Seeing the Cat

Some stories are well told just as they are. This one is from Louis F. Post’s book, The Prophet of San Francisco (pp. 12-14). Apparently the phrase “seeing the cat” was a colloquialism that today might be said as “getting it” or understanding a point that is obscure to those who find the idea – well, inconceivable. The expression “seeing the cat” is said to have originated in a speech by Judge James G. Maguire in support of land value taxation in the late 1880s. In his speech, Judge Maguire said:

I was one day walking along Kearney Street in San Francisco when I noticed a crowd in front of the show window of a store. They were looking at something inside. I took a glance myself, but saw only a poor picture of an uninteresting landscape.

As I was turning away my eye caught these words underneath the picture: “Do you see the cat?” I looked again and more closely, but I saw no cat. Then I spoke to the crowd. “Gentlemen,” I said, “I do not see a cat in that picture; is there a cat there?” Some one in the crowd replied: “Naw, there ain’t no cat there. Here’s a crank who says he sees a cat in it, but none of the rest of us can.” Then the crank spoke up. “I tell you,” he said, “there is a cat there. The picture is all cat. What you fellows take for a landscape is nothing more than a cat’s outlines. And you needn’t call a man a crank either because he can see more with his eyes than you can with yours.”

Well, I looked again very closely at the picture, and then I said to the man they were calling a crank, “Really, sir, I cannot make out a cat in that picture. I can see nothing but a poor drawing of a commonplace landscape.” “Why, Judge,” the crank exclaimed, “just you look at that bird in the air. That’s the cat’s ear.” I looked but was obliged to say: “I am sorry to be so stupid but I really cannot make a cat’s ear of that bird. It’s a poor bird, but not a cat’s ear.” “Well, then,” the crank persisted, “look at that twig twirled around in a circle; that’s the cat’s eye.” But I couldn’t make out an eye. “Oh, well,” returned the crank a bit impatiently, “look at those sprouts at the foot of the tree, and the grass; they make the cat’s claws.” After a rather deliberate examination, I reported that they did look a little like claws, but I couldn’t connect them with a cat. Once more the crank came back at me as cranks will. “Don’t you see that limb off there? and that other limb just under it? and that white space between?” he asked. “Well, that white space is the cat’s tail.” I looked again and was just on the point of replying that there was no cat’s tail there that I could see, when suddenly the whole cat stood out before me.

There it was, sure enough, just as the crank had said; and the only reason the rest of us couldn’t see it was that we hadn’t got the right angle of view. but now that I saw the cat, I could see nothing else in the picture. The poor landscape had disappeared and a fine looking cat had taken its place. And do you know, I was never afterwards able, upon looking at that picture, to see anything in it *but* the cat.

 In one view, “the cat” is the possibility of a world without privilege. It can also be the possibility of a world where fairness is the common practice and where respect for human dignity is the norm. Let us all work to build a world where this cat is soon out of the bag!

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