Send in the clowns

by Laura Vilaça

Employed with proper timing, being called a clown is offensive. I think we can all agree on that much. While literally meaning “a comic entertainer, especially one in a circus, wearing a traditional costume and exaggerated makeup”, calling someone a clown with the intent of offending falls into the notion of being a “silly, foolish or incompetent person” (New Oxford American Dictionary).

Since Friday, Portugal has been deeply reconnecting with this concept after a well-known writer, journalist and political analyst, Miguel Sousa Tavares, called our President of the Republic (PR), Aníbal Cavaco Silva, a “clown”. Mr. Tavares stated on an interview to the biggest national economic paper that the country doesn’t need a Beppe Grillo, because “we already have a clown. He’s called Cavaco Silva”.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

If our PR had a sense of humor (irony much?) and a less sensitive ego, this could all be summed up to a big, national laugh and a couple of drinks paid by Miguel Sousa Tavares to the President. But he has not a sense of humor. In fact, what he has is the law backing up his bad mood – and he knows that. According to the 328th article of the Portuguese Penal Code, “that who slanders or libels the President of the Republic (…), is punished with imprisonment up to three years or with a fine”. Moreover, “if the slander or libel are made through words uttered publicly (…), the offender shall be punished with imprisonment from six months to three years or with a fine not inferior to 60 days”. The PR thus promptly appealed to the Attorney General of the Republic (AGR), the higher entity of the  Public Ministry, asking the interview to be analyzed. An inquiry to further investigate the case is already set in March, making sure Cavaco Silva’s good name is not associated with such foul offenses. Mr. Tavares already came out publicly apologizing for his words, agreeing that he “shouldn’t have said that”. What he meant, apparently, was not to offend the position of head of state but Mr. Cavaco Silva himself, for whom the author “has no political consideration”.

But the apology came too late, Tavares. The circus had already began.

"You're a Cavaco (...) This IS an insult"

“You’re a Cavaco (…) This IS an insult”

The circus actually began in 2008, when a left-wing politician-blog-writer-opinion maker, Daniel Oliveira, called Alberto João Jardim, the President of the Regional Government of Madeira, a “clown”. Back then, Mr. Oliveira’s arguments were based on the exuberant persona of Mr. Jardim, who frequently blasts statements like journalists are “bastards” and “sons of bitches”, among others of similar content towards renown political and social figures. Alberto João Jardim sued Daniel Oliveira at the time, managing to get him sentenced to pay a fine of 2000 euros, later reduced to 500 in a second trial conceded by appeal. Even though an year prior to this case the Oporto Court of Second Instance issued an acórdão (decision made by a court of second instance) stating that “calling someone a clown was not enough to trigger the intervention of Law because it is not socially relevant”, poor Daniel Oliveira still had to pay (Portuguese justice is truly awesome).

However, not all is gloomy. Amongst all the fuss, a beautiful thing emerged from this case: a so-called Union of Humorous-Circus Workers launched a petition expressing their “most vigorous condemnation” of the statement of Daniel Oliveira, demanding “an apology to all clowns, who in such evil way were insulted by this offensive comparison”. In short, the clowns were offended because they felt it was injurious to be called Alberto João Jardim.

A picture depicting the members of the board of the Union of Humorous-Circus Workers

A picture depicting the members of the board of the Union of Humorous-Circus Workers

Back to the present time, the show keeps going on. Moments after the publication of news about the PR’s appeal to the AGR, people massively commented on the President’s Facebook page, calling him a “clown” and posting links related to clowns, such as videos about Krusty, the clown of The Simpsons, and the opera Pagliacci, in which a song affirms: “No, pagliaccio non son” (No, I am not a clown). Some hours later, these comments were deleted from the page (20 points to democracy, by the way).

The leader of the Left Bloc, a leftist Portuguese political party, also publicly commented on the incident. With an acute sense of irony, João Semedo said that “we don’t need to compare Cavaco Silva with no one, much less with a professional class that deserves all our sympathy [the clowns]”.

Send in the clowns, folks, because the circus is already in town.

Speak that beautiful mind of yours!

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