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Unknown Menaces to Civilization #7: Parades
Looking back into our past, we are regularly amused, and astounded, by the sorts of things that our technologically-deprived ancestors were forced to seek out as forms of entertainment. Children without anything else to do would spend hours of time engaged in the pointless activity of simultaneously bouncing little balls and trying to scoop up pronged pieces of plastic—the now-forgotten game of "jacks." Bored citizens during the Renaissance would gather to watch the sport of dogs attacking a bear—"bear-baiting"—or, if they were lucky, the engaging spectacle of a public execution. Puppeteers could attract large crowds by manipulating wooden dolls to act out inane stories, largely involving one doll bashing the other doll in the head.

Thankfully, all of these pathetic, or revolting, diversions have now been banished from modern civilizations that can offer its citizens far more palatable ways to be entertained. With access to films, television, CDs, video games, and the Internet, no sane person would waste their time playing jacks or watching dogs battle bears. To be sure, small groups of people have remained devoted to related phenomena like cockfighting or puppet shows, but these have been properly banished to the fringes of society, invisible to all but a few.

Inexplicably, however, one outdated form of entertainment has retained a conspicuous place in American society, as large numbers of people continue to waste their time and resources on regularly staging and observing spectacles that are both extravagantly profligate and achingly dull.

I am referring, of course, to parades.

Now, if we mentally travel back in time to a small town in nineteenth-century America, it is easy to see why a parade would be a welcome addition to their residents' monotonous lives. After all, marching musicians and soldiers in uniform, colorfully decorated floats pulled by horses, and vehicles with waving dignitaries did represent something to look at that wasn't the same old buildings and the same old countryside. And if a circus came to town, the introductory parade that served as its chief means of advertising would also offer spectators glimpses of exotic animals, the antics of clowns, and skilled athletes performing stunts. Since no other sorts of entertainment were available, people would genuinely appreciate a parade, which meant that the effort and the expense of mounting a publicly sponsored parade, if no circuses were expected, were more than justifiable.

But none of this is true today. Now, in the comfort of one's home, people can be endlessly entertained by more than enough wildlife, athletes, comedians, musicians, and celebrities; why bother to stand on a crowded, smelly street for hours in order to see such things passing by for a minute or so? Even if live experiences are preferred, we have an abundance of theatres, zoos, concert halls, and arenas that offer such pleasures to anyone willing to pay the generally modest price of a ticket. With so many ways to experience everything that can be experienced by watching a parade, there is absolutely no reason to squander anyone's money and energy in order to periodically transport such spectacles down a city street.

But some people will say that they really, really like parades; they relish the experience of coming early to claim a desirable place on the curb, socializing with the other early arrivers, and eagerly anticipating all of the purported delights that will eventually be marching in front of them.

Well. These questionable claims could be put to the test. Some enterprising businesswoman could rent a stadium with an outdoor track, hire some talent, build some floats, and plan a typical parade that can march around the track again and again. To recoup her expenses, she could then charge admission so that local parade-lovers could all come to the stadium and either sit in the seats or stand by the track to take in their favorite form of entertainment for as long as they please. What she would discover is that nobody would come—an outcome so predictable that, in fact, no reasonable entrepreneur would even consider such a dubious investment. And, if nobody is willing to pay to watch a parade, that demonstrates beyond doubt that, in fact, they actually do not enjoy parades; they may come because they are free, or because parade attendance has evolved into a family tradition, but they aren't coming for the sheer pleasure of standing in the hot sun for hours to watch waving talk-show hosts, trucks bearing wooden constructs vaguely resembling volcanoes, or costumed horses cantering in circles.

Others might protest that television coverage of major parades, like the Tournament of Roses Parade or the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, regularly garners large ratings, which would suggest that there is something genuinely entertaining about these events. But the popularity of these events is surely dependent upon their infrequency. That is, if occasional parades attract so many viewers, why hasn't some network launched a series—The NBC Parade of the Week—that would provide coverage of a special parade staged every week for the cameras? For the same reason that businesses aren't offering parades in local stadiums—because nobody would ever watch such a program. People only watch the standard parades because they are heavily promoted, and because they have forgotten how thoroughly bored they were by the last parade; scientists may be able to determine, in fact, that there is a precise relation between the typical interval between televised parades and the typical duration of unpleasant long-term memories. Also, after people have endured a certain parade for a few years, such viewing can become a tradition, even a duty: before Thanksgiving dinner, all members of the family must watch the parade; after dinner, they must watch the football games.

In any event, even if a few misguided souls do enjoy watching parades, that represents no reason why these spectacles should be publicly subsidized. After all, people enjoy watching professional football games too, but no one has ever suggested that cities should cover the expense of hiring the players and providing free admission to every game. (They have suggested that taxpayers should shoulder the costs of building the stadiums, but that is a matter for another tirade.)

Still, it might be noted, municipal governments sponsoring parades may have to spend some money to do so, but the expenses are not that great, since many of the people involved in preparing and participating in parades are happy volunteers, demanding no payment for all of the time and effort they devote to the events that they inexplicably adore. However, one must first point that all of the marching bands from high schools and colleges that "volunteer" to join parades are themselves completely subsidized by their school districts and universities, an indefensible expense in its own right which I have devoted another essay to denouncing. But there are questions to raise even about the genuine volunteers who work hard on behalf of parades. Every year, for example, there are several news stories in my local paper about the small army of students from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona who spend countless hours designing, building, and tediously pasting thousands of flowers upon the float which they annually prepare for the Tournament of Roses Parade (usually known simply as the "Rose Bowl Parade"). If that's what they want to do with their time, what's wrong with that?

In the first place, one must respond, they are never doing these things for the sheer joy of artistic creation; they are instead obsessed with a completely artificial reward, garnering one of the many prizes—would you believe, 24?—given out to various floats in the Rose Bowl Parade. This is the same sort of cynical trick which has been exploited throughout history to prod people to engage in unproductive activities: make it a competition, and give the winner a prize. If you set up an annual prize for the person who piled the most poker chips on top of each other, you'd get dozens of college students who would devote themselves to mastering the fine art of carefully balancing one poker chip on top of another in order to achieve the highest stack—a pastime that is just about as worthwhile and productive as constructing a wooden covering for an automobile covered with dead flowers. True, some prizes involve matters that people actually care about, but the prizes given to Rose Bowl floats simply do not fall into that category: which float won the "Governor's Trophy" as the best float from a city in the 1986 Rose Bowl Parade? Does anybody—even the volunteers who built it—remember? I mean, we have entered the realm of awards so utterly meaningless that, it seems, there is not a single website on the Internet that has bothered to compile a complete list of the winners, though dedicated fanatics can dig out specific facts. (For the record, the city of Long Beach, California won the 1986 "Governor's Trophy" for its replica of Howard Hughes' "Spruce Goose." Now you know.)

And even if much of the labor involving in parades does come from volunteers, that still doesn't make it a worthwhile activity. Think of all of the productive things that hundreds of Cal Poly Pomona students might accomplish by volunteering hundreds of hours of labor. They could prepare meals for poor people, build houses for the homeless, plant trees in barren fields, or provide services and companionship for the elderly; if they are able to travel, they might construct needed irrigation ditches for small African villages, teach poor children in India how to read, train math teachers in Peru ... the list of ways in which they might help to make the world a better place is literally endless. Instead, this year, they will be wasting their time gluing thousands of dead flowers onto an enormous replica of a runway for a cartoon airplane.

In sum, as is the case with any dangerous addiction, it is time for an intervention. The people who prepare and pay for parades, and the people who watch parades, must be forcefully driven away from this profitless activity. One bold pioneer might lead the way. For example, with all of the financial problems now besetting California's governments, the city of Huntington Beach would be more than justified if it resolved to cancel its traditional Fourth of July Parade, saving some of its desperately needed money. Some foolish citizens would fiercely protest, just like heroin addicts deprived of their needles, but if the city held firm, people would quickly discover, after spending the Fourth of July actually doing something enjoyable for a change, that they can easily live without their annual parade. Other cities in California and elsewhere might then follow its example, and as fewer and fewer parades interfere with the normal workings of American society, even the surviving colossuses of their species—the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade and the Rose Bowl Parade—might feel compelled to cancel themselves as well. Then, during their holidays, the American people could finally take advantage of the many forms of genuine entertainment that, deep in their hearts, they really prefer.

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