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  • Alastair Cavendish

The Emperor's New Shoes

More than a thousand years ago, a Chinese Emperor of the Southern Tang, the state that later gave its name to a popular brand of barbecue sauce, awoke one morning after a strange dream and promptly had one of the worst ideas that has ever occurred to anyone in the history of the world. He summoned his Mandarins and promptly announced:

“I have just been dreaming about women’s feet.”

The Mandarins nodded in sympathy. Many of them were perverts too. The Emperor corrected himself.

“What I mean to say,” he continued, “is that I had a dream about a woman without any feet. She was dancing around a big golden lotus, and at the end of her legs, all she had, instead of feet, were these neat little pigs’ trotters, so what I thought was this: wouldn’t it be splendid if all women had trotters instead of feet?”

The Mandarins continued to nod out of sheer habit, for none of them was quite that perverse. The Emperor’s word was law, and so began one of the stupidest and most abusive cultural practices the world has ever seen. Foot binding may have started over a thousand years ago, and died out at the beginning of the twentieth century, but perhaps it is still too soon to treat the matter lightly. There may even be a few women left who still endured this torture. I have seen one myself, though she was very old, and this was more than twenty years ago.

There cannot be many people in China or anywhere else in the world who would now defend the practice of foot-binding. It was a cruel and sinister thing to do to a fellow human being, inflicting pain and curtailing freedom at the same time. For almost a thousand years, generation upon generation of Chinese women hobbled and teetered on their unnaturally tiny feet, living symbols of imperial tyranny and patriarchal oppression.

What would it take for you to inflict this on your daughter? Or your son for that matter? Or anyone you love? Or even on someone you don’t particularly like? Would a million pounds be enough? Or a hundred million? Or a billion? Would you do it for power, fame, and glory? The adulation of the mob, and a place in the history books? Or would you, perhaps, refuse to cripple and imprison another human being whatever the incentive?

The last of these stances, you may recall, is known as “principled.” Here is the way it works: when someone asks you to disable your children, or to betray your country, or to break your promises, or to misappropriate public funds, or generally to go through life lying, cheating, stealing, creeping, crawling and being a menace to society, you refuse. You do not perform a cost/benefit analysis. You do not prevaricate. You do not weigh up the likelihood of getting away with it. You simply conclude that this is not who you want to be and how you want to act, and firmly refuse to do the foul thing, whatever the consequences.

You know this, of course. It is widely recognised that, while politicians have never been remarkable for their devotion to principle, the current occupants of high office are in a league of their own when it comes to lack of scruples. Boris Johnson, who thinks scruples are the name of the money Russian oligarchs use to pay bribes, would happily cripple any or all of his thousands of children or, for that matter, cook and eat them on live television if he thought it would increase his popularity. The Labour Party has, therefore, been forced into gargantuan efforts to find a leader equally devoid of principle, but it has found one in Keir Starmer, a man who makes Harvey Dent look consistent. When autumn comes to London, and you hear the susurration of falling leaves in a light breeze, they are actually nodding in the direction of Keir Starmer and remarking as they make their leisurely descent: “There is a fellow who alters his course in response to the slightest gust of wind.”

Since everyone recognizes what is wrong with politics, one might imagine that principled stances by private citizens would be widely admired as a much-needed source of inspiration. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in the last year. How’s this for a principle: I believe in freedom and autonomy, and I refuse to be a party to locking people in their homes, destroying their livelihoods and educations, denying them vital medical treatment, and causing the foreseeable deaths of many of them. I am not interested in talking about numbers. I do not care to see questionable mathematical models showing the possible results of such a policy. I refuse to be coerced or bribed or shamed. I will have no part in this moral turpitude. It is wrong.

Those of us who oppose lockdown are doing exactly what Johnson and Starmer are so widely despised for failing to do: we are taking a principled stand. The very shrillness of the Covid fanatics in their cries of “How can you sleep at night?” may perhaps tell us something about the justice of our cause and the weakness of their logic. It is precisely through taking a principled stand that we are able to maintain relatively clear consciences (one should, of course, never trust anyone with a completely clear conscience):

While lockdown lovers hurl abuse

That’s beastly, base and boorish,

Our strength is as the strength of ten,

Because our hearts are pure (ish).

Perhaps future histories will vindicate the liberal and humane principles which compel us to stand against the tyranny of the state. Then again, if those histories are all written in Chinese, perhaps not. In any case, no one need wait for the judgement of posterity to discern the correct principles by which to live in the present. ‘Tis not our profit that doth lead our honour.

The story of the Chinese Emperor quoted at the beginning of this piece is well-known, which is not to say that it is altogether factual in every detail. What I have authenticated beyond reasonable doubt, however, is that, after being reincarnated as various forms of pond life over many centuries, the Emperor in question was most recently reborn in Whitehaven in 1968, as Professor Neil Ferguson. Now that I come to think of it, he may not have been a professor when he was born, and the authentication to which I referred is, strictly speaking, nothing but guesswork. Not to worry, however: Professor Ferguson enjoys a good guess. And he’s still getting some of his worst ideas from China.

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