Friday, March 05, 2010

A Parable of American Politics

There was once a hired hand, a woodcutter, doing his daily work on a sprawling stretch of land. There was a tree on the land, an old, towering monolith that was home to countless mammal and insect life.

One day, the woodcutter took his ax and began chopping at the base of the tree. “I need kindling for my fire,” the woodcutter said to himself as he chipped away at the tree’s massive base. “This tree is 20 feet in diameter; it can easily absorb the loss of some bark and wood around its base. My ax won’t harm this tree.”

The woodcutter went about his work industriously. Bark and woodchips began to fly off the base. At the end of the day, the woodcutter gathered the wood and built a roaring fire that night, over which he grilled a sumptuous feast.

The woodcutter enjoyed the feast and the warmth of the fire so much that he decided to do it again the next night. “Just one more night of warmth and food,” the woodcutter said to himself as he dug his ax into the base of the tree.

On that second night, the roaring fire drew visitors to the woodcutter’s home. He shared his feast with them and everyone enjoyed the fruits of his labor. “We should do this more often,” his visitors told him. “The great tree is enormous; its base is twenty feet in diameter. We can feast every month and we won’t harm this tree.”

The woodcutter agreed, and his monthly feasts quickly became sprawling banquets, attended by dozens of local villagers. In time, dozens became hundreds, then thousands. Each month, the woodcutter would faithfully chip away at the base of the great tree, confident that the grand old monolith would withstand his petty, occasional interference. “What are a few chips of bark, a few chunks of kindling, to a tree as mighty as this?” the woodcutter reassured himself. “It has sufficient time to heal in between our banquets. A few chops of my ax each month isn’t going to harm this tree.”

After a few years, a hard winter struck the land. It was bitterly cold, colder than any winter in recent memory. “We need warm fires each night,” the woodcutter told himself. “We’ll freeze to death without them. I’ll have to cut wood more often. This tree is twenty feet in diameter; it’s large enough to sustain us. My ax won’t harm this tree.”

The winter raged on, and the woodcutter began cutting the base of the tree twice a month, then once a week, and finally every two or three days. Near the end of the winter, a massive blizzard struck, worse than anything even the oldest villagers could remember. Everyone huddled into their homes, cut off from the land, buried beneath the snow that would not stop falling.

In the midst of the blizzard, the woodcutter made one final trip to the base of the grand old tree. The snow and darkness was so heavy he stumbled on his way, and when he began chopping again at his familiar spot, he did it by rote, trusting his hands to find their way to the wood that would sustain the village. The woodcutter doled out the fruits of his labor to the villagers, then retired to his hut to wait out the storm. “We’ll have enough wood for the winter now,” he told himself. “I won’t cut the tree again this year. We’ll cancel our regular feasts. We’ll let the tree repair itself.”

After endless weeks huddled down from the storm and its aftermath, spring came to the land and began to thaw the snow. The villagers and the woodcutter emerged from their homes like mice from their winter nests. Shock and dismay overtook them when they saw the tree. It was still standing, but only by the slimmest of margins. The woodcutter’s final frenzy had left only a few inches of wood nestled in the center, between the body of the tree and the stump. It teetered so precariously that it seemed even a slight breeze in either direction might tip it over.

“We must take great steps to repair this,” the woodcutter said. “This is a fantastic old tree, we cannot let it collapse.” As he said these words, the woodcutter noticed angry stares around him. He backed away. “You can’t blame this on me,” he said. “We all enjoyed the feasts. I cut this tree with your approval. No one could have foreseen the bad winter or the blizzard!”

His defense was no good. The villagers ran him out of town, banishing him from the sprawling land they all shared. From among their ranks, a new woodcutter was chosen. “You must repair our tree,” the villagers told him. “It seems hopeless to all of us, but we are putting our faith in you.”

The new woodcutter spent weeks evaluating the tree. “How can I possibly fix this old monolith?” he thought to himself. “Its entire twenty-foot diameter has been nearly cut completely through. A strong wind from any direction will blow it clean down.”

But the woodcutter thought it out as best he could and finally decided on a solution. When the villagers came out to see the fruits of his labor, they were scandalized. “What have you done!” they exclaimed. The new woodcutter had let the tree fall, then cut it up into firewood.

“We couldn’t just sit back and expect this tree to heal itself,” the new woodcutter told them. “It was too badly damaged. It was beyond hope. The only option was to salvage what was left for firewood, and plant a new tree in its place.”

As the new woodcutter finished speaking, a murmur went through the crowd. Someone was coming up from the rear, and the people were backing away to let him through to the front. It was the old woodcutter, returned from his banishment.

“You must be insane!” he said, pointing a finger at his replacement. “Are you happy to just hack our tree up without a thought in the world? What a hypocrite you are! How dare you kill this tree!”

The new woodcutter paused a moment, a curious look on his face. “I didn’t kill this tree. I salvaged a tree that was already dead, destroyed by the blade of your own ax.”

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