“We have clowns in constant practice among us who are as far above the clowns of any other great state as a Jack Dempsey is above a paralytic . . . . Here in this Eden of clowns, with the highest rewards of clowning theoretically open to every poor boy . . . we found and cherished a clown dynasty.”
H.L. Mencken, “On Being an American,” Prejudices, Third Series (1922)
“It is very difficult for a dunce to obtain the reputation of a wit; yet . . . a bawdy blockhead often passes for a fellow of smart parts and pretensions.”
Oliver Goldsmith, The Citizen of the World (1760-1761)
I have previously had occasion to mention that I produced a course of videos on world regional geography, and that this now runs each semester for the edification, or perhaps mortification, of a few hundred on-line students. I follow the university’s instructions and stream these videos through YouTube, as this economy allows the university to spend its money on mercenary athletes and meretricious scholars. After some semesters had passed and the views of my videos had multiplied, YouTube attached advertisements to the videos in order to grub some money for itself.
I have for years wondered how long it will take the university to place advertising in classrooms, how long until lecterns resemble stock cars plastered with corporate logos, until “a word from our sponsor” punctuates lectures at ten minute intervals. So I was annoyed rather than astonished when YouTube began to fish for filthy lucre.
When I checked this week’s videos, I found that one is now preceded by an advertisement for a situation comedy that is streaming on Hulu and aimed at a youth market. The advertisement begins with a closeup of a young women, south Asian in appearance but American in manner, who is evidently bursting to share a secret with her Caucasoid bestie. The secret is,
“Oh my gosh! I was having sex and the condom fell off!”*
Hilarity ensued. I could imagine my students sniggering with prurient merriment as they thought of the chagrin of the swain whose detumescent slippage had given the south Asian gal such a start. I could imagine them making a note to tune in and watch the hijinks of these two zany bawds as they fumbled the pregnancy test and finagled the abortion.
But I could not imagine my students composing themselves, mentally and spiritually, to profit from sixty-eight minutes of my best effort to make the geography of the United States interesting. I do what I can, but I am going to be a letdown if I am obliged to follow the act of two zany bawds who leer at the camera and crack wise about condoms.
A serious society sets aside serious spaces in which to conduct its serious business. This is why cathedrals did not allow barkers to set up whack-a-mole booths in the side chapels. This is why university campuses did not bristle with billboards. This is why the decor of lecture halls was different than the decor of beer halls, and why go-go girls did not divert the spectators in a court of law.
A serious space says you will see no clowns here, and you will be permitted, yourself, no clowning.
In our unserious society, there seem to be clowns in all the formerly serious places. I would not be surprised if a tiny car rolled up the aisle of the church and a dozen clowns tumbled from its doors. I am only somewhat shocked that two zany bawds are cracking wise about condoms as my students settle in to get learned. Shocked enough to write this post, but now I’m ready for the next new normal.
*) This is from memory but substantially correct