Send in the Clowns

by Alton C. Thompson

A fire broke out backstage in a theatre.  The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded.  He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater.  I think that’s just how the world will come to an end:  to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.
Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Part I

Per Wikipedia, Send in the Clowns is a song written by Stephen Sondheim for the 1973 musical A Little Night Music, an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman‘s film Smiles of a Summer Night.  It is a ballad from Act II in which the character Desirée reflects on the ironies and disappointments of her life.”

The article goes on to note that “The ‘clowns’ in the title do not refer to circus clowns.  Instead, they symbolize fools, as Sondheim explained in a 1990 interview:

I get a lot of letters over the years asking what the title means and what the song’s about; I never thought it would be in any way esoteric. I wanted to use theatrical imagery in the song, because she’s an actress, but it’s not supposed to be a circus […] [I]t’s a theater reference meaning “if the show isn’t going well, let’s send in the clowns”; in other words, “let’s do the jokes.”  I always want to know, when I’m writing a song, what the end is going to be, so “Send in the Clowns” didn’t settle in until I got the notion, “Don’t bother, they’re here”, which means that “We are the fools.”[2]

The “clown” in the Kierkegaard epigraph usually acts the part of a foolish person–i.e., acts funny–to gain laughs.  Now, however, although still wearing a clown’s outfit, he is delivering a serious message, but is not understood.  He has abandoned his usual role as a clown, and has become the purveyor of an important truth–that a fire just broke out.

Ominously, Kierkegaard then added: “I think that’s just how the world will come to an end:  to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.”

The Sondheimian clown, in contrast, isn’t wearing clown garb; rather, he is a clown in the sense of actually being a fool–being ignorant.

Two questions of great relevance for today are:

  • Are there Kierkegaardian clowns today? If so, who are they?
  • Are there Sondheimian clowns today also? If so, who are they, relative to the Kierkegaardian clowns?

Insofar as there are Kierkegaardian clowns today, they are only “clownish” in being bearers of bad news. They are people like Guy McPherson–who never adorns the garb of a clown, so far as I know! And although they are not (usually) laughed at like Kierkegaard’s clown, their message is not heeded. I mean this in a general sense of course: Although those who listen to/read Guy are of the “true believer” sort, his general message that we humans are doomed is known by few. That is, ignorance abounds regarding the threat posed by global warming to our species.

Those in the “ignorant” category might be categorized as Sondheimian “fools.”  The tragedy, however, is that although they are ignorant–and think/act as if tomorrow will be much like today, their ignorance is not their fault.

The function of the mass media should be to dispense important information. However, much more attention is given to Donald Trump’s hair than to global warming!

This latter fact leads me to the following three comments:

  • What’s especially surprising is that those in the media whom one would most expect to be informing us about global warming–those who report the weather–are silent on the subject. Granted that their specialty is Meteorology, not Climatology, but . . . .
  • It’s likely that the reason for media silence regarding global warming is that the media are businesses that rely on advertising dollars for their continued existence, and that companies that advertise believe that their businesses would be hurt were it widely known that our species is going “down the tubes.” The short run is what matters to businesses, not human survival! A true—but pathetic—fact!
  • “Runaway” may be underway now. Arctic climate scientist John Davies wrote this in 2013:

The world is probably at the start of a runaway Greenhouse Event which will end most human life on Earth before 2040. This will occur because of a massive and rapid increase in the carbon dioxide concentration in the air which has just accelerated significantly. The increasing Greenhouse Gas concentration, the gases which cause Global Warming, will very soon cause a rapid warming of the global climate and a chaotic climate.

(Note that Davies made no mention of methane release!)

Surely at least some people in the mass media have some knowledge regarding global warming, and in having that knowledge should have the integrity to report on it—regardless of the personal consequences for them. Not doing so makes them intellectual prostitutes!

Despite the fact that the media have been remiss in reporting on the fact that global warming is occurring, educated people have little excuse in being ignorant about the matter. Why is it that educated people are concerned about protecting the Panda from extinction but lacking in concern about their own species?! It’s mind-boggling, isn’t it?

Comments 111

  • Re: population growth… My anti-development group just got a public letter of support from an anti-natalist group. An excited member talked about this in a group e-mail and closed with “[name of other member who recently gave birth].. give that sweet baby a huge kiss for me!”


    Another member works as a birth doula. It’s very hard to talk about the end of growth with people who are up to their elbows in babies.

  • david ~

    “Certainly in the societies we live in now,those factors you mention are also relevant”

    well, I’m not really sure how you are defining “the societies we live in now.” the cultural basis for our modern societies goes far back. but the knowledge of various natural birth control methods and abortifacients goes much further back.

    in late Medieval and early modern Europe, when population growth (or lack of) was becoming a critically important issue for the power structures at the time, who was in charge of birth control knowledge and who was very actively discouraging this knowledge? (hint: persecution, burnings at the stake, death by the tens of thousands.)

    this lovely stuff is the foundation so much of western religion, western cultural attitudes and western civilization. just why were these power structures so interested in what goes on in the bedroom?

    “In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued Summis desiderantes affectibus, a Papal bull authorizing the “correcting, imprisoning, punishing and chastising” of devil-worshippers who have “slain infants”, among other crimes.”

    “It is not a difficult task to encourage most people to have children. It is more difficult to try to have them limit themselves to one or two.”

    or not.

  • Cheer up guys! The problem just went away.

    Long-term solution:

    Shorter term solution (quick & dirty fix for a hot planet):

  • ‘As I have noted at NBLbefore (many moons ago) tvt and Kathy C are two of the closest to realisation… – r. d.

    ‘Realisation of what ?’ -ogardner

    i don’t know. maybe nihilism.

    ‘… there is no “I”, only a mirage…’ r.d. again.

    r.d., i have a question. is everything a mirage? i have another question. why did u refer to yourself as ‘i’, if ‘u’ don’t exist? another question: if ‘i’ don’t exist, and neither do ‘u’, what’s going on here? how are ‘we’ communicating, or aren’t we?

    silly silly questions!

    “ Toxic Emotions Can Lead to Serious Health Problems”

    i’ve been wondering for some time now if/when that’s going to get me. had decades of them now, and somehow, i’m still a mirage!

    ‘Say goodbye to the Ecuadorian Rainforest if the governments of Ecuador and China get their way. ‘

    ‘Biodiversity Loss and the Doomsday Clock: An Invisible Disaster Almost No One is Talking About’

    and so the world burns. i suppose we’re lucky the world is huge compared to us, there’s so much to burn, before the fire gets ‘here’.

  • I understand that this video was edited and must have a POV. Much of it, for me, is repellent. I have no idea what to make of it, except that real-politik obviously doesn’t work. The last minute features an interesting woman.

  • mo,
    I hope I will be allowed this overpost .Thanks for the links. I think
    we have drifted away from the original point of discussion,which was
    whether love is relevant to the overpopulation issue. I think my previous comment supported this reasonably well,but perhaps you disagree.
    I am not disputing the role the catholic church and other institutions
    have had in encouraging population growth. A while back another commenter
    posted a link regarding this,which I bookmarked and will post below.
    Neither am I disputing that it is possible for people to respond to education campaigns and financial incentives by lowering their reproductive rate. I forget the exact number,but it is I think over 200 nations now which have a reproductive rate which is below the replacement level. This is ,of course,still offset by a reproductive rate in other nations which is far above the replacement rate. You no doubt know of the horrifying statistics from most African nations,and I read recently that the average number of children per woman in Afghanistan is over seven.

  • hey david ~

    no problem, just don’t make it a habit. :)

    more tomorrow… ;)

  • I’ve penned and posted a new essay, along with additional tidbits. Catch it all here.

  • People in north America (and the web) are hearing the ‘Good News’ a bit more now…it seems:

    ‘Carbon Shock: Seeking Equilibrium in the Climate-Disrupted Economy with Mark Schapiro’

    Wooo Hooo ;(

  • @ David Higham
    I think there is a misunderstanding. You are not the voice that is your thoughts, the real you is what is listening to that voice, and that part of you is silent.
    As for your comments about love, they sound more to me like attachment to pleasurable experiences, which is fine if that’s what you want to be doing, have at it and enjoy! Best Wishes to all