You've heard about the Missouri rodeo clown who wore an Obama mask, right? Over the weekend at the Missouri State Fair, a clown wore a rubber Obama mask with a broom for a tail as an announcer asked over the PA system who wanted to see the president "run down by a bull." Photos and video popped up all over the Internet. And the Obama mask-wearing rodeo clown got a lifetime ban from the Missouri State Fair. We could call this story: How a rodeo clown embarrassed the state of Missouri.
But let me play Devil's advocate for a minute here. What's the big deal? Rodeo clowns have impersonated sitting presidents before, and the nation didn't go up in flames as a result. And what about free speech? What, we're going to start censoring rodeo clowns now? CLOWNS? Well nation, it's not quite that simple. Here's why I think this rodeo incident is such a big, messy problem.
Let's get the free speech argument out of the way, first. Yes, of course people have the right to spout off like assholes so long as they're not threatening anyone and it doesn't veer into hate speech or incite a mob. But this isn't about rights. This is about responsibility. The officials who banned the clown are responsible for maintaining a certain level of respectability. They are also partly responsible for Missouri's image -- and that state's image was definitely damaged by this event. And they're responsible for the tone set at their state fair.
We're living in the age of social media, so whatever people got away with in the past isn't necessarily going to fly now. Maybe 10 years ago you could've done this, and there would have been some local outrage. Now the outrage is worldwide, and Missouri's humiliation is that much greater.
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Just because it's happened in the past doesn't make it acceptable. As Missouri state representative Steve Webb said, “Since I’ve been in the legislature, we’ve seen a lot of things with a lot of racial undertones. But nothing’s ever done about it. There has to be consequences at some point.”
And that tone? Some witnesses said they felt like they were at a Klu Klux Klan rally. (That not EVERYONE felt that way doesn't invalidate the feelings of the people who did.) Things got ... creepy. Another rodeo clown reportedly bobbled the lips of the Obama clown, which is a pretty blatant racist gesture. I doubt there were any racist gestures or sentiments expressed when that same rodeo clown impersonated President George Bush nearly a decade ago. And that matters. It's one thing to mock a president. It's another thing to denigrate an entire group of people by mocking a president. Get the difference?
Basically, this rodeo clown brought out the worst in the crowd. Whatever racist feelings people were harboring were given free reign because it's not really the president, we're just joking around here, it's not real. You don't have to be the one wearing a mask to suddenly feel like all the normal rules of polite social behavior have been lifted.
So drop the free speech grand-standing for a moment. No one was arrested or otherwise penalized by the law. This is about ... decency. This is not about what we have the "right" to do. This is about what kind of environment we want to bring our children into, and the values we want to pass on.
Do you think Missouri State Fair officials were right to ban the rodeo clown?
Image via KansasCityStarVideo/YouTube