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Few things are as quintessentially summer as the fair, or for that matter, as quintessentially American. I’m biased, which also seems like an especially American way of being, but the county fair played a significant role in my childhood and I still love it. When I was young my entire family would load up the car and go to the fair, even Grandma and Grandpa; we would make an entire day of it.
It occurred on once such outing that I as a wee child just under five years old while immersed in a crowd of people watching pigs race got separated from my folks and, for a short while, was lost. This was well before I’d grown into my more outgoing public persona; at the time I was painfully shy unwilling to yield any helpful information to the kindly sheriff officer who found me. Fortunately, an announcement went out over the public address system about a lost little boy accompanied by my wailing in the background, quickly summoning my panicked parents. The next few years, I as well as my little brother, went to the fair with name tags affixed to us should we get separated again, which we never did.
Fairs are exciting places! Even the mishap of getting lost didn’t take away the unadulterated joy that a fair offers. And when you’re a kid, much of that joy comes from the carnival rides. Now to be honest, as an adult I find a lot of them a bit sketchy, sometimes rickety, occasionally motion-sickness inducing, or of the opposite nature—simply boring. But as a child these rides bring thrills. We live in an amusement park saturated world now where entertainment can be had easily enough with travel and a goodly investment. Sure, the fair is no Disney or Cedar Point or Six Flags. But perhaps it’s precisely in the fair’s carnival rides’ impermanence that part of the thrill resides. That, and kids just like rides.
The animals are, hands down, my favourite aspect of a fair. Having originated as agricultural exhibitions and competitions, fairs still highlight a county or state’s agrarian elements, and even with the shrinking of the population involved with farming, fairs still demonstrate its presence in the wider community. This was certainly important in my own youth and formation and I find it all that much more important now living much removed from that environment.
I love a good county or state fair! I want that to come across strongly as I segue here to a recent New York Times op-ed piece by columnist Roger Cohen entitled, Incurable American Excess. He begins with sharing results from a recent survey demonstrating a fascinating comparison of Americans and Europeans:
Americans and Europeans were asked in a Pew Global Attitudes survey what was more important: “freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference,” or “state guarantees that nobody is in need.” In the United States, 58 percent chose freedom and only 35 percent a state pledge to eradicate neediness. In Britain, the response was the opposite: 55 percent opted for state guarantees and just 38 percent for freedom. On the European Continent — in Germany, France and Spain — those considering state protection as more important than freedom from state interference rose to 62 percent.
This finding gets to the heart of trans-Atlantic differences. Americans, who dwell in a vast country, sparsely populated by European standards, are hardwired to the notion of individual self-reliance. Europeans, with two 20th-century experiences of cataclysmic societal fracture, are bound to the idea of social solidarity as prudent safeguard and guarantor of human decency. The French see the state as a noble idea and embodiment of citizens’ rights. Americans tend to see the state as a predator on those rights. The French ennoble the dutiful public servant. Americans ennoble the disruptive entrepreneur.
This editorial was floating around in my mind last week as I attended the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. The Iowa State Fair is a thrilling, exciting, and celebratory fest of Americana. It is also a place where you can purchase and eat almost anything fried on a stick. “Americans ennoble the disruptive entrepreneur.” The eventual results of eating said food is also quite evident in the bodies of the crowds that fill the fairgrounds.
Cohen’s third paragraph is the “best of times, worse of times” descriptor of American culture and values:
To return from Europe to the United States, as I did recently, is to be struck by the crumbling infrastructure, the paucity of public spaces, the conspicuous waste (of food and energy above all), the dirtiness of cities and the acuteness of their poverty. It is also to be overwhelmed by the volume and vital clamor of American life, the challenging interaction, the bracing intermingling of Americans of all stripes, the strident individualism. Europe is more organized, America more alive. Europe purrs; even its hardship seems somehow muted. America revs. The differences can feel violent.
My best friend said to me, “when one goes to India they are expected to eat Indian food, when one goes to the fair, they are expected to eat something fried on a stick.” I had the Twinkie. One might even say technically it is hardly “food.” But I have to confess, although my mind told me all the things that were bad about eating it, it really tasted rather yummy. While we waited for the breaded Twinkie on a stick to come out of the deep-fryer along with the fried breaded snickers bar my friend ordered we chatted with a couple college kids who are political interns in Iowa this summer for the Martin O’Malley presidential campaign. They too were waiting for a fried Twinkie.
It is also to be overwhelmed by the volume and vital clamor of American life, the challenging interaction, the bracing intermingling of Americans of all stripes, the strident individualism.
After our “food” we headed home for the day. Had we stayed longer we would have had the opportunity to meet Gov. O’Malley. Had we returned to the fair in the following day we could have met Donald, Hillary, and Bernie too. It’s not nothing that it is likely that the next President of the United States was at the Iowa State Fair last week. Also, that he or she may well have eaten something fried and served on a stick.
I still love a good fair. Some things never change. I will say again that it is quintessentially Americana at its best (and possibly worst too.) Even at this age it’s easy to get lost. The rides can be both thrilling and boring and cause you to get sick. The animals are still my favourite.