An anatomy of dishonesty: the emperor's new suit

by Bob on 週一, 21 一月 2008 評論
Violence is not limited to the exercise of physical force. There are many non-physical ways of violating the rights of others or damaging a person’s integrity. Cheating, lying, paper fraud, for instance, are all violent without a gun being fired or a blow stuck. Dishonesty can be as devastating as a powerful bomb.

Dishonesty is one of the most powerful weapons in the arsenal of the lawless and unscrupulous. But for dishonesty to be effective, it must meet several important criteria. Since its purpose is to get someone to believe it is true, it must be plausible, contain enough grains of truth or reasonableness that someone can be persuaded to accept it. Then the one who deceives has to appear knowledgeable and reliable and offer some apparent evidence to prove what is being asserted. Finally it is necessary for the one being deceived to accept the deception and to act upon it. This is not as difficult as it might seem. Any time that anyone wants something very badly, it doesn’t take too much effort to persuade him/her to accept anything that will help to obtain what is desired. Some people are so naturally trusting and unsuspicious, they readily believe anything they are told by anyone who claims to know or whose story is corroborated by someone they trust.

Sometimes the desire for something is so strong that a person openly accepts something he/she knows is really lacking proof, so that in a sense, the deceived actually becomes a deceiver, bending over backwards to defend the veracity of his/her informants and moving ahead as though the information was irrefutable. And finally, the one deceived or the one benefiting from the deception must be thick skinned or powerful enough or clever enough to squelch all criticism and hush up all voices of doubt or evidence that might point to the real truth.

A good example of this is Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story of The Emperor’s New Suit. Let me retell it here in my own words with a few additions of my own and my commentary.

Once upon a time kings and emperors were real rulers, subject to no one. They could make and break any law they wanted, because what they said was always the final word. In one distant country there lived an emperor with absolute power, who was passionately fond of new clothes. Other monarchs spent their days building splendid palaces or maintaining gourmet kitchens or going to war or sponsoring tournaments or amassing wealth, jewelry or works of art or building public monuments. This emperor was only interested in fine clothes. He spent more time in his dressing room trying on new purchases than he ever did attending the council chambers, which did not matter much because rulers in those days didn’t need to listen to advice or follow the suggestions of others. The councilors only rubber stamped and carried out whatever the ruler decreed right or wrong.

The closets of the emperor were full of magnificent garments made of the finest fabrics tailored by the most fashionable designers. There was nothing the emperor liked better than going about in public so that everyone could admire his latest attire, which he would change several times each day. Of course, there was no one who would ever dare to criticize anything the emperor wore or to complain that since so much of the national wealth was spent on the emperor’s clothes and shoes and capes and hats there was little left over to help the poor or the needy.

Judging the emperor through the eyes of today’s more enlightened social consciousness, he appears to be a selfish egomaniac who woefully neglected his royal responsibilities. Such a ruler today would be mercilessly deposed by his angry countrymen or have to surround himself with a ruthless crowd of bodyguards and soldiers to quell all discontent. But in those days, people didn’t think like that. One’s country was like the weather: when the sun shines everyone is warm and happy; when the weather is terrible people are cold and miserable. When the king or emperor is a nut, you just accept it and wait until the weather changes and you get a better one. In the mean time life just has to go on the best it can.

The most prosperous people in the capitol city of the empire were the tailors, fashion designers and owners of clothing boutiques. Once they were accepted and put on the payroll of the emperor, their financial future was assured. So of course there was always an endless stream into the city of would be tailors and haberdashers and ambitious men and women of every kind, all hoping to win the emperor’s favor and strike it rich. Thus it was that one day a devious pair of brothers, Sleazy and Slimy Conning arrived with a daring scheme to defraud the emperor.

Now you might wonder how any self-respecting parents could ever give their children such awfully demeaning names, but such was not the case. At the time they were given the names had no bad connotations at all. It was only after the scandal of the brothers’ deception of the emperor that the names were tainted and the epithet “conman” entered the dictionaries as synonymous with evil swindler.

Soon after their arrival Sleazy and Slimy let it be known that they were skillful weavers and had invented a marvelous new cloth that was extraordinarily colorful, emblazoned with the most fabulous designs and had the amazing quality of being invisible to anyone who was not fit for office or unpardonably stupid. As soon as the news reached the ears of the emperor, he wanted some for himself at once. Not only would it make a wonderful suit, it would also provide him with a good way to distinguish the wise from the foolish and identify those not fit for office.

The two conmen were very clever. In order to design a swindling scheme that would succeed they had first carefully researched the situation to identify any weaknesses that could be exploited. They found two things: the inordinate fondness of the emperor for new clothes and the fact that everyone from the highest government official to the lowest citizen was afraid to contradict the emperor or say anything that he would not like to hear. So they had to figure out some way of offering to the emperor a garment he couldn’t refuse and invent some way of preventing the people from alerting the emperor to the falseness of their claim.

Thus they came up with the idea of offering a cloth that would be so beautiful and awe inspiring that the emperor was sure to want to pay a fortune for it and so magical it could expose the stupid and unfit for office. To create the illusion that they were successful talented tailors, they arrived magnificently dressed in the most expensive fashionable clothes, rented an exclusive salon and set up a loom purported to be the world’s biggest and best.

The next step on the road to successful dishonesty was to convince the victim. In this case the brothers had sized up the emperor very well. He would never pass up such a wonderful opportunity and was gullible enough to accept at face value whatever was said about the cloth without investigating it first. He was far too impatient to do that and never gave any thought to any possible consequences. It never seemed to occur to him, that if anyone were to find his suit to be invisible, then he the emperor would be seen standing there stark naked or only covered by his skimpy underpants. Besides that, what official in his/her right mind would ever dare to admit to the emperor’s face that he/she is stupid or unfit for office?

So it was that Sleazy and Slimy were ordered to the palace at once and after carefully taking all the emperor’s measurements, returned to their shop to make the new suit loaded with heavy spools of threaded gold and bags of money as down payment. It is very important that nothing suspicious happen that might arouse doubt. Thus all day every day the brothers could be seen working very diligently in the workshop. Anyone who visited their workshop would find one of them sitting in front of the empty loom going through all the motions of weaving, though of course no one ever saw any cloth because there was none.

The longer the work lasted, the more eager everyone was to see the finished product. The emperor was very anxious to see how the work was progressing, but reluctant at first to see for himself, because he remembered that those unfit for office would not see it. What would happen if by some unlikely chance, it would be invisible to him? So the emperor sent his Prime Minister in his place.

The Prime Minister was first welcomed with a pot of hot fragrant tea and a plateful of rich pastries, after which Slimy accompanied him into the workshop where he saw Sleazy sitting in front of the loom busily plying the spindle back and forth. Of course, it was an empty loom and an empty spindle.

“See how remarkable it is,” exclaimed Slimy. “Isn’t it the most beautiful cloth you have ever seen?”

It was the moment of truth or non-truth. If the Prime Minister were to honestly say that he saw no cloth at all and the emperor believed him then the jig would be up. It was a tense moment both for the brothers and the minister.

The Minister gasped in silence. To admit seeing only an empty loom would mean disaster for his illustrious career, so he said instead “That’s the most splendid cloth I have ever seen. The design is so elegant and the colors are so fabulous. The emperor is sure to be very pleased indeed.”

The brothers’ conviction that no one would dare to appear to the emperor as stupid or unfit for office was verified. That first public declaration of genuineness practically guaranteed that everyone else would do likewise.

The emperor, of course, was very pleased with the Prime Minister’s report and sent the brothers the additional money they had requested. Then after a few days he sent a cabinet minister to check on the progress and he too came back with a glowing report of how wonderful the cloth was. Finally, the emperor himself went to see the cloth while it was still in the loom. He was accompanied by the Prime Minister and the cabinet member who had gone before and they were very relieved to discover that the emperor apparently saw and enthusiastically appreciated what they could not see. The emperor was astonished to discover that he saw nothing. How could it be that he was unfit for office or stupid? In no way could he ever admit that. His two trusted ministers saw the cloth and that was good enough for him.

“I think it is so beautiful,” said the emperor, “that as soon as it is finished, I will wear it in a solemn procession in front of all the people so that everyone can admire it. And I hereby appoint Sleazy and Slimy Conning as official court tailors.”

In the last few days before the delivery date, the two brothers put on a spectacular display of industry. They carefully separated the make believe cloth from the loom, spread it on a huge table, cut it to the emperor’s size and then with needles in hand they sewed together the non-existent pieces of cloth with non-existent thread. Finally, they went in a solemn procession to the emperor’s palace with a train of servants with empty arms outstretched carrying their non-existent burdens of trousers, shirt, coat, cape and hat.

Joyfully the emperor accompanied by all his ministers and staff received the brothers in his personal quarters exclaiming how beautiful the material looked, which was enthusiastically echoed by all those present. There was no one who wanted to admit he couldn’t see what the emperor saw.

“If it pleases your majesty,” suggested Sleazy, “you should remove your clothes at once and try on your new trousers and shirt and coat and cape and hat. You will find that the cloth is so soft and light you won’t even feel it when it touches your skin.”

Assisted by the two brothers, the emperor undressed at once and carefully went through the motions of donning his new garments, since he could neither see them nor feel them. “Now, look at yourself in the mirror. Has there even been an emperor so magnificently adorned as you are now?” The emperor saw nothing but his bare arms and legs and head, but encouraged by the approving ohs and ahs of his staff, he too erupted in superlative praise of his new suit.

News of the delivery of the emperor’s new suit had spread like wildfire and there was soon a huge crowd of people in front of the palace. “Tell everyone,” ordered the emperor, “I will appear in my new suit in exactly one hour. Let all the people line the streets from here to the cathedral in the town square and I will walk there together with all my ministers and trusted staff.”

Right on time, the emperor prepared to leave his palace. “Be very careful,” the tailors said, “the emperor’s new cape is so long it hangs down touching the ground.” So two chamberlains had to bend over to pick up the imaginary ends of the cape and lifting them high marched solemnly behind the emperor as he made his way down the road.

What all the people saw was the emperor without any clothes. But they had all been told that the clothes would only be invisible to anyone not fit for office or very stupid. Seeing how pleased the emperor and his advisors seemed to be with his new suit and how everyone else was applauding and raving about the beautiful material, no one at all dared to admit that they saw nothing.

The emperor was overjoyed. Everything was going exactly as he hoped until he reached a spot right in front of a man standing there with his little boy. No one had told the child anything about being fit or clever. He just saw what there was to see, so he cried out in a loud voice “Daddy, why is the emperor naked? He’s not wearing any clothes.” What he said was seconded at once by a chorus of all the other children in the vicinity.

“Listen to the voices of the innocent children,” said the boy’s father and soon all the people were agreeing and were laughing at the naked emperor as he passed. The emperor was very embarrassed, but so proud he continued walking with his entourage just as if nothing had happened.

This is where Hans Christian Andersen ends his story. He doesn’t bother to tell us what happened next. We are only informed of the flaw in the swindlers’ plan, namely that you can usually count on grownups to do anything even lie to preserve their reputations, but little children are not afraid to say openly what they see because they don’t have any hang-ups to protect. For the author it was enough to point out the pitfalls of being too gullible and greedy and the folly of relying on falsehood to hide truths one doesn’t want to admit.

It is left to our imagination to wonder what might have happened to the two swindling tailors or to the lying ministers or whether the emperor ever managed to regain the respect of his people.

Were the two brothers smart enough to have an escape plan all ready in place should anything go wrong and their deception be discovered while they were still around? Were the lying ministers smart enough to come up with some excuse that would show the emperor that they really had his interests at heart the whole time? Were the people smart enough to gloss over the fact that they too had initially lied about seeing what wasn’t there and capitalize on the fact that it was they who blew the whistle on the deception? Was the emperor smart enough to claim that he knew all along the truth about the cloth and was just testing the honesty of his staff and subjects? Did he say that he was very disappointed in their dishonesty, but since everyone without exception was guilty he magnanimously forgave them this time, but wouldn’t be so merciful if it ever happened again?

The story of the emperor’s new suit is very intriguing but rather implausible. It might seem very unlikely that any ruler today would act like those tailors did, but something quite similar has actually just happened.

There was recently a modern democratic country that was saddled with a president who had a passionate quest, not to buy fancy clothes, but to spread democracy, especially in those countries that produced oil because his family was deeply financially involved in the oil business. He seemed to believe that if a nation could be coerced to adapt democratic practices, it would miraculously uplift the people and solve all the nation’s problems. This glorious goal justified going to war to impose it on those who maliciously denied their people their precious freedom.

There was one particular country that produced a significant percentage of the oil needed in the democratic president’s country. Its ruler and therefore the controller of the oilfields was a ruthless dictator who cruelly oppressed his people. It was even said he had used poison gas to wipe out a pocket of opposition, indiscriminately killing women and children. Because this evil ruler threatened to cut off the supply of oil or destroy the oilfields, the democratic president wanted passionately to overthrow him and install a friendlier regime. What he needed was an excuse to go to war in such a way that other democratic nations would assist him.

The president’s militant desire was seconded by his vice-president, who though vocally opposed to war, had been CEO of and his family had financial ties with the largest manufacturers and suppliers of arms and ammunition, sure to make a big profit should war break out. The president had carefully picked a Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense and National Security Advisor who all thought as he did and echoed his message.

What was lacking was clear proof that there was a definite threat of imminent enemy attack that would justify a preemptive invasion of the dictator’s country. “It doesn’t matter,” thought the president. “If there isn’t one at present we will have to manufacture it and play upon the fear of the people.”

It was a fact that at least once in the past the dictator’s regime had manufactured poison gas and probably stockpiled it somewhere. There were previously years ago indications that the dictator had ordered preparations for nuclear weapons. “All we have to do is convince everybody that the dictator has supplies of weapons of mass destruction and it about to launch them upon us,” thought the president and his faithful echoers.

So in speech after speech, the same refrain was repeated. “There are weapons of mass destruction aimed at us. We must seek them out and destroy them before they destroy us.” It didn’t matter that all the international inspectors allowed into the dictator’s dominions found nothing nor that spies sent in never found them and even the official intelligence agency said there was no proof, the president kept saying there was and that was enough to eventually raise the level of fear to the point that the president was finally given the green light to go ahead and attack. The few who dared to object were ridiculed and ignored.

The war was supposed to have been a short one. True enough, the regime fell quickly enough, but now years later, there is still no peace and the keepers of peace who were supposed to have gone home long ago are still dying daily in military skirmishes. The president who planned so much on the preparations for war had woefully failed to adequately plan the measures for interim government or peaceful transfer of power. The poor oppressed people were left poorer and floundering in their unaccustomed democracy.

As for the president, he still claims the weapons of mass destruction are out there and will be found some day. His daily reports amplify every little success and remain silent about the setbacks unless they are too big to be ignored, in which case the blame is put on the shoulders of someone else. He glorifies those who lost their lives in the struggle as martyrs of freedom and democracy. They themselves and their family only wish they had been allowed to simply stay at home and enjoy the democracy they already had. And everyone is waiting for the weather to change, so a new leader will come forth to reveal the truth and rectify the errors.

The dishonest often prevail because the honest look the other way, mind their own business or don’t want to become involved or are afraid of the effort or risks or sacrifice that standing up for what they believe may involve. May that not happen again. We need to learn the lesson of the emperor’s new clothes.

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