Long ago, while a child in Philadelphia, I absorbed a historical perspective on the growth of government when I visited Carpenter’s Hall, where the first Continental Congress convened. There were, as I recall, no accommodations for more than a few support personnel. Nowadays the local, state, and federal governments employ an immense number of laborers in all degrees of rank, and our political leaders have increasingly large personal staffs.
But as a historian I feel that, in light of recent events, there is one job category missing and urgently needed in government: the Court Jester.
Today, we think of jesters as smart-alecks in dangling-bell hats cracking jokes at Renaissance fairs; but the post of jester at a noble household or government court was long considered a crucial one for good government. The court jester had many names throughout history, but the job profile goes back at least several thousand years. The First Century CE Roman statesman and writer Seneca tells us that in households of means there would be a slave whose special task it was to taunt and critique his masters and generally be saucy and insolent to the wealthy and powerful.
In the Middle Ages, nobles — and indeed the king himself — employed a jester, or fool. He would have an honored and largely uncensored place at the banquet table, in meeting rooms, and in the halls of the court. He could interrupt great counselors of state, making piquant or provoking comments, pointing out fallacies in arguments, reporting his own contrarian observations from experience outside the court, and generally speak wry truth to overstuffed power. The ideal fool is best drawn in literature by Sir Walter Scott in his medieval novel “Ivanhoe”: Wamba, son of Witless, is an equal opportunity infuriator to prince, baron, and banker.
The king could also trust the fool not to be a sycophantic yes-man, and it was the duty of the same to deliver bad news. There is a famous case drawn from the Hundred Years War, when England had defeated France in a great naval battle. The nobles of France were afraid to report the truth to their king, so they incited the court fool, who announced to his ruler that the English sailors were great cowards because they refused to swim in the ocean like the brave French seamen.
Nowadays, as evidenced by decision making on so many other important events and issues, from Iraq to Hurricane Katrina to energy policy to lobbying reform and port security, we should consider installing professional (as opposed to the existing amateur) fools in most government offices, hearing rooms, lunch spots, and meeting rooms.
Jesters, of course, would require job protection and the highest level of security clearance. They would be unable to be fired or to be excluded from any conclave. House members and senators, for example, would not be able to meet with their staffs or with lobbyists, nor take a corporate jet to a fact-finding skiing trip to delve into important industry tax issues, without a fool present to offer opposing opinions and uncomfortable truths.
Furthermore, the duty of the American fool and jester would be to puncture egos, deflate self-righteousness, and constantly remind the powerful that what they are doing may very well be wrong, criminal or, well, foolish. The next meeting of the National Security Council would be enlivened by Bill Maher in pointy shoes and bells. Perhaps we would have a better-thought-out energy policy if Dennis Miller were sitting in with the House Energy Committee to toss in pithy observations while strumming a lute. The Pentagon could certainly use Conan O’Brien as five-star jester. I also nominate Penn & Teller to the U.N. Security Council (with Teller silently mocking the delegates).
In any case, we have many openings for this category of national serviceperson, regardless of who is president or which party is in power.
What America needs is a few good fools.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here