Kim Jong Il, the former leader of North Korea, once made 11 holes in one in a round of golf. On a well-publicized scuba dive, Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, happened to find two ancient artifacts. Iran's Supreme Leader claims the United States, Britain, and Israel created the Islamist rebels in Syria.
Dictators say a lot of crazy things. Some are silly, some are ridiculous, and some, like Iran's claims, are sinister. None has any contact with reality. One American reaction to this outlandish, paranoid nonsense is, in a way, healthy: We laugh at it.
A Google search will find hundreds of fake images of a bare-chested Putin riding a shark. The creators of "South Park" laughed at North Korea in "Team America: World Police," a plot that James Franco and Seth Rogen borrow for their forthcoming movie "The Interview." Too bad North Korea can't take a joke: It denounced "The Interview" as "an act of war." Hackers in North Korea are suspected of crushing Sony Pictures with a cyber-attack.
Dictators don't like being mocked, which is precisely why laughter is not a bad response. But our other ways of dismissing the crazy stuff are less helpful. We excuse it by saying that it's merely misunderstood rhetoric. We rationalize it by claiming that it's just meant for public consumption.
Worse of all, we psychoanalyze it, using it to put the dictators on the couch. Frankly, I don't know if Putin's machismo is a pose to compensate for his inner weakness, or if Kim had an ego problem. It wouldn't surprise me if he did, but I don't care. You can't treat their nonsense as if you're Oprah.
All these excuses -- and even our jokes -- paper over the fact that the crazy talk isn't crazy at all: It serves a purpose. Several purposes, actually. Kim's regime rests in part on the claim that his family dynasty is the best in the world at everything: Golf is merely a facet of his pretended greatness.
And undoubtedly, many Russians don't believe Putin's claims. But he can spot opponents by seeing who refuses to play along. In fact, a lot of the crazy talk isn't directed at us: As George Orwell knew, it's a way of enforcing conformity. If you don't dare laugh at Kim's golf skills, you won't challenge his regime.
Of course, sometimes laughter isn't appropriate. The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has recently republished his books online, in Arabic, on the authority's official site. One of these tomes is "The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism."
The book's theme, as journalist Seth Mandel summarizes it, is that Zionist leaders "struck up an alliance with the Nazis to facilitate the extermination of the Jewish people." That's a disgusting lie. But it's a revealing one, because it tells us what kind of regime the Palestinian Authority is: one that glories in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and hopes that, by publishing in Arabic, we won't notice.
The more you look for this kind of thing, the more you'll find. Last month, Turkey's president, Recep Erdogan, claimed Muslims discovered the New World, and that Columbus saw a mosque in Cuba. The same month, Chinese authorities banned puns, because they risk causing "cultural and linguistic chaos."
We shouldn't ignore this nonsense. We certainly shouldn't write it off because it's said in public: It matters precisely because it is said in public. Our politicians say lots of silly things, but in democracies, respectable people don't do crazy talk. So when you hear a foreign leader talking crazy, laugh -- but remember: You're listening to a dictator.
- Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Thatcher Center for Freedom.
Originally appeared in Long Island Newsday