The Emperor’s New Clothes
A Fairy Story
The Emperor ordered yet more new clothes from his courtiers and this was announced in the press. The courtiers knew the guidelines. They would describe the clothes down to the minutest detail and show how well it enhanced the Emperor’s reputation. The Emperor, ever flattered with the descriptions of his clothes, strutted proudly up and down the palace room while those around him vied with each other to tell him how good he looked.
In reality, there were no new clothes. There were never any clothes: The Emperor was, simply put, always naked. The courtiers and the media maintained the pretence. Some did it because they were ambitious and told the Emperor what he wanted to hear as this was their ticket to high office. Others did it because they enjoyed high office and were fearful of losing it by saying the wrong things.
Whether the Emperor knew he had no clothes or he really believed he had clothes, nobody really knew and in the end, it didn’t really matter. This was an empire where reality was not important: truth and falsehood had been replaced by information that was either expedient or forbidden. The duty of the empire’s citizens was to uphold this idea and, if the official line drastically changed as it did do from time to time, to adapt to the new alternative reality. Woe betide anybody who transgressed this rule.
And what of the people? For as long they could remember, a succession of Emperors walked around proudly through the streets without clothes. Some felt this absurdity but said nothing. Some murmured the absurdity under their breath but were told ‘not to rock the boat’ by those around. Most didn’t even notice that the Emperor had no clothes – perhaps, they reasoned, that’s what Emperors did all over the world. How were they to know? They had long since been unable to tell the difference between an Emperor with or without clothes. The plain fact was that they were told he had beautiful clothes and that was that. In the end, the consensus was, ‘If that is what they want us to think, and we have to, then let’s do it. What choice do we have?’
However, there lived one little boy who played by different rules. He approached life in the way all young children do. He asked innocent questions. He constantly plagued his family with the question, ‘Why does the Emperor walk around with no clothes?’
His elders and betters sighed and said, ‘you’ll understand when you get older.’ However, great grandmother said, ‘of course he has no clothes,’ because she could remember a time when Emperors really did wear clothes.
Grandmother was more circumspect because she remembered the days when people were put to death for pointing out that the Emperor had no clothes. Later Emperors incarcerated naysayers into psychiatric institutions. Fortunately, this Emperor apparently does not do that sort of thing. But even so, she constantly told the little boy, ‘It is better for you that you don’t even talk about it.’
His mother said, ‘it’s a valid question, but what can we do about it? I’ve been trying to move to a country where their Emperor really does wear clothes. In those countries, if the Emperor didn’t wear clothes everybody would laugh at him. But we have to stay in this empire.’ So, she constantly warned her son, ‘just keep your head down and don’t say anything.’
The little boy still didn’t understand why he shouldn’t say anything. He hadn’t yet learnt the sophisticated practices of the adults.
It was the period leading up to Freedom Day. This was the day in the year when all the great and the good gathered in the centre of the main town of the empire and paraded themselves. It was announced that the Emperor would be there in a new set of clothes, specially designed for him by his favourite tailors. People became hopeful that the Emperor would finally appear fully dressed. They began to talk about nothing else: ‘What would he be wearing?’; ‘Would he use imported material or locally made?’; ‘Would it make him look more respectable?’;
Freedom Day came.
People came from all parts of the empire. There were more crowds than ever before: they were curious to see what would happen. They were expecting great changes. The little boy’s mother didn’t want to attend but she had to. She worked for a government office and she was ordered, on pain of losing her job, to attend with her family and cheer and clap as the Emperor approached.
Sure enough, as the Emperor passed down the main street lined on both sides by adoring crowds trying to show as much enthusiasm as their disposition allowed. At centre stage was the Emperor himself, resplendently dressed in …. nothing at all. As he passed, the crowd knew they had to stop cheering and fall into a reverent hush, as protocol demanded. There was quiet, except for the sound of distance marching of soldiers behind the Emperor’s entourage.
Then, amidst the silence, came the boy’s shrill voice:
‘But he hasn’t got any clothes on.’
There was an embarrassed silence. Those around him looked nervous. Some tried to move away from him. Others looked at him disapprovingly, putting their fingers to their lips in a vain attempt to show him how to be silent.
However the younger ones, who felt this sudden rush of liberated emotion, burst out in laughter, realising their absurd situation. The all joined in, ‘Yes, the little boy is right. The Emperor has no clothes. He’s… naked. He looks ridiculous.’ The older ones added their voices. A few were angry when they suddenly understood that they had been lied to all these years. They started to berate themselves that they had played along in self-delusion.
The Emperor became furious. He ordered his guards to punish the crowd for their insubordination. As if from nowhere, the guards appeared, dressed in black with heavily padded clothing and crash helmets: these were just for effect as none of the crowd was carrying weapons. However, the sticks that the guards had in their hands were not for effect.
Anybody who didn’t move out the way quickly was hit on the head or in the kidneys for maximum injury. Many were arrested. They were taken away in huge green vans. The guards knew little about fighting an armed enemy, but they were well versed in hurting unarmed people for which they were paid handsomely. In fact, their courage knew no beginnings. Journalists were arrested because they were ‘falsifying the truth’ and claiming that the emperor had no clothes. The emperor encouraged the guards who were later to receive medals. He used ugly names to describe the crowd, calling them ‘sheep’ because they were not praising his non-existent clothes.
The courtiers dutifully echoed the accusation of ‘sheep’ at the crowd. When the Emperor couldn’t think of anything else to say, he shouted to the crowd ‘you are in the pay of foreign agents.’ This began to sound more and more out of line with reality and his courtiers looked on him with concern, wondering if had forgotten to take his medicine that morning. However, none intervened.
Once the guards had beaten enough people, order was restored once more and the Emperor could continue his walk unchallenged, though he chose not to, so upset was he by the behaviour of the crowd.
In the aftermath of this, people didn’t mention the incident again. But they thought it, for this was their finest hour. Those who had been prepared to give the Emperor the benefit of the doubt did so no longer. In fact, there were few left who were in doubt that the Emperor had no clothes. They could no longer see pictures of the Emperor without laughing inwardly. They couldn’t read the newspapers or watch television anymore with their gushing descriptions of his latest clothes: Mothers joked to their naked babies ‘oh what fine clothes you have. They are fit for the Emperor’, for they could no longer fear him. He had become a sad, lonely figure. While his dreaded police could break down doors and enter people’s apartments, it was no longer possible to break into their hearts.
In the years to follow things changed. In the logic of the empire, those who broke the spell could have expected between 10 days and 25 years’ incarceration for agitation and propaganda. The boy was to be put in an orphanage and undergo ‘correction.’
However, we live in more enlightened times. After a short period, the Emperor was replaced by a king who wore real clothes, and nobody had to pretend anymore. The little boy became an adult. He didn’t go into politics as he never grew out of his habit of pointing out the obvious, but settled down into teaching where he could instruct children to describe what they see in a new open society.
The courtiers followed different paths. Some embraced the new society with the same enthusiasm as they had supported the Emperor – without a moment’s thought. After the departure of the Emperor, some of his most ardent supporters became his strongest critics. Other courtiers disappeared into obscurity. Some of them once again tried to restore the empire but they hadn’t understood that times had changed, and people didn’t want to return to the old days and fulfil the political dreams of a mere few. One courtier used the accumulated wealth gained while in office to set up a chain of adult shops and a night club for visiting businessmen and politicians. He became fabulously wealthy and eventually entered politics again.
As for the Emperor, he remained unapologetic. He retired to a comfortable and caring environment in another empire where his fantasies and delusions were lovingly attended to in a controlled environment.
Peace and prosperity descended on the empire.
What does this have to do with Belarus?
Absolutely nothing, of course. But it is dedicated to Emperors and would-be Emperors wherever they may be.