Journalism: Commentary: The Un-Fairprint page

From Portland Daily Sun

October 4, 2010

The Un-Fair
By Zachary Barowitz

County Fair season is over, and I hope you were able to attend at least one, as it is a great tradition as well as a lot of fun. The harvest festival can certainly be traced back to medieval times if not well before that. Here is a wonderful description of a county fair from the 1949 novel A Rage to Live by John O'Hara.

The program was an all-day affair although the big doings were scheduled for the afternoon and evening. In the fore-noon it was possible to spend money on home-made fudge, home-made root beer, home-made sasparilla, pony rides, embroidery, lucky number games for fancywork, beer, ale porter, summer sausage, Ferris wheel, merry go-rounds, train rides, .22 rifle shooting, tests of muscle and other simple pleasures. The afternoon program included band concerts by two bands, loop-the-loops and other stunt flying by the Pennsylvania National Guard . . . Supper would be served in the church tents from five to eight and at nine o'clock there would be a giant pyrotechnical display lasting for a full hour, and from seven to eleven there would be dancing . . . . it was announced that there would be a refreshment tent for those over twenty-one. (An unannounced and unscheduled feature was the presence of two girls from Mae Brady's place on Terminal Street Fort Penn . . . until discovered by two county detectives.)

Sixty years later, the resemblance to current fairs is still strong.

Some readers might detect a Conservative element that runs through this description and in county fairs in general. This is not surprising, one need only to look at a county by county electoral map to see the correlation of low population density and Conservative politics.

The popular Common Ground Fair (held each year in Unity, Maine) has eliminated many of the Conservative elements of the county fair in favor of a strict (though at times idiosyncratic) adherence to localism and organic certification.

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) who runs the fair, prides itself on subjecting a strict vetting process that holds every vendor and every product to the scrutiny and specific criteria which other fairs reserve for 4H animals. Left out of the program are the carnies, the junk food, and by extension, the scary people in confederate t-shirts and Nascar caps. Unfortunately, in doing so, they also legislated out eliminated much of the fun.

Unlike local county fairs (attended largely by people from that county) the Common Ground Fair is missing what Mikhail Bahktin has called the Carnivalesque: the use of parody and chaos as a means of social liberation. As riders of amusement park rides will surely recognize, the bacchanal is the world literally turned upside down. The carnival then is a satire of life.

So by not reading Bahktin, MOFGA misses an essential element of the harvest.

As Italian satirist Daniele Luttazzi explains another Rabelaisan aspect of the harvest, that which is "dominated by the primary needs (eating, drinking, defecating, urinating, sex) to celebrate the victory of life: the social and the corporeal are joyfully joint in something indivisible, universal and beneficial."

So, in spite of various Conservative trappings, the traditional county fair represents some of the highest forms of human freedom. Whereas the Common Ground Fair version is scrubbed, sanitized, and overly vetted.

And with all the accounting, and in spite of their noble intentions, the Common Ground Fair organizers have created a far more restrictive and conservative atmosphere then they might have intended.