Laughter, the Best Medicine for Iraq?

Freedom means being able to ridicule your leaders.

This video just gave us the best news we've heard out of the Middle East in a long, long time -- Iraqis are beginning to laugh at their leaders.

Americans were drawing sarcastic cartoons about British soldiers for years before the revolution.  We who are blessed to live under a Constitution which has encouraged sarcastic comments about powerful people for centuries have difficulty appreciating what it's like to live under a tyranny that doesn't tolerate dissent.

When my parents got to Japan just after WW II, most Japanese were still in the habit of being extremely deferential to the Emperor even though he'd formally renounced all claims to divinity as part of the surrender deal with the US.  When the Emperor visited the town where we lived, everyone did as described in Jewish Prophecy:

Hark! one calleth: 'Clear ye in the wilderness the way of the LORD, make plain in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the rugged shall be made level, and the rough places a plain;

The town crier went everywhere telling people the Emperor was coming.  Everybody worked on the dirt road where he would ride.  Every little dent was filled in or smoothed out.  The dirt looked like a billiard table; nobody walked on it for several days before he arrived.

We don't normally think of Japan as having been a theocracy, but for centuries, Japanese emperors claimed to be descended from the Sun God and expected to be treated as if they were divine.  Criticizing the government could not only get you carried off in the night never to be seen again, it was also blasphemy.

There are real dangers when human rulers are treated as if they were semi-divine or if they're above criticism for any reason.  Stalinism was in effect a state religion, and millions were slaughtered.  Criticizing Stalin was dangerous, poking fun at him was fatal.

Politicians everywhere understand the power of ridicule.  When the reform forces were fighting Boss Tweed to try to clean up New York City politics, the Boss said, "I don't mind the editorials, my people don't read so good.  What's killing me is those cartoons!"  When he fled the city to escape arrest, he was recognized from one of Thomas Nast's cartoons and was returned for trial.

Mr. Hussein had roughly the same attitude towards criticism and towards humor.  Mr. Nast was fortunate that Boss Tweed did not have the power to have him killed.

The video also shows how badly our mainstream media misrepresent what's going on in Iraq.  If the Iraqis were truly living in a constant state of fear - as our press says they are - they would not be out shooting videos and drawing penguins.

The fact that they're willing to mock the United States shows just how much they've learned about our way of life.  Abu Ghraib notwithstanding, ordinary Iraqis know that we really believe  it's OK to criticize powerful people. The video was tastefully done WITH American soldiers knowingly contributing.

They did not, to my knowledge, make videos that derided America for what we are doing politically, but even if they did, so what?  Once they learn to criticize the powerful, the powerful will have to be more careful what they do.

They made fun of Moqtada al-Sadr.  That is not a light thing.  If the Sheik ever found out who did it, he'd have them killed instantly.  That means the people have tasted enough US-style freedom to be comfortable deriding their religious guys.  Over here, we have entire TV channels that do nothing but.

Videos take time to create and edit.  If they're out making videos and cartoons, they aren't being brainwashed in madrassas.

The Taliban fulminate about American cultural imperialism.  They don't like MTV, our clothing styles, or the fact that women are allowed to own cars and drive where they want without permission from a man.  But they also understand cartoons and the power of humor - remember how they reacted to cartoons about Muhammad?

What will Al-Qaeda do about cartoons published by Iraqis about Iraqis?  Someone one said, "Laughter is the best medicine."  In Iraq, it's not only the best medicine, it's the first step towards true self governance.

Read other articles by Hobbes or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
Americans made cartoons against the Brits because we DISLIKED them. We wanted them to leave. Remember, we also threw rocks and killed more than a few. I don't think this is quite as good a thing as you make it out to be.
January 30, 2008 12:26 PM
We don't really care whether the Iraqis like us or not. If you cut through the rhetoric, what we want is for them to:

1) Stop killing our people
2) Stop killing each other
3) Stop killing their neighbors
4) Sell all the oil they can pump

For them to achieve 2 and 3, they need a stable government. Given the degree of hatred between the 3 tribes that goes back centuries, reconciliation is required, big-time. It's hard to hate someone when you're laughing. Laughter is a good first step.
January 30, 2008 2:08 PM
I'd replace 1-3 with just: nominate a strong representative government. As long as we're there, a few of them will always want to kill us. As for killing each other, that's a natural part of every nation. I'm pretty sure they're going to be killing their neighbors quite awhile longer. Considering the neighbors, I wouldn't blame them.
January 30, 2008 2:50 PM
Well at least someone's getting some lulz out of all this.
February 4, 2008 2:07 PM
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