The Emperor’s New Clothes is one of the more popular Hans Christian Andersen tales, a narcissistic leader who is too self-involved in his quest for impressive attire that he forgets to oversee his people. I wouldn’t be the first to draw parallels between the emperor and modern-day leaders; we can all probably call to mind recent figureheads who were much more concerned with appearances than function.
There is no argument that Andersen’s Emperor is a vapid man; one can easily find parallels in far too many of our recent leaders, but what I wanted to explore was the idea that this type of narcissism is not created in a vacuum; that there are always enablers and sycophants that support and encourage it.
Perhaps it is time to revisit some of the more detailed elements of their stories.
The swindlers that come to town clearly have the emperor as their mark; they arrive in town making great boasts of their weaving skills and foreign cloth, claiming not only is their work unrivaled in luxury and style, but that it also has magical powers; it cannot be seen by anyone that is incompetent in their current role or stupid.
These swindlers weren’t fly by night type of cons artists, they had a long game, and a carefully thought through plan. Knowing that luxurious clothing was the emperor’s weakness, it didn’t take long for him to start handing over great wads of cash.
To add insult to injury, the swindlers also made the emperor provide the finest silk and golden thread for sewing, which they stuffed inside their backpacks to keep for themselves.
Now the idea that only those competent in their positions could see the cloth was weighing on everyone’s mind. Self-interest can often be obscured in layers of justification, so the emperor rationalized it would be a good test of his advisors’ ability in their roles.
The Emperor was clearly self aware enough that he had concerns that he might be exposed, so he sent to his most trusted advisor to check out their progress first. This man was respected, and the most competent in his role, and was used as a litmus test for the swindler’s claims.
“‘I’ll send my honest old minister to the weavers,” the Emperor decided, “He’ll be the best one to tell me how the material looks, for he’s a sensible man and no one does his duty better”. – Hans Christian Andersen, The Emperor’s New Clothes
While the old advisor was clearly perturbed when he couldn’t see anything, the swindler’s kept up their convincing ruse, presenting obviously pretend cloth, and marveling over its quality. There is a moment of indecisiveness, but when pressed the old man decided that saving his own skin was the best method, demonstrating that all can be corrupted when self-interest is involved.
We see this again as another member of the Emperors court is sent in to report on progress, coming out in agreement that the weavers are doing a wonderful job. None of these people are brave enough to speak up, the fear of being exposed driving them all to participate in a pantomime performance. The swindlers tell them the same specific colors and patterns to report back; enhancing the believability of their lies.
By the time the Emperor decides to check on the progress himself, the whole town is talking in agreement as to the wonders of the cloth. He goes in with a group, including his two advisors and again everyone marvels in this group delusion. Is it any wonder at this point that the emperor agrees and believes what he wants to see? He praises their work, and asks them to continue at great haste, which the swindlers pretend to do, spending all night at the loom pretending to weave.
The next morning the Emperor returns with an even bigger entourage, stripping naked in front of all to don his new outfit. All admire him and encourage him to parade through the town. The Emperor is the one caught in the trap, albeit brought upon by his own insecurities and greed, but he is the only one left exposed (quite literally) by the swindler’s plan.
As the procession makes its way outside the waiting crowd all admire his attire, except for one little child who cries out the truth:the Emperor has nothing on. As this whisper spreads through the crowd people begin to repeat it often enough that it eventually reaches the Emperor’s ears. His response is interesting, rather than hide in shame, he reasons the show must go on:
The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, “This procession has got to go on.” So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all. – Hans Christian Andersen, The Emperor’s New Clothes
I though that this was an interesting tale to revisit in the world of fake news, propaganda and conspiracies. I remembered this tale as being wholly dependent on the Emperor’s own shortcomings, forgetting that his own party had helped create this false belief. It wasn’t the fault of one leader, but the entire party system that supported him and enabled him. The Orwellian quote from 1984 has been circulating as late and was the prompt for this revisit:
“The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” – George Orwell, 1984
It is also a reminder that while a leader can be narcissistic, vapid, incompetent and easily fooled, it takes a army of supportive enablers who will continue to help facilitate lies in the face of evidence, and the truth, for a conspiracy to be effective.
Andersen, Hans Christian. The Emperor’s New Clothes. Jean Hersholt Trans. https://andersen.sdu.dk/vaerk/hersholt/TheEmperorsNewClothes_e.html