Canine candidates and other wonders
Though it has not been officially confirmed that Finn the Australian cattle dog can sit, stay or roll over on command, he does perform a neat little trick wherein he runs for mayor of St. John’s, N.L.; for this he is either a very good boy, as various global commentators have observed, or a very bad one, if you are the sort of person who hates cute animals and humour.
It’s uncontroversial enough to say that hating animals probably makes you an unpleasant sort of person. I’d like to go a step further and suggest that if you hate humour, you may be of an authoritarian bent.
Now I grant you, “humourlessness” is not listed among any of the features thought to characterize authoritarian systems as defined by any of the respected experts on the matter, which I assure you I am not. These features include suppression of political opponents, and deriving political legitimacy from emotions, such as fear. Nor is humourlessness on any known list of attributes describing the authoritarian personality type — or as scholars call it, “the jackass.”
But so far as I can tell, countries with fake elections tend not to have fake candidates. I think there’s a bit of something to that.
Democracies share a healthy contingent of fake candidates. Animals are always popular: In New Zealand, the McGillicuddy Serious Party put forward a goat for mayor and unsuccessfully tried for a hedgehog in Parliament; a chimpanzee ran for mayor of Rio de Janeiro and for his trouble was commemorated with a bronze statue, which is more than most mayoral candidates can say for themselves; a cat named Catmando coran Britain’s Raving Monster Loony Party, though being a cat prevented him from running the party himself; and in 1938, a brown mule won a seat in Washington.
Inanimate objects, masked men and nonentities fare well in campaigns too, or at least exist, which is surprising enough, from Nobody for President in the United States, to Ed the Sock in Canada, to Lord Buckethead in the United Kingdom.
It’s all very weird. It’s stranger still when you consider that it’s the real democracies with the bogus candidates.
The dearth of not-entirelysincere election candidates in not-exactly-democratic states can be explained, I think, by the fact that a core characteristic of authoritarianism is that it can’t take a joke.
If you prefer liberal democracy to, say, fascism, it’s easy to speak as if its norms and institutions are sacred.
Sacred press freedom, sacred voting rights, sacred fair elections — for a system that privileges secularism, much is sacrosanct. What isn’t sacrosanct are the candidates themselves, or even the idea of the candidate, which is what the fake candidate trolls.
It’s the authoritarian system that demands its dealings be above even lighthearted reproach — unless, that is, the leader decides it doesn’t like a particular practice anymore, in which case the practice in question is an enemy of the state and must be executed immediately, along with its next of kin.
Authoritarianism, absurd in its insistence that it must at all times be taken seriously, cannot tolerate any attempt to expose its ridiculousness. It’s too insecure to laugh at itself or allow for dissent, which often means the same thing.
So Turkey harassed Germany into pressing criminal charges against a comedian who penned a satirical poem about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. China’s censors banned Winnie the Pooh from social media sites because he bears (ahem) an awkward resemblance to Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. And Russia has axed comedy shows that make President Vladimir Putin their reluctant star.
Democratic elections are messy and frequently idiotic. We’re lucky that in all their messy idiocy they grant a dog named Finn the freedom to run for public office, even if they do not go quite so far as to allow him to hold it. Shannon Gormley is an Ottawa Citizen global affairs columnist and freelance journalist.