elections are not under the absolute control of a political machine with all the money and power.
Your cities are not paradises, but the streets and sidewalks are paved, the infrastructure generally in good repair, crime low, the economies relatively healthy. They would be even better if more of you paid attention and got involved in community life and the political process.
At a time when America is engaged in a suicidal national political war that is casting a dark shadow over all our futures, we need to take far more seriously what is going on all around us.
We need to stop being “good Americans,” stop accepting the orders of the state, stop surrendering to the controls of the corporations, stop defining ourselves as little more than consumers of goods and services.
We have left the fight for our country’s survival to the fanatics on the fringes and powerful special interests while most of us act like we are just innocent bystanders without a stake in the outcome. It’s time we stand up for what we believe and respect the beliefs of others. It is the only way we will find the common ground and deal successfully with a world that is changing so dramatically.