What do clowns and politics have in common? In these brave new times we may well ask. Lately there has been a peculiar craze about “evil clowns.” I’m not referring directly to the recent presidential election. Instead there are apparently grinning, menacing clown characters wandering among us that make people nervous. OK, maybe we are into the political arena just a bit.
The recent presidential contest has left many citizens struggling to understand the grim outcome. It may not be possible to predict the erratic behavior of a uniquely unqualified leader and his fawning followers, but we can make out an emerging zeitgeist that is becoming the new normal. Let’s go deep for a moment with creepiness.
Some witnesses to an evil clown sighting report a feeling of creepiness, uneasiness bordering on danger. While ordinary clown behavior would seldom be seen as threatening, the bad variety can apparently give us the chills by going against type, seemingly happy and entertaining but with a dark, sinister side (think The Joker). Now suppose there’s more to this creepiness meme than just a passing pop culture fad.
According to recent psychology research [New Ideas in Psychology 43 (2016) 10-15, and others] a thing or person will seem creepy if we think they could pose a threat, but we’re not sure. That uncertainty sets off our personal alarm bells or makes our “skin crawl.” Unlike a clear and present danger that we would turn and run from, the creepy presence can remain nearby and be part of our everyday world. So the weird neighbor with a taxidermy hobby may be amiable, though creepy, but a drunken knife-wielding attacker is nothing but hostile, bad for us in every way, and we flee.
Both alien and familiar
In his work on the related concept of the “uncanny” (unheimlich), Sigmund Freud suggests that we experience an eerie recognition of something both alien and familiar. We relate to what is creepy because it’s part of us, yet somehow distorted or unnatural. Key to Freud’s general theory of the unconscious, the uncanny represents part of ourselves that we’ve repressed but has come back in an unpleasant form to haunt or torment us.
Something else that gives us the creeps has to do with things that violate natural boundaries or disturb our settled categories [David Livingstone Smith, Aeon, Sept. 19]. A mannequin can look quite human but is clearly not alive. Horror movies are filled with unsettling images like a dog with a talking human head or trees that come alive with limbs that reach and grab. Clowns or other figures that wear masks seem spooky because we can’t tell who they really are or what they mean to do.
When we think of creepiness it’s these kinds of things that stand out: odd personal encounters or bizarre fictional images. Social media, trolls and all, also provide ample opportunity for creepy behavior thanks to the false personae that users are free to hide behind. Now consider the emerging U.S. political climate and cultural milieu, not forgetting that we ourselves contain potential for creepiness.
There’s something about the recent turn of electoral events that has many of us on edge, disgusted or creeped out. At the same time we might see ourselves and fellow citizens, through complacency or elitist negligence, partially to blame for this unprecedented dismal state of affairs. More could have been done for those economically left behind who now cheer for the new mandate. We and our representatives should have taken a more generous worldview, and now must bear partial responsibility for this surreal, yet preventable, outcome. As the old comic strip character, Pogo, summed it up: We have met the enemy, and he is us.
So are we dealing with a psychoanalytic syndrome writ large, a mass unconscious breakout producing high anxiety? Or is it a social dynamic that could have been reasonably predicted given better humility and inclusiveness? Once we move past our current stunned depression over the new status quo, a thorough debate about these issues would be therapeutic, leading from denial through bargaining and acceptance to action (apologies to Kubler-Ross).
Mood of dread will likely recede
In the near future we would expect that everyday transactions in business, education, relationships and community will mostly continue as usual. The world won’t stop revolving even though an ominous new weight has been added. The ship of state, barely manageable in the best of times, now has the added drag of mean-spirited leadership, inept at administration and driven by crass impulse. But a widely shared initial mood of dread and paranoia, so well captured by David Remnick [“An American Tragedy,” The New Yorker, Nov. 9], will likely recede with the ebb and flow of daily affairs.
On the other hand, American normality could change to match those dire expectations and morph into crisis conditions. The contemptuous mentality taking control of government is capable of all manner of destruction, which looks to be the goal: dismantling health care for millions, undermining educational quality, depriving citizens of civil rights, starting trade (or shooting) wars abroad, and driving the economy into a ditch for all but the 1 percent.
Grandiose claims to the contrary, loss of jobs and opportunity should not be surprising, particularly among the new regime’s true believers. Presidential appointment of horribles to top government positions can further ensure dysfunction and ongoing damage. Add in a coarsening of public dialogue seasoned with a loose regard for protocol, truth or the law and we see that creepiness, along with fear, dread and disgust fairly define our new political and social reality. A bleak but blunt forecast to produce shame for our country.
In a recent interview [Brian Lehrer, WNYC, Nov. 23], a veteran Italian journalist wanted us to know that, based on his knowledge of Italy’s history and despite our own troubles, America will never succumb to fascism. We appreciate the reassurance and hope his European vantage is prescient. But any observer has to reckon with the vigorous strain of anti-intellectualism (see Richard Hofstadter) in the U.S. where a motto could well be: My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge. Maybe as appropriate would be Benjamin Franklin’s quip: “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.”
There may be clowns among us, but the next several years promise to be no laughing matter.
Larry Struck is a writer based in St. Paul.
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