Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Snake

It's a short, simple poem, one that has surfaced repeatedly over the last few years of our now endless political campaign. 

It's carted out by our president, usually as part of his xenophobic efforts to capitalize on the attitudes of his right-wing audiences against immigrants.

"The Snake," it's called.

A person finds a frozen snake, and brings it into their house to revive it.  It wakes, and bites them, poisoning them.  Because it's a snake, and that's what they do.

The spin being applied to its current telling, of course, is that foreigners and people who aren't loyal to the president?  They're the snakes.  Don't trust 'em or be nice to 'em or care for them or welcome them in, 'cause they'll bite you.  Because they're bad.

That's what is intended.  It is always read by the POTUS as part of a crass nativist attack on immigrants, which is how his audiences hear it.  Because that's how he always frames it, telling them what to believe so they cannot consider the tale themselves.  "Immigration," he'll say, before starting in, making sure you have no space to encounter the meaning on your own.

The poem itself, which he probably read as a meme on #Twitter, is just a reworking of a reworking.  "The Snake" has ancient provenance as a Wisdom teaching.  It's thousands of years old, part of the fables of Aesop, short teaching tales meant to illuminate great truths that define a moral life.

As a writer myself, and one who follows the teachings of a master storyteller, I know there's no better way to learn or teach.

But there's a catch.  Moral storytelling requires imagination.  It forces the reader out of themselves, and into the story.  As with the parables of my Teacher, you have to get that right, or else you'll completely miss the point.  And if you miss the point, you put yourself in a position of moral hazard.

As a form of teaching Wisdom, that "missing of the point" is paradoxically why you teach using storytelling.  Parables are a trap set for fools, who can hear the stories...or tell them...and imagine that the same story is not meant for them.

The purpose of the story of the snake...or "The Snake and the Man," or the "Snake and the Farmer," or the "Snake and the Maid?"  It has been laid out and reiterated over the centuries of telling and retelling.  The best of those retellings do not articulate the moral, because parabolic teaching means you're required to figure that out for yourself.

What Aesop wrote was not is an anti-immigrant screed.  Nor can it legitimately ever be read as it is being read now, warped into a cold-hearted inversion of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  As Aesop was a Thracian/Macedonian who lived as  a foreign-born slave in the city-state of Samos, that seems obvious.  Assuming you know Aesop wrote it.  And know that some friendly droog-bot on #twitter didn't just come up with the story.

The terse little teaching is a warning to the naive, to those who imagine that a harmful soul will not do them harm simply because they care for it and bring it into their home.  Your embrace of a sociopath, says Aesop, will not prevent them from harming you.

But in sharing the story with children and those of childish mind over the last several thousand years, sometimes the point of The Snake needed to be spelled out, just as Jesus often had to spell out his meaning to his more lunk-headed disciples.   For those who might have missed it, here's the point:

"Learn from my fate not to pity a scoundrel," or so says the dying farmer in the 1919 edition of "Aesop for Children."

"There are some men like snakes," says the seventeenth century L'Estrange version.  "'tis natural for them to be doing mischief."

And plainer still, from 1887's "Baby's Own Aesop," the point of the story is this:

"Beware how you entertain traitors."

The irony of this story's place in contemporary conservative politics could not be more obvious.