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.