Commentary April 10, 2018

One man and his dog

DAVID BADDIEL

For those of you who have not heard of Count Dankula – real name Mark Meechan, of Lanarkshire – he is a self-described “shit poster”. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s a man – normally – who uploads videos of himself, usually to comment on other people’s videos, in ways designed to offend. Many such men are alt-right trolls, but others, Meechan included, would more likely see themselves as nihilists who don’t care what they say in search of laughs (or “lulz”), and there’s a strong crossover between the two groups. In recent weeks, because of one particular video, Meechan found himself in receipt of more than laughs: he was charged with, and then convicted of, hate speech. And so the apparently endless debate over what it is or isn’t acceptable to joke about turns a new corner.

In the video, Meechan – a tattooed and bearded Scot with all-ear-lobe tunnel piercings and an undeniable twinkle in his eye – begins by stating that his girlfriend’s pug, Buddha, gets on his nerves. The dog gets on his nerves because, whatever it does, his girlfriend thinks it is cute. Thus, to annoy his girlfriend, he says, he is going to make the pug seem like the least cute thing he can think of: a Nazi. We don’t see the training – it must have taken a considerable amount of time and biscuits – but the high point of the video is when Buddha gives the Nazi salute, raising his right paw and staring up hopefully-sadly at his very own ear-lobe-tunnel-pierced Führer. This is funny (as is the moment later on when Buddha studiously watches Triumph of the Will) because a pug’s sad face is a good comic counterpoint to the power and nobility that the fascist salute strives for. It undermines and subverts the gesture, making it seem ridiculous.

At first, the ethics – to a comedian – seemed clear. Meechan framed the sketch ironically. It isn’t up there with Springtime for Hitler or The Great Dictator, but the intention is on the same lines: to laugh at the Nazis. And therefore he shouldn’t be prosecuted, or next thing you know, Mel Brooks will be up in court on historical charges.

But here is where it gets more complicated: the video is not mainly Buddha saluting, but rather Meechan-as-Dankula saying to Buddha “gas the Jews!”, in the same tone as someone might say “heel” or “shake hands”. Meechan was not convicted – as most people seem to think – for making his dog do a Nazi salute, but rather for saying “gas the Jews” over and over again in a video that has been watched millions of times. That is what the judge decided constituted hate speech.

On a podcast with the comedian Ricky Gervais, we discussed the fact that Meechan “could have come up with a different cue”. Yes, he could. If all he wanted to do was make his cute pug into a Nazi, he could just have said “Sieg Heil” (he does in fact, once), which is less offensive. But the comedian in me was prepared to overlook that; in fact, to accept that going further was an artistic decision: Meechan chose words more obviously offensive in order to make the joke more extreme – and therefore funnier. As long as one still believes his intent was comic, and nothing else, it makes sense.

But the judge disagreed, stating that “the context was irrelevant”. To a comedian this seems odd: if context is irrelevant, then Sacha Baron Cohen should immediately be arrested for posting a video of himself singing the song “Throw the Jew Down the Well” – never mind that he is playing the character of Borat, an anti-Semitic idiot. That’s where the issue lies for comedians in this judgment: any joke that involves taking on the character and voice of something you despise, in order to subvert it, is threatened.

That said, not many comedians spoke up for Meechan after he was found guilty. There was a discomfort around the whole thing, less perhaps about the joke than about who the teller was. Meechan didn’t help his case by turning to various liberal folk devils, including the British provocateur Katie Hopkins and the former leader of the English Defence League Tommy Robinson. Someone who resolutely refused his support was the Father Ted writer Graham Linehan, an expert on the darker regions of the internet. He sent me an article, from the alt-right website the Daily Stormer, which offers a style guide for those wishing to spread neo-Nazi ideas. The key section reads:

Lulz

The tone of the site should be light. Most people are not comfortable with material that comes across as vitriolic, raging, non-ironic hatred. The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not. There should also be a conscious awareness of mocking stereotypes of hateful racists. I usually think of this as self-deprecating humor – I am a racist making fun of stereotypes of racists, because I don’t take myself super-seriously.

This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas kikes. But that’s neither here nor there.

In other words: if you want to spread the message, do it in a jokey way. Hide in plain sight, or at least behind the veneer of laughter. This gave, and gives, me pause. Both in terms of the case, and, more broadly, in terms of how I think about comedy. It upsets me that an art form, which I love and defend, might be hijacked in this way. The key point, for all comedians, is that context must always be taken into account. And if the true context in any video is to use comedy as a smokescreen for actual hate, I am afraid that free speech can, to put it politely, fuck off. I do not support anyone who says “gas the Jews” and means it.

But here’s the rub: I don’t know if Meechan means it (indeed, he himself may not completely know that either); there’s no evidence he’d ever seen the guide. Yes, it’s a bad coincidence that the example given in the Stormer directive is “gas kikes”. But what I do know is that hard-core anti-Semitism (which I experience online all the time) tends to feel different: more creeping, more threatening, more actually aggressive. And that isn’t quite the Count’s voice. Meechan is, perhaps, something different: a disaffected, bright, working-class white man, one of many who feel hemmed in by social justice warriors and feminists and whoever else can be caricatured as the enemy. This has led him to a kind of comedy in which the main aim is to provoke those people, to say what he likes, to get laughs how he likes; there is, for him, no taking of sides.

Indeed, Meechan has also made jokes about the alt-right’s homophobia and, although some of his videos are featured on the Daily Stormer, there are also complaints about him there, including some for making light of a video game that, in the alt-right’s eyes, promoted white genocide. You cannot make fun of such things, according to the Daily Stormer.

But you can if your aim is to annoy everybody. At some level, this may have something to do with an almost tragic maleness, with the feeling that if a man isn’t allowed to joke about whatever he likes any more, his manhood is threatened. To support his position, Graham Linehan sent me a photograph of Meechan holding up a flag with another young man: it is the flag of Kekistan, an imaginary internet utopia where trolls can operate unhindered by censorship. And yes, the Kekistan flag looks more than a bit Nazi; and yes, there will be neo-Nazis taking up cyber residence there. Though when I put it to Linehan that this was about maleness, he also agreed: “These are just lonely guys looking for connection and finding this . . . shit”, he said.

What this story is about, really, is going from a place of certainty to one of uncertainty. I was certain I supported Dankula in principle; now I am not. Unfortunately, this is also something that the Daily Stormer actively advocates: remember “the undoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not”. All of us who would instinctively vote for comedy and free speech in the face of legal clampdowns and other restrictions need to be aware of the doublethink discourse at work, that the thing we most prize might be being used against us. (I do also wonder whether any Jewish school­children are now hearing “gas the Jews!” shouted laughingly at them, because some other children saw a man say it on the internet to his dog and it was so lulz.)

But in the end, I have to come down on what I think is the side of comedy. Partly because my own currently touring show, which spills my family’s secrets across the stage, dances all over the line of what is and isn’t acceptable to joke about. There is a story towards the end of the show involving my dementia-ridden father essentially offering up the possibility of a sexually criminal act to a female mourner at my mother’s funeral, which, every night, gets a laugh which is not just a laugh: I can hear in it shock and uncertainty and disgust and offence, too. And this is a type of laughter that I believe comedy should aspire to, because it is an art form.

I’ll leave you with this. The funniest thing ever made, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Derek and Clive, includes a sketch in which Cook improvises a bit about watching a ­documentary about Nazis and being so unconsciously influenced that he got on the bus to Golders Green, and – to quote Clive – “must have slaughtered at least 18,000 before I realized what I was doing”. Cook isn’t really satirizing Nazis there. He is not being Mel Brooks or Sacha Baron Cohen or Chaplin; he’s simply enjoying the thrill of saying something so awful in a throwaway manner. It’s hilarious. It’s also, in my view, ethically and comically more or less what Count Dankula did in his video. Obviously Cook was a genius while Mark Meechan is not. But we can’t put people in prison for not being geniuses. And if there is a comedy genius in Meechan’s video, surely it is the pug – even though he was only obeying orders.