The Lord of Mis­rule

The Star (St. Lucia) - - INTERNATIONAL - By David Brooks (NY Times)

King David was most com­pelling when he danced. Over­come by gratitude to God, he stripped down to his linens and whirled about be­fore the ark of the covenant — his love and joy spilling beyond the bound­aries of nor­mal deco­rum.

His wife, Michal, the daugh­ter of King Saul, was re­pulsed by his be­hav­ior, es­pe­cially be­cause he was do­ing it in front of the com­mon­ers. She snarked at him when he got home for ex­pos­ing him­self in front of the ser­vants’ slave girls like some scur­rilous fel­low.

The early Chris­tians seem to have wor­shiped the way David did, with ec­static danc­ing, com­mu­nal joy and what Emile Durkheim called “col­lec­tive ef­fer­ves­cence.” In her book “Danc­ing in the Streets,” Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich ar­gues that in the first cen­turies of Chris­tian­ity, wor­ship of Je­sus over­lapped with wor­ship of Diony­sus, the Greek god of rev­elry. Both Je­sus and Diony­sus up­ended class cat­e­gories. Both turned wa­ter into wine. Sec­ond- and third-cen­tury stat­uettes show Diony­sus hang­ing on a cross.

But when the church be­came more hi­er­ar­chi­cal, the Michals took over. Somber priest-led rit­u­als be­gan to re­place di­rect ac­cess to the di­vine. In the fourth cen­tury Gregory of Nazianzus urged, “Let us sing hymns in­stead of strik­ing drums, have psalms in­stead of friv­o­lous mu­sic and song, . . . mod­esty in­stead of laugh­ter, wise con­tem­pla­tion in­stead of in­tox­i­ca­tion, se­ri­ous­ness in­stead of delir­ium.”

When elites try to quash the man­ners and im­pulses of the peo­ple, those im­pulses are bound to spill out in some other way. By the Mid­dle Ages the cathe­drals were strictly hi­er­ar­chi­cal, so the peo­ple cre­ated car­ni­vals where ev­ery­thing was turned on its head. Dur­ing carnival (Purim is the Jewish ver­sion), men dressed like women, the peo­ple could in­sult the king and bish­ops, drunk­en­ness and rib­aldry was prized over sober pro­pri­ety.

As Ehren­re­ich puts it, “What­ever so­cial cat­e­gory you had been boxed into - male or fe­male, rich or poor - carnival was a chance to es­cape from it.”

Some­times the celebration took on an en­thu­si­asm that is hard for us to fathom. In 1278, 200 peo­ple kept danc­ing on a bridge in Utrecht un­til it col­lapsed and all were drowned.

The car­ni­vals were partly a way to blow off steam, but in hard times they served as oc­ca­sions for gen­uine pop­ulist re­volts. In 1511, a carnival in Udine, Italy, turned into a riot that led to the mur­der of 50 no­bles and the sack­ing of more than 20 palaces.

Carnival cul­ture was raw, las­civ­i­ous and dis­grace­ful, and it el­e­vated a cer­tain so­cial type, the fool.

There were many dif­fer­ent kinds of fools: holy fools, hap­less fools, vi­cious fools. Fools were rude and fre­quently un­abashed liars. They were will­ing to make id­iots of them­selves. The point of the fool was not to be ad­mirable in him­self, but to be the class clown who had the guts to talk back to the teacher. Peo­ple en­joyed carnival cul­ture, the feast of fools, as a way to take a whack at the sta­tus quo.

You can see where I’m go­ing with this. We live at a time of wide so­cial in­equal­ity. The in­tel­lec­tual strait­jack­ets have been get­ting tighter. The uni­ver­si­ties have be­come mod­ern cathe­drals, where so­cial hi­er­ar­chies are de­fined and re­in­forced.

We’re liv­ing with ex­actly the kinds of in­jus­tices that lead to carnival cul­ture, and we’ve crowned a fool king. Don­ald Trump ex­ists on two lev­els: the pres­i­den­tial level and the fool level. On one level he makes per­son­nel and other de­ci­sions. On the other he tweets. (I hon­estly don’t know which level is more im­por­tant to him.)

His tweets are clas­sic fool be­hav­ior. They are raw, ridicu­lous and fre­quently self-de­struc­tive. He takes on an icon of the of­fi­cial cul­ture and he throws mud at it. The point is not the mes­sage of the tweet. It’s to sym­bol­i­cally up­end hi­er­ar­chy, to be op­po­si­tional.

The as­sault on Rep­re­sen­ta­tive John Lewis was clas­sic. He picked one of the most of­fi­cially ad­mired peo­ple in the coun­try and he lev­eled the most ridicu­lous pos­si­ble charge (all talk and no ac­tion). It was a tweet dev­il­ishly well crafted to cre­ate the max­i­mum of­fi­cial up­roar. Any­body who writes for a liv­ing knows how to ma­nip­u­late an out­raged re­sponse, and Trump is a fool pup­pet mas­ter.

The sad part is that so many peo­ple treat Trump’s tweets as if they are ar­gu­ments when in fact they are carnival. With their con­nip­tion fits, Trump’s re­spon­ders feed into the dy­namic he needs. They con­trib­ute to carnival cul­ture.

The first prob­lem with to­day’s carnival cul­ture is that there’s an ocean of sadism lurk­ing just be­low the sur­face. The sec­ond is that it’s not real. It doesn’t re­ally ad­dress the in­equal­i­ties that give rise to it. It’s just com­bat­ive dis­play.

This is a res­o­lu­tion I’m prob­a­bly go­ing to break, but I re­solve to write about Trump only on the pres­i­den­tial level, not on the carnival level. I’m go­ing to try to re­spond only to what he does, not what he says or tweets. I re­ally wish some of my me­dia con­fr­eres would do the same.

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