A Parable of our time: “Our democratic house is on fire!”

A Parable of our Time


Robert Kagan, “Our constitutional crisis is already here,” Washington Post, September 23, 2021 (3:32 p.m. EDT).

There is a man running up and down the street, with his hair all frazzled and his eyes filled with terror, shouting, “The house is on fire! Our house is on fire! Our whole democratic city is on fire!”

Outside a cafe, on a bright sunny morning, a number of people sit calmly drinking their coffee. A few, but not as many as in the past, are reading their newspapers.

“Help! Help!” the screaming man implores. “Don’t you know, the whole city is on fire!”

The seated individuals proceed calmly to drink their coffee and chat among themselves.

“Don’t you know?” the wild man implores again, “The whole city is on fire!”

Different individuals respond variously.

“You exaggerate,” one says. “We don’t see any flames.”

“The houses in the next street are on fire,” the wild man rejoins.

“Don’t worry,” another replies. “Someone will take care of it.”

“Fake news!” another shouts out, aggressively.

“What about you newspaper readers?” the wild man screams, in exasperation.

“We know,” one of them replies. “But what do you expect us to do about it? Someone will take care oi it.”

Another newspaper reader says, “I haven’t read anything about it in my newspaper, or heard anything about it on my television stations.”

“Of course not, John,” another cajoles. “Look at the newspapers you read and the television stations you watch.”

Another man, a thoughtful-looking gentleman, declaims, “You’re right. Something is going on. We ought to launch an investigation to see who started the fire.”

A teenager, sitting with her parents at the cafe, leaps to her feet and shouts out, “We know who started the fire, and who the arsonists are who have been pouring gasoline on it!”

“In this town,” the wild man screams, “we have a volunteer fire department. You are all members of our volunteer fire department.”

“Don’t get so excited,” a senior member of the group rejoins. “Someone will take care of it.”

“The alarm bell at the fire department hasn’t even rung,” says another.

“Who disarmed the bell?” the teenager shouts out, as she is ignored.

The wild man, with growing terror in his eyes, screams, “Our democratic town will be destroyed if we don’t act to save it!”

“Go on, get out of here. You are disturbing our morning coffee,” one man yells back, as other coffee drinkers join in. “Yes, go on, get out of here. You’re disturbing out morning coffee.”

The screaming man yells, “The whole town is on fire, and half of its citizens are pouring gasoline on the fire!”


One might ask, “Does this parable have anything to do with current politics or democracy in America?”

One associates to Katherine Anne Porter’s brilliant novel, Ship of Fools (1962)–made into a movie of the same name in 1965. In the final scene of the movie, the protagonist, a dwarf, is watching the other passengers get off the ship, including those who had argued vociferously in defense of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

“Does all of this have anything to do with you?” he asks, looking directly into the camera.  He puffs on his cigar, as he smiles and says,

“Nah, nothing at all.”

The dwarf then chuckles ironically, turns, and walks down the gangplank as the movie ends.

The Trenchant Observer

Update, January 8, 2022


David Brooks, “Why Democrats Are So Bad at Defending Democracy,” New York Times, January 6, 2022.

Brooks concludes his article as follows:

When your house is on fire, drop what you were doing, and put it out. Maybe finally Democrats will do that.

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.