A work of fiction. Standard disclaimers.
The delegation, in face masks and gloves, stepped off the bus from their five-star hotel, where each member had had a suite to demself*, and assembled at the end of the walkway leading to the Executive Mansion. The walkway was overlain with a red carpet, and flanked by troops. It was unclear whether the troops, in their helmets, face shields, fatigue-colored sanitary gloves, and automatic rifles held in the “port arms” position, represented an honor guard or a security detail. Or both.
Two members of the Executive Mansion staff, also in face masks and gloves, greeted the delegation, and led them ceremonially down the walkway. Past the wall of soldiers, delegation members got glimpses of the grounds surrounding the path, which were in various stages of reconstruction, apparently from some calamity. Lawns had been regraded, and sod was being laid down. New gardens, hedges, and groves were being laid out; a pile of shattered tree remnants testified to what had been before.
The Mansion itself had been tricked out in a gaudy, graffiti-art mix of rainbow colors plus black. Out of sight of the delegation, a worker had defiantly left a portion of the original surface unpainted, and had tried to defend his handiwork from a supervisor. That supervisor had brutally beaten him unconscious, and then, equally brutally, dashed an entire can of black exterior enamel against the offending whiteness.
“Wet paint!”, the Mansion staffers called out as the delegation entered the building. “Careful not to touch anything!”
The delegation passed through the front portico and through hallways directly to the Audience Room, in which they found and sat in chairs that faced the monumental Executive Desk. The desk itself was chipped and splintered, and much of the Audience Room showed similar signs of recent struggle. Attempts had been made to cover the worst of the damage with tokens and regalia from various Emperors of the Nation, especially from the reign of Yeswecan, Last Emperor before the coming of Tromp the Usurper.
No one was seated at the Executive Desk. Instead, at a folding table positioned directly in front of the Desk, an elderly, gray-haired white gentleman sat as if bearing a weight too burdensome for him. It was Lord Bidentime, Steward of the Nation. In his right hand, he bore the sole emblem of his office, a slender, rainbow-hued rod. He was flanked by bailiffs, four on either side. All wore sanitary gloves and face shields.
As the delegation entered, Bidentime rose, and nodded gravely at each member as they passed before him and to their seats. He bid them take those seats, and then addressed them:
“Ladies and gentlemen, representatives of the intellectual might of this our Nation, we call to you in our hour of need. I tell you what you already know. A pestilence rages through this Land. Our response to it, guided by passions instead of wisdom, has placed us in poverty and famine, and has led to war among ourselves, during which the rightful Succession of Emperors has been broken. I, as Steward of the Nation, and my heirs should that befall, are charged with leading the Nation back to health and prosperity, until a rightful Emperor should return to us. For this, we need the knowledge, the analytical power, and the wisdom that you possess, that We as a Nation formerly despised. I now beg you to forgive us our sin, and challenge you to put all of your powers and abilities to work to heal what must be healed, build what must be built, achieve what must be achieved. How do you respond?”
An ancient white gentleman, who had led the delegate’s procession into the Audience Room and was clearly accepted by the others as their leader, began to rise from his seat in response. Lord Bidentime audibly cleared his throat, and the bailiffs rattled their arms. The gentleman, seeing and hearing this, paused, shrugged, sat down. The white gentleman to his right, equally clearly the deputy of the first man, began to rise, got the same reaction, sat down again. Three rows back, a middle-aged black woman stood up and said, in a strongly Hispanic accent, “I told you this would happen, George.”
Bidentime raised his head, commanded “Come forward”. As she did so, the bailiff on the end of the row to Bidentime’s left intercepted her, and offered her a face shield, which she exchanged for her mask. After the exchange, she moved to stand before the Steward.
“You are Dr. Fausti?”, Bidentime asked.
“Yes, sir. Dr. Cassandra Mbube Fausti Alcedo, Professor and Head of Social Sciences, Howard University. I trust that checks off all your boxes for you.”
The bailiff directly to Bidentime’s right, in the regalia of the Coast Salish, growled. Bidentime waved him to silence.
“I would have you speak for the group”, Bidentime announced. Do all assent in this?” All nodded. Then, “How do you respond to my challenge, to our Nation’s need?”
Fausti sighed, then drew a deep breath, stood fully straight, looked Bidentime directly in the eye, began. “It is your’s, sir, to command, and ours to obey. And we agree, the need is immediate, nay desperate. Still, we tell you that what you ask is a fool’s errand, and we would refuse the task if we could.”
“Do you fear failure?” Bidentime asked, sharply.
Fausti’s answer was sharp in kind. “We do not fear failure. We consider it to be inevitable, under any circumstances that would be acceptable to you, or even possible for you. And therefore, any effort will ultimately be futile.”
If this answer surprised Bidentime, he didn’t show it. “Say on.”
Fausti spoke clearly and assuredly, without faltering or self-doubt. “You have credited us with the knowledge, intellect, and wisdom to see us through the current crisis, if we would only bring it to bear. We are willing to try, but it has to be understood that our abilities are imperfect, and our answers will not come quickly, or cheaply.
“Any who expect our answers to be quick, or dramatic, or permanent – to say nothing about those who expect all three at once, or else – are going to be disappointed. And the disappointed are going to be resentful of any monies spent on our behalf, and loudly disapproving that such monies are spent on us and not on themselves, who are clearly more worthy and offer more immediate returns.
“We argue that the imperfection of our understanding now is the result of several cycles of this phenomenon, leading to a general impression that our intellectual community should ‘earn its keep’ on tasks that the community understands – like, for instance, babysitting college students rather than insisting that they master the subjects they are allegedly studying for, on pain of dismissal for incompetence. Alas, dismissed students don’t pay fees, or earn the social brownie points that are all that their degrees are really worth. The community doesn’t understand intellect, it understands football. It understands a university, or any other ‘brainwork’ institution, that doesn’t cost it any money in taxes, that entertains it, that doesn’t call out its prejudices regardless of whether data and analysis demand that they be called out.
“As a career politician, you doubtless know the admonition that ‘there are no votes in science’ far better than we do. And our noses have been rubbed in it ever since the end of World War II, and in spades since the end of the Cold War.
“You might command the nation to grant us the respect, and the resources, to attempt the task you set before us. And for a short while, given the emergencies we now face, your command may even stick. But what you ask is hard, and periodically we will fail. And each failure will build resentment in the majority who do not understand what we do, and that resentment will drain support for our efforts, and eventually render them null and void.
“And who is to say that, given such a powerful mandate, we would remain appropriate stewards of it? Physicians used to be afforded the respect, and funds, needed for them to carry out their tasks – the kind of respect and funding that we would need to carry out the tasks you ask of us. Too many of them became known for profiteering, for arrogance and unavailability to patients, to spending their Wednesdays playing golf. Now, the life of a physician is arguably hell on wheels, and just as arguably they have no one to blame for it but themselves, as otherwise there would have been no basis in customer complaints for the extortionate corporate medical infrastructure that has developed.
“Do you in fact have the popular mandate to issue such a command? We think that you do not. You are now Steward of this Nation not because of what you stand for, but because of what you stood against – the misrule of Tromp the Usurper, which collapsed less from your actions than from his own. You stand at the head of a gaggle of identity groups, each eager to see how quickly, and how thoroughly, you’re going to get them theirs. Plus, you have the single largest united plurality – those who backed the Usurper – eager to pounce on each and every one of your missteps – starting, like it or not, with your omission of the color ‘white’ from your rainbow. Where in this crisis-stricken realm are you going to find the resources to placate all of these groups? Never mind find the resources that we’re going to need to fund and agitate for the tasks you wish to assign to us? Do we need to remind you just how quickly the forces behind what we thought was the thoroughly-disgraced reign of Emperor Creosoto rallied to destroy the reign of that Emperor Yeswecan that you worship, and eventually place the Usurper behind the Executive Desk?“
“You do not. Trust me”, Bidentime responded, firm and erect in his response to Fausti’s lecture.
“How, then,” Fausti finished with her own challenge, “are you going to obtain for us the respect, the popular support, the funds, for the mission you wish us to undertake, without becoming what you profess to hate? Without yourself becoming the next Usurper?”
“I will match your expression of uncertainty with one of my own”, Bidentime answered. “I don’t know. But it is given to me, and to my office as Steward of the Nation, to try. And I will try. Since you said that, despite your eloquently-expressed misgivings, you would serve at the Nation’s command, I will take you at your word. I place you at the head of the Steward’s Commission for National Healing and Advancement, and I will be working with you and your designates to put together an appropriate framework for this Commission so that it may be announced, and its work commence, at the earliest possible moment.”
Fausti nodded. “So be it. May our service be of far greater value to the Nation than we fear it will be.”
Bidentime nodded in return. “So be it indeed. And come what may, I at least will value that service.” He sat down, erect and firm, at his Steward’s folding table, rapped the end of his Steward’s rod once. At a signal from the bailiffs, the delegation rose, and the staffers who led them in led them out to their bus. The bailiffs followed them.
When all were gone, Bidentime’s shoulders sagged, his face fell and lost most of its color. He pulled off his face shield, and listlessly dropped it on the table, from which it promptly rolled off and fell on the floor. He stared at the place where it had been for a moment, and then, vacantly, into the empty space of the Audience Room. He sat there for some time, alone, still, and sorrowful, an old and profoundly weary man.
* This post suggests using “dey/dem/deir” as the missing third-person singular, gender-ambiguous personal pronoun in US English. Given that the choice that seems to YFNA to best reflect the state of the human condition in these Untied States is rejected on various grounds.