David Brooks reaches into the history books for a discussion of carnivals and jesters. Surprising no one, he connects it to current events.
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.”
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.
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.
Well, the philosopher king didn't work out so well for a lot of people. Let me cut to Peggy Noonan on Barack Obama:
He [Barack Obama] spent an unprecedented amount of time campaigning against, and assailing in the bitterest terms, his successor. Donald Trump was “uniquely unqualified,” “temperamentally unfit.” America chose him anyway. They were choosing Mr. Obama’s exact opposite, just as in choosing Sen. Obama in 2008 they went with the opposite of Mr. Bush. When they want the opposite of what you are, they are not registering approval.
Back to Mr. Brooks and his New Year's resolution:
His [Trump's, obvi] 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 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.
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.
Trump certainly is not, at least with his tweets on Jon Lewis, even making a pretense of trying to bring this nation together.