Dictators deserve denunciations from media, not punchlines

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Vladimir Putin returned March 16 from a 10-day disappearance from office, and the internet has been having quite a laugh about it. Rather than freak out that a national leader had left the country he was supposed to run, headlines addressed Putin like an old friend—the one that never really got it together. “Where Have You Been, Putin?” asked CNN. The Inquistr joined in, with the tabloid-esque, “Is Vladimir Putin Sick Or Just On Paternity Leave?” By Monday, the National Post dubbed him the “Great Vanishing Vladimir Putin.”

For context: this is the same guy who controls the largest country in the world by land. He has nuclear codes at his fingertips. Can we hold him a little more accountable for stunts like this? Not only is it poor journalism to treat international politics in so condescending a manner, but it is also important to let these types of leaders—and our own—know that this behavior is unacceptable, for both the country’s citizens and the international community at large.

Putin is not some teenager graffiiting the locker room. This is not some sitcom gag. This is a man with a history of human rights violations, (especially towards the LGBTQ+ community and journalists), bureaucratic secret-keeping and military intervention in Ukraine, which has been widely criticized in the U.S. as overly aggressive and even dishonest. Yet collective American reactions excuse these acts by building up a man-child persona for the person responsible. It’s almost as if the media said, “Well, we can’t control him; let’s meme him instead.

This may be becoming a trend. Just look at coverage of Kim Jong-un. He gets to be “buddies” with Dennis Rodman (and besties” with Putin himself, says the well-respected Fiscal Times). His silly haircut, a “makeover” which “defies gravity,” was big news according to certain publications. Even worse was Jong-un’s own disappearance in December. “What’s Up With Kim Jong-Un?” pondered Forbes’ Donald Kirk. Rarely has this much attention been given to the North Korean people, who starving under his harsh rule.

It is not like humor has no place in journalism whatsoever; sometimes, it makes truly unbearable, unfathomable situations much easier to process. Sometimes humor delivers a well-deserved blow to those in power. Todd VanDerWerff over at Vox notes the famous Charlie Chaplin movie, “The Great Dictator,” a satire about Adolph Hitler which earned praise for doing exactly what satirists (not journalists) are supposed to do. To him, its “a superb act of mockery and goofiness, yes, but it’s also a movie that dared the viewers of its time to view the German dictator for who he truly was.” Chaplin was not trying to caricature Hitler so much as he was trying to expose the devastating effects of his unchecked dictatorship.

Compare this to Seth Rogen’s and James Franco’s “The Interview.” The main plot goes something like this: two newsmen who land an interview with the North Korean dictator find out they’ve been tasked with killing him. The audience is supposed to feel bad for them, apparently. But, according to VanDerWerff, the most sympathetic character is arguably Kim Jong-un.

The real-world results of the movie’s release were just as troubling. North Korea unsurprisingly denounced the film, threatening Sony if it showed “The Interview” in theaters. And, just like in the movie, the two incredibly privileged white American men (and the megarich higher-ups at Sony) became the martyrs for free speech—in this case, a cause that was not theirs.

Obviously, that’s not to say that Rogen and Franco are not entitled to free speech, or that North Korea should not be telling them otherwise. But why isn’t the focus on the rights of those who Kim Jong-un oppresses every single day? They are the ones who are always afraid to say the wrong thing, to be sought out, spied on or arrested. They aren’t griping about whether they should be privileged to make an irresponsible movie that will make them millions anyway. Yet, judging by the swarms of so-called free speech supporters that flocked to see the movie, and the president’s own support of Sony, this is an example of satire gone wrong, as it failed to bring attention to the travesties occurring in North Korea.

Stories like this are beyond disappointing because they hold so much potential to make real change, like Chaplin did. The movie may have made some uncomfortable, but there was also a morally responsible public outcry that followed.

So let’s stop ignoring it. Let’s use these platforms at our disposal to do justice to the people affected by these irresponsibly capricious leaders. Do away with the Twitter slacktivist memes, the unfunny adolescent-minded dictator trope, the first-world oblivion. Denounce the leader for who he is, not the punchline he can become. There’s a time and place for satire, and this is not one of them.

Carmen Triola is a first-year and is undeclared. She can be reached at triola@oxy.edu or on Twitter @CarmenTriola.