The Parable of the Carnival and the “Freak Show”

The Parable of the Carnival and the “Freak Show”

*This is fiction. Any resemblance to real persons or organizations is purely coincidental.

Many years ago, long before the internet, television or even radio, three wealthy businessmen got together and decided to found a traveling carnival with a singular purpose. It would be different from other traveling carnivals and would be called “Culture and Enlightenment.” The “C & E Show.” Instead of the usual rides and games they hired on lecturers, artists, musicians, and took their show on the road across America.

The new carnival was mildly successful but not successful enough. The entrepreneurs noticed that everywhere their carnival set up, many people they wanted to attract, both for their money and to raise their levels of culture and enlightenment, flocked to other, nearby, carnivals.

So the three businessmen decided to alter their repertoire a little bit by including the occasional “freak show.” These seemed to be the big attractions at their competing carnivals, so, “just to get the folks in the doors,” they hired on a man with his two headed calf, an unusually plump woman, and a man who could swallow fire. The show moved on to new communities.

Soon the carnival’s owners realized that the majority of people coming to their C & E Show were standing in line to see the “freaks.” And they were willing to pay more than to listen to a man show slides of his travels to Asia and deliver a verbal travelogue, or to listen to a cello quartet, or to watch a one act ballet. And they noticed that people were coming to their carnival rather than to competitors’ mainly for the freak show.

So, being the good capitalists they were, the three entrepreneurs gradually laid off their musicians and lecturers and dancers and hired more “freaks.” Soon the majority of the carnival’s acts were various kinds of what people were calling “freak shows.” Not that all the attractions in them were literally freakish. Many were just unusual and therefore interesting to the folks who rarely, if ever, saw such things.

Now, the three businessmen were not only interested in profit. They also fancied themselves men of high mind, culture, and taste. They began to joke among themselves and with their friends about the people who came to their carnival to see the freaks. “We offered them culture and they demanded things to gawk and point at and laugh about. So we gave them what they wanted. Maybe they’re just not capable of appreciating culture and enlightenment.”

Eventually the three businessmen became so disgusted with the people coming to their carnival, whose money they were raking in while they derided them behind their backs, that they decided to play a practical joke on them.

They searched the whole countryside, the small towns and farms, the swamps and backwaters, until they found a family that epitomized the “uncultured,” “backwards,” “hickish” ways of the people who flocked to their carnival. This family was everything the businessmen and their city friends were not—rough, uneducated, hard working, simple, down-to-earth, conservative valued, family-oriented, religious, angular, rude, rough-spoken. But the nearly unique feature of this family was that they were rich. They had started their own business and, over the decades, built a financial empire while remaining “red necks” and “hillbillies.”

“Let’s create a freak show built around this family,” the businessmen thought and said. “People will pay good money to see themselves, or at least a caricature of themselves, living the high life, rolling in money, without changing their lifestyle or folk ways.”

Now one of the reasons the carnival owners hired this family was that they were unlikely to say or do anything that would offend the salt-of-the-earth, mostly religious, people who came to the carnival. They didn’t cuss or get drunk or talk dirty or have sex with anyone but their wives and husbands. Not that the businessmen thought there was anything wrong with such behavior, but they wanted these “freaks” to be as much like the people who flocked to their carnival as possible—only richer and maybe a little saltier (and hairier).

So, the rich “hillbilly” family of “rednecks” joined the carnival part-time while continuing to rake in the riches from their own business. Why? Because they wanted people to see that you could be down-to-earth, religious, folksy, conservative and funny, rich and happy.

It was a true example of symbiosis—both the businessmen and the “freaks” got what they wanted and from each other. People flocked to watch and listen to the hillbilly family joke and enjoy their luxuries and be rough and pray and live the high life without having to shave or wear ties or go to college. The businessmen sat back and raked in the entry fees and royalties from paraphernalia bearing the family’s countenances.

But, as always happens, the shine of the show began to wear off. People were still standing in line to pay to watch and listen to the family for 30 minutes but there was some muttering about it getting “old” and “too familiar.” This worried the entrepreneurs, so they held a meeting to discuss how to keep the show alive and interesting to the same people who came again and again.

“I’ve got it!” said one of the businessmen. “Let’s pick a controversial social issue and get one of the family members to say something offensive about it.” “What?” said another of the businessmen. “How is that going to help? Won’t it just drive people away from the show?” “No. Listen. The whole society is divided over several social and ethical issues. The people who agree with what the ‘freak’ says will speak up in his defense and show their loyalty and agreement by attending more and bringing their friends. The people who disagree and are offended will give the show free publicity by being outraged and many will come to the show to catch the family saying more offensive things. It will be free advertising. The media will jump on it and it will give the show new life.”

One businessman sat back and put a finger to his mouth and said cautiously “Well, isn’t this a bit hypocritical? After all, we hired this family to be who they are. Won’t people see through it when we act outraged—as we should—when the ‘freak’ says something that offends a segment of the population? Won’t people say ‘You knew he would say that, didn’t you?’”

“Sure, but here’s what we do. At first we side with the people who are offended and suspend the ‘freak’ from the show. But then, in response to the avalanche of criticism defending his ‘right’ to express his opinions, we restore him to the show. We’ll appear both sensitive and progressive, on the one hand, and forgiving on the other hand!”

The businessmen were all convinced by the plan and implemented it. They asked a friend of a friend of a friend, who was a reporter, to interview one of the more rough-hewn family members and lob a bombshell of a question about a controversial social and ethical issue at him—knowing what he would innocently say that would spark the desired furor. When the ‘freak’ said what they always knew he would say and the predictable media feeding frenzy ensured, the carnival owners carried out their plan and then laughed all the way to the bank. And nobody else ever suspected what happened—except one, lonely, somewhat suspicious and cynical blogger with a vivid imagination. But nobody believed him. So the show went on and the money kept rolling in.


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