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The clown suit defense, and the excuses of symbols

14 May 2008 by Mike Gogulski
Posted in police | 22 Comments »
Such a nice clown!

Such a nice clown!

Many years ago, when I was an activist campaigner for drug policy reform in the United States, there was an occasional but extremely cogent contributor to the quasi-underground listservs that bound the community together. Sadly, I can’t even remember his name, and it appears through some digging that his writings are no longer available, but I will summarize.

If I were to break down the door to my neighbor’s home, push a gun in the face of the family that lives there, announce that they had offended me, or my masters, for some behavior of theirs which was proscribed by the scrawlings of blind yet dutiful scribes in some mysterious set of holy books that they had neither read nor subscribed to, and then demand that they comply with my instantaneous orders or be subject to the instantaneous power of death which issues from the barrel of my gun — would they or would they not be justified in defending themselves? Would they or would they not be justified in attempting to escape? Would they or would they not act morally by exerting every possible influence, by applying every possible force, to stop me enforcing whatever arbitrary proscription I found in my holy book?

Of course they would. Be it that my presumably holy book contained a proscription against eating rabbit, that it spake ill of cooking and eating meat on the bone, that it condemned the growing and ingestion of cannabis sativa or salvia divinorum or cooking up a bit of methamphetamine in the bathtub, you should rightly denounce me thus:

But what about this one?

But what about this clown?


Of course! You have no right to come into their home, to disturb them, to push weapons into their faces, to threaten them with death, torture, imprisonment, sanction, condemnation or to demand anything! Your act is a crime, and when the rest of us in the neighborhood get together and hear about it, we’re going to throw you OUT of our community at the very least, and if you resist, use every power and force to be rid of you, so that we may protect ourselves and our children and our families and our loved ones and our comrades and our friends and our colleagues and our neighbors and our acquaintances and the bitchy middle-aged spinster who works as a cashier at the shop on the corner from YOU and your insane, arbitrary, needless, senseless, highfalutin proscriptions.

I would be a criminal. Perhaps misguided, perhaps insane, perhaps deluded or perhaps only following orders, I would still be a criminal, a violator, a trespasser and completely out of my right.

Hm, but what about this clown?

Hm, but what about this clown?


Oh, but… the objection is raised, as was done by that listserv contributor and fellow human being whose name I have long forgotten, “What if I’m wearing a clown suit when I do this?”

“Oh! A clown suit!” all proclaim, prostrating themselves and genuflecting before the one true God. “Why, if he’s wearing a clown suit, it must be all right! We know that clowns want only the best things for our children, and of course clowns must go through rigorous training and certification in order to be granted, by the powers that be, that most sacred privilege of wearing the clown suit! Surely, if he’s wearing a clown suit, he is in the right, and they are the evil doers, they are the ones who have transgressed, and, indeed, they must be punished.”

Ridiculous, isn’t it?

Per Bylund, whose writings are far more incisive than mine, describes it thus in an article which goes far beyond the issue of drug prohibition:

What is it with a uniform that makes a vice a virtue? Let me tell you a secret: there is nothing with a uniform that gives you the right to kill, pillage, destroy, and attack. The villain here is not only the person committing the crime – i.e., carrying out the attack – but to a great degree you. You are the problem with this world, for as long as you react not to the crime but what the perpetrator is wearing there is no hope for this world.

But, when you ask yourself, deeply, honestly, in that still place that is the center of your universe, whether or not the clown suit makes any difference, what is your answer?

This isn't going to end well...

This isn ot going to end well…

  1. 22 Responses to “The clown suit defense, and the excuses of symbols”

  2. By Dano on 14 May 2008

    The Cory Maye case springs to mind. Sadly enough, I lost a track of it. Do you know what´s happening to the brave man?

  3. By Mike Gogulski on 14 May 2008

    Resentenced late last year to life without parole, so he’s off death row.

    Radley Balko tracks this case here:

    http://www.theagitator.com/category/cory-maye/

  4. By Kent McManigal on 30 May 2008

    Thank you for writing this.

  5. By ed42 on 21 October 2008

    Clown suit or shiny badge, both marks of a people enslaved.

  6. By Change I Can Decieve In on 25 June 2009

    This is one of the funniest and most insightful things I have ever read; a brilliant absurdism for the absurd War On Autodetermination and Other Tales of The State Knowing Best.

  7. By Chris on 27 June 2009

    I read this last year and re-read it today.
    This struck me today:

    “But, when you ask yourself, deeply, honestly, in that still place that is the center of your universe, whether or not the clown suit makes any difference, what is your answer?”

    Yes the clown suit makes all the difference. I purposefully avoid clown suit wearers!

  8. By Chuck Johnson on 10 September 2009

    Serial killer John Wayne Gacy who raped, tortured, and killed 30 young men and boys between the ages of 14 to 21 in the 1970′s said this:

    “A clown can get away with murder.”

  9. By Mike Gogulski on 10 September 2009

    Ouch, Chuck. My world was creepy enough without that dimension thrown in.

  10. By Ricky on 16 April 2013

    You should read “The Crowd” the classic work on group psychology by Gustave Le Bon. He has a concept called “artificial prestige” which causes people to show collective deference. Two of the examples he gives are a judge in his robes, and titles of nobility (or today, titles of office). Uniforms and badges are I think today the most pernicious form of this.

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