Bread and Circus

An online journal of culture

Month: September, 2007

The Courage to Laugh

by Editors

SOCIETY

Neo-Grobianism and the Courage to Laugh

By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard

Serious political debate is seemingly impossible nowadays. Politicians are beholden to the upcoming 2008 election, held hostage by the current sanctification of all things military and, in general, hog-tied by our money-driven political system.

The Colbert Report on Comedy CentralTo be sure, these are sobering times. An unending war in Iraq, constant warnings from Washington about impending terrorism, rising murder rates, domestic surveillance, tazered college students and plummeting markets have all taken their toll on our collective American psyche. Why, then, do seemingly frivolous comedy shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report serve as one our country’s greatest pastimes? Is it pure folly to laugh at our situation? Not if we survey the long history of transcendent laughter.

Comedy, it seems, is the human way to survive another day against the odds. The gift of laughing at what is a horrible situation has roots as old as history itself. As Conrad Hyers has written in And God Created Laughter: the Bible as Divine Comedy (1987), examples of humor from the Bible abound. He cites a “stinging satire” by Amos against the greedy wives of Samaria who encouraged their husbands to squeeze the poor harder for their personal gain:

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
who are in the mountain of Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands, ‘Bring that we may drink!”
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness
that, behold, the days are coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
even the last of you with fishhooks.
— Amos 4:1-2 (Hyers, p. 7.)

Centuries later, in the Renaissance, Rabelais’ churlish epic Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532) was written both as ribald entertainment and as a humanist’s weapon to combat increasing cultural restrictions on the freedom of both language and the body.

Rabelais is but one example of a carnivalesque, liberal tradition. On the opposing side, the emerging middle classes of the early modern period marshaled satirical humor to constrain expression. In contrast to Rabelais’ comedic overthrow of strictures though the use of grotesque realism, conservative intellects contrived of a pale derivative—prudish Grobianism: pithy literary descriptions of revolting peasant behavior used to shock its audience into good manners. While “Grobiana” usually focused on table manners (like not blowing your nose over the plates or defecating), eventually all anti-social behavior came under the auspices of the totalitarian Grobian style. This included: failing to greet people and being generally offensive, bragging and telling indecent stories and even using physical violence if there is anything to be gained. Methinks those burghers didst protest too much. Like their conservative descendants, they worked awfully hard at proving their own separation from their boorish, peasant roots.

So, here is my suggestion for Stephen Colbert: With the lack of civility and excess of swagger and bravado on the part of our public servants (especially the schoolyard rules of military engagement), we should enlist the power of ancient forms of comedy to dose them with their own authoritarian medicine and shatter their glass houses. Since our elected officials haven’t yet learned civility, perhaps we could use a bourgeois Neo-Grobianism to satirize their boorish antics. Although this traditional type of social ostracism and shaming of excess might not change the actors, it may yet make us feel better to turn them into public effigies and exercise our atrophied freedom of speech.

Even better than derisive biting satire, however, one could paint a truly comic picture of every self-serving politician as Lucius in Apuleis’ Golden Ass (the Metamorphoses, ca. 170 AD). In the picaresque Latin novel Lucius was a Roman country aristocrat magically transformed into an ass and forced to spend time as a member of the downtrodden lower classes he claims to serve. (The guise of a donkey being a wonderful metaphorical cross for Republicans in particular to bear.) In the happy ending, Lucius has a religious epiphany and rights his erring ways. Maybe we could similarly pen our politicians into New Orleans where they meet their constituents and humbly help to bear their burdens? Survivor-New Orleans-Mule Nation? Now there’s a plot line.

This type of comic levity might help buoy distraught souls who despair of America’s future, people like Naomi Wolf. In her new book, The End of America: A Letter of Warning To A Young Patriot (2007), Wolf outlines the ten steps that fascists typically follow in overtaking governments and connects them to the actions of the current White House administration. Considering reality, she quite understandably strikes one as a woman profoundly haunted and disturbed by the echoes of past dictatorships found in contemporary events. One can see how she cares deeply about liberty.

I have one simple message for her and any empathetic readers:

What we can laugh at, we cannot fear.

This is the core principle of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose (1980) and of the celebrated Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s irreverent masterpiece, Rabelais and his World (1965; Indiana U. Press, 1984)—his compelling critique of Stalinist Russia through the lens of the Renaissance. As he wrote:

For fear can only enter a part that has been separated from the whole,
the dying link torn from the link that is being born.

(Bakhtin, Rabelais, p. 256.)

For Bakhtin, nothing in culture exists in a vacuum, history is cyclical and death is always followed by birth. Indeed, as the old saying goes, as one door closes another always opens.

Though we cannot be sure of what the future holds for “Truth, Justice and the American Way,” we can face it knowing that America is not simply its current Government, it is—more importantly—the timeless “We the People,” and regardless of our current predicament “We” can learn from our past mistakes. Reconciling laughter will help us to ease the transition to a brighter future. For, as Michael Hoyle states poignantly in his prologue to Bakhtin: “Necessary to the pursuit of liberty is the courage to laugh.” (Rabelais, p. xxiii)

Postscript —

There must be a new wind blowing. Since I sent this article off to my Bread and Circus editors, comedian Stephen Colbert was quoted in the (9/23/2007) Parade section of Sunday’s Boston Globe as saying:

“Not living in fear is a great gift, because certainly these days we do it so much. And do you know what I like about comedy? You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time—of anything. If you’re laughing, I defy you to be afraid.” (As interviewed by James Kaplan, p.7.)

I kid you not.

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Bread and Circus contributing writer Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph. D., is an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email
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Image (above): Steve Colbert of The Colbert Report. Comedy Central image used according to Fair Use guidelines.

The Road to Democracy

by Editors

HISTORY NOTEBOOK

The Road to Democracy

by Sarah Katherine Mergel

A recent discussion with my students on the present situation in Iraq highlighted an often forgotten, but very important lesson about the process of democratization and nation building—it takes time. True democracy took almost 200 years to develop fully into the system Americans enjoy today. When the former British colonies adopted the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution, voting was restricted to a small minority of the population. The country only achieved true universal suffrage with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Success in developing democracy abroad has tended to come with persistence, while failure has resulted from a lack of staying power in the face of high expectations.

At the time of the American Revolution, colonial leaders seemed uncertain of their future. Some seemed even unsure about the decision to break away from the British Empire. No one knew what the Revolution would bring. As the colonies transitioned to a confederation of states, the founding fathers grappled with what it meant to be a citizen of the newly formed republic. They had a vision of liberty, carried over from their colonial days as British subjects, but liberty for whom? And what did that liberty entail?

The representatives at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 were republicans, not democrats. They believed that government should rest on the people’s consent, but not that the people should govern. The Constitution was revolutionary in its approach to federal government, but less revolutionary in who had an actual say in the way the country was governed. The Constitution actually left undefined who could vote in federal elections; it left states to set their own qualifications for voting. Most states at the time had limited voting to white men who held property or who could afford to pay the necessary taxes. Moreover, the delegates had little in common except that they had all been Englishman before the Revolution. So as they sat down to frame the American government, they had to overcome differences relating to religion, state size, and regional interests. Their differences led to the three-fifths compromise with respect to apportioning that left the institution of race-based slavery untouched. Under the Constitution, liberty and freedom only applied to some people.

The Age of Jackson brought the first significant changes to the democratic process in the United States. From 1820 to 1840, almost every state abandoned previous voting restrictions for white men. Moreover, citizens began to have a more direct say in who represented them at the local, state, and federal level. Andrew Jackson’s common man image and his core belief in a country governed for and by the people caused not only the formation of the Democratic party, but also an increased awareness of the people about the political process. The institution of the one white man one vote principle led to a skyrocketing of voter turnout.

The Civil War and Reconstruction brought the rights of citizenship, especially voting rights, to the forefront of American political life once again. Emancipated slaves and their white supporters looked forward to the day when not only would former male slaves vote, but women as well. The Reconstruction Amendments (the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth) not only ended slavery but ensured the civil and voting rights of African Americans. Sadly for proponents of women’s suffrage, the Fifteenth Amendment applied only to men—black and white—not women. As the North tired of enforcing Reconstruction and the Redeemers took over, state governments severely restricted voting rights for blacks. Southern states in the 1890s, enacted laws similar to the Mississippi Plan that limited the pool of eligible voters through literacy tests, the poll tax, and the grandfather clause. The grandfather clause protected poor, illiterate whites but not blacks. As the nation entered the progressive era, in theory a time of social and political advancement, a majority of blacks had been effectively disenfranchised.

The women’s suffrage movement had split on whether or not to support the Fifteenth Amendment in the 1860s. Some wanted suffrage for all, while others remained content to see black men receive the vote. That rift lasted until after the turn of the century, when the movement’s leaders realized their differences only hampered their efforts. During the progressive era, their work in the nation’s settlement houses and on other social improvement campaigns convinced women that the vote was absolutely necessary. If they wanted to enact real change to help the country’s disadvantaged, they had to have the right to cast ballots not only in state elections, but in national elections as well. Women suffrage activists eventually convinced Congress and the President to support the Nineteenth Amendment. After 1920, in theory the United States practiced universal suffrage. However, it was not until the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) that Congress, at Lyndon Johnson’s urging, mandated federal oversight of elections in the South to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment.

Effective representative democracy in the United States had taken time. Of course, the road to universal suffrage was only part of the equation as democracy developed. Throughout the nation’s history, the process of democratic government improved. The modern political system Americans enjoy came only as a result of trial and error. In the Jacksonian era, in many parts of the country the politics of deference, where the elite of society made all the decisions, fell out of favor. Voters gained the right to choose presidential electors and other state representatives. To encourage participation, governments added new polling places and increased polling hours. In the progressive era, reformers sought to end the control of political machines and party bosses. Therefore, states adopted the direct election of senators, primary elections for candidate selection, the secret ballot, the referendum, the recall, and the initiative. With these measures, voters had more power than ever to set the country’s legislative agenda.

Abroad, the United States has had both good and back luck with nation building and promoting democracy since it became an “empire” in 1898. In its foreign policy ventures, the U.S. has often attempted to create democracy through the supervision of municipal governments, promoting internal improvements, sponsoring education reforms, and of course enacting economic reforms. Efforts began with the occupation of the Cuba and Philippines at the turn of the century, and have of course continued to the present day with efforts to create a stable democracy in Iraq. Why the mixed results? In large part the rate of success and failure has depended on the level of commitment exerted by the American government. A few examples from the Cold War and post Cold War era provide excellent examples of this point.

As the Second World War came to a close, the United States sat down with its allies to determine how to deal with its defeated enemies Germany and Japan. In what would become West Germany, the U.S. worked with France and Britain to develop a new democratic state. On the other hand, in Japan the U.S. had free reign to develop policies. In both cases, however, the American government committed itself to programs that would help develop democracy and economic liberalism. The U.S. supplied a great deal of economic aid and provided for the defense needs of both countries. The American government successfully demilitarized and democratized Japan and West Germany, drawing them into the anticommunist orbit by the mid-1950s. In light of the growing tensions with the Soviet Union, American leaders felt compelled to create effective regional allies. West Germany and Japan proved effective in the fight against totalitarian governments. When direct control ended in these countries democracy flourished; however, the U.S. continued its military presence through the end of the Cold War.

Other initial successes during and after the Cold War turned into failures when considering the long term consequences, including Grenada, Panama, and Haiti. In 1983, Ronald Reagan sent troops to Grenada to destroy a Marxist regime with close ties to Cuba. The invasion was successful and U.S. helped install a noncommunist government. American presence on the small island nation proved short lived; the pro-American government over time became less and less democratic. George Bush sent U.S. forces into Panama in 1989 to remove Manuel Noriega from power (so that he could stand trial in the U.S. for drug trafficking). The task of nation building there has proved difficult. Since 1990, the government of Panama has continually shifted between democratic and autocratic influences leading to a remarkable amount of instability. Lastly, in 1994 Bill Clinton intervened in Haiti to safeguard the cause of democracy by restoring Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. The Clinton administration initially succeeded in its efforts. The U.S. occupation lasted only six months, at which point the administration turned the peace keeping responsibility over to the United Nations. Since then, Haiti has continued to experience political instability.

In all of the examples of success turned to failure, the United States started with seemingly good intentions, but the follow through proved ineffective. Perhaps Germany and Japan were simply more accepting of the ideas of democracy—both developed intro effective democratic governments. But perhaps, the long term American commitment made the transition. So can democracy be created in Iraq? Probably, in time. Patience on the part of the Iraqis and the Americans seems to be in order at least for the foreseeable future. One size does not fit all, even when it comes to democracy. Both Germany and Japan put their own stamp of democracy; they are not exact replicas of the American model.

How can the United States best help the Iraqis achieve their goal? Well, that question will have to be left to a future installment.

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Bread and Circus contributing writer Sarah Katherine Mergel, Ph.D., specializes in American political and intellectual history since the Civil War. Her primary area of research is the rise of modern conservatism and its effects on political developments, cultural trends, social issues, and international relations.

What Not to Write

by Editors

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THE WRITING LIFE

What Not to Write:
Stacy, Clinton, and Working Through Ugly Revision

By Erin Dionne

Most people have a reality-TV guilty pleasure. For some, it’s American Idol. Maybe you’re into Project Runway or Survivor. My favorite? What Not to Wear.

This TLC-created program takes the fashion-challenged and rehabs them via a wardrobe consultation, a $5000 New York City shopping spree, and a hair and makeup makeover. On it, 80s throwbacks are reinvented, outdated moms get sexed up, those who dress inappropriately young or old for their age are set on the right path.

Perhaps I have writing on the brain, but I was happily enjoying a mini-marathon of episodes last weekend when it dawned on me: What Not to Wear is exactly like experiencing a good critique of a piece of writing. At first we may think our story is fine the way it is. We’re comfortable with the characters we create, with the style and pacing of the story and with the themes. Never mind that some of the characters-like tapered pants, Clinton and Stacy’s big no-no-don’t fit quite right, or some of the themes or language stand out as garishly as the colors on an 80s shirt-we don’t see the flaws. Of course, we think, it needs some tweaking, but it won’t be a big deal … just a few switches here and there and it’ll be in great shape.

Then come the 360-degree mirror and the secret footage.

Try on everything you own in an environment where you can’t hide from the truth. Or, watch that tape of you wearing your worst and see yourself the way others see you. Then give over all the clothing you own to be destroyed. Frightening for most of us. Same goes with writing. Handing over our work to an editor or critique partner requires a leap of faith. But having someone point out the piece’s flaws-showing them in a bright light-helps us regard our work with an objective eye. And, in most cases, like the people on the show, what we see ain’t pretty. That’s when the real work begins.

Stacy and Clinton offer each participant on What Not to Wear a set of shopping rules to follow and give them suggestions to help them figure out what articles of clothing are most flattering for their shape. Many balk. “Too much color,” one says, wrinkling her nose. “I’d never wear floral,” sniffs another. But, as Stacy and Clinton point out, it’s okay not to like a particular element. The idea is to take the overall suggestion (such as wearing a fitted jacket instead of a slumpy sweatshirt) and see the difference it can make.

Editors and critique partners offer writers suggestions for the same reasons. They want our work to be in the best shape it can be; to reach its potential. But there’s a lot of resistance to making changes. Many writers feel that their work “loses something” when it’s tinkered with. Others take offense at the slightest suggestion that their work isn’t perfect. After teaching writing workshops and offering critiques for nearly a decade, I’ve seen a lot of “revision resistance.” And I’ve had my several of my own dig-my-feet-in moments. But resistance doesn’t lead to improvement.

Once the people on What Not to Wear accept the Rules and start shopping smart, they see major changes in the mirror. It’s never without a struggle, though-leaving old habits and comforts behind is difficult (even if, by God, they are parachute pants and puff-painted schlumpy sweatshirts). Participants are forced to confront issues ranging from body image to self-esteem problems, shedding their former self-image and embracing a new reflection. It’s the same process of acceptance as we work through revision suggestions. If you can overcome the initial defensive push-back and try new ideas, opening your mind to ways that the writing could improve, the better the piece becomes.

On What Not to Wear, when the shopping is finished Nick and Carmindy show up to do hair and makeup. That is when magic happens: viewers see the person who started the show dressed like Madonna in her “Holiday” video is truly beautiful–there was just too much distraction to see her clearly. And yep, it happens in that story: a few polishing edits bring out the facets on the gem we’ve created working through those major revision suggestions. Of course, the whole writing process would be a lot easier if there was a $5000 shopping spree attached to a critique session; perhaps that’s fodder for a new TLC show –– What Not to Write.

I’ll be the first one to sign up.

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Erin Dionne, co-editor of Bread and Circus, is the author of the forthcoming novel Beauty Binge from Dial Books for Young Readers. Available in spring 2009.

Stray Cat Strut

by Editors

blue-building-with-arches-2.jpg

Stray Cat Strut

By Kathleen Ginder-Vogel

Life in a college town has its share of peculiarities: a population that swells and ebbs with the seasons; a larger-than-average number of blondes; flocks of pedestrians that rival New York City; and inexpensive pinot noir. When I moved to the college town I currently call home, I was surprised to find one unexpected feature: a large population of feral cats.

The San Francisco Bay Area, where I used to live, has many feral cats. So does the Mauna Kea in Hawaii, if you can believe it. No-kill animal shelters and other “cat networks,” in which volunteers trap the cats humanely, take them to a clinic to be spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and examined, provide a wonderful service in these types of areas. I consider myself fairly educated about animal issues; my cat was adopted from the Palo Alto Humane Society and I am raising a guide dog puppy for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. However, when I moved into my current house, on a main artery of a bustling college town, I only thought in passing about the two stray cats living in the dilapidated garage of my neighbor’s house.

I assumed my neighbor’s landlord was more responsible than he is, and I assumed the cats were probably former pets that had gotten away. I never asked my neighbor if he thought the cats were spayed or neutered; had I, he would have told me what I know now: they had already parented a litter of kittens; the calico cat is female, and the tabby cat is male. I was too new to the area to think much about the situation: I had my own cat to settle in and a bunch of boxes to unpack, a job to find, and a new community in which to get acquainted. Two stray cats on someone else’s property just weren’t my priority.

However, fall became winter, and the cats disappeared into hibernation. The landlord was forced by the city to tear down his eyesore of a garage. Spring came, and I was fully woven into the fabric of my new community. I was about to get my guide dog puppy, and my cat loved her new house. I started seeing the stray cats around again, and they seemed responsive to my voice. I began to wonder about them, yet I still took no action.

On a warm evening in May, I regretted my inaction: our neighbor came home from work to four kittens playing under his landlord’s abandoned car. The two stray cats, a.k.a. Mom and Dad, were guarding them.

I know enough about feral cats to know that two unspayed or non-neutered cats can produce multiple litters of cats, who go on to further populate the area they consider home. I know enough to know that I don’t want a cat colony behind my house. Most importantly, I care enough to save four kittens from life as strays.

Feral cats face the risks of living without shelter, veterinary care, or consistent, healthy meals. I believe animals deserve to have safe, comfortable, happy lives, just as humans do. The world isn’t fair, but if I see another living thing in an unhealthy situation, I’m going to do everything within my power to improve it. We began by giving the cats food and water and observing our very shy little furry friends eat, play, and grow.

Next, we called Forgotten Cats, a Delaware organization dedicated to spaying and neutering feral cats. They sent a volunteer to our home to teach us how to use the humane traps, and we agreed to pay the fees the organization’s veterinary clinic charges to get the cats spayed, neutered, examined, and vaccinated.

We trapped all six cats in a week, and the kittens went into foster care to get used to the idea of being pets; we assume they were adopted readily but have not received an update. Mom and Dad cat were returned to their territory, behind our neighbor’s house. We have continued to feed them, having promised Forgotten Cats that we will remain responsible for them. This means that if we move away, and the cats are still living, we’ll either trap them again, take them with us in a cage, and release them to the outdoors once we know they won’t run away; or we’ll find a home for them nearby.

It is interesting to bind your life to another living thing out of compassion. We named them Zinnia, because we found her kittens right after we planted our zinnias in the spring, and Edgar Allen Poe, because he looks like a hardscrabble kind of guy (also, Poe lived in this area). We wrote the organization a check: $60 for each of the female cats and $50 for each male. The cats now have steady food, shelter, and people to interact with; we have mouse cats and no cat colony. It’s a fair deal, I think.

They could be more vigilant: a groundhog and a possum family have moved in, too, but I’ve warmed to the idea of having a small menagerie in my yard. It seems in keeping with the wacky town in which I live.

Copyright 2007 Kathleen Ginder-Vogel

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Bread and Circus contributing writer Kathleen Ginder-Vogel owns the freelance writing business Poppy Communications.