One of my favourite Soviet-era jokes goes something like this:
Three Russians are in the gulag. The first one says, “What are you in for?”
The second one replies, “I called Zbarsky a revolutionary.”
“That’s funny,” the first one says. “I called Zbarsky a counterrevolutionary.”
“That’s funny,” the third one says. “I am Zbarsky.”
(I may have written a little something about it before, but that doesn’t make it any less funny, right?)
A few decades on, and we’ve all become experts at jokes about dictators. With one small twist – we’re not the oppressed citizenry this time. We’re not joking about the people trying to kill us. We’re joking about the people trying to kill those other people, way over there. Which makes us… well, what’s the equivalent to the armchair traveller for activism? Political couch potatoes? Take North Korea, recently “busted” for yet another faked Photoshop image. “Photoshop fail” the headlines roar.
The “Kims” have shown themselves to be well-suited for dictatorship in an internet era, politely gracing us with endless variations of their meme-rrific presence. They starve their citizenry and lock people up in gulags, but do we look at this mass murder family dynasty and say “Look at the horrible things they’ve done?” Nope. We’re all “Wow, look at that terrible Photoshop job.”
There’s something deeply ugly about sitting at your computer and creating memes about Kim Jong-Un’s lack of Photoshop skills while his people starve and die, and most certainly don’t have access to Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. Dude might not be so good with the Photoshop but he sure knows how to throw an execution. But let’s not talk about that.
Instead, let’s have a contest to show off our own Photoshop skills. Because, point-counterpoint? I mean, look at that totalitarian despot – so silly, now he’s on the Star Trek brig and it only took an hour to knock up. What’s that, he’s got gulags? Yeah, I know, so wrong, but look look look, isn’t it funny when he pretends to solve the US debt crisis. This is not the conversation most people think they’re having about North Korea, but they are.
We can all make propaganda photos now. Which, while it’s comforting to realize that we all have access to the same propaganda tools once so skillfully employed by the likes of Stalin and Mussolini, it doesn’t actually change the equation as much as we think it does. (Just ask Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person known to be born in and then escaped from a North Korean gulag.) We’ve taken our worship of tech (aka, the “Apple reality distortion field“) and tried to apply it the rest of the world. So we end up with comments on the Slate contest like this: “I find it funny that some of the photoshopping is better than the North Korean ‘professionals’ could do.” As if equivalent technical skills tells us something essential or insightful about the country and the power of its leader.
Back in the ’80s, Reagan used to collect jokes about Brezhnev – besides enjoying a laugh at his enemy’s expense, he saw the rise of Soviet black humour as a sign that the people themselves wanted their freedom. I’d love to know whether there’s a culture of similar political black humour in places like North Korea, Syria or Libya under Gaddafi. I can’t imagine that there wouldn’t be at some level – people everywhere are the same. There’s one clue here. When people mock their own leadership, it’s fighting back. But when the rest of the world does it, it’s just that – tasteless, tacky, humour that ignores the real problems.
As a recent Boston Globe editorial put it:
One could view the mockery as a way of taking Kim down a peg, but it trivializes the gravity of North Korea’s plight.