Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

How about monkey see, monkey DON'T do next time?

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What a lot of monkey business. The city's chief administrative officer, Phil Sheegl, was in the U.S. earlier this month when he saw a statue that he liked. He bought it with his own money, shipped it home and had it installed near his own office at city hall. Ever since, some of Winnipeg's dimmer bulbs have been wondering: "What does he mean by that?"

According to the city's chief operating officer -- whatever that means -- Sheegl bought the statue just because he "liked the piece."

And that makes sense, or at least it would in a more common-sensical world than Winnipeg politics. The statue portrays figures that are familiar to everyone -- my amma, my grandmother, had a little figurine of them in her bedroom. They are the "three wise monkeys." One has his hand over his eyes, one over his lips, one over his ears. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil is what the iconography says, but what that actually means is open to endless dispute and in this particularly stupid situation, the question has become: What is the city's chief administrative officer trying to tell the people of Winnipeg?

Well, the monkeys say various things to various people. In the Orient, where the fable originates, it is seen as an endorsement of the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you -- although it is hard to imagine how "see no evil" fits into that equation, at least in any Western understanding of it. In the West, they are seen as something contradictory to that -- the three monkeys in the Western mind epitomize moral abdication, the washing of the hands, the refusal to acknowledge and take responsibility for the evil that occurs around us.

Under pressure that must have surprised him from media and city councillors, Sheegl finally suggested that he ascribed to the Asian interpretation of the three monkeys -- you can't go wrong with the golden rule -- although if he did buy the statue as a subliminal political message to the city, one might prefer that he embraced the darker, Western interpretation, given the city's present condition.

In some presentations, there is a fourth monkey who sits with his hands clasped. He is called "do no evil" and this fiasco reminds us that he should perhaps be more commonly included in the display, which would make the message of the monkeys much more clear.

In the meantime, we should all remember that, as Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a piece of art is just a fancy.

...by Tom Oleson

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 29, 2011 J13

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