LXIII – The Circus Is Back in Town

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When
I was a child and the circus came to town there was a big parade.
Clowns, wild animals, and side show "freaks" teased our
attentions, while jugglers, animal trainers, and trapeze artists
persuaded us to come out to the big tent with promises of stunts
like we had never seen. Traveling circuses are largely a thing of
the past, but a similar spectacle is still available to us on television,
with various carnival acts soliciting our attention. Though they
may appear to be competing with one another — much as clowns, high-wire
walkers, and trained-dog acts vie for our interest — they are integral
parts of a greater enterprise that depends upon our fears, curiosity,
and willingness to be bamboozled.

As
with other circuses, numerous side show attractions help keep our
minds focused on the bizarre and the ludicrous. The two-headed horse
and the bearded lady have been replaced by the celebrity transgression
feature and the murder-of-the-year trial. The O.J. Simpson circus
of a few years ago was such a crowd pleaser because it managed to
combine both draws into a center-ring main attraction. More recently,
we have had to put up with such lesser distractions as the Jackson
family’s alleged indiscretions, the question of gay marriages, or
the content of Howard Stern's radio programs.

But
it is to the center-ring that our attentions are always drawn. Men
being shot out of cannons, lion-tamers, trapeze artists, and other
dangerous acts attract our interest because of their potentials
for death. The other rings may provide us with amusement, but we
expect the center-ring to entertain us by exciting our fears. In
modern society, the center ring has long been the world of politics,
or what H.L. Mencken referred to as the "carnival of buncombe."

It
has often been said that entertainment is a form of "escapism,"
but I believe that it is often used to reinforce social conditioning.
Our social and political thinking, indeed our very identities, are
wrapped up in firmly-entrenched illusions upon which we insist.
We need to believe that "our" group — whatever that may
be — is better than "their" group, and that "we"
have been victimized by "them." The entertainment industry
— of which politics is a part — feeds on such thinking, providing
us with movies and television programs that bolster our worldview.
They remind us of the lessons in which the schools have already
trained us: that the policies, systems, and beliefs upon which our
politically structured society is based are precisely what we require
in order to live well. Entertainment serves the pragmatic, real-world
purpose of confirming our illusions so that we may more energetically
fashion the world to make it reflect our mindset.

How
else does one account for the raging anger associated with Mel Gibson's
movie "The Passion"? I have no case to make either for
or against the film's message. I do share one trait with many of
the critics and supporters of the film, however: I have not yet
seen it! But judging from the irrational responses of many critics
— one Israeli politician is reported to have suggested that Gibson
should be criminally prosecuted for having produced the film! —
it seems that Gibson's "offense" is to have presented
a movie that raises questions that may challenge an established
mindset.

Good
art often has an anarchistic quality to it, challenging the accepted
rules, norms, and tastes of a culture. Art moves our eyes beyond
the canvas itself, causing us to become aware of our more limited
perspectives of life. A good artist is a practitioner of Heisenberg's
"uncertainty principle," which informs us that the observer
is the observed. Art — like freethinking and speculative philosophy
— is forever challenging the status quo, reminding us of the need
to remain creative if we are to survive.

But
the state has an aversion to inconstancy and changefulness, which
is why it has always been at war with individual liberty and its
social expression, the free market. The state is preoccupied with
the defense of the status quo, because it is the status quo.
Anything that challenges the thinking upon which its permanency
is grounded — be it in the form of art, scientific discoveries,
inventions, new ideas — is a threat to be opposed. This is why political
systems are so inextricably tied up with the kinds of entertainment
that reinforce the illusions upon which their power depends.

Do
you ever wonder why motion picture actors and actresses play such
central roles in addressing the "issues" that the political
establishment would like you to mistake for important questions?
Such people are as well paid as they are because they have honed
the skill of pretending to be whom they are not, imaginary characters
performing in scripted, make-believe situations. In a word, they
are professional illusionists, just the sort of people upon whom
political systems depend.

And
why are so many of us attracted to such entertainers? Why are cable
"news" networks increasingly populated with former comedians,
sportscasters, quiz show hosts, and pro wrestlers, to provide social
and political commentary? Why have senators and congressmen — and
even a president — been culled from Hollywood sound stages? And
is it a matter of coincidence that voters in Minnesota and California
have selected, as governors, men whose previous entertainment careers
had cast them in the roles of muscle-bound strong men?

Politics
and entertainment both depend upon a willingness to suspend our
judgments about reality, and to be distracted by sleight-of-hand
tricks that cloud deceptions. Political systems are grounded in
such an abundance of lies and contradictions that the speaking of
truth becomes a subversive act. Lest you dismiss this remark
as hyperbole, consider the plight of Martha Stewart, whose criminal
prosecution was based, in part, upon her publicly denying her guilt!

There
is a paradox in Martha Stewart — also an entertainer — being used
by the political establishment as a scapegoat, to deflect attention
from the falsehoods and deceptions whose revelations might be fatal
to the illusions upon which state power depends. The corrupt nature
of corporate-state neo-mercantilism that has long permitted some
business interests to obtain advantages unavailable in a free market
must remain hidden from view: let the state use Martha Stewart as
a scapegoat for the "offense" of selling her own stock!
George Bush can lie to the world about Iraqi "weapons of mass
destruction" or connections to Al Qaeda — lies that have led
to the deaths of thousands of innocent people — but it is Martha
Stewart who will be the sacrificial lamb for allegedly lying to
government investigators!

Andre
Malraux has stated that "a civilization can be defined at once
by the basic questions it asks and by those it does not ask."
Thomas Pynchon offered the correlative observation that "If
they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to
worry about answers." These two commentaries tell us all we
need to know about the sad state of modern society. What are the
questions you bring into the world each day, and who formulated
them? Are you the author, or do you allow the media to direct
your inquiries, as they do other fashions?

As
the presidential circus returns for its quadrennial road show —
having already played to the bumpkins in such places as New Hampshire,
Iowa, and South Carolina — those who choose to buy tickets will
be treated to the same predictable acts as in prior years. The routine
of half a dozen clowns exiting a tiny car was replaced by a half-dozen
Democratic party hopefuls emerging from little New Hampshire.

And
in the center ring, John Kerry, the establishment's official challenger
to George Bush, in his high-wire performance, carefully balancing
himself so as to avoid doing or saying anything that might be interpreted
as a fundamental questioning of state policies. Such a misstep would
surely produce a fatal fall, with the circus owners having to call
upon a stand-in.

And
so, when confronting an administration whose lies and deceptions
have reached sociopathic levels; whose military threats against
any nation who is "not with us" — threats that might include
first-strike use of nuclear weapons — make the United States a menace
to humanity itself; whose police-state measures continue to expand;
and whose arrogance in the employment of such measures is rendered
all the more dangerous by delusions that "God wants George
Bush to be president," what challenge can you expect from John
Kerry?

The
answer is "none." The truth is that Kerry has supported
most of what President Bush has done, giving you some idea of the
paucity of differences between the candidates. Has Kerry made any
campaign promises to end the war in Iraq, or to work to repeal the
Patriot Act, both of which he voted for? Has he proposed freeing
the "suspected terrorists" who have been held for over
two years, without a trial, by the Bush administration; or to dismantle
the Department of Homeland Security; or to conduct a real inquiry
into the causes of the 9/11 attacks? Kerry will propose no fundamental
changes in Washington, because change is anathema to the status
quo interests of the political establishment that runs the circus.
In the end, Kerry and Bush will agree upon the same sort of mindless
non-issues seen in previous campaigns. Should Willie Horton have
been paroled? Should we have a constitutional amendment to prohibit
burning the American flag? Are you for or against the "pledge
of allegiance?" There will be no discussion of neocon warmongering,
or of an American police state or imperialism. I suspect that the
"defining issue" will be whether we should have a constitutional
amendment prohibiting gay marriages. Those who dream of a third
party should realize that America does not even have a two
party system!

Whether
John Kerry is "Tweedledee" or "Tweedledumber"
in this year's circus act will be up to the voters to decide.

But
the outcome of the voting is irrelevant to the interests of the
establishment that is running the circus. Their system owes its
existence to the insight offered by the greatest of all circus masters,
P.T. Barnum: "there's a sucker born every minute." Millions
of Americans will confirm this observation in November, as they
stumble into voting booths across the nation to reaffirm their commitment
to the illusions upon which the destruction of their lives and wealth
depend. And these same people will proudly advertise their foolishness
to their neighbors and coworkers by wearing lapel stickers reading
"I voted," a message reminiscent of the high school stunt
of putting a sign on a guy's back that said "kick me!"

But
there is some hope to be drawn from the fact of the continuing decline
in the rate of voting. For whatever reason, more and more people
are refusing to participate in this sham exercise. Perhaps, like
the man who was fleeced one-too-many times by side show sharpies
who promised wonders but delivered the ordinary, or whose "solid-gold"
watches left green stains upon the wrist, more of our neighbors
have managed to transcend their innocence.

Whatever
the explanation, there might be some hope for the country if sizeable
numbers of men and women decided to vote, not with ballots
or voting machines, but with their feet, by staying away
from a system that is designed to do nothing more than reinforce
our illusions that "we" run the state. To paraphrase a
slogan that arose during the Vietnam War years, "what if they
gave an election, and nobody came?"

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