Timeless tale about the evils of corrupt power and its enablers

Feb 14, 2021

Hans Christian Anderson’s folktale The Emperor’s New Clothes provides a salutary reminder of how easy it is to stay silent about, and remain complicit in, corruption when the consequences of challenging such behaviour risk personal comforts. 

As a young child I was fascinated by Hans Christian Anderson’s “Emperor’s New Clothes”. Did this arrogant, vain, yet powerful individual really believe the clothes were real? Or did he deep down understand the fraud? Either way, the transaction proposed to him was a political one. The emperor was being offered validation of his power and self-importance.

In either scenario, the role of the emperor is lamentable. In one, he is a powerful, delusional and self-serving fool. In the other, he is potentially scheming and manipulative e.g., if you do not question an emperor about their nakedness, you will question nothing.

In the first scenario, no one will question the emperor’s belief in something that is obviously false. Expressing doubt would risk their jobs, or reputations, and by going along with nonsense, they will be protected, so they stay silent. In a second scenario, they know the process is a fraud, but the powerful emperor is testing their obedience. They will stay silent, or even argue in support of the lies.

It is easy to stay silent and remain complicit with corruption when the consequences of challenging risk personal comforts. Most remain silent, or openly support the emperor, even when they know this to be a corruption of their moral and spiritual core, and that others will suffer. If lies are unchallenged and fraud is overlooked, liars and crooks openly prosper, others will indeed suffer, and naked emperors will remain in place.

Only Anderson’s innocent child is prepared to speak up. None of the citizens watching the naked emperor parade was prepared to acknowledge the obvious until the innocent child spoke. Then, and only then, when numbers provided safety, was the emperor mocked.

John Ralston Saul illustrated with razor precision that if we ultimately do (or accept) what we know is plainly wrong simply because the structures in which we operate demand this as a test of our professional legitimacy, we are worse than animals. I would add a caveat: if we also remain silent, complicit and refuse to hold others we rather like (or ourselves) to the same ethical standards we hold those we despise, then we are hypocrites. Saul notes that as adults we are often taught to forget the pivotal moral lessons ingrained in us as children; the notions of sharing, fairness, honesty or accountability.

The philosophical suffering caused by not living up to the most basic standards we learn as children leads to deep disappointments. This is confounded further when we become adults. Often complicit in supporting our own naked emperors, we retreat into a fantasy world teaching our own children the very values and lessons we have abandoned.

If the values of fairness, honesty and basic kindness cannot be enacted within our professional settings lest “our side” suffer, lest we lose the opportunity to climb the greasy pole, or admitting error would cause embarrassment, how do we look our own children in the eye? Why do we hand such hollow values to our children, often so brave, honest, courageous, intelligent and full of hope?

The Trump experiment has ended with little reflection on the political and economic processes that made his unexpected ascendancy possible. All such issues remain in play. The near total resistance of the neo-liberal Democrats to universal health care contrasts with its near total commitment to corporate money and US military empire.

There are hysterical accusations that for the first time true “evil” occupied the White House. President Trump was openly loathsome, clumsy, temperamental, capricious and without almost any detectable philosophical foundations. He made no secret of these shortcomings and his “unpresidential character” is easy to condemn.  Trump committed the ultimate political sin: he flaunted his nakedness.

Yet in major policy areas, he still found bipartisan support. In fact, Trump was never more “presidential” to many of his harshest critics than when he was dropping bombs on the correct official enemies, assassinating Iranian generals, or inciting and funding potential civil war in Venezuela.

Trump and many detractors agree on many things: the innate morality and superiority of the United States, the sacred threads of its “freedom”, the “goodness” of its revolution and national symbols, and its “moral” right to dominate the world as the “exceptional” nation.

Many political systems and nations are similarly convinced by (or are at least committed to) endless statements about their own beneficence. Many citizens watch on in silence knowing this is untrue, while others cheer on the parade.

We might be pleased that the Trump presidential era has ended, but we should still be troubled by what could be coming next. Many of those most enthusiastic about his demise are not fit to lecture anyone about morality or decency. The worst evils of any political, professional or political system (or party) such as corruption, nepotism, nationalism, greed or war, are always greatly served by at least the appearance of professional competence, justice, merit and self-image.

The skillful and most successful emperors know that the validation of endless lies and distortions, or covering up their incompetence and crimes, requires a performative element. Act like an emperor, appeal to shared self-interest, provide declarations of some ethical legitimacy, and it is remarkable what others will help you get away with. This happens almost every day in our financial sectors, our courts, our political parties, our universities, offices and workplaces, our parliaments and probably in all the White House’s of this world.

Anderson’s innate reading of the relationship between human nature, power, self-interest and truth is profound. We are often afraid to say what is obvious, not because it is not true, but because we will suffer some material or professional disadvantages.

We are taught as adults to stand by in silence when our superiors lie, cheat and bully, or cheer on those we know deceive and manipulate us, simply because the other side is worse. We might lament, as did former US Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, the terrible burden of being forced to kill innocent people in war to achieve a political outcome. A Democrat, McNamara asked in all seriousness, “How much evil must we do in order to do good?”

Anderson’s tale of the emperor is timeless in its implications about the evils of corrupt power and the complicity that enables it. We might indeed, genuinely or perhaps smugly, cheer the end of the contemptible Trump, but that is easy. Like the child of Anderson’s story, will we have the courage to speak obvious truths about our own professions, banks, politicians, parliaments, workplaces or the next US emperor?

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