Old joke: two cannibals are eating a clown and one says, “Does this taste funny to you?” In a case of life imitating joke, political partisans squared off in the case of the Obama-mask wearing rodeo clown over whether his act was funny, or in dangerously bad taste. But partisans and most of the media are missing the point of what happened.
The issue was a professional rodeo clown’s act with a political riff at the Missouri State Fair. He earned applause from many in the crowd — and a lifetime ban from working at the fair. During the rodeo’s entertainment portion he appeared in a Barack Obama mask with a broom attached to his butt. Then another clown reportedly got up and played with the Obama mask’s lips and the audience was asked if they wanted to see “Obama run over by a bull” — and many loved it.
But not all. There were complaints, including from one spectator who said the anti-Obama yells made it feel like a “Klan rally.” The bit was condemned by various Missouri Democratic and Republican bigwigs, and the fair issued a statement calling the clown’s act an “unconscionable stunt” that was “inappropriate and not in keeping with the Fair’s standards.”
End of story? Nope. Rush Limbaugh supported the clown, and Republicans declared it a free speech issue. Democrats called it outrageous, disrespectful and encouraging violence. Judy Quest, past president of the Clowns International of America, wrote a CNN piece saying a real clown would not mock Obama that way and that there is a “clown community.” She was then dissed by some GOPers, but there is a clown community: they go to clown conventions, have written professional standards — and most avoid politics while performing.
Republicans demanded Obama show he supports free speech by supporting the rodeo clown. Obama had nothing to say, but White House Josh Earnest said it was “not one of the finest moments” of his home state.
Newsworks columnist Dick Polman nailed the reality. He noted that GOPers weren’t too concerned about free speech in 2003 when the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, while criticizing the Iraq war, said “we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” Republicans denounced them, helped get their music off the air, and tried to ruin their careers.
“Partisans love free speech only when derisive speech is aimed at a president whom they hate; partisans hate free speech when derisive speech is aimed at a president whom they love,” Polman wrote. “And both sides play this game. [Republicans] love the clown, but hated the [Dixie] Chicks. Obama fans hate the clown, but loved the Chicks — as well as the other musicians who dissed Bush back in the day (including Eddie Vedder, who used to hang a Bush mask on his microphone).”
He then offered advice that will surely be ignored:
“Can all partisans, on the left as well as the right, please take a chill pill? Those free speech values go both ways. If the Dixie Chicks want to say they’re ashamed of Bush, fine. And if the rodeo clown and the rodeo announcer want to mock Obama, fine. It’s all in the spirit of our brutish American tradition.”
But the underlying issue is this: most fairs are government funded and don’t want politics mixed into their general entertainment.
Yes, rodeo clowns have used dummies of sitting presidents, and candidates and political party activists meet voters at fairs to press the flesh. But the staffs, boards, directors and volunteers at fairs work all year long to create an event pleasing to ALL audience members. If a political riff is done at all, it should be quick and done gingerly — and the entertainer is always taking a risk of offending someone.
If there’s the issue of free speech, there’s also the issue of when some kinds of political expression are appropriate. The Missouri Fair’s action was really not surprising: offending parts of the audience with entertainment paid for by fair funds is not what fairs are all about. But partisans don’t care because in politics outrage like incest is relative.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He has appeared on cable news show political panels and is Editor-in-Chief of The Moderate Voice, an Internet hub for independents, centrists and moderates. He also writes for The Week’s online edition. CNN’s John Avlon named him as one of the top 25 Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be booked to speak at www.mavenproductions.com.