I laugh at Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi quite frequently. It’s easy to see why the mercurial tyrant is an object of humor, with his troop of female bodyguards, his (now apparently cancelled) call for jihad against Switzerland, his hilariously over-inflated self-cultivated cult of personality, and the fact that his outfits make him look like a sad parody of Purple Rain-era Prince. I suppose this is a good time to link to the classic Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories episode that is perpetually at the back of my mind when I see a news story about Gadaffi (“Charlie Murphy! Assemble your crew!”)
There are many other world leaders who are difficult to take seriously, many of which are now painfully familiar to my friends and blogging colleagues–I am a compulsive link emailer.
But to some degree the buffoonish appearance and actions of individuals like Gaddafi can be a distraction. Idi Amin, as The Last King of Scotland as well as Barbet Schroeder’s proto-reality TV style documentary Idi Amin Dada (which features a harmonica score contributed by the dictator himself) observed, was a clown of the first order. There’s a guffaw-inducing scene in the documentary where Amin, striding around with a rather puny little force in the middle of nowhere, proclaims he is carrying out large-unit exercises for the retaking of the Golan Heights. Other scenes, such as the numerous Amin-organized parties and his own nonsensical ramblings, are brilliantly absurd.
But Amin was still a horrifying tyrant and mass murderer who inflicted great suffering on the nation of Uganda. There was a time as well when Adolf Hitler was regarded in America as a kind of comic opera buffoon, best encapsulated in the Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator. Sometimes the comic and erratic sides of dictators can lead us to overlook the very real darkness beneath the clowning. At times, dictators can purposefully put out a comic image for outsiders as a kind of deception measure.
We can still laugh at the absurdity of a self-aggrandizing tyrant. But like the most recent Joker (as well as the older one) demonstrated we have to keep in mind that there is a darker and more disturbing side to even the most cartoonish dictator.