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Mouseland Revisited

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Tommy Douglas (1904-1986), the founder of Canada's New Democratic Party,  served as Premiere of Saskatchewan from 1944 to 1961.  Called "the most influential 
politician never to be elected Prime Minister," Douglas was the fellow who  introduced universal public healthcare to Canada.  In 2004, he was voted number one in the Canadian Broadcast Corporation's "The Greatest Canadian" contest.  And if all this were not enough to secure his position in the pantheon of immortals, he was also the maternal grandfather of actor Keifer Sutherland.

    Not bad for a Scottish immigrant who started out life as a Baptist minister.

   For many non-Canadians -- myself included -- Tommy Douglas is best known for a 578-word fable /parable called "Mouseland."  Originally told by a member of the Canadian House of Commons named Clarence Gillis (1895-1960) Mouseland tells the tale of a society made up overwhelmingly of mice who, against all reason, vote for black cats to be their leaders.  Needless to say, these cats do what is best for their species at the expense of the mice who, nonetheless, continue voting them into office.  Inevitably, the mice become greatly dissatisfied with the black cats; they have mandated the speed at which mice may travel, and have ordained that all mouse holes must have round entrances sufficiently large to permit a cat's paw entry.  So what do the mice do?  In the very next election, they vote in a government made up of white cats who, once in power, decree that from now on, all mouse hole entryways shall be square, thus large enough to permit cats to put both paws inside.  When finally it dawns on one mouse that mice -- not cats -- should run their government, he is accused of being a Bolshevik and imprisoned.  However, the parable ends with the words, "You can lock up a mouse or a man, but you can't lock up an idea."

   If ever a retelling of "Mouseland" were needed, that time would be now.  For like Tommy Douglas' Canadian constituency some 70-odd years ago (he originally told the tale back in ca. 1940) America is a land of mice, far too many of whom willingly cede their destiny and future well-being to cats.  In Douglas' parable, those shaping the murine world were black, white or spotted felines.  In our present circumstance, the cats are all fat -- or at least serve those who are.  How else to account for all those members of the middle- and lower-middle class who:

  • Happily support an extension of tax cuts for the wealthiest 2%?  or
  • Go along with that bit of specious reasoning which contents that denying unions collective bargaining rights will somehow balance a budget or diminish a deficit?  or
  • Buy into the discredited economic theory that placing more pre-tax (or post-demise) dollars in the hands of the wealthy will ultimately benefit the poor?  or
  • That the answer to nearly every problem or challenge we face is a combination of lower taxes and fewer regulations? or
  • That there is no inconsistency between clamoring for "jobs, jobs, jobs" and then defunding public education? or 
  • That the single-best way to face the challenges of the future is to arm ourselves with the solutions of the past?

   Over the past couple of weeks, the "cats" have become increasingly brazen in their campaign against we, the "mice."  We have seen this campaign at its worst and most obvious in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and how Rhode Island, where gubernatorial and legislative cats are feasting on the brittle bones of such public sector mice as teachers, firefighters, police officers and municipal employees.  In response, tens of thousands have flocked to their respective state capitals demanding to have their rights respected and their voices heard.  In Wisconsin, the 14 Democratic state senators have removed themselves to Illinois, where they are safely beyond the reach of Governor Walker.  Without their presence in Madison, there can be no legislative quorum.  And without a quorum, there can be no vote on the governor's proposal taking collective bargaining rights away from public employees' unions -- a hard-fought right which has been in place for the better part of a century.

   Make no mistake about it: all sentient "mice" understand that we are in the throes of a fiscal crisis; that this crisis extends from Washington, D.C. to the various state capitals, county seats and city halls.  We are all perfectly aware that our country, most of our states, counties and municipalities are running deficits, and that intelligent, high-mindedly courageous leadership, backing intelligent, high-mindedly courageous -- dare we say imaginative? -- proposals and programs must be the wave of the future.  For many intelligent mice -- and some cats as well -- our current fiscal mess bespeaks the need to rethink, refashion and retool for a practical future that will not look much like the present and certainly nothing like the past. 

   For others -- both murine and feline alike -- the current state of affairs presents nothing so much as an opportunity to settle old scores; to rethink, refashion and retool for a political future that will look much like the past -- a past where unions were all but nonexistent, income, corporate and inheritance taxes were miniscule, the words "government" and "regulation" never appeared in the same sentence, and the entire federal bureaucracy could fit comfortably into Ebbets Field -- if it were still standing.

   On a slightly more hopeful note, there appears to be a growing number of "mice" who are beginning to realize just what the "cats" are up to: settling old political scores.  And it's not necessarily that we, the rodents, are becoming smarter or politically more savvy.  Rather, it is likely due to the very brazenness with which the felines have been going about their business.  Breaking unions has nothing -- we repeat, nothing -- to do with balancing budgets or decreasing debts.  What it does have everything to do with is taking away both a source of funding and a vast cadre of volunteers from the Democrats.  The cats have their Koch brothers; and up until now, the mice have had their unions.

   Likewise, defunding Planned Parenthood, OSHA or National Public Radio (to name but three) has less to do with the nuts-and-bolts of fiscal austerity as it does with furthering a pro-life, pro-deregulation, anti-progressive platform.  Still, one cannot blame them; cats have to do what cats have to do. 

   In Tommy Douglas' parable, one mouse has the vision, the courage, to ask "Why do we continue to elect a government of cats?  Why don't we elect a government of mice?" 

   "Oh," they said, "he's a Bolshevik.  Lock him up!"

    Permit me to conclude with my own "cats-and-mice" suggestion:

    If we are to fix a system which up until now has put the future welfare  of "mice" into the hands of "cats" -- a species whose primary allegiance is to their financial backers and underwriters --   we must completely rethink, refashion and retool the manner in which we elect our leaders.

   Repeat after me:



-2011 Kurt F. Stone

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Kurt Stone is a rabbi, writer, lecturer, political activist, professor, actor, and medical ethicist. A true "Hollywood brat" (born and raised in the film industry), Kurt was educated at the University of California, the Eagleton Institute of (more...)
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