The clown figure in culture is far too often dismissed or ignored, but most often misunderstood. In the United States, there is a tendency to pigeonhole the clown largely to circuses or children’s shows or birthday parties. At another extreme, the American Psychiatric Association (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) recognizes the fear of clowns (coulrophobia) as an identifiable and treatable condition.
The 1970 movie Little Big Man introduced to audiences the character of the ‘backwards Indian,’ a Cheyenne clown (heyoka) whose behavior was marked by doing everything in reverse; walking and riding a horse backwards, saying the opposite of what he meant, washing in sand instead of water. The heyoka may also be seen as a contrarian in the tradition of a jester or satirist in the European version, mirroring what those in the audience cannot see in themselves, using humor and whimsy to point out self-righteousness. Thus, as a rule, clowns do not communicate that their behavior is to be adopted or duplicated but experienced as self-realization of human foibles, failings that are beyond the norm of community standards.
Ethnohistorians ascribe to indigenous clown culture religious, even philosophical, characteristics as a world view. The European and modern conceptions of reality tend to describe it as straight lines and angles, e.g., directions that indicate “straight ahead,” “turn left,” “turn right.” Native Americans appreciate that nature does not function that way but, instead, flows in curves and circles. Nature and reality are inherently chaotic, often random, requiring a capacity and necessity to adjust to changing environments. The Native American clown culture may not be deemed to predominate but it shares commonality and universality with that of the rest of America.
Last April, former US Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), while in his native Virginia, lectured a group of young adults, asserting that the North American continental landscape was a kind of tabula rasa, awaiting only the ingenuity and vision of colonists to cultivate it into a utopia in which religious freedom might flourish. As VoxFairfax reported (https://wp.me/p9wDCF-2Aj), his exact words were:
We came here and created a blank slate. We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans but candidly there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.
Hmmnn! One might guess from the perspective of Native Americans that Mr. Santorum was exhibiting the very self-righteousness the heyoka seek to exploit, along a straight line spectrum, unaware of the curves and circles of nature and reality. There is no possible mistake that he was endeavoring to present humor or whimsy to communicate a contrarian vision, one intended to offer perspective on human behavior. On the contrary, the substance of Santorum’s message is ideological, angular, and without nuance. At the same time, the certitude of his words, under examination, may be seen as clownish but absent the essential quality that actually imbues clown culture with meaningful import.
In our present political culture, much that is clownish is offered in disguise as contrarian, intended to make a serious point. This succeeds due to available social media with which to amplify their utterances.
In our present political culture, much that is clownish is offered in disguise as contrarian, intended to make a serious point. This succeeds due to available social media with which to amplify their utterances. But elected leaders and others who denigrate the democratic election process and its outcomes are engaged only in clownish conduct, joined by those who urge fellow citizens to avoid vaccination and the wearing of masks. Clownish is defined as foolish, i.e., lacking wisdom. Such behavior is outside community norms and interest; dangerous, not instructive. Clown culture is intrinsically healthy, neither deadly nor counterproductive, nor fear producing.
Attempting to dominate political dialogue with phony cleverness and slogans, these clownish ideologues with their boorish rendition are no substitute or source for substantive guidance within the culture and only lend clowns and clown culture a bad name. Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are relevant and timely: But where are the clowns? Quick, send in the clowns. The faux clowns alternative consigns our culture to Puck’s complaint (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”