Dread and Circuses?

It’s something of a supreme irony that just as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is ending its 146-year operation, we have entered an era that is the political equivalent of a circus. Activists have long decried the captivity and forced compliance of the animals at the center of the circus, directly contesting the cultural aphorism that it was “The Greatest Show on Earth.” By cultivating public sentiment that ultimately yielded “mounting obstacles that even its most acrobatic members could not overcome” (including diminished attendance) these oppositional forces were able to shut down what the Washington Post referred to as an “iconic spectacle.” Does any of this seem vaguely familiar, even figuratively speaking, in terms of the present political moment?

Today we are faced with an administration that plied the phrase “Make America Great Again” into a potent meme. Interestingly, this is reminiscent of Octavia Butler’s 1998 novel The Parable of the Talents, which featured a protofascist politician who rises to power by promising (you guessed it!) to “make America great again.” As discussed in Open Culture ahead of the 2016 presidential election, the central political figure in Butler’s brilliant book is “a violent autocrat” whose “supporters have been known … to form mobs.” The fuller explanation of the fictional leader’s demagoguery is important to consider for both its circus-like qualities and its unfortunate potential mappings onto the brave new world in which we find ourselves:

In Butler’s fiction, the rise of Senator Jarret and his mobs is an outcome of the same kinds of impending crises we face now, and that far too many of our leaders dutifully ignore as they stage increasingly acrimonious and bizarre forms of political theater. Butler’s indirect warning to us in Parable of the Talents may be less about the demagogic leader and his cult — though they pose the most dire existential threat in the book — than about the causes and conditions that created “the Pox,” the kind of social collapse that Kurt Vonnegut warned of ten years before Butler in his time-capsule letter to the people of 2088, vaguely identifying similar kinds of “climatic, economic, and sociological” crises to come. Would that we could abandon empty spectacle and heed these Cassandras of the near future.

Taking such lessons seriously would seem to be the order of the day. The famously ominous mantra from George Orwell’s dystopian 1984 that “Big Brother is watching you” has now morphed to reflect an even deeper truth about our hyper-technological era: “Big Brother is you, watching.” If the “iconic spectacle” of the real circus can be brought to a halt by activists changing public sentiment, so too can the “empty spectacle” of a political circus — the one in which we participate, not simply spectate — be supplanted by active engagement. Doing so may require that we cast our gaze away from the “three-ring circus” of government, as prophetically alluded to by Schoolhouse Rock:

Yeah, it’s like that: “Everybody’s act is part of the show, [and] the audience is kind of like the country, you know.” Did they put that in there as a warning, a civics lesson, or both? Hard to tell, just as it’s hard to tell what passes for truth anymore, drawn as we seem to be into a silver-spoon tycoon’s perverse reality show. Perhaps if people tune out from the spectacle, this circus too will have to shut down due to poor attendance and bad ethics. Until then, it seems that our vapid politics will merely amount to making America the greatest show on earth. Unless of course, we stop watching and get busy creating a truly great world, like millions have begun to demonstrate in streets everywhere.


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