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I have traveled to many countries, including Soviet Russia, Africa, China in the ’80s and Romania under Ceausescu. I have seen what totalitarian and corrupt governments will do, as far as the eye can see. If they pretend to have elections, they fix them by stuffing the ballot boxes, by losing the ballots or through outright intimidation at the polls. People working in these governments are monitored.
It has been an education to see what governments like these will do and what people will do to get around being monitored. My aunt visited Moscow in the 1950s and could only talk to her relatives in the park. In the 1970s, I visited an American friend in Russia who had a child’s magic slate for communicating with other American students. They would write their messages, lift up the thin papers and there would be no record of the conversation. Talk was too dangerous as all conversations were being monitored.
I was in Cuba in the ’70s, and around a hotel pool were tons of Russians, looking grim and never smiling. Like military marches marked by goose-stepping, corrupt regimes don’t laugh. They don’t smile. They just control. It is hard to control a population if laughter and humor reign.
Laughter is the glue that holds down rage and anger. It has helped Norman Cousins get over severe illness, allows psychotherapists to make points with difficult families and allows complex societies to function. Some, like modern-day Russia, allow limited humor, but there have been reports of subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to keep Putin and President Medvedev from being roasted too much. That is a clear sign that Russia is not experiencing democracy as we know it.
Saturday night was a celebration of our democracy. It was the White House Correspondents dinner, and President Obama was making jokes about himself, the other party and the press. Jay Leno did the same. We all laughed, and it lightened the room. That would never happen in dictatorships, or even in corrupt “democracies.”
The president joked, “It’s been quite a year since I’ve spoken here last – lots of ups, lots of downs – except for my approval ratings, which have just gone down. But that’s politics. It doesn’t bother me. Beside I happen to know that my approval ratings are still very high in the country of my birth.” People were laughing and applauding that he could poke fun at himself that way.
Jay Leno went after the president on his Cash for Clunkers program suggesting that loser students be traded in as “cash for flunkers.” He went after Congress for being out of shape and the GOP for their big fundraisers, enjoying a night in a club that had light porn.
Some comedians have gone a bit over the line in the past and have been roundly criticized for it. Usually it is because it was a personal and not a political attack. However, they do not wind up in jail, and, since the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, don’t wind up testifying before Congress or losing their jobs.
Our State Department has criteria for the evaluation of democracies. Taken into account is freedom of the press, ability to carry out free elections and basic freedom of speech. No one has added a humor index. I would hazard a guess that there would be a direct correlation between the amount of humor and satire allowed in society and its humor quotient.
In older times plays and skits were used to make a point. Shakespeare wrote in “Hamlet,” “the play’s the thing. Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” We don’t have a king, but we do have humor and satire. It mirrors our conscience and is how our democracy can remain strong.