Why are dictators so terrified of satire?
“Don’t laugh at me!” a man shrieks, pointing his gun at a crowd of politicians. “No one fucking laughs at me!” Except, of course, as with every fairytale of narcissistic men, the laughter closes the play as his curtain falls.
Trump and SNL. Mugabe and the cartoon strips. Hitler and the boheme scene. Stalin and the cabaret halls. Putin and the homoerotic bear wrestling. If there’s one thing that terrifies sociopaths, it will always be the truth. And in a narrative of suitable absurdism, comedy is the most truthful medium there is.
It’s an ancient story. The King (or Fascist Dictator) has an embarrassing, amusing secret. Maybe he’s got donkey’s ears or he’s had an affair with a busty sex worker. It gets out, someone whispers to the reeds (or tabloids). Jokes and rumours travel fast, spreading across the land. Soon, the word is out, out of control. Isn’t that what every authoritarian figure loathes? Loss of control?
From camp goose-stepping to communist elites portrayed as pigs in farmhouses, satire and humour has been banned by the mad men running the asylums. Why? Because it’s dangerous. Laughter humanises people. It weakens them. It takes away the facade of godlike power. As Chaplin himself reminded his audiences at the peak of Hitler’s regime: “All dictators die.” How dangerous, then, to appear as a mortal.
A mortal who runs around forests topless in the desperate hope of quelling rumours of homosexuality. An adulterous mortal who is remarkably unimpressive in bed. A mortal who bans cartoons of him that display his real (large) figure. Laughing at gods keeps them in check. It is a must. To ban satire is to admit a dangerous weakness of authority.
I’d like to finish with a little historical anecdote, if I may. King George IV was a fantastically awful ruler. A flagrantly extravagant man, he spent millions of pounds of public money on his clothes, houses and horses. He had scores of mistresses and was infamously vain. At the time of his reign, caricatures were coming into their own, parodying current affairs and being printed en masse. For the first time, every civilian could hear the open ridicule of their grotesque, vain and hedonistic King.
King George was so horrified by this that he had his friends go and buy up the most insulting of cartoons before they were published. But the times were changing. No longer could a monarch easily lock a man up for criticising you in Britain.
Let’s never lose that freedom that we fought so hard for.