Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Evolution of the Emperor's New Clothes Syndrome

Lately, I have been intrigued by the tale of the Emperor's New Clothes as a modern take on how the vast majority of people behave when it comes to speaking truth to power.

The Hans Christian Andersen version of the story goes like this:

A vain Emperor who cares about nothing except wearing and displaying clothes hires two swindlers who promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or "hopelessly stupid". The Emperor's ministers cannot see the clothing themselves, but pretend that they can for fear of appearing unfit for their positions and the Emperor does the same. Finally the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor marches in procession before his subjects. The townsfolk play along with the pretense, not wanting to appear unfit for their positions or stupid. Then a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but continues the procession.

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The fairy tale interpretation of the story focuses on the child blurting out the truth.  The moral of tale is not to be taken in by a falsehood, even though many people are ignoring the truth in order to support what is obviously a ruse.  In other words, the Emperor's New Clothes syndrome is something that must be avoided.

What most people miss is what comes after the declaration of truth: the procession continues as if nothing happened.  Nothing in the original tale suggests that anything in the land changes.  In fact, the ending suggests quite the opposite: in spite of the child's revelation, life continues as it had previously, and the people continue to live the lie for fear that living the truth will result in a loss.

Interpreting the tale from the perspective of realpolitik brings us to a much different conclusion.  Seen from this angle, the invisible garment is very real.  It is woven from the threads of power that give the Emperor his control over the land and his power over life and death.  The power relationships that allows the Emperor to execute any of his subjects are not visible to the eye, but they are very real nonetheless.

To continue the story with a realpolitik flavor, after the procession is over, the Emperor orders his henchmen to find the child and to bring him or her back to the castle alive.  After a quick interrogation, the child is tortured and then hung in the public square to demonstrate to his subjects what the Emperor thinks of those that speak their mind without taking heed of what they are saying and who they are speaking about.

In the context of realpolitik, going along with the charade has survival value -- the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.  Only those with the capacity to mobilize a force of sufficient power to effectively oppose the Emperor, dare to.  Isolated individuals are no match for the military might that props up the Empire.

Throughout the most part of the twentieth century, the invisible but very real cloak of power prevented people from declaring publicly that the Emperor and whatever he was saying was nothing but hot air.

For instance, after the Nazis came to power, the Fuhrer didn't take kindly to any open criticism.  It didn't take long for the common German folk to realize that dissidents were disappearing into the concentration camps.

Likewise,  in the Soviet Empire informers were everywhere, and people learned quickly that it paid to mouth the party line, "workers of the world unite", so to avoid being shipped off to a Gulag in Siberia.

Today in the twenty-first century, things are different.  It as if most of the population in the developed world is now wearing the same invisible fabric that had been previously reserved for the Emperor.  Today, there are many people screaming that the Emperor has no clothes: the economy is fucked, climate change is just around the corner, money rules, but to no avail. 

It is as though most people believed that if they were to ditch the invisible clothes that cover but don't obscure what are some serious fucking problems, they would have to don sack cloths and ashes.

Going back to the original tale, people are no longer on the sidelines just watching the parade go by.  They have joined the procession, having been caught up by the invisible threads of conspicuous consumption that joins them with the desires of the power elite.

It is those who can see through the charade that have been left behind.  There is no longer a mass audience to hear their declarations of truth.

They only can chatter among themselves. 


  1. Very nice post specially the focuses of this story is interesting..

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  2. Indeed the World is plagued by the "Emperor's New Clothes Syndrome" (ENCLOS) - - We just have to be relentless in our campaign to make them realised that not everyone is blind to their nakedness.

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