There is a day, once a year, in the Native American community of Taos Pueblo, northern New Mexico, when the clowns come to town. Half-naked men, covered in black-and-white make-up with their hair tied up in bunches, the clowns appear in the town's central plaza screaming at the top of their lungs, pushing people over, throwing children into the river, drinking urine and exposing themselves to old ladies.
In a fascinating 2006 radio documentary, Stewart Lee notes that the clowns play an important role in the sacred life of Taos Pueblo, interviewing an anthropologist who notes that the clowns effectively enforce the norms and customs of the community by negative example: they show everyone exactly how not to behave. In his documentary, Lee uses this to suggest something like a general theory of the function of clowning, and indeed of the function of humour more generally – it shows us, as it were, the limits of the community we inhabit. Laughter demarcates the bounds of sense.
Nowadays, as we know, the clowns are suddenly everywhere. The "creepy clown craze" has spread from America to all over the UK. And yet, for all their fascination, all their menace, these clowns seem somehow lost. Nothing I have read about the clown craze, at least, seems able to ascribe to them any deeper meaning, any coherent purpose. The clowns wander the earth listlessly, frightening its inhabitants for no real reason beyond alleviating their own boredom.
Whereas the traditional culture of Taos Pueblo, according to Lee's documentary, needs clowns to enforce order through ridiculousness, for us, clowns are completely superfluous. We don't need clowns to show us, by negative example, the limits of what is acceptable in our community. We have politicians to do that instead.
Trumpism, Brexit and the like have often been said to usher in a new era of "post-truth" politics, where anything goes. But, of course, that label is a misnomer – implying as it does some hallowed era of "truth" politics in which all of our leaders were very honest. As the journalist Sam Kriss has asked, "In 2003, when we were told that half the world could be obliterated by Iraqi weapons within 45 minutes, were we still in pre-post-truth politics?"
What is actually going on is that Trump, Farage, Boris Johnson and their acolytes have managed – incredibly successfully – to disrupt what previously-established norms there were of coherent, acceptable political debate. This includes some norms of what might count as "true", absolutely – but it also includes a lot of rules of decorum, or of the sort of thing you are or are not allowed to promise the electorate.
Post-Brexit, the Tory right has been making all sorts of statements that, were they to have been uttered even a year ago, would have seemed like they must be some sort of grim satire. Women should have to present their passports before being allowed to give birth in NHS hospitals; supporting British membership of the European Union ought to be a treasonable offence carrying a maximum sentence of life in jail; all child refugees must have their age verified by being submitted to forcible tests of their teeth and bones – that sort of thing. These are now things that, increasingly, it is becoming perfectly acceptable for members of mainstream political parties to suggest, as genuine policy proposals, in our actual public discourse. No wonder, perhaps, that this has coincided with such a marked raise in clown attacks – their normal duties have been completely usurped.
It's almost as if, one day, the leaders of the Taos Pueblo had taken to drinking urine and throwing children in the river – not on the clown day, just on any normal day. People might protest, but if piss-drinkers persisted, eventually their behaviour would become normalised. Before long, people who found piss drinking disgusting would be too busy being horrified at the new trend for eating shit.
Of course, in many ways the easiest thing to do here is going to be to get up on our high horses and stay there. We could act like these people have transgressed some sacred limits – that they are sure to get their comeuppance eventually, and that we should therefore continue to respect the old limits regardless (thoughts turn to asinine Democrats crowd-funding the re-opening of Trump's campaign office in North Carolina). This, of course, is wrong. What we should do instead is treat what the "piss-drinking right" are doing as an object lesson in political strategy.
With ever-increasing force and speed, the right are stretching the limits of acceptable political debate rightwards. This is already having dire consequences: racism, it seems, is already back as part of the political mainstream. What we must do is fight fire with fire, or rather piss with piss. Serious career politicians from the left need to start going on the news, and straight-facedly declare: the workers must be given control of the means of production. All the banks must have their assets confiscated, to be redistributed among the people. The Brexit result needs to be torn up. The Royal Family should be abolished, Prince Charles must be sent to work in a factory to purify his soul. The sort of stuff the press imagine Corbyn and McDonnell are saying when they see them in their nightmares, as opposed to the fairly polite democratic socialism they in fact advocate.
Of course these politicians will be pilloried in the press, of course they will attract ridicule, anger, hate. But over time, the limits of acceptable discussion will be stretched out leftwards, and then maybe we will be able to achieve some sort of polite democratic-socialist consensus. The force of what is moderate, modest and "realistic" will only genuinely be felt when it is backed up by a dream that's wild and extreme, with our pyjamas drenched in piss.
Thirsty for more?