Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Tale for Our Time: The Emperor's New Clothes, Adapted for The Barack Obama Era

The Emperor's New Clothes

Adapted by Barry Rubin from Jean Hersholt's translation of Hans Christian Andersen's story, "Keiserens nye Klæder"

Many years ago there was a man who wanted to be Emperor, for according to the peculiar customs of that country of which I speak, the Emperor was elected. Fortunately for him, and unfortunately for many others, the man met a couple of political consultants who saw him as the ideal client. Together they would ride to the heights of power.

To become Emperor, they explained, required a good image, a fine manner of speaking, and a handsome appearance. But in those days before television, radio, the Internet, etc., a man’s image depended mainly on his clothes.

It was a lucky coincidence that the man was exceedingly fond of clothes. He cared nothing about the disposition of his soldiers, the prestige of his country, or the welfare of his citizens except to show off his own magnificence.

The two political consultants came up with a brilliant strategy. They let it be known that they were weavers, and said they could weave the most magnificent fabrics imaginable. Not only were their colors and patterns uncommonly fine, but also clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was dumb, unfashionable, or possessed of some type of bigotry.

Those who were unusually stupid—people from small towns, for example, who were exceedingly fond of guns and praying, as well as supporters of the previous king—would not be able to see the clothes either.

They set up two looms and pretended to weave, though there was nothing on the looms. All the finest silk and the purest old thread were delivered to them but then given away to groups that supported them, while they worked the empty looms far into the night.

"I'd like to know how those weavers are getting on with the cloth," the journalists thought, but they felt slightly uncomfortable when they remembered that those who were fools, incompetents, or, worse yet, unfashionable would be unable to see the fabric. Nevertheless, they all eagerly accepted the invitation to see the new clothes during the election campaign.

So they rushed into the room where the candidate stood wearing the clothes, that is to say wearing nothing since there were no such clothes.

"Heaven help me," the reporters thought, "I can't see anything at all". But they did not say so.

The political consultants begged them to come near to approve the excellent pattern, the beautiful colors. They pointed to the candidate and the reporters stared as hard as they dared. They couldn't see anything, because there was nothing to see. "Heaven have mercy," they thought. "Can it be that I'm a fool? I'd have never guessed it, and not a soul must know. Am I unfit to be a member of the elite? It would never do to let on that I can't see the cloth."

"Don't hesitate to tell us what you think of it," said one of the consultants.

"Oh, it's beautiful! It's enchanting!" The journalists raved, breaking into applause. Some felt chills running up their legs. "Such a pattern, what colors! I'll be sure to tell the readers and viewers how delighted I am with it."

"We're pleased to hear that," the consultants said. They proceeded to name all the colors and to explain the intricate pattern. The consultants described how these were the colors of Change and this was the cloth of Hope. The journalists took extensive notes so that they could be sure to inform the public of what a great man the candidate was and how he was doing them a favor offering to be their emperor. And so they did.

To make matters even more exciting, the candidate spoke, reading the words that the consultants had written for him from a cunning little mechanism they had made which allowed him to look at a mirror and see the words that had been written down. The journalists were awed by his great powers of speech, by his slogans, and by his ideas though later they could not quite succeed in remembering what he said or explaining precisely what specific practical ideas were uttered.

Soon all the kingdom was talking about the candidate, his splendid suit of clothes, his brilliant manner of speaking, and how he would solve all their problems.

The candidate then attended a huge rally of his frantic supporters. "Magnificent," said the crowd. After all, each one said: "Am I so stupid? Shall I let my colleagues and neighbors know that I cannot see the beauty of the design, the magnificence of the speech, the greatness of the ideas?" And they applauded wildly.

As the candidate paraded through the streets, the words, "Magnificent! Excellent! Unsurpassed!" were bandied from mouth to mouth, and everyone did his best to seem well pleased.

The consultants pointed to each item in turn during background briefings they gave with donators of large sums of money, too. They raised their arms as if they were holding something. They said, "These are the trousers, here's the coat, and this is the hat," naming each garment. "They are as light as a spider web. One would almost think he had nothing on, but that's what makes them so fine."

"Exactly," all the great men of the kingdom agreed, though they could see nothing, for there was nothing to see.

And so the Emperor was elected and everyone was pleased. The clothes and the special machine they had made served him well. He didn't actually do anything but so marvellous did everyone think his suit of splendor that no one demanded more.

Then he toured other countries and they too cheered him and admired the clothes. For he agreed with all that they said and told them that they had been right and all the previous emperors, about whom he apologized, had been wrong.

True, there was one parade where all did not go quite well. At first, everything was as usual. The king put on his special clothes. He turned for one last look in the mirror. "It is a remarkable fit, isn't it?"

The noblemen agreed. They didn't dare admit they saw nothing to praise.

So off went the Emperor in procession. Everyone in the streets and the windows said, "Oh, how fine are the Emperor's new clothes! Don't they fit him to perfection!" Nobody would confess that he couldn't see anything, for that would prove him either unfit for his position if he was an official; unfashionable if he was a member of the elite; or a fool if he was one of the common folk. No costume the Emperor had worn before, and no Emperor, was ever such a complete success.

"But he hasn't got anything on," a little child said.

"Did you ever hear such silliness?" said its father. And one person whispered to another what the child had said, "He hasn't anything on. A child says he hasn't anything on."

"But he hasn't got anything on!" said the child!

"That child is nothing more than a clothingist!" muttered one angry man. "Let's lynch him!" said another.

The Emperor shivered, for he knew they were right. But he also was certain that the nobles and officials and journalists and others would support him. The people cheered--albeit a few less than before--and the Emperor walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the long cape that wasn't there at all.

Finally, the great day came. The Noble's Committee met and presented him with their highest honor, The Nobel Prize for High Fashion. True, they admitted privately, he didn’t have any clothes on. But he might some day.

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