Yesterday I went to a session at my academic history conference about the connection between violence and amusement in southern history.
The first paper discussed the fact that Mardi Gras parades and other civic celebrations included floats with enormous papier-mache toads, contingents of men dressed in coming-out ballgowns, and also Ku Klux Klan figures. Did the observers see the Klan as funny? Quite a new perspective on the national vision--that is, the national white vision--of the Klan.
Another paper discussed the public executions of elephants in early 20th century America. In 1903, an elephant was electrocuted at Coney Island, filmed by Thomas Edison himself. You can even see it on YouTube.
And in 1916, an Elephant was lynched.
This story shocks with its animal cruelty, makes us laugh at its absolutely incredible sensation, and makes us marvel at this bizarre use of new technology (like electrocution or enormous cranes) that made such acts possible. We should also remember how such acts were a threat, a reminder of the danger of stepping out of line in the social hierarchy of Jim Crow America.
Lynching of African Americans is no longer even tacitly condoned by our government, but shocking spectacles in our own time keep reminding us of the limits of our freedoms and the dangers of stepping out of line. Perhaps studying how societies have manipulated our fears in the past will help us realize the manipulations today--and resist them more effectively.