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I saw a photo of a woman whacking a neo-Nazi with her purse, which made me recall the court jesters in Elizabethan England, which made me recall some faintly remembered memory of Plains Indian culture.

Like it does.

Let me explain. In Sweden in 1985, a group of Neo-Nazis were having a parade. A woman, a Polish immigrant whose mother had survived the concentration camps, ran out of the crowd and whacked one of them in the back of his head with her purse. Someone took a photo of the incident, leading someone else to sculpt a bronze statue of the woman that now stands on the spot of the whacking.

I loved the picture and the story, so I went searching for more information. The woman, Danuta Danielsson, was indeed the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. She also had some severe mental health issues and regretted her impulsive act. A few years after her moment of fame, she committed suicide.

Not the feel-good story I was hoping for, but maybe something more important.

Here’s the thing. If most of us were to see a bunch of guys straggling along, shouting slogans and carrying a Nazi flag, we’d tsk-tsk and walk the other way. That’s the civilized response. You could make a case that what’s needed instead is a solid whack with a purse, but it took a person standing outside of “normal” society to see that.

Back in the days of kings and queens, there was often a court jester who wore strange clothes, told jokes and played tricks. Because they were called fools, they could get away with telling the people in power things they didn’t want to hear. For the same reason, they could occasionally see things that everyone else missed and then talk about it without getting their heads cut off. Sometimes that’s the only way to get the truth through to the folks in charge - by softening it with a joke or bringing the perspective of someone standing outside the rules. Keep in mind, it took a child to point out that the emperor's new clothes didn’t exist.

Closer to home, or at least closer to my home, some of the Plains Indians, the Lakota and Dakota, have the tradition of someone called heyoka, which translates as something like sacred clown. These people dressed differently and acted differently, sometimes even walking backward everywhere they went. They were always telling the people things they would have preferred not to hear.

When cultures as vastly different as medieval Europe and the people of the Great Plains feel the need for figures who are so similar to be part of their popular culture, that means something. We must have people willing to say things out loud that no one wants to hear, people willing to poke fun at those in power.

We’re a little more sensitive these days, a little more careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings, and I understand that. I’m not encouraging people to be mean, because heaven knows we have plenty of mean going around. But if we’re going to make it impossible to swim against the current, to tell the tales no one wants to hear, I think that’s a mistake.

I’m sorry that Danuta Danielsson had mental health issues, and I bet she’d be embarrassed that someone made a statue in her honor. I’m glad they did.

Sometimes the correct response to bullies and braggarts is a whack with a purse and sometimes the only way forward is to actually listen to those annoying folks who tell us what we don’t want to hear.

Copyright 2023 Brent Olson

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