Welcome to Britain 2018, where jokes are now illegal.
I’m referring, of course, to the case of the blogger Markus Meechan – Count Dankula – who has now been convicted by the Scottish courts of the “odious criminal act” of teaching his pug dog to do a Hitler salute. He is facing a possible prison sentence.
This is appalling. What’s almost more appalling, though, are the people I’ve heard – even clever, savvy people on my side of the argument – who don’t seem to get why it’s so appalling.
Since when did we get to the stage where free speech needs defending? Where jokes – in however poor taste – suddenly become justification for a prison sentence?
Let me spell it out.
All that matters is this: in 2018 – the age of Islamic State terror; underage girls groomed and raped by mostly Muslim gangs; Antifa thuggery; epic financial fraud; acid attacks; an epidemic of knife violence; and flagrant assassination attempts by foreign powers – the British justice system (of which Scotland’s is regrettably a part) now considers it a priority to employ valuable police, courts, and jail time punishing cheeky young men for winding up their girlfriends.
That’s how it started, remember. Meechan, a straight speaking, shambolically entertaining, libertarian-leaning social media shit-poster decided to wind up his more PC girlfriend by teaching her pug dog how to give a Hitler salute. Then he posted the video on the Internet, where, of course, it went viral.
Sure it was tasteless. But then, so was Mel Brook’s “Springtime for Hitler” routine in The Producers. (Made in 1967, by the way, when there were many, MANY more Holocaust survivors still alive to be offended.) So was the stunt pulled by The Who’s Keith Moon and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s Viv Stanshall when they went out drinking in London’s Chelsea dressed as Nazis. So was John Cleese doing his Nazi goosestep in the “Don’t Mention the War” episode of Fawlty Towers…
That is, after all, the point of tasteless jokes: they’re not in good taste. They push the bounds of acceptability. They taunt social squeamishness. They say the unsayable. And, in doing so, they serve both an entertaining low purpose and an edifying higher one.
The low purpose is that they provide some people with a cheap, naughty, schoolboy laugh: the peculiar kind of laugh you can only enjoy when you’re laughing about something you just know you’re really not meant to laugh about.
The edifying higher purpose is that, whether they intend it or no, stunts like Count Dankula’s are an affirmation of perhaps the most valuable commodity in our entire culture: the right to free speech.
Without free speech, we are little more than slaves. It’s what separates the civilized world from theocracies like Iran, dictatorships like North Korea, eunuchcracies like President Bieber’s Canada, authoritarian states like China: we can say whatever the hell we like, without fear of punishment. This not only frees us from the fear of having to censor ourselves before we speak, but it also enables us to challenge bad ideas wherever they are aired. Countries that celebrate freedom are more prosperous, happy, and advanced than those that don’t.
Oh – and as I’ll explain in this week’s podcast with Brendan O’Neill, and also in the videoed discussion we recorded at Radley College – free speech is free speech. Free speech does not include a clause that begins, “But…”
I’ve heard the “but…” line being used quite a lot by people who think that this decision by the Scottish legal system to prosecute Meechan was proportionate and fair and just.
Their argument seems to depend on the notion that some subjects are out of bounds for humor, that to mention them in a jocular context is no defense.
This is the only way the prosecution was able to secure their conviction: by stripping Count Dankula’s pug joke of its tone and context.
It will have taken any objective observer all of a few seconds to appreciate that Count Dankula is not a Nazi, but a mickey-taking shit-poster enjoying a bit of banter with like-minded folk on the Internet.
As Andrew Doyle says at Spiked:
The case appears to rest on the assumption that Meechan’s video was an attempt to incite religious hatred. During the trial, it was described as ‘an odious criminal act that was dressed up to look like a joke’. Even if you don’t consider the video itself to be funny, surely the concept of attempting to inflame anti-Semitism through the medium of pugs is inherently laughable.
An important aspect of the prosecution’s strategy was outlined by Meechan himself in a statement after the verdict. For the Nazi pug video to be deemed both threatening and offensive, it was essential that the judge disregard the principles of context and intent. In other words, the joke had to be wilfully misunderstood in order to justify the conviction. Accordingly, the prosecutor described the ‘inclusion of the dog’ as ‘an attempt to muddy the waters around [Meechan] making, producing and posting the video. He says that he knows the context of the video, but in a criminal court in Scotland he does not decide the context of anything, the court decides the context.’ It’s astounding that such a farcical trial could produce such sinister pronouncements.
Farcical and sinister, indeed.
But what’s perhaps most extraordinary about this case is that, outside libertarian, conservatarian, and anarcho-capitalist spheres, it has caused remarkably little public outrage.
Two comics – Ricky Gervais and David Baddiel – have spoken out:
A man has been convicted in a UK court of making a joke that was deemed "grossly offensive". If you don't believe in a person's right to say things that you might find "grossly offensive", then you don't believe in Freedom of Speech.
— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) March 20, 2018
I am that stupid, Karen. Because: an actual Nazi would not be teaching his *pug* to Hitler salute. Because in 1940s Germany, that would have got you arrested and murdered for taking the piss. https://t.co/FBSl84c8kK
— David Baddiel (@Baddiel) March 20, 2018
Where are the rest?
“First, they came for Nazi pug trainers. But I did not speak out because I was not a Nazi pug trainer…”
I wish this were a joke.