Dictators famously lack a sense of humour. Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein – none were known for being the life of the party, or for being able to take a joke – especially about themselves that didn’t prove fatal for the jokester.
But, conversely, there’s a proud tradition of fighting oppression with humour.
In 2012, when pre-election rallies were banned in Russia, anti-Putin demonstrators in Siberia staged an entire protest with toys. When police came to “arrest” the toys, the photos and videos went viral and became a huge boon to the protestors’ cause.
Humour is an excellent antidote to fear, and has been exploited by comedians from Groucho Marx – whose role as the leader of Freedonia in Duck Soup remains a classic — to Chaplin’s the Great Dictator, to Woody Allen – whose Sleeper features the “great leader” reduced to single body part, his nose – kept artificially alive by a group of scientists until they can come up with a better idea for maintaining the status quo.
A sure sign of a dictator is an absent sense of humour. Egypt’s “Jon Stewart” – comedian and talk show host Bassem Youssef – was harassed by both Presidents Mohamed Morsi and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi when his jokes went “too far.”
Immigrants from police states
But apparently Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn’t get the memo that humourless authoritarianism is bad democratic form.
This must come as some surprise, but also a certain sense of familiarity for the thousands of new Canadians who have fled police states run by humourless strongmen. While familiarity is supposed to breed contempt, it may conversely account for the support the Conservative Party receives from new Canadians.
Those familiar with police states might not have been surprised by the sudden censorship of Margaret Atwood’s satirical essay in the National Post newspaper on the upcoming elections that mentioned Harper’s hairstyle, as well as the current scandal on corruption in the Senate.
The column disappeared shortly after its initial posting, only to reappear in an edited version, minus some of the more scathing criticism of the great leader. (I’m now working on a screenplay of a new version of Sleeper set in Ottawa, with the “great leader” reduced to his hairpiece, kept artificially alive by scientists until it can be cloned.)
And then, in an even odder series of events, Tony Turner, a senior civil servant and bird migration scientist, was suspended from his government job because of concern about a satirical anti-Harper song called Harperman he wrote and performed in a video that has since gone viral.
Ironies aside, Harper seems oblivious to the fact that such attempts at censorship from a government represent one of the single biggest opportunities for an artist. I remember doing a reading in Vancouver for PEN International (from my own book Dancing in the no Fly Zone, which features lots of dark Iraqi political humour in its own right) with Chinese dissident writer Sheng Xue who publicly thanked her government for turning her latest book into a bestseller by banning it. I wonder what Xue, who has since sought refuge in Canada, would say about the Harperman saga?
Now Tony Turner’s video has had over 200,000 views and a national singalong day is planned for September 17th, including one on the steps of the Parliament. This may well help launch his international performing career.
Folk music tradition
The Harper regime has also done a great service to the folk music tradition. Folk singers have not been explicitly targeted by a regime since the days of Allende in Chile, when Victor Jara was murdered in a Santiago football stadium and American singer Phil Ochs narrowly escaped a similar fate.
As David Rovics, the American protest singer known for his caustic songs about American foreign policy and in defense of human rights in Palestine and elsewhere, said of the Harperman incident, “I’m never so lucky as to get muzzled. They just ignore me which is their best strategy for avoiding giving free publicity to left-wing musicians or making them martyrs.”
While Turner’s public service union continues to defend him on the grounds that singing a folk song did not impede in any way his research on bird migration, the absurdity of the whole situation makes Harper appear increasingly desperate, paranoid and removed from reality.
It also removes him from the proud Canadian tradition of satire – which one would hope has only been encouraged by these recent incidents. While Canadian humour is known for its subtlety, dry wit and irony, there’s certainly nothing subtle about firing a government employee for writing a satirical folk song.
It recalls some of Robertson Davies’ better lines, including “A public servant has no right to an opinion on any subject that’s got two sides to it.” As well as “I see Canada as a country torn between a very northern, rather extraordinary, mystical spirit which it fears and its desire to present itself to the world as a Scotch banker.”
But will Pierre Berton’s classic definition of the Canadian – as someone who can “make love in a canoe” — soon be changed to “someone who stays silent so they can keep their cushy government job?” Let’s hope not.
At a time when brave Iraqi citizens are protesting their own government’s ineptitude and corruption with clever slogans (my favourite so far was a banner made by the Pharmacist’s Union offering “free hemorrhoid medication for parliamentarians”) it would be a shame if Canadians allowed intimidation to dissuade their own protests.
Let us instead remember that humour is still the best antidote to fear.
Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone and is working on a new book about ancient sites in Iraq. She has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades and is also a singer and musician.