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Tin-Eared Governments

Artists often manage to irritate repressive governments. In some cases, their work is pointedly political – meant to needle. Other times it's inadvertently so. Often it may simply be good scholarship that hits the wrong subject.

Here are examples of all three, offered in the spirit of reminding governments everywhere that it's better to loosen up a bit, or risk playing the fool.

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First, consider the "Moustache Brothers" in Burma. These three performers, actually two brothers and a cousin, have for years engaged in political comedy under the glare of one of the world's most repressive regimes. Two of them spent five years at hard labor before being released a year ago. They've been told any repeat performances of their skits and punch lines will land them back in prison. Yet they persist, doing shows in private settings, drawing their own smirking profiles in courage, and poking fun at a government that has no sense of humor.

Shift to Iran, where the ayatollah's police recently turned their attention to Mohammed Khordadian. A master of traditional Iranian dance, he returned to his native land in May after 20 years in the US. His fans in Iran don't include the ruling clerics, who took him to court for corrupting youth by giving dance lessons. It seems his performances, often with women dancers, went far beyond the theocratic pale. He's been ordered to remain in Iran for 10 years.

Iranian authorities are not only out of step with their own rich culture but, as usual, with the younger generation as well.

Finally, there's a publisher in Turkey named Abdullah Keskin. His respected company put out a book by American journalist Jonathan Randall about the Kurdish minotority that had favorable things to say about Turkey's progress toward ethnic peace. But the book used the term "Turkish Kurdistan," which was enough to get it banned and bring its publisher to court, charged with promoting separatism. Mr. Keskin could get three years.

So even a country that has made significant steps toward freer government can fall into the trap of narrowness and oppression. Let those who wield power be aware their moves to protect the state or preserve public morality by squelching expression can end up as political pratfalls.