A fable for our times.
Story: David Bolling, with apologies to Hans Christian Anderson
Recently there was an Emperor so exceedingly fond of playing golf that he spent almost all his time at one golf club or another (he owned 16 of them), exploring creative new ways to keep score, dutifully expanding the definition of “executive time,” and tweeting endlessly and in great detail about his enemies, of whom he also had many, a fact in which he seemed to take great pride.
This Emperor was devoted to the pursuit of greatness, though he appeared confused about how to achieve it, and was, some felt, mostly motivated by a deep-seated sense of illegitimacy. That was understandable given emerging evidence his rise to power was an existential mistake. The pursuit of greatness, therefore, loomed ever more urgent and ever more out of reach.
Not comfortable around those who questioned him, the Emperor spent more and more time on the golf course and almost no time studying matters of state. He didn’t read much, if at all, and it wasn’t clear that he could, but everyone was careful not to ask. This, despite imposing libraries full of books, many about him. Governing, he proclaimed proudly to the People and to the Fake News Media, didn’t require a lot of desk time and staff meetings, because of “my great and unmatched wisdom.”
The Emperor had a golf club for every day of the week (and then some), and when visitors would inquire as to whether the Emperor was in his Council, an aide would say instead, “The Emperor is at his golf course.”
He cared nothing about discussing geopolitics with his Ministers of State (he lacked the attention span and any frame of reference), strategizing with his Generals (he had been unable to perform military service because of delicate feet but felt confident he knew more than they did because of his instincts and intuition), planning much-needed, empire-wide infrastructure with his Engineers (he had very different priorities, notably devising barriers to human migration) or even seeking tutelage in basic economics from his Council of Economic Advisors. “What do they know?” he would ask rhetorically of anyone in earshot. “Are any of them billionaires? Like me? I‘m the biggest billionaire. You can’t imagine. So many billions. Nothing like it, ever.”
The Emperor did not enjoy going to the theater, or taking a ride in his limousine, or fine dining, or exercising. What he cared about was golf (he rode an electric cart across each course), telling lies—both simple and elaborate, it was a gift—winning, and walls. He loved walls, big walls, grand walls … nay, more than that, GREAT walls. And he dreamed of a winning wall.
“The Chinese have a wall,” he would complain to anyone in sight. “They call it the ‘Great Wall.’ But it’s all crumbly and old. It’s not really great. It’s long, sure, but not great. We’ll do great! We’ll build a really great wall, huge, enormous, the greatest wall ever. And we’ll make China pay for it. We’ll tariff them, hugely.”
In the great city where the Emperor ruled, life was always bustling, and every day many strangers came to town. Among them one day came two Lobbyists in expensive silk suits, pointed-toe shoes, names with many consonants. They let it be known they were wall builders, and they said they could build the most magnificent wall imaginable, the tallest wall, the strongest wall, the most un-climbable wall, and yet the most beautiful wall. Ever. So much better a wall than the old, crumbly wall in China. Not only were their materials and design uncommonly Great, but they had the extraordinary ability of being able to make their magnificent wall invisible. Such a thing, they said, had never been done before, anywhere in the world, or beyond. EVER!
The Emperor, who had paid serious money for a customized Delorean car to take him back in time (“It was such a deal.”), was thrilled about the invisible wall. “Think how much we can charge for people to see it,” he mused to himself.
And the very best part of their Great Wall, the Lobbyists said, what made it even more special and more GREAT than any one could imagine (and what closed the deal for the Emperor, who prided himself on making great deals), was that it would not cost the Emperor a single spec of gold, not a ducat, not a drachma, not a dollar. The Lobbyists said they ‘knew people’ in China who would pay for the wall, even provide the materials, in exchange for the Emperor promising to never impose tariffs on Chinese soybeans.
In fact, it had never occurred to the Emperor (who in a moment of generous candor confessed to an aide he had never seen a soybean, had no idea what it was or what it was used for) that the Chinese would ever want to sell soybeans to his empire. And the Emperor’s Council of Economic Advisors, to whom he had ceased listening months earlier, saw no reason to try to explain to the Emperor that Chinese soybean production amounted to only 20 percent of their national demand.
“When can I see the blueprints for this Great Wall,” thundered the Emperor. “Show me the Wall!”
“It will take some time,” said the Lobbyists, “while we assemble the best, the greatest, the most brilliant, the best educated and most highly trained, the most intelligent, the wisest and most magical practitioners of the Great Wall Arts. At least a week.”
“Do it sooner,” screamed the Emperor, now in a fever of anticipation that, at last, he would have his beloved wall. The Greatest Wall Ever!!
The Lobbyists pointed out that while the Chinese had promised to pay for building the wall, the Emperor would still have to pay the artisans who would design and engineer the magnificent structure. “You would not want,” they suggested to His Eminence, “a Great Wall designed by the Chinese?”
“God forbid,” said the Emperor “How much?”
“Oh, just a few billion ducats,” said the Lobbyists, “a tiny fraction of the cost of the grandest, and at the same time, most invisible wall in all creation.”
“Done,” said the Emperor, with the slightest hint of a whine.
And so began a frenzy of creation. First, a dozen art students, dressed in fine silk pantaloons and blouses, painted on large swaths of canvas, a beautiful, rainbow of colors radiating iridescent hues in the general shape of a flowing wall.
Then some engineering students from the nearby junior college, hammered together a balsa wood model of a structurally innovative wall, in 1/20 scale – small enough to fit on a dining table.
And then the canvas and the wood creations were shown to the Emperor, in the company of suitably pretentious art and engineering experts, all of whom expressed wonder and delight at the vision of the artists and engineers, none of whom had yet attained the age of majority, and all of whom still lived in their parents’ basements.
“It appears to be magnificent,” agreed the Emperor, who, in truth, knew little about either walls or art that didn’t involve images of his own chemically tanned, slightly bloated face. Or engineering, for that matter. “This should be just the wall for me. If I had this wall, I would be indisputably the GREATEST Emperor of all time. As I’ve already told you I am. So let’s build it,” he shouted to the gathered throng. “Let’s build this magnificent, magically invisible wall.”
The Lobbyists explained that, with their exciting new wall-building technologies, and with perhaps a few hundred local citizens hired to help the arriving Chinese, the entire wall could be built in less than a year, instead of a decade.
“A YEAR?” shrieked the Emperor. “AN ENTIRE YEAR? Hell, hire every man, woman, child, dog, cat, horse, mule, and undocumented alien you can find to help the Chinese. I want my wall, AND I WANT IT NOW!!!”
“Of course,” explained the Lobbyists, “that will cost a few billion more, but still way cheaper than if the Chinese didn’t pay for it.”
“Do it,” grumbled the Emperor, before stepping into a flying machine to take him to the first of many golf courses where he would stay in self-imposed isolation until the wall was finished.
Working under the severe pressure of the Emperor’s impatience, and with the incentive of several billion ducats to fuel the labor force, which included pretty much the entire population of the kingdom and a lot of “illegal” immigrants, the Lobbyists oversaw the construction of the invisible wall, even though most members of the workforce were unclear about what, if anything, they were actually building.
They hammered and sawed, measured and cut, painted and poured, lifted and fitted and began to see in the field of their own imaginations the vision that was the great invisible wall.
And then finally, just as the wall was finished, word came back from the Imperial National Golf Course, where the emperor had, according to news reports, recently shot a course-record 59, that the great man would be returning the next day.
So all that night, hordes of workers, alongside the amazingly invisible Chinese, stitched colored cloth for bunting, and arranged garlands of flowers, and installed candles and fireworks to herald the great unveiling, now scheduled for the following day.
Late that afternoon, the Emperor’s Chief of Staff, the fourth in six months and therefore a bit tentative, came to the construction site to inspect the wall. He was impressed at once by the flowers and the bunting and the sizable fireworks display set to be fired. But the wall itself was hard for him to see, until he remembered that it was invisible. The Lobbyists asked how he liked it, the soaring parapets, the intricate stonework, the great hewn timbers carved into heroic battle scenes. The Chief of Staff saw these things with his mind, if not with his eyes and was thus satisfied by the great progress made. And his reluctance to disappoint the Emperor with any but the very best and greatest news was profound. He returned to the White Castle and told the Emperor the wall was magnificent, and he would be thrilled when he saw it.
The Emperor, who had lived much of his life thrilled by things that never happened, by events that never took place, could already see in his mind’s eye, the magnificent new wall. “I can’t wait,” he said, quivering with excitement. “Tomorrow will be the best day ever.”
By the next morning, the entire empire was talking about the splendid wall, while waiting nervously for the Emperor to see it for himself. They heard him coming long before he arrived, as the sounding of horns, the beating of drums, and the rumble of war machines reached their ears. It was a parade, the Emperor’s own, personal parade, and he arrived in an armored golf cart, swathed in golf gear, with a flaming red ball cap and a putter held aloft like a scepter.
The procession came to a halt before the viewing platform, where the Lobbyists sat in nervous expectation. The Emperor stepped out of his golf cart and stared in stunned wonder at what stood before him, his mouth hanging open in amazement, or perhaps embryonic rage. Words failed him.
The two Lobbyists marched in quick step to his side, exuding a confidence they did not feel. Before them was a beautifully constructed wall of stone and steel and hand-carved oak, some 10 meters long and stretching perhaps 10 meters toward the sky. At either end, there was nothing visible to the eye.
“Your Emperorship,” said one Lobbyist, “behold the completed wall, stretching from the far corner of your kingdom to the opposite end.”
“And see,” said the second Lobbyist, “how we have preserved one section of the wall in its full visible splendor, so that you can see and exult in your triumph, word of which will spread around the globe.”
“But where’s the rest of it,” snapped the Emperor, “where does it go. Let me touch it.”
“Oh no,” cried the first Lobbyist, “You cannot touch it. It is electrified. To touch it is to die. The Chinese, in their ancient wisdom, have created the perfect defensive wall. You are safe behind it forever.”
“But,” persisted the Emperor, “how do I know? How do I know it is not some crafty trick. The Chinese, they are sneaky people. Let me tell you. I’ve done deals with them. And nobody does deals like my deals. So trick me once and shame… or whatever.”
“Sire,” said the second Lobbyist, “let us demonstrate. Would you care to select someone from the crowd, perhaps a less privileged one, one less worthy, an immigrant perhaps, not a true citizen of the realm? And then let me demonstrate the true power of the fence?”
The Emperor’s face lit up, he cast a careless glance over the assembled faces and pointed a royal finger at a muddy workman with brown skin and a white straw hat, who had toiled days-on-end to complete the wall on time and who stood now huddled against the dawn chill with torn clothes and callused hands.
“Him,” said the Emperor, “that one. Doesn’t look like he’s from here.”
The Lobbyist strode into the crowd, beckoned to the man, took him by the arm and led him toward the fence, whispering in his ear as they stumbled forward. Turning to the Emperor, the Lobbyist shouted, “Watch this,” and shoved the man toward the empty space beyond the visible wall. The man staggered, there was a flash and a bang, and the man crumpled as if shocked by some overpowering force.
The Emperor clapped his hands like a child at the circus, then raised both fists overhead with thumbs extended, and shouted, “I love it. I love that wall. I LOVE MY wall. I DID IT!! I REALLY DID IT!!”
The crowed started to slowly clap, spurred on by the Lobbyists, many smirking as they did so, and in that moment the Lobbyists ignited the rest of the fireworks and the grand celebration began. In the midst of the noise and confusion, few people, least of all the Emperor, noticed the man chosen to test the wall, rise to his feet, dust himself off and wander into the crowd smiling broadly, a handful of ducats in his grasp.
The Emperor embraced the Lobbyists in a fit of excitement, then handed each a check with many zeroes and clapped them on the back. “Greatest wall I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I told you we could do this.”
As the Lobbyists were about to make a hasty departure, the Emperor paused, looked at the invisible wall space, and suggested, “Maybe we should plant some tall hedges on this side of the wall. Help keep kids and old people from walking into it. What do you think?
“It’s a good and noble idea,” said one Lobbyist. “You’re a wise man your Emperorship. We should have thought of that. Of course, the Chinese have all left, so your citizens would have to do the work, which could cost a few billion more. On the other hand, you’ll save money on the soybean tariffs the Chinese won’t impose, so you’re already ahead of the game.”
“Smart,” said the Emperor, “I am one smart son of a bitch. Go ahead, build the hedge. And, hey, put my name on it. In neon. Right?”
The Emperor returned to his golf cart and made a triumphant withdrawal, just as a cluster of children with a soccer ball ran happily through the invisible wall that was, to be sure, the greatest invisible wall ever built.