Horse Senses

If a horse can be made a senator, surely an ass can be made a president.  History can be unkind to those who think too highly of themselves.  It’s a horse of a different color than Incitatus that’s on my mind today.  This past week I read a news story in the Washington Post about Justice (there may be some double-meanings here, so hold onto your horses).  Justice used to be called Shadow, and Shadow was an abused horse.  Justice is now suing his former owner.  The story explores the question of whether animals can sue.  As a vegan for moral reasons I can see the point, but I also have to wonder how you defend those who have no voice to be heard, kinda like the electorate in the sham of a democracy.  How do we know what a horse really wants?

If horses could draw or sculpt, Xenophanes quipped, their gods would look like horses.  Asses, it stands to reason, worship one of their own.  Animals should have rights, but the difficult question falls onto our species—how do we know what they want?  Anyone whose spent time with animals knows that they think.  I can see a cat in a neighbor’s yard from my window.  Separated by a flimsy-looking hurricane fence is the next yard over where two large dogs often prowl.  If the cat and dogs happen to be out at the same time, there will be barking and braying but the cat will not appear to show concern.  The way my heart hammers at those barks, however, I have to suppose my feline friend also feels a bit of fear at the threat.  The cat must decide how to act, but it also must know that a barely visible fence keeps the canines at bay.

What does Justice want?  It’s a loaded question, for sure.  As much as we wish there might be, there is no Lorax to speak for the trees.  Or horses.  Nevertheless it’s obvious that horses think.  Perhaps like Job, Justice wondered why he was being punished after being a good horse.  The church magnanimously grants that animals cannot sin, after all.  One must wonder, however, about breeds developed by human engineering to be destructive, but that’s another parable.  While Justice might be given a day in court, and might win a cozy stall and protection from the elements, those of use bound by language will never know if justice has been served.  The limitation is our own.  Just ask Balaam.

Loving It

Given my remarks on occasion, some readers may conclude I dislike science. Nothing could be further from fact. Ever since I was a child I’ve been fascinated by science and secretly—or not so secretly—wanted to be a scientist. Complex mathematics, however, has always been beyond me. My brain simply doesn’t think that way. My gray matter is more inclined towards literature and abstracts, ideas. I am, it is true, distressed by a type of science that starts making philosophical claims as dogma: materialism. Those who make this claim have no scientific basis for doing so—it is a belief. They are entitled to their beliefs, of course, but to belittle those who suggest that maybe we don’t know everything there is to know about the unseen world seems poor sportsmanship to me. Case in point: IFL Science is a fun website. I enjoy the articles I read and it is refreshing to have those who stand up to creationists and other posers get such limelight. Interestingly, a recent article strayed into the uncanny valley.

Clown

Leading with the questions “Why Are So Many People Afraid of Clowns?” the article is categorized The Brain. Or psychology. This is one of those fields where we’re really out of our depth. We don’t understand the way that we think, and even raising the question of clown phobias seems a little odd. History can help to answer some of the questions, but IFL Science does a nice job of suggesting a scientific approach. Historically clowns were outcasts. They are liminal figures who create unease by their very existence. Those who didn’t feel accepted came to do what those who don’t feel accepted often do: try to get others to laugh at you. Sad comedians are more than a stereotype. Those who’ve clowned already know that.

Since I was a clown in college, I’ve read quite a bit about the history of the craft. Clowns were a way of laughing at misery, but also of gaining some sympathy. By exaggerating human features, they become caricatures. We aren’t allowed to discriminate against those who are different, but clowns exist to be excoriated. And deep inside, I think we all know, that those who are ill treated will eventually demand payback. It is a lesson that the world could stand to learn even today. Of course, we don’t want to be told that those who are different share something as personal and important as human feelings. Clowns make natural targets for our fears because they represent something that we know shouldn’t exist—inequality. If you can’t get accolades through hard work, making others laugh provides its own reward. The phobia may arise, I suggest, because we know that every laugh comes with a price.

The Reveal

SmallScreenRevelationsThe end of the world as we know it is far more common than reason might suggest. As I’ve been researching the way the apocalypse is represented in popular culture, I’ve been impressed at just how prevalent it is. James Aston and John Walliss have brought together some intriguing essays on the topic in Small screen Revelations: Apocalypse in Contemporary Television. As one contributor notes, it is far more common to find the apocalypse in science fiction, horror, and fantasy programs, but it clearly visible in other genres as well. It is primarily an American phenomenon, although it may also be found elsewhere. It’s pretty hard to pin down the end of the world. On television it comes in both fiction and non-fiction varieties. The constant here is that we know it’s out there.

What I found most revelatory about the subject was a persistent question: why? Why are we so fascinated by the end of the world? I’m no sociologist, so I can’t give any kind of statistical answer. As the owner of a gut, however, I can offer a feeling. It seems to me that a culture of privilege ought to have a measure of guilt. While apocalyptic belief is most common among the poor (sorry, no statistics to back me up here) it also commonly occurs among the affluent as well. At the same time, we know that, as a society, we have far more than our share of the world’s goods. We have a massive military to make sure nobody else shares those goods. We must know, at some level, this is wrong.

At the same time, how can we give up what we’re so used to? An apocalypse wipes the slate clean. The essays in Small Screen Revelations offer more sophisticated theory than my simple observation, but academics have an obligation to muddy the waters. Considering the sheer number of shows cited: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, The Simpsons, Supernatural, Angel, The Walking Dead, Jericho, Doctor Who, Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles, in addition to television news anchors and televangelists, the apocalypse is very easily found. So easily found, in fact, that one can become inured to what is supposed to be the ultimate end of everything. It’s related to what I’ve called elsewhere the crisis of superlatives. The fact that it’s television, however, provides a ready answer for what happens next. After the apocalypse we simply wait until the next season. After all, there’s a market for post-apocalyptic entertainment as well.