war on the rocks

Sony vs. North Korea: Send in the Clowns?

December 23, 2014

The Kim regime running North Korea is a brutally oppressive dictatorship that routinely commits mind-boggling atrocities against its own people. Thanks to its policy of punishing dissidents—as well as their extended families for several generations—an estimated 80,000-120,000 North Koreans suffer horrific human rights abuses in the Kim regime’s gulags. Innocents are routinely beaten. Tortured. Made to eat vermin and grass to survive.   It is difficult to comprehend the heartbreaking scope and scale of these abuses; they are “without parallel” in the 21st century. And, of course, as if all this wasn’t disturbing enough, the Kim regime is proceeding “full steam ahead” on its nuclear weapons program, which threatens to destabilize the Asia-Pacific region. The dictatorship in North Korea is odious indeed.

These issues are no laughing matter, of course. But that’s perhaps why we need to find ways to laugh at Kim Jong-Un more.

Humor allows us to explore, and critique, issues du jour in a fun, and relatively non-confrontational, fashion. That’s one of the reasons that “The Colbert Report,” “The Daily Show” and “Last Week Tonight” have been so wildly popular. Yet deploy humor’s toolbox against a dictatorship, and even dumb slapstick comedies can have a powerfully subversive effect. Laughter, scorn and ridicule can undermine the images—and the fear they generate—projected by dictators. This is why Mel Brooks makes fun of Nazis every chance he gets. When asked about the many Nazi jokes in his films, especially “The Producers,” and specifically whether he took pleasure “in the subversive element of making fun of Nazis,” Brooks replied:

Yeah. If you can make them seem foolish and silly, then you’ve won. But if you get on a soapbox and go head to head with Herr Hitler and Goebbels, you’re not going to win. They’re good at that shit. But they’re not good at comedy.

Of course, “The Producers” was staged after the World Wars were over. Can humor and ridicule be used to actually undermine brutal, heinous organizations? Interestingly, yes. Just ask Superman. After all, he took down the Klu Klux Klan (KKK).

After World War II, Klan membership soared, and a guy named Stetson Kennedy decided that something should be done about it. He attended KKK meetings in order to learn all their secrets, and attempted to hand them over to local authorities so members could be prosecuted. Unfortunately, many of the local authorities in question were either Klan members themselves, or scared to death of the KKK. It was a dead end.

Undeterred, Kennedy decided to take a different approach. He contacted the writers of the Superman radio broadcast, which was wildly popular at that time, especially among kids. As Kennedy writes,

The Superman idea came one day when I saw a group of small boys playing with secret passwords in much the same way that grown men played with them in the Klan. Why not get the Klan’s secret password into the mouths of kids? It would make a laughing stock out of the Klan’s gobbledygook rigmarole!

Needing a new enemy for Superman to confront after the Nazis, they seized upon Kennedy’s material.   Thus began the adventures of Superman versus the Grand Dragon (a KKK rank). Shortly thereafter, kids nationwide began playing a new version of cops and robbers: Superman versus the Klan.   Klan members were mortified at seeing children with pillowcases either tied around their necks as capes or draped over their heads as they re-enacted scenes from Superman’s radio show. Attendance at Klan meetings the next week dwindled and new membership applications dried up. As Kennedy noted, the KKK had been turned into an object of ridicule and scorn, and nobody wanted to support an organization that had been made to seem both ludicrous and grotesque:

From inside and outside the Klan, I could see that a real victory had been won. Never again would the hooded hoodlums be able to face the American public with their old air of self-importance. Equally important, I knew that the millions of kids who had listened to Superman were not likely to grow up to be Klansmen.

Much like the KKK, dictators use propaganda to strengthen and maintain their grip on power. Just ask Goebbels. By controlling the message—in this case, the supreme, god-like magnificence of the Dear Leader—the dictator’s grip on power is maintained. And, also like the KKK, this is why Kim Jong-Un can’t take a joke, as Josh Rogin recently argued. Kim Jong-Un is too busy consolidating power and battling dissenting internal factions within his government; questions of his authoritarian mystique are therefore serious business indeed. And, hence the regime’s extreme reaction to a movie that questions the young, portly Dear Leader’s fallibility.

Of course, over at The Atlantic, Adrian Hong argues that North Korea is no laughing matter, and that James Franco and Seth Rogen are no heroes; that it costs nothing to laugh at the Dear Leader from afar, and in any case, there was probably very little chance that “The Interview” would inspire the American public to take action against the North Korean dictatorship. The argument is well taken, but I suspect it misses a broader point. Namely, the Kim regime is propped up through Chinese support. And it seems to be getting harder and harder for the Chinese to take Kim Jong-Un seriously. This sentiment might very well be exacerbated by a goofy movie about two knuckleheads taking down the ridiculous Kim Jong-Un. How can you prop up a dictator that you (and others) find utterly, even comically, absurd?

In the wake of last week’s North Korea versus Sony Pictures debacle, not only did Sony pull its theatrical release of “The Interview,” but Paramount Pictures also subsequently nixed impromptu screenings of “Team America: World Police.” These moves have been met with well-deserved American popular outrage, and it seems clear that “The Interview” will be released in the not-too-distant future. But perhaps more worrying is the chilling effect that this incident may have for future films that examine, or lampoon, the Dear Leader of North Korea. Most recently, New Regency canceled production of an upcoming Steve Carrell movie—a thriller, but one that apparently intends to highlight the absurdity of North Korean propaganda.

It seems to me that this is a step in the wrong direction. If Hollywood wants to win this little war with North Korea—if it wants to hit the Kim regime at its center of gravity, where it hurts—it strikes me that rather than pulling the plug on such features, it ought to be making a hell of a lot more of them.

 

Kathleen J. McInnis is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and a Research Consultant at Chatham House.  She served as a Pentagon strategist from 2006-2009.

 

Photo credit: coolcaesar