Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Beverly Farms doesn't do Juno

My little neighborhood has made national news recently with it’s July 4th horribles parade, basically a Mummers-style parade in which the locals mock and parody usually very local events and personalities. I’ve only lived here 4 years and it’s been pretty out-of-hand every year: with instances of open profanity, personal attacks (personal as in naming names) and flagrant racism (e.g., mocking Latino illegal immigrants) present in just about every parade. And if you ask my neighbors, I haven’t even seen the worst of it (the Viagra float is legendary as are the kids who decided to reenact the JFK assassination, complete with a screaming Jackie, etc., etc.) This year, however, they’ve apparently gone too far, with three floats mocking the dozen-and-a-half teen-age pregnancies in nearby Gloucester high. You can watch it in all it’s glory on Youtube here. Keep an eye out for me!

The mayor of Gloucester is outraged, claiming that the parade could spark a class war. Most of the MSM and bloggers who have picked up the story are equally shocked, taking a controversial “teen-aged pregnancy isn’t funny” line. Like here. Or here from Gloucester's local. No kidding, Neither is the JFK assassination or illegal immigration or the local guy who was mocked for his DWI and other humiliations in two floats a year ago. I just watched a “Greater Boston” segment, a local PBS affiliate show hosted by Emily Rooney, in which a reporter from the Beverly Citizen claimed this parade went too far because it made fun of people without power compared to a memorable float parodying Kerry Healey’s run for governor two years ago.

The distinction is meaningful if you compare the pregnant teens to the very rich and privileged Healey, but the argument doesn't hold up when you look at the range of subjects usually in the parade. Most of the floats I've seen are far from clever political satire. Most of them are pretty trashy and personal and often sexually provocative with attacks on local embarrassments from guys who get DWI's to crappy city planning and quite a few involve guys in drag and profane language. No one I’ve read has yet mentioned the eye-popping “Trolls Gone Wild” float from I think '05 in which some local young women either donned wigs or dyed their hair fluorescent hues and then created cone-shaped doo's (to emulate the beloved troll figures of our childhoods) and danced provocatively down my little new England street, right before of the innocent eyes of the local children.

To declare the parade offensive is hardly an attack, it’s a description. It’s offensive by definition. You could argue that we don’t want any offensive parades in quaint sea-side towns like the one I live in, but it’s a very weak argument indeed to differentiate this parade from past years (and let’s not forget this has been going on for a full century.) I suspect there is some deeper Cape Ann rivalry at work here but I'm too much of an newcomer and outsider to penetrate its depths. And personally, as an outsider, I find it kind of pleasant to see one unregulated, unsanitized public event, without a single appearance of a Disney character!

If I was to get all academic in my defense, I’d say the parade is a great modern example of what Bahktin defined as the carnivalesque, that is, a period of anarchic and transgressive behavior licensed by the powers that be. Bahktin was talking about how the carnivals in medieval Europe created a period of temporary liberation from the controlling strictures church and state but you could say that the same principle applies here. In any other context, the behavior would be totally unacceptable. The only thing that makes it okay here is that we’ve decided it’s okay.

You can read more about it here. Or if you really want to get into Bahktin, and he’s worth it, check out his famous and influential book on Rabelais in which he develops his theory of the carnivalesque. Though the very fact that I'm deploying a Russian literary theorist to defend this outrageous parade probably only positions me more firmly on the snobby side of the alleged class war.

And since "the children" have played a role in just about every story on the parade, I should probably disclose that I also have them--children that is (2, 4 and 7). And they watched the parade in front of my house with the usual combination of screaming excitement and perplexity, and yes--just like the kids in the press--my oldest did in fact pick up a condom that had been tossed from one of the floats and asked what it was. And before I could even think of a good answer that wouldn’t take the rest of the holiday to explain, he had forgotten about the weird foil wrapper and moved onto a package of Sweet Tarts and a manic discussion of the night’s fireworks. Hopefully, he will remain unscarred by the experience.


Jeremy Faro said...

I think you mean "its" rather than "it's" (twice, in the first paragraph; sorry to be pedantic).

I've never had much fun in Gloucester, despite being of their class. They card at all the bars. And I rarely carry a license or a passport. It's a wonder anyone gets pregnant, really.

sk said...

I stand corrected, Jeremy. I've had a long-standing apostrophe problem. Hopefully your (you're?) judicious intervention will scare me straight.

And frankly, I find this whole "class war" claim a bit confusing. To my outsider's eye, the Farms' old-money reputation seems based mainly on the line of fancy homes along the coast and a few high-profile residents. Step over 127 and you find yourself among neighborhoods full of modest ranch homes pretty fast. Whose trucks do you think were pulling all those floats?

But I'm sure I'm missing something. As I suggested above, these kind of New England antipathies generally go back so far that newcomers like me can't possibly penetrate their mysterious depths.

Doug said...

I don't see how the parade was any more grotesque than the spectacle the media made out of the Gloucester situation - or for that matter, the situation itself.

If anything, the parades are a reaction to political correctness. As this becomes more and more pervasive the parades will become more "offensive". Until, of course they are shut down - which they will be, probably by (no offense) the newcomers.

Ashley said...

where'd the video go! i wanna see this...

Jim Dowd said...

the big difference here is that Bev Farms insulted a poorer local city. Of course they have the right to do that for the highly academic release offered by carnival, but I don't suggest using that argument when the Gloucester cops pull you over and look at your liscence. Nor do I suggest quoting any philosophers during the barfight.

I have the right to call my neighbor a fat pig. I may even have a tradition of once a year telling everyone what I really think of them. Those things may even be true. But don't expect people not to be really pissed off about it.

sk said...

My point above, Jim, is not to defend the parade but merely to point out that the distinctions being drawn between this year and previous years weren't holding up.

To that point, I accept your argument about the limits of class-inflected satire when it involves the powerful mocking the powerless (an argument with a very academic pedigree by the way)so far as it goes. But it only goes so far. No question there are fancy folks living in Bev Farms but, as we both know, they weren't the ones on the floats. Nor were their tow-trucks pulling them.

I suspect that the owners of those glorious homes in Annisquam are probably also too busy checking on their financial portfolios right now to worry much about wounded civic pride. Which is all to repeat my suggestion that I think the controversy is really another iteration of a long-standing internal rivalry among the old-timers spread across the less fancy neighborhoods on Cape Ann.

But as you and yours come from true old-timer stock and I'm the intruder, I defer to your experience, judgment and expertise about how to handle myself during a bar fight. How do you think Adorno would go over?

Jim Dowd said...

As far as the bar fight goes, I would recommend the Dialectic of Enlightenment if you think knives are going to be involved, at 306 pages it might come in as a handy shield. For just a fistfight, stiff uppercuts to the head and neck with In Search of Wagner should be sufficient to create a path for escape.

Anisquam can in no way besides an accident of geography be considered “Gloucester.” As the old-timers say, “I wish those Squammies had stayed down Squam.” Most of them are summer residents, the few year rounders send their kids to private school. The same goes for “The Point” out past East Main Street. They are both culturally distinct. And that is not just based on income. There are rich local families, the Bells, for instance, who are totally Gloucester. Even Israel Horowitz and Adrock are considered “Gloucester.”

I completely take your point that the crowd with the most onerous float was more culturally like what most people on the surface consider true “Gloucester” than the Healey/Cabot/Lodge side of Beverly Farms. That is not the perception here, though. Even though it was a paving company that were the biggest violators, guys that could no doubt hold their own in any given bar fight with or without a copy of The Culture of Industry to whack you in the dick with, the talk here at the Convenience store is all about those “Tennis playing, horsy-types” in Beverly Farms “who think they are better than everybody else.” The facts that Scanlon didn’t come out strongly against it; that there was a fire truck at the head of it, therefore denoting civic approval; and that the paving fuck-tards won a $400 prize also says to the residents of my fair island that this was more civic than not. I have to admit, to this I agree. Beverly Farms considers itself to be separate form the people in its parade, somehow? I don’t get it.

I think this is one of the key cultural differences between Gloucester and other places. We don’t see typical income and education-based cultural separators as overly meaningful here, so you could never say, “Yeah, well they were just a bunch of drunk fishermen, so you know, what the fuck?” We are drunk fishermen. My brother is a generally drunken sometimes fisherman. The crew of the Andrea Gail, the performance artist down the street, me, Rabbi Geller, we are all “Gloucester” and that transcends our status as blue or white collar. You don’t hear, “Yuppie scum” here. You hear, “He’s not Gloucester”. If you are “Gloucester” you are as tied to those girls as you are to Babson, Olson and Blackburn.

So, I think most of the outrage is rooted in that Beverly Farms held a parade, which is the most overt public display of civic pride possible, then awarded prizes to the most insulting float and only when mass of BF residents saw what a bunch of asshats they were being made out to be on YouTube, tried to back away and say, strangely, “it’s our tradition to insult the shit out of anyone we want once a year” and “We didn’t sanction the parade, so it’s not an official event” [cute fire truck] and “those guys are not like everyone else here, and neither are the super-rich people.” Like I said, we don’t have a context for that. “Gloucester” is a cohesive unit when facing the outside world, probably because we have a distinct culture to center around unlike so many other places in the U.S. these days.

What’s funny is that this supposedly laudable distinct culture itself has a history of insulting Horribles Parades. When the Unification Church bought their compound and Gorton’s back in the 80’s, that summer there were like half a dozen floats that had these totally insulting portrayals of “Moonies” as aliens and zombies and so on. Much of it was also pretty anti-Asian, as this was the rise of Japanese industry competing with U.S. industry. The difference is that when it was over the Mayor apologized to Rev. Moon personally and ended the practice of insulting floats in the Horrribles. And since then a lot of Moonie families have moved here, and most of them are now “Gloucester”. They work hard, they send their kids to the schools, they are very family oriented, they stay out of trouble and are involved in the waterfront and processing industries.

In the end, I don’t think Bev Farms will do anything. They’ll clean up the parade for next year, being from BF is now a ticketable offence according to my cop pals and everyone’s perceptions of everyone else will continue unaltered. Nobody came out of this summer looking good. Time to move on.

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