Risky Business: Political Jokes under Repressive Regimes

By Oring, Elliott | Western Folklore, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Risky Business: Political Jokes under Repressive Regimes


Oring, Elliott, Western Folklore


Although oftentimes sources of amusement and delight, jokes and witticisms can exact severe penalties. Sometimes these are merely the social censures that result from joking about a sensitive topic in an uncongenial environment to an unreceptive audience-telling "sex jokes" at a National Organization of Women's convention, for example, or appearing in blackface and telling race jokes at a public banquet.1 Other times, however, the costs of joking are more pointed, painful, and permanent. When Theocritus of Chios was told that he would be pardoned by King Antigonus I (382-301 BCE) if only he would "stand before the eyes of the king," Theocritus, knowing the king had only one eye, responded, "Well, then, reprieve is impossible." Theocritus was executed for this remark (Clement and Hoffleit 1969:131). Sotades of Maroneia told King Ptolmey II Philadelphus (308-246 BCE) that by marrying his sister Arsinoë he had thrust "his prick into a hole unholy." The king had his general seal Sotades in a leaden jar and drop him in the sea (Athenaeus 1959:345). The humorous invectives of Marcus Tullius Cicero against Marcus Antonius resulted in the nailing of the orator's head and hands to the speaker's rostrum in the Roman forum (Corbeill 1996:216). After the Sung emperor Xingzong was defeated in battle by Li Yüanhao in 1044 A.D., the emperor fled and barely escaped capture. Li Yüanhao cut off the noses of several of the emperor's men whom he captured. Later the emperor's jester remarked to the emperor, "Let's see whether your nose is there or not," alluding to the emperor's pusillanimous flight. The emperor became so enraged that he had the jester strangled behind a tent (Otto 2001:143). Rulers have been just as unreceptive to jokes in modern times. A Nazi court condemned Josef Müller, a Catholic priest, to death for telling a joke about a dying German soldier requesting that a portrait of Hitler and Goering be placed on either side of him so that he could "die like Jesus between two thieves" (Lipman 1991:34).2 In 1984, Omar al-Hazza, a top Iraqi officer, made ajoke about the identity of Saddam Hussein's mother. (Saddam Hussein and his four brothers each had different mothers.) Al-Hazza's tongue and the tongues of his sons were cut out as their wives looked on. Then, al-Hazza's male family members were killed before his eyes and his daughters turned out of their homes. Finally al-Hazza himself was executed (Periscope 2003:10). Over the centuries, other wiseacres have lost lives and limbs, or if they were lucky, only liberty and livelihoods for their joking remarks (Otto 2001:139-142).3

Joking is a risky business. Not merely socially hazardous but physically dangerous. It is the making of jokes under such risky conditions that I am interested in exploring-that is, under conditions in which jokers and their audiences recognize the perilous circumstances of their humorous collaborations. Such joking is most predictably risky under totalitarian regimes-regimes with authoritarian rulers, press censorship, secret police, informers, and summary or extra-judicial trials-as found in Nazi Germany; the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and their socialist "allies"; Franco's Spain; Ba'athist Iraq; and I would expect in Communist China, North Korea, Cuba, and Albania, and, perhaps, on occasion, in Iran-imperial and Islamic. In these countries, there was not merely an effort to control what was printed in the press or broadcast through the electronic media,4 but an attempt to control what was orally communicated by individuals face-to-face. In other words, there was an effort to suppress folk humor-the humor of everyday conversation and everyday life.

The kinds of jokes I speak of are well known. They might be directed against particular individuals or economic or political conditions. Two examples:

Lenin's widow, Krupskaya, was telling a class of Soviet school children what a kind man Lenin had been.

"One day," she said, "he was standing outside his dacha shaving himself with a bowl of water and an open razor. …

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