The Spinning Plates: A Fable

There once was a man who lied incessantly but who suffered no consequence for it: a modern-day Pinocchio whose nose did not grow when he lied, nor did any other calamity befall him. He simply lied, day in and day out, and if anybody called him a liar he flew into a rage and threatened to sue for defamation.

“But sir,” said one courtier (for although he was just a small appliance salesman he fancied himself a king), “But sir, truth is an absolute defense.” But the man, not being terribly clever, did not understand and so became even angrier, and he glared at the poor fellow until he — poor soul — could take it no more and slumped where he stood while his employer stomped back to his make-believe throne.

The man’s lies had made him very rich, though not as rich as he always said he was; and his lies and his make-believe wealth had made him very famous, too. But this did not satisfy him, and so he looked for ways to increase his fame. The more famous he became, the less satisfied he was, and the more he lied. It was not enough for him to be on television with a large audience. He began to demand from his producers larger blocks of time, and more money to pay him for the valuable time he spent on television. And to extract even more payment he would lie about the size of his audience, because he thought the producers were fools who did not know how to read a Nielsen report or analyze a photograph.

Now, there came a time when something strange happened to King Wannabe — that was not his name, and he was not a king, but we have to call him something. It isn’t clear how it happened, or why, but one day he told a lie that was simply too much for the Universe to contain. No sooner had the lie left his mouth than *P O P* there was a spinning plate above his head. King Wannabe had a stick in his hand and had no choice but to keep twirling the stick so the plate would not come crashing down on his head. 

“What is that, sir?” asked a courtier, for he had never seen King Wannabe do much of anything except sulk and watch television. Certainly nothing that required any energy, or eye-hand coordination.

“What is what? Oh, this? This is for you to hold for me.” And with that he freed himself of the offensive object. Except that no sooner had the words left his lips than *P O P* another plate appeared above his head. “Oh, yes,” said King Wannabe. “I remember now. I ordered plates for everyone.” *P O P* *P O P* *P O P* *P O P* and the plates appeared in his small hand almost sooner than he could hand them off.

It happened at about this same time that King Wannabe found himself, for the first time, employed by someone else. He had never before worked for anyone except his father, or himself. But suddenly — because he had lied about his own competence — he found himself at the head of a Very Large Corporation with more employees and departments and products and just moving corporate parts than King Wannabe had ever known existed.

“That’s all right,” he said. “It can’t be that difficult. I’m so much smarter and better than everyone else.” Well, you can guess what happened. His hands were full again, and he had to yell for his lieutenants to come and hold these damned plates and you’d better not let a single one drop. For it turned out that the Very Large Corporation was itself in the plate-spinning business and it took a lot of expertise to keep them all in the air at once. In the entire history of its plate-spinning the Very Large Corporation had always kept the plates in the air, and had always had very talented plate-spinners. Plate-spinning was an honorable profession, and those who worked for the Very Large Corporation were held in high esteem. Men and women of great talent, in many fields of expertise, came and went at the highest management levels and their efforts helped the Very Large Corporation grow to be envied and even feared in some parts of the world.

But King Wannabe knew that he did not need the talents of talented people to spin his plates for him. He could do what he had always done — he could hand them to his underlings. After all, everyone who worked for the Very Large Corporation worked for him, and there were many thousands of them. Even if he lied all day every day for several years, generating plate after plate after plate, he would never run out of underlings who would keep his plates spinning. This soon became a problem when people who had worked in various departments — making plates, testing plates, glazing plates, cleaning plates, and, yes, spinning plates — began to leave, because King Wannabe was creating left-handed plates with all of his lies, and the Very Large Corporation dealt only in the finest right-handed plates.

“It’s no problem!” he said, and of course as he did another plate popped into existence. “We don’t need those people. We can hire them back whenever we need them. Everyone wants to work here.” Pop! POP! POP! King Wannabe was running out of underlings to hand his plates to, and he was running out of hands and energy to keep them spinning. Somehow, though, he did. Nobody was sure how and they were drawn to the hours upon hours he spent on television, doing nothing but lying plates into existence and keeping them all spinning above his head.

People are drawn to disaster scenes like a train wreck or a car crash. It isn’t that they want harm to befall anyone; it is simply a morbid human compulsion. More than that there is a certain fascination in experiencing the slowing of time, everything — life itself — suddenly in slow motion in the moments before the inevitable calamity.

And so it was with King Wannabe. Everyone watched. Everyone held their breath. There was nothing else they could do, and they did not understand how this small man had kept so many left-handed plates spinning, for so long, without any of them falling on his head.

Until, one day, they did. But there were so many plates by this time that the crash buried not only King Wannabe but his remaining underlings — few, and not nearly as competent as the right-handed plate-spinners they had replaced. The force of the crash brought other plates, right-handed plates being kept aloft by the remaining professionals, crashing down as well. In just a few seconds the Very Large Corporation was no more, buried under the broken crockery of an unpleasant and needy man too small and incompetent to hold a real job, who had somehow lied his way into this one.

Our House, Divided

Abraham Lincoln, before he ran for President, famously said, “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.” America was the house, and slavery — the debate over slavery, the passions over America’s original sin — divided that house and threatened to collapse it. Today we are again a house divided, but the root of that division is not quite so clear. Or is it?

We have today in the White House a man who revels in division, who sows it deliberately. It is the old Roman strategy of divide and conquer, in new clothing: those who might oppose this regime are not weakened by geographical divisions but by a kind of mental and physical exhaustion. It is exhausting to hear, read, watch, the outrages that pour from a man who occupies Lincoln’s office, sleeps in his bed, bears the standard of Lincoln’s party; a man who has never before held public office, who defiles his oath, from whom lies pour more easily than truth, who has shown by every act and every utterance his unfitness for public life in the lowest possible capacity, let alone President of the United States.

That he has corrupted his office is well beyond doubt. The senators who voted to acquit, who quickly decided against hearing from witnesses and thoroughly examining the evidence, have openly admitted as much. They want you to believe that repetition of the words “no harm” and “perfect call” will convince you, but you won’t be gaslighted — you are smarter than that.

Politics is supposed to be the art of the possible: that means, compromise. The hyperpartisan era — ushered in by Newt Gingrich — has made that all but impossible. “Compromise” has become a dirty word, and “political” a subtle derogatory for “partisan.” You know that neither is really true: you are smarter than that.

Senator Murkowski, explaining her vote to hear no witnesses in the impeachment trial, said it was due to the “partisan nature” of the entire case. She and her party would have you believe that because they refused to participate in any meaningful way, the case was partisan. You are smarter than that.

Senator Alexander would have us believe that demanding foreign interference in our elections, though “improper,” is not an impeachable offense. The correct remedy, he says, for a president who would corrupt an election is — to vote him out. That would be news to our founding fathers, as it is to you. You are smarter than that.

And Senator Collins?  What to make of her assurance that, “I think the president has learned his lesson.”  Really?  Is she that credulous?  You aren’t.  You are smarter than that.

The Republican party would have you believe that a process is fatally flawed and hopelessly partisan because they have chosen non-participation. You know better: you see through their excuses, you know that by withdrawing they can label any process or legislation as “partisan.” Their vision of “bipartisanship” and “compromise” is strained at best: legislation, in their view, is only bipartisan if Democrats cross over to support it.

Laws aren’t supposed to be Republican or Democratic, depending on the party in power. The values that made America great aren’t the exclusive property of Lincoln or Jefferson. They did not spring, spontaneously and fully-formed, from Madison’s pen. Our constitition has endured precisely because it was forged in compromise: hammer on one side, anvil on the other. Some truths — these truths — are self-evident, and yet the president and his co-conspirators would tell you that black is white, up is down, wrong is right; and through ceaseless repetition they would exhaust you until you relent. You know better; you are smarter than that.

A house divided against itself, Lincoln told us, cannot stand. Today we seem to be more divided than ever, certainly more than we have been since Lincoln’s time. The great social divider of a half-century ago, the war in Vietnam, did not prevent the Congress and our national government from achieving great milestones. The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Clean Air Act: we have seen few similar legislative accomplishments since. These were all products of compromise, of Democrats and Republicans working together to achieve a common purpose. The Affordable Care Act is the accomplishment of this generation, and it has been labeled “partisan” because Republicans saw political advantage in refusing to participate. Think about that for just a moment: men and women sent to Congress by their constituents for the purpose of legislating in the national interest, sought political advantage in refusing to participate in the legislative process. Don’t fall for their ruse. You are smarter than that.

We are now in a worldwide public health crisis like none seen in two generations: It has been a century since the last great pandemic, and the president of the United States has, by his inaction, made it worse. His go-to mode is denial, followed by deflection. Not long ago he insisted this was something that “nobody could have predicted.” The next day he continues to say he is smarter and more prescient than anyone else: “I thought it would be a pandemic long before anyone said the word ‘pandemic’.”  And this week, “it could have been stopped, should have been stopped a long time ago but somebody decided not to do anything about it.”  Well, yes.  He casts blame outward, the buck stopping everywhere except his desk or even his White House.

You are smarter than that. You know that both statements cannot be true: either it was unpredictable, or he predicted it. If he
predicted it, why are we only now learning of this? Why were we caught flatfooted and unprepared?  Either earlier action could have stopped it, or it could not.  The story changes with dizzying speed, the lies and nonsense spewing faster and faster while he tries not to reap the fruits of his own incompetence.

You are smarter than that.

Our government has been hollowed out, from Justice to State, from Energy to Interior, from the EPA to the CIA. Professionals — career men and women whose choice was to serve the American people regardless of the president’s party or the congressional majority, have departed in droves. In their place are hacks who want only to serve the president — this specific president — not the people, not the country. It is Amateur Hour aboard the ship of state.

A house divided against itself cannot stand.  We must stand together — apart, for now, united in our agreement to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.  We must also stand together, shoulder to shoulder, to arrest and reverse the continuing decline of our institutions, the guarantors of our freedom and of our democracy.  We are smarter than that.