WASHINGTON -- Children, children.
Here we are in the midst of a bloody clash in Egypt, more than 100,000 slaughtered in Syria, another looming debt crisis at home, and we’re consumed with angst over a rodeo clown who wore an Obama mask and invited the crowd to cheer for the bulls.
There’s more. The clown has been fired. The president of the Missouri Rodeo Cowboy Association has stepped down. The Missouri State Fair is forcing clowns to undergo sensitivity training. The NAACP wants a Justice Department investigation into the clown act as a hate crime. And a Texas congressman has invited the clown to come on down.
It seems impossible to take this seriously, yet seriously we must take it. Here we go. The clown act was offensive for one reason only: The president is black. No peep would have been made otherwise. But therein lies a difference and a distinction that deserves our unbiased scrutiny.
A word about my own biases: I don’t like rodeos and I don’t like clowns. The former involve animals performing involuntarily and the latter are creepy. (I don’t like zoos and circuses, either.)
But clowns are ... (BEG ITAL) clowns (END ITAL)! It’s their job to poke the precious and touch the untouchable. They are inherently rude, irreverent, insulting, insensitive and sometimes salacious. Presidents, obviously, are fair game and every modern president’s face has been made into a mask.
Still. There’s something wrong with this clown act. It isn’t a hate crime, which is a ridiculous charge, but it is something we need to wrap our minds around. First, let’s correct a popular mischaracterization. Wearing an Obama mask is not tantamount to “blackface,” which is implicitly racist. When the president’s face is “black,” then the president’s mask is necessarily “black.”
Unless, apparently, the person wearing the mask is white, as was the rodeo clown.
Question: if a black person wears a George W. Bush mask, is he racist? The next logical question answers the first: What if the clown wears a Bush mask at an event attended primarily by blacks and invites the crowd to cheer for the bulls?
This unlikely event would feel offensive for the same reasons the recent clown event did. The Missouri rodeo audience was mostly white and the masked man in the ring was depicting a black man. This changes everything we think about humor, about clowns, and about good old-fashioned fun.
Just as N-jokes are no longer funny to almost anyone, placing a black man in the arena like an unarmed gladiator isn’t amusing. As much as we aspire to racial harmony, we have centuries of history to overcome, including the mob-inspired lynching of black men, and this is what so many saw in the clown skit. Memory conquers humor.
To be honest, my first reaction was: What a lot of bull. But then, as one must, I put myself in the other’s shoes. How would I feel if my face were on the clown’s mask and the arena were filled with men who cheered the beast who would trample and destroy me?
This is where political commentary becomes something else. Frightening. We all know what happens when the mob is empowered, especially when further emboldened by the excuse of humor. Few statements are more dishonest than “It’s just a joke.”
I am the last person who would suggest that irreverence be censored or punished -- or that clowns be sensitized. The excessively reverent are far scarier to me than those who would die laughing. Political satire is, in fact, a public service inasmuch as it channels aggression that otherwise might find bloody expression.
But a civil society should find reprehensible even mock violence against a president, especially one who belongs to a minority that was once targeted for state-sanctioned violence.
I sincerely doubt that the rodeo clown was motivated by racial hatred. I also doubt that President Obama much cared, except for how his daughters might feel about it. Or, to be cynical, about the degree to which public outrage accrued to his political advantage. I even give the benefit of the doubt to those who cheered the bulls as being inspired by political rather than racial animus.
And, yes, reaction has been overblown to the point of silliness, but there are lessons, nonetheless. We could stand to tone down our political expression for the sake of all our daughters and sons, who bear witness to these events and must make sense of their world. Perhaps more to the point, we might try to take ourselves more lightly.