BUSHLANDIA: America Through the Prism of Foreign Carnivals


(photo credit: Skip Kaltenheuser)
A phenomenal photographer, gifted writer and loyal TWN reader, Skip Kaltenheuser, sent me this guest blog-ed (the blog side of an op-ed) today. I am printing it in full below — and let’s just say that we are very glad to have beat out the New York Times and Washington Post.
— Steve Clemons
by Skip Kaltenheuser
Last week’s focus on whether Bacchus’s glass at Mardi Gras was half full or half empty may have been a break for the Bush Administration.
Media took the path of least resistance and parroted the promo “A Party Like No Other.” Baloney. It’s a carnival world and has been since the ancients. Carnivals abroad have become a glorious bellwether of how US policies and actions are viewed. The Administration is fortunate Americans are woefully ignorant of these portrayals. Ridicule is far more devastating than lemmings chanting “death to Bush” during a drive-by in south-east Asia.
True, some Mardi Gras wags, such as the Knights of King Arthur, could not resist the material handed them by Katrina, gently tugging the hand that feeds them with floats painted with the “quest for the holy FEMA trailer.” and an Elvis sighting in a Houston shelter. But Mardi Gras, wonderful in its unique second line jazz traditions, is too genteel. The now diminished cry of “show me your whats-its” falls far short of the rich antiauthoritarian traditions that underpin other carnivals, including those in nations that have known authoritarian boots, both church and state.
For some years I have chronicled carnivals across different cultures – sense of duty — and the creative power that goes into scratching an itch called America never fails to stun. This year’s sojourn included several sleepy but splendid towns in Portugal’s countryside. In one, Torres Vedras, the centerpiece — not a float, the centerpiece — is called “Bushlandia”.
The artfully rendered sculpture, five or so stories high, offers up President Bush as a primitive king dressed in fur scraps, crowned, holding a scepter with a golden skull and a jeweled club, the skull of a Texas longhorn among the bones before him. He wears a crucifix upon which is a soldier, and sits within the jaws of the skull of the Statue of Liberty, which also hosts wormy critters in turbans, (NONE of them depicting Mohammed). Other heads of state supporting him in Iraq == I get confused as to which are Old Europe and New Europe — are in his court. The most prominent is Prime Minister Tony Blair, who as W’s right hand man fans him with feathers and scratches his backside.
On the flip side, the sculpture has a bearded fellow with a turban (I hasten to add it is clearly NOT a depiction of Mohammed, so call off the fatwa), with a wheelbarrow of explosives he’s planting in the base of what’s left of Liberty. Beneath him is a government minister struggling to feed the world’s poor children. Nuclear missiles flank W, and to the side are penguins with distress or time-out whistles, on the other side toxic nuclear and chemical waste washes over nature.
For good measure, a popular Portuguese soccer coach now coaching a British team is in a lower cave, signaling the press to shut up, what you might call throwing in the kitchen sink.
It’s a surreal viewing stand before which all revelers pass. The floats that go by include a sinking submarine with passengers including Blair looking out at a bearded shark with a turban (also NOT Mohammed, OK?) grinning with anticipation. Another has a Portuguese minister, couldn’t yet pin down which but clearly his veracity has taken some knocks, portrayed as a giant Pinocchio.
Plenty of religious figures, all stripes, often cross-dressing, are in the passing crowd, honoring carnival traditions of poking fun at gender roles as well as at religious repression and hypocrisy. The crowd includes folk who’ve migrated in from the once mighty and far flung Portuguese empire as well as locales like Romania and the Ukraine. As far as I can tell the immigrants are welcomed, without the backlash going on elsewhere in Europe.
The Portuguese are hard working folk, with an innocent and friendly manner. As they weren’t big Cold War players it is easy to forget they are catching up after a dictator’s crippling lockdown that lasted until 1974. They like Americans, just not you know who and the primrose path down which he’s led Portugal. Even that most tactful and congenial of all diplomatic groups, folks in the tourism industry, find ways to express that opinion. So it is everywhere one goes.
When you think about it, it’s amazing that a small town in Portugal put such energy into making a colossal statement about America’s leadership in the world. In humbler but no less interesting Portuguese carnivals, like one in the medieval fishing village of Peniche, a presence creeps in, like a simple float meant to be a camouflaged tank with the ever-present female broadcast reporter interviewing the soldiers as they rumble along.
Portugal isn’t the only country taking carnival jabs at the US and its cultural intrusions. My first carnival was in Cologne, Germany, with Karneval roots back to Bacchus of Roman-Germanicus times. A mere month after the Lewinsky scandal broke I almost kicked my camera off a balcony lunging for it as a masterpiece of German engineering rounded the Koln Cathedral. A grinning Bill Clinton, big as a Mack truck, groped a peeved looking Stature of Liberty, followed by a padlocked White House atop which stood Uncle Sam’s throwing chocolate bars and blood sausages to the crowd.
The crowd roared approval, they could take a joke even if Senator Lieberman couldn’t. The Germans couldn’t understand our mania over this fiasco while more pressing worldly concerns drifted into the fire.
Carnival levity is still about, but with the Bush administration it’s become more pointed, sharper, even beseeching. Last year Cologne, despite rumors of official urgings to soften up as a visit from President Bush approached, ginned up a float of a giant Uncle Sam bent over, trousers down, while Angela Merkel climbed a ladder up his backside, her nose a shade darker than usual. Another had Bush holding a cross like a machine gun, flames shooting out of it.
This year’s Cologne floats portrayed an American Eagle with bird flu, and President Bush walking barefoot through bowls of fat labeled “Kyoto”, “New Orleans” and “Atomic Conflict”. Chancellor Merkel fared better, portrayed as Elastigirl from “The Incredibles”. Carnival in Dusseldorf offered up Iran’s President as a rocket, caught by a United Nation’s net, (not, ahem, a US net).
In carnival, the Germans have made schadenfreude an art form. If only Vice-President Cheney had given the German engineers more lead time, think what they could have done with the great hunter!
In Nice, France, where floats are based on sketches submitted by cartoonists from around the world, this year’s theme was “King of Dupes”. A prominent float was of a dove of peace recreated as a camouflaged fighter-bomber, missiles hanging from its wings. Another was of a movie film set of the US moon walk. While no one really doubts the walk, it may speak to diminished US credibility.
Basel, Switzerland is where the US really gets the treatment. Basel carnival is a unique Protestant take that begins in a blacked-out city at 4 AM the Monday after Ash Wednesday. Masked pipers and drummers accompany huge gas lit lanterns painted with satirical images including shots at local, regional, and international politics, as well as the church and concerns like global warming.
Bear in mind these are the Swiss, normally big fans of the US, but when I was there two years ago the chief target far and away was W. The US was given the business in multiple lanterns and in the costumes of bands, including the large brass bands that come out Tuesday night, intentionally playing off-key. And again, the US takes a big hit in satirical poems in the local dialect, recited Wednesday night throughout Basel’s pubs.
I recall one of the more benign depictions, a large drummer’s mask of a scowling W with a harlequin on top relieving himself. I fear this year there was little holding back on W. His runner-up on Basel’s world stage is Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, with whom President Bush recently made his bones when Berlusconi visited Congress last week to give it a pep talk. The Swiss despise Berlusconi and relish portraying him as a cross between the Godfather and Il Dulce Mussolini, running the media like an Orwellian villain. Great company.
It’s a pity Washington, DC can’t pick up the carnival banner and its best satirical traditions. If small towns in Portugal can use carnival to speak truth to power, why can’t the nation’s capital, with all the fantastic material it has to work with?
Are we too mean-spirited, too unable to take a joke? The threat of ridicule at carnival might reign in excesses, perhaps an invasion.
Think of carnival’s pagan roots back to the Titans, to the rites of spring, chasing the winter demons away, to hopeful fertility, to planting anew. Ultimately, when the church figured if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, traditions fused with rebirth and redemption. The carnival spirit, sometimes portrayed as a fish deity — like the Portuguese cod — is burnt in effigy as Lent is ushered in. Though it promises to return, as the flames rise the spirit takes with it the cares and woes of the prior year, letting everyone begin again with a clean slate.
Has there ever been a city more in need of a do-over than Washington, DC?
Skip Kaltenheuser’s works has appeared in more than 100 domestic and international publications. He is a free-lance journalist and photographer. This is Kaltenheuser’s first Blog-Ed.
Bush in Basel
Clinton in Cologne
BUSHLANDIA (large version)

More soon.
— Steve Clemons