Tales Of Our Times: An Ancient Parable Warned How Blind Men ‘See’ An Elephant

Tales Of Our Times

By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water 

For centuries, the parable from ancient India has taught the folly of six blind men sizing up an elephant. Even so, the delusions wrought by partial truths still squelch talk that would yield good ideas.

Our politics has dwindled to two big parties, each one stuck on promoting part of the facts. One party perceives a spear-like tusk; the other blind party says, “Not so. It’s all a snaky trunk.”

Politics pursues a phantom debate about which of two truths is true. Politicking excels at hiding the fact that two things can be true at the same time. We might start with the phantom debate between the parties as to whether crime rates are up or down. Candidates for office describe more crimes in some neighborhoods and some sectors. Others say actions taken have cut crime. Neither claim helps a voter.

Understanding shows up in context, not in fractious quotes to get one-up. Ready campaign talks omit context. Rather than explaining how different pieces fit in, parties go jousting like kids on a playground: “Liar, liar.” We forget the truth of two things being true, although posed as opposites. It would be perfectly normal if crime of certain kinds had risen in some neighborhoods and pursuits, while some general crime rate were down.

No side admits to telling half a story as if it were the whole story. A stronger sense of reality would come from debating the ills sparked by this custom. Instead, the news media judge that “liar, liar” makes weighty news. Think how strange.

Immigration is another example. Campaigners claim more and more illegal immigrants are being let loose in the streets. Opposing campaigns say the reverse, “Look at the facts. Today’s smarter methods stop more illegal immigrants from sneaking across the border.” Both halves might fit.

We all know many immigrants are intent on being good and useful citizens. We also know that too many migrants are intent on the big money in human trafficking, dealing drugs, and other abuses. Yet, neither party keeps its news focused on good ways of dealing with both sorts, as we must.

Our nation has always wrestled also with a continual question of how many immigrants to accept each year. Our immigration history is one of revising limits in laws. These three factors—the good, the bad, and the volumes—are central to any workable immigration policy. Yet, the factors are rarely discussed as such. From watching news, people think “policy” refers to snapshots taken at the border, whose focus cuts out vital aspects. Newsmakers pretend to sum up issues with a slight sketch and quick quote.

People often grasp more when the context is changed. The mutant style used in politics gets easier to spot when contrasted with hearing a neighborly talk unfold. Take birding for instance. Imagine flipping a switch between chippy talk—the norm in politics—and normal talk about birds being birds.

A conversation might go like this: Someone could begin a random chat with a comment focused on the “peaceable kingdom” of birds, maybe a mention of songbirds, chicks, the bluebird of happiness, and Easter eggs. All these aspects are plain, old, and real.

From there, the back-and-forth might veer toward the grisly side of birds. Interest could turn to the nest-robbing magpie and the “butcher bird” (the shrike) that impales its prey on thorns or barbed wire. Or feature the deadly swoops of the “chicken hawk” (Cooper’s hawk), of which threatened birds spread warnings. These, too, are simply birds, plain, old, and real.

A useful discussion could probe further implications of birds. People easily grasp two truths at once… except when trapped in politicking.

No one would end an exchange on birds with “liar, liar.” Birds do not split us into two political sects based on which pieces of bird data our sect prefers. Nor do birders stock their shelves with misguiding bird books to reflect the partial views that are favored by their faction.

So, why does politics hearken back to blind men who “saw” no farther than their own reach?

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