John Lewis was recently laid to rest and as his coffin was being walked out of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, everyone in the pews was asked to dance to Lewis’s favorite Pharrell Williams song, “Happy.” Solemnity mixed with sheer joy that day to span the spectrum of Lewis’s life — from struggle to song.
Congressman Lewis loved this song and it showed. A video of him dancing to the tune went globally viral a few years ago. Around the same time that Lewis’s video was circulating, Iranian citizens were being arrested and jailed for doing the same thing: Dancing freely and joyously to that positively infectious hit song.
Iran, and recently Egypt, has cracked down on the expression of creative personal freedom. These thinly legitimated dictatorships have made it a point to be big-time party poopers.
To see the absurdity of the Iranian and Egyptian officials’ concerns, go to YouTube or Oracle’s TikTok and view joyful innocence before it is punished. A group of young people is exuberant as they prance about an apartment rooftop or sweetly lip sync while driving along Cairo streets. The young Iranians’ crime was their video showing the co-eds gathering, women without head coverings dancing with men, bouncing and singing “Happy,” goofing and expressing themselves with wanton abandon. Their crime is they were happy.
In Egypt, Mawada Eladhm went out and did what millions of other people do around the world — dance, sing, pose for selfies. Doing this in Egypt, however, got Eladhm and other women arrested, sentenced and fined. Egypt has become less and less tolerant of Western cultural norms.
Prior to the Arab Spring, Egypt was slowly opening up. After the revolution, there were radically different and competing demands. One set of citizens called for quick reforms, freedoms, and jobs while another larger one voted in a stricter Shrariah law-oriented Muslim Brotherhood. President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi — formerly General el-Sissi — led a coup against the Muslim Brotherhood and has since had the enormously difficult task of trying to provide economic opportunity while actively suppressing political freedom.
The Egyptian president is trying to appease political Islamists and democratic activists in a fraught environment and challenging neighborhood. Just next door in Libya, a civil war and proxy battles rage, threatening to draw in Egyptian forces. Oh, and the pandemic.
Still, why would a once cautiously reforming Egypt punish innocent singing and dancing? Why does Iran rapidly rebuke young people and make them publicly recant and repent their joyful acts?
Individual expression threatens totalitarian regimes and dictatorships. Free, uninhibited, publicly expressed joy is a powerful repudiation of these regimes’ most effective governing tool: Fear.
Smiling, singing, and dancing are expressions of an unbreakable spirit. If a mind is liberated from fear, it no longer is bound by regime-imposed social constraints. How do you fight humor? How do you keep people from humming or foot tapping?
Joy is subversive. Ask some of the former Communist leaders who tried ruling with an iron fist and a closed mind. Fear works. Until it doesn’t.
When the Soviet empire finally collapsed, it was both financially broke and morally bankrupt. What accelerated the downfall was that citizens finally lost their fear. They wanted a better, more representative, responsive, and rejuvenating form of republican government. They wanted markets that functioned, freedom of expression and movement. They wanted the freedom to pursue happiness.
Egypt and Iran continue to rob their people of widespread freedom, hope, and joy. Ultimately, that approach harms these nations socially, economically, and politically. Keeping people down is an expensive proposition. The costs are huge.
Here’s the reason why: Freedom from fear and repression leads to popular demands for less societal corruption, better functioning government, and more efficient markets. While dictators don’t like giving up power, research shows that the more people get to share freely in decision-making over society, business, and their own lives, the better the outcomes over time. Freedom can lead to success.
America is one of the freest societies ever to exist. This freedom also has some downsides. Collective action is difficult. It’s tough to evenly distribute common goods — things like healthcare, housing, or jobs.
What this system excels at, however, is unhindered, incentivized and rewarded creativity and innovation. In this, America remains unrivaled. It is the air that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Nashville musicians breathe. It’s what Pharrell meant when he sang “clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.” Limitless creativity, boundless joy.
Pharrell’s lyrics inspire us to “clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.” John Lewis clapped along his whole life because he believed in freedom’s truth and America’s fundamental goodness. He was a joyful and fearless warrior who fought for fairness, equality, and justice. His true song continues to ring loudly from Atlanta and Washington to Cairo and Tehran.
Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.