Northumberland needs county jester to lighten up politics

First published: June 16, 2007

It was both saddening and intriguing to learn Joachim Foikis died last week. He was the official town fool for the city of Vancouver in the 1960s, who received a Canada Council grant for $3,500 to dress up in a jester’s outfit and skewer the high and mighty. We could sure use a jester in Northumberland right about now.

Foikis was an instant success. With his belled cap and costume, he became an instant celebrity, not only locally but across the country, as well. He was recognized by academics and writers for his wit and whimsy. In fact, the New York Times featured him in a new story. He retired in 1970, rarely to be heard from again.

Jesters, or clowns, have a long history reaching back to Egypt’s fifth dynasty. Court jesters performed in China since 1818 B.C. The jester is often viewed as an elusive character. Sometimes called a fool, buffoon, narr or juglar (sic), the figure is mostly associated with the Middle Ages.

While we often associated the jester with comedy or having fun, the jester actually had a political function. In a time freedom of speech was heavily restricted, the court jester was able to say anything because it was considered, by definition, to only be a jest or the utterings of a fool. Hence, the jester could speak about controversial issues in a way that would be severely punished if spoken by anyone else. However, a good jester knew the limits of his master, only going so far without stepping over the line, making him far smarter than we might think.

The jester is also an important symbol in human history. Sometimes call the Trickster Archetype in psychoanalytic circles, this character in literature is thought to be the wise-fool. The character is the one who is able to point out the weaknesses of those around him. The trickster rebels against authority, pokes fun at the overly serious and formulates convoluted schemes, which can sometimes work or not. The trickster is Bugs Bunny and Brer Rabbit in more modern times, but includes Loki in Norse mythology and Hermes in Greek mythology.

What is more significant about this character is the ability to destroy worlds when they need to be built anew.

We have our modern versions of these wonderful characters in the likes of Rick Mercer and John Stewart, a pair of amazing satirists who leave us laughing, while at the same time tearing down politicians and institutions leaving them bare.

There are many citizens in Port Hope and Cobourg who could sure use a laugh. Therefore, a movement should begin to get a county jester.

Take for example the recent controversy over plans for a Shopper’s Drug Mart in Port Hope. Some residents are absolutely outraged over plans to place a new store next to the Ganaraska River. After a heated public meeting, where the proposal got a tongue-lashing, Mayor Linda Thompson responded with the usual bureaucratic spew so regularly given to concerned citizens: there is nothing council can do.

“We cannot discriminate against anyone, as long as it conforms to the bylaw,” she told the angry crowd, adding council’s hands were tied.

You see, a good jester might offer council a set of handcuff and gags when they arrive at the next council meeting for a vote. Then, they would have the necessary equipment to vote when the time came.

But, alas, Cobourg is not without opportunity, too.

Lately, the debate over the proposal for a waterfront fountain and ice rink is a great opportunity for our jester. Can one think of any greater joke than the decision to use $1.8 million to build a structure that is more about a mayor wanting to leave a legacy than to help a community? Maybe our jester can create a sculpture for the fountain of our mayor placed high up, holding a jug of water pouring out on the heads of taxpayers. (Originally, the plan was to have the mayor in a similar, cruder pose, but it was thought to be in bad taste).

The opportunities are endless. For some, a jester would be an unnecessary expense. But, the idea is meritorious because taxpayers are so frustrated and angry. With a four-year mandate, politicians seem to be sitting back pretty comfortably, not trying to question or champion anything, but merely pushing ahead and ignoring citizens. It seems our politicians have reached a consensus they are much wiser than the rest of us.

It was William Shakespeare, in As You Like It, who said: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

I submit am a journalist, and so I must be a fool. Ask any politician.

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