Mountebank Blog

"There is nothing so impossible in nature, but mountebanks will undertake; nothing so incredible, but they will affirm."

The End of the Circus

I see in today’s paper that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus will be closing down at the end of this season, after nearly 150 years.

I regret that.

In many ways it’s true that the Ringling Brothers show has moved a long way from the circus tradition.  Insanely high prices, huge arenas, intense merchandising of souvenirs and foods that really aren’t circus-based, and an emphasis on Vegas-style extravagance are all trends that started decades ago and have become what people associate with the circus and in those areas the circus just isn’t that appealing.  And I guess they moved in those directions because it’s what a modern audience wants.

And it’s true that smaller regional circuses (even those still traveling and using tents) are in even more trouble and getting even fewer and farther between.  Even the Big Apple Circus is filing for bankruptcy protection.

I’ve got a personal connection, though, or a set of them, to the circus, including the big arena shows, that makes me sad to see Ringling Brothers shut down.

As a kid I used to go to the Ringling Brothers circus, usually with my brothers and my grandmother (who for a while worked at a small local newspaper, so she got free tickets to all the circus, ice shows, and so forth).  And I always loved it.  I don’t remember any of the “scared of clowns” feeling that so many people talk about.  I thought the clowns were hilarious.  And I loved the aerialists and the animal acts and the music and the thrills every year.  I remember from a very young age wishing to be a ringmaster.  I was often overwhelmed by all that was going on (three rings can be too much–I never knew where to look).  But the sounds and the lights and the smells spelled excitement in a way that no other popular entertainment did.

And in my doctoral research, I read circus memoirs (from George Sanger’s Seventy Years a Showman to Barnum’s Struggles and Triumphs) and studied the ephemera and popular press accounts of the circus.  My own work was more explicitly with county fairs and carnivals but circus studies is certainly an allied field.

Circus PennantEven more than those connections, there’s the one summer, in 1981, that I spent working at a small circus.  This was sort of an odd circus–it didn’t travel, but stayed in San Diego. Each performance was about a half hour long and there were many every day. And it didn’t have its own separate admission–it was hosted at Sea World and included in the admission price.

Sea World seemed somewhat ashamed or embarrassed or uncertain about its value. It was off outside the margins of the park, in the “Nautilus Showcase” (I think that’s what it was called), a separate stage and bleachers that many guests never really encountered.  And I don’t think it ever came back after that one summer.

But for that one summer, even without the traveling, I got something of a feel of the circus family and experience–I was an outsider/newcomer (“first of may”).  The “Circus by the Sea” assembled some real and traditional circus acts and some Las Vegas performers (the Volantes and their comic unicycle/juggling act).

Serving these performers, there were a couple of stagehands, in blue jumpsuits, running on stage and grabbing props, cleaning the lion cages, babysitting the wirewalkers’ kids, driving the pickup truck to the wholesale butcher to pick up cardboard boxes of pigs’ heads for the lions (those boxes were heavy and always soggy.  And when they collapsed, it was not pretty to see what came rolling out) and doing whatever was necessary.  One of those stagehands was me.

signatures on the circus pennantCircus life has a lot of down-time backstage and on the lot (most of the performers lived in their trailers right there at Sea World), and there’s a lot of socializing.  Card-playing, pranks and practical jokes.  Teaching each other new skills even from each others’ areas.  (Ringmaster Dick Monday tried, without any success at all, to teach me WC Fields’ famed cigar box juggling routine.  It’s a great gag. I still wish I could have mastered it.)  It was a warm and welcoming family.  I had a huge crush on Delilah Wallenda, the wire walker, who was sweet and friendly backstage, but an imperious goddess 30 feet in the air.  The clowns taught me makeup.  Jose and Monique Guzman (they rode a motorcyle on a tightrope) shared pozole and tacos with me at lunchtime.  At night the younger performers and we stagehands would take a case of beer to the beach.  Marcel the lion trainer would pretend to open the chute to let the lions in while I was shoveling out the cage.

During that summer, there was one week when the Ringling Brothers circus came to San Diego, and everyone from our circus packed up to go.  Not to see the show–to see friends.  I came along, even though of course I didn’t know anybody.  But everyone else did know somebody–usually many somebodies. In-laws, cousins, old classmates from clown college, friends of friends.  Our circus people knew so many other circus people and it was like everyone was related.

At one point, I ended up sitting with Marcel and some elephant trainers drinking beer.  And I saw that not only did the people know the other people, but the animal people all considered their animals to be parts of the same extended family.  Marcel asked about other lions and tigers who were working with cat men there and elsewhere–not just the trainers, but the animals, by name and with a real interest in their progress and lives.  And he talked to the elephant guys about elephants they had, or elephants who were with other units or other shows, as real individuals they knew and cared about. That has always given me a different perspective on the “exploitation” of the circus animals.  To the circus people I knew, the animals were circus people, too.  They weren’t exploited.  They were partners.

I guess we live in a world where the circus as entertainment is no longer viable.  And I guess we live in a world where that kind of lifestyle for performers who make their own community in a small location and across an entire country doesn’t have a place anymore.  And as I said, I regret that.

Shooting in Arizona

I don’t really have the wit or the writing skill to explain what troubles me most about the recent shooting in Arizona.  It’s troubling on so many levels.  There’s plenty of valid criticism to be made about the poisonous, venomous, right-wing rhetoric (and yes, you can find some on the left, too, but these days it’s overwhelmingly from the right) that passes for political “discourse.”  There’s plenty to be said about “don’t retreat, reload” and crosshairs on congressional districts, and “second amendment solutions.”  All of that is very dangerous, very ugly, and while it’s a symptom, not a cause, it’s still a troubling symptom.

But there’s also some other rhetoric that demands critique and examination and soul-searching.  I’m reading, from all sides of the political spectrum (but again, mostly from the right), things like “lunatic,” whackjob,” “psycho,” “nutter,” “head case.”

The main, primary tragedy here is the innocent people, including the young girl, who were killed or wounded. But there’s another tragedy, too.  And in a way there’s another victim.  The young man who did the shooting had a terrible illness.  And (as far as we know now) it was completely untreated.  We haven’t at this point heard anything from his family, but I know how hard it can be to treat someone with this illness.  How hard it can be to watch him deteriorate and separate from all that he was.  We do know that this young man acted out in class, and we do know that the school identified the problem as one of mental illness.  And I know that sometimes schools, even schools where they should know better, identify the kind of behavior he demonstrated as just “bad” behavior, without even asking for or requiring treatment.

Most people with the illness this young man had are not violent at all–at least not to other people.  And it’s a terrible shame that he killed and hurt so many innocent others.  But it’s also a terrible shame how vastly more often this illness kills and hurts the people who suffer from the illness–taking away the people that they were, even taking away their physical health or sometimes their lives.  And hurting–even if not with shooting–many innocent people, too–their families and friends.

We need to think about political discourse.  We need to think about poisonous partisan hatred.  But we also need–every day–today–to think about how we respond, how we fail to treat, fail to understand, fail to identify, the illness that destroys so many more lives all the time…even (or especially) when there is no gun, no shooter, but still a complete and tragic destruction of a person.

Newspapers Will Fold?

Time Magazine lists 10 Newspapers that will either Fold or Go Under Next.

1. The Philadelphia Daily News
2. The Minneapolis Star Tribune
3. The Miami Herald
4. The Detroit News
5. The Boston Globe.
6. The San Francisco Chronicle.
7. The Chicago Sun Times
8. NY Daily News
9. The Fort Worth Star Telegram
10. The Cleveland Plain Dealer

They give their reasoning for each one in the linked article above. It could be they’re right, even about all of them.

But here’s something I notice…I read this list because of a link from one of my twitter community–somebody I don’t know in “real life” at all. He linked to this Time Magazine story. On Yahoo News (where that link above is going to). And Time is actually just taking it from 24/

So if I’m counting right, this story reached me only after being re-purposed 4 times from its original source. And now it’s reaching anyone reading this after a 5th.

Content “producers” become content aggregators–and content “consumers” become content disseminators in the new media economy. And then those disseminators comment on the content, and re-purpose it, and make their own points. Like I’m doing here. So everybody’s role gets reshaped. Who’s the “real” producer?

Interesting times, that’s who.

(And by the way, I can’t think of a time in the past 10 years or more when I’ve actually bought a paper copy of Time Magazine–or even touched one except when stranded in a doctor’s office with nothing else available.)

Citizen Journalists

In all the reporting and discussion about the LAPD’s actions at the May Day Immigration Rally in MacArthur Park in LA, I came across a vignette in LA Times reporter Jill Leovy’s first-hand report:

At a press conference with Chief Bratton about 9 Tuesday night at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Park View, tensions between the informal press and the formal press bubbled over.

As the chief spoke, with Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger at his side, at least 40 people surrounded him, with six or seven squatting on the ground in front to hear better. About half of the group appeared not to be official members of the press corps, but rather, protesters and self-appointed journalists affiliated with the protesters. When it came time to call out questions — often a competitive moment among reporters from competing news agencies — the protesters held their own.

As questioners peppered Bratton with demands for answers, some seemed more intent on expressing their own views than hearing Bratton’s and there was confusion about whether those speaking were paid by an established news organization or were self-appointed.

A large man in front of the chief to his right, who had been heckling with words of skepticism throughout the event, repeatedly asked in a loud voice whether the chief planned to appoint a civilian panel to investigate the incident. He interrupted reporters. Tempers flared. Dave Clark, a well-known broadcast journalist with KCAL 9 and CBS 2, admonished him to be quiet. “We are trying to work here!” Clark said.

At one point, Bratton also asked this man to be quiet. The press conference was being held for the benefit of the official media, he said. The man responded by insisting he was a “citizen journalist,” but then backed down, professing his respect for the chief.

Increasingly, it seems, the “citizen journalists”–bloggers, amateurs, “protesters with cameras,” whatever you want to call them–are not just holding their own, but surpassing the “official journalists.” The coverage they provide is wider, more blatantly subjective, polemical, less professional, untrained…it’s a whole different kind of new medium.

I like this–I find it exciting, and I find the potential for a better-informed, more media-savvy public to be quite promising. But there are also drawbacks, of course. We need to learn a new vocabulary, and new critical standards for evaluating this new medium–it’s unfiltered, and while I would never say that it should be filtered, I definitely think that we need to develop and clarify our own filters.

But that’s something we should have been doing all along–the “official” journalism was really never any more trustworthy or objective (not at any time in history–rosy-colored nostalgia aside), and if the new journalism foregrounds that fact, it’s a very good thing.

Josh Wolf (the videographer/blogger who was jailed for six months for refusing to turn over his video of a demonstration) was asked (while he was in jail) “Are Bloggers Journalists?” His answer (in part):

The question has no simple answer, just as there is no easy way to respond to being asked, “Are Christians good people?” Most would respond that some are and some are not; certain zealots would proclaim that all Christians are good people by definition, and still others would argue that all people are good despite whatever bad things they may have done. A fourth group would claim that the very idea of “good”and “evil” is an entirely artificial construct and a completely irrelevant measure, and all of these arguments are a valid response to the question that is before us tonight.

The simplest answer is that some bloggers are journalists whereas others are not. After all, few would contend that the 16 year-old who writes about her daily exploits on her Myspace page is a journalist. But what happens when this very same girl manages to break a story on her principal’s scheme to embezzle from the school? Does she then become a journalist? When she returns to writing about the guy in chemistry, is this now journalism? In a recent essay, Bill Moyers cites Tom Rosentiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism who points out that “the proper question is not whether you call yourself a journalist but whether your work itself constitutes journalism.” Given the paradoxes inherent in tonight’s question, I’m inclined to think that Moyer and Rosentiel are onto something.

Can bloggers be journalists? Absolutely. A blog is nothing more than a medium. Sure, the cost of entry is cheaper than launching your own daily newspaper and the rules of engagement aren’t nearly as formalized, but when you think about it, how different is this than the development of any new medium? I imagine that when radio was invented there were plenty of newspapermen and a few newspaperwomen who were clamoring that radio-news was not real journalism. This same scenario likely played out again with the advent of television. Today it’s the internet, and like the journalists of yester-year many are quick to discount blogs as a viable medium for transmitting news and some probably feel threatened by the development as well.

Are bloggers journalists? Is it good for us to have “citizen journalists”? That’s probably not an important question. We have them. So the better questions might be how should we regard them? How should we use them?

Despicable Hypocrisy and Dishonesty

I know that hypocrisy is epidemic in politics…and I know that the Republicans throughout this administration have held firmly to the belief that only Democrats, ever, can be guilty of anything. Republicans, they think, should get a free pass.

But on yesterday’s Meet the Press, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas, surprise!) took even my breath away with her blatant, bald-faced, hypocritical lying.

SEN. HUTCHISON: I certainly hope that if there is going to be an indictment that says something happened, that it is an indictment on a crime and not some perjury technicality where they couldn’t indict on the crime and so they go to something just to show that their two years of investigation was not a waste of time and taxpayer dollars. So they go to something that trips someone up because they said something in the first grand jury and then maybe they found new information or they forgot something and they tried to correct that in a second grand jury.

I think we should be very careful here, especially as we are dealing with something very public and people’s lives in the public arena. I do not think we should prejudge. I think it is unfair to drag people through the newspapers week after week after week, and let’s just see what the charges are. Let’s tone down the rhetoric and let’s make sure that if there are indictments that we don’t prejudge.

MR. RUSSERT: But the fact is perjury or obstruction of justice is a very serious crime and Republicans certainly thought so when charges were placed against Bill Clinton before the United States Senate. Senator Hutchison.

SEN. HUTCHISON: Well, there were charges against Bill Clinton besides perjury and obstruction of justice.

I’m not sure how she can look herself in the mirror–Bill Clinton was impeached on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. Only. Nothing else. He was charged with no other crime whatsoever. So when Bill Clinton does it, it’s a serious crime. When a Republican, any Republican, does the same thing, it’s just a technicality–some kind of fake, made-up prosecution. And she’s perfectly willing to make up some imaginary “other charges” to prove that a Democrat’s crime is serious, while a Republican’s is not.


Middle School Searching

It’s a very weird system in NYC for public middle schools, at least here in Region 8. When I grew up in San Diego, we went directly from elementary school to junior high school, automatically. If you were zoned for elementary school A1, you went to junior high A2 (and high school A3). It was just based on your neighborhood, unless you had some special reason to try to go to some special school. I knew that NYC had a different system for high schools, where students had to apply and be accepted to the specialized schools, but I didn’t know (until late last year) that there was similar system for middle schools.

As the father of a fifth grader, I’ve learned that when she goes to sixth grade next year, there is no guaranteed or automatic middle school for her. She has to apply, and be accepted, even at schools in our own neighborhood. And the middle school which is closest to our house, it turns out, is one that usually gets something like 4 or 5 kids applying for every one spot they have available. It’s our neighborhood school, but it’s absolutely not automatic that she’ll get to go there.

There are a few things, too, to add to this equation. Where we live in Brooklyn, the neighborhood is racially very diverse…but the schools are much less so. We saw this in the elementary school arena (where she does go to her automatic neighborhood school–but where most white parents reject that school). There are only a very few schools in the district which white parents see as “acceptable.” The kids from the “best” (whitest) elementary schools (not my daughter’s school) only consider these few schools. That’s why the school nearest to us (which is one of the “acceptable” ones) is so hard to get into.

But we learned something in my daughter’s elementary school experience. Her elementary school (which is completely unacceptable to most white parents, because the kids there are mostly not white), has been very good. Some problems, of course, and there was a change of principal after third grade, and that was not a change for the better, but overall we’re quite pleased.

So in a way the district rules about applying and being accepted have been a good thing. Here’s why. Because my daughter couldn’t be guaranteed that she could go to the school closest to us, we had to look around. And we took a tour yesterday morning of a truly excellent middle school, the Sunset Park Prep Academy, MS 821. Again, it’s a school that the white parents, even white parents who do accept my daughter’s elementary school, have never even heard of, and would never even consider.

But we could tell immediately from the tour that this was a small school with young, energetic teachers, an experienced, caring and dedicated principal, and motivated, involved, active kids. There was in every classroom (and we at least poked our heads into all of them) that happy buzz of attentive learning that all good teachers want, and any experienced teacher can recognize immediately.

We saw group work that was truly collaborative and productive (in a math class, students were measuring each other’s height and “wingspan” to compare and graph and find the correlation), writing assignments that were stimulating and personal (an early-semester personal narrative, and a cluster diagram to identify “our stresses” for an essay on managing them), a focus on integrative learning (in a language arts class, students were evaluating assigned reading from social studies and science classes, to determine subjectivity and authors’ agendas), experiments with new and old technology (both an overhead projector directed high on the wall above the chalkboard, and a brand-new Smart Board which they were still trying to figure out how to use), and multiple methods of engaging students (a debate in a science class, and a Jeopardy-style game in a special ed class).

It’s not clear what school my daughter will finally wind up at…but it’s definitely clear that there are some great choices out there. Automatic acceptance, like automatic rejection, is not a good thing at all, even though they’re both a lot more convenient and simple.

Good Blog on the PA Intelligent Design Creationism Trial

ACLU-haters need not read this post!

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is blogging the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial in Pennsylvania. Some very good coverage, complete with transcripts. More complete (and opinionated) than the unsatisfying summaries we’re seeing in the news.

Of course, there’s nothing really “final” about this trial, as it’s almost certainly going to the Supreme Court, eventually, no matter which side wins. But the Intelligent Design Creationists are getting a very sound trouncing, so far, and every time that happens it’s a victory for everyone who cares about education, science, reason, and religion. Which of course includes me!

Why didn’t they leave?

For anyone asking the blame-the-victim question about Katrina’s victims–“They had warning, why didn’t they leave?” I recommend John Scalzi’s wrenching blog post, Being Poor.

Geocentrism and Creationism

I’m not a science teacher, but even so, two successive articles from the NY Times make me feel embarassed and depressed. Are we doing that bad a job in educating people in this country?

Yesterday we read that one in five Americans believes that the sun revolves around the Earth. Today’s Times tells us that almost half (42%) of Americans believe that humans and other living things have existed in their present form only–that there has been no evolution at all.

I’m not even going to go into the number who think that creationism deserves “equal time” with evolution.

What’s wrong with our schools, and our culture, that so very many people can be so totally ignorant of basic science? Is it really the schools? Were these people never taught? Did they never learn? Or are they just clinging, willfully, stubbornly, dangerously (for all of us) to ignorance? And why?

My only post for August. Too bad it’s such a bitter one! Maybe some good news will come in September.

Some Encouragement

In a follow-up to my rant a couple of weeks ago, I should report that I emailed all the members of the NY State Assembly’s Education committee, to tell them how I felt about the idiotic Assembly Bill 8306 (requiring the teaching of “intelligent design” in NY public schools). The majority of them responded with the standard automated “thank you for your interest blah, blah, blah” email.

But Scott Stringer (who represents Manhattan’s West Side and Clinton), bless him, not only responded with a real email, written by a real human being, he also has exactly the right position on this stupid bill.

Dear Dr. Ugoretz:

I am writing in response to your email regarding Assembly Bill A. 8036.

I strongly oppose A.8036. Assembly Bill A. 8036 would require all New York
State public schools to teach intelligent design alongside the theory of
evolution. While I respect the right of individuals to their personal
beliefs, it is the state’s duty to make sure that recognized scientific
theory rather than religious doctrine shape the curriculum of the public
schools. The Theory of Evolution has been a widely accepted foundation for
modern biology. Lacking comparable support within the scientific community,
intelligent design should not be taught alongside the theory of evolution.

Thank you for contacting me with your concerns. If you have any further
questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact my office.

Scott M. Stringer
Assemblymember, 67th A.D.

Applause, Assemblymember Stringer!!!