I don’t want to get into politics, but Sacha Baron Cohen’s new movie, The Dictator, makes some very valid points.
The Dictator is about the leader of Wadiya – a North African country – named General Aladeen (played by Sacha Baron Cohen). Aladeen is the kind of leader who travels with a fleet of solid gold Humvees, has people beheaded for minor annoyances, and “wins” all of his country’s Olympic games, Oscar ceremonies, and whatever judging system they use to figure out who is the top surgeon.
As the movie opens, Aladeen journeys to New York to convince the United Nations that the nuclear weapons he’s building are for peaceful purposes only. (What does that mean? Urban development?) But while he’s in town, his uncle has him kidnapped and replaced by a body double (played by Sacha Baron Cohen), intending to make the country a democracy and open it up to foreign oil markets.
The kidnapper is supposed to torture and kill Aladeen, but only gets to cut off the latter’s beard before Aladeen escapes to the streets of New York. Aladeen then has to get back and claim his rightful place on the throne, which is difficult, because nobody recognizes him without the beard. (It is a known fact that if you have a beard, no one will recognize you. That why no one has noticed that Jason Segel and Zach Galifianakis are actually the same person.) And along the way, he falls in love (of course), and sees the benefits of making his country a democracy (sort of).
Actually, the above summary was a little biased toward democracy, so I need to take this opportunity to apologize to all of Aish.com’s readers who also happen to be dictators. For them I will quote the movie’s ad copy: The Dictator is “the heroic story of a dictator who risks his life to ensure that democracy will never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed.”
A dictator can fool himself into thinking that everyone agrees with his every word.
That description is actually pretty accurate. For most of the movie, Aladeen assumes that his people love being oppressed, and that they’re dying for him to get back so he can resume oppressing them, because no one ever told him otherwise. A dictator can actually fool himself into thinking that everyone agrees with his every word, because hey, no one ever says “no.” And like a child who is never told “no”, the dictator never grows up – every decision is self-serving, and he has to be “the best” at everything. In fact, Aladeen changes the dictionary in his country so that “yes” and “no” are represented by the same word – Aladeen – so he never has to hear the word “no.” And if someone does disagree with him, he signals to his guards and they drag the person off.
It’s important to hear a “no” once in a while. Not all your decisions are good ones. No one ever told Gaddafi, “No, you can’t wear that outside. You look ridiculous.” Maybe if someone would have, he’d have been better off for it. Or alive.
Democracy means the freedom to question our political leaders. We do almost nothing but, and hopefully it inspires them to make better decisions. Dictators think everyone agrees with them, because there’s no freedom to criticize.
“I think everyone who disagrees with me should be put to death. Does anyone disagree?”
It’s not until Aladeen actually sees, through American newscasts, that his people are actually happy about becoming a democracy, that he realizes that he might be wrong. He also visits the “Little Wadiya” section of Manhattan and sees that all the people he supposedly executed are actually still alive, eating in “Death-to-Aladeen” themed restaurants and trying to make it in the taxicab industry. And what ultimately makes him decide to make his country a democracy (sort of) is his love for a girl (not played by Sacha Baron Cohen) who was the first person in his life who was not afraid to challenge him, to be honest with him, and the first person he couldn’t immediately have dragged off for doing so.
As Sacha Baron Cohen said in an NPR interview, “Aladeen sees himself as a demigod. His religion is himself.”
What’s interesting is that you don’t have to be a dictator to get people to do what you want. God himself isn’t even a dictator.
Is Judaism a dictatorship? On the one hand, it seems restrictive. There’s one Authority, there are rules, and you can’t vote in your own candidates to replace Him based on miracles they’ve performed or popular TV series they’ve created.
But Judaism is actually a democracy. God doesn’t obsess over His own needs first, because He has no needs. He doesn’t reign through fear, He reigns through love – all His expectations from us are just to help us build a relationship with Him – kind of like the expectation to remember your wife’s birthday. And G-d doesn’t stifle our freedom of choice – it’s one of the main tenets of Judaism. Sure, there are things you can’t do, but not everything is legal in a democracy either.
God wrote a constitution, and those are the rules. You live by those rules, and you’re good. You’re set for life. He doesn’t make them up on the fly. He doesn’t say, “Okay, new rule. If I’m coming down the stairs, and you’re coming up, and we get in each other’s way, and we do that dance where we both move from side to side but manage to accomplish nothing, I’m going to give a little signal, and my angels will ship you off to Manhattan.”
And in fact, if we do transgress, he doesn’t immediately give the signal. He gives us the chance to make up for it. Like in the movie, where Aladeen gets a second chance at life, and ends up making better choices.
And God is not unquestioned either. In fact, our religion encourages constant questioning. Passover, for example, has four questions for every one answer, and the typical Jew cannot answer a question without asking one of his own. And whereas most dictators fear that any questions they allow will only lead to harder questions, G-d is secure enough that He can stand back and allow people, if they so choose, to question His very existence.
And if Judaism is a democracy, it’s fitting that Israel is one as well. David Ben Gurion observed that for every two Jews, there are three opinions. No one holds more opinions than we do. Jews have lived under dictatorships before, and it never ended well for the dictators.
In a way, a dictator is like a parent who says, “If I don’t threaten the kids with punishment, why would they listen?” But they don’t realize that kids also sometimes do the right thing out of love.
For years, Israel has been trying to act as a beacon of light – standing in a region full of dictatorships and showing them what it means to have a country where everyone is welcome to live and welcome to voice their opinion. True, that may not have always worked out like we had hoped.
But here’s what does work: Practically everyone in Israel loves Israel. For all the different voices that Israel allows, its residents love the country. Most Israeli soldiers happily put their lives on the line to defend it. This is as opposed to the suicide bombers, who figure that the possibility of reward after death is better than the life they have at home. Isn’t a bird in the hand better than two in the bush? Maybe they don’t have any in the hand.
For obvious reasons, the dictators hate Israel. They hate us for embracing values they themselves are too weak to face. If you honestly think your people like you, you can prove it by having free elections, by giving the people a voice. But obviously, dictators are afraid of what they’re going to hear.
And it kills them that Israel can pull it off.
Their entire war is built on insecurities. And that’s why they’ll never win.