Does this joke make me look fat?

Did you hear that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was voted the sexiest man alive for 2012? In the words of one contest judge, “this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman’s dream come true,” with his “devastatingly handsome, round face … impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and … famous smile.” The Chinese Communist Party’s official paper took the story from The Onion and ran with it, not realizing it was satire.

Cartoon by Heng in NYT Nov 30, 2012

Cartoon by Heng in NYT Nov 30, 2012

It’s unlikely that North Koreans could ever get away with something like this. (Back to that whole “freedom of expression” thing I’ve been writing about.) I love that we can make fun of our own leaders in the U.S. I love it even more when they’re willing to make fun of themselves.

Americans like it when people don’t take themselves too seriously, which is why we like Saturday Night Live political skits during campaign season. Fall 2008 was a good time for this, like when Senator Clinton appeared as herself next to Amy Poehler. Politicians who do this must see it as a worthwhile risk. Yeah, they might look stupid, but they know it could make them look more human and win them additional votes.

I started thinking about what happens in other countries. Do candidates do this where you live? Does it help or hurt them politically? Leave a comment if you know of other cases, because I’d love to look into those.

Political humor can be more than just a “gentle ribbing” when it’s aimed at hated leaders. In Georgia, satirists made the Dardubala cartoons to mock Shevardnadze and Saakashvili. Even if you don’t know the political details or the language, you can still see that Saakashvili’s critics view him as an insane womanizer surrounded by corrupt people. Russia used to have a really good satirical program called Kukly, but  Putin said “we are not amused” not long after he came to power and had the show pulled from tv. You can still find episodes on YouTube, like this one that begins with Yeltsin rocking an ugly little Putin-baby (his political progeny) in his cradle.

Paul Miller Putin KuklyThen I remembered the painting scandals in South Africa this year. Brett Murray angered a lot of people in the spring with his painting “The Spear,” which showed President Jacob Zuma posed as Lenin, only with his genitals exposed—a reference to his many wives and girlfriends. Ayanda Mabulu created a similar work in August and called it “Weapon of Mass Destruction.” The works spawned a public debate on racism and freedom of expression vs. privacy and dignity, but as far as I can tell neither artist was arrested.

In other places you can be arrested for much less. You might have heard about Thailand’s harsh lèse-majesté law against defaming the royal family. Under this law a 61-year-old man was sentenced last year to 20 years in prison for four text messages that were considered “offensive to the monarchy.” I’ve also heard of people being arrested for insulting their rulers in Vietnam, Malaysia, Bahrain, and Kuwait. Before you decide that this could only happen in non-Western countries, you should know it’s also illegal to insult Queen Beatrix in the Netherlands. Interestingly, Dutch parliament recently decriminalized blasphemy.

What each country allows depends on many things, like how democratic it is and what people there believe about the freedom of speech. It also matters how secure leaders are in their power. If the country is a dictatorship and the leader lives in constant fear of a coup d’etat, then he probably won’t tolerate mockery, thinking it makes him look weak. (Yes, I used only the “he” pronoun. How many female dictators can you name?) Maybe it also depends on the role humor plays in a country’s society and politics. For example, is it considered appropriate in business or politics to open a speech with a joke, or not? In the U.S. it is in some cases. In Bahrain, maybe not?

In societies where political jokes and satire are accepted, do they undermine the political system or the leaders’ authority?

I think they keep politicians (more) humble. That would explain the appeal for Americans, since our political system was designed to keep our leaders from becoming too powerful.

What do you think?

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