We view dictators, like Rodrigo Duterte, with comedy to pacify our ignorance of their crimes

Why do we regard so many despots and dictators as jokes? Why do we remember Benito Mussolini as a posturing fat fantasist rather than the man who dropped blistering mustard gas on 100,000 Ethiopians? 

Sean O'Grady
Friday 09 September 2016 11:35
Mass-murder advocate Duterte at an election rally: he has promised medals to any member of the public who shoots a drug dealer
Mass-murder advocate Duterte at an election rally: he has promised medals to any member of the public who shoots a drug dealer

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines uses crude and offensive language (“son of a whore”) to insult the most powerful man on God’s earth; President Obama is, rightly, offended; an important bi-lateral meeting between close allies is cancelled. The whole world has a laugh.

Understandable, I suppose. But the damage done by Duterte to his own nation and people is less well appreciated. I admit he won an election to gain power, but I do wonder how free and democratic the Republic of the Philippines is these days, and for how long. This is a man who sanctions mass extra-judicial killings – or murders, to use plain language. In his (undeniably popular) war on the Philippines’ rampant drugs trade, he has promised medals to any member of the public who shoots a drug dealer. Since he took office in June, some 650 people have been killed by police, with as many as 900 more thought to have been slain by vigilantes. Human rights in the Philippines?

The UN Special Rapporteur on summary executions, Agnes Callamard, has urged the Filipino authorities “to adopt with immediate effect the necessary measures to protect all persons from targeted killings and extrajudicial executions”, adding: “Claims to fight illicit drug trade do not absolve the Government from its international legal obligations, and do not shield State actors or others from responsibility for illegal killings.”

So not so funny, then – the execution of many hundreds, and thousands in their families bereaved, and all denied justice or due process of law. Nor is the increasing threat the Philippines faces from an ambitious China terribly humorous. The Philippines, along with its neighbours in the region such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, is engaged, though we don’t hear much about in our news, in a tense stand-off with China, over territorial claims in obscure archipelagos of natural and man-made islands in the South China Sea, a proxy for potentially valuable oil and gas reserves and a potential spark for war. This is a subject which demands close co-operation between the South-East Asian nations allied to the United States, and has not gone viral on social media. And yet the best that President Duterte has secured for his people’s national security with their own friendly superpower is a very brief and begrudged chat with Obama on the edges of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Laos. That political and geopolitical damage, and not his casual insult toward the president’s mum, is the real problem with Duterte the buffoon – and with our attitude to him and his like.

Duterte regrets insulting Obama after meeting cancellation

It prompts the question: why do we regard so many despots and dictators as jokes? Why do we remember Benito Mussolini as a posturing fat fantasist rather than the man who dropped blistering mustard gas on 100,000 Ethiopians?

Well, in many cases it is easy to see why. It helps trivialise them, and if we can mock them we score a little victory: sadism is often accompanied by a thin skin. When Kim Jong-un learned that one of his ministers was carousing round Pyongyang during the official mourning period for his father, he ordered him to be put to death and with "no trace of him behind, down to his hair”. This unfortunate servant of the Korean people was forced to stand on a spot that had been zeroed in for a mortar round and “obliterated”. More recently, Kim suspected another official had dozed off in his presence. This time, a battery of anti-aircraft guns was deployed for another literal vaporisation. We know all this is evil and appalling, and yet we find the inventiveness of the Kim mind blackly funny, and these atrocities were reported in the western media in the manner of after-dinner anecdotes from the late Peter Ustinov or Richard Attenborough.

One of the great hit movies of the Second World War was Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, playing a facsimile of Hitler as a comical little man, and the most popular ditty based on the notion that “Hitler has only got one ball” (“and Goebbels has got no balls at all”); and most western cartoons of Mugabe, Kim and, now, Duterte, portray them more often than not as global village idiots. And that they do seem. After all these characters , and their more distant forebears such as Robespierre, Ivan the Terrible or Genghis Khan, didn’t get where they got to without being vainglorious, pompous, foolish looking, sometimes illiterate, and always eccentric – and thus figures of fun, if you’re at a sufficiently safe distance in time or space.

They often have extravagant or unusual facial hair – Saddam Hussein’s “Village Person” moustache so much more luxuriant than Mugabe’s mean-looking smear on his upper lip, or Hitler’s trademark Chaplin-esque ‘tache, archaic even in the 1930s. Then there was Kim Jong-Il's crazy hairdo, apparently inspired by the bloke in the cult movie Eraserhead; Idi Amin, president of Uganda, declaring himself the king of Scotland and CBE (“Conqueror of the British Empire”); Pol Pot abolishing the family unit as some sort of bourgeois capitalist construct; Fidel Castro’s seven-hour long speeches; Gaddafi’s uncontrolled farting; Nicolae Ceausescu’s silly 1,100- room marble palace in run-down Bucharest, the heaviest building in the world. Nutters, the lot of ‘em, and Duterte, a modest adornment to the pantheon of monsters, falls easily into the stereotype.

One of the few common ideological themes all those names share is homophobia, with Duterte declaring not so long ago to a gathering of religious leaders, as you might expect: “It's good I didn't join the priesthood, or else now I would be a homosexual.” That isn’t quite as extreme as Comrade Robert Mugabe’s statement, referring to the western press, that “in their newspapers, that’s one of my sins. That I called gays worse than pigs and dogs because pigs know there are males and females. I won’t even call him a dog because my own dog will complain.” You know that both chaps would benefit from attending a diversity workshop. Even in cuddly Castro's Cuba they were consigned to labour camps, though in recent times the Communists have grown more tolerant.

In fact, Duterte is, arguably, less murderous than one of his predecessors in the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, who ran a vicious kleptocracy during his reign that ended after 20 years of pillage and corruption in 1986. The way he enriched himself and his cronies at the expense of his long-suffering citizenry was symbolised by the 2,700 pairs of shoes his spoilt wife Imelda famously left behind when they fled the country. We do not yet know what fancy footwear President Duterte and his immediate family possess.

And yet the buffoonery, the unconsciously ironic apercus, the daft uniforms with row after row of bogus medals, and the regal pretensions may sometimes let us conveniently forget, or leastways not confront, their true horror, rendering them cartoon figures inflicting their cruelties on cartoon victims. Even their worst acts of criminality sometimes take on a perverse comedy tinge. Take emperor (formerly president) Jean-Bedel Bokassa of Central Africa. Here was a man even by the grotesque standards of his continent and his time who amused the world as much as he shocked it. The sight of him on a vast Napoleonic gold throne, with freshly mined crown jewels used for regalia instead of export to pay for food for the starving people, a quarter of the national GDP spent on an overblown coronation ceremony in 1977 – it all remains outrageously camp and absurd, scarcely credible.

When Bokassa was overthrown paratroopers found human remains in the palace kitchen

When he was overthrown a couple of years later, the legend goes that the French paratroopers who liberated one of his palaces discovered human remains in the kitchen, to be fed to his guests (unsuspectingly on their part). Much the same was said of Idi Amin, and President Banda of Malawi, a minor maniac and former west London GP, who deserves more notoriety than he has received, used to refer to his political prisoners as “crocodile food”, which they were, duly delivered into the river tied up in a Malawi Post Office sack. What was less funny were the bodies of schoolchildren also frozen by Bokassa, the mass murders of ethnic “enemies” by Amin, or the death camps, the starvation and mass cannibalism inflicted by Kim on the North Korean people, genocide by Pol Pot, let alone what we know so well about Hitler and Stalin.

It is interesting how easily, in this context, we dismiss the “Blairite” argument that the best reason for the war on Iraq was to rid the Iraqi people of a man, Saddam Hussein, who bombed and gassed them as readily as he did his Iranian, Israeli and Kuwaiti neighbours. Maybe we are content to just laugh at these impossibly ugly specimens, wishing away the thought of what they have done to the people living under them, and just wish that the whole thing would go away, or at least be not our responsibility to do anything about. Crimes such as Saddam’s are impossible to comprehend in their scale; as Stalin remarked, “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is just a statistic”. We would also rather not have our consciences piqued, not least because it would entail real sacrifices for us to rescue those people. As we experienced in Iraq.

So that’s part of the reason why Duterte became such a joke; we prefer to treat despots like that and, like President Obama, we would much rather ignore them. When their victims appeal to us for help, from Jewish émigrés, for centuries in their case, to the Ugandan Asians in the 1970s, to Saddam’s victims, to today’s millions escaping Syria, Somalia and Sudan, they too can keep their distance as abstract “policy challenges”, rather than people. It is also why the “liberal interventionism” of the Blair-Bush era has been so rejected, and why the doctrine of the illegal war in Iraq is so appealing – it gives us an alibi for not doing anything about a sadistic killer running an entire country.

We all know that we should use force to get rid of Mugabe and Kim, if not Duterte, but we’d rather just poke fun at them and wait for them to die or be assassinated. Fine for us: no joke for their peoples.

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