Walter Rhett

Balling the Jack

In Perlo on October 20, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Mississippi Celebration, 4th of July, 1937. Dorothea Lange Photograph, The Library of Congress.

Lucille Ball might have have been proud. A highly intelligent woman who owned a studio and sound stage, she filmed many of television’s early hits. Her television character, Lucy, was the Queen of slapstick and irreverence. Bombastic and out of control, Lucy’s humor was so outrageous it was actually reassuring. Anything that funny was a release–laughter did no harm. Lucy was an alter ego.

Along comes Sarah Palin, her first appearance before a national audience, a big hit. Her media victory had much of the deftness of Lucy’s comedic delivery.

Sarah added a modern dose of the dozens, a game from African-American history that belittles verbal opponents. She stirred in a bit of junior high school attitude, a duplicitous tone that heightens by its false innocence the biting vicious putdown it delivers. Her convention speech, her first stand up performance for the Republican team, was a walk off success.

Oh happy days, as Sarah morphed into Lucy with a modern edge. She stole the scene; the natural order was restored. Were there echoes of Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, the Grimke sisters, Sojourner Truth, Mother Jones, Marian Wright Edelman, Barbara Jordan, Queen Nor, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thacker, Benazir Bhutto? No.

Instead, she talked about lipstick. Pit bulls. Being a hockey mom. Lip stick and eye black.

In the quick jump from Miss Congeniality to mayor to Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah warped to light speed and entered a parallel universe that connected small towns and big cities by punch lines. In this new world, the fight in the trenches to bring social justice and economic change are goals that are mere playthings, goals ignored and without worth because she seemed to tell us, “My record matters less than my lip.”

Lucy would have loved the applause. But Lucy would have cringed at the meaning, the easy way that humor is no longer fantasy but throwaway, a cover for jettisoning the serious tasks for which it was once relief.

The old humor, led by Lucy, celebrated, rewarded, and revived our true engagement. And Lucy knew the work of engaging the world was no joke.

In the 1950’s of Lucy was another well known character, the sad clown of Emmett Kelly. Loveable and universal, he made us laugh at ourselves, not at others. He knew the journey of life was a discovery, and that each of us touched a saint as we learned lessons from our sufferings. He comforted our hurts and celebrated our human side by reaching out to join his silent, hapless love to our pain.

America is hurting. Looking for saints, finding only demons. Sarah labels the tragedies that have descended like the Greek’s deux ex machina to a political party. She ignores that something else “is out of kilter.” She offers a new zen: if we laugh at it, we don’t have to solve it. Just follow the seven dwarfs into the mines, where everybody is balling the jack.

But hold that theme. Americans who live in big cities and small towns, as they field dress their children, may want to add this bit of after speech theme music (with apologies to Sarah Vaughan): Send in the clowns.

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