In the middle of a vast ocean, surrounded by huge green clouds that carried a pungent odor, there was a small island known as Stenchland. Stenchland was a vast, fruitful island populated by a multitude of ferrets and cows. No one knows quite how the animals got there. All that was known was that the ferrets had somehow attained a degree of intelligence beyond that of normal ferrets, for they wore tiny speedos in every color of the rainbow and cared for the cows on their own. The ferrets would feed them, graze them, milk them, and eat their meat. But most of all, the ferrets enjoyed making cheese.
All day long the ferrets would labor with their cows and milk buckets and butter churns and cheese-aging cellars trying to craft as much cheese as they could (rumor has it that this obsession with cheese was what led to the island’s name of Stenchland.) Sometimes, the ferrets would even work for each other in exchange for cheese or trade cheeses of different kinds with their neighbors. They knew little but cheese and speedos and, for a long time, the ferrets lived in peaceful, cheese-making bliss.
Then one day, problems began to arise on the island of Stenchland. Mean-spirited ferrets fashioned weapons for themselves, wooden spears and shields from the trees, and killed or threatened others in order to take their cheese. There were disagreements about whether the cow-owner or the cheese-maker should get to keep the cheese and about whether brie was more valuable than cheddar in cheese exchanges. Soon, all the ferrets of Stenchland had to carry weapons to protect themselves and their cheese and the stronger ferrets would often take cheese from the weaker ones.
After several years of this, a ferret named Sheila called her ferret brethren together and spoke firmly in a voice that sounded like Janet Reno after she had inhaled helium.
“My fellow ferrets,” Sheila said, “I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of always having to defend my life and cheese from those who would take them. I’m tired to having to resolve disagreements at the tip of a spear. Let us form a government, so that we can all live in peace and prosperity.”
And so, inside a cave on the top of a tall mountain, the ferrets met to discuss how they should construct the new ferret government. The elder Dave, one whose speedo was yellowed with age and wisdom (at least, let’s hope it was age and wisdom) led the meeting.
“The purpose of this meeting,” he said, rubbing his graying whiskers in contemplation, “is to form a government that can protect all ferrets on the island from harm and be the judge in conflicts. Now, it seems to me that the wisest thing to do would be to appoint a king or elect a council. That way, the rulers can punish those who harm others or unlawfully take their cheese and decide conflicts.”
“But no ferret is with without flaw,” another ferret named Pedro chimed in, “A king or council could easily oppress the ferrets they rule over and take their lives or their cheese for themselves. Any government should promote peace and prosperity, not make the lives of its ferrets miserable. We need to put something in place to protect out rights.”
“Rights? What are rights?” asked a third ferret.
“Rights basic modes of being that every ferret is entitled to. Ferrets have rights automatically. They are not given to us by a government or any other rodent; they exist naturally,” Pedro explained, “The whole reason we would enact this government would be to stop other ferrets from intruding on our rights. For example, every ferret has a right to live. We should have a law that protects our right to be alive so that if someone, even the government, tries to kill or harm you, you can appeal to the law that protects that right.”
The assembly talked it over and it was agreed that Pedro was right and that ferrets always had the right to be alive. The government, it was decided, would be required to protect that right and would be forbidden from infringing on it. But the council was far from over.
After adjusting his speedo, a ferret named Harold said, “It seems that we have other rights than just the right to be alive. All ferrets also have a right to freedom. No ferret should be able to tell another what to do, to dominate over another without any sort of agreement between the two.”
“Can we write something in the laws about the right to freedom of speech?” Enid the ferret asked, “I like to say the phrase ‘buttery marmoset’ a lot, but Reginald doesn’t like it and he’s threatened to beat me repeatedly with a sturgeon if I don’t stop. Do I have a right to be able to say whatever I want?”
“And freedom of religion,” shouted Fred the heretic, “I do not worship the tuxedo-clad monkey god Higjjor like my neighbors do. Do I have a right to choose my own religion?”
All the ferrets agreed that they did have a right to freedom, but before they could write it in their laws, a young ferret named Stanley spoke up.
“I think we also need to put something in our laws about a right to cheese,” Stanley said, “If I make some cheese and someone else takes it from me without my permission, they have violated my right to acquire and use my cheese as I see fit.”
“Indeed, what is a ferret without his cheese?” Dave said in agreement, “but it does seem like the rights to freedom and cheese could be taken too far. One does not, it seems, have the right to kill their neighbor or to steal another’s cheese. I would say, then, that every ferret has the right to be alive, the right to be free in any area of their lives, and the right to cheese as long as they do not use these rights to infringe on anyone else’s rights. This is what we should write in our laws.”
The ferrets agreed on this and laws protecting their rights were immediately written down. Soon afterward, they elected a governing council with Dave as its leader and the island of Stenchland had order at last.
Years passed and the ferrets continued to live under the new government. As time went on, new technologies came to the island from faraway lands and some of the ferrets employed these as ways to get more cheese. One particularly ambitious ferret named Jorge used all his cheese to buy machinery and built a speedo-producing factory.
His factory produced the most comfortable and glamorous speedos around, and soon ferrets were willing to part with their finest gouda in exchange for one of Jorge’s speedos. With the extra cheese, Jorge hired workers and his factory could soon make more speedos and earn even more cheese for him. Jorge soon had more cheese than anyone else on the island and a diamond-studded speedo that made his pelvic region glimmer with the shine of his success.
While Jorge enjoyed great profit from his endeavors, others were not as fortunate. Paul was a poor ferret who lived in a small hovel made of cow dung and glue and wore a speedo made of rags. He tried to find work in exchange for cheese, but few people had ever hired him, since his only skill was being able to play the didgeridoo underwater. Dreaming of quality cheese every day, Paul had only the occasional moldy edam that someone else gave him out of pity. Every day, he would walk by Jorge’s huge factory and monumentous pile of cheese and clench his fist in anger. Why should Jorge have so much while he had so little?
One day, fed up with Jorge’s endless store of cheese, Paul went to the governing council, hoping to improve his situation. Taking a deep breath, he walked through the large metal doors of the council’s building and stood before his rulers. Their wise eyes seemed to pierce deep through his fur and into his very organs as they looked down on him from their large, leather recliners.
“What is your grievance, Paul?” Dave asked.
“I am very poor, Dave,” Paul replied, “My house is small and inadequate, I have trouble getting food, and my speedo barely stays on. Meanwhile, Jorge has far more cheese than he needs to be comfortable. Can’t you take some of his cheese and give it to me?”
“Our laws won’t allow that, Paul,” another member of the council said, the footrest of his recliner jutting forward as he pulled the chair’s wooden lever, “Taking some of Jorge’s cheese and giving it to you would be a violation of Jorge’s right to cheese.”
“But I am barely staying alive!” Paul protested, “Don’t I have a right to be alive? If taking some of Jorge’s cheese is what it takes to keep me alive, the government should do it. You need to protect my right to be alive. And anyway, isn’t Jorge’s having so much cheese keeping me from getting cheese? His right to cheese is infringing on my right to be alive!”
Dave rubbed his chin, fixing a contemplative stare on Paul. “Leave us now, Paul,” he said at last, “so that we may deliberate.”
So Paul left and the ferret council discussed his remarks. There was much disagreement, but it was eventually agreed that Paul had a point and that Jorge, as a member of ferret society, had an obligation to keep Paul alive. And so, after this decision, Jorge was forced weekly to come before the council and give them some of his cheese. Then the council would give the cheese to Paul. Still not as rich as Jorge but comfortable nonetheless, Paul ate some of the cheese he got every week and used the rest to purchase a nicer house and a respectable speedo.
The arrangement between Paul and Jorge continued this way for several more years. One dim fall morning, Dave awoke, adjusted his recliner to an upright position, stood, and walked to the window. Flinging open the glass panes he inhaled deeply to take in some of the rancid, cheese-scented air. But on this morning, a different smell filled his nostrils. A cold fear seized him. Grabbing his binoculars, Dave looked far into the distance and realized his guess was correct. The koalas were coming.
Ever since they had built ships and explored the ocean decades ago, the ferrets of Stenchland had lived in fear of the savage, fedora-wearing koalas on the island of Jellyville. These brutal marsupials had killed most of the expedition party that had been sent to the island and had sworn to someday find and ravage the ferrets’ homeland. With a shudder, Dave closed the window and walked solemnly to his closet. He firmly gripped the wooden shield and spear he had hoped never to use again and woke the other members of the council. The day of reckoning had come.
The message spread swiftly through the ferret community. All who were able to fight were to meet in front of the council building. When the ferrets’ humble army was assembled, Dave strode slowly to its head and gave his warriors final instructions. A shout of “For the speedos of our ancestors!” erupted from the crowd and the ferrets charged forth.
The ferrets of Stenchland saved their island that day, but the fighting was brutal. Paul fought well, slaying seventeen koalas, wounding ten, and saving many of his fellow rodents from destruction. After the enemy retreated, he surveyed the destruction around him. Blood-stained fur coated the ground and the air seemed lifeless. To his horror, Paul recognized the bodies of many friends, including Jorge, who lay motionless with a koala axe deep in his back.
As he stared at the carnage, Paul slowly became aware of voices around him. From what he heard, he deduced that the entire council had been slain in the battle. Until another election could be held, the ferrets were without government.
Organizing a second election turned out to be harder for the ferrets than they had at first thought, and Paul soon realized that since Jorge and the council were gone, he had no more source of cheese. He was reduced to begging once again and his speedo deteriorated. Frustrated, Paul again looked to those who had more cheese than he and decided that he would enforce his right to be alive, government or no. Girding himself with his finest speedo, Paul traveled to the home of a wealthy ferret named Fabio.
As the door to Fabio’s house creaked open, Paul was nearly overwhelmed by the scent of succulent limburger. Ignoring the smell, Paul composed himself as best he could and spoke.
“I’ve come to take some of your cheese, Fabio,” Paul said, trying to sound as confident as he could, “Give it to me, or I shall come into your house and take it for myself.”
“You can’t do that!” Fabio shouted, “That’s a violation of my right to cheese!…and my right to freedom!”
“The government is gone now, Fabio,” Paul responded, “You don’t have rights anymore.”
“My rights exist whether or not there is a government!” Fabio said, grabbing a whistle from a nearby table, “You know this as well as I do. If you come any closer, I’ll blow this whistle and my neighbors will come to my defense!”
Disheartened, Paul took a step back, the back of his speedo seeming to sag with disappointment. “But what about my right to be alive?” he cried, “What about my right to receive cheese from other ferrets when I don’t have enough?”
Fabio set his whistle down and thought for a minute. “Paul,” he said, “you did not have a right to that cheese, because you were dependent on Jorge and the council for it. Rights are things we have naturally, things we aren’t dependent on anyone else for. Any service you must depend on others for cannot be a right, Paul, because if the ones you depend on are ever unable to provide it for you, the service will be gone.”
Paul sat down on Fabio’s doorstep, the chill of the cement on his buttocks preceding the cold, hard truth that was slowly overcoming his mind. Finally, Paul removed his didgeridoo from his pocket and held it out to Fabio.
“How much mozzarella will you give me for this?” he asked.