| Carnival's Siren
By Skip Kaltenheuser
ancient times, new beginnings thats carnival. Its
our craving to shuck memories of the slings and arrows that paralyze
us. New Years resolutions disappear in the first head wind, but
carnival has been serious about new beginnings since the Greeks partied
to praise Dionysus and the Romans thanked Bacchus for wine and flora,
fertility heavy on their minds.
Murdered by Titans, Dionysus/Bacchus was reborn. His
worship generated irrational exuberance, frenzied revels by women, and
much early theater and standup comedy. When condemned by Rome as a sinister
source of vice and revolutionary unrest, the frolic was periodically
rejuvenated by slaves and poor free men.
These traditions celebrating man as a free being
without hierarchy blended easily with the various pagan rites
of spring practiced by Germanic and other tribes. The Church tried to
suppress carnival but ultimately decided if you cant beat em,
join em, layering on compatible beliefs as they co-opted the locals.
Carnival, or carne vale, comes from Latin, and means flesh, farewell,
as Carnival heralds in the Lenten fast that leads to Easter. The mix
with local and aboriginal beliefs creates an amazing array of traditions,
extending to the New World and locales as far flung as India.
Most Americans know Carnival though New
Orleans' Mardi Gras, or through Rio or Trinidad, but the roots are
firmly in Europe. Napoleon and Hitler banned Carnival. Its anti-authoritarian
roots quickly grew back.
For years Ive shouldered the task of chronicling
carnivals across different culturessense of duty. With anti-authoritarian
and satirical roots planted by the ancients, Carnival is a superb barometer
of how people view the forces bumping their lives around, as well as
of the U.S. image abroad.
One sojourn included sleepy towns in Portugal.
In Torres Verdes, the centerpiece not a float, the centerpiece
was called Bushlandia. Artfully rendered, five or
so stories high, the sculpture offered up Bush as a primitive king in
furs, wielding a jeweled club and a scepter with a golden skull. He
wore a crucifix on which was a soldier. Bush sat within the jaws of
giant skull beneath the crown of the Stature of Liberty, about which
crawled wormy critters in turbans. Other heads of the coalition of the
willing old Europe, new Europe, always confusing were
in his court. Prime Minister Tony Blair fanned Bush with feathers and
scratched his backside. On the sculptures flip side, a bearded
fellow hauled a wheelbarrow of explosives. Beneath him a government
minister struggled to feed the worlds poor children. Nuclear missiles
flanked Bush. Penguins blew time-out whistles as toxic waste washed
over nature. To the beat of Brazilian bands amid the samba gyrations
of hotties, all revelers passed before Bush. A small town in Portugal
made a colossal comment on U.S. leadership.
Carnival jabs are thrown throughout the world. My first
carnival was in Cologne, Germany. Barely a month after the Monica Lewinsky
scandal broke in 1998; I nearly kicked my camera off my balcony, lunging
for it as a masterpiece of German engineering rounded Koln Cathedral.
A grinning Bill Clinton, big as a Mack truck, groped a peeved Statue
of Liberty, followed by a padlocked White House atop which stood Uncle
Sam throwing blood sausages to a crowd roaring approval.
They could take a joke even if finger-waggers like Joe
Lieberman and members of the pious press couldnt. Germans couldnt
understand Americas mania over this fiasco as more pressing worldly
concerns tumbled into the fire.
No one brought out the carnival knives like Bush. Some
years back, despite German officials urging softer blows prior to a
Bush visitation, a Cologne float had Bush shooting flames from a cross
fashioned like a machine-gun. On another, Uncle Sam bent over, trousers
down, while the German Chancellor climbed a ladder up his backside,
with nose a shade darker. In a later carnival, Angela Merkel fared better,
portrayed as Elastic Girl, while Bush walked barefoot through bowls
of fat labeled Kyoto, New Orleans, and Atomic
A carnival in Dusseldorf once offered up Irans
president as a rocket, caught by a United Nations net, (not, ahem, a
The greatest punches are thrown in Basel,
Switzerland. This unique Protestant take begins in a blacked-out
city at 4 AM the Monday after Ash Wednesday. Thousands of costumed pipers
and drummers accompany huge gas-lit lanterns painted with satirical
images of political figures and issues of the day. A carnival favorite,
Silvio Berlusconi likened to a hybrid of the Godfather and Benito
Mussolini, running his media empire like an Orwellian villain
will no doubt once again be prominent. The Swiss miss Bush, another
favorite and boy did they work him over but while Bush
now keeps a low profile, Berlusconi offers up new material.
If small towns in Portugal can use Carnival to speak
truth to power, why cant Washington? The threat of ridicule at
Carnival might rein in excesses, perhaps an invasion.
A modest proposal: bring Carnival to Washington. The
city may not have the religious roots of many carnival strongholds,
but no place can fake religion like Washington. Imagine Carnivals
potential in the Nations capital. True, its a challenging
venue where fewer people can take a joke. On the other hand, weve
no shortage of folks willing to play the fool.
What richer vein to mine than the players of the 2012
election? Envision a float with Karl Rove and his super PAC backers
shredding dollar bills into confetti blown from a cannon at the crowd,
or simply tossing dollar bills in lieu of beads. Sheldon Adelson, the
Vegas and Macau casino magnate reported to have spent $150 million in
the 2012 election, could have a float shaped as a giant craps table,
with potential suitors for his 2016 blessing throwing the dice. Or perhaps
Adelson and his political entourage would burn an effigy, not of the
carnival spirit, but of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Maybe Adelson
could lend some showgirls, always welcome in Carnival. Newt Gingrich
could appear as Dr. Frankenstein, inventing people. And what else for
Mitt Romney than a float with a dog driving a racecar with #47 on it,
sponsored by Delphi Automotive, with Mitt strapped on top? Perhaps a
float with debate podiums showcasing Joe Biden, made up as The Joker,
debating Paul Ryan, made up as Eddie Munster.
From around the world, pickings are good. Kim Jong Un
could ride astride a giant onion with a Sexiest Man Alive
banner. Silvio Berlusconi on a float of a television news studio, surrounded
by nightclub dancers, tax accountants and a frustrated jailor-in-waiting.
Dedicate a float to the worlds richest communists, perhaps Chinas
princelings, or former KGB officials. Portray Afghanistan
officials emptying out the Bank of Kabul as warlords divvy up bribes
for mineral rights. Pakistan officials sit in a toll booth for U.S.
military supplies, or conduct a scavenger hunt for Bin Laden souvenirs.
A Vatican float would put a butler at the helm. Castro could be Lazarus.
The President of Egypt might do the King Tut Strut. Depict Bibi Netanyahu
hiding his Romney/Ryan yard signs, or chasing the peace process with
a drone. Hamas as the pirates of Never-Neverland; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
as a standup comic. A rogues gallery of dictators is easy enough. Taliban
schoolmasters. Press intrusiveness into private lives could be represented
by Rupert Murdoch wearing East German bugging equipment from The
Lives of Others.
How about twin socialites in mink-trimmed camouflage
guarding generals? An authoress at a book booth signing copies of All
Bankers, anyone? Where does one begin with bankers?
Lined up at the bailout bonus window? Their lawyers? Their
lobbyists? Captured regulators? Senators carrying buckets of water for
them? A gilded revolving door between Wall Street and government appointments?
Take a cue from writer Matt Taibbi: portray Goldman Sachs as a
great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly
jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money
now thats a carnival float ready to roll.
Perhaps a float showcasing the one percent on strike
from job creation. A Wonderland Tea Party complete with the Koch brothers
as the Mad Hatter and March Hare. President Obama as Don Quixote riding
a giant lame duck into battle. Super PACs pouring money into funnels
in politicians mouths money being speech while five Supreme
Court justices take turns striking poses as the monkeys insistently
oblivious to appearance of mischief.
Imagine Donald Trump as Rapunzel trapped in Trump Tower
or, soon, the Old Post Office tower his strawberry-golden
tresses braided with birth certificates from Kenya. Carnivals
long tradition of cross-dressing, poking fun at gender roles, might
lend some style to the debate over same-sex marriage. A drill team of
men wearing burkas would be a good extension. Undecided voters as whirling
dervishes? Gerrymandered districts as Rorschach tests? Somewhere theres
a theme for WikiLeaks, climate change deniers, journalists recycling
press releases, elected judges putting in the fix for contributors,
Texas school board members challenging evolution, beset upon by giant
Darwin finches. Congressional lemmings running over the Fiscal Cliff.
The Internet as Pandoras Box. The Electoral College throwing dunce
caps to voters not in swing states. Drones flying overhead could make
parades ever more exciting. Nominate Pinocchio as Carnival King.
Some things are not so funny its a fine
line between humor and pathos. Satire can only sustain so much tragedy
before it turns sour. Theres not much to be done with Syria, for
example, that isnt pulled down by reality.
But consider carnivals pagan roots, the rites
of spring chasing the winter demons, to hopeful fertility, to planting
anew. Carnival remains irrepressible despite authoritys many stompings
over the centuries. When Carnival collided with the Church, it softened
with themes of redemption and renewal. The carnival spirit, burned in
effigy, departs taking the woes of the year, leaving all with a clean
Has there ever been a city more in need of a do-over
Rides Again: Mockery and Music Behind The Masks of Basel; On
the Campaign Trail with Obama and McCain; Denver