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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What if a Dictator is Boring? Can We Laugh at Ourselves?

Topher Morrison

What if a Dictator is Boring?  Can We Laugh at Ourselves?
The Dictator starring Sasha Baron Cohen
In what was anticipated to be Sasha Baron Cohen’s magnum opus, “The Dictator”, has unfortunately suffered a critics coup prior to its U.S. release.  But, we shall see how the peasants react at the box office this week.

According to co writers of “The Dictator”, Jeff Schafer and David Mandel, Mr. Cohen is essentially playing the amalgamated personification of Kim Jong-il, Idi Amin, Serdar Turkmenbashi and of course what we all suspected since we first saw the baby blue uniform – the late Muammar Ghaddafi of Libya.

After all, this particular dictator, His Excellency Admiral General Shabazz Aladeen (nod to 1001 Arabian Nights) of the Republic of Wadiya (nod to common middle eastern geographical features), is a fascistic, misogynistic, anti-Zionist from North Africa.  He’s also an ophthalmologist (probably a last ditch effort to wrap Bashar al-Assad of Syria into the mix).

Alas, critics across the globe have offered their long knives rather than the typical enthusiastic appraisal of Mr. Cohen’s comedic command.  The Boston Globe asked if Mr. Cohen’s act was “getting old” and even after the Los Angeles Times gave “The Dictator” a polite golf clap Betsy Sharkey left her readers with something to think about:
"Still, by the end [of the movie] it’s hard not to think that this particular joke has gone on too long. Perhaps it is time for Baron Cohen to have a go at pushing other acting boundaries harder, and give the Borats, the Brunos, the Aladeens of the world, and us, a rest."
Rene Rodriguez of the Kansas City Star went a bit further, anticipating Mr. Cohen may have even jumped the shark and turned around to give it a high five:
“The Dictator” does for “Sacha Baron Cohen” what “The Love Guru” did for Mike Myers: Reveal that this sharp, revered comedian with an uncanny ear for absurdist humor is a mere mortal capable of great folly.
In your humble author’s opinion, the proper analogy would be Baron Cohen and Tom Green.  After everyone eventually came to recognize who they were the precious candid camera comedy was no more.  The real magic was seeing how unwitting clerks would react to Tom Green using tens of thousands of pennies to buy groceries or unsuspecting patrons of a country and western bar in Tucson, Arizona joining Baron Cohen in a sing-along version of “Throw the Jew Down the Well.”

Whether Sasha Baron Cohen is going downhill as all other comics seem to be tragically destined to do is not our concern.

It is easy to make fun of cartoonish characters like Col. Ghaddafi, his guilded wardrobe of flowing dessert robes, colorful military ensemble and praetorian of virgin women. Ghaddafi has been the poster dictator for this type of comic cruelty since he co-starred with Fidel Castro, Yassar Arafat, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ayatolla Khomeini in 1988’s “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!”

The creators of South Park and Team America, showed us it was ok to be racist when satirizing a despot (that is its own article), but didn’t his HD glasses, throwback tunic and cognac on tap deserve some barbs?

What about Serdar Turkmenbashi who turned the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan into his own private Disney World replete with golden statues of himself in every public space?  Sure, gas is only cents on the dollar, but isn’t a man who renamed the days of the week after himself a prime candidate for public humiliation, even posthumously?

Initially I’d have to agree with Aristotle that the right genre for dramatizing bad men is indeed comedy.  If we can’t remind those who refuse follow history or current events that these men still linger how else are we to reach them other than through Hollywood?

Then again, is it good to depict for the masses these buffoonish characters in caricature?  Is this robbing us from learning about some dark part of humanity we instinctually admire, gravitate to and are suckered in by?  In this case I would have to agree with Confucius; dead leaders need to be respected even when you hate them – they’re us.

What about when dictators, despots, tyrants – whatever you want to call them – aren’t funny?  What happens when they are banal, quiet or aplenty?  Who’s making fun of oligarchies?  It will doubtfully reoccur, while photos still circulate, that evil will once again feel like dawning black leather, jack boots, red arm bands and skulls.  If so they’d be easy to spot, wouldn’t that be nice?  Likewise, they won’t always resemble a human rainbow.
The Human Rainbow
While not originally comedic 2004’s film “Downfall” turned Hitler’s rants into a viral meme allowing anyone to subtitle the footage.  “The downfall of arguably the most evil man in history was thus transmuted through satire into everyday yip-yap” writes Stuart Jeffries of the Guardian.
Imagine trying to satirize the concept of “tyranny of the majority,” universal healthcare, repealing the 2nd Amendment, states rights or the U.S.’s growing drone army.  Political cartoons accomplish this in small does, providing an almost ethereal comic relief, but nothing for a broad audience like “The Dictator” and other blockbuster movies.

Besides handily sating those who understand green fascism with Zoey’s (played by Anna Faris) zany eco-terrorizing rants “The Dictator” seems to come close to sacrificing a politically sacred cow.  Baron Cohen’s characters may be loosing steam, but his jabs at “democratic” systems of government as dictatorships couldn’t be a more prudent critique (if it is in fact a critique) of the West’s longstanding fetish with democracy.

In our “Responsibility to Protect” and the century long quest “to make the world safe for democracy” Baron Cohen may have opened some eyes to the idea that maybe democracy isn’t the summom bonum we’ve been sold for so long.  Since after World War II America has overthrown dictators left and right and in the last decade alone our foreign adventurism has cost America trillions of dollars and arguably millions of lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.  Our actions have solidified Russian and Chinese opposition effectively raising the prospect of renewed global tensions similar to the Cold War.

Seeking peace through democracy couldn’t be any more absurd.  Democratizing states are some of the most violent on Earth.  Democracies may not fight each other, but internally they’re a demonstrable mess.  In fact it is pure democracies which often yield the dictators we loath the most.

From F.A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, commentary on the rise of Nazi Germany:
“The inability of democratic assemblies to carry out what seems to be a clear mandate of the people will enevitably cause dissatisfaction democratic institutions.  Parliaments become regarded as ineffective talking shops unable or incompotent to carry out the taks for which they have been chosen.  The conviction grows that if efficient planning is to be done the direction must be taken out of politics and placed into the hands of experts – permanent officials or independent autonomous bodies.”
Just look at the popularity of Congress, can anyone make fun of that?  Is there any doubt left that the executive branch over the last decades has accumulated more and more power?  F.A. Hayek’s observation was based upon the German’s desire for “efficient planning” not liberty.  Under liberty individuals do the planning and democracy is subordinated to merely checks and balances not the ethos of a nation.

If we continue down this road of alienating other nations, what Barack Obama promised he would reverse, the real question becomes – will we be able to make fun of ourselves.

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