Who is laughing now?
Updated: Nov 13, 2020
Scottish youtuber, Mark Meechan, better known by his avatar, Count Dankula, has today been convicted of being "Grossly Offensive" under the 2003 Communications Act. What was his crime? He posted a video of his girlfriend's dog raising his paw to Nazi memes. A viral video that received three million views has led to a man facing potential prison time. Sentencing will be carried out on April 23rd, Saint George's Day.
You can watch the video in question in the link below. I am clearly obliged to warn you that some might find the content distressing, but I post it here in the interest of full awareness. Count Dankula opens the video by explaining he wanted to annoy his girlfriend, who is always boasting about how cute her dog (named Buddha) is, so he thought he would "turn him into the least cute thing I could think of...which is a Nazi". He closes the video by confirming he is not racist and neither does he endorse Nazi ideology, he just wanted to annoy his girlfriend. .He trained Buddha to react with enthusiasm to the phrase "Gas the Jews". Anyone who owns a dog knows how easy it is to create a Pavlovian response to a certain phrase. He then edited together a series of clips of Buddha reacting with the enthusiasm of a canine being told he was going for a walk and getting a treat when the phrase was uttered. Interspersed with shots of Buddha raising his paw while the phrase "Zieg Heil" is repeated.
Although the dissonance of Buddha being asked if wants to gas the Jews in the chirpy tones one uses to animate a dog, is somewhat funny in that curiously uncomfortable way, and the saluting parody is mildly amusing, both, partly because you can only imagine how it would annoy his girlfriend, the video over eggs the routine where less could have been more. It hardly compares to the work of Jimmy Carr, who in the following video demonstrates a sliding scale of offensive jokes, including a reference to the Holocaust, a joke that he clarifies extensively before delivering it. It should also be understood, that this video contains material some may find offensive, but, I believe that is what Jimmy Carr is aiming for.
The difference between the two jokes is professional and amateur standards, but if one has led to prosecution why is the other exempt? Is Count Dankula being jailed for telling a poor joke? Jimmy Carr is a comedian who likes to play in the margins of taste and offence, many stand up comedians talk of the laugh they crave from a crowd, not a loud, unison explosion of mirth, but that nervous laugh, the one that is checked half way through as people are unsure if they are allowed to find something funny. Mix that with the sharp intake of breath from others in the room, the audible wince is where the high wire act lies. Between the tasteless and the uncomfortable truth. He signposts the joke relating to the Holocaust with great care, explaining it is a wordplay. Then afterwards, chastises the crowd for giving the joke a round of applause. He says it should be an offensive joke, making light of “the worst thing in human history”, yet as he states, “the joke is not racist, it is not anti-semitic, it doesn’t hurt anyone…it is in bad taste” and proceeds to roll into another clever word play enabling him to add a Nazi salute to the set piece. He does then go on to explain that the most offensive joke in terms of offense caused was the Danish satirical cartons of Mohammed which were met with large scale rioting. Sadly, since this video was made, being a satirical cartoonist has become a significantly more dangerous profession, after the nightmare of the attack on the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo.
David Baddiel, the well known Jewish comedian, has defended Dankula. I would point you to his tweet defending the youtuber but Baddiel blocked me for pointing out his absurd double standards calling upon Tottenham to ban fans using the "Yid Army" chant after he took offence to Chelsea fans using the word in a derogatory way at Tottenham fans, but, I digress.
We are embarking on a voyage into choppy seas. The chilling effect of such a decision cannot be underestimated. We must start to ask genuine questions about the direction of travel. Only recently in Spain a rapper was sentenced to prison for posting a song on youtube with offensive lyrics, inciting terrorism and defamation against the crown. A Canadian journalist, Lauren Southern, was banned from the UK for her role in attempting to distribute leaflets that stated "Allah is gay, Allah is trans, Allah is lesbian" for a video trying to point out the double standards over which religions are beyond criticism after a Vice article claimed Jesus was gay.
Ridicule has long been recognised as a most powerful weapon in the political battle space. It is hardly surprising that satirists rarely fair well under totalitarian regimes. 1930's Berlin saw many jokes uttered in hushed tones that put paid to the idea that people did not know what was happening or coming...“At the Belgian border crossing, huge numbers of rabbits appear one day and declare that they are political refugees. ‘The Gestapo wants to arrest all giraffes as enemies of the state!’ the head rabbit said pleadingly. ‘But you’re not giraffes,’ the border guard answered, ‘you’re rabbits.’ ‘We know that,’ the rabbit said, ‘But try telling that to the Gestapo.’ ” Rudolph Herzog's book "Dead Funny: Humour in Hitler's Germany explores this phenomenon and the necessity to confront the raw, uncomfortable truth that there was a far wider awareness of the horror than we have been led to believe, and this paradox of denial can make such jokes challenging for many older Germans. Herzog argues that context is critical, a point that Dankula made outside and within the courtroom to no avail. He argued that this ruling has made context and intent irrelevant as that is now decided by the armoury of the State.
Increasingly, people are being handed bans from the digital ghettos where web activity has been corralled. Gatekeepers such as Facebook and youtube are removing users for breach of "community guidelines" which is tantamount to censorship in accordance to political expediency or opinion on what is offence. I know of individuals who have been issued bans for posting material in private, secret groups, far removed from public view. It seems algorithms are immune to the nuance of context as well. There will be those who feel this is justified. Those who will cite the banning of Britain First" from social media as a positive step and that Count Dankula and others should accept that they must accept the standards expected by society at large. Yet the principles of freedom of expression must be stress tested by giving the rights to those who hold opinions or express ideas you find odious or in bad taste. Furthermore, history teaches us repeatedly that the endorsement of the removal of others rights is merely the green light to impinge upon your own.
There are others who argue that banning or removal from online platforms is hardly an issue that has any real bearing on the real lives of people. We only need look to China and their announcement of Social credit scoring to see how terrifyingly close we are to the realisation of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror neo-Orwellian horror. People who have low scores on social media platforms will be ostracised, prevented from travel, work, purchases and engagement. One could even see the emerging realisation of John The Revelator's apocalyptic visions are suddenly, all too possible.
This joke isn't funny anymore.