Commentary — August 26, 2008, 11:42 am

Clowns

A drama from Fox News. The scene: the Pepsi Center, site of the Democratic National Convention, last Sunday afternoon.

Fox News Reporter Griff Jenkins: (Wading into crowd of protestors) What’s your message? What are you upset about?

Masked Protestor 1: I’m upset about everything.

Masked Protestor 2: Fuck corporate media!

Griff Jenkins: (Aside) Well, I guess they don’t believe in freedom of speech. Let’s just work this crowd and see who we can talk to.

Griff Jenkins: (Reading sign) Defend Denver. Explain that to me. What does that mean?

Man in Sunglasses: I’m not going to talk to you.

Griff Jenkins: What’s that?

Man in Sunglasses: I said I’m not going to talk to you.

Griff Jenkins: Do you believe in freedom of speech?

Junior Melendez: End the war!

Griff Jenkins: What’s your name? Come here! What’s your name?

Junior Melendez: My name is Junior Melendez and fuck war!

Griff Jenkins: Come on, that isn’t necessary! If you have a message . . .

Voice Offstage: Fuck you!

Griff Jenkins: (Continuing) If you have a message . . . Do you have an actual message without cursing? What’s your message?

Man with Goatee: Stop the torture. Stop the war.

Griff Jenkins: Stop the torture. Stop the war. Do you not believe in freedom? Do you not believe . . .

All, Except Jenkins: Fuck Fox News! Fuck Fox News! Fuck Fox News!

(Curtain)

These sorts of dramas happen all the time, of course. The Griff Jenkinses put on their make-up and taunt the candidates or the protestors or the guys-just-like-you into some kind of broadcast-quality entertainment and that’s the business.

This particular moment is worth noting, though, because the protestors, organized by a group called Recreate 1968, seem to have decided that playing along with the clown act is not conducive to their own clearly stated goals. (“Stop the torture. Stop the war.”)

They don’t offer the majestic dignity of other clown-show resistors, say from the era of civil rights resistance. But they do bring a rare contempt into play, which is its own form of dignity, one that must perhaps precede the calmer varieties.

The Recreate 68 organizers note on their web site that they do not aim to recreate the police riot that took place at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. What they aim to recreate, rather, is a time when Americans forced their leaders, by way of protest and grassroots organization, to live up to their democratic rhetoric: “That in 2008 the two leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for president are an African American man and a woman—something unimaginable at the start of the sixties—is a direct result of the changes brought about in that decade.” Which seems indisputable, no matter how much the sixties themselves are portrayed now as a clown show.

The first step toward that kind of participation, in fact, is to stop pretending politics is a clown show. That is a media conceit, after all, and one that is fairly easy to undermine.

In 1967, for instance, a proto-Griff named Alan Burke invited the activist/prankster Peter Berg on to his talk show to explain his message to the folks at home. Instead, Berg decided to bring the viewers themselves into the drama. He had a plant in the audience, armed with a clownish pie, and when another audience member got up to ask “what young people stood for these days,” he creamed that questioning innocent square in the face.

Having broken one version of the fourth wall, Berg then tried to break another. He began a lecture about the unreal nature of television itself, about the need for direct engagement. (This was nearly a decade before Network had come out.) “This is how you get out of the box,” he said. “You stand up—and you at home can join me in this—stand up, and start walking to get out of the box. Now here I go now. Just keep the camera on me and I’ll keep walking.” He walked to the studio exit, opened the door, and looked into the camera. Then he said, “Now turn off your television sets and go to bed,” and walked out the door.

This may have been pretentious. In fact it was pretentious. But most attempts at dignity are pretentious, until they succeed.

An editorial note: The story about Peter Berg is from Todd Gitlin’s definitive history, The Sixties. And for the next week, Todd, who knows much about dignified protest and other topics as well, will be writing occasional dispatches from Denver for Harpers.org, for which we thank him.

Share
Single Page

More from Luke Mitchell:

Commentary January 31, 2010, 11:08 am

Reply

From the July 2009 issue

We still torture

The new evidence from Guant??¡namo

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $34.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2014

50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quinoa Quarrel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

You Had to Be There

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Study in Sherlock

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“In Thunupa’s footsteps grew a miraculous plant that could withstand drought, cold, and even salt, and still produce a nutritious grain.”
Photograph by Lisa M. Hamilton
Article
A Study in Sherlock·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is central to the pleasure of the Sherlock Holmes stories that they invite play, and that they were never meant to be taken seriously.”
Illustration by Frederic Dorr Steele
Post
My Top 5 Metal Albums and Their Poetic Counterparts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“1. Death, The Sound of Perseverance (Nuclear Blast, 1998)”
Photograph (detail) by Peter Beste
Article
Found Money·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I have spent my entire adult existence in a recession. Like most people I talk to, I assume the forces that control the market are at best random and at worst rigged. The auction shows only confirm that suspicion.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Post
The School of Permanent Revolución·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The University of Venezuela has provided a consistent counterweight to governmental authority, but it has also reliably produced the elite of whatever group replaced the status quo.”
Photograph © Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez

Percentage of Americans who say they would not enjoy spending time with their own clone:

70

Astronomers recorded the most powerful pulse of radiation ever observed; the radiation was emitted from a pulsar 12,000 light-years from Earth and was “capable of totally vaporising and ionising all known materials, shredding them into hot plasma.”

Alberta dentist Michael Zuk, the owner of a molar that belonged to John Lennon, revealed that he hoped to clone a new Lennon and raise him as a son. “Hopefully keep him away from drugs,” said Zuk, “but, you know, guitar lessons wouldn’t hurt.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST