Putin has good reason to duck
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.