COLUMN: The circus and the monkey cage

Columnist Al Lehmann considers the circus


When I was a youngster, I once attended an evening of entertainment by the Moscow Circus, which was on a tour of Canadian cities.

I enjoyed a fabulous show featuring wild animals, athletic trapeze action, clowns, and numerous other offerings. I still remember the close of the show: a blond, warrior-like man rode a magnificent white horse down a ramp onto the main stage, where swinging the sword over his head, he wished us (in his slightly awkward Russian pronunciation) health and prosperity, and to all our athletes, “Wictory!”

Circuses have been in decline for decades. The Ringling Bros. Circus went out of business in 2017 after over a century of performances.

“Contemporary circuses” like Cirque du Soleil are exceptions. They use circus acts and skills to tell a story, something more akin to theater than to three rings of thrilling action under the big top. These novel forms can be wonderfully successful (CdS had revenues of about $1 billion in 1917.)

Part of the appeal of the circus was the fact that although many of its featured acts were dangerous or thrilling, we knew inside that everything was under control; the performers were well practised, the animals well-trained, and the ringmaster was trustworthy.

The very word “circus” has become something of a pejorative, though, connoting as it does multiple spheres of often disconnected and seemingly disorganized activity. Imagine the description of a city council meeting as “a real circus,” and you’ll understand what I mean.

Most observers of contemporary politics are likely to find that it seems bewilderingly out of control. This aspect of our democratic society is perhaps even more baffling because most of us are a lot like everyone else: we care for our children, we work, we play, we enjoy friends and acquaintances, and we share the broad goal of basic well-being for our citizens. Yet those who purport to represent us in government’s political sphere generate some bizarre and diverse theatrics that can leave one despairing of hope for the country.

Remarkably, Justin Trudeau has put his head into the lion’s jaws of citizens’ opinion with gaffe after gaffe, only to pull it out, apologize for whatever foolish decision he had just made, and win another election!

Politics has increasingly drawn itself away from the common sense demands of everyday reality in pursuit of symbolic idealisms. In America, for example, Republicans were outraged by criticisms of Dr. Seuss, but often indifferent to hundreds of thousands (!!) of COVID deaths brought on by incompetent handling of the pandemic. A vocal minority of Democrats advocated defunding and thereby dismantling the police, based on the naïve assumption that humans are naturally moral (despite abundant evidence to the contrary).

The recent floods remind us that climate disaster follows climate disaster, but global powers prefer pious “blah-blah-blah” to taking the actions that the majority of them understand to be necessary.

Patriotism used to mean putting the well-being of the country as a whole above partisan politics. Now numerous politicians advocate murdering their opponents in preference to debating them.

Circus? No kidding! H.L. Mencken had it right when he cynically commented that “democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.” Yet as Winston Churchill pointed out, democracy is perhaps “the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

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