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The Wall on the Highway – A Parable

By Brian | November 28, 2009 | Share on Facebook

One afternoon, two men were walking alongside a highway. As they came over a small hill, they were surprised to see that someone had built a brick wall right in the middle of the road. The wall was perpendicular to the road, and went from shoulder to shoulder, making it impossible for anyone or anything to pass. As the two men discussed how impractical the wall was, a car came driving over the hill. Failing to see the wall in time, the car crashed into the wall head-on, killing everyone inside. The men were outraged. “What a senseless tragedy!” shouted the first man. “Something must be done!” agreed the second. The two men shook hands and made a solemn vow to do everything in their power to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

That afternoon, the first man sprang into action. He contacted the local politicians, told them of the accident, and demanded that the wall be removed from the highway. The politicians agreed with him that the accident was a tragedy, but told him that the cost of removing the wall was prohibitively large, and that despite the accident, influential members of the community did not want the wall removed. They promised to give the matter a thorough investigation.

Unsatisfied, the man contacted several of his friends and colleagues, all of whom were influential and well-connected in the community. Together, they held demonstrations at the wall. They spoke passionately about the need to remove the wall from the highway. The local news media covered the demonstrations, providing publicity for the cause. Before long, this “anti-wall movement” had become very successful. The national news media picked up the story, and the man and his friends were granting interviews on all the major news networks. Hollywood celebrities joined the cause. Further demonstrations were held, both at the wall itself, and at other locations throughout the country. Awareness about the wall was up, as was public opinion about the need to remove it. Occasionally, another car would come over the hill and crash into the wall, resulting in the death of still more people. The anti-wall movement would hold memorial services for these victims, mourning their loss, while simultaneously using the incidents to further highlight the urgent need for action.

Politicians on both sides of the issue were forced to defend their positions publicly. Those in favor of removing the wall promised swift action, while those opposed promised a vigorous defense. Debates were held, bills were introduced. And yet, despite all of this progress, the wall remained. Anti-Wall organizers vowed continued vigilance.

At some point, the first man began to wonder about the second man. Ever since the afternoon of that first accident, when the two men had vowed to take action, the second man had disappeared. He had not attended a single Anti-Wall demonstration. He had not granted one television interview. He had not donated any of his time, money, or support for what had become a major movement across the country.

As he continued to ponder the second man, his curiosity turned to annoyance and then quickly to anger. How could the second man abandon him when so much needed to be done? He began to criticize the second man, at first only to fellow Anti-Wall movement organizers, and then eventually in public. He spoke out against the second man’s absence in media interviews, at protest rallies, and at other public functions. Still, there was no response from the second man.

Some time later, the first man once again met the second man walking along side the highway. “Where have you been?!?” exclaimed the first man. “Did we not make a solemn vow to do everything in our power to tear down that wall?” “No,“ said the second man, visibly annoyed. “We vowed to do everything in our power to prevent further car accidents. You vowed to tear down the wall.”

The second man explained that while the first man was creating the Anti-Wall movement, he had been purchasing a series of “Detour” signs, and had posted them at all of the intersections on all of the roads surrounding the wall. By his count, he explained, he had prevented several hundred cars from driving down the road and potentially injuring or killing themselves and their passengers by crashing into the wall.

“I applaud your efforts to tear down the wall,” the second man told the first man, “but I’m deeply offended at your recent personal attacks against me for not participating in them. You have clearly forgotten that failing to support a cause is not the same as opposing it. In fact, sometimes, those who do not support you have simply chosen to take a different road.”

To the reader: Consider what you believe to be the biggest problem facing our country today. The wall represents that problem. The two men represent our two political parties. Which man are you? Have you considered the problem from the perspective of the other man?

Topics: Political Rantings | 10 Comments »

10 Responses to “The Wall on the Highway – A Parable”

  1. Jason says at November 28th, 2009 at 7:32 pm :
    Can I be neither and just stay home and be lazy?

  2. Brian says at November 29th, 2009 at 12:10 am :
    In real life? Yes. In the parable, no. In the parable, you must choose a side… ;-)

  3. Jason says at November 29th, 2009 at 12:19 am :
    ok what about if I just forget the detours and forget the politicians and just destroy the wall? (or pay someone to do it)

  4. Brian says at November 29th, 2009 at 12:26 am :
    Ladies and gentlemen, the third man! Yet another approach to solving the same problem. Let us all roundly criticize him for eschewing the other two men.

    And let us do so on Fox News and MSNBC….

  5. Jeff Porten says at December 1st, 2009 at 12:33 pm :
    Brian — that’s very cute, but that’s not a parable which reflects any political reality I’m aware of. If the two men are the political parties, then it’s more accurate to postulate:

    * Both men privately spend hours determining which of their existing supporters built the wall and profit by it, how many of them mix mortar, and whether they’ve received any donations from the local adobe industry.

    * Both men go off and give speeches to garner public support. One man advocates tearing down the wall, and ensuring that walls are heavily regulated. The other states that walls are a social problem which cannot be solved by either man, but the proper way to solve the problem is to give money to people who either tear down walls, or to pay people not to build walls. A third man (probably carrying a MacBook, smoking a cigarette, and carrying a vent coffee) will note that it’s a public frickin’ road and why is anyone building walls on it, and will go off to blog about it.

    * There’s a fourth man with an armful of detour signs. He’s likely to be related to someone who died at the wall, and he gets the job done with grim and cheap efficiency. When the first two men hear about the fourth man, one extols him but does little to actually help, while the other makes fun of community organizing.

    But your essential problem is that walls are easy. In this case, it’s easy to understand the motivations of both men and try to come to some agreement. I can’t think of a way to analogize this to Afghanistan or health care–except to point out the bankruptcy of “damn, sledgehammers are expensive” as a counter to “people are dying here”. More to the point, when both men see their primary purpose as beating the hell out of each other, and cementing their own power, the analogy falls flat until you state that the road is lined with other men for a distance of ten miles, each handing the first two men money.

    I rarely have a problem putting myself in the shoes of my ideological opponents–but only when they have logical, comprehensible arguments. There’s no way, by way of example, I could understand the logic of someone arguing that Palin would be a good president. The Republicans have reduced themselves to shrill demagoguery across the board, making them incomprehensible. The Democrats are not much better–but the better they do achieve should not be dismissed, as your analogy does.

  6. Brian says at December 1st, 2009 at 5:50 pm :
    I rarely have a problem putting myself in the shoes of my ideological opponents…

    There’s no way . . . I could understand the logic of someone arguing that Palin would be a good president.

    Point, Counterpoint.

    The way I see it, you are the quintissential first man. You simply cannot account for the possibility that the second man’s motives are as well-intentioned as your own. There must be some underhandedness, some corruption, some pocket-lining, or some sinister motive behind his actions.

    If, in your example, Sarah Palin is the wall, then the point I’m trying to make is that there are people who truly believe she’d be a good President. You may disagree (as I do), but when you call them “shrill demagogues across the board,” you completely disregard the possibility that they have legitimate opinions. And by doing so, you (not they) remove all hope of a reasonable debate.

    If healthcare is the wall, then we can start by admitting that there is more than one way to reform healthcare, and that opposition to this bill does not mean opposition to healthcare reform.

    If Afghanistan is the wall, then we can start by admitting that there are lots of options on how to proceed there. And opposition to whatever President Obama proposes tonight does not mean anti-war, anti-troops, or anti-America.

    Obama seems to understand this, and he seems to be in the minority in that regard.

    I find it interesting that you consider my story to “dismiss” one of the two men. In fact, I intentionally wrote it such that both men’s approaches were well-intentioned AND effective at acheiving their goals. I’m not sure a) which man you think represents the Democrats (I think it can be either man, depending on the issue at hand), b) which man you think I’m dismissing, or c) why.

  7. Jeff Porten says at December 3rd, 2009 at 9:05 pm :
    The way I see it, you are the quintessential first man.

    That’s amusing, as while I tend to support political proposals of the first man variety, in my own activism I’m usually the guy organizing signs.

    You simply cannot account for the possibility that the second man’s motives are as well-intentioned as your own. There must be some underhandedness, some corruption, some pocket-lining, or some sinister motive behind his actions.

    Well intentioned, that I’ve got no problem with. The question is the goals those intentions promote. Some political divisions promote compromise — lobbying to tear down walls while also posting signs, for example. But some divisions don’t allow for compromise, and in that case, all you can do is outwit and undermine your opponents. It doesn’t matter at all whether W was well intentioned, megalomaniacal, or a Christian jihadist when he committed us to Iraq. What matters is that he was wrong and it’s a damn shame he wasn’t stopped.

    If, in your example, Sarah Palin is the wall, then the point I’m trying to make is that there are people who truly believe she’d be a good President.

    Oh, no question. The point is, their reasoning that leads them to such a conclusion is likely such that there’s no way in hell they and I could reach some form of political rapprochement. Any attempt to build bridges between the two groups would likely be a waste of time, or more likely, a maneuver by which both sides would be attempting to angle to knife the other in the back.

    If healthcare is the wall, then we can start by admitting that there is more than one way to reform healthcare, and that opposition to this bill does not mean opposition to healthcare reform.

    This is much more nuanced. The problem is that at some point, you’re arguing against calling things that quack a duck. Those who do oppose healthcare reform and support the perpetuity of the status quo will be in this group. The people in this group who are strongly opposed to this bill, but strongly in favor of reform, have not made cogent arguments in favor of their position (i.e., arguments which are not contradicted by global example). Note that I would include the single payers alongside the staunch private marketists here, except that there are damned few of the former, and nearly all of them have shown the compromise you support to come behind the present reform.

    At the risk of putting words in your mouth, we can start by admitting that the current reform bill is the result of a great deal of compromise, rather than stating that it arrived from on high like the Laws of Moses, and hence is the starting point for bipartisanship and compromise.

    If Afghanistan is the wall, then we can start by admitting that there are lots of options on how to proceed there. And opposition to whatever President Obama proposes tonight does not mean anti-war, anti-troops, or anti-America.

    Hell, Afghanistan is the fun one, as opposition and support are not dividing along the usual party lines. I’m the first to admit that I have no bleeping clue on how to proceed there; I’m not thrilled by Obama’s decisions, but I’m willing to give him rope. And I believe from the rest of his speech that his goals are congruent to my beliefs about what America should be doing.

    Obama seems to understand this, and he seems to be in the minority in that regard.

    Well, I was about to link to my post on this topic, but it seems I haven’t written it yet. In the hopper. I’m sure you’ll find it completely convincing.

    I’m not sure a) which man you think represents the Democrats (I think it can be either man, depending on the issue at hand), b) which man you think I’m dismissing, or c) why.

    Conceded, I might have read the author into the argument. Let’s say that I disagree with your standing opposition to street political activism, and I read your post as dismissive of political activism in favor of being the guy with detour signs. Long story short, it depends on whether your goal is one wall, or walls across highways everywhere.

  8. Brian says at December 4th, 2009 at 12:10 pm :
    But some divisions don’t allow for compromise, and in that case, all you can do is outwit and undermine your opponents. It doesn’t matter at all whether W was well intentioned, megalomaniacal, or a Christian jihadist when he committed us to Iraq. What matters is that he was wrong and it’s a damn shame he wasn’t stopped.

    I’m saying the odds of stopping him would have been better if everyone stuck to the merits of his argument. The “all you can do is outwit and undermine” attitude leads to hyperbole and spin. Both sides do it and no one ever wins.

    Any attempt to build bridges between the two groups would likely be a waste of time, or more likely, a maneuver by which both sides would be attempting to angle to knife the other in the back.

    Particularly in the case of Sarah Palin, I don’t understand this attitude. I think I could make cogent arguments, even to the most ardent Palin supporter, about why she isn’t qualified to run for President, without attacking her personally. And yet, the arguments I hear harken back to the days of Dan Quayle.

    we can start by admitting that the current reform bill is the result of a great deal of compromise, rather than stating that it arrived from on high like the Laws of Moses, and hence is the starting point for bipartisanship and compromise.

    No argument there. And I’m not even saying more compromise is required. Note that the second man didn’t disagree with the first man’s actions, he just took a different path. In the context of healthcare, for example, why don’t we pass tort reform, given that everyone seems to agree it’s necessary? My suspicion is that, in the eyes of the Democrats, it will lessen their ability to pass the comprehensive bill and, as such, they’d rather not bring it up. Do you disagree?

  9. Jeff Porten says at December 6th, 2009 at 7:17 pm :
    I’m saying the odds of stopping him would have been better if everyone stuck to the merits of his argument. The “all you can do is outwit and undermine” attitude leads to hyperbole and spin.

    The way I remember it, I had a fairly fucking meritorious argument. The other way I remember it is that absolutely no one listened to anyone arguing the same points. I’m not sure what country in which meritorious arguments win the day, but it sure as hell isn’t this one.

    I think I could make cogent arguments, even to the most ardent Palin supporter, about why she isn’t qualified to run for President, without attacking her personally.

    Good luck with that. To the most ardent Palin supporter, any statement about why she isn’t qualified to be president is a personal attack. (She’s certainly qualified to run for president, however; I don’t think anyone on my side is going to claim that Alaska is not a state.)

    And yet, the arguments I hear harken back to the days of Dan Quayle.

    You think so? Most of the analysis I listen to takes Palin seriously, except when she states something utterly false. Compare that to the press Biden is getting when he speaks. Amused, though, that you went back to 1992 to find a Republican analogue.

    why don’t we pass tort reform, given that everyone seems to agree it’s necessary?

    Two reasons: first, not everyone agrees it’s necessary. Second, tort reform isn’t narrowly targeted at health care; it’s a trojan horse for a much wider goal of providing all sorts of corporate legal protections, at the cost of the American right of redress.

    My suspicion is that, in the eyes of the Democrats, it will lessen their ability to pass the comprehensive bill and, as such, they’d rather not bring it up. Do you disagree?

    Yes. The primary reason why Democrats oppose this is because they take money from trial lawyers, and on this level, both sides are equally corrupted by money. The second reason is ideological; cf. the earlier point about tilting the legal playing field in favor of big business. There’s a reason why Bhopal happened in Bhopal and not here.

    But if it does pass, it’ll be because it’s a sop to bring Republican votes to the bill… and one thing the Democrats are very good at is giving away the store in return for exceedingly little.

  10. Brian says at December 6th, 2009 at 11:01 pm :
    The other way I remember it is that absolutely no one listened to anyone arguing the same points. I’m not sure what country in which meritorious arguments win the day, but it sure as hell isn’t this one.

    Funny – I think the national verdict on the Gulf War is very much in line with your argument. Which is why I was surprised when President Obama called it a success the other night (here’s where I’d link to my post on his speech, also currently unwritten).

    To the most ardent Palin supporter, any statement about why she isn’t qualified to be president is a personal attack.

    That’s because most of the statements made today have been personal attacks. To date, I haven’t seen anyone make a consistent set of talking points about the merits of her candidacy without resorting to “she thinks foreign policy experience is seeing Russia from her window, ha, ha, ha…”

    Amused, though, that you went back to 1992 to find a Republican analogue.

    Just an example. And my distaste for this kind of thinking spans party lines. Do you want more recent examples? Ross Perot, Al Gore, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Ron Paul. There were (are?) discussions to be had about all of them, but the most common (and, sadly, most effective) were the ad hominem ones…

    Tort reform isn’t narrowly targeted at health care; it’s a trojan horse for a much wider goal of providing all sorts of corporate legal protections, at the cost of the American right of redress.

    Oh, please. You couldn’t write a law that contained it to helath care? Imagine if we put 10% of the effort into tort reform that we’re currently putting into the public option. Besides, this was also just an example. How about we get rid of all the inefficiency in Medicare that President Obama claims will pay for a big chunk of this plan, regardless of whether the entire plan passes? Use some of the stimulus money to computerize medical records (as was promised)?

    Democrats “give away the store” because they, like their Republican counterparts, have been horse-trading for so long that the idea of coming together on something isn’t even on the table anymore…

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