Democracy Lab

Not So Happy In Iran

Iran’s ayatollahs are going nuts over a harmless video. But they’re not the first autocrats to obsess about the impact of popular culture.

The video is infectious. Six twenty-something Iranians dance ecstatically on a rooftop in north Tehran, acting out the lyrics of a song that doesn't pretend to be anything other than a serenade to euphoric silliness. They posted their charmingly low-budget production on YouTube -- just like dozens of other people around the world who've gotten into the act by creating their own visual paeans to Pharrell Williams's international hit "Happy." They weren't exactly conspiratorial about it, either. The original video included detailed credits.

It didn't end well for the video's creators. All six of them were arrested by the Iranian secret police. The authorities paraded them on national TV, scolding the women for their allegedly "immoral" behavior. (Needless to say, none of them is wearing a headscarf in the video, and some of the girls even touch the boys -- albeit in an entirely harmless and playful way.) Five of the cast were released after spending the night in the jail, but the director of the video, Sassan Soleimani, was, apparently, only just released on bail last week. (He'd already been detained once before on similar charges of suspect video-making.)

So why all the fuss? Do the ayatollahs really find the notion of happiness so subversive? Are the ideas of Pharrell Williams really a threat to the Tehran regime? Why should six people end up enduring imprisonment and national humiliation for dancing to the blandest of songs?

Some Western commentators have interpreted the whole affair as renewed evidence (as if any were needed) of the Iranian leadership's intolerance and humorlessness. It's certainly true that the people who run the Islamic Republic like to present themselves, at least publicly, as the scowling defenders of puritan orthodoxy -- no matter how trivial the offense.

In reality, though, there is a bit more to it than that. All the evidence suggests that young Iranians have plenty of access to global popular culture, and they usually manage to evade trouble for indulging. Satellite TV and Internet access offer many paths to forbidden pleasures, and as long as you pursue your enthusiasms behind closed doors, chances are that the morals police won't come after you.

And, in fact, it turns out that the Iranian authorities didn't pay much attention to the "Happy" video from Tehran when it was first posted. The goons swung into action only once Soleimani's work began to build viewership after weeks on YouTube; he and his colleagues were arrested a full month after their video went on the web. This suggests that it wasn't just the giddy, un-Islamic content that riled the powers that be, but the fact that the authors managed to find such a big public audience for their work. In other words, it's not the video -- it's the viral. The creators of the video, which has now been viewed some 2 million times, demonstrated a power to mobilize the masses. And that, presumably, is what the guardians of revolutionary order found most threatening about the whole incident.

Pop culture is a double-edged sword for despotic regimes. Twentieth-century totalitarians realized early on that new technologies like radio and movies offered hitherto unknown opportunities for direct influence over mass audiences. "Of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema," Vladimir Lenin once famously observed. The Nazis made particularly effective use of radio, even decreeing that every home should have its own "people's radio receiver" in order to ensure that the Führer's message was heard loud and clear. The grand drama of Hitler's mass political rallies was designed to work equally well in cinema newsreels as well as radio broadcasts.

Interestingly, though, even in the most repressive states, propaganda sometimes has to take a back seat to entertainment, if only to retain the loyalty of subjects. Nazi leaders saw popular culture as the perfect way to keep the populace happy -- and distracted. The film critic Eric Rentschler calculates that some 86 percent of the films churned out by studios during the Third Reich were "unpolitical." Joseph Goebbels, the failed novelist who became Hitler's devilishly clever propaganda minister, even sneered at priggish "moralists" who wanted to ban movies or songs on grounds of "public decency."

Joseph Stalin had a big weakness for musical comedies, often using his status as the final arbiter of the Soviet film industry to intervene directly in casting and screenplays. Some of the show tunes produced for 1930s films were so good that Russians still hum them today. When the British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore was digging through Stalin's personal archive, he found some characteristically banal lyrics from the immensely popular musical Volga Volga that the dictator had taken the time to write down by hand:

A joyful song is easy for the heart/ It does ever bore you/ And all the villages great and small adore that tune/ While the big cities sing the song!

Yet dictators always remain aware that even the most harmless pop culture can have threatening ideological implications. The Nazis didn't like jazz or swing music, which they saw as rooted in "negro music" and tainted by carefree American morality. Though Stalin had a personal weakness for Hollywood directors like John Ford, he wasn't about to let Soviet audiences enjoy the great open spaces of the American Western. According to Montefiore, the Soviet dictator once told Nikita Khrushchev that John Wayne deserved to be shot -- though that presumably had more to do with the actor's public anti-communism than the characters that he played. 

In short, how dictators feel about pop culture depends a great deal on the context: you can never quite predict how a despot's ideology or personal tastes will determine how they react to a particular artist or work. In private, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad apparently has a soft spot for LFMAO and New Order. In public, his tastes run more to the patriotic folk songs that glorify his rule (and which could be heard blasting from loudspeakers on special trucks cruising the streets of Syrian cities in the run-up to this week's presidential elections).

The broader political context may well have something to do with the punishment meted out to the creators of the Iranian "Happy" video, too. Hard-line Islamists are currently engaged in a power struggle with moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who obliquely sided with the "Happy" crew in a tweet. (Soleimani, the director of the video, is said to have done some work for Rouhani's campaign.) The Iranian authorities' sensitivity to viral content has undoubtedly intensified since the Green Revolution, when young Iranians showed that mobile phones and Internet access made organizing illicit demonstrations a lot easier. Given such fraught circumstances, even an apparently apolitical work like "Happy" can start to look like material for real political intrigue. And the powers that be in Tehran can't be thrilled to see that the "Happy" video continues to find myriad sympathizers as well as inventive copycats (like this sly parody that features puppets in place of the original dancers).

Dictators, in short, are more than happy to harness the power of mass entertainment to their own ends. They're always ready to appreciate the virtues of pop culture -- as long as they can control it. The problem for autocrats is that movies, books, and music of any kind have an essential elusiveness, including a highly unpredictable tendency to seek out their own audiences. Culture, even in its popular flavors, has a peculiar power over the human mind that's impossible to contain completely. Perhaps the dictators are right to be paranoid -- even when it's a matter of music videos.

Pooya Jahandar/YouTube

Democracy Lab

Is the Vatican Guilty of Torture?

History has shown that the Catholic Church can be a great force for good. But it can only live up to that promise by properly addressing the clerical sex abuse scandal.

On May 23, a United Nations committee is set to publish its verdict on the child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. It's hard to tell what the result is going be. But it's entirely possible that the committee will rule that the Vatican is guilty of violating international laws on torture for allowing Catholic priests to commit acts of pedophilia (and by covering up their crimes).

If the U.N. Committee Against Torture rules against the Holy See, church leaders will have only themselves to blame. Both the recently canonized John Paul II and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, could have chosen to tackle the abuse allegations head-on. Instead they went to considerable effort to cover up cases of abuse, in some cases moving suspect priests away from their accusers to help them evade criminal responsibility.

The current pontiff, Francis I, has vowed to resolve the scandal appointing a commission to address past cases and implement reforms that will prevent further abuses. But this new body has been slow to get off the ground. Victims have criticized the new pope for not acting more decisively. Last month, Francis finally issued a public apology to those affected by the abuse, including a personal plea for forgiveness -- a gesture that went quite a bit farther than he'd previously been willing to.

The case currently under review by the U.N. torture panel has the potential to send the scandal into a whole new realm. A ruling against the Vatican could usher in a fresh wave of lawsuits and legal challenges. The reason: according to international law there is no statute of limitations on torture. If members of the panel deem the Holy See to be guilty of abetting torture, that could encourage the filing of allegations dating back, well, forever. Lawyers pressing the claims of abuse victims say that the Vatican, as a signatory to the Convention Against Torture, should assume full legal responsibility for the crimes committed by its priests. (The signs shown in the phone above were left by protesters outside an official inquiry in Australia examining allegations of abuse in the church there.)

Earlier this month, as part of the U.N. inquiry, the Vatican revealed that it has defrocked 848 priests who raped or molested children and punished another 2,572, as well as paying out $2.5 billion in settlements to victims since the scandal began. But this information comes late. The victims want greater accountability from the church and clear reforms that will prevent such things from happening again.

The whole story fills me with sadness -- profound sadness, above all, for the victims, many of whom will go on living lives scarred by the traumas inflicted on them by men who were supposed to be their guides in the search for salvation.

But I also feel deep melancholy about the church itself. Though I'm not a Catholic, my moonlighting work as a historian has made me deeply aware of the ways in which the church has been able to function as a unique force for good -- not only by preaching a gospel of love but also by playing a positive role on the global stage.

Consider the case of John Paul II. Critics now place much of the blame for the abuse cover-up at his feet. Many of the crimes were committed during his 26-year-papacy. His first instinct, when confronted with abuse allegations, was not to help the victims but to protect the priests -- including, most appallingly, the monstrous Marcial Maciel Degollado, a serial rapist who happened to occupy a powerful position within the church. There can be no denying that John Paul II bears personal responsibility for sustaining a pernicious culture of impunity within the Vatican.

Yet there is another story of his leadership that inspires. I wrote a book that looked, among other things, at the remarkable story of John Paul's commitment to the cause of human freedom around the world.

What we usually hear of this story is an abbreviated version that goes something like this: John Paul II was from Poland, and, like many Poles, he was a staunch anti-Communist. Once he became pope in 1978 (the first non-Italian to hold the office in 455 years), it was only natural that he would use the leverage afforded by his position to make trouble for the Russians. In this telling, his nationalism was a natural fit with his innate conservatism.

This version of the story actually misses some important nuances. First, John Paul II wasn't just a Pole; he was also an enthusiastic European, deeply devoted to postwar values of peace, social justice, and political and economic freedom. Second, during his career as a Polish priest he lived through Nazism as well as Stalinism. This biography left him with a healthy skepticism toward the excesses of nationalism, a deep contempt for dictatorship in all of its flavors, and a deep respect for the primacy of the individual. Third, though John Paul is often described as a "doctrinal conservative," it's a characterization that tends to elide his role in the Second Vatican Council, when then-Pope John XXIII embarked on far-reaching reform of the mission and institutions of the church. (He died not long after the council began.)

It's this background that explains why the first major treatise of John Paul II's papacy was Redemptor Hominis ("The Redeemer of Man"), a text that explicitly raised the defense of human rights to a central place in the life of the church. The Polish pope took this principle very seriously. During his pilgrimages to his homeland he defied the communist authorities precisely by emphasizing the inviolability of individual rights, lending immense moral authority to those who opposed a dehumanizing state. The traditions of Polish resistance to despotism were often couched in a romantic embrace of armed rebellion. In this respect, John Paul II's patriotism was profoundly untraditional: he rigorously stressed the need for non-violence.

His support for human rights wasn't restricted to Poles, or even to anti-communists. He was outspoken in his condemnation of South African apartheid. He encouraged church leaders to assist the People Power Revolution in the Philippines in 1986 (despite the fact that President Ferdinand Marcos was a fervent convert to Catholicism). During John Paul's trip to Chile the year after that he harshly criticized Augusto Pinochet, the country's dictator, and called upon members of the church to support a democratic opening there. The pope's public upbraiding of Paraguayan President Alfredo Stroessner is widely regarded to have contributed to the collapse of that dictatorship as well. He was also the first world leader to use the word "genocide" to describe what was happening in Rwanda in 1994. This, in short, was the John Paul II who didn't hesitate to scold the world's most powerful people to their faces.

Indeed, it wouldn't be amiss to say that John Paul II's 26-year papacy served as an important accelerant to the late-20th-century phase of the human rights revolution -- and I believe that holds true even if one disagrees with many of the church's other teachings.

Ironically, this also serves to illuminate the magnitude of his failure, and that of his successors, when it comes to confronting the human rights disaster that was happening inside the church during that period. The world's repulsion over the sex abuse scandal reflects the general expectation that we -- or at least many of us -- would like to see the church live up to the high ideals that it espouses.

I'm not sure if the United Nations Committee Against Torture is the right place to address the Church's failings. But I also find myself wondering whether the Church is really well advised to resort to legalistic wrangling in its efforts to defend itself.

Maybe it's time for Francis to consider another course: steering the Church back towards a role as the institution that speaks with innate humility, charity, and love, and not from a position of power. We've been moved by the spectacle of Francis washing the feet of prisoners and comforting the disfigured. Maybe it's time for him to invite the victims of clerical abuse to his home, where he can assure them of his own willingness to do better. Maybe it's time for the church to demonstrate its sincere will to become the moral example the world needs.

Don Arnold/Getty Images