The demise of the jester


Depiction of a jester by William Merritt Chase

What ever happened to the court jester?  Remember him, the paid comedian that kings, dukes and such kept around to introduce a touch of humor and more than a touch of irreverent irony into a structured, formal and yet arbitrary court environment?  Charles Darwin in Voyage of the Beagle describes a couple of jesters in South America.  In August of 1832, Darwin left the Beagle and traveled inland documenting, as he always did, all of the live forms he found; in Argentina he encountered an interesting species and its household, one General Rosas.   The General was a colorful character who had, among other things, “two buffoons, like ducs of old.”  Now, there are not many tales of court jesters in the middle of the 19th century, especially on remote ranches, but they did apparently exist.  So what happened to them?

That is not a question I can answer directly, however indirectly we know the answer, it became impossible to maintain households filled with servants that had limited and specialized functions.  The Russian aristocrats were notorious for their wealth and ostentatious spending; Leon Tolstoy is his tales of his childhood tells of  the servants his family owned, they included musicians, actors, future makers and even a story teller.  However, by the 1920s not even the richest Russian families had such large household staffs.  People still had servants all over the world had servants, just not as many.  In the United States, many average houses built up to the beginning of the Second World War still had servants quarter.  Such quarters are very rare in deed in houses built in the last 50 years.  Many people still have a person come once a week to clean or mow the lawn, but only those in the highest income brackets maintain regular full-time servants – it is just too expensive.

Economic downturns are pivotal, everyone is forced to rethink how they spend their money.  That everyone includes individuals, families, businesses and governments.  In times of reduced income there are things one can no longer afford.  We are in one of those periods now, most of us as individuals, members of families and part of a business have already experienced some drastic rethinking of our expenses.  However, governments in general still have a long ways to go.

A friend sent a link of a 60 Minutes program dealing with governmental financial crisis at the state level.  The program detailed the problems in Illinois and New Jersey, but the same issues exist in most states.  It painted a bleak future and suggested worse times were yet to come.  The truth is almost all governments have grow too much in the last century, fueled by what seemed to be ever-increasing revenues.  The result is now we are paying for court jesters, story tellers and musicians, none of which existed 100, 75 or even for the most part 50 years ago.  We have been adding services and costs at every level with out regard for the cost.  The time has come to rethink everything.

We have been spending too much, expanding our debt too far and accumulating too many unsustainable things.   And like all individuals and families in financial crisis, the states (and cities and counties) need to assess what we really need and what we can afford.  Families have had to rethink cable television, three cars, houses with 1000 square feet per person and long expensive vacations to remote places.  Governments are going to have to rethink police and fire service levels, library and school systems, employee benefit programs, automatic raises and ambitious building projects.  A century of expanded services is going to have to end – contemplate for example to cost of school athletic programs with the travel, uniforms, coaches and playing arenas that even with student fees have probably reached an unsustainable level.  Or as 60 Minutes did, the percentage of cost of public services that goes not to providing services, but to retirement benefits. It is going to take some brave politicians to face the problems, but those that do not are simply passing them on to the next group until there is no choice. The court jesters will have to find  new careers.


1 Response to “The demise of the jester”

  1. 1 Ken Adams December 25, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    The Reno Gazette-Journal published a story on Christmas Day about the impact of budget cuts on museums. About half of state operated museums will be closing in August 2011 due to budget constraints. Museums may not be jesters, but then again many of them may be.

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