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Monday, July 26, 2010 

Political Circus, the three rings of mayhem that make up government frequently fuels comments I might make on Facebook, but generally I try to keep my opinions on check on the blog. Sometimes however it’s worth remembering that traditional circus exists within a social and economic context – and when things go wrong in a society circus reflects the impact, for better or for worse. Several stories have led me to think about that impact in recent days.

TIME Magazine just ran a cover on year-round, or modified year round school schedules eliminating the traditional summer vacation. Summer vacation, the author argued is an artifact from the days of family farms. Today, students, especially students from lower income households seem to forget too much over the span of a two plus month hiatus. Vacation isn’t a sacred ritual of childhood, the author asserted. He’s right and he’s so very wrong. Fifty years of leveling the playing field in education here in the US has led to learning by standardized testing, and teaching for the tests. Do children who constantly cram for tests forget some of what they’ve been spoon fed to parrot on an examination? Likely they do. But that’s not an argument for longer school years, it’s an argument against standardized tests as a measure of anything. Last year the schools in the city of Berkeley, CA began debate over closing science labs in the high school? Why? Because low income students tested poorly in science. Closing the labs would lead higher income students to achieve less, while the cost saving could be used for further tutoring of underachievers. So one group would be punished in an effort to further empower another group. That’s not really how learning works. It’s social engineering. And so is a modified year round school calendar. Strictly in terms of circus, most of us know that we can actually sell more tickets during the school year, when families aren’t off on holiday. But vacations are the season for backyard circus where kids entertain themselves, learning to juggle, or pitch tents for camping on the lawn. And if your imagination doesn’t run to juggling, or to tents, half the fun of circus is lost to you.

In 2009 the National Book Award in biography in the US went to a thick recounting of the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. At the time of his death in 1877 Vanderbilt was the richest man in North America. His wealth represented a full 5% of the US economy. I read the Vanderbilt bio, entitled The First Tycoon because in his rise as the owner of steamship and ferries around New York Vanderbilt diod business with Hezeckial Bailey, the early circus owner. In the heady economic boom that followed the election of Andrew Jackson to the White House and the closure of the Bank of the United States, money was plentiful, and the circus operators around Somers, NY invested in steamboats, railroads, and hotels. The only problem was that the boom created by Jackson’s Democrats was a lot like the real estate boom that created the bubble sending so much of the world into present day recession. All that money was smoke and mirrors. It wasn’t real. The myriad of banks that sprang up after the closure of the Bank of the United States were essentially sub-prime borrowers. When cotton prices fell and credit tightened, the banks failed, and so did much of Wall Street. The so called Panic of 1838 reads a lot like financial news of today. Conservative WHIG party leaders of that era argued for regulation that eventually restored the solvency of the young Republic, but only after Jackson was gone. Bubbles are bubbles are bubbles. Economic history repeats itself. As for the men from Somers, they lost a bundle, but even in the downturn the circus business went on. Jacksonian democracy sought to level the playing field for the little guy, but did it by punishing those who were already successful. It didn’t work.

Two years ago the United States elected a President who promised his most ardent supporters that he would end a war. Not everybody agreed with him. Not everybody voted for him. But in the immediate wake of the election few politicians have enjoyed greater good will from friend and foe alike. The war he was to end goes on. The prison he was to close in Cuba is still open for business. And no leader has squandered so much good will or political capital – with the possible except of George Bush circa 2003. Today the leak of thousands of classified documents from America’s other war, the war in Afghanistan could be the final nail in the coffin at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Whether you agreed with George W. Bush or didn’t, at least the Bush administration debated issues like detention, covert ops, and torture in public forums. So of the information now leaked reveals how extension certain operations were. It turns out that the present administration, which once vocally condemned every behavior of the Bush White House continues to do all of the same things… They just don’t debate it, aren’t honest enough to admit how they operate. By any measure we might employ in the Western World the Taliban were and are ruthlessly repressive. Zealots are like that, look at PETA or any skinhead group – but religious zealots are especially dangerous, because they believe themselves to be doing holy work. Islam is only the latest flavor. Read the Book of Joshua and consider the conquest of Caanan, the Land of Milk and Honey. Consider body count Christianity ran up between the first Crusade and the Spanish Conquestadors. The Taliban as it happens were especially hard on women, and on all forms of entertainment. When Afghanistan was initially liberated in the autumn of 2001, one of the first entertainments to spring up in Kabul was a circus. It was, according to the accounts, a threadbare show – the performers mostly male, the audience mostly male – but an astonishing thing happened under the patchwork bigtop. People were laughing and smiling. Circus can do that. The mismanagement of the fight in Afghanistan, now in its 9th year suggests a possibility that soon enough the Taliban will be back. No more laughter. No more circuses.

In a nutshell that’s the state of the world this week.

About me

  • I'm B.E.Trumble
  • From Everywhere, United States
  • Ben Trumble works in circus, carnival, and media relations
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