The Barker and the Big Tent
By Alexandra Erin
With gratitude to my muse in this matter, Mr. Brad R. Torgersen.
“Welcome to the Big Tent,” the barker said, showing his teeth in a friendly smile. “Everyone’s welcome in the Big Tent!”
“Hey, mister,” Jake said. “Is this a circus, or something?”
“Oh, it’s a circus, yeah,” the barker said. “It’s a circus and more. It’s whatever you want it to be! The Big Tent has room for everyone! You go in and you can watch a show, or you put on one of your own. Any kind of act you can imagine can be found in the Big Tent. You keep your stage as long as you keep an audience, so anything goes as long as it’s entertaining.”
“Well, of course we mustn’t break any laws,” the barker said. “The point of the Big Tent isn’t to do anything bad, but only good things, things that are fun for everyone. Everyone’s welcome in the Big Tent.”
“Yeah? What’s going on there?” Jake asked, jerking his head towards the turnstiles at the entrance.
A pair of burly roustabouts flanked each of the gates. As Jake watched, a couple of people were roughly turned away from one. The bouncers’ faces were murderous, while the people they sent packing just looked scared. All the lines got shorter as people saw this and left in apparent disgust or, in some cases, fear.
“Well, lad, that’s where we let everyone in,” the barker said, then repeated, “Everyone is welcome in the Big Tent.” He cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted, “Come one, come all, to the Big Tent! If you believe that any show is a good show as long as it’s entertaining, this is the place for you!”
“So, who were those people, then?” Jake asked.
“Gatekeepers,” the barker said.
“No, I mean the people your gatekeepers turned away.”
“Our gatekeepers?” the barker said. He let out a loud, raucous laugh, slapping his knee. “We don’t have gatekeepers, son! This is the Big Tent you’re talking about, and everyone’s welcome in the Big Tent! No, those nice gentlemen are there to keep the gatekeepers out.”
“But you said everyone is welcome,” Jake said.
“Right,” the barker said. “You’re a clever lad and you catch on quick. We want to keep the Big Tent big, don’t we? We want to make sure it welcomes everybody, don’t we? Well, we can’t very well do that if we let in a bunch of gatekeepers.”
“How are they gatekeepers?”
“Well, I told you our set-up: anyone can try their hand at filling a stage, and as long as they can keep an audience entertained they can keep doing their thing, right?”
“So the good acts keep going and the bad ones get weeded out. It’s the free market in action, understand?”
“Well… some people, they like to pretend that good acts are bad and bad acts are good,” the barker said. “No one knows why they do it, just that it happens that they do. They try to sneak in, act like they belong, and one of them gets up on a stage and the rest stand around pretending to be entertained. All the way they’re taking up a stage that could be used by people who would put on a show that a real audience wants to see.”
“How do you know they’re pretending?” Jake asked.
“Well, first, I know what’s a good act and what’s not. Don’t you? I mean, rollicking good fun. You know it, right? So when someone gets up and starts reciting poetry that doesn’t even rhyme, or putting on a one-woman show, or whatever, you know people are faking it when they say they like it.”
“Don’t you think maybe some people like that kind of stuff? I mean, people like different things.”
“Right! And the Big Tent caters to all tastes, but that doesn’t mean we have to stand for people lying about what’s good.”
“But how do you know they’re lying?” Jake asked.
“Because they talk about it,” the barker said. “You listen to them, you’ll hear it. Hey, one will say, you’ve got to come see this act. No mention of it being good, just ‘you’ve got to see it’. Like they’re commanding their little minions! Or they’ll say, it’s like nothing you’ve seen before. Like nothing you’ve ever seen! Well, if it was any good, they would have seen it before, wouldn’t they have? Or they’ll even be more blatant and say, you know that thing you’ve been looking for? Someone’s doing it over here!”
“What’s wrong with that?” Jake asked.
“The only thing people should be looking for in the Big Tent is a rollicking good show!” the barker said. “It’s not fair for people to come in looking for a specific thing! All acts should be judged purely on their own merit. Anyone who can’t do that is cheating.”
“So, you never… you never go in looking for music, or whatever?”
“Well, sure, but that’s different,” the barker said. “That’s something normal. You expect to find music under the Big Tent.”
“Wasn’t the point of the Big Tent that you can find anything under it?”
“Of course! All people welcome! All tastes welcome! All ideas welcome!” the barker said. “We especially love ideas! Some people think that ideas are dangerous, but not us! Bring us your ideas, the more dangerous the better!” He pointed to a woman being ejected from the front of the queue. “You see that woman who just got turned back?”
“Yeah?” Jake said.
He’d noticed by now that a lot of people were turned away, and that every time it happened, more people left the line. In fact, the more the barker spoke to him, the more people drifted out of the queues and towards them to listen in disturbed fascination.
“Well, she’s a known feminist,” the barker said. “That’s why we can’t give her a stage. If feminism gets a toehold, we’re through.”
“But you said no ideas were too dangerous,” Jake said.
“Right! That’s why we can’t allow any feminism,” the barker said. “As soon as we allow feminism, free speech is over.”
“What about her free speech?”
“What about it?” the barker said. He cupped his hands around his mouth again and yelled, “Come one, come all! Come to the Big Tent, where you can enjoy any show you want without having to put up with any feminist bull!”
A good twenty, thirty people stomped out of the line at this pronouncement, while maybe a half dozen people, mostly men, drifted over with interest.
“See?” the barker said. “We get more and more people all the time. So, what do you say, lad? You want to see the Big Tent?”
“Yeah… I’m not sure it’s for me.”
“The Big Tent is for everyone!”
“If feminism isn’t allowed, what else isn’t allowed?”
“I told you, everything is allowed, as long as it’s legal,” the barker said. “And as long as you’re not lying. We can’t allow people to lie about what they like, or what’s a good show. We can’t allow people to pander to PC nonsense, either. That’s just not fair to anyone.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, no one likes to be called racist, right?” the barker said. “So if you go in and put on a show that makes a big point of being not racist, that gives you an unfair advantage over any show that doesn’t. Because people will have to pretend to like your show in order to not appear racist.”
“Are there a lot of racist shows in the Big Tent?”
“We believe in freedom of expression.”
“Could I ask which shows are racist?”
“Oh, no, see, that would infringe on their freedom of expression,” the barker said. “Because then you’d avoid them, see? Instead of giving them a fair chance.”
“So because you believe in freedom of expression, no one can say that anything is racist?”
“Obviously,” the barker said. “Look, no one is saying that every show has to be racist. You just can’t… pander.”
“Well, what’s pandering?”
“Making a big deal out of not being racist, so it’s obvious you’re only doing it for political correctness points,” the barker said. Most of the crowd that had surrounded the two had drifted away, leaving the fairgrounds entirely. The barker cupped his mouth and shouted, “Come to the Big Tent, where you don’t have to deal with a lot of pandering politically correct bull!”
Most of the people left in the line whooped and hollered at this exclamation. Of those in earshot and not already in line, about half of them gave a sign of approval while the rest shook their heads in disgust.
“You see?” the barker said, gesturing towards the people remaining in line. “We just… we know what the people want, and we give it to them. Is that so bad?”
“So, the people you turn away, do they not count?” Jake asked.
“You’re saying it’s bad to give the people what they want,” the barker said.
“No, no, man,” Jake said. “Look, it’s obvious you’re catering to a specific set of tastes here, okay? That’s cool. It’s your tent.”
“Young man, it’s everybody’s tent.”
“It’s your tent, and you can do what you want with it,” Jake said. “I just wish you were more honest about it, you know? It’s rude to say that everyone’s invited and then turn people away. It’s weird to say that all ideas are welcome when you’re going to be screening certain ideas out. It’s just… the whole thing is kind of dishonest, you know?”
For the first time, the barker’s smile faltered.
“What did you call me?” he asked.
“I just… not you, but the, you know, the enterprise,” Jake said. “It seems a bit dishonest, you know? Disingenuous.”
“So you think that just because we don’t allow people to lie, somehow we’re the dishonest ones?” the barker asked. “Everybody, listen! This guy here thinks it’s dishonest to not allow people to lie! Can you believe that?”
“Dude,” Jake said, throwing up his hands as several heads swiveled to glare daggers at him. “That’s not what I…”
“He wants to ruin your good time!” the barker said. “He wants to pack the stages with boring acts featuring feminists and people who will call you racist and scold you for having fun!”
“Dude, I was just asking…”
“You know what? I think you were right, buddy,” the barker said. “Maybe the Big Tent isn’t for you.”
“Okay, man, I’ll shove off, then!” Jake said. “Later!”
He turned and walked away.
“Heh, his loss,” the barker said to a stunned-looking woman who had caught the end of the exchange. “He wouldn’t be so high-and-mighty if he knew what he was missing out on. Our tent is the biggest of the kind.”
“Is it really that big?” the woman asked him.
“Oh, I know, it doesn’t look all that big from here, does it?” the barker said. “But you’ve got to see the inside. There’s so much empty space!”