Imagine you are on a plane, on your way to someplace far, far away. You've gotten through the airport security theatre without incident - not even one single snake! - and now watch through the window in calm anticipation of getting to where you are going slightly before the expected time of arrival. The sky is blue, the clouds are cloudy, and in the distance there are always new horizons to behold.
And just as you are about to doze off, you see a clown on the wing. And it seems to be using a hammer in ways that definitely are not described in the book of sound aerodynamic practices. And, more worryingly, it seems to know exactly what it does.
When you try to tell your fellow passengers about this, there is a surprising lack of belief going on, and those who can be bothered to look out on the wing sees - a wing. After a while, they start to get tired of you, and a vague suspicion that you don't have all your clowns at home starts to take hold among the gathering. You are mad, radical, politically inconvenient, a nuisance, someone they'd rather not be afflicted by -
At the same time, the hammer is being swung all the more wantonly, and all thoughts of sound aerodynamic practices are thrown to the winds. Along with pieces of the wing, it would seem.
No one other than you seem to notice.
Some time later the captain ask you to come speak with him. With a certain firmness in his mediated voice. With a slight sense of dread, you make our way to him, walking past your fellow passengers. But when you get there, you discover that the captain isn't going to apply sound aerodynamic principles on you. Instead, he starts to explain exactly why there is a clown on the wing. Something about an international treaty of aviation signed 1823, that stipulates that anything and everything that flies over a certain height must have at least one clown on it. And that every design of flying machines since then have incorporated this in such a way that they simply do not work if they don't have a clown in place.
And, he continues, there are conferences, magazines, contests and whole subcultures dedicated to the various aspects and nuances of the clown. And at least one secular religion based on a particular reading of the Treaty.
Therefore, there is no cause for concern. The clown is there for the sake of goodness, and whatever it does is for the best. Therefore, there is also no need to criticize it - we should on the contrary have more of it, to prove that we are forward thinking!
Every flight since 1823 has, after all, had at least one clown somewhere, and flying is the safest way to travel! Just take it easy, relax - here, have a free drink and a brochure! We are still going to arrive a tad bit before our expected time of arrival.
Despite the obvious, experienced confidence, you cannot help but feel a certain lingering doubt creep into your mind. It should be possible to do things another way, and the brochure makes quite a point of not mentioning the fact that Hindenburg happened.
Without doubt, things can only get better.
It may or may not come as a surprise that what you just read is somewhat of an allegory. There are undoubtedly many clowns present in our lives, with just as savage disregard for sound principles as the one described above. And yet, there doesn't seem to be any real possibilities to talk about these things without being regarded as somewhat of a nut. Things, such as the fact that capitalism actively creates soul killing environments and cityscapes. Such as the fact that our way of life is an ecological disaster not waiting to happen. Such as the fact that any attempt to enforce the ever stricter regulations on intellectual property inevitably will lead us to a centrally planned economy of unrights. Such as the fact that politics is turning into a perpetual marketing scheme, far from any cries of collective decision making. -
It sure does feel like one cries out about a clown on the wing every time one mentions these things, doesn't it?
And it sure doesn't feel like an answer when people respond with - but capitalism creates jobs! but our way of life is the pinnacle of social evolution! but the artists must get paid! but you get to vote in every fourth opinion poll!
It sure does feel like we could do with some more criticism of the negative aspects of modernity, despite and because its tendency to have good aspects. Instead of just accepting the bad with the good.
We know that airplanes don't need to have clowns on their wings in order to fly. Yet we design in so many clowns in everyday life that it seems somewhat of a miracle that just about anything works without massive subsidies and brutal monkeywrenching. When the clown is put into everyday action, the individual seems to become powerless.
(Have you ever noticed that when technology is discussed, just about anything is possible, but that when even the slightest of improvements to social conditions is mentioned, things suddenly get all the more difficult?)
No one particular individual can put an end to the clownery. And thus it is thought meaningless to try and do something about it, or even to make a critique of it in an effort to eventually do anything about it. To change the eternally unchangeable (est. 1823) is impossible, and thus any attempt is doomed to public ridicule.
But any particular individual can make a proverbial boatload of money off of it. And, indeed, even today the individual who invents a machine that can make the cutting down of irreplaceable rainforests is still considered an economic hero and a bringer of wealth to the nation. Not to mention a bringer of joy to politicians - right and left alike - whose whole political careers hinge on the moderns clown's ability to create jobs.
To criticize the clown generates social alienation. To help it along brings social success.
It's not hard to see how mental health is deteriorating among just about everyone. There is a clown on the wing, and it's more in tune with the times than you will ever be. And when you criticize it and its blatantly pathological behavior, the common response from just about everyone is that there is something wrong with you.
And it's definitely not hard to see why nationalism is on the rise. For all its being a propaganda move by the nineteenth century states of Europe, it's far easier to take it at face value than looking oneself in the mirror and say:
There is a clown on the wing, and my participation in modern life helps it to remain there, in a thousand systematically subtle way.
Welcome to the present.
Originally published November 4, 2011