Commentary Magazine


The Lost Art of Mocking Dictators

As Seth noted earlier this week, Tuesday marked the 25th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s famous speech at the Brandenberg Gate in which he declared, “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Reagan’s moral clarity chafed the State Department and stunned adversaries, but history demonstrates its effect.

Moral clarity was not his only weapon, however. Reagan, with his typical good nature and humor, would also gently mock America’s enemies. He had some fun at the expense of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and at the hardships of Soviet life. He made fun of the lack of free speech in the Soviet Union. A few years back, Free Republic compiled a non-exhaustive list. Reagan’s jokes weren’t just a warm up act; his gentle ridicule highlighted the illegitimacy of autocratic regimes and reinforced fissures between society and its oppressors.

Alas, amidst all the discussion today of sophisticated diplomacy, the reset of relations, and respect for regimes like Iran’s, and also against the cultural relativism and self-flagellation in which so many journalists and diplomats engage, American officials have lost the will and ability to mock our adversaries. It really is a shame, because—be they in Pyongyang, Tehran, Moscow, or Caracas, there really are some world leaders deserving biting ridicule.

Many of the jokes Iranians tell about their leaders—including some I heard recently in Bahrain—frankly contradict President Ahmadinejad’s insistence that there is no homosexuality in the Islamic Republic. Many also make fun of the crass stupidity of Hezbollah. While no statesman would ever get up and tell these, there are others out there:

One involves a French doctor who brags that French medicine is so advanced that he can conduct a kidney transplant and have the patient out looking for work in six weeks. A German doctor hears that and says, “That’s nothing.” We can do a lung transplant and the patient will be looking for work in four weeks. A Russian doctor dismisses them by claiming, “We can do a heart transplant and the recipient will be looking for a job in two weeks.” The Iranian doctor hears all this and suggests, “That’s nothing: We took a man with no brain, made him the president, and now 20 million Iranians are looking for work!”

The Iranian regime’s nuclear program is serious business as is Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s tactical nuclear weaponry and the assistance he offers to all the world’s tin pot dictators. But, even as diplomats sit down across conference tables to try to resolve bilateral problems, there is no reason why American officials shouldn’t treat these regimes with the irreverence they deserve. Their citizens—not yet free to express their true opinions—will thank us later.