A Masthead for Vagabonds, Drunkards and Saints

Foolishness in Egypt

George Orwell’s essay, “Shooting an Elephant,” never fails to stir even my most obstinately bored students, and for that reason, regardless of the course’s theme, I find a way to work it into some lecture somewhere. It’s the autobiographical account of Orwell’s time as a colonial police officer in Burma and recounts the confrontation he had with a musting elephant that he was forced to kill, although he loathed to do it. His insights into the psychology of power are sharp and discomforting if taken in full. It’s a much better read than my blurbing about it, but assuming you’re short on time, let me summarize its central insight: power clips the powerful as well as the weak.

The consequence of this is a leader had better act like a leader or he will be a leader no longer. In Tip O’Neill’s Man of the House, O’Neill claimed that Jimmy Carter was undone by a basic misunderstanding of this principle. The American people were not interested in seeing a president carry his own luggage, as Carter often did, or ask his daughter what she thought about nuclear proliferation, as he claimed to do in a speech from the Oval Office. The American people, like all peoples everywhere that have modeled their systems on the paternal principle, don’t want to see their fathers behaving as anything less than fatherly. Indeed, it was Bush’s foolishness that undid his presidency as surely as his policies.

It’s also why the full force of Christianity is being lost in this country. Christ was a fool, not a father. What else would you call challenging the Pharisees and the Romans? Christ and his apostles were like an early version of the Polish cavalry–with a slightly better life-insurance policy. If you’re a Christian, however, don’t balk at my irreverence. The power of your faith rests upon Christ’s foolishness. Nearly every religion has an all-powerfully capricious sahib who doles favors and misfortunes, but not every religion has such a mysterious fool as its fulcrum.

If you don’t believe me, check out the Sermon on the Mount; these are not the words of a father, but those of a rabble-rouser, an agitator, a certifiable fool. Punch him in the gut: he loves you. Spit in his eye: he loves you. Rape his mother: he loves you. Harangue him up a hill with blows and epithets, hang him form a cross, pierce his side and watch him die: he loves you. If that is not a fool, then I fear to see the likeness.

I revere Christ’s foolishness. It’s a similar foolishness to Don Quixote, whom I also love. Fools cause trouble. They give love potions to the wrong love. They hunt whales. They lampoon vacations. Under the right conditions, a good fool leavens the father, and under the best conditions, a great fool humanizes him. A great fool brings the father down to earth, makes him flesh, brings his arid judgements into human proportion. On the last night of the world, the fool throws a party.

It is our tendency to assume the fool is most readily recognized in youthful exuberance, but that is a category mistake. The youth rides naivete into the unexpected briars the fool calls home. Comfortable in his thorns, the great jester relies on irony’s dagger to make her point, rather than on youthful bludgeoning. “I and the father are one.” A fine joke indeed. Human and divine? What a riot!

The problem is, of course, in spite of the fool’s importance, fathers rarely suffer them gladly–regardless of what St. Paul said. Importance requires decorum. There are no whoopee cushions on the throne, and Angels never pun–leave that to Eve. Being a father, I had lately forgotten this foolishness. I was so concerned with being just and stern that my inner harlequin was losing his trade. A shame, since I shall spend the bulk of eternity dumb and witless.

So let me make amends by wishing good luck to all those fools in Egypt and Tunisia who are raving in the streets. Democracy does not belong to the West. It belongs to everyone who’s willing to make a farce of the father. If democracy belonged to anyone, it belonged to the Athenians, who are dead and gone and couldn’t take a joke any better than the Pharisees, as they demonstrated by murdering Socrates for buggering the youth with ideas. No, democracy doesn’t belong to us, but let’s not miss an opportunity to foster it.

Let’s be a little less paternalistic and a little more ridiculous. Let’s play the double-word score, even though it opens up a triple-word play. Let’s ride Apollo to the moon. Elect a black man. Tilt at windmills. Crack open an atom.

Overthrow a dictator.

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