POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

What are You Laughing at?

by David Trumbull

May 21, 2004

"The true sage of to-day is the laughing, not the weeping, philosopher."

    --English legal scholar Carleton Kemp Allen (1887-1966)

Most Post-Gazette readers have no reason to know that, in addition to a real, bills-paying day job and my political activities, I am a serious student of humor. For example, I helped found the Robert Benchley Society for the mutual enjoyment and study of the writings and motion pictures of that American twentieth-century (1889-1945) humorist. We have a website with more information --

Combine humor and politics and you get?...Well, Jonathan Swift's 1729 Modest Proposal to alleviate poverty by eating the children of the poor. Swift, perhaps the greatest English language political satirist, wrote in a tradition that lives today in the writings and radio commentary of Boston's Howie Carr. I am told that some readers laugh at my political commentary as well --including, it is to be hoped, even at the bits that were intended to be funny.

We must laugh at politics. Sometimes it is the only thing one can do. Someone once pointed to Germany under Hitler, and Russia oppressed by communism, as cautionary tales of what happens when you take politics too seriously. Authoritarian states fear political humor.

The Greek biographer Plutarch, records how the greatest of the ancient Roman orators, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.), used well-crafted, humorous, personal "digs" to undermine his powerful, but less witty, opponents. Unfortunately for us, his humor, as so much political humor, depended on topical witty word-play that doesn't translate well. In his time his jests were a mighty, although ultimately failing, bulwark against tyranny, and for centuries they were remembered and retold.

Perhaps it was just one-too-many "cracks" about his drinking that drove Marc Antony to have the weak and elderly Cicero hunted down and killed. History records that after chopping off Cicero's head, Antony's henchmen cut off the hand that wrote the Philippics against Antony. Antony's wife drove a pen through the orator's eloquently piercing tongue. And to think, Michael Moore is upset just because Miramax doesn't want to distribute his latest lame film for him.

Perhaps the Democratic National Convention (otherwise known as the near occasion of sin) will offer a free screening of Moore's masterpiece. Free movie night ought to be the least they can do after closing down North Station and the Central Artery, along with countless businesses in the several block security zone around the Fleet Center.

Maybe they could take it a step further and offer the public free movies every day and evening of the convention. While John Kerry dances around family values, we could watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Gay Divorcee. Or maybe any of the Francis the Talking Mule pictures?

What are your suggestions for movies to watch while avoiding the Democrats' convention? Email me your choices and I'll run them in two weeks in the Post-Gazette.

David Trumbull is the chairman of the Boston Ward Three Republican Committee; he may be contacted at (617) 742-6881 or Boston's Ward Three includes the North End, West End, part of Beacon Hill, downtown, waterfront, Chinatown, and part of the South End.