When I was a kid, my dad used to take my sister and me to the Ringling Brothers, Barnum, and Bailey circus every year when its tour schedule brought it to Madison Square Garden. One year (I was maybe 12 or 13, so this would have made it the mid-1980s) the television commercials for the circus advertised that this time, they’d have a genuine, real-life unicorn there. They even showed it in the commercial – this white animal with a long straight horn right in the middle of its head that was riding around on what looked like a parade float, next to a woman wearing a floofy pink dress and one of those conical princess hats (the proper term for that type of hat is a “hennin”, in case you didn’t know that) who was holding its leash.
Well, my sister was just about as excited as you’d expect any 10-year-old girl from an American suburb in the 80s to be about meeting a unicorn in person. I was reaching the age where boys tend to lose interest in things like going to the circus, but I’ll have to admit that I was pretty curious myself. I was old enough to have learned that there was no such thing as unicorns, and yet… and yet, here one was. On TV, no less – and there are laws against lying in a TV commercial! I sure did want to figure out how they’d managed that. So even though I’d been considering begging off that year, I went to the circus without putting up any resistance.
I don’t remember that much about the show, and I couldn’t even really be sure how many of my hazy three-decade-old memories of it are mixed up with those of all the other years I went. I do remember clearly that after the show you could go stand on a line to see the unicorn up close and maybe even get your picture taken with it. The line was huge – hundreds of little girls with dreamy, excited looks on their faces standing there with their parents, many of whom wore the tired look of someone who’d already spent a long day making the kids happy and now just wanted to start heading home before the traffic got too bad. My sister, of course, wanted to stay, and my dad wanted to leave. They fought, like they always did, over everything, and would keep doing for years to come, right up until the day she died. Dad won that time, though, so we never did get to meet that unicorn in person.
On Saturdays, dad would bring me along as he sat at a table in his favorite diner for hours and hours, sipping coffee and reading the newspaper; he always read the New York Times, but I went for the New York Post, which should tell you a thing or two about the differences between him and I. So it had to have been the Saturday after we went to the circus that, sitting in a booth at the diner, I saw an article in the Post about the unicorn we’d seen there. The Post’s reporters had done some digging, and had uncovered the secret origins of the show’s magical creature. The truth of the unicorn turned out to be this: it was a surgically-altered goat. The circus had bought a baby goat and gotten a veterinarian do an operation to move the glands that produce the horns on either side of its head together into the middle of its forehead, where they fused together and produced a singe horn. As the horn began to grow, they strapped a kind of mold to its head so the horn would grow straight and conical instead of curved like a goat’s horn naturally would. After a couple of years, they had their unicorn.
Well that news was pretty horrifying on all kinds of levels. Of course, there was the poor goat to consider. I guess it didn’t have too bad a life as the lives of goats go, but still the thought of it going through all that surgical alteration was enough to give anybody the willies. But more than that, I was horrified because I felt cheated. I wasn’t even the one who was really excited about seeing the unicorn in the first place, and still I felt upset. That thing wasn’t a unicorn. It wasn’t even a horse. It was just a fucking goat! How could they flat-out lie to people like that? (On television no less! Isn’t that illegal?) That wasn’t a show – it was a fake, a counterfeit, a bait-and-switch! It was a cynical fraud aimed at extracting money from the parents of little girls by making them believe they were going to see something that they really weren’t going to see. Something that, in fact, they couldn’t see, because it is fundamentally impossible to show them something that in reality doesn’t exist.
You see, you can take a goat and have a surgeon chop it up and cut and paste various of its parts until it’s a semi-passable facsimile of something else, but in reality it’s still just a goat, and it’s never going to be anything else. You can go on television and say that it’s something other than a goat, but that doesn’t make it not a goat, it just makes you a liar who’s pushing a bullshit story. You can talk a large number of people into believing that what they’re seeing is really a unicorn and totally not at all a goat, and do it so convincingly that they’ll say so to anyone who will listen, but that just makes them gullible – a bunch of rubes who are ready to believe obviously unlikely things.
Hell, if you wanted to, you could even have passed a law requiring everybody to believe that the thing was really a unicorn; forcing them to go along with pretending that it was and fining them into bankruptcy if they ever acted otherwise. Even then, it wouldn’t change the fact that the thing wasn’t actually a unicorn, it was just a goddamn goat. That’s what it is, in reality, and everyone who believes otherwise and doesn’t have the excuse of being a small child is one of those suckers who, as P. T. Barnum himself reminded us, is born every minute.
That’s what I learned so many years ago, as a young boy just starting to tread along the edges of adulthood. But why am I telling you this dusty old story now, in a world very different from that long-past time? Why am I telling you all of this in our world, in which we are told (On television, no less!) that two men or two women can form a “marriage”, that someone with a Y chromosome and a penis can be a woman if they just believe that they are (and, eventually, if a surgeon just alters them enough), that the government can create equality between individuals and groups of people simply by declaring that they are equal and fining into bankruptcy anyone who acts as if they aren’t, and in which brilliant people can be fired from important jobs for even daring to express an opinion that runs contrary to any of this?