Putin has good rea­son to duck

National Post (National Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - JOHN ROBSON Com­ment

Here’s a joke for Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Putin. Hey Vlad … duck! Ha ha ha ha ha!

As you’ll re­al­ize from the front page of Wed­nes­day’s Na­tional Post, he won’t so much be laugh­ing as re­leas­ing the safety on his Brown­ing be­cause lit­tle yel­low ducks have be­come a po­tent sym­bol of anti-cor­rup­tion protests. And I sus­pect these ducks have teeth.

So do Putin and sim­i­lar tyrants. I don’t want to over­state the case here. But it is true that laugh­ter is a dan­ger­ous po­lit­i­cal weapon. Not so much be­cause those who laugh have ceased to be afraid; the Soviet Union had hys­ter­i­cal po­lit­i­cal jokes and a per­va­sive chok­ing at­mos­phere of fear.

Rather, it is be­cause hu­mour com­presses truth, col­laps­ing long trains of rea­son­ing into ex­plo­sive lit­tle pack­ages. To quote (who else?) G.K. Ch­ester­ton, “wit is the soul of brevity.”

The rea­son the ducks are funny is that they are a clas­sic sym­bol of over­the-top po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion.

One tar­get is Rus­sian Prime Min­is­ter Dmitry Medvedev, who stood in as the Potemkin pres­i­dent from 2008-12 be­cause Putin couldn’t serve a third con­sec­u­tive term (speak­ing of grimly funny po­lit­i­cal hu­mour, chess-mad Rus­sians dubbed this trans­par­ent ma­noeu­vre to pro­tect the real king “castling”… and yes, if I have to ex­plain the joke it dies on the op­er­at­ing ta­ble).

Dur­ing his time in pol­i­tics and in Putin’s pocket, Medvedev has mys­te­ri­ously be­come a mil­lion­aire with fancy houses in­clud­ing a re­fur­bished 18th-cen­tury manor filmed by a drone show­ing a duck pond plus duck house. This footage, pub­li­cized by coura­geous anti-cor­rup­tion ac­tivist Alexei Navalny, re­called the em­bar­rass­ing case of Bri­tish MP Sir Peter Vig­gers, who tried to ex­pense a “float­ing duck island” in mag­nif­i­cently out-of-touch “qu’ils man­gent les brioches” style. (Putin, in­ci­den­tally, ap­pears to be a bil­lion­aire.)

Eat­ing duck a l’or­ange and billing tax­pay­ers would be bad enough, es­pe­cially if the or­ange costs, say, $18 a glass. But when you start treat­ing your­self to elab­o­rate rus­tic idylls on the pub­lic ru­ble the jokes al­most write them­selves. Add a rub­ber duck and they do. Peo­ple put Medvedev’s duck on the Forbes list of wealth­i­est Rus­sians and so forth.

What’s even bet­ter is the para­noid re­ac­tion to the duck-wav­ing protesters by Ser­bian Prime Min­is­ter Alek­san­dar Vu­cic, a Putin ally who re­fused to sanc­tion Rus­sia for desta­bi­liz­ing Ukraine and an­nex­ing Crimea.

“I don’t be­lieve in co­in­ci­dences,” he said. “If some­one tells me that dif­fer­ent peo­ple have thought of the same sym­bol in Bel­grade, Brazil and Moscow, don’t ex­pect me to be­lieve it.”

Of course they didn’t all think of it in­de­pen­dently. That’s not the point. We live in an in­ter­con­nected world and peo­ple saw the sym­bol, thought it was clever and re­al­ized lit­tle yel­low ducks are easy to get. It ap­par­ently be­gan in Ser­bia, where the word for “duck” is also slang for “fraud,” with anti-cor­rup­tion protesters tar­get­ing Vu­cic for sev­eral years now.

In Brazil, “pay­ing the duck” was al­ready slang for bear­ing the cost of some­one else’s mis­takes, and was quickly at­tached to cor­rupt ex-pres­i­dent Dilma Rouss­eff.

You see how this works? There’s no con­spir­acy. But there is a happy chain of co­in­ci­dence picked up on and strength­ened by out­raged cit­i­zens in var­i­ous coun­tries and, as the bits and pieces of satire are bun­dled to­gether, they be­come stronger.

Pol­i­tics, be­ing so de­vi­ous, seems to lend it­self to amaz­ingly in­tri­cate hu­mour. There may be more jokes about sex, but only pol­i­tics would gen­er­ate a jibe like mock­ing Wil­liam Jen­nings Bryan’s nick­name “The boy or­a­tor of the Platte” by say­ing both he and this river in his home state of Ne­braska were “a mile wide at the mouth and six inches deep.” Again, ex­plain­ing tends to kill the joke. But such hu­mour il­lu­mi­nates like light­ning.

It also trav­els like wild­fire, through chan­nels the au­thor­i­ties can­not con­trol. Tyrants fear civil so­ci­ety be­cause spon­ta­neous hor­i­zon­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion of cit­i­zens is the an­tithe­sis of dic­ta­to­rial rule. And fi­nally, this sort of mock­ery is dev­as­tat­ing be­cause it’s one thing to em­ploy harsh mea­sures against in­vad­ing tanks or masked ri­ot­ers with clubs, knives, Molo­tov cock­tails or guns. It’s quite an­other to panic and start club­bing and pep­per-spray­ing peo­ple wield­ing lit­tle rub­ber duck­ies. You look afraid and brit­tle. And when tyran­nies start look­ing brit­tle, they’re in trou­ble.

In fact tyran­nies gen­er­ally are brit­tle. They are also bru­tal, and to some de­gree they are bru­tal pre­cisely be­cause they are brit­tle. (Of­ten they are also bru­tal be­cause they have mur­der­ous world­views and pro­grams.) They know al­most ev­ery­body sees through their pre­tences and finds their vain­glory seed­ily pa­thetic. If they don’t quickly hang or jail any­one who says the em­peror isn’t just naked but flabby, their regimes col­lapse fast. And last Sun­day saw sur­pris­ingly wide­spread duck protests in Rus­sia.

So Putin has grounds to be deeply con­cerned about lit­tle rub­ber ducks. Which starkly re­veals his seedy thug­gish­ness.

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