Friday, December 01, 2006

Arnold: The Way to Egress

Published on Friday, December 1, 2006 by
The Way to the Egress
by Caroline Arnold

Phineas Taylor Barnum, the great 19th century American showman who was called the "Prince of Humbug," kept people moving through his exhibitions with signs pointing "This way to the Egress."

It is unclear how many customers were actually tricked into exiting by seeking an egress, but people everywhere are tickled by that story, which slyly suggests that others are ignorant and gullible.

Similarly, we like to quote P.T. Barnum as saying "There’s a sucker born every minute." But he didn’t say that, which is another story to tickle our funnybones, and possibly offer an instructive story for this Christmas season, when we desperately need an egress from a cruel, unjust war, and from a chamber of horrors including torture, civil war and nuclear weapons.

In 1868, in the wake of evangelists preaching that there had once been giants roaming the earth, George Hull had an anatomically correct giant carved from a slab of gypsum 12' x 4' x 2' , buried it beside a barn near Cardiff NY, and "discovered" it a year later. Hull immediately started charging a quarter to see the wonder, then quickly doubled the price.

Clergymen decreed it was a fossilized giant from Biblical times; scientists decided it was an authentic ancient statue.; no-one suggested it was a hoax. Hull soon sold a majority interest in his ‘Cardiff Giant’ for $30,000 to a syndicate headed by David Hannum, who moved it to Syracuse and charged $1 to view it.

Naturally, P.T. Barnum wanted piece of this action, and tried to buy the giant for $50,000. When he was rebuffed he quietly hired a crew to carve another giant, which he put on display with public announcements that he had purchased the Cardiff Giant and that Hannum was exhibiting a fake. Newspapers quickly circulated Barnum’s story – he was already a celebrity for his showmanship, and fakery sold even more newspapers than fossils.

Hannum, believing his figure was a real fossil, angrily proclaimed "There’s a sucker born every minute" (in reference to the ‘fools’ who paid to see Barnum’s ‘fake’) and sued Barnum for discrediting his giant. After George Hull confessed to his original hoax the judge ruled that Barnum couldn’t be sued for calling a fake a fake, and the case was dropped. But somehow, the "sucker born every minute" phrase got attributed to Barnum, who perhaps didn’t deserve it.

Without doubt P.T Barnum was America’s greatest practitioner of humbug, hype, and hucksterism – but he was apparently a decent man. While he was willing, even eager, to supply the public with the wonder and novelty they craved (for a price) he drew the line at deliberate deception, and even worked to expose spiritualist mediums who preyed on bereaved families.

Though he claimed to hate politics, P.T. Barnum was an active Republican and served in the Connecticut legislature, where he spoke in support of ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment: "A human soul is not to be trifled with. It may inhabit the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot - it is still an immortal spirit!"

For six years we have had a "Prince of Humbug" in the White House, assuming that Americans are ignorant, gullible suckers and mindless consumers of whatever hucksterism and hoaxes he deploys to support his neocon agenda, like "weapons of mass destruction," "war on terror," or "enhanced interrogation techniques." The news media have tamely played along.

But since the election the MSM is returning to reality. This week they called the civil war in Iraq a "civil war," and started using the word "withdrawal" in reference to Iraq.

Also this week a Christmas wreath in the form of a peace symbol sparked accusations that it "signified Satan" and was "anti-Christ." But instead of generating outrage among the gullible about a "liberal war on Christmas," it triggered scorn and ridicule from the public.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was exposed as a humbug when Toto ripped aside a curtain and revealed an ordinary stammering mortal, who admitted he was powerless to get Dorothy egress from Oz. In this fable, however, the wizard admits his humbuggery, but shows Dorothy that she has herself the power to get home from Oz .

Americans aren’t ignorant and gullible suckers; we really do care about important things, we want meaning in our lives, we value fundamental things -- our children, our life companions and homes, our neighbors’ welfare and our planet’s health; honesty, mutual respect, justice, mercy; our heritage of Christmas and holiday observances.

This Christmas Americans have started to pull back the curtain on a White House that has been scaring and awing us into ever more inhuman and un-Christian actions. We must be cautious: so far there is little evidence that Bush is giving up his efforts to legitimize first-strike strategic delivery systems for nuclear or conventional weapons, and we may yet be trapped by giants of nuclear war and global warming.

But for Christmas this year let’s try not accusing one another of being suckers, stupid, ignorant or evil, and recognize our common humanity. To Scrooge’s "Bah, Humbug!" let's reply with Tiny Tim’s "God bless us, every one!"

To the humbug in the White House, let's say "This way to the Egress, Mr. President." It’s not humbug, it’s a way to go toward peace on earth and other good Christian and universal values, a way to stop trifling with human souls, and a few steps toward giving all humans the power to go home to whatever Kansas their hearts’ desire.

Caroline Arnold served 12 years on the staff of U.S. Senator John Glenn. In retirement she is active with the Portage Democratic Coalition and the Akron Council on World Affairs

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