The Freak Show That Never Leaves Town


Author: Butler Shaffer

“There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance.” 

– Wolfgang von Goethe                

Growing up in Nebraska, I was delighted each September, when the State Fair opened. I enjoyed walking the midway – accompanied by the spirit of P.T. Barnum – listening to sideshow barkers peddling their shows for “just ten cents, one thin dime.” Bearded and tattooed ladies, two-headed calves, and fortune-tellers were among the offerings.

With last week’s closing of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, a significant part of American culture has disappeared: circuses and carnivals. With the exception of 1950s era network television circuses, these extravaganzas were largely performed at the local level, abetted by the main street circus parades that brought us downtown and enticed us out to the circus grounds. With network television bringing so many of our demands for entertainment to the national level, traveling circuses, carnivals, and fairground midways have largely disappeared; although the sideshows have not. Freak shows have gravitated to television news networks, with anchors tantalizing us with the “breaking news” of assorted cranks and misfits waiting to challenge the suspension of our intelligence. “See the lady who can speak endlessly without saying anything;” or, “see the SUV that will bring the world to an end;” or “see the lady carrying a severed head.” H.L. Mencken was prophetic – as usual – in labeling politics as a “circus”, and a “carnival of buncombe.”

Time to buy old US gold coins

My understanding of history has led me to the view that Western Civilization is in its final stages. The structuring and regulation of life-sustaining processes have proved as fatal to our culture as cutting off a bird’s wings would seal its fate. To forcibly deprive individuals of their self-directed, self-interested nature in order to serve some mythical collective, has brought us to where we are. Beneficiaries of this herd-oriented mindset are institutional interests with a highly-concentrated presence that could not be maintained without the coercive force of the state restraining the development of competitive alternatives that would arise in a free market. Those interested in seeing how the business system has benefitted from this economic structuring, are invited to read my book In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918-1938.

What has emerged from the politicization of our lives – a process that has made us subservient to institutional interests – is the “size theory of social misery” so well described by Leopold Kohr. We have allowed ourselves to be burdened by a supra-institutional body, the political Establishment; an entity owned and controlled by self-appointed elites who have an interest in keeping mankind under their domination at the base of their pyramidal structures of power.  Schools and the mainstream media have been the principal tools with which to condition and reinforce the conditioning in our imposed duty of obedience to the state.

Both the purpose and effect of all this is to train us in the skills that will be useful to the established order. It is not to help us learn how to think independently, how to make relevant distinctions, how to explore reality and values that lie beyond the boundaries set for us, how to discriminate between truth and fashion, how to be self-directed in our thinking and actions, and how to live for our own purposes. In your own experiences, has your formal schooling or encounters with the establishment media served any of the ends that enhanced your individuality?

Trained to serve the power structure that presumes to have authority over us, we are quite familiar with the verb form of the word train. But the noun usage of that word tells us something of what we have become. “Training” produces a “train,” which one dictionary informs us is “a succession of pack animals traveling in the same direction.”  What better description of what we have allowed ourselves to become: both the means and the ends by which otherwise self-directed individuals are compacted into one manageable herd of indistinguishable parts. The U.S. government’s collectivist motto, e pluribus unum, is an open admission of the dehumanized and morally obscene nature of the state.

There are both personal and societal consequences of our acceptance of such ideas and practices as the default standard for how we are to live. Instead of learning how to think clearly and with sound analysis, students are provided with catechisms of “politically correct” standards by which to judge the propriety of things. The Animal Farm maxim “four legs good, two legs bad,” has been transformed into the equally divisive slogan “black lives matter”; “pro-choice” chants that deny individuals the “choice” not to be taxed to support abortion clinics; “pro-life” enthusiasts who celebrate wars and capital punishment; the celebration of “diversity” on campus that does not extend to the “diversity of thought” and “ideas,” purposes which ought to be the principal rationale for the very existence of colleges! A consequence of all this is to accustom us to think of one another in twisted forms, and to accept moral decision-making as living with contradictions. Teaching children and adults what to think has become the central purpose of academia and the mainstream media; a role essential to the very existence of the established order. The specter of men and women even thinking of living as self-directed, autonomous, and spontaneous beings, in pursuit of their individual ends, terrifies the owners of the collective system.

One of the best minds who ever lived in this country was Eric Hoffer who, as a child, suffered an inexplicable loss of eyesight that kept him from attending schools. As a teenager, his eyesight just as mysteriously returned. He then spent much of his time in libraries and bookstores pursuing his independent learning. The best book he wrote, The True Believer, demonstrates the soundness and clarity of thinking that can arise in minds free from being trained to serve the purposes of  establishment trainers. School attendance must be mandatory, and those who would expose the falsity, corruption, and immoral nature of the establishment – people like Julian Assange, Ed Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and other truth-tellers – must be imprisoned, put to death, or otherwise treated as a disease!

Most of us are familiar with western movies that involve cattle drives. The cowboys are dominated by the fear that the cattle might get excited and stampede, a dreaded prospect shared by establishment owners and their professional herd-drovers. One sees this in crime scenes, accidents, natural disasters, or other dramatic situations. “Don’t get excited!”, “stay calm”, “nothing to see, so move on” people are told by police officers on the lookout for inquisitive persons, particularly those with video- or cell-phone cameras.

The owners fear nothing so much as the possibility that their herds might become agitated, begin to ask discomforting questions, or (gasp!) stampede. Those who haven’t figured out that a big question mark was elected president by voters who have become edgy – if not intolerant – over the political intrusions upon their lives, need to think beyond the boundaries set by CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. The establishment-serving panderers who characterize ordinary people as “deplorables,” or “freeloaders” for objecting to ever higher tax-burdens and restraints, don’t understand that their herds of “contented cows” are dispersing.

Like astronauts in space whose lives depend upon umbilical cord ties to their spacecraft, the sideshow hangers-on work to reinforce their connections to the establishment. College campuses in which the search for truth is condemned as a “racist” consequence of the Enlightenment; “politically correct” speech codes that are enforced by university administrators; ongoing campaigns to alter pronouns; campuses in which  simpletons feel comfortable intimidating “white people” to stay away on given days; universities that designate “safe rooms” – complete with hot chocolate and counselors – to which students [and faculty?] might retreat when confronted by the horror of having to think about unfamiliar ideas; university studies that urge non-discrimination policies to protect students who self-identify as vampires. When I read or hear of such efforts to stupefy academia, I am reminded of one of my favorite orchestral leaders, Stan Kenton, predicting that farmers would one day rise up in the Midwest, and half would go the East coast, and half to the West coast, and kill off all the intellectuals!

In its efforts to keep the cattle within their assigned corrals and herds, the establishment has called upon academia, the mainstream media, and politicians, to help in the roundup. For the economic illiterate, Sen. Bernie Sanders – who earned over $ 1,000,000 last year in his altruistic efforts for the poor and downtrodden – orates about the virtues, social justice, and prosperity of such socialist nirvanas as the Soviet Union, Cuba, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. Barack Obama – who gets $ 400,000 for a speaking fee – gives a speech in Canada on the “inequality of wealth.” Bill and Hillary Clinton reportedly amassed some $ 240,000,000 from “speaking engagements” over the years, with Bill getting $ 500,000 from a Russian bank, and $ 750,000 for speaking at a conference in China. With the knee-deep self-righteous moralizing now flooding congressional hearing chambers over the question of Russian influences in the 2016 presidential elections, I am certain there will be bipartisan support for an examination of what these socialist regimes received for their investments in the Clinton Foundation! CNN and MSNBC would demand no less, right?

These are just some of the more notorious freak-show performers along the midway seeking your entertainment dollars; and anything else they can bilk from you. Whether you prefer the neo-Luddite tent, or Kathy Griffin with her make-believe bloodied severed head of Donald Trump, or the abortion clinic where live unborn children are killed and their organs harvested for lucrative auctions, is up to your tastes. Consistent with the interests of the Establishment owners, these sideshows are intended at most to entertain, to amuse (i.e., to be without prolonged absorption in thought) never to inform. Accordingly, what is unlikely to be found alongside the freak shows is a modern Apollonius of Tyana, a first century AD philosopher – as well as star of the traveling Circus of Dr. Lao – whose predictions were often troubling to customers. Established interests do not want you to be aware of the consequences of collective action (e.g., $ 20,000,000,000,000 national debt; blowback from years of violent foreign policies). The late Richard Weaver reminded us that “ideas have consequences.”  There is no determinism at work that compels us to think as we do, or requires us to anesthetize our intellectual energies.  Insights into the nature of the moral and intellectual collapse of the culture must be sought beyond the circus grounds. The words of one of my favorite historians, Arnold Toynbee, provide a warning of the likely consequences of our continued commitment to destructive thinking:

“[H]uman nature abhors a spiritual vacuum. If the house from which an unclean spirit has gone out is left empty, swept, and garnished, the momentarily banished possessor will sooner or later enter in again with a retinue of other spirits more wicked than himself, and the last state of that man will be worse than the first.”

Is there a means for avoiding such a “spiritual vacuum”? In our materialistic, power-centered world, do spiritual considerations inform our actions? If an “unclean spirit” leaves our lives in a “spiritual vacuum,” does it really matter? Should we just continue to lower our expectations of how we are to live in society, and content ourselves with selecting political “leaders” who will do us less harm than others?  On the other hand, if spiritual values are important to the quality of our lives, how do we determine what these values are? Is such a means likely to be found within the hallowed halls of the state, or academia, or the “news” and entertainment media, or public opinion polls, or must we look elsewhere?

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