Feast of fools

Never mind the circus, California’s recall is more evocative of a medieval Carnival

Illustration By John Hendrix

More than one political pundit has suggested that California’s current recall situation is making a mockery of the political system—a comment usually made following an interview with some surrealistic fringe gubernatorial candidate. It’s a circus, the pundits all seem to agree. And then there are the cartoons of California politicos done up as clowns.

It reminds me more of a Carnival than a circus. Not a carnival with rigged games and dangerously scary rides run by grungy guys with tattoos, but a Carnival with a capital “C”—think Mardi Gras on steroids. It’s similar to the Feast of Fools depicted in 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which an incredibly beautiful, impossibly young Maureen O’Hara danced with her pet goat while a rowdy crowd enthroned Charles Laughton’s Hunchback as the King of the Fools, under the gaze of the true and rightful king.

The idea of the festival as a time of release from the obligations of the prevailing social order dates to the early Middle Ages, a time when the average citizen spent his life at the mercy of the ruling elite. Life was, to borrow Thomas Hobbes’ famous phrase, “nasty, brutish and short,” and Carnival offered an opportunity for the poor schmucks who carried the weight of the kingdom on their shoulders to shrug it off for a bit.

Temporarily, the cannon fodder called the shots. Hierarchy was turned on its head in a parody of the real world. Actors (potential voters take note) turned the world topsy-turvy in a mockery of the way governmental power actually worked. This inversion resulted in a Lord of Misrule, supposedly the opposite of the leaders that the people actually served.

In addition to the not-to-be-taken-lightly purpose of blowing off steam, Carnival had some political implications. It served notice to those in charge that the people were not to be taken for granted; the revel of Carnival was but one small degree shy of the riot of revolution.

Carnival occurred immediately before the self-imposed deprivation of Lent. It was the last big blowout before people tightened their belts and got serious about the business of saving themselves. And that allows us to make an apt comparison to the recall carnival. Come October 8 (or whenever), we’ve got to get back to the business of giving up a lot of things we’d rather keep: cheap car registrations, government jobs, low tuition and social services. It took a lot of sacrifice to cut $30 billion from the deficit. It’s going to take more pain before we’re done.

There’s a lot at stake here: the future of our state. But the downright hilarity of the situation is unavoidable. It’s serious, yes, but, damn, it’s really funny.

Among the candidates, “Mary Carey” Cook, Larry Flynt and Angelyne all have links to the sex trade. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s foray into Oui magazine a few years back might put him in that category, as well, though his bodybuilding past and image-conscious present certainly keep him in touch with Carnival’s obsession with the physical.

Then there are the modern-day versions of medieval “janglers and japeres,” the chatterboxes and tricksters—sumo wrestler Tachikaze Rightmyer, comedian and produce-smasher Gallagher, recovering child actor turned comic Gary Coleman—mountebanks all. It’s not hard to imagine them walking on stilts or running shell games to get the attention of the electorate. Multicolored fools’ caps with jingling bells are not really much of a stretch.

There are also representatives of the peasantry to be found among the candidates, examples of the working masses that Carnival is meant to entertain and placate. We have a retired meat packer and a retired police officer, a railroad brakeman and, believe it or not, doctors, lawyers and an Indian chief (excuse me, tribal chairman). Not all of them are mocking authority and power, though; in a weird inversion of Carnival, some of the potential kings of fools are trying to grab a little power in the real world.

The recall Carnival, like all Carnivals, is essentially about placating those who are, for all practical purposes, powerless. This race is set up to allow us to vent our frustration—and thereby contain it in the process, considering that all the front-runners have connections to the political establishment and that only fools will squander a vote on someone with no chance of winning and no clear qualifications. We laugh and stare in fascination at the sideshow, and when the election is over, we’ll get back in our cars to commute over crowded roads to uncertain jobs. The same big-money interests—anyone who can afford a fund-raiser and a lobbyist or 10—will still have the ear of whichever politico wins, but we’ll all feel better for having exercised our democratic muscle.

Ultimately, no matter which representative of the political class warms the governor’s chair—and don’t fool yourself, with the advisers and donors he has, Schwarzenegger’s part of the political class—we’ll still have an $8 billion-plus structural budget deficit, a stumbling if not fallen economy, cuts in social services and education, layoffs, etc. ad nauseum.

Carnival uncontained is anarchy. That’s what happens when the mob is in charge. The framers of the Constitution knew that; it’s why we have a representative democracy rather than a direct one. And the progressive populists who gave us recall, initiatives and referendums knew it, too. They simply provided a way to let off a little steam.

So, our current populist political circus is simply a break from the cruel reality of hard times, as it was for our medieval European cultural forbears. We may be entranced by the show put on by the Lords of No Discipline, but they’re not who we want guarding the Golden State gold. Except for a handful of black-garbed 20-somethings, we don’t really want anarchy, no matter how enraged we might become at the powers that be. We want that uniquely American balance of freedom and order: enough freedom that we can attempt to acquire the things we want, and enough order that we can feel safe to enjoy our acquisitions.

The recall Carnival is doing exactly what it ought to do: upending a political order that is stifling, unresponsive and perceived as arbitrary and oppressive. We’re blowing off steam in a relatively controlled manner, and ultimately, we’ll restore order.

After all, we certainly don’t want to be governed by fools. And, truthfully, we don’t want to be governed by “regular” people, either. We know regular people would be distracted from the business of governing by the everyday business of their lives, just as we are.

What we really want, even if we don’t get them as often as we’d like, are leaders who are just a tad smarter, more talented and more competent than we are—but not so far beyond us that they forget their duty to us. And as long as we can turn the world upside down at will, they’ll stay on their toes. Governor Davis is telling us he’s gotten the point—he’ll pay attention to the people from now on. Candidate Schwarzenegger wants to take Sacramento back “for the people.” They’ve gotten the message, at least enough to incorporate it into their stump speeches.

Ultimately, the Carnival will end. We know it. We want it to because we’ve got other things to do. But we’ll have rid ourselves of some of that not-so-barely concealed rage we harbor toward the prevailing order, toward the business-as-usual attitude that doesn’t take into consideration things like increasing tuition, dropping wages, ever-escalating personal and governmental debt and, most of all, the simple fact that, for the first time in American history, we have a generation that is not going to be as well off as the one before it.

We want a voice, a way to remind the political class of the power coiled within the body politic. The recall Carnival allows us to send that message without becoming truly, permanently ungovernable. And, in the immortal words of Mr. T.—who is not running for governor—we “pity the fool” who doesn’t learn the lesson of Carnival. Because we’ll recall him.