Laughter, fear and the Former Minister

The Former Minister’s triumphal (albeit unscheduled) return to center stage last week showed just how much our society needs both a good laugh and a scapegoat, as well as our need to see our political elite develop beyond the «homo pasokos» of the 1980s. It illustrated, also, how close the comic and the tragic lie, how a comic persona becomes a figure of tragedy when stripped of the robes of office. It showed how indifferent and flippant we were for so long with regard to those who lead us, and how this age is now over. The Former Minister is the familiar figure of Aristophanes’ comedies, the only character in the theater who is unaware of how ridiculous he is; he is a modern Karagiozis, the popular shadow-theater protagonist who, though he may drive a Mercedes, cannot see the hole in his trousers. As with everything that raises a laugh, the latest performance by this solemn theatrical troupe of one — the Former Minister — provided a precious service both to the country and to the trembling ranks of his colleagues.

In an age where we find few opportunities for a laugh, the Former Minister hit the motherlode of popular humor. Let’s not forget that Aristophanes wrote his comic masterpieces during the Peloponnesian War, a time when his city’s safety and the lives of its citizens were at stake. It is no coincidence that the only funny lines in Shakespeare’s melancholy ?Hamlet? are in the graveyard scene. In time of war, when Athens’s tragedians examined the cost of conflict on victors and vanquished, Aristophanes dared to mock, to judge, to provoke his fellow citizens for their lack of self-knowledge and countless other weaknesses. He may have run into trouble with some of his more famous victims but he won the gratitude of audiences through the ages.

Laughter becomes more important in the face of danger, when fear is dominant. And the comic persona that we all wanted to see in the person of the Former Minister took on greater importance because he represents a very dangerous reality: not only because when in government he was pompous and arrogant, but because this time he got into trouble with the police for jumping red lights in his car, and then, during an allegedly heated confrontation with officers, he injured one with his car. Acting as if the laws did not apply to him, he endangered the lives of others — and he provided a bad example to other drivers. We laugh at such people not only because they have no sense of reality, but because when they bring punishment upon themselves we feel no pity.

A ?useful idiot,? the Former Minister is ?sacrificed? so as to provide the fleeting impression that maybe from now on our politicians will be obliged to obey the law. Unfortunately, though, many citizens have already followed their example and are indifferent to red lights, they drive the wrong way up one-way streets, they park wherever they like and, in general, they do as they please with impunity. It is difficult to change such behavior without sacrifices greater than that of a Former Minister. This behavior betrays the weakness of our institutions and keeps undermining them. That is why — for so many years — we placed our trust in the wrong people to run this country, without the people rejecting them, without the political system feeling the need to protect itself from those who destroyed its credibility.

Today we see our country with eyes that are wiser. We look at the recent and less-recent past and we understand how rare were those people who were able to make their priority the common good, to channel the people’s energy toward cultural, economic and social development. In their stead, we see how often we were ruled by those who shouted louder than others, who tangled up the people in myths and lies. We see the great role played by jealousy, paranoia, reckless enthusiasm, lawlessness and improvisation.

So, as we wait for the great comic who will raise tears of laughter, let’s laugh with the naive, the dizzy, the countless amateurs who strut our public stage. Because, in the end, laughter is all we have to shield us from fear.

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