There’s an old saying “in humor there is truth.” Until the 18th century, British monarchs, surrounded by sycophantic entourages, retained court Jesters to tell them the truth in the garb of satire and motley costumes with donkey ears, red-flannel coxcomb and bells.
Of course, the Jester also played the fool, made famous in Shakespeare’s plays, laughing and joking with his mock scepter. Jesters often played music, clowned around, spoke in riddles and generally reduced the tensions and pomposity of the Royal Court.
According to Wikipedia, Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603) reportedly “rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her.” In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Feste the Jester is described as “wise enough to play the fool.”
Some Jesters became historical figures such as Jeffrey Hudson, Muckle John and Archibald Armstrong. James VI of Scotland signed documents lazily without reading them until his Jester, George Buchanan, got him to sign his abdication: The king got the message. No one else could have survived such a sobering trick, other than the lowly Jester.
In King Lear, Shakespeare used the Jester as a symbol “of common sense and honesty… for insight and advice on the part of the monarch taking advantage of his license to mock and speak freely to dispense frank observations and highlight the folly of his monarch,” according to Wikipedia.
In various towns and guises across cultures the court Jester performed in ancient, medieval and renaissance times at many royal courts, going back to ancient Egypt and across the Atlantic to the Aztec people of Middle America until Cortes’ invasion.
Why am I writing about Jesters, given all the problems, injustices, greed, deprivations and perils facing our country? Because even though we do not have Emperors or Kings, we do have “Kingly” Presidents, imperial CEOs and a need to have town Jesters from the peaks of power down to our village squares and town meetings.
Concurring pragmatists can call it a jobs program. For you civic advocates, full-time Jesters can counter the censorship, self-censorship, and knee jerk polarization of both civic and political life in America. They can also counter the smugness, arrogance, ignorance and phoniness of our “deciders.”
Face it, how many times a year do you notice political, military, labor and corporate leaders with marbles in their mouth or, alternatively, speaking with forked tongues? Thinking twice about telling the truth or saying what’s really on their mind is an occupational prerequisite to keep their position and entertain promotions. “Mum’s the word” behavior in so-called high places is what keeps Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert getting high television ratings.
Consider a town Jester in New England towns whose populations range up to 75,000 people. A field day for humor and satire – getting truth, facts and throwing light on needed reforms awaits the town Jester. Up and down Main Street, during town meetings and referenda, parades, sports contests, schools, playgrounds with the children, City Hall, the colorful, costumed, bell ringing Jester would lessen the stresses with laughter and open the minds of his or her immediate audiences. Comedic authenticity is quite different than the canned guffaws emitting from our television screens.
Although a strong case can be made that taxpayer funded town Jesters would more than pay for themselves through the waste, chicanery and misdeeds they harpoon. Why not try to promote fundraising? Foundations? Wealthy people? One spring week in May of personal door-to-door canvassing by the Jester and their biggest fans, special performance fees, an annual Jester dinner. The possibilities are numerous.
A column by the town manager of Winsted, Connecticut (population about 11,000), Dale Martin, literally begging citizens to experience their right to directly vote on a budget referendum for themselves, sparked my imagination. Most Americans don’t get to vote directly on their governmental budget. Winsted has a last-resort direct democracy and over half the voters do not vote either to approve or disapprove of their municipal budgets. And never mind doing a little homework in addition to saying yes or no.
Time for a town Jester. Who in, near or far outside of Winsted, Connecticut wants to help find perhaps the first career town Jester in America? Resumes describing the useful skills, knowledge, personality, artistry and stamina are invited. Send them and any relevant imaginative essays to Town Jester, P.O. Box 500, Winsted, Connecticut 06098.
Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.