We have had occasion in this this space (see “American Exceptionalism” post) to conjure up the name of H.L. Mencken, and to celebrate his insight on U.S. society: “Here in the very citadel of democracy, we found and cherish a clown dynasty!”
We find that from the very beginning of the Republic, clowns have been an enduring element of our social fabric. Frederic Jackson Turner, in his essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” relates that “backwoodsmen” from across the Alleghenies petitioned for statehood by advancing the following argument:
Some of our fellow-citizens may think we are not able to conduct our affairs and consult our interests; but if our society is rude, much wisdom is not necessary to supply our wants, and a fool can sometimes put on his clothes better than a wise man can do it for him.
This argument is based on faulty premises: 1) it assumes that the fool understands what “clothes” are; and 2) it assumes that the fool has learned the proper way of wearing clothes. “This forest philosophy,” Turner concludes “is the philosophy of American democracy.”
Truer words were never written. Just like every circus, democracy needs its band of clowns for health and well-being. I am not talking about the sacred clowns of American Indian ritual—the koshare, for example, or the heyoka of the Sioux. Those tricksters have the sacred purpose and intention of re-connecting us with the world of the gods. I am talking about your ordinary clowns, simple and inadvertent, who mimic the gestures of sacred clowns for profit, self-advancement, or a somewhat off-putting exhibitionistic appetite.
Henri Bergson’s essay “On Laughter” helps us understand that the clown evokes laughter when he performs a mechanistic action that is divorced from reality. Say that a clown walks down the street; he/she does not realize, or purposefully intends to walk in the customary fashion, even though there is a banana peel on the street; the clown slips and falls in this classic slapstick routine; laughter is produced.
It is not difficult to find instances of Bergson’s clownish “moment” in contemporary U.S. political life. There was an Arizona state senator who publicly proclaimed that the Earth was 6,000 years old; there was a U.S. Senator who affirmed, during his campaign for the presidency in the midst of the 2008 financial meltdown, “the fundamentals of the U.S. economy are strong”; and there is a U.S. Senator who keeps in his office “a black baseball cap with a picture of Daffy Duck next to the words WACKO BIRD.”
The purpose of clowns in a democracy is to reduce arguments, issues, legislation and policy, to their laughable extremes. From our vantage point we can then discern the absurd frontiers of certain propositions, and make informed decisions. And yet Matt Taibi warns us to beware of clowns while we ridicule them:
Michele Bachmann has found the flaw in the American Death Star. She is a television camera’s dream, a threat to do or say something insane at any time, the ultimate reality-show protagonist. She has brilliantly piloted a media system that is incapable of averting its eyes from a story, riding that attention to an easy conquest of an overeducated cultural elite from both parties that is far too full of itself to understand the price of its contemptuous laughter.
Mirth can become addictive, and victims of our despair or impatience, we find ourselves—far too often—electing them to office in waves of laughter.