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Send in the Clowns

These are the dog days of summer, although you’d never know it from the constant rain and unseasonably cool temperatures we’ve been having around here. The only indication we are actually in the lazy, hazy days of summer is that the big story of the slow news cycle is about a rodeo clown in Sedalia, Missouri.
In case you’ve been taking a well-deserved vacation from the news, the aforementioned rodeo clown found himself in the middle of a full-blown media storm after he donned a rubber mask resembling President Barack Obama and regaled an audience at the Missouri state fair by allowing a rampaging bull to chase him around the arena. The presumably rural audience of Show-Me Staters was mostly delighted by the spectacle, judging from the inevitable grainy cell phone video of the incident that has become an internet sensation, but of course the more sophisticated observers have not been amused. So much outrage has been mustered from the respectable corners of society that the rodeo clown has been forever banned from the Missouri state fair, an announcer who acted as an accomplice has been forced to resign from his presidency of the Missouri Cowboy Rodeo Association, Missouri’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is calling for a federal investigation, and state fair officials are promising that all future rodeo clowns at their events will be required to complete sensitivity training.
The rodeo clown’s shtick doesn’t strike us as especially astute satire, but we don’t expect rodeo clowns to be Jonathan Swift and the reaction to his antics seems disturbingly inordinate. Similar acts of disrespect toward presidents are a long tolerated tradition in America, and were even celebrated in the respectable corners of society as recently as the last administration. Mocking effigies of President George W. Bush was de rigueur during his two terms to an extent that even rodeo clowns were getting in on the craze, and it’s surprising their efforts weren’t praised as a performance art and honored with a federal grant. It was silly and slightly annoying then, as it is to a lesser degree now, but it didn’t constitute a threat to the public welfare.
What is threatening, on the other hand, is the heavy-handed effort to punish constitutionally protected criticism of the president. When a rodeo clown is summarily denied Pronto Pups and deep-fried Twinkies and other attractions of a state fair, and such supposedly independent sorts as rodeo cowboys feel obliged to oust their elected leader in the name of proper political etiquette, and the NAACP is threatening to literally make a federal case of such a harmless act of lése majesté, the chilling effect on other critics is unmistakable. It’s not as if the Internal Revenue Service were using its awesome powers to stifle dissent, or impertinent journalists were being treated as criminal conspirators by the Department of Justice, or a contributor to the opposition party were being harassed by a variety of federal agencies, but at a time when all those things are also happening it creates an unhappy feeling of enforced conformity. When rodeo clowns are being subjected to “sensitivity training,” which is a modern euphemism for re-education, there’s something almost Soviet about it.
One can still hope that the effort will prove futile, though, and perhaps even counterproductive. Respect for the presidency cannot be enforced, and such bullying attempts to do will likely only provoke further mockery. After his initial defiance, telling reporters that “At least I know I’m a clown,” the performer has since recanted his act with the zeal of a cowed dissident standing before one of Mao’s cadres to confess his political sins, but others are bound to don his rubber mask and take his place.

— Bud Norman

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