Though clothed in the button-nosed cuteness of Mickey Mouse in the 1940 Walt Disney film Fantasia, the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice was a cautionary tale penned in 1797 by Goethe that warned of the consequences of misjudged and misguided power. It is a story that springs readily to mind in light of today’s toxic presidential campaign in the U.S.A.
Goethe’s poem tells of a young apprentice left to his chores as the old sorcerer leaves his workshop for the day. Once alone, however, the apprentice sees an opportunity to lessen his workload by using his limited sorcering skills to conjure a broom to life to take up his task of carrying pails of water to fill a large cistern.
At first all goes well as the broom takes up his charge. But when the apprentice falls asleep dreaming of controlling the heavens and seas, he awakens to find the workshop flooded with the spill-over as the broom goes on hauling and dumping water blindly under the spell cast by the apprentice.
Panicked, the apprentice can’t find the spell to stop the broom, because all he knew was the one to get it started.
The 2016 presidential campaign has taken a disquieting turn into something not altogether dissimilar. There is a palpable fear upon the land, fear of a changing world and our inability to control it.
Fear is a powerful emotion, and once set free can easily careen out of control. As such, it is among the elemental talents of any political leader to harness both a nation’s fears and its hopes, molding each into a middle ground of purpose and rational policy.
Judging by the forces set free in these last few days on the campaign trail, however, the ability of our political leaders to resolve our conflicted emotions now seems beyond their capability. And one leader in particular has cast a dangerous spell that is amplifying the hard emotions of defiance and distrust — though judging by his former political positions, he has no firm foundation of political theory to buttress his current message beyond the expedience of the next primary election.
Today, the twin cancers of fear and righteous anger that were first diagnosed in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, then metastasized under Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, can be found under the name ISIS. So, too, has the disease spread to our own shores, though its name has yet to be spoken.
Decisions by our leaders over the last 30+ years have erased the barriers that once regulated interests and trade, even as the lines between business and government have also been smudged. This, in turn, has led to economic dislocation by extra-national corporations who hold no allegiance beyond profit, and whose multi-million dollar lobbying efforts have engineered a series of imbalanced trade agreements as well as the financial house of cards that led to the economic collapse of 2008.
Today, the consequences of those decisions have turned a once trusting public into an angry and dangerously bereft population in search of a whipping post against which to lash out.
But rather than seeing the malign partnership of business and paid-for governments as the root of the problem — not to mention an expanding population tied to a shrinking resource base — the people have been turned against themselves, formed into bitter political camps by braying demagogues who prey on peoples’ most base prejudices and fears. Our lax public education system is also complicit in reducing the level of learning and perspective that is the very basis of self-governance.
The one prescription, then, for any ill, be it economic dislocation or the War on Terror, is to meet force with an even greater force. Identify the opponent, then smash them to pieces without mercy. And what has been the result? A philosophy that was once confined to a small tribal area in Afghanistan has now spread throughout the world. It is like a frightening political version of Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
In his attempt to stop the one broom from further flooding the workshop, the apprentice took an axe and splintered the offending implement. But to his horror, each separate piece quickly transformed into a new whole, until the workshop was completely awash in brooms toting more and more pails of water in blind obedience to the apprentice’s original enchantment.
As the apprentice is drawn into the whirlpool he has set in motion, the old sorcerer finally returns to the workshop and breaks the spell. The waters recede, and the brooms once again become inanimate. The poem ends with the old sorcerer admonishing his apprentice that powerful spirits should only be conjured by those who have mastered the craft fully.
I think we know who our apprentice is in today’s political workshop. Here’s hoping we can find a master sorcerer soon before the rising deluge engulfs us all.