Flipside: An ax to grind

ruthie blum 88 (photo credit: )
ruthie blum 88
(photo credit: )
"I cannot tell a lie," legend has the mischievous yet noble lad, George Washington, coming clean with his father for having chopped down the man's beloved cherry tree on a whim. "It is I who did it." Rather than being punished for his prank, however, the boy is praised by his parent - and held up as an example by generations of American educators to come - for having taken personal responsibility for his actions. Whether or not this story actually happened, it became a paragon of a parable, recounted - along with the likes of The Boy Who Cried "Wolf!" and The Tortoise and the Hare - at appropriate moments. Its purpose: to teach children the difference between right and wrong, and show them the benefits of proper, ethical - dare one say it? - good behavior. Now, I'm no expert on fables and the art of moral-fiber maintenance. But I knew something fishy was afoot a few years ago, when I encountered a revised version of The Ant and the Grasshopper in a children's collection. The original story is about an ant who works diligently throughout the summer to make sure that when winter arrives, he will have gathered enough food and other supplies to sustain himself during the cold months. His counterpart, the grasshopper, on the other hand, too happy-go-lucky and irresponsible to plan ahead, spends the summer frolicking and wasting time. Not only that: he chides the ant for being such a stick-in-the-mud and not coming out to play. But when the snow begins to fall, the ant is well-prepared and warm, while the grasshopper is pretty damned sorry he'd spent his days idly. Which makes him want to cop some crumbs from the ant he'd looked down upon. The moral of the story: Those who sow in summer reap in winter; and, by the way, don't be so quick to make fun of the nerds, since they are likely to have the last laugh. The updated narrative goes something like this: The humorless ant - who always does everything by the book - does not take advantage of the summer to enjoy himself, but rather spends all his time planning for the winter. (In other words, this is one tight-assed bug who cannot relate to "the here and now.") The grasshopper, in contrast, is able to appreciate the beauty and cheer of sunny days, and basks in them by singing beautiful ballads and dancing joyous jigs. When winter strikes, and it occurs to him that he is suddenly stranded with no food or shelter, he hops, skips and jumps over to the ant's house and requests refuge. Initially, the parsimonious prig not only refuses, but gives the grasshopper a lecture on fecklessness. To which the grasshopper - who has a great knack for oratory and diplomacy - responds by offering his fellow insect a deal: In exchange for a roof over his head and three squares a day, he will coach the ant in the life skills he's been too busy to hone. And so the two former foes become allies - with one getting fed and the other learning music. The message of the new, improved myth: Different strokes for different folks. Minding your p's and q's isn't all it's cracked up to be; multiculturalism is. SO, YOU might ask, what's the problem? We all know that the ability to loosen up occasionally is a positive thing. Nor does it take a Freud or a Maimonides to figure out that taking pleasure in leisure is as beneficial for both body and soul as hard work. But it makes me nervous when the the political-correctness police begin futzing around with my fables. Because let's face it: It is not the human tendency to lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and vanity that needs cultivating. It - like the inclination to coil away from culpability - flourishes nicely all by itself, thank you very much. It is the other - higher - side of humanity that needs pushing and coaxing in order for it to blossom and bear fruit. Whence stories about ants, grasshoppers and the first US president. And whence Washington's alleged admission having served as a tool for the preaching of the value of personal responsibility - pointing to it as the stuff strong characters are made of. Characters associated with leadership and (let us not forget) liberal society. GIVEN THE current cultural climates of the liberal society in which I was raised and the one in which I have raised my children, I shudder to think what hatchet job is being done on the time-honored cherry-tree tale. I'd wager its revised edition would read as follows: "It's not my fault," Georgie Junior wails at the mere suggestion that perhaps he might have an idea as to how his daddy's favorite sapling ended up in its sorry supine state. "Poor me for having such a brutal parent." No matter that the boy's fingerprints are all over the ax; he's a minor with rights. And anyway, his papa has no business leaving dangerous weapons lying around the house. But then, what can you expect from someone who hails from a society based on robbing an indigenous people of its land? Indeed, the planting of the tree was an illegitimate assertion of false claims to the acres in question. The issue, therefore, of whether the child did or did not commit the crime is irrelevant; either way, he's a victim. The modified moral of the rewoven yarn: Victimhood not only makes for upstanding citizens, but it is the key to garnering sympathy and achieving success. I cannot tell a lie: I prefer the texts in their original form. ruthie@jpost.com